Whiteness and Aesthetic Failure: Arthur Jafa's The White Album
Arthur Jafa’s latest film, The White Album, which is currently screening at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), begins with an extended collage of the sort we might expect from the artist after the success of 2016’s Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death. Borrowing the music video for electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never’s song “The Pure and the Damned,” which features an eerie, computer-generated Iggy Pop on vocals, Jafa warps and weaves a combination of found and original footage around Oneohtrix’s spare, piano-driven composition. A goateed Robert Pattinson faces off with a feral creature in one shot; in the next, a bearded white man stares sidelong into the camera as it pans with excruciating patience across his face.
Then something unsettling happens: Pop promises the audience entrance into a utopia where we can “do everything we want to, where we can pet the crocodiles”; meanwhile, we see CCTV footage of a car pulling to a stop in front of a nondescript building. A lanky white man exits the vehicle, and we realize we are watching the white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof entering Emanuel African Methodist Church, where he will go on to kill nine worshippers and injure another.
Filmmaker John Akomfrah has written that Jafa’s work relies upon the activation of an “affective proximity” between images that are plucked out of their quotidian contexts and endowed with new meaning through Jafa’s careful composition. In Love Is The Message, Jafa juxtaposes images of ecstatic Blackness and utter abjection: footage of LeBron James fiercely dunking a basketball and a drag performer doing a death drop exist alongside images of Civil Rights Movement protesters collapsing from the force of high-pressure fire hoses and Walter Scott being shot to death by Michael Slager. In presenting these images shorn of context, couched in Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” Jafa leaves viewers suspended in a state of heightened aesthetic perception. When images fail to signify as they normally would, all that’s left for a viewer to do is allow the affective charge generated by their proximity to enfold you.
As Peter L’Offcial has written, Jafa uses “black visual intonation”— a careful manipulation of found footage that approximates the textures of Black vocal intonation and music — in order to distend “real time [so that it] is often bent and stretched like a musical blue note.” Through such manipulation, Jafa’s endows images with rhythms that invite us to perceive visual rhymes and echoes that would otherwise go unnoticed in quotidian contexts. Thus footage of Walter Scott’s collapsing body comes to seem like the ghost image of that drag performer’s death drop, such that we begin to perceive some kind of relation between the violence to which Black bodies are subjected and the culture which Blackness’ proximity to death produces. We begin to observe the outlines of a culture born in “free-fall,” as Jafa puts it. The film’s form gives birth to an affective mixture in which joy, terror, and melancholy intermingle to create something that feels ecstatic and lithe in the face of subjection — that is to say, something particularly Black.
Watching The White Album, I found myself wondering what sort of affective charge could be said to follow from the juxtaposition of Iggy Pop’s tattered ruin of a voice and the footage of Dylann Roof moments before he committed an act of racial terror. “Love, make me clean,” Pop sings. “Love, touch me, cure me.” What is this film inviting us to feel?
Jafa has claimed that The White Album is an exploration of whiteness; if that is so, I can’t help but think of whiteness inheres partly in this film’s form. Love is the Message choreographs its images into a nimble approximation of the Black voice, never letting a single image linger on screen for longer than it takes for Jafa to locate and dilate the punctum that motivates his interest. The White Album operates according to a different formal logic, progressing fitfully, in disorienting stops and starts. It contains images as arresting as anything in Love Is The Message. In one clip, a young man trying to leap atop a horse is kicked in his stomach in mid-air. Later, footage of American drone strikes in Iraq is intercut with helicopter footage of Reginald Denny being beaten during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. The juxtaposition of drone strikes and Denny’s beating suggest something of the affective proximity at work in Jafa’s earlier film.
For every striking image, however, Jafa includes a clip that disrupts whatever momentum the film seeks to gather. Shortly after the Oneohtrix Point Never opening, a six-minute clip of YouTube personality Dixon White interrupts the previously contemplative proceedings. “What is it,” he asks while holding the phone inches from his face, “that stops so many white people from wanting to change their hearts in regards to race […] what is it that keeps us stuck right there in that comfortable position of untruth?” In another clip, a young white woman opines at length about her frustration at how unfair it is that white people cannot participate in conversations on race. The most irritating segment involves a preteen girl named Alana Thompson — more commonly known as reality star Honey Boo Boo — denigrating critics who accuse her of “acting Black” on social media. “Ho, you can’t act a color!” she exclaims. “You can be a color, but you can’t act a color.”
Sitting in BAMPFA watching these clips, I felt a wave of frustration as the film’s convulsive, spasmodic rhythms overtook me. I had been tricked, forced into a prolonged encounter with voices that I normally strive to avoid. Whereas my affective experience of Love Is The Message, Apex, and Dreams Are Colder Than Death had been characterized by a sense of enchantment at what images can produce when curated and edited according to the logic of Black visual intonation, The White Album ultimately feels small. Where Love generated an aesthetic suspension that felt expansive, The White Album produced an experience of confinement.
But I wonder whether this sense of confinement is exactly what Jafa is striving for. Insofar as this film’s formal effects are successful, it presents whiteness as a stultifying experience of aesthetic failure, a constant foundering produced by an appropriative logic that seals white people off from the world around them. With its claustrophobic close-ups of white faces and refusal to settle into a pleasing rhythm as it cycles through one unattractive portrayal of whiteness after another, maybe this new film’s formal effects produce whiteness as a condition of entrapment in the spoils of settler-colonial society.