Joseph’s two-screen art-work-slash-news-network offers an alternative to the media’s harmful representations of the black community
Last month, Sean “Diddy” Combs announced that he was launching a new platform called REVOLT BLACK NEWS. The music mogul stated that its aim would be “to report the news from our perspective, for our people.” He added: “This platform is for solutions. We’ve already heard about what we can’t do, but this is about what we CAN do.”
It should have been a rallying moment, but what you may not know is that Combs’ statement of intent sounds remarkably similar to filmmaker, director, and artist Kahlil Joseph’s ongoing project BLKNWS. Though Diddy has said he came up with the idea after hosting an online discussion called “State of Emergency: The State of Black America & Coronavirus”, many prominent figures – including director Barry Jenkins and curator and author Kimberly Drew – have since come to Joseph’s aid to suggest Diddy’s new project is in debt to the original BLKNWS.
Conceived as an antidote to the dangerous representation of black stereotypes pedalled on the mainstream US news, BLKNWS is a two-channel video montage created using newly created imagery and contemporary news clips, alongside found and archival footage that focusses the multi-facets of black lives.
Joseph first made a name for himself creating videos for high-profile artists such as Kendrick Lamar (2014’s dual-screen m.A.A.d.) and Beyoncé (2016’s Lemonade film), as well as FKA twigs, Flying Lotus, Shabazz Palaces, and others. His work has also been shown in art institutions such as Tate Modern, MoCA, and the New Museum. At the beginning of the year he unveiled an installation at the Los Angeles’ outpost of retailer The Webster. The brother of late artist and curator, Noah Davis, Joseph is crucially involved in LA’s Underground Museum, which Davis founded in 2012, three years before his untimely passing. Located in the historically working-class, predominantly black and Latino neighbourhood of Arlington Heights, its mission statement is to bring artists such as Rodney McMillian, Deana Lawson, and Roy DeCarava, into walking-distance of a community that has historically not had access to it.
In honour of Joseph’s contribution, not just the art world at large but to his community generally, we highlight five things that make BLKNWS so groundbreaking.
“I remember saying, ‘We should just do the news ourselves,’ almost jokingly but then, as I said it, I recognised that it was a very real possibility... Like, what would that even look like if I did the news?” – Kahlil Joseph
IT WAS ORIGINALLY PITCHED AS A NEWS PROGRAMME
“I was having a conversation with my friend (director) Ryan Coogler about black people on the news and just how shameful it usually is,” Joseph told Surface magazine, recalling the lineage of BLKNWS. “I remember saying, ‘We should just do the news ourselves,’ almost jokingly but then, as I said it, I recognised that it was a very real possibility. And, in that moment, the seed was planted. Like, what would that even look like if I did the news?”
BLKNWS was initially created as a pitch to cable networks for a real-life news show. “As black people, we’ve never had a New York Times or ABC or CNN,” he explained. BLKNWS would create a space within the existing white-centric media landscape to share footage of black experiences. It would counter the dominant, too often negative, portrayals of blackness in the news cycle.
After the major networks passed on Joseph’s idea, he began to reconceive it as an art project. “I got some ideas together and a few months later, Ralph Rugoff (director of the Hayward Gallery and the 2019 Venice Biennale) was in town and wanted to meet,” Joseph explains. “At that point, I had a little five-minute thing and he watched it and said, ‘Would you like to be in the Venice Biennale? If you make this thing a reality, I would love to include it.’”
IT WAS THE STAR OF THE 2019 VENICE BIENNALE
The 2019 Venice Biennale offered the theme “May You Live in Interesting Times”, and featured work addressing the most urgent issues of our day. Arthur Jafa – a friend and video artist championed by Joseph when he previewed Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death at his own screening of Lemonade at Art Basel in 2016 – was also included on the Biennale programme that year. His film, White Album (2018), a 40-minute video montage depicting the various manifestations of racism still present in American culture, provided an interesting counterpoint to BLKNWS. As Artnet reported, if White Album is the “diagnosis” of the historical wounds inflicted by the colonial past, then Joseph’s BLKNWS is “something like a prescription”, offering “a moving, funny, and aspirational vision of what media might look like.”
While BLKNWS has been shown at one of the world’s most prestigious art events, it also lives at Total Luxury Spa’s Los Angeles’ store and is open for anyone to come and spend time with it.
