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Isaac Julien - Profile

By Chris Darke

1. Introduction

In 2001, Isaac Julien was nominated for the Turner Prize, the prestigious British contemporary art award which, every year, ritually reheats the leftovers of that old and distinctly unfulfilling question "Is it Art?" In the case of Isaac Julien, who was nominated for his film-installation work, the question that might have been more usefully asked was "Is it cinema?"

It's a question to which he already had an answer. In an interview with Sight and Sound in 1999, Julien stated: "The categories of fine art and cinema are outmoded ways of describing moving image culture. Film has always incorporated all the arts: some have embellished its journey to maturity, others have killed it. In a sense you could say cinema is dead and it's up to artists to resurrect it." ['In Two Worlds': Sight and Sound July 1999] With these words Julien articulates a familiar vision of cinema, one that's both time-honoured (Cinema as the 'Seventh Art', the one that absorbs all others within it) as well as timely (Cinema migrating to the gallery and museum not as a relic or antique but in order to rehearse its own possible future). But as a filmmaker who has successfully survived twenty years of negotiating both worlds of art and cinema - producing film, video, installations and work for TV - Julien is well-placed to make such an observation.

It's a question to which he already had an answer. In an interview with Sight and Sound in 1999, Julien stated: "The categories of fine art and cinema are outmoded ways of describing moving image culture. Film has always incorporated all the arts: some have embellished its journey to maturity, others have killed it. In a sense you could say cinema is dead and it's up to artists to resurrect it." ['In Two Worlds': Sight and Sound July 1999] With these words Julien articulates a familiar vision of cinema, one that's both time-honoured (Cinema as the 'Seventh Art', the one that absorbs all others within it) as well as timely (Cinema migrating to the gallery and museum not as a relic or antique but in order to rehearse its own possible future). But as a filmmaker who has successfully survived twenty years of negotiating both worlds of art and cinema - producing film, video, installations and work for TV - Julien is well-placed to make such an observation.

2. Sankofa

Julien was one of the founding members, in 1983, of the black filmmaking collective Sankofa, with Nadine Marsh-Edwards, Martina Attile and Maureen Blackwood.

The group took their name from the mythical African bird signifying "the act of looking into the past to prepare for the future" and the past over which they cast their eye was that of British colonialism, the present-future its after-effects in the experiences of the black British diaspora. Sankofa was one of a number of workshops that emerged across the UK in the early 1980s. The inception of Channel 4 in 1982, as well as the involvement of the union ACTT (the Association of Cinematograph, Television and allied Technicians), meant that the necessary combination of funding and institutional will was available to produce and broadcast material that addressed 'minority' audiences. There was political support in the form of the Greater London Council and its short-lived radical Labour administration which responded to demands for black representation at both political and cultural levels. Behind this political will was the desire to deal with the problems of social exclusion, racist violence and police brutality that had erupted in the uprisings of inner-city black populations during the summer of 1981. The two major works that Sankofa produced in the early 1980s, Territories (1984) and The Passion of Remembrance (1986) were not only investigations into the material conditions of black British life but were equally intent on examining the very terms of its representation. The films were formally exploratory, placing image and sound in a contrapuntal relationship, analysing imagery drawn from mainstream media and archives, questioning documentary conventions by combining them with fictional dramatisation. They departed from the understanding that there was no 'given' visual language by which to deal with the issues at hand, no unitary notion of back identity available, no single account of the history of the British black experience conveniently to hand. "We're struggling to tell a story of black people" runs the repeated voice-over refrain in Territories, "A his-story, a her-story of cultural forms specific to black people". The 'struggle' is emphasised as being one that concerned the symbolic as much as the material conditions of being black and British.

Writing about the black British films of the 1980s, Paul Gilroy questioned whether there was "a base or context" for the workshop films and whether black British film culture was too dependent upon an agenda set by international film festival circuits. But as John Hill has observed: "One problem with this criticism.. is that it ignores how the 'base and context' for all British film-making changed during this period and how, as a result, the film-festival circuit increased in importance for the whole of British film culture." [John Hill, 'British Cinema in the 1980s: Issues and Themes', Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999. P.238]

3. Cinema in the Space of Art

Cinema in the space of Art: Gallery installation work

One of the most pronounced aspects of Julien's work is its interest in examining what might be called the cultural conditions of beauty, particularly the institutionalised space of fine art. The museum, both as a set and a repository of history, has featured across a number of Julien's works. From The Attendant (1992) to the installations Vagabondia (2000) and Baltimore (2003), Julien attempts to 're-vision' the high-art context as well as of the artefacts within it. Having examined media images of black life and interrogated them closely, turning them inside out to reveal the assumptions, misconceptions and idées réçues underlying them, Julien does something similar in the space of the art exhibition. In the museum, Julien folds its own image back onto the screen. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why in his recent work he delights in the possibilities afforded by multiple-screen projection which are themselves multiplied into a vertiginous play of frames (of the context: museum or gallery) within frames (of the screens) within frames (of paintings and mirrors), creating a split-screen kaleidoscope which opens inwards and outwards simultaneously. Vagabondia was filmed in the Sir John Soames Museum in London which houses the dreams of a black conservatrix who hallucinates the hidden histories behind the musuem's objets and portraits. She 'sees' elegant young black women in country-house finery as well as a black 'vagabond' whose lurching, stumbling, half-dancing movements disrupt the settled elegance of the space. Kobena Mercer has written that, in Vagabondia, Three (1999) and The Attendant (1993), "the iconographic elements [are] systematically led astray" and there's more than a suggestive association between the idea of 'vagabondage' and being 'led astray' [Kobena Mercer in Isaac Julien: a Minigraph Ellipsis/Film and Video Umbrella, London 2001.]. In The Attendant, for example, Julien takes a detail from a 19th century academic painting Slaves off the Coast of Africa and restages it as a tableau vivant of inter-racial sadomasochistic sexual desire.

