Filmmaker, theorist and co-founder of the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) John Akomfrah co-wrote these words with scriptwriter Edward George in 1993-94, as a guiding script for BAFC’s The Last Angel of History.
In the future, like racial memory, black futurology may be allotted rooms on the internet. Housed in cyberspace vaults marked ‘tomorrow’, coded with a connective emblem, this past, our present, could be the key to making sense of the future, the present of some yet unborn black person.
We propose to produce an interactive film which takes us on a voyage into the vaults of the internet; a voyage from the margins to the interstellar heart of black culture. The series will boldly chart a new interface, strike up connections and dialogues between diverse black interstellar parties who have too much in common, and yet for the most part remain unaware of each other’s existence – from Sun Ra, to Nichelle Nichols, to A Guy Called Gerald, to Samuel Delaney and beyond. Disparate names, places, events inform the stories we want to tell, the locations we want to trace. To aid us on this journey we have chosen a mythical figure from the African Diaspora – s/he’s a trickster/hustler/Stagolee in a new incarnation – the data thief.
Our data thief is a time-surfing roughneck, a shapeshifter, part human part cyborg, a gold-toothed, gold-chained recording angel from tomorrow. S/he’s on a mission. Transported self to 1995 via the internet, s/he’s on a cultural pillage; a future grave robber whose booty is ideas destined for a high-brow cerebral mind-park called Babel 17.
S/he knows the nature of his/her quest: surf the closed rooms of the internet, unlock the vault of racial memory, find the black futurologists and their arcana, interpret them, and bring their visions home; surf the internet, encountering virtual communities which include Greg Tate, Octavia Butler, Donna Haraway…
The data thief travels light. A small multi-functional flat black box, the size of a CD, is all s/he needs; it’s a powerbook/tardis enabling him/her to locate and transport; it’s a cybermap, enabling the data thief to locate cyberspatial constellations, identify flashpoints in the histories of afro futurology, and get to work. These decoding systems of esoteric knowledge become the throughline of our narrative.
On this future-internet the space-time continuum has been realigned so that each image holds multiple traces of its past, held forever in a state of suspension in cyberspace. The Image and the Real exist simply as a set of options. Access to both is guaranteed – George Clinton’s performance can be located; our data thief can also go and find him. The data thief knows little about our century. But s/he does have the key to the internet’s vault of racial memory. It’s a connective emblem, a conflation of two images, one lifted from the dawn of black new world subjectivity, the slave ship, the other from the imagined twilight of its idols – the space ship. The emblem is a Mothership.
The quest begins when the data thief files through the vault of racial memory. Phrases, faces, places blur by on the internet screen. S/he is searching for an image, and s/he finds it – Mothership. A flurry of associated images appear; George Clinton’s Mothership; Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio; Michael Jackson’s Egyptian Arcadia; Sun Ra’s Spaceship; Garvey’s Black Star Liner; Slave Ships; the Starship Enterprise.
A succession of words appears – music, astronomy, writing, television. Each word accesses a grid studded with a colour-coded constellation of flashing lights – flashpoints of black futurology. All the data thief has to do is follow the flashpoints, arrive at the locations, and make the connections.
In this quest we rub constantly against history – History transformed into a lower case history of imagery drawn from computer games, video cartoons, sci fi, hip hop s/language and the aesthetics of graffiti art.
There’s one problem facing our data thief – to pillage on the internet is to risk being infected by a virus called History. In the thrall of History’s delirium, random images from the past are always interrupting his/her acts of theft; a fact s/he gradually comes to grips with during the course of the film.
MOTHERSHIP CONNECTIONS – A FILM ABOUT A QUEST.
Mothership Connections is the story of the data thief’s travels in search of black futurology. The film will use a mixture of interviews, archive film and music, photography, text, locations, and commentary; the tools of the data thief.
Each of these components makes up a unit on the grid of rooms on the internet. Each unit is a subject or object of a journey into a flashpoint of black futurology, and taken together they begin to form a psychogeography of Afrofuturism.
Stalking this psychogeography will be the data thief. S/he will exist on a screen in the form(s) of apparition, dream scenarios, virtual images, desktop animation and documentary figures found in the course of the programme’s production.
