The art that Luke Willis Thompson makes is daunting, and dense, and his most recent work is no exception. Produced as the result of a two-year residency at the Chisenhale Gallery in London, and comprising the entirety of his first solo show in the United Kingdom, autoportrait (2017) is a silent, 35mm film in black and white that continues the larger project of Thompson’s practice—the bracing address of trauma as it is racialized.
Thompson’s first, formally similar work for the Chisenhale residency, Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016), engaged with Britain’s history of police violence toward black subjects, but with autoportrait his attention has shifted to the United States. The subject of the title’s portrait is Diamond Reynolds, an African-American woman whose boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot dead by a police officer in Minnesota in July 2016 after the car that they were travelling in, along with Reynolds’ young daughter, was pulled over for having a broken tail light. Immediately after the shooting, Reynolds began a video that was live-streamed to Facebook and has been viewed millions of times. That video forms the basis of this artwork, and Thompson conceives of autoportrait as a “sister-image” to the original live-stream.
This is clearly a work about the witnessing and representation of black trauma, and its subsequent transformation into spectacle; as Tobi Haslett observed in Mousse, the cellphone police abuse video now comprises its own gruesome genre.(1) But autoportrait is a many-faceted thing; its density and nuance allows it to assume myriad frames of understanding. So it is that autoportrait broaches the question of what it means to bear witness and, perhaps surprisingly, finds that productive answers can be found by making this a question of materiality. The processes of mediation are never neutral, and Thompson’s pairing of the 35mm autoportrait with Reynolds’ cellphone video exposes the extent to which formats are inherently racialised and even gendered, with significant consequences.
Certainly complex, but like all of Thompson’s work, these complexities are cased in a formidably minimal exterior. autoportrait is formally succinct, comprised of two shots, each four and a half minutes long, in which Reynolds is seen talking (or is it singing?) and breathing. It is both touching and disquieting to watch; the mood is dignified, somber, and I suspect that even without contextual knowledge, Reynolds’ acute emotional pain and grief would be obvious to the viewer.
It is by mobilizing film’s immense affective capacity that Thompson succeeds in creating a genuinely moving, and elegantly simple depiction of an individual’s mourning, one that also manages to distil and express outrage at the relentless, institutional violence inflicted on people of colour. And the lucidity of autoportrait’s address along with the success of its emotional appeal to the audience is also enabled by its form. Even at this early stage in the 21st Century, 35mm film holds an almost mythical and mystical status. In this era of its noble obsolescence, it functions as a kind of symbol for truth due to the belief that truth is physically, literally embodied in it. This belief is rooted in the fact that the filmic image is produced via the process of light hitting and transforming film stock, which results in a directly physical translation of reality. The inherently indexical nature of film, grounded as it is in a material process, assumes an existential bond to reality that is undeniably true. What one sees projected onto the wall of the cinema or the gallery is supposedly an imprint of reality, an indexical trace.
Experiencing autoportrait firsthand, it’s easy for me to believe in the indexical trace and film’s larger myths; after pushing aside the dense black curtain separating the gallery from the Chisenhale’s foyer area, and after passing a second door which closes behind with a thud, I find myself involuntarily enmeshed in the exhibition space. Before my eyes can adjust to the darkness of the large room, my perceptual reality is overwhelmed and entirely occupied by the film and its apparatus. The projector whirrs diligently in the black to the right; directly in front of me, a viscous beam of light cuts across the room, level with the body; and then the image of Reynolds, self-possessed, dignified in her mourning, framed in mid-shot and then close-up, occupies the wall to the left. Moving closer, her subjectivity is emphasized by the surprisingly human detail of the acne which bumps her skin, the texture merging with the skin of the film so that she, too, seems materially present.
This is a work of deep phenomenological resonance, and in the hushed dark of the gallery it seems obvious that 35mm is uniquely equipped to transmit Reynolds’ pain and the plain fact that one day in April 2017, somewhere in Minnesota, she lived, breathed, and sang, and was filmed doing so. It is through film’s capacity to express simple, physical truths that Thompson enforces his unequivocal message: black trauma and black suffering at the hands of white institutions is a tragedy. Castile’s death was a tragedy and a crime. Black lives matter.
