“The spatial arrangement of the American city is itself an ongoing act of violence, it’s one that repeats like a kind of infrastructure, and thus re-iterates and entrenches racial and economic hierarchies by constraining movement across certain thresholds, and by criminalising transgression or making it materially impossible to achieve.”
Originally from the United Kingdom, writer and photographer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa has lived in America since 2012. His recent book with Roma Publications, One Wall a Web, draws together poetry, critical writing, and photography to reflect on the ways that race, gender, and violence are woven into the fabric of (white) Western modernity. Set in America – with its history of injustice and its troubled present – One Wall a Web asks how documentary photography both participates in this complex play of forces, and suggests ways that we might find alternative pathways through it. In November 2018, One Wall a Web won the Aperture First Book Award. I spoke with Stanley shortly afterwards.
ES: Can you tell me a bit about how the project got started and how it came together?
SWW: There are a few different answers to that question. One Wall a Web, as a book, was a collaborative project Roger Willems of Roma Publications and I set out to make at the end of 2014. But the book comprises two photographic series (Our Present Invention, 2012—2014, and All My Gone Life, 2014—2017) which are laid out in chronological order, and those began quite differently. The book also comprises two text collages I made for other collaborative projects—one with Daniel Shea for True Photo Journal, and the other with Dru Donovan for the Fake Newsroom re-enactment she helped to stage in 2017. Those pieces both emerged under very different circumstances.
ES: Did your arrival in America represent a significant point in the development of the work in terms of a change in your experience, your way of encountering the world?
SWW: Yes it did. I arrived in Virginia in September 2012 to go to graduate school. In many ways my arrival was freighted by, or charged with an acute and irreducible fear of the constant threat of my “gratuitous death,” which Frank B. Wilderson III has demonstrated marks one of the defining conditions of blackness, and which I knew to be a constant and irremediable danger should I wish to live in the US. In that sense, I also arrived freighted with the memory of the murder of Amadou Diallo, as well as with my relatively recent discovery of the lynching of Matthew Shephard. This is a cursory and somewhat brutal way of saying that my work in Our Present Invention began in a reckoning with the particularly structuring work that heteronormative white violence performs in American culture. I was asking myself why do I want to live here? How is normalcy possible without the repression of this reality, and if I’m going to live here and attempt to make art that describes the world I’m embedded in, how do I describe this? How do I attempt to make it visible, palpable, or perhaps even (optimistically) legible? In all these ways, arriving in the United States with the intention of staying long-term marked a really profound shift, or in fact a rupture as against the life I had known up to that point living in the United Kingdom.
ES: You’ve remarked elsewhere that the landscape photograph became, for you, a way of getting at the pathological investment in violence that you understand to be central to American history. In Our Present Invention, you seem to have been drawn to the sort of anonymous sites that characterise the suburban fringes of so many North American cities. Your images infuse them with an incredible tension – their banality is always offset by the possibility that they might be, or may once have been, the site of unspeakable acts of violence. Was this how they felt to you? How did you encounter them as a photographer? What was it that attracted you to them?
SWW: I think I was working in places like those for quite a while before I knew why I was working in them. I don’t have a car or a driver’s license, so I navigated Virginia on my bicycle or on foot the majority of the time. This was a really important limitation for me, because it meant that the world passed by fairly slowly. What I learned very quickly is that the rigidity of the American urban grid forcefully pushes improvisational or unincorporated spaces to the margins, that it creates a kind of incessant homogeneity that quickly stifles, that it makes the corner a place to congregate and also the site of surveillance, that it organises lived space in these deadeningly predictable patterns.
I would cycle around Richmond and notice how monochromatic the city was. I would notice the racialisation of land bordering highways and expressways, where air quality is poorest, just as the prime waterfront property in the city is also utterly segregated and classed. The spatial arrangement of the American city is itself an ongoing act of violence, it’s one that repeats like a kind of infrastructure, and thus re-iterates and entrenches racial and economic hierarchies by constraining movement across certain thresholds, and by criminalising transgression or making it materially impossible to achieve. I felt this as an inhabitant of the city, and I experienced it as a black man moving across invisible structuring lines while making the work.
