Even The Dead Will Not Be Safe
Part III of III
Editors’ note: This is the third and final installment of a long-form essay. In it, artist, filmmaker, and teacher Madison Brookshire examines how art museums, and art history might be radically re-potentiated through strategies of cinematic montage.
Types of Montage and the Future of History
It was an implicit admission that the past spoke directly only through things that had not been handed down, whose seeming closeness to the present was thus due precisely to their exotic character, which ruled out all claims to a binding authority. Obligative truths were replaced by what was in some sense significant or interesting, and this of course meant—as no one knew better than Benjamin—that the “consistence of truth [...] has been lost” (Briefe II, 763). Outstanding among the properties that formed this “consistence of truth” was, at least for Benjamin, whose early philosophical interest was theologically inspired, that truth concerned a secret and that the revelation of this secret had authority. Truth, so Benjamin said shortly before he became fully aware of the irreparable break in tradition and the loss of authority, is not “an unveiling which destroys the secret, but the revelation which does it justice.” (Schriften I, 146).1
What is truth? Or more precisely, whose truth shall we express, that of the oppressed or our oppressors?2
Whose definition of art will we express in tomorrow’s museums? What can we learn from the work that has not been handed down?
I am not advocating for an ahistorical approach to art history, rather: a nonlinear approach to history more conducive to art.
Use cuts to create images and educate the image-making medium within us; interstices to keep history in a state of flux, to keep it open and in circulation.
Cuts can close the past—as in the archaic image “first Ab Ex; then Pop”—or they can open it—as in the genuine image Andy Warhol cut to Jack Smith, or Kerry James Marshall cut to Barnett Newman. Cuts can even open the past onto the present, forming a constellation: John Cage, John Ashbery, Mark So.3
And where can I see Dave Hughes in the museum? (The fact that you may not know the name is significant.) Art that is not salable has little chance of appearing in commercial galleries that, with few exceptions, remain the arbiter of what is represented in museums. For work that does not fit neatly into market, movement, category, or critical apparatus, we need new mechanisms.
Instead of looking only at connections (compare and contrast), we must look to the space between works.
Between two works there is always a tension, and tension produces vibration. If these vibrations are attuned to one another, resonant patterns that ramify throughout history are possible.
There, along with the vibration of a basic dominant tone, comes a whole series of similar vibrations, which are called undertones and overtones. Their impacts against each other, their impacts with the basic tone, and so on, envelop the basic tone in a whole host of secondary vibrations. If in acoustics, these vibrations become merely “disturbing” elements, these same vibrations in music—in composition, become one of the most significant means for affect by the experimental composers of our century.4
Overtonal montage: orchestrating all the attendant vibrations produced by an image (or an object, or…) with all the others that surround it—associations making music in the vibrating web of spreading micro-connections, conflicts giving rise to concepts.
Art traffics in consciousness and therefore the museum must as well. But consciousness is always multiple. Overtonal montage speaks to multiple layers of consciousness at once.
And now we see more clearly how major and minor modes of history, of art, can interpenetrate at the museum. For it is not a question of tiers, as in the archaic concept of “major and minor poets”; it is a question of mode, of tone, and therefore of modulation. The lack of minor is a loss. It limits our range. Minor is not lesser, or not only that; it is another quality. What would music be without minor keys? (For one thing, there would be no blues.)
A combination tone is the frequency generated by the interaction of two other frequencies. Use this concept—the multiplication of two frequencies can generate many more—as a way to make a historical intervention.5 In this way, the radical can impact and vibrate our understanding of hegemonic history. For instance, the absence of La Monte Young’s collaborative work (1962 – 66) from the record clouds our understanding of that period. The reinsertion of Tony Conrad’s voice (through repetition) into that cloud alters our understanding—creates an image—changes the past.6 Conrad, inspired by Cindy Sherman, makes late-20th-century music that changes the history of early minimalism. This is not just correcting the record; it is two times at once.
Time is not ideal and removed; it is contingent, real, and immanent. It is material and issues from material. It is the space between the waves—frequency. As waves, time moves in many directions at once. It is not linear, but fluid.
We think we can measure movement in time, but time is what movement produces.
Overtonal montage for the multiplicity of consciousness, combination montage for the multiplicity of time itself—several times moving in concurrent if not contiguous streams.
