How do we look at, and respond to, work by Black contemporary artists? In this episode, we sat down with Tina Campt, Visiting Professor in Art & Archaeology and the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton.
We trace the arc of Prof. Campt’s career, from her earlier research on family photography in the African diaspora and how one can “listen to images,” all the way to her current writing and recent trip to this year’s Venice Biennale. Along the way, we discuss concepts that elucidate the aesthetic, political, and experiential dynamics of work by artists like Jennifer Packer, Cameron Rowland, Stan Douglas, and Simone Leigh.
Deep Dive: How to “listen” to a photograph
- Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017).
- Tina M. Campt, A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See (MIT Press, 2021).
The Breakdown - Guest Info
Professor Campt taught a multidisciplinary seminar called “Radical Composition” as a Visiting Professor at Princeton for the Spring 2022 semester. She is the Owen F. Walker Professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, and heads the Black Visualities Initiative at Brown’s Cogut Institute for Humanities. In addition to the five books she has authored and edited, such as Listening to Images and A Black Gaze, Professor Campt is the lead convener of the Practicing Refusal Collective and the Sojourner Project.
See, Hear, Do
- “Radical Composition” course materials:
- Saidiya Hartman, "Venus in Two Acts." Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1-14.
- Flying Lotus, “Until the Quiet Comes,” dir. Kahlil Joseph (2012).
- Carrie Mae Weems, “People of a Darker Hue” (2016).
- Jay-Z, “4:44,” dir. Arthur Jafa (2017).
- Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, The Sweet Flypaper of Life (First Print Press, 2018).
- Practicing Refusal Collective, The Sojourner Project (ongoing).
- Whitney Museum of American Art, “Ask a Curator: Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing” (2022).
- Taylor DaFoe, “How Curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards Tackled the 2022 Whitney Biennial to Show ‘What America Really Looks Like’,” artnet news (March 29, 2022).
- Simone Leigh, Sovereignty, Official U.S. Presentation, 59th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, April 23–November 27, 2022.
- National Gallery of Art, Afro-Atlantic Histories, April 10–July 17, 2022.
- Tina M. Campt, fourth lecture in the series Image Complex: Art, Visuality & Power, University of Sydney (online lecture, October 19th, 2022, register here).
[(0:08)] Mélena Laudig: I'm Mélena Laudig.
[(0:09)] Collin Riggins: I'm Collin Riggins, and you're listening to the official podcast of Princeton University's Department of African American Studies.
[(0:16)] Mélena: Welcome to the 8th episode of our second season. In our last episode, we spoke with Princeton's own Professor Emerita, Nell Painter, about her career as a historian of the Southern United States and her transition to painting.
[(0:30)] Collin: In this episode, we wanted to continue where we left off to explore black visual culture with the help of Tina Campt, the Owen F. Walker Professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, and a visiting professor at Princeton this semester.
[(0:43)] Mélena: Professor Campt's work has profoundly shaped this generation of scholarship within the field of Black Studies, giving the field transformative tools that help us rethink the role and impact of images from her foundational work and Black European Studies, in particular, her engagement with overlooked visual archives and are complications of the idea of diaspora to her more recent scholarship on Black Practices and Contemporary Art. Her body of work both inspires and refines a vocabulary for the range of black visual culture.
[(1:16)] Collin: We talk about Professor Campt's scholarly career and home in on her engagement with the work of artists like Jennifer Packer, Cameron Rowland, Stan Douglas, and Simone Leigh. Her passion for illuminating the grammar, the history, and the transformative potential of Black Contemporary Art is downright contagious.
[(1:33)] Mélena: Episode 8: A Black Gaze.
Mélena: So, Collin, it's the end of the semester, end of your sophomore year. How are you doing? How are you feeling?
[(1:48)] Collin: I feel great! It is a weight off of my shoulders to be passed finals and almost out of here. How about yourself?
[(1:54)] Mélena: Yes. I'm feeling pretty good. I have a few more deadlines for general exams, which are basically examinations that qualify you to start working on your dissertation. So, excited to get those out of the way and begin my research. Um...
[(2:08)] Collin: Hopefully become a Ph.D. candidate.
[(2:10)] Mélena: Hooh! Yes! That's the goal. But yeah, I'd like to hear more about your courses this semester and in particular, I know you took a class with our guest for today on the podcast.
[(2:22)] Collin: Yeah. This semester, I was really fortunate to take a course called Radical Composition, which was taught by Professor Campt, who is visiting this semester, and hopefully, we'll have a presence here on campus to come. And it was just a really incredible opportunity to be able to engage with her because I think it goes without saying how profound her insights into our art, but when you get to experience that in an intimate setting, especially for an extended duration of time, it's just powerful and I think very foundational to anything I do in art moving forward.
[(2:51)] Mélena: That's beautiful. And I'm really jealous, especially after our conversation with her, I'm just getting to see not only how brilliant she is, but how kind she is as a person.
[(3:00)] Collin: Yes. She is definitely one of a kind and that is exactly why I thought it'd be a really great idea to bring her on to this podcast. So way, our listeners can experience some of her ingenuity as well.
[(3:10)] Mélena: We invite you to enjoy the rest of our conversation...
[(3:21)] Collin: And yeah, to start things off, we were just curious. If you could talk to us about what exactly brings you to campus this semester because there's a lot of buzz...
Collin: ...and your presence has been phenomenal and indelible.
