Screening Black Code/Code Noir: an interview with Louis Henderson

This is an interview between Prerna Bishnoi (LevArt) and Louis Henderson about his film “Black Code/Code Noir” (20:50 min / HD video / 2015) that was screened at LevArt’s premises on 19th January, 2018, as part of the workshop ‘PARK. “…of the Commons”’.

 

1.
At the beginning of the film screening at LevArt I read out the first paragraph of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s poetic text published in E-flux in March 2010 called Debt and Study: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/14/61305/debt-and-study/

They say we have too much debt. We need better credit, more credit, less spending. They offer us credit repair, credit counseling, microcredit, personal financial planning. They promise to match credit and debt again, debt and credit. But our debts stay bad. We keep buying another song, another round. It is not credit that we seek, nor even debt, but bad debt – which is to say real debt, the debt that cannot be repaid, the debt at a distance, the debt without creditor, the black debt, the queer debt, the criminal debt. Excessive debt, incalculable debt, debt for no reason, debt broken from credit, debt as its own principle.”

Almost in sync, I came across this image in your film – the neon lights reading “Loans Available”. Perhaps this is a good place to start – In your films you follow a very specific methodology of archaeology and stratification. Your filmmaking performs this archaeology. So I was curious to know more about this clip in particular, your process in general and what material you began this film with?

For some time I have been working on what I call an archaeology of the Internet, which is not a search for the origins of the Internet itself but rather a way of thinking of the Internet as a landscape in which material evidence of human and non-human presence is constantly appearing, being placed, collected and sunk into the layers and layers of different spaces and times within the web that we are all spinning. This was a decisive change from my work in institutional archives and non-Internet landscapes (A Walk With Nigel (2011) or Logical Revolts (2012) for example) but the method and questions remained the same. What this practice of archaeology entails is an understanding of the physical space of the Internet (all those stratigraphic layers of documents and images and videos and things) as a potential site for excavation. As a place in which a forensic analysis of certain overlooked fragments from the past could awaken the dead as speaking subjects within the present; in order to reconsider what was being said about and by whom. This is a political, ethical and aesthetic measure. Around 2014 I exclaimed, “the architecture has changed!” The architecture of the archives I was working with had gone from bricks and mortar to TCP/IP protocol and undersea fibre optic cables — nothing less physical or material, in fact maybe more physical, more material than ever.

This archaeological method is indebted to the work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and how they deal with the stratification of images; that an image can have buried within it a sonic substance from the past that can be drawn up and out into the air like an echo from another time. This implies a specific way of listening the sonic space of an image, how sound can give us a deeper visual reading of an image, which is to say that perhaps listening to the sonic space of an image “…gives us back the visuality that ocularcentrism has repressed.” As Fred Moten has it in In the Break. Yet in my work specifically this is related to how an image is layered up within the montage, layered with sounds and other images from different contexts.

In the case of the above image it was indeed chosen from amongst many other possible images that exist online, it formed part of my personal archive I was building up from YouTube videos and screen captures. Indeed here it was specifically chosen as it is an image of a protest from Ferguson in 2014 that has in its background a flashing neon sign that indicates the notion of debt, of being in debt, of an economic pressure that could be behind these actions we have in the foreground. Therefore suggesting that these protests were rooted in economic problems and pressures and that furthermore the problems that the film speaks about, the afterlife of slavery in the US for example, is one bound up with a history of capitalist exploitation of human beings. This in turn implies another idea of debt; of the United States being hugely indebted to those hundreds of years of exploitation through the slave labour that built the country up to the riches it has (in some parts) today. This is not intended to be read directly, it is not supposed to be understood on an immediate level, but rather to encourage a small process of study within the image to try and make these connections or these discoveries. This is again related to stratigraphy in that the stratigraphic image implies also a reading (insofar as stratigraphy is the writing of strata), the image has to be read to make sense, to produce the space of its sense reception.

This is how the methods I choose relate to different uses language (cinematic, poetic, musical) that are situated within the peripheries of communication – outside of a normative and direct use of language – and it is here, I believe, that differing levels of opacity, abstraction and obscurity can start to be experimented with. I feel that I am always trying to find a position between documentary and experimental aesthetic forms, and I believe that this space-between lies in the shade at the outskirts, at the edge of something. (These ideas of shade and peripheries have been developed from lengthy conversations with my close friend and collaborator Olivier Marboeuf).

