“Though the production structures of television originate the television discourse,” Stuart Hall once argued, “they do not constitute a closed system. They draw topics, treatments, agendas, events, personnel, images of the audience, ‘definitions of the situation’ from other sources.” The radical theorist, who died last year at age 82, cofounded the New Left Review and ran Britain’s first cultural studies program; media was, to him, “the arena of consent and resistance.” A group show titled “The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding” announced Hall’s work as its source. And the agenda? He would recognize that, too: contested narratives, reassembled archives, the postcolonial subject. “An ever-unfinished conversation” was Hall’s description of identity. Born in Jamaica, he spent half a century in the U.K., yet remarked near the end of his life: “I’m not English and I never will be. . . . I came to England as a means of escape, and it was a failure.”
Dispersed into separate rooms on two floors of the Power Plant, the six artists in “The Unfinished Conversation” make use of film or video, often playing it against itself. The three slightly staggered projections of Zineb Sedira’s Image Keepers (2010) record a widow’s memories of her husband, who photographed the Algerian War of Independence: “I was jealous as even in bed he was with his camera.” Sven Augustijnen’s film Spectres (2011), which follows a former colonial bureaucrat around the Congo as he reenacts his complicity in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, subtly bends cinematic language from inside the standard documentary format, stressing the camera’s impartial movements. A blunt annexation of Pop, Terry Adkins’s video montage Flumen Orationis (From the Principalities), 2012, synchronizes Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” speech to Jimi Hendrix’s music. Oration and guitar riffs blend neatly enough, but neither exposes anything new in the other. The visual element—flickering, jerky images of military dirigibles, looped like GIFs—seemed more uncanny.
It takes an off-camera Steve McQueen 322 minutes to scroll through every microfiche of Paul Robeson’s FBI file in End Credits (2012). The video’s narrators spend the bulk of that time reading heavily censored minutiae. One report describes the entertainer’s appearance at a rally for the freedom of India; he’s dimly observed singing in Russian. At times the reports achieve a paranoid deadpan: “REDACTED spoke to REDACTED.” As a famous black socialist, Robeson made the U.S. government doubly suspicious. McQueen’s extreme literalism documents the banal, petty, yet inescapably oppressive nature of surveillance. The marriage of drab primary sources and monotone voiceover brings to mind some bleak PBS documentary: Panopticon, A Ken Burns Film.
The warm voice of Stuart Hall animates John Akomfrah’s biographical installation The Unfinished Conversation (2012). Quoting William Blake, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and (why not?) Eartha Kitt, both in its narration and with archival footage, the video places Hall in an oracular tradition. As he speaks of “permanent revolution” in a vintage TV segment, the installation’s two other channels show images of Englishness: race riots, the baleful nativist politician Enoch Powell, industrial cauldrons, a dog dashing along a rainy pier. “The very notion of Great Britain’s ‘greatness’ is bound up with empire,” Hall once wrote. “Little Englander nationalism could hardly survive if people understood whose sugar flowed through English blood and rotted English teeth.” At one point there’s footage of Hall’s wedding party amid thick fog that looks like tear gas, the atmosphere of a political situation still without definition.