Our forthcoming issue, Subjektiv part II, invites different artists, curators and thinkers to give us their recent critical perspectives on the issues at stake and on the status of the subjective as an artistic strategy in the current political climate. As a warm up, we'll share some statements here. Ida Mellbye Andenæs:
D I A M O N D - on the exhibition autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson.
The condition of black life is one of mourning - Claudia Rankine
On the 6th July 2016, Philando Castile is pulled over by police in Minnesota for the 52nd time. Castile opens the car window for the police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, and after 40 seconds Yanez fires seven shots at him. Five strike Castile: one in the heart, four in the arm. One shot nearly hits his four-year-old stepdaughter sitting in the backseat. Castile was searching for his licence and registration, and had informed Yanez that he was carrying a gun for which he had a licence. “Don’t pull it out,” says Yanez. “I’m not pulling it out,” Castile replies. “Don’t pull it out,” repeats Yanez, after the seven shots. Philando is lying immobile in his seat, hovering between life and death. Forty seconds has passed since Yanez started a conversation with him.
Immediately after, Diamond Reynolds starts a video on Facebook Live with her iPhone. She films the police officer still standing outside the car window with his gun raised for several minutes. His movements are nervous, he yells “fuck” with the sound of a lump in his throat. She films Philando who lies slumped in the driver’s seat with blood all over his white T-shirt, the daughter who is utterly calm and quiet in the backseat, and her own face, as, in a distressed but extremely composed manner, she explains what has just happened. She knows it is going to be her word against theirs, this is her statement. She says ‘sir’ every time she speaks to Yanez. “Fuck!” Yanez cries again. “Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You just shot four bullets into him, sir.”
A couple of minutes into the video we see three policemen outside the car with their guns raised. They get Diamond down on her knees and handcuff her. The phone drops to the ground, and for a couple of minutes only the overhead power lines are visible, where signals flow, and the blue sky. The ambulance comes for Philando, Diamond is placed in the police car with her daughter, without the chance of saying goodbye.
A police recording from inside the patrol car was shared on YouTube in May 2017. The space that Diamond and her daughter are sitting in is tight and confined. She’s in handcuffs, despite the fact that they have just killed her boyfriend. She still can’t know for certain if he’s dead. Diamond screams a little in the beginning, her body writhing. The daughter says several times like an adult that Diamond shouldn’t scream, because she could get shot, and that she wished there wasn’t so much crime in the city. The roles have been turned upside down. The keeper of the law is the culprit, still in control. The victims, and witnesses of the murder victim, are in the place of the criminal. The child is turned into the parent. Diamond’s dignity and self-composure have been made impossible. She screams.
In November 2016, the New Zealand artist Luke Willis Thompson reaches out to Diamond. He had been researching riots and amateur videos of violent clashes with police in the course of an artist residency at Chisenhale Gallery in east London. When he sees Diamond’s video, he finally eyes an opportunity for a project. After several discussions and meetings where Diamond’s lawyer is also present, they reach an agreement. Thompson’s work is to be a “sister image” to Diamond’s live video, a silent one. He portrays Diamond seated in front of the camera, with minimal movements and gestures, the focus is on the face. She has decided the lighting, the angle and the frame. Compared with the confusing and noisy media coverage around her story, and her own live stream, autoportrait is a controlled, beautiful response. Thompson says in an interview with Tavia Nyong'o in Social Text that the difference in the work (to Diamond) is not to be found in race, class, geography: “I think the difference in the work is how hard Diamond’s experience of living, day-to-day, second-to-second, can be.” And that the attempt to relate, to establish a form of connection with her is central: “I’ve been interested in a quality that runs frequently in the black art tradition, where collectivity can exist even with a single member, (or dead members, or members who don’t necessarily agree to their membership).”
The Rodney King video was on Thompson’s mind while working on Diamond’s film. In the trial against the four policemen who brutally beat Rodney King, the video was played without sound and frame by frame, so that what had actually happened was distorted and used as affirmative proof for the defence. The video, which was shot by George Holiday as he saw what was happening outside his window in 1991, was included in the Whitney Biennial in 1993. Still today, these video proofs don’t get the desired effect in a courtroom. Similar to Thompson’s other projects revolving around minorities, injustices and matters of race, he doesn’t take full control over his works, but lets someone else “finish” the project. In Eventually they introduced me to the people I immediately recognized as those who would take me out anyway (2015) at the New Museum in New York, he let other people, all African American, lead the visitors out of the museum to several points in Manhattan. All the points were clearly or more obscurely connected to historic or contemporary events and themes regarding the reality of the African American experience. Nothing was said during the walk, and the visitors had to make the connections themselves, and register their own reactions and sense of place and shifting subjectivity in it. Another work by Thompson, untitled (2012), shows the three garage doors that the Maori teenager Pihema Cameron tagged, whereby he was pursued and stabbed by the house owner.
In Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016), Thompson made two 16mm films of two young British black men, Graeme and Brandon. Graeme is the son of Joy Gardner, who suffered brain damage while she was detained by police during a raid on her home for her deportation in 1993. Brandon is the grandson of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce, who was shot in her home, an event that led to the Brixton riots in 1985. Neither of the two officers was convicted. As well as giving an image of living history, the films are an homage to, but also a critique of Andy Warhol’s Screen Test films, where almost all of the portrayed were white. Only 3 or 5 of 472 were black, depending on the definitions used. Andy Warhol’s technique was inspired by mug shots. Mug, slang for ‘face’ but also ‘criminal’ and ‘steal’. Screen tests are also about who is suitable, or not. Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries is similar to autoportrait in execution, and also in the way in which those portrayed seem unafraid of the camera, challenging it, open and closed to it at the same time. The camera can’t catch them entirely.
In Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine puts collective fantasies and representations, internal and external, in the spotlight. How these lead to the deaths of young black men in particular, and how small everyday incidents affect and form the reality and self-perceptions of African Americans. It is because of these imaginaries around the black subject that the gun gets fired so quickly. Because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black men are dying. Silence can be healing, a space where something can be processed without disturbing noise. But it can also symbolize resignation, or discouragement. Three days before the exhibition opened, it became clear that Diamond’s live video and all she had tried to convey in it, wasn’t enough. Jeronimo Yanez was found not guilty. A silence follows. The portrait of Diamond is about strength and vulnerability, both on a personal and a collective level. The need for something to change, the sentiment that something is fundamentally wrong, has been amplified recently, in particular after the American elections, and with developments all over Europe. The word ‘woke’ has been widely used in the wake of the election. It is a rich, suggestive and beautiful word if you look into its roots, meanings and differing uses. Democracy is about more than just a vote: What is visible, what can be heard, and why. Who are we, alone, and together, how much agency is to be found, where, and in whom? For political and social systems to change, minds must change, with changed perspectives, other(s’) eyes on one’s own and others’ selves. The self (autos) isn’t made by itself (natural, native, not made), of oneself (independently); it creates and is created, is pushed and pulled, while pushing and pulling. In Greek, auto was also used a prefix: Autodiamond, Diamond herself.
autoportrait, Luke Willis Thompson, Chisenhale Gallery, 23. June – 27. August 2017