[(3:35)] Tina M. Campt: That's delightful. What am I doing here? So, that is the first question. Um, I was offered a position in, actually really interesting position teaching between art and archaeology in the Lewis Center for the Art. And, since I was recruited during a pandemic, and, [Laughter] I could not really set foot on Princeton's campus or met anybody in the department. I asked if I could come and visit for semester to see how it is. Um, it's also, um, been a bit, there's a lot of things that have felt tentative in the process of the pandemic, and one of those is sort of what, my what my research interests are, because maybe this is touching on another question you're going to ask me because I've had a very circuitous route into writing and thinking about art. And so being offered a position, that is working with practicing artist student makers and art historians, was something that I had to get my head around because I've never taught, I've never taught artist, I've never taught in an Art Department, never taught in Art History Department. Um, my Ph.D. is in European History [Laughter] and, and I've taught Women's Studies and Africana Studies. So, as exciting as it is to be offered this position, based on what I am writing about, thinking about, and the kind of collaborative work that I'm doing, um, I needed to actually make sure it was a good fit. So, that's what this semester has been about.
[(5:03)] Mélena: And you hit the nail on the head. That's exactly what we wanted to know more about, what you call this circuitous route into your career right now. So, to zoom out a little bit for our listeners, can you talk more about how you came to focus on Visual Culture and Fine Art? I know that your earlier work dealt with Black Germans, um living under the Third Reich, and focused on how the black diaspora is produced through difference. So, how did you come to focus more on images and media, and maybe in the process, you could also tell us a little bit about how your ideas of diaspora have changed over time from that 2002 article then now?
[(5:38)] Tina: Wow. Wooh, it goes back farther than 2002. [Laughter] It goes way farther than that. Um, you're right. Um, my early work was on the Black German Community during the Nazi period. And, um, that unto itself was a journey, uh, because that was doing research on a community that was only recently re-recognized within Germany as a population that existed. And, it's not, it's not that there haven't been black Germans, it's about sort of the politics of their visibility and the politics of, uh, national inclusion and national identity. So, um, when I started that project, it was really about what is, what kind of sources can one find if you're trying to write a history of a group of people who have been overlooked or erased. And, so, one of the challenges of that was thinking about the way in which society saw them or did not see them, right? And how, what was the vocabulary that they used to identify them? And, then on the opposite side of that, it was a question of how did they see themselves? And what, how did they understand their own situation and place in German society? So, I dealt with a so, you know, because it was my Ph.D. project, I had to use the tools of my trade, which is, you know, if you're, if you're, if you're a historian, you have to have an archive that is your sort of, um, validation of your legitimacy to be able to make historical claims based on what are your primary sources. And, so, I had to come up with primary sources. And, on the one hand, I used government documents in the ways in which they were trying to describe community of black people in Germany. I used newspaper articles and their reports about this community where they would come up, where they would be seen as black people in Germany. But, again, those were external views. Those were, this is how we see you. This is what we see you as, and it was always as some kind of a problem. And, in order to counterbalance that, I was fortunate enough to be able to interview a group of black Germans who grew up during that period, and to ask them, you know, to tell me the story of their lives and to tell me how they understood themselves as Germans and as people of African descent. And, to be able to learn from that, that description and to learn from that experience of how do they write themselves into history? How do they narrate themselves into Germany? So, that project was very much based on listening. It was about listening to how people tell their story, and also about listening to the silences in an archive listing to the gaps in, in historical records, and listening to the gaps in the way in which people talk about themselves because they're all very revealing. And, so, from there, I was asked to collaborate and to co-curate a set of exhibitions on the history of black Germans, or actually was a history of the black Atlantic, and it at an exhibition, or sorry, at an institution called the House of World Cultures in Berlin. And, I was asked to do a sound installation using the oral histories that I collected from black Germans in those earlier periods. And, what, and I was collaborating with a historian named Nikola L'Oreal Samurai, and the black British artist, Keith Piper. And, in trying to create this installation, what we wanted people to do is be immersed in these stories, so that you're spatially, right? Being, um, both forced to listen, but also to absorb the stories. And, the challenge that we face is that people will not stand still and simply listen to something. It's very difficult to just remain motionless without something to focus on. And, so we embarked upon, um, we tried to decide what images to use to anchor their focus. And, that's when we came upon thinking about using family photographs of these individuals and having young black Germans voice their narratives. So, so, it wasn't the original, um, the original tapes, it was the transcriptions, then read by young black Germans. And, so, it was his kind of palimpsest. So, you have somebody's story being told by somebody who was about their age when they, when the story was happening, and then you have photographs of that person as a young person, and as, and a senior and elder person. And, then you have a space that was set up like a living room where you're supposed to linger and listen. And, so, looking at those photographs, um, s-s-s, was really, um, sort of transformational to me because I had, I'd seen the photographs because people showed them to me when I did these interviews. But, having already written the book coming back to the images was really fascinating [Laughter] because they were answering a question that I had always, it's always dismissed when it's posed to me, and, I'd always dismissed it because it pissed me off. [Laughter] And, the question was I would give these talks about these extraordinary histories, and people would ask me, "What do they look like?" And, I would say, "Why? What difference does it make what they look like?" And, they would say, "Well, you know, were they dark-skinned? What kind of hair did they have?" And, what I came to understand is that people wanted to be able to, uh, validate or, or invalidate the kinds of discrimination, the kinds of persecution that they did or did not experience based on what they look like. And, so, looking at these images, what I saw was not necessarily how dark skin or light skin, how kinky their hair was or not. It didn't give any of that kind of evidence that people were looking for when they asked me, "What do they look like?" But, it did give this other kind of information, which is, that these were individuals who are loved, and they were members of families and that those families embraced them. And, they would show this kind of intimate moments of, um, belonging that they had told me about, but I had never seen. And, that, that encounter with images of public and private intimacy. So, you know, everything from, you know, being held or, you know, being in that living room with your best mates, you know, slightly drunk...