The series will be arranged around the five key terms – music, astronomy, myth, writing, television. Five mothership connections. The following is an indication of what our data thief will find on entering the flashpoints each word designates.
connection one: writing – wor(l)ds without end
Colourised images flicker across the screen on the early history of America – here is the Library of Congress, the House of Congress. Words and dates appear and disappear on this flickering archive. The image of a slum tenement; the word ENTER.
A long shot of a Brooklyn street. We see Greg Tate reading from his Altered Spade: ‘The Quantum blacks identified themselves as super-niggers. even if they’d acquired their ultrablackness through copious studies rather than street knowledge. A black and learned breed of ubermensch apart who pronounced that since they did not know their place relative to the white body politic, they would find it by bearing their sign of negation to a reductio absurdum, a theoretical black hole.’
The data thief is on a mission: s/he’s plundering the twentieth century for materials for a theme park for the middle classes of his/her century; this is what s/he tells himself/herself while in the daze of the increasingly virulent history bug, eating away at her/his central nervous system whenever s/he pauses for thought. More images flicker by – pirate ships, slave ships, satellites, buses, motherships, flit by on the internet screen.
Then we hear these words – ‘is there such a thing as cyberspace, techno constellation by which we can navigate our way through black speculations musings, and imaginings on the future?’ Ishmael Reed tries to answer this question. He refers to the idea of a redemptive future which figures in black literature; the interstellar paraphernalia from Sun Ra to George Clinton; the over-investment in technology, especially in hip hop culture.
The images continue to flicker: a pixel-visional image-diary of slave collars, shackles, etc. Samuel Delaney talks to us about technology and black futures. He tells us that new world blacks have an intimacy with technology because it was technology which sustained the chattel institution of slavery. ‘This makes black people unique in their visceral understanding and accommodation of technologies in the future; look at beeper-culture.’
Images flicker – album covers, dress styles, all culled from the black past; over images of recording studios (shellac era to the present), the word ENTER. We are at the ICA, Greg Tate and Paul Gilroy having a transatlantic connection. The history virus turns everything into a warm haze; a second question appears – why are there so few African American science fi ction writers? Each of the words accesses a particular room; s/he chooses the word Africa: the name George Schyllur comes up, beside it, two titles – ‘black no more’ and ‘the black empire,’ a description; another name: Ishmael Reed; more pictures flit across the internet screen – Reed’s book covers, textual fragments. The name Schyllur/Reed: the data thief opens the file. There is a location for Tate, s/he zones in on him and interrogates him on Schyllur’s work. Listens to Tate explaining how time is collapsed in his novels; his feelings on Schyllur’s work. People drift in and out of the room in which the transatlantic conversation takes place.
Tate and Gilroy discuss the importance of bricolage in black culture; the intrinsic significance accorded technology in this process. They speculate on why cyberculture and the advent of the post-human might not be either a terrifying or novel proposition for black people.
Our data thief is surfing the internet. Images flicker across, some abstract, some figurative. Other voices impinge. S/he tries to listen. One voice says: ‘The imaginative leap that we associate with science fiction, in terms of putting the human into an alien and alienating environment, is a gesture that repeatedly appears in the work of black writers and artists’. S/he scans a file of African American artists – words and pictures from Basquiat, Ellison, Gomez, Futura 2000 drift by. S/he locates the voice – it’s Samuel Delaney. Delaney elaborates on why this might be the case.
A flashpoint on the grid, then more words ‘I see science fiction as continuing a line of philosophical enquiry and technological speculations that begin with the Egyptians and their incredibly detailed meditations on life and death’. The data thief locates the speaker’s voice before the flashpoint fades – it belongs to Greg Tate.
A flashpoint appears on the grid: New York City. Into a South Bronx street overlaid with graffiti. Past a wall lined with posters for rap concerts, albums, one of them is Public Enemy’s Muse Sick & Our Message – a whisper from the skull on the poster – ‘At the eve of the year 2000, President David Duke of the United World States of Europe America, has launched a final assault on peoples of African descent, turning the righteous into niggatrons.’ Tate continues and signposts the importance of Ralph Ellison, specifically, Invisible Man.
