Kahlil Joseph Broadcasts the Vastness of Black Life in ‘BLKNWS’

Kahlil Joseph, 'BLKNWS,' 2018; 2-channel broadcast, Installation view at the Cantor Arts Center. (Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center)

Editor’s note: Please welcome a new monthly column from writer, editor and producer Ruth Gebreyesus, who will cover Bay Area arts and culture, with an eye towards the East Bay, for KQED Arts.

There’s no good reason to summarize or itemize Kahlil Joseph’s BLKNWS, a two-channel video installation now on view at Stanford University. Its density resists any such effort.

In fact, there’s great relief in arriving at a show about blackness that isn’t attempting a frugal summary of its subject matter or extolling moral lessons through black bodies. But for the sake of fulfilling my duties as a messenger, here goes: BLKNWS is a broadcast of black life in America expressed through abundant footage pulled from headline news, archival material, internet-native clips and Joseph’s own past films.

At a screening for the San Francisco Film Festival in April, Joseph explained he originally pitched BLKNWS to television networks as a news program. With painter Henry Taylor and actress Amandla Stenberg, among others, as anchors, the broadcast reads more like a social media feed or a journey at the mercy of YouTube’s calculus than any news currently on TV.

On BLKNWS, algorithmic chapters sway between disparate poles. Dystopian climate change headlines play alongside clips from Annihilation and other catastrophe movies. Soon after, June Jordan sits at her desk reciting her poem “Song of the Law Abiding Citizen.”

“And I can't pay the rent / but I sent 10,000 food stamps / back to the President and his beautiful wife,” she chants in her distinct birdsong, as the footage switches to a scene at the iconic dining table in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. In this case, the algorithm is Joseph’s own math, a living formula he edits and adds to at will, remotely via a server.

Kahlil Joseph speaking with Rachel Kushner at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
Kahlil Joseph speaking with Rachel Kushner at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival. (Courtesy of Tommy Lau, SFFILM)

If there’s one through line that connects Joseph’s art and film career thus far, it’s the presence of music. His earliest films found their way to the public through music videos he directed for Shabazz Palaces, Flying Lotus and FKA Twigs. In 2014, he debuted m.A.A.d. at MOCA, a short film set to songs from Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed 2012 album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Opening with Lamar’s family home videos, shot just a month before the 1992 L.A. riots, and continuing with clips of quotidian life Joseph captured after the album’s release, m.A.A.d. paints a portrait of Compton as if it were recollected from communal memory.

A shot of a young man taking a swig at a block party switches to him dancing at the concrete mouth of the L.A. River for a few seconds then back to the block party again. It’s a signature rhythm of Joseph’s, a loyalty to emotional time over the logic of a ticking clock. It’s the difference between how warm it is and how warm it feels. Between going fast and flying.

BLKNWS leans further into that pace with synchronized screens and a keen awareness of how we digest information in the age of social media: how we jump from joy to terror in the space of a click or a scroll. Joseph must understand our tolerance for those emotional swings has transformed into an appetite. As he travels through visuals and sounds from the black zeitgeist into smaller, intimate moments of home life, shifting between cosmic and cellular scales, he resists the urge towards a conclusion about blackness. It is everything he’s showed and much more.

Kahlil Joseph, 'BLKNWS,' 2018; Still from 2-channel broadcast.
Kahlil Joseph, 'BLKNWS,' 2018; Still from 2-channel broadcast. (Courtesy of the artist)

Though he couldn’t find a home on TV for BLKNWS, Joseph chose three locations to stream it at Stanford: the Cantor Arts Center; the Lagunita dining hall in the complex that houses Ujamaa, a residence with black cultural focus; and Harmony House, home to the Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA).

I chose to watch BLKNWS at Harmony House. (The full piece is estimated to be around nine hours long, though Joseph’s periodic edits defy a running time.) Across from the two wall-mounted monitors, I sank into a cozy couch in what was likely once a living room. Sipping water offered to me by A-lan Holt, the director of the IDA, I imagined this as Joseph’s original intended setting for the broadcast. Visiting someone’s home and catching a bit of news: The planet is in peril it seems. The brilliant Sadiya Hartman has thoughts to share about fugitive modernity. A young, shrill-toned Dave Chappelle does a bit. They do name all these hurricanes after women, don’t they? A child giggles at his father’s silly voices. Toni Morrison speaks a few words from the generous mountain she left us to climb up and see the vastness of black life.

Back home, my Twitter feed’s assemblage feels less profound and artful than ever. Instead, I seek out the fragments I saw on BLKNWS. In one, Joseph interplays Christina Sharpe reading from her book In Wake: On Blackness and Being with brutal scenes from Amistad.

“The amount of time it takes for a substance to enter the ocean and then leave the ocean is called ‘residence time,’” Sharpe says, later borrowing a phrase from Morrison’s Jazz. “We black people exist in the residence time of the wake. A time in which ‘everything is now.’ It is all now.” Her last sentence, a proverb of BLKNWS’s intangible magnitude, echoed in my head for hours.

‘BLKNWS’ is on view at Stanford University through Nov. 25. Details here.

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