Tina: ...or out of the pub slightly drunk, or on a vacation at the sea, you know, a mother, and the father, and the little brown baby being held, um, that those, that, that those images tell stories. And, those images tell stories that compelled me to look closer at them. And, they also just reminded me of stories that, or stories that my own family photographs tell, um, that I could see, you know, I could see my grandmother here, I could see my grandfather there. And, so, I started thinking about what, what do we try as black people and black communities and black families, what are we trying to express differently through the making of images? And, that was a question that I pursued by looking at these images of black German families. And, then my friend, the artist, Keith Pi, Keith Piper once I started writing about this stuff that I have showed it to him, this visiting with me, and he said, "You have to go to Birmingham." Birmingham, uh, England, where he's from. And, I said, "Why do I have to go to Birmingham?" [Laughter] And, he said, "Because you have to look at the images of my people." Because there was a massive collection of Studio portraits that were made by African Caribbean migrants to the UK, and they were recovered from this studio, uh, photographer, a portrait photographer named Ernest Daish. And, uh, they, it was just, you know, when his studio closed and he actually, when he died, they were going to just, you know, throw away all of these things, but an, um, a brilliant archivist named P. James Sedug[?], "I'm going to rent a truck and I'm going to take all of it." And, I put it into an archive. And, what you saw was a history of this particular area, but it was also the history of Birmingham more generally - the demographic evolution, and the demographic evolution of Britain, um, over the course of the post-war period, and the waves of migration, because they would come to his studio to get these portraits made, and they would get these portraits made, and then we send them back to their families. And, what I was really enthralled by was the function that photography was served for this community, to both document themselves, but to also tell a particular story about, um, who they were, and who they wanted to become, and how they wanted to be seen. And, at that point in time, I focused on the portraits, you know, of individuals, of families, and the tradition of making studio portraits that goes way back, to you know, to the Caribbean. And, also in the South-Asian community, it is one of this kind of Edwardian rituals that was, um, that proliferated throughout the British Empire. And, when they got to the UK, they did the same thing, but the pictures that, I did some more interviews, I did interviews with that generation of the Windrush generation of migrants to the UK. And, I asked them, "Why did you make these photographs? And, you know, and what were you trying to say?" And they said, "You know, we were trying to say we're all right. We're trying because, you know, they could call us. We could say, we were all right, but nobody believed us. They needed to see a photograph."
[(15:09)] Collin: Wow.
[(15:09)] Tina: And I said, "Well, were you okay?" Like, "No, we weren't okay. We were poor. We didn't have any place to stay. You know, discrimination was horrible. We didn't have, you know, we, we felt lonely." But, you didn't want your family to know that you didn't want them to worry about you, and, so we would create ourselves, we would construct our identities through these images. And, that was who they are writ-, ev-eventually became, you know. It's incredibly respectable middle-class kind of individuals. But, at that point, you know, some folks are saying, you know, I remember I had talked to a group of ladies, because there was, there was a phenomenon of um, pocketbooks in the photograph. I was like, "Why you, why are you, why, like a pocketbook and put it into a portrait?" And, they said, "Because it shows you got something." Yes, I'm in it.
Tina: Even if there wasn't anything in it, it looks like you got something.
[(16:03)] Mélena: You gotta manifest.
[(16:04)] Tina: Right? Right? You got-, yes, yes, yes. Speak it into being. Um, so, yeah. So, so that was my, the beginning of my journey into vernacular called, the vernacular culture, vernacular photography - seeing what ordinary people do with images and what kind of work they do for them, socially, psychically politically. And, then, I got interested in, um, I started thinking about the photographs that I didn't look at in the second book, and that book was called The Image, The Image Matters. I can't remember, can't remember how I got interested in that.
Tina: I don't know. It was like a random occurrence or what, but, um, I know what it was. I got interested in passport photography because I had seen an artist, Maria Bacigalupo, an Italian artist who had done an exhibition of, uh, identity photographs that have been discarded in Uganda, that she happened into the photography studio of an ID photograph photographer. And, in the trashcan were, the, were scats of images of people that had a cutout face and the body just remained on the background. And, she was really captivated by these images. And, the fact that there were so many, there was a functional reason that they were thrown away. It's because it was cheaper based on the kind of film, the price of film. It was cheaper to make a regular portrait and cut out the face and use that for your ID card, than it was to buy this special-sized ID card paper, right? Because it was very specialized, it was really expensive, and, so, you just make a regular portrait and cut up the face and throw away the rest. And, she did, I went to an exhibition of her work and it was really beautiful, but it started me thinking about all these photographs that I saw in, uh, in Birmingham, in the Daish collection, that I didn't write up because I thought they were boring, um, because they were the exact same thing. It was just headshot, headshot, headshot. And, and I thought, "Wow, maybe I should look at those again. Maybe they are telling stories as well." And, and so, I started going back to those photographs and thinking about the idea of, "These are passport photographs. Why are they getting passport photographs made when they're there?" Because they had to have a passport to get there. So there, there was another journey that was happening, or that was beginning to happen, or that they were anticipating embarking upon. And, what the claim of that was really got me interested in thinking about what kind of passport were they getting? And what kind of claim to mobility were they articulating after they'd gotten there, right? And, they were articulating the capacity, their claim to be mobile subjects and not simply subjects that were dictated to, right? By all of the forces that in which the passport originated, which is forces of surveillance. Um, forces to try and keep people in their place, to count and to track people, and they were using that mechanism for their own purposes. And, and, so that, that sounds I don't know why, but my, um, [Laughter] my, my journey is always, when I'm telling them, it always become so seamless, but in that they never were...
