Auckland-born, London-based artist Luke Willis Thompson deals with representations of race and violence in his work. For the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, he had guides lead visitors away from the museum to nearby locations that resonate as sites of racial tension. In “Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries,” at Berlin’s Galerie Nagel Draxler in 2016, he presented video portraits of two black men whose relatives were killed by London police. Autoportrait (2017)—the sole work in Thompson’s first solo exhibition in the UK, on view through August 27 at London’s Chisenhale Gallery—likewise focuses on a black subject afflicted by police violence. The black-and-white film is a silent portrait of Diamond Reynolds, the Minnesota woman who in July 2016 used Facebook Live to broadcast the moments immediately after Philando Castile, her partner, was shot by police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop. Thompson worked with Reynolds on the portrait, which he conceived as a “sister image” to her Facebook Live video, while she and her lawyers were preparing for Yanez’s trial. That Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter just a week before autoportrait debuted deepens the mournful quality of the work. I spoke to Thompson over email about photography, portraiture, and silence.
PHILOMENA EPPS In her book The Civil Contract of Photography, theorist Ariella Azoulay describes the camera as an apparatus that governs relations of power and can give agency to the disenfranchised. “Photography, at times, is the only civic refuge at the disposal of those robbed of citizenship,” she writes. In these cases, she argues, it’s a historical responsibility to produce photography and make those images “speak.” Autoportrait seems related to these issues. But I wonder about your choice of medium. Why black-and-white? Why 35mm film? Were your aesthetic and material decisions influenced by historical considerations?
LUKE WILLIS THOMPSON In the process of making autoportait, I thought a lot about the inclusion of George Holliday’s footage of the Rodney King beating in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. When the video was played for the jury at the trial of the officers who beat King, every frame was slowed down and distorted, making King’s body appear as if it could bounce off the ground uninjured, in order to deny the culpability of the policemen. The deft placement of Holliday’s footage in an exhibition space, not as an artwork necessarily, but with Holliday given the status of an artist, asked us to reconsider how we ascribe agency in documents of violence.
I think the Azoulay quote you gave is very apt for an interpretation of what Reynolds was seeking by broadcasting those terrible moments last July. As Castile was shot in front of her, she reached for her phone in order to produce documentation—proof—that would survive her. This is very much the citizen-making function of photography that Azoulay theorizes. Visual evidence like Reynolds’s begs for more agency and justice than what is immediately at hand and summons those forces through the technological apparatus of the camera and its network of receivers. In this interpretation, the Black Lives Matter movement is making good on this latent contract. But the image still requires its day in court. Despite all that evidence captured by Reynolds’s camera—the officer’s contradictory directions, Castile’s dying testimony, the presence of a four-year-old child in the vehicle—the recent trial returned a verdict of not guilty for the offending officer.
It’s not surprising that better-quality video or photographic evidence doesn’t significantly improve the chances of justice in the criminal trials of police. The history of dehumanization is so long and varied that photographic representation is near irredeemable for people of color. However, because Reynolds used the documentary image in an extraordinary way, I felt some hope that another image could be made to assist hers. Autoportrait is purposely incomplete in this sense and exists as an artwork that accompanies Reynolds’s Facebook Live video.
EPPS The film is completely silent, which makes the experience of watching it in the gallery incredibly powerful. The outside world is paused somehow. Time seems to stop. The projector creates this whirring, meditative white noise. In a time where listening to others has become more radical, and more necessary, than speaking, I want to ask you about the necessity of silence in this specific work.
THOMPSON The silence came about in many different ways. In one way it was a precondition for the work to exist. At the time, Reynolds couldn’t give interviews, as they might run the risk of being used at the trial as counterevidence. In the few pretrial interviews with her that exist, her lawyer repeatedly tells the media host: “Everything was already said during the live-streamed video.” It sounded poetic to me. All the necessary sound for the work was already contained in her video. Any additional sound in my film would only be a subtraction. Another aspect of the silence is worth a quick note. In the second half of autoportrait, Reynolds starts to sing subtly. Because it’s visually difficult to decipher and obviously still silent, the scene is designed so that the audience has the opportunity to mentally interpolate whatever they need or want to hear. When I watch the film, I don’t hear the sound of Reynolds screaming, a very strong memory I have of her Facebook Live video. For me, personally, the silence turned out to have a slightly curative function.