liquid blackness founder, Alessandra Raengo recently traveled to London to give the keynote address at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair Forum, presenting on the “Scope and Practice of liquid blackness.”  Explicating the history of the liquid blackness research group and liquid blackness as a reading strategy, Raengo discussed Joseph’s Black Mary. Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper is currently on view at The Store X, 180 The Strand in London and Raengo reviewed the exhibition for liquid blackness.

Sounding out a Stumble: Melancholic Loops in Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper*, by Alessandra Raengo

*dedicated to Ekow Eshun, who created the opportunity for me to see Fly Paper again

4_Fly Paper_Kahlil Joseph_2017_StoryBoard P and Ben Vereen

Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper now on view at 180 The Strand in London, is aesthetically inspired by the soundful photography of Roy DeCarava, as the title clearly indicates, and the equal care he devoted to musicians and everyday people in Harlem. Structurally, however, it bears the traces of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983, including the latter’s references to La Jetée, 1962), with which it shares questions about memory and forgetting, happiness and blackness. Yet, differently from Marker’s films, Fly Paper—the female voiceover tells us—is “the story of a man who lost forgetting” and thus assumes a quintessentially melancholic position.[1] Not only can’t this man let go of the lost object, but, apparently, he has lost the ability to lose. While it’s unclear who the subject of the film is, it is clear enough that the film itself is determined to carry the lost object(s) along, regardless of the cost.[2]

The film is projected on a loop, as all installation art is, but it does not feature any credits and when the title appears, it comes across as an afterthought leaving the viewer unclear as to whether it signals the beginning, the end, or any other point in the film. Everything we see, seems to occur in medias res, and yet always also as the echo of something that has already taken place or the anticipation of something someone has already imagined.[3] Perhaps it is part of the “delirium” and the “rift” the voiceover indicates memory has to learn to cope with.

Fly Paper weaves together original footage shot for the project with very personal materials: primarily home footage of Kahlil’s father who lived in Harlem at the end of his life and eventually died of brain cancer; footage of Kahlil’s brother, the late Noah Davis, the founder of the underground museum in LA, whose surviving wife, Karen Davis, is the daughter of Ben Vereen, the older dancer featured in the film, who was the star of Bob Fosse musicals. The film moves like a fever dream between different formats: 35mm color film, highly controlled low-contrast black and white footage, and hand-held video, interspersed by variously processed images. Across these transitions, it locates threads of personal memory within the work of what Fred Moten might describe as the “ensemble,” i.e., a form of black sociality that eschews individuation and takes place in a constant productive dynamic between the “solo” and the “group”: artists congregating and socializing as well as various jam sessions taking place in Harlem lofts, including one with Lauryn Hill and Alice Smith that ultimately constitutes the occasion for the primary narrative line in Black Mary.[4] Indeed, although the two films were commissioned by the Vinyl Factory and the Tate in London for the show Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (2017), respectively. Joseph has said they belong to the same narrative universe: “outtakes,” locations, and characters from one appear in the other and the two films complement each other in important ways. Both follow the same logic of subtraction that has characterized Joseph’s work since Wildcat (2013), the black and white rodeo film he shot to a score by Flying Lotus elaborated from Alice Coltrane’s music (who is Flying Lotus’s aunt), which began with documentary footage about a black rodeo in Grayson, Oklahoma ran by a married couple. When Joseph arrived to shoot the film with his crew, the wife—Aunt Janet—had passed away and the town was having the first rodeo ever without her. Joseph collected a series of interviews with a variety of people but then resolved to remove them all from the film and have a young girl in a white dress embody instead the very present spirit of Aunt Janet still hovering over the events. Similarly, in both Fly Paper and Black Mary one has the sense that there is a tremendously rich backstory that Joseph has decided not to share. Yet, what he does share is the result of an extraordinary poetic discipline and sensibility, as well as perhaps a desire to follow the vagrancy of the mind as it is equally engaged in the effort to remember and to forget.

Thus, while it would be tempting to attribute this mental errantry to one of the main “characters” in the film, it is not possible to imagine any one of them as the center of consciousness of the film. Instead, in keeping with its melancholic structure, recognizable and not recognizable figures appear and disappear in the film, without narrative justification and through what seems like a complex pattern of rhymes or doubles, and literal and figurative shadows: Ben Vereen is perhaps the shadow of Joseph’s late father but is in turn shadowed by a younger dancer—Storyboard P—who has been featured prominently in recent works by both Joseph and Arthur Jafa.[5] The two dancers wear similar outfits with very small differences: black pants, white button shirts, a black vest and a Panama hat. Storyboard’s vest however, has black and white pencils attached to it and a black veil pinned to his back which creates the effect of yet another flowing shadow that trails him everywhere he goes. Football player Barry Sanders can also be seen as a shadow for Joseph’s father who was very fond of the athlete at the end of his life and admired his ballet-like moves in the field and his dignified decision to retire at the height of his career.[6] Lauryn Hill and Alice Smith shadow one another not only by jamming in the same location and with the same group of musicians–-although we only catch glimpses of this fact in Fly Paper –but the fuller version of Smith’s session, which occupies the main narrative line in Black Mary, can itself be seen as the shadow of the Hill session that occasioned it, while being also the shadow of the recording session with which it is intercut in the latter film.[7]