In terms of what material I began the film with we have to go back to 2014 again. A year that was particularly marked by the murder of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, on August 9th of that year. And marked even further by the subsequent protests, riots and the militarisation of the police in Ferguson — sparking intense debates across the United States about the relationship between African Americans and the police, the ‘Use of Force Doctrine,’ policing and prisons as profit, institutional racism and segregation. Whilst all of this was going on, the police in Missouri shot and killed another young African American, Kajieme Powell, in broad daylight. The murder was recorded on a mobile phone and submitted to YouTube, it circulated online, it was used as a piece of evidence in the case against the police officers in question, eventually it aided their acquittal.

Looking through the masses of information that were being posted onto the Internet at that time, from facebook pages to news debates, YouTube videos to online live commentaries, I kept on thinking about the Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs and one of its very famous lines: “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.” And I started to think about and research into a connection between the forces of law, order and control, and the legal codes that had once governed these lands centuries before; Le Code Noir and eventually, after the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, The Black Codes. These codes had seemed to leave behind an ectoplasm that was refusing to be exorcised, or worse — was being kept alive as the ideological basis behind the software code being written for the algorithmic governance over American society being developed by the Microsoft Corporation as predictive policing. It was within this space that I decided to make something in response to all these thoughts, sounds and images.

 

2.
“ We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence.”

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, ‘Silencing the Past’

I see the clip of the Haitian revolution as an invocation in the midst of this era where “slavery is not abolished but merely re-designed” (as Angela Davis says in the film). How did you find yourself amidst the material of the (silenced) Haitian Revolution? What kind of relationship do you think people (especially from USA) today have / could have with this narrative?

I became interested in the Haitian revolution through reading CLR James’ book “The Black Jacobins” whilst in the George Padmore Library in Accra, Ghana in 2013. At that time I was in Accra to make a film that spoke partly about Ghana’s independence from British colonialism, and I was interested to find the work of James and how he was offering what Édouard Glissant might call “…a prophetic vision of the past.” James achieved this by creating a ‘spiral retelling’ of the history of the Haitian Revolution as a way to think the possibility of decolonization on the African continent in the coming future. He very clearly claims that Haiti was the only successful slave revolt in history, and he goes on to narrate how the slaves of Saint Domingue (the name of the French colony before it became Haiti) fought the French to create the first free Black state outside of Africa. This was in 1804 and James retells the history in 1938, then 19 years later Ghana would be become the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from European colonial rule.

In relation to the film Black Code/Code Noir the idea is that because Le Code Noir was first written for the colony of Saint Domingue we could understand the Haitian revolution as the first instance of breaking that code of law. The film argues that these codes have transformed into the violent methods of algorithmic policing today and therefore suggests the Haitian Revolution as an echo from another time that might somehow act as a symbol for a future hope in which the codes of today are unworked and rewritten. However this is entirely a speculation and a poetic suggestion, and for that reason many people in the U.S. found my proposition rather absurd, reductive and desperately unrealistic in the face of such powerful state violence. However I think Haiti is important to remember because it might be a way to bring in discourses of resistance and revolt into the thinking of the afterlife of slavery in the Americas today. Yet to go back quickly to Handsworth Songs and the questions of ghosts haunting the riots, I was particularly taken with the fact that the first slaves to come to Missouri (Ferguson is in Missouri) had come from Saint Domingue. So perhaps then the ghosts haunting the riots in Ferguson were carrying with them a history of successful slave revolt that had come from the island, and in this sense we could read the riots in Ferguson as actions that were steeped in a haunting of a history of slavery that would not be only linked to death and suffering but also to a way of breaking systems of control, of the destruction of the plantation capitalist system.

 

3.
Most of the film assembles material found on the Internet with the exception of some sequences. I am interested in your decision to shoot around Place de la Bastille. Could you elaborate on the situated knowledge that underlies this tracking shot, as you move around the monument? Could you also speak a bit about the reference to Straub-Huillet’s Too Early/Too Late [1982]?

There are only three shots that were not found on the Internet, and all of them relate to Place de la Bastille. This is of course a reference to Too Early/Too Late by Straub/Huillet, but it is also a reference to Les Mains Negatives by Marguerite Duras, and it is in fact this doubling of two references within the stratigraphy of the shots that complicates the reading of the montage of those three images. Duras’ Les Mains Negatives is a film that slowly drives through Paris at dawn, from the dark of the night until the light of the morning. It begins at Place de la Bastille, a site in Paris where the famous storming of the Bastille prison happened in the revolution of 1789 and continues through the streets, empty of people apart from the immigrant working class who clean up the waste of contemporary capitalism out of sight of the rest of society. The film can be read as an indictment of the irony of Western “civilisation” and how its knowledge, prowess and opulence had been built upon the extraction (or what Elizabeth Povinelli so aptly calls “embanking”) of wealth through the knowledge, labour and resources of its colonies that were considered “uncivilised”. The negative hands she speaks of in the film are the human handprints left some 30,000 years ago in a cave in Spain, but the negative hands we are witnessing are in fact the unseen hands of immigrants from French ex-colonies that provide the labour to continue the upkeep of such “civilisation”. These ideas are brought into my own montage through the first shot from a car window approaching Place de la Bastille at night (a direct visual reference to Duras) and to the text that follows, taken from CLR James’ The Black Jacobins in which he cites Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution: “What sad irony in human history! The fortunes created at Bordeaux, at Nantes, by the slave trade, gave to the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to human emancipation.”

