The Ghost of Songs

By Lina Gopaul

arnolfini-gallery-bristol.jpgArnolfini Gallery, Bristol

Thinking through the Black Audio Film Collective with John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul & Trevor Mathison

The Black Audio Film Collective’s recent Retrospective The Ghost of Songs, curated by the Otolith Group, launched at FACT in Liverpool (02 February – 01 April 2007) before touring to Arnolfini in Bristol (28 April- 24 June 2007). It will be on tour in London in 2008. The collective – John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison, Edward George and David Lawson – officially formed in 1983, but began working together as a loose group of friends and fellow students at Portsmouth Polytechnic two years earlier.


Lina Gopaul: What did the retrospective mean to you?

John Akomfrah: For me it’s a vindication of a lost practice, and the lost practice is a collective practice. The surprising thing for most of the people I encountered in the exhibition space was that for them everything they had seen came out of a group practice. That’s what they did not realise or quite anticipate. The bottom line here is that when these films were made it was an Avant Garde practice and it always had to struggle for popularity. So I feel vindicated seeing all that work together after so many years.

LG: What did you think seeing the work all together in that way?

JA: I was struck by the continuity of concerns that straddled a number of the films and projects. I was struck by the ostentation, the inventiveness and the playfulness that seemed to characterise them. Some of this I expected to be there but some I was surprised by. For instance, films which did not seem concerned explicitly with the archive, the memorial, the history of the racialised figure, all seemed caught or preoccupied with what we could call the conundrum of memory, consciously or unconsciously. That was very surprising.

LG: Do you think we were over-focused?

JA: These were just observations, things I sensed walking through the exhibition. We are all plagued by the desire to correct so, yes, there were one or two thing that I saw and I wished we had not done, but I would not have sensed it if all the films were not all together to be seen.

arnolfini-gallery-bristol-2.jpgArnolfini Gallery, Bristol

LG: Do you think the retrospective was timely?

JA: Yes. I have never come across more interesting work made by younger film makers of colour and the gratifying thing is somehow to see one’s ghostly presence in the mix of these works, but I am wary of any encouragement they might give to the idea of a golden age in black film-making practice. Many of us are still working. That was a period in our early evolution and the struggle, the concerns, the questions, the desires, all continue.

LG: Has the exhibition and the recognition made it easier to secure the funds to produce work?

JA: The struggle to raise finance is still the same. I went to two exhibition openings, I came back and went to meetings still trying to raise money for our latest film. The fantasy is that this kind of acknowledgement will change your life and in a profound sense it does, but certain practical concerns or ongoing questions remain.

LG: What are your thoughts about the films being seen in a gallery space?

JA: A number of people earlier on were slightly sniffy about the work being in a gallery space and I think that’s just an ignorance of the Collective’s history, because we were in the gallery years before the work made it to television. But I think there is also a cultural re-alignment going on, in which objects, practices and approaches which had prescribed places are beginning to lose that. For instance, documentary migrated from the cinema to television and for forty years television acted as a custodian for the form. But television is now impatient with the ambivalences of documentary and so it’s on the move again and the gallery is as good a place as any for it to go. The relationship between the moving image and the television is not written in stone. Nothing says that the documentary has to be on television.

LG: The exhibition showed parts of the Collective’s new work, The Black Room. What is it?

JA: For me the exhibition was about showing a range of the group’s practice and that’s why other then the films it seemed important to show the poster designs, the sound constructions, the film courses, the screening programmes we ran and so on. And in that sense The Black Room was no more or less a legitimate example of the group’s practice. But also The Black Room is a restaging of the 1995 installation that we did at the ICA.

The thing that I liked about the paraphernalia of The Black Room is the ability it offered the former members of the Collective to reflect on our history. And what’s more important then the actual piece itself was the process we went through to arrive at the selection of the books, the films and the music.

seven-songs-for-malcolm-x-john-akomfrah.jpgSeven Songs for Malcolm X, 1993

LG: Normally in our work the process is hidden, but here it is not.

JA: The Black Room makes transparent and tangible and foregrounds the hidden history of the group practice, more so than the films. With The Black Room you see exactly how we worked as a group.

LG: The Collective no longer exists. How do you see your own work now?

JA: The Collective stopped working not because we ran out of ideas or felt the job was done or the usual, interpersonal reasons why Collectives stop. We ran out of funds and that was that. I do not really see what I do now as that different. As you know I still work with pretty much the same people. The ambitions of the project are still not finished as the funds were never really there.

The one real danger of the retrospective is that it suggests that what you are viewing is the summation of the group’s ambitions, whereas it is in fact a testament to the things that were possible given the constraints – financial, political – at the time. And given what these were I still marvel at how much we were able to achieve. What you do not see are the hundreds of failed dreams, the unrealised ambitions.


Lina Gopaul: What did the retrospective mean to you?

Trevor Mathison: What was beautiful about this retrospective was seeing the work as someone else might and how they would see the wealth and weight behind the work. These were not fluffy films; each film added another level, whether it was prose, soundscape or a visual aesthetics. Our work was never flat, we tried to get inside the subject and make it creative. That is what I think was different between us and our peers, black groups in particular. You know for us it was not enough to say we were making a film on the riots à la Handsworth or a film on Malcolm X. With each of these films we added a new layer to the filmic language.

Handsworth Songs is the key film because all the elements are there. I really enjoyed being a part of that because of the simple reason that it gave us a way to be introduced to the many different communities there. In Birmingham people opened themselves up to us. And aesthetically it gave a voice to the creative soundscape which I am still living and working with now.

handsworth-songs-john-akomfrah.jpgHandsworth Songs, 1986

LG: How would you describe that sonic landscape?

TM: When you are interviewing someone you are meant to get the sound of what they are saying clear. But for me, I also want to get the sound that surrounds them. That is the start of the creation and where the sound design comes from. All sounds can be bought to an emotional point – you can create a sonic place as a moment, you can evoke stillness and / or movement. I build my sound designs with many, many levels, always adding to the basic sound. That is what I have taken with me, it is what I carry and reproduce and amplify in the sound installation pieces I make now.

LG: What did you think seeing all the work together?

TM: When you see the films back to back you realise that this was not a lightweight venture. You see clearly the quality and depth of the work and the themes that were influential to our practice. You know we came together as a group of friends, we come together with a series of ideas and we made them a physical thing. We had concerns around race, gender, culture, politics, music and art and we made them into a piece of work. We draw from the well of our collective ideas. All of us worked to make that happen, and it was a special thing.

I realised once again that the magic of the Black Audio Film Collective experience was the group of people – and in that mix of the DNA of the group. We came together at college, we were studying different subjects and we had different skills. That’s what made the richness of the collective voice. But also it was a time when there was a lot of crossover between other disciplines, as well as dissemination of different cultural practices.

LG: How would you describe your work now?

TM: It’s still under the umbrella of multi-media because my work is still with sound, digital photography and video and I have ideas for sculptural pieces and installations. These are the things I am still interested in. So really my work has not changed; I still work with more or the less the same people; we still collaborate on so much.

John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, David Lawson and Trevor Mathison formed film and multi-media production company Smoking Dogs Films in 1998 and continue to make acclaimed and award-winning films including The Wonderful World Of Louis Armstrong, Urban Soul, Stan Tracey, The Godfather of British Jazz. They have worked on several films with Edward George.