This was an afternoon event of screenings and discussion of the work of a film/sound artist organised by The Pavilion together with Leeds Black Film Club. Trevor was a founder member of the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982. This collective produced a series of pioneering and experimental media products and films. Their work reflected what can be called ‘black consciousness’ in the 1980s. Their work was sited in the broader context of colonialism, the diaspora and movements of rebellion. Their productions worked through visual and aural poetry to present challenging representations around these themes.
Trevor Mathison worked on the soundtracks for their productions. He used performed music, noise and invented sounds to produce tracks that worked with the poetry of the visual material. He also worked as sound engineer on Isaac Julien’s Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1995) and on Pratibha Parmar’s Sari Red (1988), screened at an earlier Pavilion event.
The first screening was a work which was originally a two-part tape/slide presentations which had been transferred to digital, Expeditions: Signs of Empire and Images of Nationality (1983–84), These were the first works produced by the collective when they moved to Hackney from Portsmouth where they had studied at the Polytechnic. The two part video exemplified the poetic style that Black Audio developed and presented their key themes: representations around “race”, colonialism and empire, oppression and racism, and assertive consciousness. Each work ran for 25 minutes. The first part opened with Wagnerian strains and then developed a mixture of images and sounds. The second part concluded with the Congo and a voice-over with lines from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.
Following this Trevor offered some comments and answered questions from the audience. He explained some of the process of production. The main source of images were various monuments around London, and specifically the Victoria and Albert Memorial. They used slide film and the transparencies were worked on and words were imprinted using Letraset. Trevor remembered the collective spread round a long table of materials and gels with the everybody working on the artefacts. The soundtrack was produced with similar techniques, However Trevor worked alone here, (partly from preference). And he recorded and re-recorded the various sounds. What was impressive was that he was using both reel-to-reel and cassette tapes yet the quality on the re-mastered digital version was excellent.
Each part was composed of four carousels, operating in tandem, each containing 80 slides. One technical problem was transferring carousels. But Trevor also thought that the ‘dissolves’ between slides were especially effective because of the slow pace of changes. Much of the music was from the collections of the members and they also investigated the material in a local bookshop.
At one point he used the phrase ‘the ghost in the machine’, a regular motif in Black Audio’s work. He suggested that the work involved stories of ancestors and their ‘ghosts’ Asked about the title of the event Trevor did not exactly explain this but did refer to the effective romanticisms of ‘soul’.
An early presentation of the work was at the Rio Cinema in Dalston. But the collective also travelled widely with the presentation, including to the USA. The approach of the collective was that the content and message were their responsibility and this involved for them alternative narratives. . They expected audiences to treat this critically.
The second work was Twilight City produced for Channel 4 in 1989. The video film ran 52 minutes in colour and with both voice-overs and interviews. The starting point was London after ten years of Conservative rule. So the film spoke to the present of 1989 but Will Rose (who introduced the event) suggested that it also spoke to the present of 2018.
The video started with a young Afro-Caribbean woman writing a letter to her mother who had returned to Dominique ten years earlier and was now thinking of returning to London. This was a neat conceit which enabled the young woman to retell London and its changes over the decade. At several points the film presented extracts from interviews with Afro-Caribbean activists. There was also footage of places and people including a Somali Centre in London and a Community Church. . There were recurring sequences, one of waves on the Thames: another of a car driving through the night-time streets of London, all light and shadows. There were photographs, engravings (Hogarth) and monuments, as in the earlier work. And there was older archive footage of wartime and the ‘Blitz’. All of these were paralleling and connecting with the voice-overs. The film ended with a night-time car drive and then a coastal shot with the sun rising over the ocean.
Trevor talked about the production of the piece. There was more division of roles and the end credits showed different functions including Reece Auguiste as director. He had produced the initial idea which was developed and then the collective obtained funding from Channel 4. At this time there was a scheme for publicly funded workshops agreed by Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians, Channel 4 and a number of public institutions including, until its demise in 1986, the Greater London County Council. Black Audio Film Collective, along with other groups such as Sankofa, benefited from this scheme.
In answer to questions Trevor said more about how he worked up the soundtracks. One example he gave was of dismantling a piano and using the sounding board to create particular noises. The narrative of a ‘returnee’ was invented but provided a focus for the narrative. And the film like the earlier works, combined poetry, symbolism and (amongst others) monuments around the city. One theme central to the work was ‘belonging’. He talked about one sequence that recurred several times of homeless sleepers at night. This was shot in the underpass across from Waterloo Station. And he saw rats there whilst they filmed. Now this was the site for the London IMAX, considerably changed.