Now this is coupled with the archaeology that Straub/Huillet propose with their own shot of Place de la Bastille from Too Early/Too Late in which they film a long take that drives round and round the roundabout during the daytime in France in the 1980s as we hear the voice of Danièle Huillet reading the words of Friedrich Engels speaking on the failings of the French Revolution. Straub/Huillet set this up at the beginning of a film that then goes on to explore the history of peasant revolts in Egypt that led to one of the first movements of an African country out of European Colonial rule with the military coup of 1952. Similarly to Duras, Straub/Huillet propose a disjunction in the times of the presented images and sounds as a way to point towards certain disjunctions in the reading and writing of history, and it is precisely this that I try to think through with my own versioning of their shots. However I decided to make the gesture of a kind of inversion of Straub/Huillet: I film my long take of the roundabout at night-time in which we hear the voice of a woman from the Global South reading the words of a Caribbean historian (CLR James) speaking on the successes of the Haitian Revolution. In this sense I try to set up an idea that the Haitian Revolution could be seen as the direct other of the French Revolution and suggest that it could be understood as the actual outcome of the Enlightenment ideals of universal freedom and liberty that the French Revolution so ironically proclaimed. This layering up of different times and spaces through the possibilities of image/sound montage (that cinema perhaps alone can offer) contains a certain poetics that I believe asserts a political method in filmmaking – encouraged through a deep listening to the echoes in images of places imbued with important histories.

 

4.
In parallel to the film you started something called the Black Code Sessions. My loose understanding is that it is a project to bring together people allied and interested in topics related to the film? What are the Black Code Sessions, how did they begin and where are they going?

It was in New York where the film first started to take shape — within the archives at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. And it was in New York where the seeds were first planted for The Black Code Sessions, the crux of the exhibition Kinesis that I organised with Olivier Marboeuf at Espace Khiasma in June 2016. The seeds were sown due to the critical response from the audience at the New York Film Festival towards the film. Especially concerning questions related to the legitimacy of my position as a white European to speak of these concerns in such a manner; within the guise of a 21-minute film that, according to the sharpest of critics, was guilty of flattening out very complex, multilayered and stratified histories of slavery in the Americas.

The Black Code Sessions found themselves generated from within a moment of self-doubt and questioning. The first of them took place in June 2016 and consisted of a two-day workshop in which 10 people were invited (after having watched the film Black Code/Code Noir and asked to critically assess it) to bring a piece of material; an image, a piece of music, a video, an essay, a dance, anything. These fragments of material were then discussed by the group in relation to the film and eventually incorporated into the mix to develop a new version of the original. The idea was to create a new film as a collective remix that would take into consideration the criticisms and problems that people may have had with the film. As an attempt to address the problems of historical flattening and the white gaze on this subject we attempted to open up the film as an unfinished question and propose it in a new form as a multiperspectival discussion and presentation. We decided to present the new version of the film as a “ciné-conversation”, a collective performance in which each member of the group presented their propositions and a live remix took place as a projection behind the presentations. We did this for the public in Khiasma in the outskirts of Paris in June 2016. After that The Black Code Sessions went to Cologne and then Brittany, and since then we have not yet organised any more sessions as resources ran out and both Olivier and I are very busy with a new collective work in Haiti. However this idea of collective remixing (and now translating) is something that lies at the heart of the new work we are doing and we are planning on doing a Black Code Session in Haiti soon.

In the book More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, Kodwo Eshun speaks of Alice Coltrane’s reconfigured version of John Coltrane’s Living Space, he calls Alice Coltrane’s practice “remixology” and says: “For Alice, remixology is not heresy but reincarnation, a resurrection technique in which sounds are rematerialized as spirits on tape.” It is precisely in this line of thinking that began our remixology of Black Code/Code Noir – as a way to channel forwards and listen towards which ghosts might be haunting the riots in Ferguson.

 

5.
Lastly, what are your thoughts now on the question that you put forward in the synopsis of this film: How can we unwrite the sorcery of this code as a hack?”

