DISTILLING HIS VISION WITHIN THE MAINSTREAM FIELD WHILE ALSO RECEIVING COMMISSIONS FROM MAJOR MUSEUMS, THE LA-BASED FILMMAKER OCCUPIES A PECULIAR OVERLAP SPACE IN THE VENN DIAGRAM OF ART AND THE MOVING IMAGE, FOCUSING ON FLOW, IMPACT AND STORYTELLING.
Andrea Lissoni: Let’s start with something we have in common—basketball. I used to play and I think it really influenced my work.
Kahlil Joseph: I had no idea you played basketball! I mean, it’s not surprising, obviously you’re super tall, but wow! Andrea, that changes everything. The physical and the mental will always have so much in common, but I noticed that it’s very rare that somebody can occupy both spaces. I just don’t meet a lot of art people who used to play sports.
Do you think you’ve learned something from basketball?
Yeah, definitely. Sports is a meritocracy, it’s not subjective like art. Plus there is teamwork. Even more importantly, as you know, when you’re on the court, things are shifting all the time in relationship to the ball. And I’ve noticed on set when I’m directing or filming, it’s a similar process—you can anticipate where things are moving, and just flow with it.
Totally. And that’s also interesting with regard to this notion of “radicality” that frames the magazine’s survey. As I interpret it, it’s about being part of the environment, but making sure things are always changing. That’s definitely a delicate dance.
Yeah. I’m glad to be constantly changing, and bring change to the environment from within. Radicality, I don’t know how much it applies to my work. I don’t think in those terms. More about integrity maybe? You know, I was really interested to go to the Wolfgang Tillmans show in LA and see that he had his cover that he shot for Frank Ocean as part of the show. It wasn’t too surprising to me because, even though it was a commission, obviously I know their dynamic is more interesting than that. But still, I shot the cover for Beyoncé’s Lemonade and I know I wouldn’t put that in a show, right? For me, there’s a clear distinction between my own work, and work for hire.
But at the same time, your work is overall very coherent; it doesn’t concede. It is personal, restless. It challenges boundaries and languages of codified fields. It has something to do with authenticity, which I believe is what radicality is ultimately about.
Have you seen Arthur Jafa’s exhibition at the Serpentine yet? Speaking of restlessness, he’s in and out of London and constantly updating the show…
Oh, yes, that’s great. My first encounter with A.J.’s work was the last time, the only time actually, I came to the Underground Museum. We watched Love is the Message, the Message is death, and we walked out of there completely wordless. What can you do after? You just leave. And it stays with you for a long time.
Yeah, it does. For me, as a black American filmmaker, it was better than any film ever, in a way. Its impact, its storytelling. Most of art requires contextual coordinates of why, when and how. But this… I was truly obsessed with it, and showing it to everyone I knew. And everybody’s response, almost categorically, was just like, flabbergasted. I mean, if you’re going to work with the moving image, you better know about the fucking moving image. A lot of artists don’t. They just make video as another medium that’s available to them. With painting or sculpture, you need a bit of understanding to appreciate it. But everybody who’s walking around is very fluent in the moving image, they grew up watching TV, films, YouTube videos 25,000 times a day… That’s why I think paying attention to successful imagery outside of the big Hollywood conventional stuff is important. This whole obsession with streaming series is a false idol, because it’s all plot-driven. There’s nothing worth watching on television, which is essentially Netflix and HBO, that’s not plot-driven. There’s nothing perceptual, zero room for ambiguity. Actually, I’d love to make a TV channel, something that’s always on, that you can watch from wherever, and whenever, not necessarily from the beginning…
That’s interesting. The most radical strand of the last documenta, to me, was actually Keimena, their weekly film broadcast on public TV. And my unsubordinated knowledge of the history(ies) of cinema comes from Fuori Orario, a visionary night program broadcasted daily on Italian public TV since the late ’80. By the way, who is programming the film screenings at the Underground Museum?
I am. We’ve got a partnership with the Martin Scorsese Film Foundation and we can choose from there, which is a great opportunity. There are films that haven’t been seen in years, not even by specialists—which is one paradox in the city of cinema. We just screened Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Ed Bland’s Cry of Jazz. Screenings are free, mostly addressed to the community. It’s every Friday during the summer, and summer is long in LA.
Even after 25 years of mapping this shifting landscape between art and the moving image, if I was asked what artist films are, or what’s the border between an artwork and a film, or why a film must go into a film museum and an artwork must go into an art museum, I still could’t say. Your work is definitely situated in this peculiar zone.
I understand what you’re saying, and I agree. It’s not easy to put a finger on it, but somehow you know. Just recently, I noticed that MoMA purchased John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation, and I was like: It’s a fucking documentary! Not even a good documentary, in my opinion, boring. But, MoMA purchased it, and now it’s a work of art, according to the powers that be. I think it’s a Venn diagram, you know? There are these two circles and this shared space in the middle. Someone whose work exists in this space, to me, is Cyprien Gaillard, his film stuff. When I saw his film Nightlife , I was like….
I think that is the best work I’ve seen in a long time. Long time.
Amazing. It’s so sculptural. He has rhythm, you can tell he’s a skateboarder. You can feel the understanding of moving through space and time, you know what I mean?
Totally. I completely agree. What you said about the Venn diagram—the overlapping of disciplines, for me that’s what makes your work unique. You work with contrast, with a perfectly balanced push-and-pull of the gaze, the hearing. All of this inevitably generates this engagement, this sort of intense proximity. It’s work that questions, but doesn’t answer—rather, it suggests. It triggers the possible. In this sense, I feel that it stretches the disciplinary borders, and pushes into the territory of art. I’m also thinking for example about that black-and-white video Frank Ocean did himself, Endless. The simplicity of it, the process of editing, the solitude. Such a simple device, I mean, a ladder? My god, it’s a masterpiece.
That’s what I said! That is way more interesting than John Akomfrah (laughs). That to me is radical. To release that independently, getting out of his contract…
And it disappeared, no? You cannot find it, and yet it remains with you forever. The real switch is when you have this restless thing that you see on a phone screen and you think, oh my god, and it stays with you because it doesn’t respect the frame. It goes beyond the screen.At the Tate, we have a cinema space which we are using once a month for, let’s say, a premiere, or a retrospective. So last Saturday, we actually screened four films in connection to “Soul of a Nation,” and for the first time I saw William Greave’s film…
KJ Oh yeah, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One? That’s next level.
Oh, it is! Although the boundaries can be blurry and tricky to define, I would have no doubts in considering it a seminal artwork. It suggests a possible territory between art and film. Completely radical, not only because of the choice of delegating the control (hence the power), looking for the cinematic energy to be spread and inform the actual final result, the meta-cinema essay, the great leap on the race question… but mostly because of the authenticity. That movie is everything I would say that belongs in an institution.
Definitely. I like this statement by Leo Steinberg from 1968 that Thelma Golden quotes in her catalogue for the “Frequency” exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem: “American art after WW1 is unthinkable without this liberating impulse towards something other than art.” This, I think, is what’s missing in art today.
Kahlil Joseph (b. 1981, Seattle) lives and works in Los Angeles.
Andrea Lissoni is Curator of Film and International Art at Tate Modern, London.
Portrait by Ari Marcopoulos.
Works in order of appearance: Backstage image (photo credit: Nicole Otero); stills from Fly Paper (2017), Black Mary (2017), Wizard of the Upper Amazon (2016). Images courtesy of the artist.