Listening and Writing to Images

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Jace Clayton: I wanted to start off with … a big question. When it comes to “changing the world,” I think there are two ways to make things different than they were before. The first is accidents, evolution—the ladder falls, whatever. And the second is intention: the day-to-day building and maintaining. But when I think about transformation and metamorphosis, then suddenly we’re in Ovid’s territory. Either it’s going to be money—that crazy abstraction machine—or metaphor, which is where something entirely different happens. This is what was racing through my mind when I read your book, Listening to Images. You’re dealing with terms like “frequency” and “listening,” and sometimes those words appear in scare quotes. I would love to hear your thoughts on how you work with metaphor, specifically in talking about the book’s titular conceit.

Tina M. Campt: Hmmm. It’s a big question. I think the question behind the question is: What are we asking concepts to do? What function do concepts have in helping us to think something differently or think something more expansively? When you ask about metaphor, I hear you asking about whether these concepts are gestural allusions or whether they are being actively engaged, albeit on different terms. I tried to address the question of listening as metaphor or something more in my last book, A Black Gaze, where the definitions I began creating in Listening to Images take on more depth. And I think that while listening started out as a metaphor, it later became much more complex and concrete. I recently wrote a piece published in BOMB magazine called “The Opacity of Grief.” In that essay I was trying to think about frequency in its more scientific registers. I was trying to think about frequency as sonic in terms of sound waves, visual in terms of light waves and how they register, temporal in terms of repetition, kinetic in terms of movement, and haptic in terms of how it moves us and the ways these forms of responsiveness affect our relationships to one another.

In Listening to Images, I’m using concepts to change how we think and see. And I don’t think that’s metaphorical. I’m trying push us to connect things that we want to think of as separate. We want to think of the sonic as distinct from the visual, and we are resistant to thinking them together in a way that is synesthetic. That’s the other reason why the titular conceit you reference is not necessarily metaphorical. I’m challenging us to think of synesthesia as something that actually happens and to embrace a synesthetic relationship to sound and images, even though that may not be the cognitive modality that we usually inhabit. But if we do this intentionally, if we literally try to hear something that is not necessarily visualized in the image, then listening to images becomes a way of enacting the broader experience of how images register. How do we get access to those deeper resonances? For me, again, it started with the idea of thinking a concept in relationship to an object that is very different from it. Yes, that is in some ways metaphorical. But it becomes something more than that when it becomes methodological. It shifts our relationship to the objects themselves.

JC: We’re talking on the occasion of your visit to my students here at Columbia University’s Sound Art MFA, where I’m serving as interim director. One of the things that these MFA programs produce is a lot of artists who can tell you in great detail what their work is, how it functions, and the themes it engages with. Yet one of the things I like to reserve for myself as a viewer and audience member is autonomy. A person can say anything about their artwork’s intention, but how it actually affects me is going to be completely different. As someone who writes about all sorts of visual (and other) culture, how did you go about choosing what to focus on in the book? What’s the relationship between the objects—the artwork that you’re engaging with—and your writing? Is there a feedback loop?

TC: The other day I was having a conversation with a friend, Christina Sharpe. Neither one of us was necessarily trained as artists or art historians, so we don’t have a set toolkit that we bring with us to tell us how we’re supposed to see art. We also don’t necessarily see art through a traditional art-historical lineage. But, engaging with art and artists as theorists is both incredibly powerful and incredibly illuminating. One of the things that we share is collaborating with artists around concepts. And I feel like we are in a moment right now where there’s an exceptionally vibrant conversation going on between artists and scholars/theorists. What’s interesting to me about the conversations I’ve been involved in is that they’re focused on concepts, but not in the sense of conceptual art. There is a way in which Black artists and Black scholars in particular need—and we need this urgently—to create a set of critical concepts that allow us to address our moment. And the way in which artists are doing that is to activate concepts in ways that show us something very different than the way in which we (as scholars and theorists) parse concepts.

To answer your question bluntly and boldly, why do I write about particular artworks? It’s because they have a profound impact on me. And in that way, I write about the impact of artworks rather than necessarily about the artwork itself. I write to artworks rather than about them, to the extent that I’m telling them what they are doing to me. And I think that’s a really important thing. Rather than telling others what a particular artwork is about and prescribing how they should see it or hear it or interact with it, I’m trying to create a journey that I’m inviting you to go with me on. You may or may not see it the same way. It may or may not have the same effect on you. You may not hear something the same way. But what I’ve begun is a conversation with you that you can argue with me about. It’s a conversation where you can say, no, I hear something completely different. Rather than being told how to see and why to see something in a particular way, I focus on what it’s doing to us.