Considered in this light, the relationship between the sister-images starts to appear less familial and more of a foil, the pairing of digital and analogue speaking to the different ways in which these formats mediate reality, resulting in how seriously they are taken as witness, or as evidence. The film theorist D.N. Rodowick argues that the difference between digital and film is fundamental and profound. According to him, digital video doesn’t correlate to reality in an indexical relationship. Instead, any single digital “shot” is in fact not a shot, but a montage, one comprised of thousands of “digital events,” the result of “the control and variation of discrete numerical elements internal to the computer’s memory and logical processes”.(2) The significance of this crucial ontological divergence, the argument goes, is that the indexicality of the digital image is eroded, and its relationship with physical reality completely severed. In contrast, film enjoys a healthy, deep familial relationship with reality, and by implication, truth.
autoportrait appears to be in agreement, affirming what the viewer already suspects and has undoubtedly already accepted subconsciously; film is the material of political gravitas, from which art is made and truth is borne. In contrast, Reynolds’ live-stream is a document, and, as a digital-event, impotent as evidence, as a bearer of truth, and as a witness. This was only confirmed when a week before the exhibition’s opening, Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Castile, was acquitted of all charges. Just as they have been silenced before, Thompson seems to say, black voices will be elided on digital platforms and in digital formats too, and rendered legally impotent. Cue autoportrait as a counter image, swooping down in all its mythical glory to compensate for digital’s artistic and evidentiary failures.
But Thompson’s near-fetishistic use of film is a feint—his attitude toward the format is, in fact, one of steadfast ambivalence. While his use of its affective powers is sincere, he admits that he believes the material differences between analogue and digital are of little consequence. There are distinctions, but they reside in the digital as a networked medium, and in the differing attitudes toward the two. Rather than compensating for its digital precursor, the pairing of autoportrait with Reynolds’ live stream is one of equalisation. This is hinted at in Thompson’s seemingly innocuous, but in fact deeply significant gesture of describing his film as a “sister” image. Taken for granted and used repeatedly by the press to describe autoportrait, the phrase deserves closer consideration, for its true purpose is not to just cast the two works as familial, but also as equals. And the characterisation exposes how we, the audience, don’t see the two as equals. More broadly, Thompson’s feint reveals how digital and analog media are racialired and gendered. Prejudice is deeply embedded in the way the sister works are apprehended differently, and with significant consequences—these attitudes determine the potency of images as representations of, and witnesses to reality, and their power as a platform for oppressed voices.
The casting of film as inherently truthful, noble, and neutral by grace of its physicality is not just incorrect, but entirely deceptive. From its very inception, film has been imbued with systems and means of silencing black voices, and helps to perpetuate these systems. In an interview for Mousse, Thompson points out that much film stock (including the 16mm tri-x that he used for Cemetery) was “never metered for non-white skin tones.”(3) Film literally obscures black faces. Furthermore, like digital imagery, film is also susceptible to manipulation. In another interview for Art in America, Thompson explains how the video of the 1991 Rodney King beating was slowed down in order to make it seem like King was bouncing uninjured, in an attempt to minimise the brutality of the attack.(4)
If film is capable of letting the truth down, then digital has the potential to uphold it; it is a crucial detail that autoportrait was produced before Yanez was acquitted. Thompson tells me this is significant, as the film needed to represent Reynolds not just in a state of grief but in a state of uncertainty. It’s also significant as the work was made before Reynolds’ video failed as evidence. Thompson points out that now it is easy to say that the outcome of the trial was inevitable, but he had genuine hope that Yanez would be charged, and so upon hearing the verdict he was devastated.
If we consider the relationship that digital media has to black cultural production, Thompson had every reason to be hopeful. For while black art is often reductively couched within a frame of naïve tribalism, its history since the 20th century is in fact firmly aligned with technological innovation. In music, technologically progressive modes of creation are practically synonymous with blackness: house music and then techno emerging out of black sub-cultures in Chicago and Detroit; hip-hop borne out of the innovative use of turntable technology in the Bronx in the 1970s, and has always developed alongside advances in digital technology, resulting in the sample.
Returning to the moving-image, digital video is often, and justifiably, read as a failure for people of colour, as yet another example of how media fails blackness and denies its voice. However, it has also been a fruitful instrument for these voices. The video-sharing platform Vine, for example, depicted a black suburbia that was virtually absent from the media landscape prior to its inception, and has been invisible since its demise. The intended purpose of the medium and its technical constraints were subverted, resulting in creative innovation; amongst the hundreds of thousands of Vine loops were countless examples of comedic virtuosity. The funniest and most innovative of these, and the ones that defined Vine’s singular comedy style, came from the young, black, middle classes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the context of this discussion, Vine was shut down. Its death was in no way due to the failings of the medium, but to the fact that its owner, Twitter, didn’t deem it worth developing and monetizing. It’s true, as Haslett pointed out, that the cell-phone police violence video comprises a new genre. If this gruesome genre is defined by its black subjects, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to also claim that, as with music, digital and networked video will come to be defined in the early 21st Century by black voices. From this perspective, Thompson’s hope that Reynolds’ video would indict Yanez was idealistic, maybe, but not unfounded.