Tina: ...but it sounds like a fact. Um, but I found out about some, about an archive of passport photos that were supposed to be in Cape Town, South Africa. And, I was interested in looking at, like these two different Imperial, Colonial spheres. And, I went there looking for them and I found a few of them. And, then another wonderful archivist said, "Well, you know, would you be interested in prison photograph?" I said, "Yeah, I guess so." And, she said, "Well, they're actually albums." And, she brought out these albums of prisoners in the Breakwater Prison from the early 20th century, late 19th century, and I just found this beautiful. I found them exquisitely beautiful, even though the history of what they were capturing with, not beautiful. And, I was noticing the different ways in which the very expressive ways that these prisoners were intervening in a very regimented form of photography, and a very repressive form of photography where you're not supposed to have any agency because you are a prisoner. And, one of the things are trying to rub you off, is any sense of yourself, but they were expressing themselves. And, I wasn't trying to say what they were expressing. It was the fact that I could see them expressing, that they were trying to do something with that photographic event. And, so, those two things came together to me because, you know, all of my previous work was about listening, about listening to the stories people tell. And, that brought me to this idea of listening to images of what if we don't simply, a, what if we don't dismiss certain kinds of very rigid image-making, like an identification photography? What if we don't say it says nothing? What if we attend to the stories that are trying to be expressed in between all those rules and all of those structures? And, then more broadly, what if we think about listening to images as a more, as a broader methodology for engaging visual culture? So, that's where it listening to images came from. And, that was also really important because I was, I was learning not just about these particular kinds of compulsory image-making practices, but I was also learning about how artists appropriate that and use it to do different things. And, so, Maria Bacigalupo was a, an inspiration to Santu Mofokeng, who is an amazing South African photographer. And, his, his, um, project called the Black Book, where he was looking at the, the portraiture in South Africa. And, and exactly what I had been looking at before, but he was trying to, t-to ask them to tell a story through the lens of a fine artist. An,d what I learned there was the way that artists can also by using this kind of vernacular photography or archival photography that they have a different approach to it that allows us to see ourselves differently. And, I've never been writing about us, right? I've always been writing about, I've a-, I've always somehow been, had been, you know, writing historical texts, and trying to understand the past through images, in that case. And the, what the,uh, what artist, the, the fine artist said I was engaging. We're doing, we're getting me to look at me. [Laughter] Look at now and how these images tell us something about right now. And that was, uh, the next, the next journey, which was that I started looking at the work of black contemporary artists. And it was an-, it was the moment that we're sort of right before, it's right at the beginning of Black Lives Matter. And it was, [sigh] it was a moment of transformation where, and also a moment of dialogue where artists, activists, and scholars were black artists, black activists, black scholars. We're all trying to speak to each other in the urgency of now. And, so, I was learning how to, I was learning the different levels of articulation, and the different levels of intervention that artists, activists, and scholars can make. And, at that time, I was also directing a center called the Barnett Center for Research on Women, which, um, as its mission saw itself as the place where academia, activism, and artists came together. And, so, it was this really really wonderful opportunity to create dialogues bec-, you know, and to host them in to open up the university to do what I think universities as institutions should do, which is give the communities in which they are situated space - space t-t-to dialogue, space to create, space to formulate interventions. So, out of those, I mean it did, you know, I'm sure once you, once you start looking at art, you can never not look at it. [Laughter] And, it was, it there was also kind of serendipitous moment when I was traveling through Europe, and I was asked to do a blog, a six, six, or seven-part blog for the photo museum in Winterthur, Switzerland. And, it was, it was this route rope thing. It's like every three weeks, I had to create a blog post and it had to be speaking to an audience that wasn't specialized. And, every three weeks, I would visit some artwork or some [inaudible], and I would write about it. And, it was, it kind of transformed my writing practice, um, because I was speaking not to my colleagues, but to anybody who would listen. And, that was the beginning of my most recent book of Black Gaze, and just allowing myself to both watch what, watch the way in which art was transforming people, and how they're responding to it, and at the same time, look at the power of art, and the power of art to intervene in how we see the world. I'm going to pause there. I've been talking for quite some time. See, that's what happens when you asked me to tell you a little bit about me.
[(25:37)] Collin: No. There is so much fruit in all of that. So, thank you. And, I think that actually leads perfectly into our next question, because as you're talking about all of your endeavors that are incredible, I think the hallmark of it is that you use your acute ability to listen to really add language and visibility to experiences and people that we know have existed, but maybe just not in conventional archives. And, um, you do this again in your most recent work which is A Black Gaze, written in 2021 in which you really, as you said, placed yourself in that experience of viewership, and, um, use kind of display the same love for adding language and definitions because that work is replete with definitions. And, I think that they really prompt us to consider how we relate to art, and also, it adds a lot of, I think, visibility and merit to what black artists are doing. Um, it just hasn't necessarily been recognized in such an explicit way. And, so thinking about these definitions and their power, I'm curious if you can kind of just explain for our listeners who might not be as familiar with your work, to of, what I feel are probably the most central definitions, which are A Black Gaze and visual frequency because they really highly relate to one another, to create this experience that you argue is unique to black art today.
