Kahlil Joseph’s Double Conscience: A Contemporary Spiritual




For Bourdieu the body, how we carry ourselves, how we dress, how we feel, was key to how the game of power within any field was played out. When there is a fit between us and a particular social field there is “ontological complicity”; we are like a fish in water.

 — David Osa Amadasun

 

“DOUBLE CONSCIENCE,” The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) presentation of Kahlil Joseph’s video project m.A.A.d., 2014, is an elegant and tragic illustration of poverty, inner-city turmoil, and their multilayered impact on a community. Joseph relays this narrative visually, weaving together dense, rich images in a crisp and economical edit. It is no wonder that viewers leave this brutal yet beautiful work feeling awed and speechless.

The video seesaws back and forth between magnificent shots filled with buoyant, youthful energy — such as slowed footage of a high school marching band, camera lingering over a young woman enmeshed in dance — and scenes pregnant with impending and exploding violence — including the popping gunfire and racing feet of a neighborhood battle. Kendrick Lamar, the musical artist responsible for all of the tracks in “Double Conscience,” binds the images together — his lyrics giving them, literally, a voice.

“Double Conscience,” organized by MOCA Chief Curator Helen Molesworth, operates on so many different levels that one can easily hone in on a single aspect, whether its aesthetics or implied race relations, and completely miss out on other elements. However, beyond the visual and cultural complexity of the video, there is, of course, the factor of race. As an Angeleno living far outside of the Compton community and largely apart from the African-American experience there, watching “Double Conscience” triggered in me awkward, voyeuristic feelings. I had the sense that I was peeking in on vulnerable moments of lives that deserved privacy; a sense, I imagine, that similarly pervaded the viewing experience of a majority of MOCA’s audience, engendering in many the effect of silencing or subverting their capacity to share or describe what they saw. David Osa Amadasun writes eloquently of the sociocultural phenomenon that has led to a primarily white viewing audience for art, leading people, including his own daughter, to feel that art is, in her words, “not me.” “Double Conscience” operates in nearly the opposite way, providing a look into a part of our community not often represented in the museum and leading viewers to both admiration and a kind of loss of voice.

My feelings of separation were magnified by the fact that “Double Conscience,” gritty as it is, functions as a contemporary spiritual. Just as spirituals were sung to cope with the hardships of slavery, “Double Conscience” feels as though it is “sung,” albeit visually, to the Compton community to facilitate a collective catharsis. And to the degree, that such “singing” is predicated on a sense of internal healing, as an outsider, I was profoundly aware of my intrusion.

Band playing

Installation view, “Kahlil Joseph: Double Conscience,
March 20–August 16, 2015, at MOCA Grand Avenue,
courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles;
photo by Brian Forrest

Without digressing too much, my initial hesitation to write about Joseph’s piece mirrored that of others who had attempted to discuss it with me. Prior to viewing “Double Conscience,” friends and colleagues had repeatedly told me that it was an exceptional piece, and yet they seemed to be unable or unwilling to describe what it was that made the work so potent, relying instead on reiterations of the wall text. An unexpected coincidence gave me the confidence to give voice to my reflections. Scattered throughout “Double Conscience” are clips taken from footage shot at Compton’s Centennial High School. My grandmother taught at Centennial High School for 25 years and she had died two weeks prior to my visit to MOCA. It felt like a sign, or at least permission to voice my perspective; I reasoned that, while I might be an interloper in this world, my grandmother certainly was not. I knew that she would have been impressed by Joseph’s work and the care he had taken to present an honest look at the difficult reality of living in Compton, a community to which she felt deeply connected. I would address Joseph’s piece on her behalf.

The video has no clear beginning or end, a device that serves to break down any linear narrative. This strategy establishes a perpetual overlay of action, though the action lacks significant movement or direction, perhaps a metaphor for those trapped in the “loop” of inner-city life and poverty. With shots of funeral homes, morgues, and sleeping babies, the video’s looping also underscores the tragic, endless cycle of birth and violent, premature deaths of so many young black men.