I wrote that in 2014 in an essay called Black Code/Code Noir: The Algorithm as Necropolitical Control, and since then many things have changed. The question presupposes an answer, that the codes of law and the codes of the computer software that guide the law can indeed be unwritten and hacked through a kind of counter sorcery. In the instance of the film the suggestion is of a counter sorcery coming from Haitian vaudou and its historical connection to anti-colonial revolution, and furthermore Haitian Creole as a kind of reworking and unwriting of the language and codes of colonial powers. Again these are supposed to be brought into contact with the neocolonial present in the USA as echoes from a particular history that can be spiralled into a détournement in the present.

The essay from 2014 closely engaged with the work of Wendy Chun and her understanding of coding (in the present) as having an interesting correlation with Enlightenment modes of thinking. In response to this Chun proposes instead a rethinking, a reusing of source code as re-source code, and to bring out code’s power as a form of animistic fetish.  She claims that code “…is a medium in the full sense of the word. As a medium, it channels the ghost that we imagine runs the machine – that we see as we don’t see – when we gaze at our screen’s ghostly images.”1  Understood this way I felt at that time that code could be understood as having a power of movement not restricted to the paths set by algorithms, code could become deviant, a trickster that diverts the order of things and upsets aims at social control and programmability. Thus I thought that with animism an algorithm could be reverse-engineered. Chun states: “Code as animistic fetish means that computer execution deviates from the so-called source…in other words, code, may be the source of things other than the machine execution it is “supposed” to engender.”2 Following Chun’s thoughts I proposed that Creole and Haitian Vaudou could be seen as forms of re-sourcing oppressive codes, as the answers to a possible hacking of the codes of law that so governed the violence at that time.

Yet here is where I believe the work comes to a profound and rather disastrous limit. In trying to understand Haitian Vaudou and Creole as kinds of codes or re-codings that had managed to re-configure certain colonial power structures, I believe now that I was making a huge error. I think it is perhaps wrong to equate Creole language or spiritual practices with computer code and computer functionality. Even if human beings write computer codes, they lack an essential embodiment that develops and changes them, and allows them to reinvent themselves in an unruly way. Unruly in the sense that they are not preordained by fixed structures and systems – because being inherently human, Haitian Creole is a language in a constant process of becoming and rapid change that can not necessarily be defined so readily by rules. Indeed it has grammar and syntax, but these are embodied by the people that use the language on a day to day to basis and therefore many unexpected slippages and changes occur that could really never be predicted. Code, adversely, is disembodied, created and its outcomes predictable.

Furthermore it is important to remember specificities tied to certain times and places. Haitian Creole was developed through the violent interaction and coming together of different cultures, languages and bodies, as a means of communication between people forced into coercion through slavery. Yet Creole was not a subversive means of communication that escaped the plantation master’s comprehension, it was a language that the plantation masters eventually used also to communicate with the slaves. Therefore its seems tragically misplaced to try and think of it as a form of language that could “unwrite the sorcery of this code”.  Since I wrote this proposition I have spent some considerable time in Haiti working with Haitians (and Olivier Marboeuf) precisely on questions relating to creolisation and forms of embodied history and storytelling through voice and action. We formed a collective called The Living and the Dead Ensemble and have been working on translating and performing a play by Édouard Glissant, from French to Haitian Creole, and from written and spoken word to song and rap for example. Only from actually being in Haiti and from these profound and rare exchanges have I come to realise the problems with these disembodied readings of creole that I had invented as pure intellectual responses to a situation that entirely escaped me. These disembodied readings seemed to be in fact very much rooted in the Enlightenment modes of thinking that I was so keen to critique. So, without wanting to end on a pessimistic sounding note, I just have to say that we still have a lot of work to do, and for now we will retreat somewhat into the enjoyment of the exchanges and processes through which we begin to seriously understand where we are and what we are trying to do.

 

Chun, Wendy. “On ‘Sourcery’, or Code as Fetish.” Configurations, Volume 16, Number 3, Baltimore MA: John Hopkins University Press, 2008, p. 301.
Ibid. 313

 

 

Louis Henderson is a filmmaker who is currently trying to find new ways of working with people to address and question our current global condition defined by racial capitalism and ever-present histories of the European colonial project. His research seeks to formulate an archaeological method within film practice, reflecting on new materialities of the Internet and the possibility for techno-animistic resistance to neocolonialism. Henderson has shown his work at places such as; Rotterdam International Film Festival, Doc Lisboa, CPH:DOX, New York Film Festival, The Contour Biennial, The Kiev Biennial, The Centre Pompidou, SAVVY Contemporary, The Gene Siskell Film Centre, Gasworks and Tate Britain. His work is in the public collection of the Centre National des Arts Plastiques, France and is distributed by Lux (UK) and Video Data Bank (USA).