Now s/he’s surfing the image/text bank marked Ralph Ellison; now s/he’s in Times Square, hypnotised by the flashing lights in a computer games arcade Ellison’s words echo half discernible, dissolving as she tries to adjust MEMORY; Ellison’s words float across a Basquiat; Tate’s interview replays itself, locating Tate via voice-map. The data thief hones in on Tate, who says the other important person we need to know about is Samuel Delaney.
A simple morph job; shapeshift, listen, record, leave, playback: ‘you can be backward looking and forward looking at the same time – ffwd – the reverence for the past is a reverence for a paradise lost – rewind – where does science fiction end and black existence begin? Hip hop seems to touch on this question – Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. S/he tries to access – Public Enemy: images flicker; ENTER. Kodwo Eshun is flicking through a magazine and is in the middle of a comment about Public Enemy, essentially covering points he made in a now celebrated i-D piece. He begins to touch on the idea of black noise as the sound of redemption.
Images flicker – graffiti art, super 8 film, robotic dancing, swirling turntables. The virus accelerates its disorientating effect; the memory of the encounter with Eshun is disrupted by these images and other voices; Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, Ishmael Reed. S/he clears the grid, punches in a thesis – a glyph morphs into a phrase: ‘sex, gender; cyberspace is the only space in which you can opt not to be identified as either’. S/he presses store; a babble of dialogues, Samuel Delaney in mid-conversation – S/he goes to the beginning and finds a question – ‘can a community whose past has been deliberately erased imagine possible futures?’ – ffwd – Delaney again: ‘I’ve situated material that encourages the reader’s engagement with some of the political questions that the disenfranchised people in this country, victimised by oppressive discourse based on the evil and valorised notion of nationhood and its hideous white underbelly imperialism, must face but cannot overcome without internalising some of the power concepts and relationships inescapably entailed in the notion of nation itself – ffwd – cyberpunk has no more historical validity once we pass the Rodney King riots.’ S/he scans the riot footage, presses ‘store.’ footage, presses ‘store’.
Icon, Hardware, Static – Black superheroes float across Braxtonian symbols, the word Babel 17, cyber-graffiti marks scrawl themselves across the image surface, across the graffiti-glyphs a series of images of people reading appears and fades, appears and fades – at the ICA a transatlantic jam is in session. The thief taps the black box, a glyph, then a question emerges – what uses have African Americans made of sci fi? Black superheroes float across Braxtonian symbols, fade, appear, and fade as Tate and Delaney attempt to answer the question.
Egyptian hieroglyphs float past their faces as they speak, a question, an image floats by, crisscrossed by words, a phrase – ‘where must I find my resting place?’ A series of sounds – photographs; comics and book covers, names – Tate, Reed, Schyllur, Butler. The data thief accesses ‘response,’ s/he opens the file marked ‘phrase’, Octavia Butler speaks. She tells us what she thinks the writing of black science fiction has been about. Locations drift by in a haze; the history virus is still at work. In the background we hear a junglist track – 4Hero’s ‘The Paranormal in Four Parts’, accompanied by a voice which says – ‘we travel the spaceways, from planet to planet’. Fade to red.
connection two: space is the place
The data thief is an electronic signal, a song, travelling through cyberspace, which goes: ‘we travel the spaceways, from planet, to planet’ – the data thief wants to find the contributions of black people to space science, which black voices open out our understanding of hyperspace. The data thief/song is in a room marked Star Trek; now a vault marked Voyager; now Apollo 16; now a vault marked Challenger, seconds before the explosion. A voice says – ‘to understand this contribution, you have to understand that African Americans have always been driven by the idea of flight’. The voice flickers, fades and returns; ‘from Harriet Tubman’s underground railroads to the Challenger – if you understand the importance of flight you’ll make the connection’. The data thief’s electronic signal searches the net; s/he locates the voice – Dr Ivan Van Sertima, Editor, the Journal of African Civilisation. S/he zones in, and asks the doctor to explain the meaning of flight.
Flight, aviation, levitation; these and other words appear across Van Sertima’s voice-track. Surfing the internet, the data thief enters a number of vaults on the subject; a model of an ancient Egyptian aeroplane floats by on the desert evening breeze, then falls; a rocket is launched from Cape Kennedy into the sky. The data thief glyph’s the rocket’s central energy component; heat – s/he becomes heat, and records the sensation across the image-history of black flight; high above the earth, s/he reflects on Van Sertima’s words – if you want to know about black flight, go to St Louis.
Lambert-St Louis Airport: a mural depicting the history of black involvement in aviation. It’s night, and it’s cold; s/he morphs into a human: the absence of heat explains the absence of movement in the image; s/he taps the black box – two words heat and levitation appear – s/he is at an Earth Wind & Fire Concert, as heat. Maurice White levitates down onto the stage. People are dancing; the data thief is confused. She records the event and searches for repetitions; one word appears constantly, cancelling all others: FUNK. Flashpoint; a Parliament concert: the Mothership descends from the ceiling down to the stage. Kodwo Eshun speaks about the parallel universes of science fiction and science fact, and the ways in which one sometimes overlaps into the other.
A series of colourised photographs flicker across the screen – freed slaves, plantation cotton pickers, the desert; the word ENTER flashes across the images of the desert. The data thief is sitting in the Mojave Desert with the black box. S/he is looking at a group of astronauts floating about in a state of weightlessness; a series of bloops, bleeps, mechanical noises whir and click as audio – glyphs appear on the screen – George Clinton’s explanation of how the funk mutates the body; Dr Patricia Cowling’s description of extended states of weightlessness on the human physiognomy. A voice explains how time travel alters the body: ‘I am a robot computer; my name is genesis, I am a magic scroll. Echo text, echo plex’. The data thief dissolves.
Colourised photographs flicker across the screen; the word ENTER. From the Kennedy Space Centre, the data thief is watching two images – they are both of space. One is from a television show, Star Trek; the other one is from a spectro/camera, shot from the surface of the moon. The images change – Skylab/Babylon Five; Dr Bernard Harris/Captain Planet; a cyborg/a slave in chains; Dr Mae Jemison/Lt Uhura. Voice tracks murmur: ‘the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion’. What does this mean?
One woman’s face – Nichelle Nichols fades into another’s – Donna Haraway – a flashpoint – MIT. A name – Donna Haraway. California. A name – Nichelle Nichols. A location – NASA. S/he will locate these women in these places and ask them this question.
We’re floating to a song, above the Mojave Desert – ‘on Jupiter, the skies are always blue, from palest tint, to deepest darkest hue’. Staring at the images on the black box s/he replays Nichols’ interview: ‘I was NASA’s guest to witness the Space Shuttle Enterprise make its first desert landing; I made a series of public service announcements and produced a film with Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, to say that space is for everyone; underwent real astronaut training, and even had my own astronaut’s uniform.’ Images of Nichols as Uhura intercut with images of Nichols’ NASA PSAs. ‘In the 20th century travel in space required miles of emptiness. Now we only need a box.’ S/he speaks these words as he records on the black box. S/he scans the desert for signs of a landing.
Somewhere in some desert, s/he knows a ship is landing; s/he scans all deserts from across all time, searching for spaceships. The voice of Nichols continues in the background. Images fizzle.
A series of colourised old photographs of the past flicker across the screen, stopping on an old aeroplane in a field; the word ENTER; Dr Mae Jemison tells us she appeared in Star Trek – The Next Generation. She tells us she also worked on STS-47 Spacelab Discovery, that she met Nichols after applying to Nichols’ NASA-sponsored recruitment drive for astronauts from minority communities, and that she was interviewed by Nichols on her programme ‘Inside Space’ shortly after making her flight aboard the Discovery. The data thief locates ‘Inside Space’ on the grid – Jemison is discussing space-age technologies and developing countries, the difference between the mission of the Starship Enterprise and the Discovery. Nichols and Jemison discuss the important contribution being made in science fiction by the presence of other blacks. Photographs flicker across the screen in rapid succession; the word ENTER. LeVar Burton and James Earl Jones talk about their respective roles in science fiction films. Photographs continue to intersperse their interview: stills from Star Trek – The Next Generation, Captain Planet, Star Wars Trilogy.
