During a symposium on fellow artist Kerry James Marshall at the end of last month, Arthur Jafa recalled a conversation he had with Marshall long ago. Jafa asked the painter, “What is the difference between painting and photography?” Without hesitation, Marshall replied, “Discrepancy.” In painting, Jafa recounted, there is a force that operates in the gap between a rendering and whatever has been rendered. This gap, he explained, is “a very complicated thing for black folks, because we live in the space of discrepancy all the time.”
Last week, two of Jafa’s own works—the videos Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016) and Dreams Are Colder than Death (2013)—were screened at the School of Visual Arts in New York, followed by a conversation between Jafa and film critic Amy Taubin. As Jafa’s brilliantly orchestrated glimpses of the pleasures, pains, and complexities of lived black experience flashed on the screen, it was clear he had found that “discrepancy” in the digital image—and its rhythm too.
Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death is a collage of original and found footage set to Kanye West’s rap-gospel song “Ultralight Beam.” The 7-minute video, which appeared at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in Harlem from last November until the end of January, earned a great deal of attention, shining a brighter light on Jafa and, for some, exemplifying the power of art to stand in opposition to systematic oppression.
Jafa said that, despite the timing of his Gavin Brown show, though, it would be both a misunderstanding and an oversimplification to consider the work a direct response to the U.S. presidential election. Love Is the Message is not concerned with any one event or example of oppression but rather, in his words, it serves as an “emanation of the culture.” On the subject of Trump, he said, frankly, “It’s already post-apocalypse. Why are we going to freak out now that they put a zombie in the chair?”
About 40 percent of Love Is the Message was shot by Jafa himself; the rest is found footage. He mentioned the strong reaction that he had to a clip of track-and-field runner Derek Redmond collapsing during the 400-meter sprint at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. In the memorable scene, Redmond injures his leg mid-race and his father rushes onto the track, helping his son hobble to the finish line. On screen, we see Redmond’s excruciating pain and his father’s deep love. Jafa puts this in the mix along with footage of a fiery sun, Martin Luther King, Jr., and bodies hanging from trees. Crowds sway around basketball courts and sing in church. A mother cautiously backs toward a police dashboard camera. In the soundtrack of “Ultralight Beam,” a little girl exclaims, “We don’t want no devils in the house, God,” and West repeats, “This is a God dream / This is everything.”
The work’s play with language and juxtaposition recalls Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, and its pixelated stills and glitchy Vines connect it to meme culture. More than an expansion on techniques of montage, though, it is video art “at the tempo of emergency,” Jafa said.
That tempo is not always swift. For Dreams Are Colder Than Death, Jafa left irregular spaces between exposures, creating what he considers “durational drag.” In the work, we hear the artist Wangechi Mutu saying, “The things that are happening here [in America] are huge, but they’re made not to feel that way.” Naked women dance at a strip club in Atlanta. Scholar and curator Rich Blint asks, “How do you know that you’re free?” Kara Walker talks about making art in a “mercurial space” while her “skin keeps trying to stick itself back on.”
After the screenings, Jafa sat down with Taubin with a slide show of album covers, Black Panther posters, and video stills on a loop in the background. Taubin asked about the “slow motion” of Dreams Are Colder Than Death. She said it felt “distanced,” like Warhol’s films. Jafa explained that he places “images in affective proximity to each other,” echoing the kind of improvisation and quick thinking that many black people have to learn at a young age. “The tectonic plates are shifting under you, and you’ve got to make a move or it’s going to swallow you,” he said.
Jafa also related this to his longtime interest in dance and, later, pulled up some of his favorite YouTube videos, including a woman singing in front of a huge church congregation and a man listening to Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.” He pointed out the sheer power of the woman’s presence, and described the man as “the black guy who got cut out of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.” Jafa could hardly believe how perfect these videos are, and his enthusiasm was contagious. As the audience laughed, he said he didn’t want anyone to leave with the feeling that they had listened to an artist speak—he wanted us to think, instead, “we were in the presence of a thing that had a complicated relationship to the culture.”