As much as a museum can have a hot streak, the Hirshhorn is on fire.
The National Museum of Modern Art has been host to some of the most memorable, striking, and moving exhibits over the last few years. From Ragnar Kjartansson’s solo exhibit, to Yayoi Kusama’s endlessly Instagrammed Infinity Mirrors, the Hirshhorn is arguably one of the current crown jewels in the Smithsonian family of museums. The Hirshhorn’s upcoming exhibit, The Message: New Media Works features five contemporary film and video installations that resonate with the voices of music, film and pop culture. Officially opening this Saturday, November 18, 2017 and running until April 22, 2018, it features the work of several leading international video artists, with a combined run-time of approximately two hours.
“The majority of these works are all recent acquisitions for the Hirshhorn, and all really build on what started in 2005 when the museum began collecting moving image works,” says Mark Beasley, the Hirshhorn’s inaugural Robert and Arlene Kogod Secretarial Scholar, Curator of Media and Performance Art. This is the first exhibition organized by Beasley, who joined the Hirshhorn in the Fall of 2016 after several years working with leading art institutions in New York and London.
“I picked what I felt could speak to this idea of artists reaching out into the world and picking up existing formats, and channeling their ideas, or breakdowns, or re-versions of these formats.”
Each video and film installation featured in The Message focuses on a different method of video or moving image communication: the sermon, the web lecture, the concert, the music video, and the online sex chatroom. And the common theme tying them all together is each work’s relationship and use of music as a narrative tool and framing device. As Beasley explains:
“All of these works, to some extent, engage with music, lyrics, and text. Whether it’s Arthur Jafa’s use of Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam” or C.T. [Jasper] and Joanna [Malinowska]’s use of Polish opera, or Frances [Stark] engaging with hip-hop – all of them use music as a route or way through; a means of engagement. Hopefully audiences are drawn in by the the formats, the music, and the moving images themselves.”
At the heart of this collection of videos is Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death” – the piece that inspired the broader exhibition’s title. Jafa’s career has spanned over three decades and includes collaborations with Spike Lee, Alan Ferguson, the Knowles sisters, as well as several movies in his own right. The artist, director, and cinematographer took some time out of his schedule to speak to us over the phone last week from his studio in New York.
The Message: New Media Works opens at the Hirshhorn on Saturday, November 18 and runs until April 22, 2018. You can catch a preview of the exhibit on Friday, November 17 as part of FotoWeekDC.
Brightest Young Things: How did this opportunity came about – how did your video “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death” become the centerpiece of this new exhibit at the Hirshhorn?
Arthur Jafa: Is this the centerpiece? I wasn’t aware of that. [Laughs] Maybe that’s a reference to Grandmaster Flash.
The video has been showing quite a bit around the world – I premiered it last October in Harlem, and it’s been pretty much a consistent run since then. And the [Hirshhorn] made contact with me, and it felt like a good time to bring it to D.C., within the context of what they described to me that they’re trying to do. It’s the kind of piece that you want people to see – initially I thought this was just going to be showing in the art world, but any number of people encouraged me to give up on that – and that opened up a lot of doors for me over this past year. It’s been a miracle for me, personally, and it’s made me stretch and work and step outside of myself.
BYT: Originally you considered just releasing this on YouTube. As a visual artist and as channels for sharing information continue to evolve and emerge, do you see new frontiers opening up by new mediums such as Snapchat and Instagram?
AJ: Well, I’m obsessed with Instagram. [Laughs] It’s a great tool for a person who spends a lot of time online anyways. A big part of my practice has always been – I hate to use the word archive, because it’s so overused – but I was always a person to collect images. Once YouTube came online, I remember quickly adopting it. It was a daily thing for me – fishing for stuff, and really investing in looking. YouTube was a true source of all kinds of incredible stuff in terms of audio and video, and just like anybody else, I started to very quickly be involved in the habit of creating some of my own stuff for the medium. It is part of my daily practice, and early on I developed a habit of acquiring anything I found online that really struck me – because things are constantly being pulled offline. And this is something I’ve been doing for the past 25 or 30 years anyways: working to acquire any source of potential material that captured my eye. The internet just made it easier to come across a broad range of things – I don’t go to newsstands or bookstores anymore, even though I used to love doing that.
BYT: You mentioned having a particular process for 20-30 years and how that has changed radically due to the Internet. There’s a beautiful circularity to the fact that your 1992 movie Daughters of the Dust influenced Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and just a year later you’re working with her sister Solange on the videos for A Seat At The Table. Both albums generated a ton of internet buzz and spread in popularity quite quickly thanks to it. What’s your reaction to having a new generation recognize your visual style through the context of these artists, and not in their original form?
AJ: That aspect of it is a perfect storm. I don’t necessarily understand myself as being a primary collaborator of Beyonce’s or Solange’s. I’ve worked with Solange’s husband Alan Ferguson for years, and we had done a series of videos for Jidenna, including “Classic Man”. When Solange’s record came out, Alan asked me for help – and it was just a job! I like working with those guys, it’s a lot of fun.
I’m not particularly fond of being an idol; people say that I’m Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s go-to director, and that’s simply not true. I’ve never directed a video for Beyoncé, I’ve never directed a video for Solange; I did direct a video for Jay recently, but that’s kind of it. I just happened to be a camera operator on “Formation” but I wasn’t involved with lead creative or positioning, or anything like that. I was just working on it with them, and I enjoyed working with them.
BYT: “Love is the Message” consists of a series of very powerful still images in sequence, juxtaposed with Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam”. What was the thought behind that, and what do you hope the audience will take away from this piece?
I don’t have an expectation of what effect the art should have. I didn’t put it together in an effort to communicate anything specifically. Honestly, that’s not how I think about my work. I think about it in terms of a desire to make things, and once I do, they’re outside of me, but I don’t need to define what it’s about.
You try to channel things, at a certain level. People have said that they think of my work as a response to Trump, but fuck Donald, you know? These things – killing of black people in the streets – preceded Trump. This was happening while Obama was in office. It wasn’t a response to Trump coming to power, but I wouldn’t necessarily frame it in just sociopolitical terms. Clearly, that’s the case, but we can go as far back as Rodney King and the advent of portable video technology. You have a kind of a paradigm shift in terms of certain kind of documentation of the malevolent relationship between power and people of color in society. And these are things that black people have been articulating for at least the past 30 years, you know? Police brutality, people using unnecessary force towards our community; everyone treated us as if black people were overreacting. In a sense, [the ability to record and distribute videos online] it’s the kind of verification for what black people have been saying the whole time.
Everyone’s surprised by this shit, but we aren’t. We’re not in any position to be deluded. That’s a real aspect of “Love Is The Message”, but by the same token, people don’t talk about it in the context of Bernini’s “Agony and Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”. I was raised in the black Catholic church, and there’s a direct correlation between Saint Teresa and the church: that duality is integral.
And it’s about creating a mix, like Paradise Garage: the mix itself is a fundamental aspect of black social experiments, and it’s something I’m very much preoccupied with; the idea of transforming black cinema in accordance with the predispositions of black music. I have a mantra: “We want to create a cinema that has the power and beauty of black music.” Everything I do is bound up in that, and “Love is the Message” is in many ways a proof of concept for that.