I am really gratified to hear that you think the scenes themselves are infused with a certain tension, or with the intimation that they might have been or might someday be the sites of violence. In the end, Our Present Invention as a series only works if the representation of the landscape can build the distinctive outlines of a world in which we might understand life to occur, and the trouble with the term violence is that it’s too easily reduced to individuated acts and instances of conflict, whereas what I’m much more keenly interested in and terrified by is the miasmic force of white power structuring the parameters of social (inter)action and physical space. In some fundamental way I believe that that process I’m just now talking about is non-figurative and unfigurable. I remember reading Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, and being captivated by his quotation of Bertolt Brecht writing in 1940:
“In democratic countries the violent character inherent in the economy doesn’t show itself; in authoritarian countries the same holds true for the economic character of violence.”
What Brecht is saying is that the field of the visible is structured in such a way that what is true—the violent character of the economy—shows up as something else, or doesn’t show up at all. He’s pointing at the way authoritarianism disguises the economic calculus of its violence against the poor under some spectral moral threat, just as democratic ‘freedoms’ give cover to what we presently call racial capitalism. So in this Brechtian formulation, what is true shows up, in the case of the black or brown ghetto, as a failure to meet the moral challenge of personal responsibility for instance. It shows up under the rubric of individualism rather than as planned obsolescence and biopolitical power working to reproduce racial hierarchies and to sustain racial capitalism. So then the challenge, working in this landscape, is finding a way to describe that violent character Brecht is identifying without ratcheting that violence down to the manageable abstraction of the individual, to borrow a phrase from Wilderson.
I should also say that the title for this first series comes from a Muriel Rukesyser poem entitled “Despisals,” in which she writes the following:
In the human cities, never again to
despise the backside of the city, the ghetto,
or build it again as we build the despised
backside of houses. Look at your own building.
You are the city.
ES: The portraits engage with the diffuse nature of violence – the way that it cannot be reduced to specific instances of physical conflict – in a very different way than the landscapes. Looked at retrospectively, what the portraits seem to address is what you’ve termed the ‘miasmic’ nature of white power, the way that it cannot be readily teased apart from economic and gendered violence, for example, or from various other forms of social, political, and economic stratification. The figure of the lone black man appears in many of the photographs, but so do other figures whose status is less clear. What you seem to be proposing with the portraits is the idea of blackness as a ‘chain of erasures’, or an ‘estranged form of being’, as you write in the essay, rather than – or in addition to – a visible difference mapped out on the surface of the skin. Was this something that was on your mind at the time, or were you still feeling your way intuitively, as you’d done with the landscapes? What was it that drew you to particular portrait subjects?
SWW: I’m drawn to the people I photograph for reasons I specifically cannot put into words, but can only hope to articulate by way of the resulting picture. I depend upon the confluence of a whole suite of very random factors to realise I should pay particular attention to who is in front of me, and to what their appearance might mean, and I still think that in some fundamental way it’s important that I not know all of that when I’m making the portrait. I think that the portraits took longer to contribute to the work because portraiture is so much harder. People are mercurial, and formal portraiture is a strange experience, so it took me a while to find my footing. I’m relieved that they read as central to the work because they are, but as always, how you get there chronologically and what you end up with in a body of work are two very different things.
Another way to answer that last part of your question is to point out that of the ten portraits in Our Present Invention in which black males figure prominently, which together depict thirteen different black male individuals, only three of them are comfortably at or over 21. So when you describe those images as depicting the “figure of the lone black man,” you’re at least partly if not in many of those cases fully overwriting their youth, and positioning them as grown men under that spectral racialising mark. That’s a primary function that blackness performs for whiteness: it facilitates not only a misrecognition or a slippage, but an erasure of any capacity on the part of black people to claim specific being—to claim any specificity other than that which falls under the general sign linking blackness inextricably to pathology and danger and unreason. This maybe brings us closer to addressing this notion in my essay of blackness constituting an “estranged form of being,” since personhood is structurally foreclosed from those who are marked as black. This is one part of what makes wanting blackness so complicated, as I tried to articulate in the concluding essay in the book.
ES: Volume 1 of All My Gone Life consists of prints made from archival negatives that you collected over a period of a few years. As far as I understand it, this collection began somewhat spontaneously following an encounter with someone else’s archive. Those initial steps into a collection of one’s own are always difficult. How did the collection get started, and how did it evolve?
