The Stuart Hall Project: John Akomfrah interview

Award-winning documentary-maker John Akomfrah explains the importance of archive film to his emotionally charged portrait of cultural theorist Stuart Hall – a journey through the shifting cultural landscape of the second half of the 20th century.

Georgia Korossi
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John Akomfrah got his first taste of the culture of moving image aged 12 at an after-school film club run by an enthusiast of the Super-8 film format. He went on to study O-level film at a pioneering east London college and, while an undergraduate at Portsmouth University in the early 1980s, founding the media collective project Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) with fellow students.

The BAFC curated programmes of avant-garde cinema, films from Cuba, US, Brazil and Senegal, and its own acclaimed productions using slide-tape texts, videos and films. The collective dissolved in 1998 and three of its members, Akomfrah and producers Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, went on to found the film and television production company Smoking Dogs Films, which most recently produced The Stuart Hall Project.

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

Akomfrah, along with the other BAFC members, had been aware of Stuart Hall’s public persona prior to their time at Portsmouth, but it was during the first year of university that he really became engaged with Hall’s academic project:

I think most of us first encountered Stuart Hall in 1979 because of his appearance in the BBC programme It Ain’t Half Racist Mum, made by the group Campaign Against Racism to look at the representation of black and Asian people on television. So we were aware of him as a public intellectual, but it was with the publication of the book Policing the Crisis that we became aware of his academic side.

From that point onwards we became even more aware of his work and ideas and my first year was a major introduction to Hall. I didn’t know who he was as a fixture in the academy because he seemed to appear in different departments – sociology, media, ideology, he just seemed to be everywhere. Also, in 1982, when the book The Empire Strikes Back came out, we got a broad understanding that he was connected to our practice both politically and culturally.

Both Akomfrah’s gallery piece The Unfinished Conversation (2012) and his film The Stuart Hall Project tell the story of Stuart Hall, the cultural theorist and one of the founders of the academic discipline of cultural studies in Britain and (together with E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams) of the New Left Review journal. They are narrated through Hall’s archived audio interviews and television recordings, selected from 800 hours of material.

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

Jazz music provides an orchestrated narrative device throughout both, but it’s in The Stuart Hall Project in particular that the music of Miles Davis (which Hall loves) maps the passage of time as world events unravel. You can almost hear decades float by as the music changes.

Akomfrah points out that:

The Unfinished Conversation, due to its three-screen structure, played thematically much more with the broader themes, like the coming of multiculturalism. With The Stuart Hall Project, I wanted people to have more of a sense of temporality… of the time in which these things were taking place, and the music provided that.

The Miles Davis music provided you with a kind of marker of time, which is much more explicit I felt than The Unfinished Conversation. Miles was there because I thought it gave you a kind of sonic map of a devolving postwar world, but it crucially also gave you the dates, which subliminally told you the content in which the music, as well as the images and Hall’s voice, were unfolding.

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

Akomfrah’s work method varies, but essentially its origins are in the ethics of improvisation. All of the things he is interested in – new music, jazz, ambient compositions by Trevor Mathison, writings as emblems of the archival, the archival both as calligraphic and visual – are embedded in the body of his practice. Interlacing these elements to create something that makes narrative sense is not straightforward. As he explains:

If it’s the music of Arvo Pärt, I definitely want to see how far that music can be used to bring some of the images together. If it’s the documentary work that feels dominant, I want to find ambient tracks or readings that somehow bring something out of it. So it depends on which one is leading at one time.

The logic of improvisation is setting a number of things in motion. At one point one causes and the other tries to respond. For me that’s the most interesting thing. Certainly, with The Unfinished Conversation and The Stuart Hall Project, the primary colours of sound, text, archive television, radio recordings and photographs mix elegantly and in such a way as to create a more complex palette. [It’s] what happens if you strip a documentary from its pretentions of truth and get it to work as a fiction.

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

The premise of The Unfinished Conversation ends in 1968. Its thesis brings Hall’s work and output on radio and television into conversation with events and contemporaries including, among others, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, the unsolved murder of Antiguan immigrant Kelso Cochrane, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Aldermaston march, and the arrival of cultural studies.

By 1968, every permutation of this idea of The Unfinished Conversation, of identity being an endless conversation… I thought we were done. But that then raised this question of what we do specifically with the 1970s, when Hall seemed to be particularly productive, speaking on a number of his own ideas about identity, and looking at all these young people in the society and what was going to happen to them. You could see that the 70s provided us with the opportunity to move from Hall’s life directly on to the outside world.

So, I started to play around with the idea of seeing The Unfinished Conversation as our take on his legacy and implications, and The Stuart Hall Project being pretty much his take on us, and the outside world… The installation definitely came first, because the initial commission came out of a series of conversations between us and Mark Sealy at Autograph ABP, the photographers organisation.

We made a joint application to the Arts Council and that was specifically on the understanding of me doing a gallery-based piece. That’s what we wanted to do, partly because of the experience of making Mnemosyne (2010) and The Nine Muses (2010) and I wanted to pursue with my colleagues more archival-based work that would go in a gallery.

It was certainly not clear, in the beginning, that it would be about Stuart, wholly and exclusively. The initial discussion was that this would be a collaboration between Stuart and myself on the notion of the visual and how the visual organises black identity. But I think the minute I realised there was a little bit more than just a few hours of him on radio, cinema and television, we wanted to, at the very least, try and use him as much as a narrative spy as possible – particularly since the idea of The Unfinished Conversation, which is based on his writings about identity, formed as an intersection within history. And so it became a way of looking at his life, among other things.

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

With his work, Akomfrah has opened up a laboratory of ideas. The challenge of bringing archive television and radio into cinema and gallery spaces without it being overly nostalgic is enormous, especially when one considers the cleaning, construction and judgment that is required in the selection process. Nevertheless, in the past, both television and radio saw their role, broadly, as one of educating as well as entertaining people who didn’t have access to cultural institutions. But how has TV changed?

Akomfrah explains:

Compared with the 60s and 70s, the transformation is so fundamentally radical. To give you an example, I’m watching Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony and the casting of it was inconceivable – hard to imagine that you might have such a multicultural meaning in such a national event. I think the fact that it happens is an indication of a national drift. The sense that you are part of a dialogue is much more assured than before. It’s not that we’ve reached nirvana. There are all kinds of other problems in the wake.

I think things are now pushed into genres. One of the reasons why people love nature programmes is because people are vested in curiosity. This is why people also love sports, because the pleasure is that you don’t actually know most of the time what’s going to happen. When you watch over 800 hours of stuff you get used to a certain approach to making images.

I was amazed over the last five years watching something like 600 hours of stuff around race and class – these were films and TV programmes that were just infused by curiosity. People would film things sometimes, not because they knew, but because they wanted to understand it. Or, they wanted the experience of it to be a popular and collective one. And that was part of the fun when I was growing up and watching television, there were just these moments of spaces you could disappear to – they were spaces of intimacy. These images were organised around curious premises.

There’s not much trust in the viewer right now. One of the reasons it would be great to be alive in 50 years time is to be able to look back and see what the meaning of the archive is and what’s in it. I hope someone gets to do that.

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