Film In Conversation
LOUIS HENDERSON with Leo Goldsmith
Working alternately with appropriated images, artifacts, interfaces, and observational visual ethnography, the films of Louis Henderson examine linkages between media technologies and modes of political resistance, the conjoined histories of capitalism and colonialism, and temporality and landscape. Overflowing with images, sounds, and languages, Henderson’s work deploys strategies of collage and stratification that open, in the words of the curator Natasha Ginwala, “a channel of deep listening.” Through a practice that Henderson describes as archaeological, ideology and materiality are composited into the same frame: in All That Is Solid (2014), rare earth metals to algorithms, the geological and formal substrata of the internet, are layered on top of one another; Black Code/Code Noir (2015) intersects the histories of the transatlantic slave trade and the increasingly datafied modes of police control of urban African-American populations.
Recently, a contentious screening of the latter film in the New York Film Festival’s Projections sidebar last fall led Henderson to rework the project in the context of an exhibition at Khiasma, an arts space outside Paris. This show, his first solo exhibition in France, serves as a platform for collaboration and a site for research which dovetails with Henderson’s own artistic practices.
Leo Goldsmith (Rail): The two works that form the center of this exhibition—Black Code/Code Noir and The Sea is History (2016)—represent two distinct modes, namely: the appropriation of images, and a more standard ethnographic model involving travel and location filming. Do you see any hierarchy between these two approaches? Is there a risk, for example, in a work that approaches the internet on its own terms, as it were, of simply replicating its form?
Louis Henderson: Yes, but this immediately sets up a dangerous distinction between activity and passivity, between an inside and an outside, and presents the notion that there’s only one way that we can “do politics” or make political films. Nonetheless it is true that these two approaches express two different strategies of effectively the same thing—travelling in certain spaces (online and offline) and looking for material. Even when filming in the locations of The Sea is History I am working with found material and appropriated imagery, such as museum displays, colonial statues, Taíno cave art or even seascapes for that matter. The images I work with pertain to the world, and I see my role as someone that collects different images and sounds and then brings them together through montage/assemblage in order to recount a narrative. It is in this sense also that I see my work as archaeological: trying to understand the present by looking through pre-existing material and piecing fragments together. Thus I would like to argue that there is no hierarchy between these two modes of production, and that each method is approached according to the situation at hand. Yet in the case of The Sea is History, I was invited to the Dominican Republic and Haiti for three months to do a residency, which resulted in me travelling, meeting people, listening and filming, ie thinking through the medium of the camera whilst in a specific space, which creates what we could call situated knowledge. In the case of Black Code/Code Noir I decided to treat the internet as the space in which to move through and to dig for material within. This was due to the fact that I had no direct, lived experience of the subjects that I was moved to speak about, apart from what I had experienced and gathered through the channels of communication that came through the web. I felt at a severe remove from the events in the USA surrounding the death of Michael Brown for example, but still I was deeply affected by what was happening and felt emotionally entangled within those tragic moments and their representation online. Yet I believe this is where the problems first began: precisely from trying to confront the internet as a potentially physical and affective space. It seems perhaps now that what was missing in this instance was exactly a form of situated knowledge, and that in using the language and form of the space of the internet I revealed the enormous distance between the speaking subjects in this ciné-conversation, and for some people this was too violent. Hence why we find ourselves currently with the Black Code Sessions—which approach the ideas within the film, but through an offline, collective workshop/forum which is developing an unfinished, multiperspectival conversation.
Rail: Even the notion of “interactivity” is still widely overblown and simplistic, suggesting a kind of agency in online spaces that, it seems to me, you’re trying to interrogate.
Henderson: Yes—in the case of Black Code/Code Noir, I wanted to excavate the uses of the internet as a site for social activism. And this is bound up with a lot of discourse—interestingly enough, not from social activists, but from tech company executives, people who run Microsoft or Google, for example. They were very quick to latch onto the idea that the Egyptian revolution in 2011 was aided by Facebook and Twitter. Or the Maidan uprising in Ukraine happened because of YouTube. There is a Cafe Facebook on Tahrir Square! But this is a myth that, of course, tech executives are going to appropriate as a way of selling their brand. Clearly there is a distinction between a social network and a social movement, and that’s something I was very interested in here: to look into the ways that people had tried to use these platforms to create communities, communities of resistance, to meet online and to arrange offline meetings: candlelit vigils for Michael Brown, for example. The problem with that, I find, is that because we also live in an age of what we might call datafied policing, we must also think about the policing of the internet, the policing of our information, and the way in which our data is used to generate these social platforms themselves and the profit that the owners of the sites live off.
