The Music Film as Argument

Curator's Note

When I wrote about Khalil Joseph's 2017 music film of Sampha Sisay's Process (an excerpt is here) for the recent In Focus dossier on “Modes of Black Liquidity: Music Video as Black Art” (JCMS 59.2), I had a number of things vaguely in mind that informed but didn't make the cut into the short expanse of my essay. The perhaps more unlikely of those was Hans-Joerg's Rheinberger's 1997 study of protein synthesis in terms of “a history of epistemic things,” technical objects carrying information – that is, media – between organic matter and observed experience. Probably the more appropriate of my unreferenced sources was Saidiya Hartman's 2008 Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route; Process itself presents itself as a film of Sampha mourning his deceased mother, Binty Sisay, and the power of music to activate remembrance through loss. I was interested, then, in exploring the music film as argument, but an argument that works as an affectively rich, technically inscribed memory object whose “epistemic” character could be formally distilled, disseminated in network form, and re-synthesized in a listening, active receiver. In the absence of usable, communicable, interactive cultural forms, we've seen, over the past decade, that digital video, whether micro-, shortform, or feature-length– has become a key, if not the key, digital vernacular in which active receiver-authors stake claims on the undulating mediascapes of the web and the app (video games that require 40 or more hours of play just to experience one version don't quite serve the purpose of digital authorship! And as for tweets, blog posts, and social media feeds and the like – I re-state, again, my interest in “complex, multimedia, and highly sensory”). Too, Joseph's video installation Flypaper makes much of the larger dialogical impulse of his work explicit; there, Joseph samples Marker's 1983 Sans Soleil in order to re-write the phrase “at least they will see the black” so that “the black” refers not to film leader but to “blackness” - critical absence or non-seeing materiality refigured as a question of how we value blackness, and how we write the valuing of blackness, in its futural and its memorial modes, and from technical inscription to problems of social belonging, historical violence, traumatic loss, and rememory (to borrow a term associated with Toni Morrison's treatment of similar materials).

I continue to be interested in, then, not simply the burgeoning productivity of Black artists working in digital forms to produce formally challenging works expressing variegated contemporary aesthetic experience, but the ways in which such artists' work models problems and solutions to key questions: what in fact materially constitutes a contemporary media form, or a contemporary audiovisual  vernacular? What are the potentialities of form and vernacular for processing memory and desire in a present caught between extremes of carcerality and displacement? If we re-visit the histories of the music film beyond the “prisonhouses” of genre, promotion, publicity, celebrity signage, or emotionally extractive trash that it has been too often consigned to (even when valued accordingly, in their negativity) we may re-discover the music film, as so many of those who have worked with this form have done, as argument: as a case of, and for, epistemic feeling in rhythmic, lyrical materiality, where reason is one affect among many others. The reasons why Black art now commands so much of this critical power to wield the artwork as argument are certainly complex and should not be reduced unnecessarily, but one suggestion comes to mind: at the moment of contemporary crisis, the ability to draw on historical memories of remembering historical trauma itself implies a theory as well as a praxis of mediation, of dialoguing the incommunicable with the communicable and noise with signal: the music film as argument about Black art now itself implies an alternate cybernetics, a theory, that is, of immanence and information.


Thank you, Jim, for your rich thinking about the music film as theory and praxis of mediation. I am inspired by your suggestion that, if taken seriously, as an argument, this contemporary pratice can be seen to form an alternative cybernetics, "a theory of immanence and information." I think about this specifically in relation to another work by Kahlil Joseph, BLKNWS, which is now at risk of being plagarized by Diddy and, even more troubling, dismissed as simply a "black news channel", when instead it is a praxis of alternative cybernetics constantly interrogating processes of black sociality as they produce aesthetic work. I wrote some preliminary thoughts on the 2-channel installation ("The Heat is On," Refract 2, 2019, available here: after I saw it at the Venice Biennale last summer and, to this day, I think of them as just simply preliminary thoughts. But what you say deeply resonates with me because of the way the installation appears to want to accumulate "digital blackness" in order to both mimic and incite an aesthetic gathering, which is also ultimately a gathering of the aesthetic. In your words: an audiovisual vernacular that makes space for alternative cybernetics of remembrance, community, ensemble.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.