Old news reel footage shows a woman, hat pulled down to her thick rimmed glasses and coat buttoned all the way up, being interviewed about a leak of soap within the water system. Standing in front of a frothing stream, contaminated by household detergent, the interviewer asks the woman what she thinks of the incident. The woman laments that of course, it is a terrible thing. But when the interviewer pushes her, asking in his clipped RP accent, “Would you yourself stop using detergents?”, she becomes more reticent. “Well,” she says, before pausing, “I don’t know about that”.
This is one of few humorous moments – if not the only one – in ‘Purple’ (2017), John Akomfrah’s six screen installation that fills the Barbican’s The Curve, but it is a moment that oddly encapsulates the hour long piece. Sitting amongst archival images of oil spills, nuclear fallout, war, habitat loss and pollution, as well as newly shot footage from ten countries, the exchange sheds its innocence and becomes infected by the many horrors that the industrial world has wrought. ‘Purple’ sets out to re-contextualise the past’s imagery in this way, to conceptualise and think about its uniting theme: the Anthropocene, the current epoch in which human impact on the planet outranks any other force.
Throughout the five movements and epilogue of ‘Purple’, which follow a loose narrative arc beginning at birth and ending with death, and simultaneously show technological progressions from steam engines to artificial intelligence, the screens loop disparate imagery together creating a lyrical essayism that is equatable to the work of Chris Marker. Imagery enters compositions rather than stories, skews perceptions in the process, and remains slippery, whilst deeply evocative. Shots of mining, for example, sit next to cross sections of a miner’s lung, ridden with black dust, followed by shots of animal testing that are almost unbearable to watch. These throw into question the treatment of both human and animals and the grand images of industrialisation presented elsewhere in the work, as well as the simplicity of its celebration.
What the viewer leaves thinking is very much dependent on their experience visiting the space. The scale of ‘Purple’, projected across almost the whole length of The Curve, means that its entirety is allusive. Visiting the exhibition my eyes could not keep up with the sprawling images and rarely stayed focused on one screen long before the ebbing score, or a flash of action, drew them elsewhere. On a second visit, intrigued by this pulling of attention, and sitting at the opposite end of the space, I saw scenes that had completely passed me by the first time round, and these entered into new alignments.
‘Purple’ consequently posits ideas and presents relationships between different histories, cultures, ecologies and geographies, whilst resisting a didacticism that can thwart eco-artworks and film: a call for a collectivity that is as exclusionary as it is inclusionary. Instead, Akomfrah draws you in to the necessity and possibility of realising the effect and intermingling of concepts such as the Anthropocene, capitalism, and colonialism, whilst revealing the role differing subjectivities play, and must have, in histories and futures.