A time-travelling video looks back at Black identity

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Movement figures prominently in two exhibitions that are on at the MacKenzie Gallery until May 14. With British artist John Akomfrah’s 1996 video The Last Angel of History, it’s movement through time, while in Motion — which was curated by Louise Déry and features 11 Quebec video artists — it’s movement through space.

Of course, as German physicist Albert Einstein and his teacher Hermann Minkowski theorized in the first decade of the 20th century, space and time exist as part of a single continuum — which makes the distinction I just drew between the shows somewhat artificial.

If the term “space-time continuum” sounds like science fiction, well, that’s perfectly consistent with the premise of Akomfrah’s video.

Akomfrah is of Ghanaian descent, and the artist has made issues of race and post-colonial identity central to his practice. Set 200 years in the future, The Last Angel of History sees a “data-thief” surf Internet records of Black culture dating back to the days of slavery — stealing bits and pieces of data where he can.

Given the massive advances in computer technology (and literacy) since 1996, some aspects of Akomfrah’s video are dated but it still packs plenty of punch as a meditation on Black identity in the post-colonial era. Indeed, in this age of surging alt-right nationalism, the video couldn’t be more timely (unfortunately).

One area of Black culture Akomfrah delves into via his data-thief is science fiction. Through interviews with authors Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, critic Greg Tate, actress Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhuru in Star Trek) and astronaut Bernard Harris (who flew two NASA missions aboard the space shuttle in the mid-1990s), he explores archetypal SF themes such as alienation, dislocation and estrangement as they relate to Black reality outside of Africa.

Music is another rich area of plunder for Akomfrah’s data-thief. Again, through a series of interviews intercut with archival photos and African iconography, Akomfrah traces linkages between early musical genres such as blues and jazz through funk and disco to techno and hip hop, which were just coming to the fore when he made the video.

Three musicians who incorporated SF themes, sounds, costumes and staging into their musical personas receive special mention. George Clinton of the 1970s band Parliament Funkadelic is probably the best known, although avant-garde jazz artist Sun Ra is a revered name as well. The third musician who gets a shout-out is reggae artist and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry from Jamaica.

February is Black History Month, and while Akomfrah’s video doesn’t adhere to traditional documentary conventions, it certainly offers a timely snapshot into select areas of lived Black experience in Africa and the Western world over the past few centuries.

Shifting Gears

With contributions from 11 artists, Motion is necessarily less cohesive in its aesthetics, themes and subject matter than The Last Angel of History. Nonetheless, the videos curator Louise Déry chose show an obvious effort to give viewers parallels to ponder — besides being created by Quebec artists.

Screening back-to-back at one point in the installation — which like The Last Angel of History is projected at close-to-theatre scale on a gallery wall — are Michel de Broin’s Shared Propulsion Car and BGL’s Rapides et dangereux.

Both are hilarious in their own way. In the first, a junky 1986 Buick Regal is shown navigating the streets of Toronto. Unlike the vehicles whizzing past it, it isn’t gasoline-powered. Instead, it’s been rigged up like a bicycle and the passengers are pedaling their asses off to keep the car in motion.

Near the end, the driver finally gets pulled over by the police, who proceed to ticket him for operating an unsafe vehicle. To top it all off, as the ticket’s being issued, a group of officers on bike patrol pedal past, staring bemusedly at the scene that’s playing out before them.

Rapides et dangereux is a variation on the same carbon-free transportation theme. This time, the vehicle is a Suzuki motorbike powered by two yellow-and-black spandex-clad dudes on roller blades. They don’t get pulled over by the police, but as they roll through the streets of Quebec City — reaching pretty impressive speeds when they’re on downhill slopes — they draw plenty of incredulous looks from pedestrians and motorists.

Another pairing that leapt out at me was Patrick Bernatchez’s Lost in Time and Nadia Myre’s Portrait in Motion. In the former, a rider on a horse gallops toward the camera/viewer in a snow storm. The overall effect is somewhat menacing, especially when you see that the rider (and horse) are outfitted in paramilitary garb like a futuristic knight — albeit one traveling alone through a harsh winter landscape.

Myre’s video doesn’t match that in tone — far from it, in fact. Instead, it depicts a person paddling a canoe on a tranquil lake. But when the video was shot, the lake was shrouded in mist, so it shares the same “white-out” quality as Lost in Time.

Motion in space isn’t Déry’s only curatorial focus. She’s also interested in exploring the idea of motion in a procedural sense of putting forward a proposal to act or reach a decision.

And the irony of both shows is that to view them, you don’t have to move at all. You just have to sit and watch. What could be easier than that?