IT FEATURES ARCHIVAL CLIPS THAT STILL RESONATE TODAY
The double-channel format of BLKNWS juxtaposes two videos side by side, creating a dialogue between the pair of, often disparate, fragments of footage. “I call it conceptual journalism,” Joseph told Surface magazine. “I think anything can be news, given context. That’s why there are two screens. Things immediately have context once you start pairing them with something.”
Joseph also reimagines the concept of news itself by using sources from the vast archive of the past. “There’s this fallacy that news is a linear event. There’s an excerpt in BLKNWS, a Maya Angelou interview. I can’t tell you how many people are grabbed by that little two-minute excerpt with Maya Angelou because they have never seen it. So I recognised the power of stuff that’s already out there.” Despite dating from 1973, Joseph recognised the clip “felt new” because Angelou’s message remains as relevant as ever.
Equally, he’s careful not to assign pre-existing judgements of cultural value onto his news sources. ”If we see a story or headline that’s good, we will redesign it and make it native to a BLKNWS environment. The spectrum of sources that we’ll recontextualise will be from the local LA yoga newspaper or magazine to the New York Times. So the hierarchy has been completely flattened.”
IT STAYS TRUE TO JOSEPH’S SIGNATURE STYLE
BLKNWS represents a distillation of Joseph’s values as an artist. The signature sentiment of his work is about community-building, his projects are geared towards inclusivity and reciprocity. Generous ideas such as Underground Museum challenge the notion of who can see art, and who it’s made for. “The Underground is such an intensely public space and the work there is super humbling,” he explained. “I’m essentially a custodian at best. So my family supports the Underground, the Underground supports the community, the community supports the Underground.”
Joseph is for the democratisation of art, not just in terms of who is able to consume it, but also in terms of how it’s valued. Seeing little distinction between commercial or fine art films, he argues, “Miles Davis was a huge pop star, and I don’t think he ever had to make a decision if he was making commercial music or the most serious jazz music ever made. ”
HE CAN EDIT THE FOOTAGE FROM HOME
As a piece of video art, another innovative aspect of BLKNWS is the extent to which it’s so truly a work in progress, evolving as Joseph finds new content he wants to share. “That was another element of the confluence of what made BLKNWS,” he explained to Surface. “How do you make all of the research into something? It’s a kind of a Gumbo. And I update it regularly.” He continues to edit it remotely. “Each site is networked and controlled from my studio. It’s unstable. I think art, at its best, is unstable.”
At first I was SURPRISED then delighted that Kahlil and Diddy came together but then I checked and... I'm sorry but this ain't right. And it illustrates how one can collect art without SEEING it. Bcuz how can Kerry James Marshall be on your wall but u not know of Kahlil Joseph?— Barry Jenkins (@BarryJenkins) April 21, 2020
HE’S GOT A LOT OF SUPPORT BEHIND HIM
Although Joseph himself has declined to comment, many high-profile supporters of BLKNWS have come out to question the originality of REVOLT BLACK NEWS following Sean Combs’ announcement. Helen Molesworth, a curator at MoCA who appeared on a mock news segment in BLKNWS, told Artnet, “Unfortunately, I do think that this is an example of plagiarism. Joseph’s BLKNWS has had wide and heterogenous exposure, from screenings at the Underground Museum to the Venice Biennale, from being workshopped at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford to its existence in the lobby of the Eaton Hotel in Washington, DC. It’s been circulated widely among Hollywood folks and many music industry people own copies of it. So I find it hard to believe... that anyone, by which I mean Diddy, who owns a Kerry James Marshall and professes to be all about the culture, isn’t aware of what the director of Lemonade is up to. But the real question for me is why did he continue with it even after he was explicitly informed? What version of the culture is that?”
Director Barry Jenkins, who screened Moonlight at the Underground Museum back in in 2016, expressed his disappointment on Twitter, saying “At first I was SURPRISED then delighted that Kahlil and Diddy came together but then I checked and… I’m sorry but this ain’t right.” The director points out, “It illustrates how one can collect art without SEEING it. Bcuz how can Kerry James Marshall be on your wall but u not know of Kahlil Joseph?”
Curator and author Kimberly Drew also took to Twitter to highlight Combs’ apparent failure to credit Joseph’s idea, “It’s a tender time and while I appreciate @Diddy launching a news beat directed towards black issues. There is already a project title “BLK NWS” and it’s authored by a black artist. Disappointed in his team for this oversight.”