It’s so interesting when you say that artists, at least MFAs, are trained to be able to tell you what their work is about. I’ve recently been teaching undergraduate art students and I’m actually finding this to be one of the strongest resistances among some of them. They would show the work they’d created, and I’d ask them to talk to me about it. And they often responded, “No, no, you talk to me about what you’re seeing and how you’re feeling.” And I said, “No.” [laughter] And it often went back and forth like that. But the way I eventually convinced them was to point out one really important fact. What I said was: “Here’s the thing. If you’re serious about becoming an artist, you will have many, many people, gallerists, critics, curators, potentially also journalists, who are telling you what your art is, who are telling you what you’re doing. And what you need to do sooner or later is to talk about your work the way you want people to talk about it. If you don’t do that, you will constantly be running behind everybody else’s take on you.” So one of the things I ask my senior practice of art students to do is to write an artist statement. After that, I tell them, “Now you have to write your wall text and your catalog copy. A curator is usually the person who will do that if you have a show, but what happens if you were to begin that journey into your work in your own words?”

Going back to what you just said, the conversations I have with artists are usually invitations into their work when they open the door to me. And I feel very humbled. It’s the most terrifying thing to write about artwork with living people. I mean, as someone trained as a historian, I’ve spent most of my career writing about dead people. Listening to Images in particular was my transition into writing about art. It was a transition from writing about objects and archives of anonymous people. Those were individuals who were no longer with us, but who had left traces that lead us places, even if you don’t know where they’re taking you. This also creates the methodological challenge of how to integrate the unknown into your study of an archive. How do you excavate something where there’s no certainty?

Art helped me do that. For example, when I was researching identification cards, it was an artist who taught me how to engage with the official portraits I was looking at. And it was the same artist, Maria Bacigalupo, whose work showed me how those individuals were using such images against all of the ways in which they were prescribed to use them. They created their own persona. They created personas that looked like official subjects, but just outside or below the official frame of the photograph they had babies on their laps. They project very formal and serious subjects, but they were also wearing a borrowed jacket that was way too big. It was an artist, Santu Mofokeng, whose work showed me what the history of family photographs are under circumstances where the family is disavowed.

Looking at archives through the eyes of artists helped me to formulate my questions and to understand what I needed to ask: Is this real? Is this a performance? And if it’s a performance, what is it trying to perform? They taught me to look at affect in the faces of people depicted in photographs, because that might be telling me a different story than the official narratives wanted me to know.

JC: I love that whole model of engagement. That’s great advice: if you don’t figure out a way to shape the conversational contexts you want for your own work, then someone will frame their language around you. That is major, major, major.

I would like to ask a little bit about the role collaboration plays in your work. I was struck by the very beginning of the book, in which you referred to Saidiya Hartman as a writing partner, and then you mentioned Hazel Carby as a mentor. For both artists and academics, it can be very easy to be siloed. You’re off in your own corner doing your own thing. The isolation can be hard. I would love to hear: What does a writing partner look like? How do you think about thinking in chorus?

TC: So, two points of departure. One is that people in the humanities and in the arts are often taught to write as individuals and that’s a very solitary pursuit. And we’re also taught to compete against each other. We are frequently taught to see ourselves in relation to, but not necessarily in concert with, our colleagues.

That’s where I think that music and sound studies is different, but it’s still a very different model than, say, in the social sciences. Social scientists regularly work in study groups and research groups. They develop theses and propositions and experiments based on group work. Whereas we in the humanities are trained not to do this. We are trained to write in a single voice. It was very interesting to me last semester teaching a class with practice-of-art students called “Radical Composition.” From the very beginning, students were divided into groups of three, and each group had to create a radical composition in response to a series of assigned visual, sonic, and written texts. They were musicians and visual artists and movement artists and art historians and African American Studies students. And they all said the same thing: we’ve never been taught how to work in a group. We have our single-person senior shows. We produce our own body of work. Sometimes we help each other out, but it’s not multiauthored. We don’t all take credit.