I, for one, don’t think we can use Facebook or Twitter to create a strong political stance. We can use computer networks—like the dark nets used in Occupy Wall Street and mesh networks used in the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014 for example1—but I don’t think we can use oligarchic, corporate social media sites. Nonetheless, I like this idea of trying to look for the antidote within the enemy itself; using the internet to find the tools within which we might be able to form different ways of being, thinking, experiencing life, and how that might create a different social movement. That’s what the film tries to work towards—a kind of Trojan horse politics of infecting from within.
Rail: But I believe the question could be raised that this results in a certain flattening of these images, in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
Henderson: Yes, the film does flatten very complex histories and events—but that’s the problem with all films. It’s the problem with the frame and with montage: we’re always leaving things out. As much as we create new ideas and connections by piecing things together, there’s also a sense in which certain things get left out. But that’s why I’m interested in using the film to begin a set of collaborative works to try and create a real sense of community around a topic that I think concerns everyone.
And as we learn from that essay by Josh Scannell,2 the NYPD is the civic entity that’s been the most prepared for data analysis than any other in the United States. Which is quite terrifying I think. I don’t think it’s happening to quite the same extent in the UK, though they are using data analysis for policing. But it’s in Japan now as well—Hitachi are doing a similar project: data analysis for what they call “preemptive policing.”
Rail: In terms of this “flattening out,” you use a lot of superimposition and compositing in your films, and this seems to function as a means of dimensionalizing the digital, giving it a sense of depth and proportion that you can then excavate or view from an archaeological perspective.
Henderson: Superimposition is very important, but all of that goes back to something I’ve been researching for some years now, since I began this practice-based Ph.D. program, which was to try to elaborate an archaeological method within film practice. I’m very interested in the work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and how their methodology might be archaeological in their reading of landscape and the archive, the material remains of history as they remain within documents and books and letters. They’re engaged in a kind of archival topography in which they go and look for the spaces that archival documents might speak about. And that, for Deleuze in the second volume of Cinema, is a necessarily archaeological uncovering—a “stratigraphic image.” For Deleuze, theater and cinema can both speak of something else that is elsewhere, but the difference is that, in cinema, what is being spoken of can literally be buried underneath the image that we see. The voice that speaks allows for what it speaks of to rise up from within the landscape, from within the image. In Toute révolution est un coup de dés (1977), there’s a group of film critics and Danièle Huillet, and they are reciting Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés” while sitting in the Père Lachaise cemetery on top of the grave of the dead of the Paris Commune. We have an image of something in the present, but actually, if we start to prise that image open and look beneath its surface, underneath it are layers and layers of history, still alive, still moving, still very much present. So all of this—stratigraphy, archaeology, the burial of histories of resistance struggles underneath the surface of the earth—led to more formal concerns about layering and superimposition. And this is supposed to offer an understanding of a certain depth to an image, that underneath an image there might be another kind of reality existing at the same time, even if it’s not in the same space. Of course, that’s quite different from Straub/Huillet, who are much more concerned with the physical spaces they might film. Whereas when one regards the internet as such a space, those temporalities and geographies get completely mixed up and intermeshed, because that’s the very nature of the internet—a much more rhizomatic space.
But thinking about superimposition: I’m also interested in Harun Farocki, who might be said to be doing media archaeology in a very different way, archaeology as a critical approach to media. Farocki talked about his method of montage as what he called “soft montage”: we don’t have an image followed up by another image which, through a series of dialectical clashes might create a third meaning, but instead we have this overlayering of imagery to show the ways in which two images, two ways of thinking, can exist at the same time. And within that structure he’s able to show paradox.
Rail: In Farocki, though, it’s the logic of comparison, rather than layering: images placed side by side, usually in split-screen or multi-channel formats.
Henderson: Right—and I’m more interested in bringing different times and spaces together, which is a kind of comparison as well. So, in Black Code/Code Noir, there’s a triple layering of superimposition in one of the opening shots, in which you see a car driving around a roundabout at Place de la Bastille in Paris, which is the square that was very important for the French Revolution in 1789, where the French stormed the Bastille prison and brought about the revolution and the downfall of the monarchy. Now, Straub/Huillet have a similar shot in their film Trop tôt/Trop tard (1982), in which they also drive around Place de la Bastille but we hear over the top of the image a voice reading a letter from Engels to Marx about the failures of the French Revolution, how it ended up basically installing a dictatorship, the Napoleonic regime. But in my film, we hear the voice of a South American woman reading a text by the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James, talking about the Haitian Revolution and about a voodoo ritual that took place in a sacred forest. Then there’s a text from Jean Jaurès in which he makes the claim that the French Revolution was only made possible by the money that was made from the slave trade. For him, that’s a very paradoxical situation: a revolution that celebrates liberté, égalité, fraternité, was itself financially based on slavery and oppression.