SWW: I had numerous prompts and urgings from a close friend and mentor, Brian Ulrich, to explore the huge swathe of found photographic objects available online, and eventually after finishing up my thesis show I listened to him and went online to look. There was no structure or rationale to the collecting of the negatives. Really the only clear organising decision I made was to only look for negatives on eBay. I think I had decided subconsciously that I wanted the new images to have equal footing with the the ones I was making, which meant that I had some hope to blend the two together even when nothing much existed. But I also think that I wanted to preserve the ability to materially transform the images in as broad a spectrum of ways as possible, and the physical prints limit you in certain ways. I didn’t have the benefit of a thematic filter to use to delve into these disaggregated collections of old negatives and prints, and I was interested in basically anything and everything, so acquiring the collection meant making a commitment to searching slowly through the whole eBay listing under the title “4×5 negative” each day I went online, and that process always took a long, long time.
ES: During that initial, intense process of collecting, you’d been separating out negatives that you’d been struck by. At what point did you begin to identify what it was that you were finding most striking about them? I’m interested to hear about the relationship between this portfolio and the other work, and how that relationship emerged and grew.
SWW: I really treasured not knowing. I couldn’t control which pictures were for sale online, and I couldn’t predict what I might photograph on any given day, and the lack of an organising thematic or aesthetic objective for the archival negatives was empowering because it meant that everything and anything was potentially fair game. But the way the new body of work resolved was, I think, via sound. I could hear the pictures resonating with each other, and the principle of reverberation or resonance gave structure to what might otherwise have seemed like a random concatenation of individual sounds. Doug Dubois talked about this principle in sequencing really eloquently with Tom Griggs a while back.
“I think that what’s needed is not a new form of picture, but changes to our ways of seeing … Working on our habits of seeing and imagining, just as much as on our habits of gathering, seems absolutely indispensable to our prospects for surviving these times.”
ES: Poetry features throughout the work – it’s woven into the fabric of the book itself, so it makes sense that the synergy between sound and image was part of the creative process as well. The idea of reverberation is so key to works like Ginsberg’s Howl, which forms the basis of one of the text collages – the hammering, resonant anxiety of his language has always seemed (to me at least) to make the violence in the poem almost more palpable than the images it conjures. Can you tell me more about the way that poetry and poetic language made their way into the work?
SWW: That’s beautiful and really apt: “the hammering, resonant anxiety…”. Brian Ulrich taught me something vitally important early in graduate school. He was talking about how he ended up working on one body of work for a decade, and he said something like “you may think you’re done with the work, but your work might not yet be done with you.” I think that he helped me start to trust that what I care about, what I’m engaged with, drawn to, terrified by, that those things would surface irrespective of my best intentions, so what I loved about making All My Gone Life as a whole was a sense of freedom to just go out and look and listen.
The poetry I was reading helped clarify, in a shapeless sort of way, what was at stake for me in the kind of territory I was exploring in the pictures. I think it was infused with a certain lyric intensity, that it troubled stable conceptions of ‘the real,’ that it was multi-vocal in ways that were sometimes harmonious but also chaotic… John Tagg has this beautiful phrase in The Disciplinary Frame: “allied in disparate chaos.” That feels true of the book too.
But I was reading poetry already before I began making, and still am, so in lots of ways I think it was entangled consciously and subconsciously with the broader outlines of the work. Maybe what the various uses of poetry and poetic language make possible in the book is the summoning of a sense of cacophonous simultaneity and difference, or, in Ginsberg for instance, an experience of the indistinguishable line between visionary insight and utter madness. There are points in my closing essay where I’m reaching for that, because I think we have to unpick the lock of what seems reasonable to even begin to fathom a way out of this prison house we’re all differently housed in. That’s hard and dangerous, but people seem to find it easy to forget that the current status quo is utterly (and even planetarily) lethal already.
ES: Nearly all of the archival photographs in Volume 1 of All My Gone Life represent a relatively short time frame between about 1950 and 1966. Volume 2 plays with this historical timeline, and with the idea of history itself, in a way that Our Present Invention doesn’t. I’m thinking here of the references to prehistory and geological time; the cars, the architecture, the interiors that signal, if not a specific date, a certain feeling of ‘pastness’; a feeling of temporal compression or uncertainty. Was this feeling of flickering – of time itself being chaotic and unstable – something that you consciously built into the edit?
SWW: I’m glad to hear that those relationships were palpable or intelligible in the work, because I certainly felt them in the course of making it, and hoped that they might act on other readers in the sequence of the work. In a way, the images in that closing section seemed to each contain each other, so that arranging them was relatively straightforward, and that relationship between them as inside of, and also encompassing each other bears on your larger question of understanding the interactions of notionally distinct periods of time.