The literal shadows, or “dark corners,” in Fly Paper, instead, belong to Joseph’s intense engagement with DeCarava’s photography, and his desire to pay homage to the photographer’s same ground: some of the shots repeat original photographs almost verbatim –a row of tenement houses, dimly lit hallways, human figures as silhouettes in empty Harlem lofts bathed in light coming from oversized windows. When Vereen and Storyboard P engage in an extraordinarily melancholic dance duet mid-way through the film, both of their faces remain in the shadow, in keeping with DeCarava’s style; that is also the case later, when the montage of a percussions-heavy jam session in an empty Harlem loft combines extreme close-ups of the musician’s hands emerging from a deep darkness, feet, and accelerated footage that chases their elongated shadows projected onto a far-away wall: their faces remain obscured the entire time, while the details of their hands, close-ups of their tapping feet, or of the chords of their instruments directly references a plethora of DeCarava’s images.

The film’s shadows embrace also what Teju Cole has described as a desire, shared by contemporary visual artists such as Bradford Young, to be “playing in the dark,” that is, to be committed to an ethics of relation that he has compared to Edouard Glissant’s idea of “opacity” whereby when “we are looking at others, we might come to the understanding that they don’t have to give themselves up to us. They are allowed to stay in the shadows if they wish.”[8] Yet, as in DeCarava, the dark area of the image is often where the image is most vibrant, most soundful. In this sense, Joseph has followed DeCarava’s suggestion that, in Richard Ings’s words, “photography might take the shape of improvisatory music,” and he further amplified the shadow’s ability to channel the unregulated vibrational force of black musicality, to render, as DeCarava put it, “the sound I saw.”[9]

If the beginning of the film is indeed signaled by the appearance of the title, then we can also regard Fly Paper as a melancholic meditation on the “stumble.” Although it shows Vereen on a Harlem sidewalk about to take a step while his voiceover says “A walk on the block…,” what follows is not his walk; nothing ensues from his statement and there is no “narrative” progression. Instead, that his action is not complete evokes the presence of an impending loss or an uncertain movement on an unsteady ground. Perhaps it is a way to foreshadow what might be construed as the most “literal” stumble in the film, suggested by the footage that shows Joseph’s father taking some tentative steps in a hospital room. A later close-up of his head post-brain surgery, with painfully visible stitches, as he is watching Barry Sanders on TV, should be seen within this framework, as the voiceover reflects: “for the first time he felt the presence of that which he did not understand.” But, more broadly, the stumble is perhaps what Andre Lepecki in his close reading of the Fanonian passage that first records the stumble as a reaction to the shattering caused by the hailing of the French child, as well as in his analysis of William PopeL’s crawls, as a deliberate renunciation of the delusion of sovereignty attached to verticality, has described as the difficult negotiation of the “choreopolitical” force of racism. In Fly Paper there are too many dance numbers that do not even attempt to attain a vertical posture and unfold instead with bent knees, semi-crouched backs, against the beat and in poetic defiance of self-sufficiency or self-reliance. Perhaps it is because “every moving body on the racist ground is always already a stumbling one.”[10] Indeed, when Vereen and Storyboard P dance around each other in a dimly lit stairway, they subtly exchange places until the younger dancer, off beat, repeatedly slams his body against the wall, falls on the floor and off the frame and then, quasi-miraculously reemerges with a contortion from the bottom of the frame. It is when we see Vereen fully dressed in a white two-piece suit lying in a bathtub looking pensive and off to the right that we might begin to register the stumble as the hesitant step that occurs under the weight of what one loves and doesn’t want to let go of; the weight of the kinships that make and unmake, the sociality that nurture the community of artists that both engender, and are featured in, the film.

If in classical film theory one measure of assessment of the film frame is its openness to a world that might or might not continue beyond it, in Fly Paper one has the sense that this Harlem community has virtually no boundaries, just like the larger city of which it is part, although it might have a much clearer sense of purpose. “He said the city has to be deciphered like a musical score,” says the voiceover. And yet, the voiceover continues (but here I clumsily paraphrase), one cannot give in to the megalomania of the big city, as we see shots of New Yorkers moving swiftly in and out of subway stations intercut with footage of classical jazz orchestras. Rather, when hearing carefully, one would detect its various parts, “as different and precise as groups of instruments.” The plea is not for formlessness but for the powerful energy that comes from various forms of ensemblic black sociality. And a moment later, the observation that “sometimes musical composition coincided with plain reality,” leads to a series of artists’ parties, casual conversations, and jam sessions. If editing is for Joseph similar to composing a musical score, as he told us when he came to Atlanta for a liquid blackness event dedicated to his work, he also thinks of the collaborative project of filmmaking as a musical ensemble whereby experienced musicians are let free to each play their own instrument according to their own sensibility.[11] Hence the ensemble acts as a structural principle of composition for the film but also, ultimately, for the sociality of mourning, thus expressing Joseph’s commitment to the continuity of artistic lineages of creativity and community. Indeed, the entire film is intercut with shots of art objects: paintings—Barkley L. Hendricks’s Lawdy Mama, works by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kevin Beasley, and Toyin Ojih Odutola, among others—or people looking and living with art. These objects too are equal part of the same community.