Colourised photographs lifted from the American Photographic Museum flicker across the screen – Dr George Carruthers’ space telescope on the Apollo 16 moon shot, this was the first telescope used to film from a celestial body. From the moon the data thief speculates on the space between the earth and the moon, the difference between real space and fictional space, space loneliness; the question floats across Kennedy Space Centre in ghostly mysteron circles, and back into space, past Dr Bernard Harris, as s/he space-walks. S/he decides she will find Dr Harris – he is the first black man to walk in space; his experience must count for something – ‘This is the beginning. I want to encourage black people all over the world to get involved in space research. Space is our future. I believe that we are not alone in the universe.’
A Greg Tate interview – he tells us that the idea of a redemptive future is central to black futurology. Images flicker, solarised, animated images. A redemptive future figures in the literature and the music, he says. He stresses the importance of interstellar symbolism.
Alone on the moon, the data thief/spectral camera searches for Sirius B; he is searching for Planet Rock; the black box instructs the thief: search for Alice & John Coltrane’s Sunship, Lee Perry’s Sunship, Clinton’s Starship. S/he scans the cosmos, sees nothing but spectral data, hears music from a thousand electronic signals – Albert Ayler’s Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe, 4Hero’s Sunspots, John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space, Alice Coltrane’s World Galaxy among the bleeps, fuzz, and clicks.
S/he taps a button a glyph appears then separates into three; a phrase – ‘the holy trinity,’ then a name appears – John Corbett; playback: ‘Within the distinct worlds of reggae, jazz, and funk, Lee Perry, Sun Ra and George Clinton have constructed worlds of their own, futuristic environs that subtly signify on the marginalisation of black culture. These new discursive galaxies utilise a set of tropes and metaphors about space and alienation, linking their common diasporic African history to a notion of extra-terrestriality. Sun Ra worked with his free jazz big band, The Intergalactic Jet Set Arkestra and asked ‘Have you heard the latest news from Neptune?’ Perry
helped invent dub-reggae in his own Black Ark Studios and reminds us that ‘not all aliens come from outer space’. In his spectacular mid-70s live concerts, funk Godfather Clinton staged an elaborate ‘mothership connection’ and says ‘Starchild here! Citizens of the universe: it ain’t nothin’ but a party y’all!’
S/he taps a button a glyph – a name – Alice Coltrane; the data thief zones in; Alice tells the data thief about her husband John and their space explorations through music. ‘We have music which no-one has heard, we have music for the planets, music for Mars, space music for the future.’ S/he steals the memory of the music grafts it onto the glyph Coltrane, glyphs Cosmic Music. A flashpoint – Mars – s/he is Carruthers’ spectro-camera orbiting Mars from the Voyager, transmitting spectral pictures of the red planet, cosmic dust articles, hot stars; as the Coltranes’ music echoes from Mars to earth, the data thief opens the memory/vault marked ‘heat’ – images, names of every post P-Funk ensemble come and go in rapid succession, across the spectral constellation of hot stars and cosmic dust.
Whoopi Goldberg is relaxing at home, talking about the pleasures and freedoms offered a black actress in cyberspace – the opportunities it presents for inventing new black personae; the move away from black stereotypes. Images flicker as she speaks – black superheroes culled from the world of black comics. LeVar Burton concurs with Goldberg’s observations and offers some of his own. The images continue to flicker. The data thief pauses on one and the word ENTER.
Delaney tells us that the last decade has seen a growth in black comics, most of whom may have themes and tropes already outlined by Marvel and DC Comics. Nevertheless, their importance in the emergent beeper culture cannot be underestimated. The images flicker – LA cityscapes. Pause. ENTER; our data thief is a documentary figure strolling around a street in Compton, South Central LA. S/he looks in the window of a diner. This image is regularly disrupted by other images – phone calls on street corners; a group in an open-top car listening to G-Funk – voices, phrases. A woman making animation on her Apple Mac; ENTER.
Koina Freeman talks to us about the world of animation. As she talks, the stills from LA life slowly drift back in. Our documentary figure stops and looks directly to camera. In the background we hear a jungle track – 4Hero’s Sunspots with a voice repeating the phrase ‘This is the origin of the stars’. Fuzz.
connection three: astro black mythologies
Exterior: filling station, South Central LA. In the washroom a bejewelled documentary figure stands staring at himself in the mirror. An extreme close-up shot of the eyes. The 4Hero track continues. A cacophony of electronically treated voices saying: ‘this is the origin of the stars – the stars came from pellets of earth flung into space by the God Amma, the One God. Women took down the stars to give them to their children. The children put spindles through them and made them spin like fiery tops to show themselves how the world turned.’
Pixellated images flicker across the screen; the message is joined by other messages – photographs from the black past flicker; images of brutality – lynchings; violence during the civil rights years. ‘There is a land where the sun shines eternally… eternally eternal, out in Outerspace, a living blazing fire, so vital and alive… there is no need to describe its splendour – some call me Mr Re, Some call me Mr Ra; some call me Mr Mystery’. Second voice: ‘I am from everywhere. I am an alien from space, with my space gun and my iron cross. My face is a mirror. Rain water. Music computer. Time Boom, de-devil dead; time vex – sun spex!’ Third voice – vocoded: ‘So they locked away the secret of the clone funk with the kings and the pharaohs deep in the Egyptian pyramids, and fled to Outerspace to party on the Mothership and await the time they could safely return to refunkatise the planet.’ The Data Thief taps in three words in the hope of cross-referential clarity – Egypt, Ra, Music. A name appears – John Corbett. S/he opens the vault marked Corbett; and zones in on him.
Corbett says: ‘In his own way each of these musicians presents himself as being extraterrestrials; Ra, Clinton, and Perry live as ‘brothers from another planet’. The intergalactic identity may be meant literally as in the case of Sun Ra, who before he died, insisted that he was quite literally from the planet Saturn’; Storms of Saturn roar across the desert; memory of some distant journey; the image of its rings. The phrase ‘leaving or returning?’ The data thief accesses the name George Clinton – a blur of aliases and alter egos. S/he will ask him about the Mothership; the egypto-futurological iconography; the meaning of funkentelechy. The Mothership tour appears on the screen. George Clinton continues to talk about the emergence of the Funk; the importance of paraphernalia; the origins of his futurological aesthetic. Images flicker – the Braxtonian glyph appears – then John Corbett. He tries to make a connection between Ra and Clinton; the creative freedoms both manage to find through recourse to futuristic iconography. Colourised photos of New York flicker across the screen. In the background we hear a techno track – Derrick May’s Kaotik Harmony with a voice repeating the phrase ‘space is the place’. Fade to blue.
Exterior: a Brooklyn filling station. Inside, our documentary figure looks nervously into a mirror. Images – a fragment from a film appears on the screen of the black box – Space Is The Place; Sun Ra, at home on some distant planet. A question appears on the audio track – how does the future figure in the present? Fade to blue. Colourised photos: Space Is The Place. The body is the place – fragments from a text drift across colourised images of slaves being branded; the Tuskegee experiment; forced sterilisation; lynchings; tasers; images of early cyborg experiments – Greg Tate and Donna Haraway’s voices overlap, one folding into the other – ‘the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion; the kind of alienation that sci fi writers try to explore
through various genre devices – transporting someone from the past into the future, thrusting someone into an alien culture, on another planet, where he has to confront alien ways of being. All of these devices reiterate the condition of being black in America.’
On the screen the name Greg Tate is clicked on – Tate picks up on the theme of the foreshadowing of post-human themes in black history. He ends by making the point that several musicians almost instinctively understand this connection. The main ones for him were Sun Ra and George Clinton; there are for Tate uncanny parallels to be drawn between Ra’s ideas of black-as-myth and the cyborg in cyberfiction. The data thief taps in the word MYTH. Images flicker as she rummages through a pixellated/colourised data-bank. And then a fragment from the film Space Is The Place, another voice, this time Sun Ra’s – ‘how do you know I’m real? I’m not real. I come to you as myth, because that’s what black people are – myths.’