[(26:54)] Tina: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, I'm, I'm... Thank you for those lovely words about my work. And, yes, my work is always replete with definitions, and that comes from a commitment to making the terms of analysis, and the terms of engagement explicit. I always, I want my work to be an invitation to think with me, and in order to do that, I have to be able to explain the terms that I am thinking with. So, A Black Gaze is, it's a framework. Well, I talk about it as a looking practice, and it is a looking practice that is not about how black people see. It is not a black perspective or black vantage point. It is not subjected in that particular way, and it is not collective in that particular way. Instead, it is a, a, practice of looking practice that positions you in relationship to blackness regardless of whether or not you are black or not. So, what that means is in the contemporary moment where anti-blackness structures our relationship to blackness in, or being black in the world, right? When anti-blackness positions black people in an ongoing state of endangerment, precarity dispossession, what does it mean to be pos-, take up a position in relationship to that as either being implicated better off or identify, right? But, again, it's not prescribing what that relationship is, but it is profoundly about registering it, forcing us to, in many cases, be uncomfortable with our proximity to that precarity. And for me, A Black Gaze names that sense of implication but also gives us the opportunity to do something about it. So, the, to the extent that we can recognize, or that we are forced to recognize our own position in these relationships, we have the opportunity to say, "No," to say, "I will not," to say, "I want to do something," to say, "This is hard and I understand something differently," to say that, "This overwhelms me but I need to work on it." But, again, that, that is not, uh, that is not, well, by virtue of the fact that it's art, and that art affects you, and solicits a response from you, you have to choose what to do with that response. But to the extent that you register it, even if you decide to look away, you feel that, you feel that is the decision not to engage and you have to live with that. So, that's what A Black Gaze is for me, and I think that what I was trying to do, and the book is talk about the ways in which the work of some artists, forces us into that confrontation. Um, visual frequency is in a lot of ways, um, a refinement on the idea of listening to images. It's kind of response to what are we listening to, or what are we listening for, which is something that people have often asked me. And, so I distinguish listening from hearing, right? Listening is attentive, and listening is interpretive. You're doing something with sound, right? But, frequency is also about certain levels of intensity, certain levels of modulation. And, the way in which I'm trying to bring together the idea of the visual and frequency, frequency being something that is again, a modulation, is to say that there is something about images that register beyond simply what we're seeing, right? Simply the content of what we are seeing, and that if we are again, it's an invitation and a practice right of attending to visual frequency that we can't just describe what is on the screen, or what is in an image in order to say why that image is resonating with us? We have to open ourselves up to the entire sensorium of the image, right,? That it triggers certain kinds of responses. And, so, the idea of visual frequency is really trying to give us more capacious vocabulary that can account for the impact, the, and the affective responses that images solicit from us. And, I needed a term that would have purchase, right? In terms of okay, "What are we listening to? What are we listening for?" Right? And, then again, it's not what you hear, it's what you feel, right? Because frequencies are things that register that we only respond to to the extent that they make contact with us, or that we allow ourselves, allow them to make contact with us. So, again, and, you know, A Black Gaze, being a positioning of sense of relationship, a sense of implication, right? And, visual frequency, being about what kind of contact, right? What is the intensity of the contact and the response to that solicits, that in image, how that image positions us? Does that make sense?
[(31:43)] Collin: That makes a lot of sense, and I think it really speaks to when I first picked up the book, I thought it was going to be a commentary on the aesthetics of black art, but it being just a really deep look into the functions of the form. It's just, it's really profound. And, I know that you mentioned, you're very intrigued and blown away by the work of Jennifer Packer, who showed just, I believe, just closed at the Whitney.
[(32:08)] Tina: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[(32:08)] Collin: I was wondering if you could maybe see or, uh, talk about how you've seen visual frequency manifest, and some of her work, um, in the show that Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing.
[(32:18)] Tina: Yeah. Well, there's a story behind my relationship with Jennifer Packer's work, and it's an embarrassing story, which is the...
Tina: ...which is the back story, is that I was introduced to Jennifer Packer's work by the Serpentine Museum, who asked me to write a catalogue essay for, um, about this, this, uh, this, this show, and, and I said no. [Laughter] It's a no because, you know, and I literally, I did not say this to them, but I said this to me, I said, you know, I don't write about painting. Painting is not my thing. I write about photography and film. And, then, when I happened to be in London, at the Serpentine, and, and I went to a photography exhibition and they have sort of two galleries in London. They're all, they're in two different parts of Regent Park. And, it's a beautiful day, and I was wandering around, and I was like, "Oh, let's go to the other side. Let's get the other one." And, then I see, "Oh, that's Jennifer Packer. I was supposed to write about that. Well, let me just take a peek." And, I go in. I was blown away. Just blown away. And, um, and I-I actually ended up writing the piece, and I start the piece by saying, "I made a really big mistake."
[(32:28)] Collin: Self-awareness.