Interstice: “This plus this” makes me think about the plus and the this. Each thing for itself, not (or not only) in combination with others, but differentiated from others. With interstices the fissure becomes primary, emphasizing the and, the between: Willem de Kooning and Carolee Schneemann, Warhol and Kevin Jerome Everson. What is it? I think it as I feel it—the concepts the works give rise to.
Art is philosophy by other means. Perceiving is thinking; enjoyment is thought.7 Ethics and aesthetics are one.8
“O Maria Montez! Give Socialistic Answers to a Rented World!”9
They say we are living in a time of the eternal present, that has no sense of the past and no sense of the future. There is some truth to that. Remembering, reclaiming the past becomes a necessary, a crucial operation.10
A realistic movement among the black arts community should be about the extension of the remembered and a resurrection of the unremembered; should be about an engagement with the selves we know and the selves we have forgotten.11
We must ask ourselves not only what happens between artworks in the museum, but what happens in their absence—what happens, or fails to happen, because they are not there? “[E]very image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”12 It is not only the images we create, but those we fail to create, what we fail to see, that will determine the course of histories to come.
Access to images conditions history. The nefarious vantage of privilege in the museum denies access. That is, at their worst, museums actually make art harder to see, harder to understand. They certainly make some art harder to see than others. Increase access to change the course of art history. Dismantle privilege so that something new can emerge.
Writing has a double function: to translate everything into assemblages and to dismantle the assemblages. The two are the same thing.13
The assemblage no longer works as a machine in the process of assembling itself… It works only through the dismantling (démontage) that it brings about on the machine and on representation. And, actually functioning, it functions only through and because of its own dismantling.14
De-montage: dismantle the museum as it is for the museum as it can be.
Museums may posture as progressive, but are by nature conservative—conservation, after all, is ostensibly their raison d’être. This does not sit easily with the prerogatives of art, which are often radical and even destructive. To truly conserve radical art, we must teach the museum to invite this destruction: a revaluation of values. The very value of conservation must be called into question, for it is not the art itself, but its experience that we must consider primary.
A work of art is not an object; it is first and foremost a revelation.
[W]e want to comprehend history totally, and understand the manifold ways in which contemporary problems are affected by it.15
A word of caution: always present the work as a work, the node as a node, never as an example. It is important that each artwork is presented for itself as such, and not as part of a semantic argument. Even two works should not form a dyad (this one and that one), but a web (this and this—and all that is between). If properly attuned to one another, resonances between the two create a field, not a comparison. The artwork is not a sign (even when it is). It must be presented, cared for, organized, cut in such a way that it presents itself as itself even as it becomes legible in combination with other objects (montage).
The film-frame can never be an inflexible letter of the alphabet, but must always remain a multiple-meaning ideogram.16
The inclusion of radical art will diversify the museum—not diversity for its own sake (which too easily tends toward tokenism), but to bring what-has-been in alignment with the now to form a critical constellation, and for the riches these new combinations will create—lightning flashes illuminating objects in the gallery anew.
How can museums meet the challenges that radical art poses to the institution?
Even if there were a convenient way to do so, it would be inappropriate and ultimately ahistorical to simply reinscribe experimental film, for instance, into the canon of Contemporary Art. One must confront its marginal status, peripheral existence, and subsequent “rediscovery” as it bears upon this moment. That is, one must let what-has-been form a constellation with the now; a relationship in tension, not harmony.
Consider Helen Molesworth’s description of the challenges posed by a feminist rehang of the museum:
I fear it is the nonfeminist in me that desires such a pat formulation: a broken story repaired by insisting that these artists occupy their rightful places in the grand narrative. But is this solution feminist enough? Is it a revolution of the deepest order to insert women artists back into rooms that have been structured by their very absence? What would it mean to take this absence as the very historical condition under which the work of women artists is both produced and understood? Might feminism allow us to imagine different genealogies and hence different versions of how we tell the history of art made by women, as well as art made under the influence of feminism?17
A non-solution (archaic image) is to simply acquire more traditional art objects by experimental artists. For instance, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles owns objects, but not cinema, by Tony Conrad, Yoko Ono, Morgan Fisher, Betye Saar, and Pat O’Neill. Not only have each of these artists made important contributions to film, but for some it is the bulk of their work. To include their objects but not their films, music, performances, etc. is counter-historical.