Throughout “Double Conscience,” a cycle of violence is followed by calm; this repetition is echoed by the way that the video itself runs on a loop. These two levels of simultaneous repetition create a rhythm of mounting tension that periodically spikes with violence, settles back down, and repeats. This toggle between high tension and release gives the viewer a palpable feeling of the unpredictable, anxiety-provoking reality of living in the inner city. The video’s circular structure accentuates this pattern. So, for those who sit through multiple cycles of the video (which appeared to be most viewers), the looping, circular movement intensifies the sense of uneasiness.

GuysWalkingInstallation view, “Kahlil Joseph: Double Conscience,
March 20–August 16, 2015, at MOCA Grand Avenue,
courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles;
photo by Brian Forrest

Perhaps unavoidably, violence looms large in this work and Joseph examines it from different angles. He inserts short clips from the LA riots as well as a grim lynching scene that flashes briefly on the screen like a beacon, clicking once on and then off again. Both provide historical context and suggest consideration of the realities of living in a world where oppression and violence are framing parameters. A single Amiri Baraka quote expands on this, flashing once, white letters against a black screen: “We used to know we were as strong as the devil.”

This wrenching statement comes across as an anthem to black disempowerment and alludes to the way it has the capacity to breed the kind of rage and loathing that can turn inward and inevitably drive some young inner city blacks to destroy themselves or to attack one another. Lamar’s lyrics, along with footage of a young man dancing while drinking from a vodka bottle, powerfully seal the message. The lithe boy sublimely keeps impeccable time with the thundering music, moving with precision and elegance. The otherwise breathtaking moment is overshadowed by the bottle in his hand — and the fact that he is clearly drunk and getting drunker — in a situation rife with potential danger and uncertainty.

As he dances, Lamar raps, “I pray my dick gets as big as the Eiffel Tower so I can fuck the world for 72 hours,” a line that is emblematic of poverty, disenfranchisement, misdirected youthful energy, and anger. If one thing stands out as central to “Double Conscience,” it is this sense of so much lost or misplaced potential. This is evidenced in the many lovely shots of young black boys and girls in their prime. A sequence filmed at a swimming pool beautifully captures this potency and rapture and viewers get some breathing room as the camera moves from youth underwater to those lazing on the pool deck. Among the smiles and laughter, for a moment, it could be a public pool on a hot summer day anywhere. And yet, as the video continues to slide along its syncopated path, it is not long before viewers are peering down at a sea of red and white candles set out on the pavement, clearly commemorating someone who has been gunned down.

DryingOff

Installation view, “Kahlil Joseph: Double Conscience,
March 20–August 16, 2015, at MOCA Grand Avenue,
courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles;
photo by Brian Forrest

Although the fallen land on hard pavement, Joseph eloquently makes use of the inverse, the air, as a landscape in which to explore the precarious position of young men living in Compton. Hanging from lampposts, street signs, and building awnings, he inserts a series of inverted men. A departure from the stark reality of the rest of the video, these mystical totems hang perfectly still and seemingly lifeless, suggestive of vampires, lynchings, and the Hanged Man card in the Tarot. This simultaneously elevated and sinister position symbolizes dual roles, as both martyr and perpetrator. The vampire sucks life and, in so doing, initiates new “blood” into the vampire community. It seems an apt metaphor for gang politics, where young men are recruited into the fold by older members, with the hope of some kind of connection and community solidarity, while in reality they are beginning a precarious journey, rife with violence and the very real possibility that they will end up prematurely dead.