[(32:29)] Tina: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, um, Jennifer Packer's work, on the one hand... Well, it has visual frequency and that's what the thing was, is that, and the visual frequency of it registers through color. There is an intensity of color and a subtlety of color that she's able to manipulate that, to me, registers as, as almost, that as if she's able to produce light through color, right? And, you know, normally when you are in a gallery or museum, the major thing that museums try to do with art is light it correctly, right? So that you're trying to illuminate it. What I find the Jennifer Packer's do, um, images do is it's almost as if they emit light, right? The intensity of them. And, one of the things that, well, the techniques that allows her to do that is that she very often paints in monochrome. Like, one color but the gradations of that color go from their purest, most intense color to different sh-, gradations of it. And, by doing that, she's able to sort of draw you into something that seems really bright, like, really brilliant, and then kind of dissipate that. So, then, you were, you're noticing these little details. And, so, maybe the other thing about it is that she, um, her, her paintings in this particular show are very much about relationships, right? She does portraits of people she knows o-or family or people who she wants to make into family, and it's very much about this moment in terms of mourning, right? The, the forms of mourning, and grief, and holding visual, vigil for those who we have lost, and those who black communities have lost, and also those to black, you know, black queer community. And, so, in this moment I find her work to be vibrational. [Laughter] There is a tension there that she is able to sustain. And, when you go, I mean, I noticed this at the Serpentine, and I no-noticed it at the Whitney, that, a, there are so many people there who are really just lingering in all of the gradations of her work in a way that connects us, but it connects us to so many of the, you know, individuals that, you know, so many of the premature black victims, premature that, other victims of premature death and, um, police violence. But, she does that, not through the documentary, but she does that by connecting, like, by establishing a relationship, and, to me, through color. The other thing that I also, I've written about is that once I started thinking about her work, and once I start viewing it more closely, and thinking about this idea of the monochrome, monoc-mono, mono color. Monochrome. [Laughter] Where are my words? That, that's something that also happens in her images, is that she's able to have figures linger in between visibility and invisibility. So, I don't, it's very hard to describe, but she has a way of almost creating shadows of figures within the canvas. So, you know, so many times, you know, you'll see a figure painted, right? A figure appears on the canvas or figures not there, something is missing, but she has a way of inhabiting a liminal space in between the visible and the invisible that I associate with photography. [Laughter] I associate it with photography. I associate photography with being able to create an aura, right? To create ghostly images, right? And, I'm not saying that, I'm not saying that that is impossible in painting. It is possible, but I have never seen it happen the way in which she does it.
[(37:22)] Mélena: Wow. That's beautiful. Um, and I was looking at her work in light of listening to images, I thought about, um, this concept that you have of a quotidian practice of refusal, and I also see, I see that in her, in her work and, and that concept really helped me understand her practice is a kind of shrouding and limiting access to enter, enter space and interiority. I, I want to go back just a little bit to a point that you made earlier about moving beyond kind of academic standards of knowledge production and I have the pleasure of being present at a conversation that you and Dr. Saidiya Hartman, and Cameron Rowland, an artist for our listeners, who don't know, I had a few weeks back and I've been thinking a lot about the point that you ended the conversation on, which was this idea that we should move beyond the written word, that's kind of the pinnacle of knowledge production. So, I was wondering if you could say more about how toppling these hierarchical ideas about knowledge and, and knowledge acquisition and production, how that relates to embodiment and affect in the senses, and these things that you're really calling us to in your work.
[(38:30)] Tina: Hmm. Well, you know, there was something else in that conversation that, that's idea said that was really, that resonated with me that, that brought that comment out, which is that her collaboration with Cameron Rowland, um, in trying to visualize certain ideas, right, was, it's very much motivated by what she described as a desire to allow ideas to travel not only on the page, right? So, what does it mean to enliven ideas and give people access to them when they are not simply in sentences, right? That, that prose is the privileged modality of knowledge acquisition, or of making statements or intervention, that prose is the declarative sentence is again, what we're thinking of as one of the most authoritative media for articulating ideas. As an academic who has been drawn to art and the visual, and the sonic as profoundly articulate, right, um, I have learned from artists that there is an unspeakable intensity that their capacity to communicate ideas really does, you know, hold and I've been in awe of that. I mean, I recently just got back from Venice Biennale, and I was moved to tears at least three times. And, it was simply the power of artists to visualize and sound grief, joy, uh, outrage, um, reverence, memory, and so, that to me, is what I'm trying to talk about in terms of visual frequency or listening to images, which is what happens if you open yourself up to those feelings. It's the intense responses, because they will lead you somewhere. And, so just there was, argh, there was one piece of art that, argh, still, it's still is moving me. It was a video installation by a Canadian artist, Stan Douglas, and it was of to 3 sets of hip-hop artists to duos, one black British women, female hip-hop group, and I can't remember the name, and one, the other was a group of two Egyptian hip-hop, artists. And they, of course the pandemic figured out a way to make music together through the internet, and he screamed, he screened, one group and the other group in a huge space such that they were actually talking. They were actually, you know, rhyming to each other in a way that made it feel like they were together, and, and their affect is li-literally, you know, you know, there's something about hip-hop that it's not only competitive. It's about respect for somebody else's mastery and genius. And, that's the thing that I that I loved so much even though the, the, the lyrics were telling these hard, hard stories, but their capacity to appreciate somebody else's mastering or majesty, and they weren't even looking at each other.