Another non-solution is to treat the challenging work like any other:
The current show at MoMA, however, seeks to tease out the relationship between the selected films and Warhol’s myriad takes on portraiture… Hence the museum’s decision to “hang” the Screen Tests in a single room, as enormous (seven-by-nine-foot) DVD loops, side by side, the films’ heavy black frames at once recalling the masking of conventional cinema theater screens and the classical means of showcasing easel paintings.18
Cinema—for all of its apparent dominance, the art form most suited to the age of mechanical and digital reproduction—remains in museums for all practical purposes an undiscovered art. Its inclusion will transform the galleries, the way we read and write art history, the very way we look at art—which means it will change the way we think as well: visual thinking in moving images—film affects and reflects changes in apperception (Benjamin). Radical cinema has the potential to radicalize the museum.
I have used the word radical instead of experimental, even though I am often referring specifically to experimental film, music, dance, etc. and the need to confront the museum with their histories. I use radical, which seems both more specific and more inclusive, for we must be careful at this moment of cutting to make sure that we have an expansive idea of what is experimental.
Barbara McCullough’s Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot (2016), for instance, is radical, not because it defies documentary convention or pushes against the grain of the medium, but because, as Larry Neal asserts: “In a context of world upheaval, ethics and aesthetics must interact positively and be consistent with the demands for a more spiritual world.”19 McCullough’s film is just such a work: it not only establishes a historical legacy, but an artistic and spiritual genealogy that demonstrates how politics and form, both filmic and musical, are inseparable.20
Allow yourself to dream of how this film might transform a museum’s galleries.
But there is also the cautionary tale of Anthology Film Archives’ “Essential Cinema,” which is, to its detriment, a vision of experimental film nearly exclusive of women and filmmakers of color. If this were the model by which we inserted radical cinema into the museum, it would be a false diversification: a layering of canon upon canon. Augmenting an archaic image means little next to the dialectical leap of a genuine image. In other words, we can repeat the traumas of the past by merely privileging other people instead of abolishing privilege—adding more winners to the winners’ circle and not cutting the circle itself.
We cut the museum so that something new can emerge.
I want to clarify. This is not about Joe Scanlan. We are not protesting Joe Scanlan, or Michelle Grabner. We are protesting institutional white supremacy and how it plays out. A main part of our message is that we want to move the idea of white supremacy away from caricatures of white supremacy: neo-Nazis, KKK members, crazy kids who live in the mountains of Arkansas. White supremacy is embodied in these institutions that tokenize us, that invite us into spaces where they have absolutely no interest in ceding power.21
Museums are machines for writing history and history is written in the dialect of privilege, literally. To change the language, jam the mechanism. Why should museums be white privilege replication machines? The obligation is to present images of the past as they bear upon the present—nothing more nothing less.
One step toward the abolition of white privilege: de-montage the museum.
Just as Proust begins the story of his life with an awakening, so must every presentation of history begin with awakening; in fact, it should treat of nothing else.22
It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality.23
Where do we begin? For now, including radical art by way of screenings and performances can, like an image slowly coming into focus, begin to augment our understanding of the present as it aligns with the past—our particular now of recognizability. With screenings, performances, etc., taking place at the museum, it is possible to establish the existence of histories that run parallel to—or boil just below the surface of—the major history being written in the galleries above. At the very least, we can write history underground.
Two modes then, one to follow the other: first, underground history. Montage the histories of the radical and the museum. For instance, present histories of radical film and music at the museum, if not fully within it (institutionalized). At first, this mode will by necessity be fragmentary. Turn the fragment to our advantage: a fragment makes connections and it points to other absences. Allow the fragments to fragment the major mode of art history: de-montage.
Second, minor art history itself: cut radical artists and artworks, using interstices, into the museum.
Revel in the destruction of all values. Teach museums to be Dionysian—or Fanonian—to invite their own destruction, their continual renewal. Continual revaluation: history itself in a state of flux. Not evaluation based on a set of fixed criteria, but a revaluation of the criteria themselves, an always becoming of value: ethics and aesthetics are one. Take care: this very act of valuation, if thought of as progress, will continue to exclude and reinforce abstract irreversible time and its value of increase; if values are always advancing, there are those who will never “catch up” to the vanguard. But if we value the value of change itself, then values do not move in only one direction. There is no vanguard, no progress, only actualization.
Artists who wanted to make revolution. Revolutionary intellectuals. Trying to bring our bebop love into the streets of rebellion.24
Is there any way to cut the radical that will allow it to remain dangerous and uncontainable?
