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What We Talk About When We Talk About History

Posted on March 20, 2013
“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” – Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1976

Munching on sweet popcorn and drinking wine, a group of people congregated last Wednesday night at TPW. We were there to watch a video documenting civil-rights leader and black nationalist, Queen Mother Moore speak at New York State’s Green Haven Prison in 1973, documented by a community video group, the People’s Communication Network. Moore, 75 years old at the time, spoke about her role in the civil right’s movement, and her personal experiences of resistance in the American South. Curator Pablo de Ocampo collected 4 works in response to the video. The following is a reflection on that night, narrated in the fictional voice of a prison guard, a figure based loosely on the guard recorded in passing as he stood in the watchtower at Green Haven. Collapsing the gaps between time and space, between recording and viewing, my response here speaks to 3 moments at play: Green Haven Correctional Facility, Beekman, New York, 1973; BLW media and performance collective, Chicago, 2004; and TPW R&D, Toronto, 2013.

BLW media and performance collective are an art-activist group, of 3 women, Rosalinda Borcila, Sarah Lewison and Julie Wyman. Their method involves “the memorization and public recitation (re-enactment) of significant recordings in the history of radical media speeches [and] interviews.”1 In the video titled Queen Mother Moore at Green Haven Federal Prison (1973) by BLW they each re-enacted sections of Queen Mother Moore’s speech to a predominantly white audience, in an attempt to recover the power of a speech in a culture where oral traditions are predominantly displaced through media forms. Speaking to the discomforts that witnessing the BLW re-enactment raised in Wednesday night’s audience, I am hesitant to dismiss this work simply as cultural appropriation. Instead, I propose that we complicate the ways in which oral traditions, histories and stories live on, drawing attention to context and of the political in the retelling of histories and stories.

The watchtower guard, while insignificant in the video recording, offers a subject position for thinking through questions that circulated in our discussion at TPW – How does one speak about historical documents? How and where does the archive live? What does our watching do to these works?

As a blogger, I have a degree of discursive power over the narrative of Wednesday night’s event. Through my ambiguous narrator, I offer a story that plays between the symbolic privilege of power’s gaze, the anonymous prison guard, the man in the tower with the gun. I speak to the events of March 13, 2013 to reflect on the audience’s stories about their encounters with the curated works.

The watchtower sits in the middle of the yard overlooking the fences, walls, and monotonous movements of bodies. The yard is full of people; groups of men in denim, women in skirts and headdresses, people conversing, seated. It seems to me more like a park than a prison.

On the North side of the yard, in front of me, a group of people are sitting in close proximity to each other, staring at a wall of images in silence. The images cease, and the group continue to stare at the wall, shifting their bodies and desires from sight to sound, from light to darkness. Shuffling my feet, itching to rest my tired legs, I look away from the darkened white room to gaze towards the west side of the yard.

Off in the distance, I hear the echoes of a call to arms. I’d like to see them try, I clasp my weapon with anticipation. Alerting my body to the distant sound of an inmate repeating callisthenic incantations, I look down at a few men doing sit-ups.

“I’ll never forget my pearl handgun”, a voice echoes from the yard. I try to focus my binoculars on the gathering crowd and stare at an old black woman on a podium. Envisioning my grandmother with a pearl handgun, I turn my attention to the group seated in the white cube. They looked uncomfortable, and the conversation breaks into an awkward pause. They must be speaking about race, because nothing else can create such visible moments of discomfort, as a conversation about race.

The old woman is incensed at the podium. Lynch, south, Garvey, ammunition. I observe the events taking place down in the courtyard of the prison; the prison where I stand guard and watch while disenfranchised bodies are brought in day after day.

The grandmother at the podium continues to speak to the inmates about raising an army, about fighting back, about resistance and stealing back what is rightfully theirs. I feel empathetic to the things I hear, because of the things I see. Only recently have I begun to question the unjust ways in which hierarchies of power function. Triggered by the literature I confiscated during a cell raid, I can’t shake my unease with this place. I can’t exactly remember the title of the book, but its pages alerted me to the ways in which history is documented. How does one read the omissions of speech that are very clearly remembered in the bodies of those affected?

To the East, a stage is set up. Three young white women stand in front of microphones, speaking in monotone to a young disaffected audience. They open their address with “brothers.” Something in me cringes. While I watch these women speak, I notice that their accents changed. Their words drown out those of the old woman. The echoes of their voices coalesce in the air, making the old woman’s voice indistinguishable from that of her reflection.

I can’t ascertain the sincerity of their gestures as they continue to repeat the grandmother’s words. Flips in speech, flips in gesture. The master’s house is upside down, and the dining table rests on the ceiling.

In contrast to the loud speeches of the women on the podiums, I notice a silence release itself from the white cube. I see tense faces and wonder what has transpired; an interruption of aesthetics, form, the image. I listen to a conversation about a portable camera pack, about re-thinking the audience, about the layers of sight. I looked around, across the spaces of the gallery in the foreground, and the prison in the background, and can’t make out what is being said. The cacophony of speeches and sounds fade, an echo rings out through my fields of vision. All that remains is an old black woman telling young black people that they need to fight back.

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In her blog series Talking About What We Talk About When We Talk About History artist and writer Sharlene Bamboat responds to What We Talk About When We Talk About History, a screening series curated by Pablo de Ocampo.

Accompanying Event

What We Talk About When We Talk About History

March 13, 20 and 27, 2013, 7pm

A series of discursive screenings organized by Pablo de Ocampo.

Sharlene Bamboat

Sharlene Bamboat is a Toronto based mixed media artist, working predominantly in film, video and performance. Drawing on queer critique, she takes up narratives of belonging and identification in order to challenge, subvert, question, and play with the categories of the nation, race, ethnicity, gender and desire.

Bamboat’s work has exhibited internationally. She is on the programming committee of the Pleasure Dome Film & Video Collective, as well as Artistic Director for SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre) in Toronto.