Tina: So, yeah, an-and just, you know, just, you know sometimes, and there was some moments where you just close your eyes and you wag your head back and forth and just, you know, you're just saying, "I just, I can't. I can't. I can't. It's too good." And then you come back, right? And, this was in this cavernous space and I just sat there and I wept. And, I was leaving and I was like talking to the person who was at the, at the, the stand where, you know, they let you in. She was like, "Yeah, a lot of people just happens to them."
Tina: It's a good number of people just like, "Yeah, I should have tissues." [Laughter] But, again, the power, that power to be able to understand what is being communicated, right? And, that's, this was about, you know, this moment of, you know, Arab Spring, and what is happening and what is, what is happening around the world, that may be located in different places but they're speaking to each other, and what does it mean to actually instantiate that conversation through art? Now, journalists have been talking about it. Historians have been talking about it. Political scientists have been talking about it. You know, political theorists, feminists, you know, we've been talking about what these uprisings, what these rebellions, what these revolts mean. We've been talking about the shared circumstances of precarity, of disposability of fungibility. We've been talking about it, right? But to allow yourself to physically inhabit it, right, that changed something for me. It changed something for me. Sonia Boyce's installation at the Venice Biennale, it's one of the ones that won the Golden Lion. And it was for singers and five singers, or five singers, different kinds of vocalists and vocal artists were put in the studio at Abbey Road and asked to improvise. And in the fir-, and each one of them, in the first, in the opening of this installation, you see all five of them each on a different screen, and you see them improvise. You see one begin and the other one responds, and you're listening to that and you're watching it, and then you move to each one of them has their own room, and you watch them improvise for themselves. And as you move, you hear them harmonizing. you hear the dissonances, you hear this sort of the intensity of their specific form of expression feeling together. [Laughter] And, so, what does it mean to allow sound to register in you in a way that connects you to others? And, again, we've been trying to talk about what does mean to forge connections across differences, right, uh, across different media. What does it mean, like, an artist can tell us what that looks like and show us, can actually get us to feel it? So, yeah. Sorry. [Laughter] I don't know if that was off-topic or what, but, you got me talking about it.
[(44:34)] Collin: And, I think oftentimes when you do talk about art, there is such importance placed on being in the same physical presence as that work. And, I know that you're a critic and a theorist of art, and, so, you spend a lot of time responding to it in, in that you outline your process, which again, is you embodying these spaces sitting down writing words, and when you talk about your reflections, it's oftentimes about the size of Deana Lawson's portraits in her studio, or the intensity of the sound of a Kahill Joseph film, um, specifically in A Black Gaze, you talked about fly paper, which we actually had the privilege to view here, not with the same intensity of sound because the speaker system, but we can dream, we can hope. Um, but, in short, there is this need to be physically present. And, I actually noticed the same thing about your work, when I was reading it because, for our listeners, I am in Professor Campt's class, a Radical Composition. And you assigned a reading from your book, it was the chapter about the visual frequency of black life, and admittedly, I did not have the book. So, I had to go online and I found a PDF, and it just read like Times New Roman print and it read like a PDF, but a few weeks later, I was able to get the book and actually read through it. And, when you pick it up, physically, it first feels like a novel, and then, you open it up and you feel the paper and it feels like a photo book, and then you continue reading and there's annotations under the pictures and almost reads like a notebook. And, then, there's definitions on the side like a textbook, and just being able to like physically sit with this work completely changed my reading of it and my experience of it. And, so, I was curious if that is something that you are conscious of, when you create making prose, something that is declarative, but also not static. Um...
[(46:18)] Tina: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the, I've said this before, is that my writing is intended to be conversational, it's not necessarily intended to be, to tell you what to think. It's an invitation for you to think with me and to be in dialogue because, actually, every time I write something I want to lea-, I want to make space for someone to disagree because I learn from that disagreement. With this book, I was incredibly fortunate to be working with MIT press, and the particular editor I had, and the particular book designer that I had, who got the fact that the definitions actually needed to work like images themselves, right? That they were not meant to be flat prose. That also the placement of the images that I was writing to the images not necessarily about them. And, so, there had to be a physical relationship between image and text. And, that there were times when I was actually talking to myself and try to sort the other things out, that they were able to render that on the page in a way that I am very happy to hear that, that, that, that came through. I have to say that, you know, my, my book was published like all of the, all of the production stuff was during the pan-, during lockdown and, so, and also you know, disruption of the postal service and things like that, and I did not get to lat-, normally, you get to see, you know, a printed version of your cover. Um, sometimes you get to actually get paper samples and things like that. I didn't have any of that. So, I just literally got the book in the mail. [Laughter] It's done. I mean, I've been consulted about choices and placement, but when it arrived, I had, I was beside myself because they made it into a beautiful object. You're absolutely right. It has tactility. It has a kind of sensuous quality that I was thrilled about. And so, yes, I'm very, very conscious and I've become more and more conscious about the arrangement of text on pages. I found that I have, I'm moving more in the direction of writing. My writing to art is becoming more like poetry. Even though it's saying the same thing I have a way now where I have sort of passages that are look like poems and then I say something, you know, then I start sort of explaining something. But, I just, some a poet told me, asked me had I ever written poetry and I said, "In high school and college." Yes. But, she's like, "You know, there is the lyrical quality to your writing." And, I've just been trying to embrace that and see where it takes me, um, because I think that's exciting. Yeah.
[(49:04)] Collin: I think so too. And, I know, we're running a little bit low on time, is there any chance we can indulge in one more question?