Towards the end of the film, we see the only video footage of Noah Davis, walking uphill towards the New York City Cloisters followed by a female friend. He is chatting animatedly and, as the film cuts to a view of the South Bronx from that trail and other shots of Harlem apartment buildings shining through a light rain on a still partially sunny day, the voiceover repeats a direct quote from the beginning of Sans Soleil: “he said for him this was the image of happiness. He said he should put it all together one day at the beginning of a film. He said if they don’t see the happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” The screen goes completely black for several seconds then the voice of Malcolm X begins to emerge. He is chastising his audience for trusting the white “devil,” for giving in to addiction and for expecting the help of the white man. His words are spun like a vinyl record and the archival footage cut accordingly. Retroactively, as Hilton Als has pointed out, we realize that “it’s as if Joseph’s [entire] visual world were a vinyl record, complete with scratches that make the needle skip, thereby changing the flow of things.”[12]

As Malcolm X’s voice begins to fade away the last montage irrupts to the riveting sound of “Mariposa”: we revisit a lot of the same figures we have seen before, including some of the same art objects but now the film reaches its melancholic height: like a dying butterfly, it is clear it is saying goodbye. So, what is the “black” they will see in the picture? Claudia Rankine has used this same quote to open her masterpiece Citizen: An American Lyric, in order to mark the invisibility of racist micro-aggressions, but here black is not only the place for the opacity of black affect.[13] It is not even simply the place where things end, or memories are lost and lost objects become irretrievable; it is also the place where the music comes from, where the ensemble is located, in the shadow… playing and communing in the dark.

The film ends abruptly on a canted shot of Storyboard P shown sideways, as a silhouette against large windows in a top-floor Harlem loft. After a cut, his silhouette is vertical again in a long shot and closer to the window. He shapes his hand into a gun, just like the small child at the beginning of Until the Quiet Comes, and we hear a gunshot before the screen suddenly and briefly goes black.

Then the title FLY PAPER appears again and Vereen, on a Harlem sidewalk says, “A walk on the block”….

[1] Cheng, Anne Anlin. The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[2] Bruce, La Marr Jurelle. “Interludes in Madtime: Black Music, Madness, and Metaphysical Syncopation.” Social Text 35, no. 4 (2017): 1-31.

[3] Including, perhaps, the several art shows the late Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph’s brother and the founder of the Underground Museum in LA, who briefly appears in the film, had already planned for it.

[4] Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition.  Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

[5] Until the Quiet Comes (Kahlil Joseph, 2013), Dreams are Colder than Death (Arthur Jafa, 2014), 4:44 (Arthur Jafa, Elissa Blount-Moorhead, Malik Sayeed, 2017)

[6] Hilton Als, “The Black Excellence of Kahlil Joseph, The New Yorker, Nov 6, 2017

[7] Indeed the interplay between the comparative “live” session and the studio session in Black Mary creates the most arresting feature of the film: a tension between sound production and reproduction that evokes the undecidable location of black performance; temporal loopholes that gesture both backwards and forward positing blackness as an unregulated generative force with an always receding origin… a microcosm of the melancholic temporal structure more fully realized in Fly Paper. Black Mary too, is interspersed with signs of loss: sonically, through barely audible exchanges suggesting disbelief, regret, and woundedness; an alarmed phone call; a banging at the door we also hear in Fly Paper; visually, with minimal but intense brushstrokes: for example, the flashing lights of an ambulance parked off screen illuminating the frontal view a row of NYC public telephones.

[8] Teju Cole, “A True Picture of Black Skin,” The New York Times Magazine, Feb 22, 2015

[9] Richard Ings, “’And you Slip into the Breaks and Look Around”: Jazz and Everyday Life in the Photographs of Roy DeCarava,” Graham Lock and David Murray, eds., The Hearing Eye: Jazz and Blues Influences in American American Visual Art (Oxford University Press, 2009). Roy DeCarava, the sound i saw: improvisations on a jazz theme (London: Phaidon Press, 2001).

[10] Andre Lepecki, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement (New York: Routledge, 2006), 105.

[11] In Atlanta, Joseph told us that he understands editing as a way to control rhythm and pace and immediately invoked Kendrick Lamar as one of his models. See liquid blackness event “Holding Blackness in Suspension: The Films of Kahlil Joseph” and also Tate Talks: Kahlil Joseph & Arthur Jafa in Conversation.

[12] Als, “The Black Excellence”

[13] Tyrone Palmer, ““What Feels More Than Feeling?”: Theorizing the Unthinkability of Black Affect.” Critical Ethnic Studies 3, no. 2 (2017): 31-56.