Alternatively, Joseph’s hanging boys might be perceived as martyrs. The structural similarity of their pose so closely resembles the horrific images of young men hanging in trees that it is impossible to look at these images without being reminded of lynchings. And taking it one step further, allowing for a little mysticism from another perspective, the Hanged Man card in the tarot deck, which features a man suspended upside down, speaks specifically to notions of higher spiritual evolution. It is meant to represent a position of surrender and sacrifice to something greater and larger than oneself. Perhaps, like the Hanged Man card, Joseph’s inverted men are symbols intended to acknowledge a kind of elevation that comes from a life spent struggling against poverty and discord, a life which demands unusual strength and which can breed a unique kind of wisdom, something akin to spirituality.

The spirituality of “Double Conscience” stands out most vividly in the voice of a female minister woven in after an exchange between men discussing killing. One of the boys says, laughingly and with nonchalance, “I’m gonna kill somebody.” As his voice is fading out, the voice of the elderly, female preacher rises as she leads a group of men through a prayer:

Okay, repeat after me
Lord, God I come to you a sinner
and I humbly repent for my sins
I believe that Jesus is Lord
I believe you raised him from the dead
I would ask that Jesus come into my life
and be my Lord and savior
I receive Jesus to take control of my life
and that I might live with him from this day forward.

In her slow and steady voice, she provides an anchor and an antidote to the chaos. Her prayer, and the echo of men reciting it, speaks to the power of faith and redemption to provide some reprieve in a community stricken with constant turmoil and loss. She offers hope and promise but her role is twofold: she expressed the vitality of faith but also acts as a symbol of the iconic, powerful black woman, representing all those that quietly hold up the foundation of home and community. Joseph pays homage to this classic role in “Double Conscience” through numerous images of quiet and stoic women gazing directly into the camera and exuding strength and resolve.

It is a look I know well; I grew up seeing it on my grandmother’s face as well as my mother’s. And while my own experience in the world has been easier than theirs — more white than black (the result of a white father) — the gaze and all that it represents resonate powerfully as a part of my own experience.

Kahlil

Installation view, “Kahlil Joseph: Double Conscience, March 20–August 16, 2015, at MOCA Grand Avenue, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; photo by Brian Forrest.

My mother recently reminded me that in 1921, the year that my grandmother was born in Athens, Georgia, there were a record number of lynchings. Among the black community, there was a great deal of discussion about what precautions should be taken to avoid this unspeakable violence. Strategies to remain safe included staying away from certain neighborhoods after dark, averting one’s eyes to avoid eye contact with whites, and remaining silent and being polite when addressed by whites. The upshot for people like my grandmother, who had aspirations of improving her situation and that of her family, meant working hard, keeping quiet, and trying to fly beneath the radar. Blacks had learned that, outside of the black community, you were essentially on your own and the best way to forge ahead was to do so quietly and diligently, without causing any commotion. Perhaps it is because so many women in the black community are mothers and caregivers to grandchildren and the elderly that they in particular have clung to these unfortunate but tried and true strategies to stay strong and silent in the interest of preserving their families as best they can. Joseph’s repeated return to this female gaze seems a clear indication of his understanding of this stoicism and his admiration for the black woman.

And while more disturbing, “Double Conscience” also contains the seed of a plea for less fortunate women in the community. This comes by way of Lamar’s lyrics, sung after a grueling depiction of a young female sex worker, “this is the life of another girl damaged by the [foster care] system.” 

“Double Conscience” is run through with a sense of tenuousness and uncertainty. So often, Joseph’s images straddle between harrowing and life affirming. In one scene, a plump and happy baby rests on a mat decorated with sign language symbols. Given the context, the symbols beneath the baby are awkward and sinister, whether read as signifiers of voicelessness or references to gang signs. Joseph has a keen eye for creating rich and layered images that together create a visceral collision between tragedy and grace, emblematic of the ways in which turmoil and violence suppress even the most vibrant energy and cast shadows upon dreams of transcendence.

¤

China Adams is a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design who’s conceptual art has been featured in exhibitions around the world, including several solo shows at Ace Gallery, Los Angeles, and Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles.



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