Video Jam x Basquiat
To close the hugely successful ‘Basquiat: Boom For Real’ exhibition at the Barbican, Manchester collective Video Jam produced an event of short films paired with live music. Based on Basquiat’s work, life or inspirations, the films were commissioned from a wide selection of international artists. It’s about as live as a film screening can be - the ‘blind’ collaboration process means the pairings sizzle with vitality and risk. Video Jam’s director & film curator Sarah Hill explains: “Essentially, the events are an experiment, the premise of which is not to find the “perfect” score for a film, but to explore the possibilities of live accompaniment. We try to be aware of potential audience expectation, and to avoid conventional pairings…. We can never know how it’ll be until the event itself. We remain almost as unaware as the audience. This sense of the unexpected is what fuels Video Jam.”
First up is ‘Presence’ by Haley Elizabeth Anderson, a response to Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’. Basquiat painted the piece after black street artist Michael Stewart was beaten to death by New York City Police. The murder touched Basquiat deeply, as he reflected that ‘it could have been me’; ‘Defacement’ has subsequently become emblematic for the Black Lives Matter movement. ‘Presence’ is imbued with this, creating tableaux of everyday African-American life with beauty, poignancy and humour. Duo Roots Raddix bring complimentary layers of sound to the film, fitting the split-screen aesthetic with a combination of melodic vocals and spit lyrics.
Next is ‘Strays’ by Scout Stuart. It takes inspiration from Edo Bertoglio’s film ‘Downtown ‘81’, starring Basquiat as he attempts to find employment in a lonely city. Stuart transposes this idea to contemporary London, following an artist who dog walks at night to earn some money. The piece is, appropriately, distant and hollow; particularly when paired with Tombed Visions’ haunting musique-concrete and live vocals. The audience feels the loneliness of an artist’s life in an alien city, working dead-end jobs to pay for a creative life.
‘Sketches and Portraits for Jean-Michel’ by Ephraim Asili comes next, presenting vibrant scenes of life on the Brooklyn streets, which are perfectly matched with the joyous Ibibio Sound Machine. Images of dancing in public with almost transcendental fervour contrast with the stillness of the Invisible Man sculpture. Dedicated to author Ralph Waldo Ellison, it has the inscription: ‘His pioneering novel, Invisible Man (1952), details the struggles of a young African-American man in a hostile society.’ This juxtaposition has the tension of Basquiat’s fame as a black artist - sought after in snobby art-circles but unable to hail himself a taxi on the streets.
Ibibio Sound Machine also score the next short, ‘Fishbowl’ by Gabrielle Ledet and Jack Wedge. A more perfect match could hardly have been made - they both bring a riot of anarchic joy. ‘Fishbowl’ is primary colour bright and simply put together - it could almost have been made on Microsoft Paint. This brings vibrancy and humour to a potentially dark narrative of sinking into anxiety and depression. The protagonist - a birdlike, phoenix figure - rises from this cave of self-doubt and liberates itself. It’s an uplifting and powerful way to end the first half.
After the break is a curious piece by Victoria Keddie, called ‘Test Patterns’, looking at analogue technologies used during the 1980s. It’s interesting to see these techniques played with, and works particularly well across the three screens as a triptych. The piece is accompanied by Seaming To, an incredibly lady performing experimental opera while wearing what appears to be a giant silk foxglove (in the best way). It was batshit-brilliant, a reminder of why it’s integral as an artist to do your own unique thing, no matter what that thing may be.
‘Fetish’ by Topher Campbell was up next. The pre-title card warned of graphic scenes, and they weren’t kidding. Although it was at times a troubling and hard-watch, it was also incredibly uplifting. ‘Fetish’ follows a black man walking naked through city streets, subjected to scrutiny and aggression but also standing proud within his kingdom - the living embodiment of Basquiat’s crown motif. Accompaniment from Young Fathers was suitably hyped beforehand, underlining the depth of the piece.
Video Jam saved the best ‘till last, with ‘‘88’ by ruffmercy, paired with Danalogue with Sarathy Korwar, Leafcutter John and Idris Rahman. The band had the appearance of high school outcasts hijacking the event and absolutely slaying it. Their madcap sound filled the auditorium, demanding to be noticed and taking everyone along with it. The Guitar Hero-style leap Danalogue took at the end was entirely justified. ruffmercy’s piece has the clearest links to Basquiat’s work, animating text and imagery from his paintings to create an immersive, throbbing mindscape. ruffmercy puts it perfectly, simultaneously capturing the spirit of the entire evening, when he says “I feel like a thief that has been given the keys to a palace for an evening. Once entering that palace there is only me and the treasures within. I get to wear his crown and to dance in his slippers; what an opportunity, if only for one night.”
Video Jam stays true to its name. Despite the imposing setting of The Barbican’s two thousand seat hall, the evening feels experimental and truly live with all the risks and triumphs that are entailed.