Do not squeeze Hollis Frampton’s Lemon in as a DVD loop at the bottom of an escalator. Do not digitize Warhol’s 16 mm films and project them at the scale of his later paintings. Do not include artists of color in a way that tokenizes and does not share authority, that is, that continues to exclude them from influencing the arc of history, the ark of injustice. Resist simple addition by recasting the history of radical art as yet another series of “breakthroughs” and “greats.”
Instead: contingency; dialectics inducing interstices; unhinged art history; non-linear histories, imagistic and emotive; webs of association implicit within the placement of objects, or the timing of screenings/performances near (and in relation to) exhibitions and artworks. Write new histories, ones without masters. Heterodyne the radical with the already. Multiply their powers and hear what new frequencies emerge. Combine works tonally, not syntactically. Open onto the past, increase access, and allow the old to resonate with the now. What new music will emerge? Who have we muted? What have we been missing?
And what if we do nothing?
The dead are not safe. They need our help—almost as much as we need theirs.
Los Angeles, 2014 –17
Differential: History and Philosophy
The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. “The truth will not run away from us”: in the historical outlook of historicism, these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.25
The task of modern philosophy is to overcome the alternatives temporal/non-temporal, historical/eternal and particular/universal. Following Nietzsche we discover, as more profound than time and eternity, the untimely: philosophy is neither a philosophy of history, nor a philosophy of the eternal, but untimely, always and only untimely—that is to say, “acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come.”26
- Hannah Arendt, “Introduction,” in Benjamin, Illuminations (Original edition: New York: Harcourt, 1968), 40 – 41.
- Larry Neal, Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings (New York: Basic Books, 1989), 64.
- What are recent examples of such constellar logic in museum programming and art writing? Blues for Smoke, organized by Bennett Simpson at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), comes immediately to mind, as does The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, organized by Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA); and Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960 – 1980, organized by Stuart Comer, Roxana Marcoci, and Christian Rattemeyer, with Giampaolo Bianconi and Martha Joseph for the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). The writing of Chon Noriega, Branden W. Joseph, David E. James, Kerry James Marshall, and Liz Kotz all serve as powerful examples of presenting rigorous microhistories and serious criticism in what Rosalind Krauss terms our “Post-Medium Condition.”
- Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (New York: Harcourt, 1969), 66.
- See Hyperreal Media Archive, “Tony Conrad interview.”
- Branden W. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage, (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 44 – 45. In additional to this specific analysis of the Young/Conrad dialectic, I owe the concept of minor art history to Joseph’s book and his work in general.
- “No one wants to miss an enjoyment and it is important to enjoy because it is important to think and enjoyment is simply thinking—not hedonism, not voluptuousness—simply thought.” Jack Smith, Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2008), 30.
- “Ethics does not treat of the world. Ethics must be a condition of the world, like logic. Ethics and Aesthetics are one.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Georg Henrik von Wright, and G. E. M. Anscombe, Notebooks 1914 – 1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 77e.
- Jack Smith, as quoted in David E. James, Power Misses: Essays Across (Un)Popular Culture (New York: Verso Books, 1997), 1.
- Thom Andersen and William E. Jones, Between Artists (New York: A.R.T. Press, 2013), 15.
- Neal, Visions of a Liberated Future, 52.
- Benjamin, Illuminations, 255.
- Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 47.
- Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, 48.
- Neal, Visions of a Liberated Future, 8.
- Eisenstein, Film Form, 65.
- Helen Molesworth, “How to Install Art as a Feminist,” in Cornelia H. Butler and Alexandra Schwartz, eds., Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 504.
- Gregory Zinman, “Not Fade Away,” Moving Image Source, December 29, 2010.
- Neal, Visions of a Liberated Future, 64
- It is also interesting to think of this film in context of Neal’s description of black artists who refuse to accept the racist, truncated version of history that “cuts us off completely from our African ancestry.” (Neal, Visions of a Liberated Future, 8.) Rather, as Reggie Andrews argues in the film, “Black music is the foundation of all other musics in America. It’s the only music to come out of America that is original… but it’s really not just an American music, it’s really an Afro-American music and more Afro- than American.” Barbara McCullough, Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot (16 mm to HD, color and sound, 72 min.), 2016.
- Ben Davis, “The Yams, On the Whitney and White Supremacy,” Artnet, Friday, May 30, 2014.
- Benjamin, Arcades, 464 [N4, 3].
- Karl Marx, from Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, September 1843.
- Amiri Baraka, “Introduction” in Neal, Visions of a Liberated Future, xi.
- Benjamin,Illuminations, 255.
- Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), xxi.