In addition to being racialized, video can also be understood as gendered, and Thompson considers there to be a feminine dimension to the digital moving-image. This provides another dimension to the term “sister image,” whose feminist ring is no accident. The digital can be understood as feminine in relation to its analog, and the fact that the fetishizing of analog media is very much a male occupation. For while the bro is more commonly associated with jocks, there are subtler, more cultured (and so more insidious) variations. It’s in no way ground breaking to observe in 2017 that boy’s clubs don’t just converge in locker rooms. They’re also found in the darkroom, the record store, or in 35mm screenings of Django Unchained (2012).
With this in mind, it is understandable why Thompson makes sure to emphasise the similarities between the sister-images, as well as the collaborative nature of autoportrait. In addition to being a witness and a victim, Reynolds is the author of her video and in possession of her own autonomous voice. In autoportrait, Reynolds controlled her appearance and worked with Thompson in its production. Nevertheless, Reynolds’ status as a creator and then co-creator is not always taken seriously, and her video often cast as a neutral, incidental document. However, Thompson is at pains to point out that in the live-stream Reynolds displays a “performative brilliance,” (which is also found in the emotionally resonant autoportrait) and that his work simply shows up ideas that are already present in the original video. Like autoportrait, Reynolds’ video is a sophisticated and self-aware performance and political strategy. A “counter portrait” autoportrait may be, but it’s no saviour.
Despite appearances, neither film nor digital are politically or socially neutral. The moving-image is racialized and gendered, and the understanding of autoportrait depends upon the recognition of this fact. It is not a coincidence that the digital can be understood as both black, and feminine, and that Reynolds’ video is cast as unsuccessful evidence, a simple document in contrast to the literally and figuratively more substantial artwork that is autoportait. For it is racial and gender bias that shapes the categorisation and characterisation of film and digital more than any supposedly inherent ontological materiality. In calling attention to these embedded meanings, Thompson is also calling attention to the prejudices that the viewer uses to read and shape these images. This is an uncomfortable alignment, for if we laud film due to our subconscious connotations of it with an elite, white culture, then we are partaking in the same biases that informed Yanez’s decision to shoot on that July day.
Here it’s worth a reminder that Thompson’s adoring use of 35mm is a feint. While autoportrait appears to reinforce these larger attitudes surrounding race, gender, and format, it is in fact a critique. Although this critique is not straightforward, and Thompson is ambivalent toward 35mm, not wholly dismissive. He concedes the special, metaphysical qualities of the format, and indeed utilises its unique beauty, and its phenomenological and emotional capabilities for his own project. In this process, he subverts 35mm as an elite, while, male art form to become a platform for a black female voice.
This is a potentially fraught position for Thompson to take, for these machinations are subtle, and those who attempt to denounce by using such strategies are always at risk of ending up accomplices to the crime. And Thompson is already under intense scrutiny, as a Fijian New Zealander, for addressing and representing an African American.(5) Upon my initial viewing of the work, I thought its emotional clarity and apparent straightforward message, seemingly bolstered by the use of the “honest” 35mm, was a conscious move away from the “confrontational ambiguity”(6) of his past work. A wise move, I decided, as ambiguity is not the best strategy when your right to produce the work is fairly under question. But as this discussion has shown, autoportrait is not so straightforward after all; it is deep, and dense, and difficult, able to be excavated for myriad interpretations and meanings.
However, ambiguity is a very different beast to complexity; it’s not that it’s unclear what Thompson’s stance is, necessarily, or what autoportrait’s role is, it’s just that it is many things at once: it is an elegant and minimal film with an obvious political message, yet simultaneously it’s a deeply complex rumination on the form of representation, and ambivalent about its own mode of expression; it’s a confrontational critique, for sure, but it’s also serene, carrying in it the potential to heal and process grief; and it’s a politically strategic performance of mourning as well as a completely sincere and deeply moving portrait of this mourning. To navigate all of this asks a lot of the audience, perhaps too much. But considering the not-so-neutral relationship that the spectator has in constructing the meanings embedded in video and film, and considering our complicity in the perpetuation of prejudiced and biased attitudes, ones that result in the kind of violence that was inflicted upon Castile, Reynolds, and her daughter that July day in 2016, it’s probably not too much to ask of us at all.