4. Blaxploitation

Blaxploitation: From Wax to Pixel, From TV to Gallery

Baltimore (2003) continues and extends the approach, but this time the iconography that strays into the museum comes from cinema, the 'blaxploitation' cinema of the 1970s to be precise. Pioneering director Melvin Van Peebles and a Pam Greer lookalike (in full 'Foxy Brown' finery) become living exhibits of cinema at large in the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the Walters Art Museum. Julien's film is partly a meditation on black heroism and cultural achievement whose icons are mummified in one museum (Van Peebles comes face-to-face with his own waxen effigy) and which then, in a literal and figurative leap of the imagination, are bought up to date. 'Blaxploitation' becomes 'Matrixploitation' as Julien's 21st Century Foxy Brown becomes airborne in a thoroughly unexpected piece of special effects trickery. In his documentary on the 'Blaxploitation' films Badassss Cinema (2002), the protagonists of the movies are discussed as having been seen as 'superheroes', gods in pop-culture clothing. Baltimore updates the idea, taking it to its logical present-day conclusion; on the journey from wax to celluloid to pixels, a whole history of representation lies therein. Something needs to be said here about Julien's approach in overlapping a TV project such as Badassss Cinema with a gallery-film project like Baltimore. The material overlaps in both works in terms of subject, participants and soundtrack, but whereas Badassss is a conventional television documentary - part revisionist history, part chronicle - Baltimore imagines the future of this cinematic past. Such an approach can be seen to continue a practice which has been around since the days of 1970s 'video-art' when artists would make installations and single-screen work reprising and magnifying motifs across the two formats. True to his hybrid calling, Julien has extended this range, overlapping a TV project with a film-installation (something he also did with the Frantz Fanon project, producing both a documentary essay and an installation work), the circuit between them being provided by the iconography which circulates and 'strays' from the world of film to the world of art and back again.

5. Blaxploitation

Julien understands that the gallery installation might be said to allegorise the current condition of cinema, while also drawing on codes and formats specific to the site of the gallery.

In this respect, Julien can be seen alongside other figures such as Chris Marker, Chantal Ackerman, Marlon Riggs, and Haroun Farocki, all of them film-makers who have pushed at the outer limits of what cinema is capable of. Julien's work also understands that what is lost in terms of cinematic specificity in the transition to the gallery makes something else possible and he explores this in the way that his work mobilises the look of the figures in his shots, as well as the looks of his ambulant spectators. In the relative absence of cinematic 'depth' to the image, the installation flattens, fragments and multiplies both the image and, in the process, the spectator's act of looking which, rather than being absorbed into a play of depth and planes as it is with the cinematic image, is made to move across, to laterally scan, to ricochet between images. Julien's installations, it seems to me, are quite explicit about this. They feature elements that recognise this fragmentation, this kaleidoscopic confluence of looks and gazes: the multipe split-screens and internal mirror effects of Vagabondia; the playful references to the famous 'Are you lookin' at me?' sequence with De Niro from Scorsese's Taxi Driver in The Long Road to Mazatlan [2000].

This concern with the act of looking and with the confluence of looks that cinematic spectatorship explores, is a long-standing feature of Julien's work in which the 'look' becomes the index of desire, of conflict, of mis-identification. But it must also be seen as a fundamental structuring trope of cinematic representation. Think of how 'shot/counter-shot' works in narrative cinema, the look from one character to another becoming the invisible spine of a scene, an expressive element as well as a basic structural tool. In Territories, for example, the 'look' is the incommensurable space between white law and black subject and one achieved through a montage effect, that of the superimposition, given in a repeated sequence, of shots of a policeman and a young black man. Julien's 1996 made-for-TV documentary-essay film on Frantz Fanon's life, times and legacy, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask, is shot through with this repertoire of enigmatic looking, frequently breaking out of the conventions of easily stitched-together shot/counter-shot conventions and, through an effective combination of direct, frontal looks to-camera and glancing, 'un-matched' looks, converging in the territory of the spectator. One such example of this repertoire of looks is reprised several times in Fanon in the sequences where the film treats Fanon's time as a psychologist working in Algeria during the years of the country's liberation struggle. One of the most striking moments has two of Fanon's patients (alternately, an Algerian freedom fighter and a French soldier), Fanon himself and a hospital orderly locked in a set of looks that do not meet, that cannot meet because what is being related by both patients is the terrifying psychic costs of oppression and resistance, in which violence means that looks cannot meet without engendering further violence. The 'look' is a resource, as well as being an element of film grammar, of particular use to a film-maker exploring the themes of racialised and sexualised looking. Of course, the regimes of cinematic looking and their relationship to the gaze of the audience has been a core component of psychoanalytical and feminist film theory. But in Julien's hands it also becomes a way of exploring, enhancing and defining the differences and distance between 'cinema' and the gallery film.

Chris Darke is a writer and film critic base in London. A collection of his essays 'Light Readings: Film Criticism and Screen Arts' is published by Wallflower Press. His monograph on Jean-Luc Godard's 'Alphaville' will be published by I.B.Tauris early in 2005.

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