The Black Audio Film Collective was wound up in 1998. Over its sixteen years it produced a range of works, including films and programmes aired on Channel 4. In 1988 the ICA published booklet on ‘Black Film British Cinema’. The Document profiled some of the workshop collectives including a discussion with members of the Black Audio Film Collective. They talk about their influences, centrally I noted Franz Fanon. They also mentioned influences on form and style, both Alexander Rodchenko, a Soviet pioneer of photo-montage, and, more recently, Henri Cartier Bresson. At the time they were also discussing a number of French intellectual, including Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser. These explained the interest that can be discerned in psycho-analysis and also a tendency, common in the 1980s, to use fairly complex theoretical language. Closer to home, an important influence was Stuart Hall, an important writer and theorist: he was far more accessible than the French theorists though with a tendency to reformism.
Referring to Expeditions Reece Auguiste commented;
“Expeditions (1983), which was our first cultural project, was a way of testing those ideas and trying to extend the power of the images and debates around colonial and post-colonial moment. In order to do that we had to articulate a particular language and vision of that moment.”
The ‘post-colonial, which I find anachronistic when we still have colonialism (just across the Irish Sea for one), is referenced in Expeditions by quotations from Homi Bhabha, a theorist in Cultural Studies.
Reece continued later on Expeditions;
“The way, for example, in which we would actually appropriate from English national fictions – like the Albert and Victoria Memorial – going back and really engaging with the archive of colonial memory. We were not only constructing a colonial narrative, but also critiquing what was seen as the colonial moment – critiquing what was seen as the discourse round empire.”
Twilight City followed later than the ICA profile. I found the work slightly hybrid in style. Much of the film used the visual and aural montage that was the bedrock of Black Audio’s work. But sited within this were a series of interviews. The early interviews were personal and concerned with memory. But later in the film they tended to be prescriptive around political issues. The montage work of the collective seemed to me to be rich in both denotations and connotations whereas some of these interviews were much closer to ‘realist’ documentary. There is something of the same dichotomy in their most famous work for Channel 4, Handsworth Songs (1987), addressing the riots/rebellion in Birmingham in 1985. This particular film occasioned strident debates including an angry attack by Salmon Rushdie in the letter page of the Guardian.
In answer to my question Trevor made the point that in their work for Channel 4 the collective had total editorial control. So I suspect that the use of more ‘realist’ forms was occasioned by the collectives sense of the medium and its audience. It should be noted that Channel 4 at this time was the radical edge of British television. It had a brief to present ‘new voices’, which it did very effectively. But once it settled in the predominant values of the British media gradually toned down its offering The workshop Ceddo had their film The People’s Account (1988) effectively banned by the IBA. The Derry Film & Video Workshop’s Mother Island suffered a similar fate, though that was later screened on Channel 4 with enforced cuts..
This was a fascinating and rewarding sessions. The Black Audio Film Collective work has been missing from screens for a long time and it amply pays revisiting. Trevor has a low-key and very affable manner: but he is also effective at drawing out the import and stance of the work.
The original collective consisted of seven people: John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison, Edward George and Claire Joseph. Joseph left in 1985 and was replaced by David Lawson.
In 1998 three of the members formed the new Smoking Dog Films: John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul and David Lawson. Trevor Mathison has worked on several of their projects as ‘sound designer’, a recently innovated term that describes his work more accurately.
One of these is The Stuart Hall Project (2013) presenting and celebrating one of their influential mentors. Unfortunately, whilst effective, the film follows the convention of television and reframes much of the Archive footage.
The Nine Muses (2010) is devised from an original exhibition work. It is a complex study of migration, structured around Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. It presents the visual and aural montage that typifies the work of both the Black Audio Film Collective and Smoking Dog Films. It is a brilliant but little seen art work and a key documentary in C21st British film.
John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.
Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:
Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:
A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.
The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.
The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.
The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.
The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.
For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?
I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.
This Smoking Dogs production for BBC2 and PBS, directed by John Akomfrah, is perhaps the best television programme I’ve ever seen. There are three reasons why I say this. First is the political and historical importance of the material. I can’t say that I appreciated it at the time, but only a few years later I think I recognised the political import of Martin Luther King’s speech on that August day in 1963. Second, I was blown away by both the range of archive material that the researchers had found and by its quality. Here was film footage of every crucial moment of the story of the preparations for the march as well as the event itself – and mostly looking as if it was shot yesterday. And thirdly was the skill involved in the editing process which stitched together archive and contemporary interview footage with a subtle underpinning soundtrack of electronic beats and synths to accompany Denzel Washington’s expertly delivered narration.
If you missed this, look out for it on iPlayer and YouTube – I’m sure it will appear somewhere.
An excellent piece on the doc. as it appeared on PBS in the US and with comments from John Akomfrah:
and here’s a clip: