Alberta Whittle’s new moving image work ‘RESET’ (2020) was awarded the 2020 Frieze Artist Award. Filmed across the artist’s native Barbados, as well as South Africa and the United Kingdom, it charts a polyphonic journey, woven together through contributions by writers, performers, and musicians, who Whittle refers to as her accomplices. ‘RESET’ is steeped in postcolonial and queer theory, informing Whittle’s process, which is also a form of protest: the work addresses contagion, xenophobia and their colonial entanglements, while exploring healing and meditation as forms of resistance. To reset, by Whittle’s terms, is not only to wipe the slate clean, but also to create a new de-colonial language: aural and written, embodied and spiritual, made up of multiple diasporic alliances.
‘RESET’ (2020) is structured as a series of three lessons: ‘Reparable Impulses under conditions of anticipatory grief’, ‘everyday Ululations’ and ‘August 1st 2020 Emancipation Day’. The work appears to call for an urgent re-education, while also choreographing a particular filmic rhythm enshrined in moments of healing, rest and respite that seem to signal an alternative pedagogy – a different way of undoing what you have poignantly referred to as the “Luxury of Amnesia” in your PhD research. Could you speak about your decision to structure the film in this way, in relation to your work against antiblackness?
It’s important to mention that I began developing ‘RESET’ not long after the murder of George Floyd by US police officers and about 5 months since the Covid-19 pandemic became impossible to ignore. During the first few weeks of the pandemic we witnessed disproportionate numbers of Black deaths – the first ten doctors to die from Covid-19 in the UK were people of colour. During the next couple of months we witnessed rebellion on a global stage. To borrow from Christina Sharpe, we live in a climate of “antiblackness” that is all-encompassing and seemingly impossible to escape from.
The “Luxury of Amnesia” is a pedagogical framework, built around “Other” ways of resisting the misremembering and obliteration of Black lives through the denial and erasure that bulwark White supremacy. ‘RESET’ insists on fracturing this amnesia by calling on audiences to be more than passive viewers and asking them to be witnesses, to be active, to remember, to think critically about and reflexively examine alternative and contested timelines that have led to our current socio-political and epidemiological catastrophes. This alternative pedagogy entangles healing, rest and respite, while ensuring that we sit in occasional discomfort. And that discomfort demands a recognition of the climate of antiblackness.
To work through these junctures it was critical to induce a rhythm that would create breaks or ruptures along multiple timelines. These ruptures appear as collaged imagery, spliced strips and changes of tempo – creating a multiplicity of encounters with catastrophe as well as self-compassion and mutual care.
There is a powerful and deliberate use of language in the work, which was informed by the writings of queer theorist Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick and also includes fragments from a newly commissioned text by the writer, curator and pleasure activist Ama Josephine Budge. Could you speak about the importance of the written word in your moving image work?
Textual language becomes another texture in the unfolding narrative of the film – sometimes a signpost, or a warning, occasionally a meditation and at other times an invitation to take pleasure in reading and absorbing the sensuality of words.
I approach my research by looking at different texts and writers, both as a means to learn and to see what connections can be made. While developing ‘RESET’, Sedgwick’s writings on sensorial bodies and desired intimacies of kith and kin became anchor points in the collaborative method I adopted, which led me to invite my beloved friend Ama Josephine Budge to write a commissioned text. Her glorious text ‘On Touching’ (2020) became like another entity in the film, where her words could dance and demand space. We worked very closely to visualise the potency and beauty of her words, to create a feeling that they had a life of their own, becoming multiple voices - almost a chorus - as illustrated by the chosen colour palette of purple and green within the textual layers of the film.
Elements of the natural world (a snake, birds, water, trees, palms in the breeze, the moon) create both unsettling and meditative moments in the film, and seem to connect us to various overlapping geographies. They are also charged with a deeply subjective, allegorical symbolism – could you speak about that?
I normally take my camera with me everywhere and make recordings of the scenarios I come upon. These recordings become an archive informed as much by transnational conversations as by my own journeying. In ‘RESET’ I collaged many pieces of my archival material together to connect contested histories that are connected geographically.
My depictions of the natural world bear a relation to allegory, but also contain a desire for my witnesses to slow down and find moments to connect with a more meditative state. I began noticing how under lockdown, with time outside the home significantly limited, many people found solace in being outdoors and shared images of the natural world like rainbows, which felt like gestures of hope.
This hope fascinates me, and feels connected with images of snakes and the ouroboros: my dear friend Sekai Machache introduced me to the ancient serpent symbol of the ouroboros last year – synonymous with eternity and cyclical return. Her description of it stayed with me and when I was editing ‘RESET’, I kept seeing images of snakes. These images became more abundant the closer it got to September, which for me is a month steeped in anniversaries of bereavements. In ‘RESET’, the snake references the ouroboros, becoming a way to trace genealogies of kith and kin, and to signify communion with love and community, even if that community is no longer present in this realm.
I am interested in the multiple and distinct soundscapes in ‘RESET’ which transport the viewer to different spaces. You’ve spoken about your interest in the colonial and pre-colonial context of sound, and in Paul Gilroy’s ideas of antiphony and call and response. In what ways is ‘RESET’ a continuation of this line of inquiry?
‘RESET’’s soundscape, visual textual layers, choreography, performance and editing were each inspired by Gilroy’s research on antiphony, which my collaborators and I used to develop the material in the film.
In order to manifest antiphony as a methodological device, I began sharing memories, ideas, hopes, stories and recordings with my friend Yves B Golden. She then composed a score called ‘Maroon Rage’ that became the spine of ‘RESET’, from which Ama Josephine could begin work on ‘On Touching’. These phenomenal works became entangled audio and written scores for two collaborators and players – Mele Broomes and Sekai Machache – to root their performances in.
The performance in ‘everyday Ululations’ with Christian Noelle Charles actually precedes much of the research done for ‘RESET’, which was completed over summer 2020. Our performance might be considered an early exercise in antiphony, when Christian and I ululated together in a chorus of call and response in Glasgow Museum’s World Cultures archive. We hoped to open up sonic registers, which could spark energies to speak to and unlock the archive’s constraints.
These intimate conversations mediated by technology permitted us to navigate oceans, continents, and cities, while still occupying zones of intimacy built on trust and love, allowing ‘RESET’ to become a poly-vocal and affective form of communion.
Released during the time of Covid-19, ‘RESET’ speaks to fears of contagion, while addressing the pernicious, historical and ongoing social pandemic of racism. The need to “reset” is often connected with a state of exhaustion, and imbued with the promise of fixing something in a new or different way. In what way might diasporic and decolonial politics configure that kind of potential?
‘RESET’ was produced as a proposition to reconsider “Other” ways of knowing, “Other” ways of recognising intersubjective relationships and “Other” ways of formulating individual and collective forms of resistance. The philosophical and political considerations that ‘RESET’ is embedded in are situated within transnational relationships of collaborative thinking, amongst networks of accomplices who are attentive to decolonial thought and praxis. My collaborators are all situated within different diasporic perspectives, and ‘RESET’ provides entry-points to discover these “Other” ways of resisting the social pandemic and the panic that promotes racist thought.