The data thief opens the vault marked Sun Ra; Flashpoint – CHAOS. Birmingham, Alabama – the Gateway to the city says ‘Welcome to the Magic City’. In the background we hear a voice trying to make the connection between myth (chaos) and Ra. Access the image; Kodwo Eshun is talking about the Nun – ‘the name the Egyptians gave to Chaos; boundless ocean of primeval darkness. Out of this came a demiurge – Ra, the Sun God, who created order; while in the Nun this demiurge had been in a state of somnolence. Once he became aware of himself, he transformed himself.’ Photos from the history of Birmingham, Alabama flash by. Kodwo Eshun explains the metaphoric significance of the Nun and its connection to Ra. In the background we hear a jungle track – Cloud 9’s People of the Universe. Fade to Blue.
Exterior: a filling station in Brooklyn; an extreme close-up of an eye; colourised photos flicker. The photos include several of Lee Perry’s obsessions – Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, Garvey’s Black Star Liner. Lee Perry is in his home in Jamaica, showing a presenter around. He’s talking to him about the symbols in and around his house.
Kodwo Eshun talks about the significance of symbolism in Perry’s music and its influence on later studio-based technology. The word ‘technology’ flashes on the screen, immediately followed by images of Jamaica; images of Noah’s Ark, Garvey’s Black Star Liner, the Ark of the Covenant; shifting locations – Ancient Egypt, Ancient Ethiopia, Atlantis; the signal is stronger first in Jamaica, scatters, and regroups in Switzerland. Lee Perry materialises from behind a cloud of techno-fetish objects: ‘I’m defendin’ human rights, an eye for an eye an’ a tooth for a tooth, birds law, animal law, jungle law, seabed law. What are you defendin’ mate?’
A Guy Called Gerald appears. He talks about what he sees as the impact of Perry and his studio technologies for rap, ambient, techno, and new jungle. Kodwo Eshun remarks on an irony which is becoming more apparent in popular culture, that what is being celebrated in contemporary music – mainly manufactured in the studio – has its roots in Perry’s pioneering works in 1970s Jamaica. The colourised photos flicker and fade, each fading into a new image – old images of black recreation, black pleasure, black parties. Music in the background – Lee Perry & Augustus Pablo’s Vibrate On. Fade to Blue.
connection four: technosphere
The data thief is standing in a London club called Speed. LTJ Bukem is playing a cutting-edge junglist selection; people stand and watch. The data thief looks at the black box – it says ‘There is an archaeology of black artefacts which attest to Afro futurology’ – this is the message that floats across the burnt remains of the Black Ark Studio. Sensing easy pickings, the data thief accesses ‘archaeology’. Samuel Delaney is on screen too. He tells us that to think of any of these ‘black cultural youth movements as an easy and happy development blossoming uncritically from the overwhelmingly white world that makes culture possible is to thoroughly misread the fiercely oppositional nature of this art. Scratching and sampling begin, he says, as a specific misuse and conscientious desecration of the artefacts of technology. Fade to black.
A flow of images of colonialism; we surf the internet. Greg Tate’s voice appears across the flickering images. ‘The oppositional stances are important but we should connect them to the hip hop counter culture of dropping science – the whole-hearted embrace of software by black and latino youth. Who would have thought, for example, that young black and latino youth would spend enough time in Times Square video arcades in the late 70s to make those games the multi-million dollar industries they are today?’ Vault one is marked ‘Voice’. ‘Somewhere there’s a place for us’ a sung phrase, many voices, among them, Billy Eckstein, Mark Stewart, Lee Perry, Aretha Franklin, time stretched, opens the vault – an a capella group are singing a variety of fragments from black songs – Baby I Love You So/Strange Celestial Road/One Nation Under a Groove; each singer has five voices, the multiple song fragments, time stretched, speeded up, vocoded, and mutilated, erasing the bodies of the singers in a swirl of luminescent colours until there is nothing but sound and light.
The colourised images flicker. The thief accesses a phrase – beeper culture.
Greg Tate is back on the screen telling us that the fascination with digital technology and sci fi imagery is not simply a musical one. If you look at the graffiti art done in New York for example in the 70s by artists like Ramelzee, Phase 2 and Blade, there’s an incredible interest in fantasy and technology, especially the post-apocalyptic imagery which would figure so much in cyberculture. From graffiti artists to Jean Michel Basquiat you find this desire to insert black figures into that landscape, he says.
