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  • The Music Film as Essay:Montage as Argument in Kahlil Joseph's Fly Paper and Process
  • James Tobias (bio)

Kahlil Joseph's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this essay. We regret the error. The online version has been updated.

In conversation with the music-video form, the Black essay film advances processes of remembrance that leverage the possibilities of digital streaming but work against its instrumental logic through the double haptics of audio and vision. This essay shows this refusal and leveraging at work in Kahlil Joseph's twenty-three-minute installation Fly Paper (2018) and the visual album he directed for Sampha Sisay's 2017 album Process.

The historical essay film, for all its critical value, also has a special character: it may tend toward a specific kind of engagement, projecting a generatively problematic nowness where demands made on receivers' attention and memory entwine with questions of historical memory and media memory. Chris Marker—for Timothy Corrigan, the paradigmatic practitioner of the film essay—prototypes in Sans Soleil (1983) "immersion" in the nowness of cinematic time as just this complex problem of memory—and just as "immersion" became a technical ideal in the design of "navigable" screens.1 Made on the [End Page 157] cusp of transitions to digital production, Marker's film handles memory in ways that still resonate: indexed in the audiovisual image's memorializing power, historical memory matters all the more at the moment of crisis because it struggles to cohere in the interface of the historical and the medial. As the essay film has gained in its power to convey arguments about media power, historical memory, and the desire for a different world, Black audiovisual essayism—whether that of the Black Audio Film Collective, or the call-and-response between Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston (1989) and Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1989)—has long explored this interface of media power, historical memory, and futural desire. For Corrigan, the essay film "subjects personal expression to the public domain of experience" to arrive at a moment of exterior belief "in a world always eliciting and refusing thought."2 Yet Black essayism challenges more than just a resistance to thought. The fact of working from underrepresentation to exteriorize subjective thought in the audiovisual image reorders the audiovisual image's priorities and those of its historical archive. Black film essayism thus matters as a complex material process in its own right, as thought and as force, haptics entangled with argumentation.

A montage of home video, historical footage, and contemporary footage shot by Joseph, all set in Harlem, Kahlil Joseph's Fly Paper makes specific the problematic of reordering audiovisual priorities and, in so doing, the historical trajectory of the film essay. Alessandra Raengo points out this work's sampling of Marker's Sans Soleil, observing the work's concern with a man who "has lost the ability to lose" memory; the film "is determined to carry the lost object(s) along, regardless of the cost."3 Fly Paper's unidentified subject models a characteristic attributed to digital networks: the lengthening extent of media memory, in contexts where we may struggle to process experience as much in terms of how we orient our moving bodies toward media objects as in terms of subjective, psychic experience. As an immersive installation, the version of Fly Paper presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles in Fall 2018 suggests the renewed relevance of an "expanded cinema" amid the politics, economics, and aesthetics of digital streaming. Rumbling with bass that filters through spectators' bodies as they sprawl on cushions spread across the gallery floor, Fly Paper lifts Alexandra Stewart's reading of a key line from the English version of Sans Soleil: "At least they will see the black." As heard in Fly Paper, by auditor-viewers experiencing something on the order of a mediatic lucid dream, the Sans Soleil quotation is shorn of context, turned toward the Black essay cinema, so that the historicity and mediating power of the essay film prioritize Afro-diasporic memory. As bass washes through gallery space otherwise oriented toward the screen, the libidinal energies of the...


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