I think this question of temporality, perhaps in relation to power, has a lot to do with the violence of the present moment. Maybe another way to think about those two lines from Brecht is to say that certain forms of (white) western modernity necessarily veil archaic forms of violence essential to their survival. We can think of Foxconn and the ‘safety’ nets outside their factory windows versus the unvarnished image of the iPhone as one example of this.
I think I understood this complex temporal question in a couple of ways. One I wrote about briefly in the catalogue essay for my show One Wall a Web at Light Work in 2016, where I argued that “struggles over the dividend stream of white supremacy in the United States have been met with alt-right neo-fascism precisely because the course of the future is at stake in them, and because such struggles necessarily require a rewriting of the past.” It’s eery to realise now that that was a little less than twelve months before the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.
The other way I’ve made sense of the entangled temporality of the present is via Giorgio Agamben’s brilliant essay “What is the Contemporary?” which I was introduced to by Federico Clavarino some years back. That crops up in the closing essay to the book, and I think his understanding of the constant imbrication of pasts, presents and futures is vitally important because they are all constantly being re-shaped in dynamic relation one another, and that struggle is the ground on which we all stand. That period you so clearly marked, beginning in the 1950s, is in some ways far in advance of the American ‘greatness’ the GOP are presently working to restore, and that retromania represents a profound threat to millions within and outside the US. It’s what made not only the poetry but the breitbart.com comments and the archival images feel contemporary, and my experience of this particular present is marked by a constant sense of disjuncture, which Agamben suggests is the price of attempting to be contemporary. I do also think this chaotic moment is rife with possibility, however vanishingly faint that might seem at times.
ES: You’ve remarked elsewhere that you’re trying to photograph ‘a non-figurable operation of power.’ This idea of unrepresentability surfaces in various forms throughout the book: it features quite explicitly in the second text collage, for instance – in the minimal captioning of the first and third portfolios, which opens up interpretive possibility at the same time as it invites slippage or misrecognition – it finds conceptual expression in the afterword, where you write about the centrality of absence, invisibility, and the void both to the ontology of blackness, and to that of the photographic image. How do you reconcile the limitations of the photographic image – bluntly, its inability to figure the unfigurable – with the sort of transformative work that you suggest, at the end of the essay, that it might be able to accomplish (or to help accomplish)?
SWW: In that closing part of my essay at the end of the book, I’m trying to get at the irrational, and irreducibly transformative effect of the photograph on what we habitually call common sense, because I think that our actions are shaped by the strictures of our forms of thought, and by those things our normative forms of thought work to occlude. So where I wrote that the photograph “incarnates a dead life, or a living death, and in this it too evades the strict limits of common sense and normative time. The photograph is always in passage, it too is defined by “an insistent previousness evading each and every natal occasion,”” I was leaning on parts of the work of Roland Barthes and Nathaniel Mackey, and also Christina Sharpe and Eduardo Cadava. I was doing that in an effort to animate the limits of normative forms of thought, to bring them into play at a point where they are confronted by particular kinds of experience that present an insurrectionary threat to our logic, and thus to the plausibility of what’s real. It might just be that our inability to be in time with our time is a profound resource; the same is true of the photograph: it’s never “in” time…
I think that what’s needed is not a new form of picture, but changes to our ways of seeing, and I think that books and exhibitions and talks and collaborative projects can all contribute, in differing ways, to that process of resisting the demands and constraints of what Jonathan Beller calls ‘the attention economy.’ Working on our habits of seeing and imagining, just as much as on our habits of gathering, seems absolutely indispensable to our prospects for surviving these times. I think that sociality is at the core of this, and that what’s key is our willingness to practice what Fred Moten, citing Manolo Callahan, called the ‘renewal of our habits of assembly’ a couple of years ago, in response to a question of a very similar nature. I’d cite, all too briefly, the sort of collaborative, local and inherently social work people are doing by way of photography (but not limited to it) in the The Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo, or the work of the group of photojournalists who operate under the moniker Activestills. These seem like practices aimed at capitalising on the limits of the photograph as a pretext for social encounter.
So in the end for me the question is whether and how we can find forms of relation to one another that shift the ways in which we see, that foster our habits of gathering to speak to one another, that solicit or impel us to pick up and speak where the image leaves off. Craigie Horsfield said it best in December 1989, at a lecture in Stuttgart:
“Art, whilst it may be many things, may also be this: an accounting to others of the world which we together inhabit, to the end not that we escape history, but that we together may stand face to face with the world.”
One Wall a Web
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Eugenie Shinkle. Images @ Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa.)