[(49:10)] Tina: You can. [Laughter]
[(49:11)] Collin: Okay. And, it is in regards to your trip, recently to the Venice Biennale. When you talk about are you oftentimes focused on the collaborative aspect of it? And you've said that collaboration in and of itself is very radical, especially an institution, like Princeton, but I know in our conversation about this before the podcast, you, um, talked about how you were in this space with a group of people. And, so I'm curious about the role that collaboration plays and viewing work just as much as creating? And, does it have that same radical edge to it, or...
[(49:44)] Tina: That's an interesting question. I mean, I feel like I've become incredibly anti-social in terms of using art...
[(49:49)] Collin: Wow.
[(49:50)] Tina: ...because it, I kind of need the space to consider it. Um, I was very, very fortunate to, that Simone Leigh allow me to view her glorious installation, another Golden Lion recipient. Before it opened, she let me stay before it opened, and there was no one there. And, there was a kind of solitude that I really needed in order to take it in. And, so, I-I do see art with people but I'm often troubled by, by the need to talk about it immediately because I think art needs to be absorbed and reflected on before. But, towards to, to your question about collaboration, I did a, I did a collaborative project with Simone and this idea, um, in response to, or in, on the occasion of her Hugo Boss Prize Exhibition at the Guggenheim. And, it was called Loophole of Retreat, and there was a convening of black women artists, and writers, and scholars. And, what it was was an invitation to reflect on this idea of a Loophole of Retreat for black women in response to Simone's work, in response to its recognition, and in response to the history of work that she has done trying to create space for black women to think, and work, and create together. So, it goes to your point to the extent that I think that collaborative response is to artwork are extraordinarily radical. What they produce, and I mean, people still come up to me and say, [Laughter] "Loophole of Retreat, that was like church." [Laughter] You filled that audi-, that, that auditorium with black women, and there were moments where people would just sigh, you know? And, so again, what does a collective response? Like, it gives people oxygen. That's, that's what it does is to give them the space to respond together. It's life-sustaining. It's oxygen. So, I think that I'm not necessarily viewing it together, but responding as a chorus, that aspirate something, that set something free, and set something into motion.
[(52:13)] Mélena: Wow.
[(52:14)] Collin: And, suddenly, it feels like church in here too.
[(52:19)] Mélena: Thank you so much. Um, this conversation has been so life-giving. And, I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we're just in awe of your intellectual humility, and your transformative and inspiring work. We're so grateful that you were here today with us.
[(52:33)] Tina: Oh, my God. I feel so honored. Thank you. It's been a pleasure, a real pleasure.
[(52:46)] Mélena: Now, onto our closing segment. See, hear, do, where we point you to some edition of resources to continue exploring topics from today's conversation.
[(52:55)] Collin: If you are interested in seeing firsthand, how artists are radically challenging the way we see, we've curated a short list of media drawn from the syllabus for Professor Campt's course, Radical Composition. These range from books like Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava's, The Sweet Flypaper of Life to internet-shattering music videos like Jay-Z's 4:44, which was produced by Arthur Jafa. You can find all these materials and more in the show notes.
[(52:46)] Mélena: To hear more about the collaboration and friendship of Professors Tina Campt and Saidiya Hartman, a leading scholar in the field of black studies whom we mentioned in the podcast episode, we encourage you to check the Black Feminist Forum started by the two of them, The Practicing Refusal Collective. Specifically, take a look at the collectives initiative known as The Sojourner Project, which they described as A Mobile Black Studies Academy. You can find a library of the project's curated materials at thesojournerproject.org.
[(53:48)] Collin: And given the theme of the episode, we also have some exhibitions to recommend for you all. Although the Jennifer Packer show that we talked about has unfortunately closed, you can watch a virtual walkthrough of the show. The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing. In its place, you can also visit the Whitney Biennale this summer. Quiet as it's kept, is a survey of Contemporary American Art, and you can check out an interview with curators Adrienne Edwards and David Breslin in the show notes.
[(54:12)] Mélena: Professor Campt also talked about her trip to this year's Venice Biennale, where you can see the work of Canadian artist, Stan Douglas, as well as the work of Simone Leigh, which adorns the American Pavilion. Leigh is the first black woman artist to receive this prestigious commission, and if you can't make it to Venice, you should definitely consider heading down to the National Gallery in Washington DC for the Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition.
[(54:36)] Collin: And, finally, if you want to hear more from Tina Campt, you can register for her lecture in the series, Image Complex: Art, Visuality & Power, hosted by the University of Sydney's Power Institute on Wednesday, October 19, 2022. Check out the link in the show notes.
[(55:00)] Mélena: Thanks for listening. My name is Mélena Laudig, a Ph.D. student in religion, and African American Studies at Princeton.
[(55:07)] Collin: And, I'm Collin Riggins, a Princeton undergraduate student in the Department of African American Studies.
[(55:12)] Mélena: Behind the scenes, we have Mikey McGovern, a Ph.D. candidate in History of Science, and African American Studies, helping out as Associate Producer. Our Executive Producer is Elio Lleo, the Department of African American Studies Computing Support Specialist. Artistic and Creative Support was provided by Anthony K Gibbons, Jr., our Communications and Media Specialist.
[(55:34)] Collin: Also, a special thanks to the Chair of our Department, Eddie Glaude, our Department Manager, April Peters, our Events Coordinator, Dionne Worthy, and our Office Assistant, Janet Johnson.
[(55:44)] Mélena: Thanks for tuning in.