This was very illuminating to me—that it was not just humanities people. Again, I was trained as a historian and an oral historian. I’m also a theorist. I’ve done research in a lot of different areas, but what’s always been sustaining to me are conversations with other people and, to be perfectly honest, sharing work in progress. When you’re at your most vulnerable is to me the most generative time to be in conversation. But before you put it into the world, you need to get some feedback. And at the time, Saidiya and Hazel and I were all working on new book projects. We wanted and needed to talk through the works in their most fragile and formative states. And over the course of a few years, we met regularly, sharing our works in progress and gently telling each other where we thought we were going wrong and what we thought was amazing. It just enlivens and inspires me because you learn so much from other people’s work. With this being-in-your-own-lane thing, you learn a lot less.

Also, this is a particular moment in time that is dramatically influencing how we think about the relationship between theory and writing and making art. I just finished participating in an amazing convening called the “Loophole of Retreat” in Venice where I served as a consultant. And what was abundantly clear when we all came together for those three days was that we need to hear each other. We need to think with each other, because we’ve spent three years in utter isolation or in fear of being together. And what happens not only when you are reading together, thinking together, but quite literally listening to each other—something very magical happens that’s not just how you receive it, it’s how you rise to the challenge of being an active participant in that audience. And I have to say how very much I’ve missed that over the past few years of isolation.

As someone who also produces work for a public, I’m curious about what that looks like for you. What is relationship? You asked about collaboration, but I think there’s a larger question about audience there. What does it mean to find your audience? What does it mean to interact with your audience and to accept the criticism that they’re giving you, or the embrace or affirmation that they’re giving you? I’m very curious about the role public dialogues play in terms of your process of creation. And the shift between doing that pre-pandemic and doing it post-pandemic, which is something that I have really been profoundly conscious of. To be perfectly honest, for example, academics, we love the conference, and I think the conference is dead. If I never had to go to another three days of listening to people give papers, I would be forever grateful. [laughter] But yeah, there you go.

JC: What made the convening different from a conference?

TC: The convening was people reading poetry, it was people singing, it was people kind of almost preaching. [laughter] Again, it really wasn’t a forum for “I argue this.” It was much more dialogical. You could hear the audience participating. It was an energy exchange. There were also films, and people putting things up, showing things and then talking to them, with them, over them. My friends Kaiama Glover and Maboula Soumahoro did a choral presentation of what the process of translation looks like that included music and images. They went back and forth and back and forth in a way that was like a poetic rendering. So, the different voices and voicings that we were able to create collectively astonished me.

JC: I find in your work a wonderful, for lack of a better term, optimism and positivity. There are people like Achille Mbembe, where I’ll read him and be like: oh, this is cogent, it’s right, this is contemporary. And I’m also like … [heavy sighing]. You know? It can be hard to summon energy to move forward after reading that. But there’s something about the attentiveness with which you’re reading and thinking that transmits to me a spiritedness akin to hope.

So I would love to hear more about your chapter on the grammar of Black feminist futurity. Ariel Aïsha Azoulay’s Potential Histories asks: What would be necessary to make this history not have occurred? Your query is different. It’s more: What do we need to do to make sure that at a future point, this will have had to happen? I love the fact that it’s a grammar tense, but it’s also an entire stance of language slipping into reality in all these different ways. I think that gives me a certain lightness.

TC: It’s kind of happy to say that I’m an optimist. It feels simple, but I believe in change. That’s the interesting thing about being a historian. You can’t be a historian without believing in change, because you see it. We study continuity and discontinuity. And the one thing that is certain is that things will change. That doesn’t necessarily mean things will get better, but it means there is a capacity to shift the dynamic that is moving us toward a particular future. That, to me, is also about grammar. How are we conjugating? In what tense are we living, and in what tense are we speaking? Are we speaking in the declarative, which is that is so? Are we speaking in the tense of the interrogative, the interrogatory, meaning, will this happen? Or are we speaking in the tense of the conditional, which is, it might happen? Again, as a historian, all you do is study how this was going to go in this direction and went in that direction. That means there is always possibility.

Black feminist futurity, to me, is the legacy that I have inherited, as a Black feminist, of women who have created that change as activists or by giving us the imagination of living otherwise. Somebody like Toni Morrison, who brought into the world these possibilities of how to live differently even under the worst of circumstances. Or people who have theorized what it would take to get from point A to point B, like Angela Davis, who has written into the world the entire idea of abolition. What would it mean to be living in a place where we did not have police disciplining and punishing people, where you didn’t have prison as a way of addressing wrongs? To me, a Black feminist futurity is always grasping at that possibility that is dangled before you, right? But you have to actually move towards that. You have to actually begin to live that reality now in order for it to even be possible in the future. It is not about waiting. And so that to me is the question of: Is it optimism, or is it just an investment in change?

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