Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Ghosts of Songs

Black Audio Film Collective FACT Centre, Wood Street (2nd February - 1st April 2007, Tues-Sun 11am-6pm)

During their active years in the 1980s and 90s, the Black Audio Film Collective never navel gazed about the 'black experience', unlike many of their modern day, lottery-funded counterparts. Which is a very good thing, for two reasons. First off, there's no such thing as the black experience or identity, any more than there is a white one. Condoleezza Rice feels her ethnicity in a very different way to people scraping a living in Liverpool. Secondly, the group's work is therefore open to those of us with much less melanin in our skin.

The Ghosts of Songs is a retrospective exhibition, taking in a fascinating selection of the collective's films and posters, even taking in their record and book collections. The films are split between four partitioned galleries on the first floor, and the ground floor Media Lounge. Upstairs you can see Handsworth Songs - which documents the poverty and alienation that sparked the Handsworth riots of 1981 and 1985, and Signs of Empire - which weaves together haunting music, political speeches, and images from the British so-called Commonwealth. This film is particularly powerful, because it's eerily reminiscent of the current attempt by the US and UK to bring the entire Middle East under the sway of Western business interests.

Downstairs, there are several films on a loop. During my visit I watched The Last Angel of History - which combines black working class history with sci-fi narratives and a blues/funk/jungle soundtrack, and A Touch of the Tar Brush. This was filmed in Liverpool fifteen years ago, and presenter John Akomfrah re-traced writer JB Priestley's 1933 journey through areas such as Toxteth, where he had been delighted to see a large black population co-existing (and reproducing) with the local whites. At one moment, a woman at my screening sat bolt upright, pointed at the screen and started shouting. Apparently, her sister had been interviewed for the film, and she'd never known about it!

The Media Lounge also plays host to a new piece by former collective member David Rokeby. Using musical keyboards, visitors can choose images, and combine them with music and sound effects to create their own one time only film. I played with this for about twenty minutes!

As soon as I saw that most of the collective's books are also either on my shelves or my Amazon wishlist, I knew I'd be intrigued by the whole exhibition. But there is something there for anyone who has ever struggled to get by in life, whether their ancestors left Africa a hundred thousand years ago or last Tuesday.
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