S/he plays the voices back while walking away from the club and hears, not the a capella group, but this message – black futurological music figures the past in the present by matching the quest for Outerspace with new journeys into the inner technologically grounded tape-space of black sound itself via the digital utopias of jungle and techno. The data thief accesses the two words and hears the following – ‘before there was soul, hip hop, electro, house, techno old school style, there was the sound of drums coming from the area initially known for the first life on this planet, the first man on earth also walked here. This man developed a way of communicating; rhythm.
Rhythm helped early man get in touch with the universe, and his small part in it. I believe that these trancelike rhythms reflect my frustration to know the truth about my ancestors who talked with drums.’ S/he fi nds the voice – A Guy Called Gerald – and decides this is someone who is worth talking to. Then another voice – Greg Tate finishes off by saying that Afrofuturism is usually seen as the new arrival at the sci fi table. Its technologies of the sacred are usually seen to lie elsewhere (like syncretic voodoo systems such as fetishes). ‘I see sci fi ,’ he says, ‘as continuing a vein of philosophical enquiry that begins with the Egyptians and their incredibly detailed observations on life after death. This is the importance of Sun Ra. And this is why we have to understand sci fi as a kind of rationalist codification of that impulse.’
Exterior: filling station; the colourised photos flicker across the internet/retina of the data thief. A church bell tolls in the background. The grid is now almost completely navigated. Fade to black.
Kodwo Eshun talks to us about the importance of P-Funk – ‘George Clinton sexualised Ra’s despotic Egypt, updating the idea of Africa as the motherland into the Mothership Connection. Traced through conceptual albums of encyclopaedic density and legendary stage shows, P-Funk defi ned 70s Afrofuturism; in the 1980s Afrika Bambataa rerouted Kraftwerk’s TransEurope Express through videogame soundfx and vocoder tones, and set the blueprint for 80s electro.’ Colonised images flicker, the peal of the church bells continues. In the background, phrases from songs: ‘flesh of my skin, blood of my blood’. Eshun continues – ‘Fans pledged themselves to Pacman and Space Invader games; in their shows and costumes the P-Funk mob and the electro-hip hoppers adhered to formats and themes established by Sun Ra.’ A flood of accompanying images: electro funk, P-Funk, the Arkestra – in the background we hear a voice talking about the importance of Clinton in the Detroit Techno scene.
A name appears – Derrick May – then an interview describing techno’s interface of technology and rhythm. Confused, the data thief returns to ‘archaeology,’ to a vault marked ‘black secret technology’. The data thief zones into the vault – a huge chamber containing the technology of post-soul culture – from the earliest drum machines to the most contemporary computer software. May continues in the background, touching on many themes Eshun skirted over earlier. The voice continues – ‘late 70s disco broke decisively with postwar afrofuturism. Mindless, repetitive, mechanical, synthetic, technological. Disco is the start of the modern age.’ The data thief accesses the voice; it belongs to a journalist, Kodwo Eshun. ‘Disco; the beginning of the modern age – discophobia; fear of a new homo social planet; a fear of a new body technology, a dangerous rerouting of Afrofuturism’s libidinal zone. Rhythm as rhythm.’ Photos from the disco-electro period flit by intercut with homosocial worlds of disco and electro hip hop culture. Phrases – flesh of my skin, blood of my blood/tomorrow is the time you need, not yesterday – accompany bodypopping/breakdancing imagery; ‘history as virus’. Intricate circuitry overlays footage of the closure of the Ford Motor Factory in Detroit.
Eshun continues – ‘if we want to understand one of the seamless lines in Afrofuturism – Clinton to May, May to Techno and Jungle – Detroit is a good place to start because…’ The data thief shuts down the black box with the phrase – TIME TO GO. Fade to black…
This text previously appeared in Chimurenga Vol.12/13: Dr Satan’s Echo Chamber (available here). Other members of the BAFC are: Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison and Claire Johnson (replaced by David Lawson in 1985). Kodwo Eshun features in the latest (December) edition of the Chronic (available here).