So, I try to bring all of these elements together in a kind of vertical composition, to place them in the same space to draw a comparison, in order to make a point about the hypocrisy of French Enlightenment thinking that helped form the French Revolution. But also to show that there are different readings of certain situations: the leader of the Haitian Revolution of 1791, Toussaint Louverture, was strangely influenced by the French Revolution, so could we then perhaps argue that the Haitian Revolution was the “other” of the French Revolution? And that perhaps, to go even further, the Haitian Revolution was the true example and actual becoming of the political positioning of the French Enlightenment project—that of creating a universal emancipated citizen living in a free state with human rights.3
Rail: This raises the issue of your use of text, and particularly translation between languages. There’s not only a lot of language in your work, but a lot of languages.
Henderson: I was just reading a very interesting series of interviews conducted by Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato called “Assemblages,”4 in which the French ethnologist Barbara Glowczewski states that there are something like 8,000 languages in existence and that 6,000 of them are spoken uniquely by aboriginal people—meaning people without a state. And these are languages that don’t follow what we might call “modern” forms of syntax, that don’t use words in the same way, that might use sounds, the body, and various gestural forms of communication. And Glowczewski says that these forms of language presented a huge problem for the European colonial project, which was interested in one dominant form of language that has now been exerted over the whole planet as a form of colonial oppression. But not quite—as Suely Rolnik argues, in the same series of interviews, these languages continue to exist through micropolitical forms of resistance, such as Candomblé in Brazil. Dance, in that instance, is another form of language. And trance and song and rhythm—different forms of communication that have to be, in some respects, released so that we can contact one’s spiritual other, for example.
So, how can we use this animist form of thinking as a way in which to develop a new aesthetic language, pushed through cinema, through video, through film? How can we use that to develop different forms of writing within filmmaking?
I’m very interested in Okwui Enwezor’s idea of “dub cinema.” He developed this in relation to the film Handsworth Songs (1987) by the Black Audio Film Collective, mainly to talk about the aesthetic concerns of the way in which a film practice might relate to a musical practice—of dub reggae, of how you can use reverb and echo, not just in aural aesthetic terms, but reverb and echo in historical terms; how you can make echoes of different histories and timeframes. There’s a sort of versioning of history: Handsworth Songs uses a lot of archival imagery and repetition to talk about the colonial hauntings in present-day England in 1985. And that suggests the possibility of a real dub cinema. Because soundsystem culture itself is also about the creation of a temporary community around a collective experience. Again, it’s an assemblage—both in human and social terms as well as formal terms.
Rail: And a kind of meeting of the machinic and the human, as Kodwo Eshun argues in More Brilliant Than the Sun. One dimension of Black Audio Film Collective that fuses these ideas is that they were formed as the result of a period of social unrest in the U.K. in the early ’80s, after which the Greater London Council and Channel Four provided institutional support for Black cultural activity and media non-profits, particularly around media education. Does this relate, in some way, to what you’re interested in doing with the Black Code Sessions: of opening it up to, if not a pedagogical space exactly, at least perhaps a more community-oriented one?
Henderson: This is precisely what I hope we are reaching. And it is certainly thought of as a pedagogical project in a sense. A shared pedagogy in which through creating workshops we can arrive at creating collective work. Furthermore, it is an occasion to elaborate on important topics and to see the how these affect many different people in different ways. In this way, the Black Code Sessions are supposed to create a community around a shared concern, a community based on affinity and not identity. Through this form of involvement, the idea is that the research is enriched through taking onboard the many different possible points of view on these topics—and that these topics and their outcomes are permanently shaped through the activation and use of the research. Perhaps in this sense we can understand the Black Code Sessions as one way of repurposing the architecture of computer algorithms that are automatically developed by a user’s data. Yet in this instance the social platform being created actually brings people together and insists, quite contrarily to what social media may have us believe: that we are not alone in this world.
- See Elise Hu, “How Hong Kong Protestors Are Connecting, Without Cell or Wi-Fi Networks.” NPR (September 29, 2014) See also Dan Phiffer, “Occupy.here: A tiny, self-contained darknet.” Rhizome (October 1, 2013).
- R. Joshua Scannell, “What Can an Algorithm Do?” DIS (2015).
- The 14th article of the 1805 Constitution of Haiti announced: “Haytians shall hence forward be known only by the generic appellation of Blacks.”
- Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato, “Assemblages: Félix Guattari and Machinic Animism.” e-flux journal (July 2012).
Louis Henderson’s KINESIS, is on view until July 2 at Khiasma in Les Lilas, outside Paris.
LEO GOLDSMITH is a writer, curator, and teacher based between Brooklyn and Amsterdam. He is the former film editor of the Brooklyn Rail.