LOS ANGELES — After ordering a to-go plate of the oxtail dinner at Natraliart Jamaican Restaurant, and stepping to the side to allow for better social distancing, my eyes drifted to the double TVs mounted in the upper corner of the left wall. Though situated side-by-side, each screen followed its own hypnotic rhythm, shuffling through clips and images without a care for linearity or predictable sense-making. The soundtrack followed suit, a virtuosic collage of voices and sounds that mixed with the ambient acoustics of the restaurant: two women speaking patois, the door swinging open to another masked customer.
The frantic blur of media would sometimes slow to a crawl, halting for a few seconds on a singular phrase or still. At one point, I was mesmerized by a close-up of Aretha Franklin performing live, regal and meditative over a piano. Her image was paired with the statement “The shape of things to come,” which appeared in plain white text over a black background. Underneath was a smaller text reminder: “This message is brought to you by BLKNWS®.”
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BLKNWS® is the latest video work from artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph. Co-produced with Los Angeles Nomadic Division, an organization dedicated to site-specific public art, Joseph’s project is installed in various Black-owned small businesses throughout the city, from a barbershop and a shoe store, to a family market and a medical clinic. All of the locations are in historic working-class neighborhoods like Compton, Leimert Park, Filipinotown, and Highland Park.
The installations are part of Made in LA 2020: a version, the fifth edition of the Hammer Museum’s biennial showcase of new work from LA-based artists (which, this year, is split between the Hammer and the Huntington). The show usually occurs in the summer, but has been postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As museums await the approvals to safely reopen, these offsite screenings provide a thrilling preview of the exhibition. They also celebrate art as an expression of everyday living, removing it from its rarefied position.
Described as “conceptual journalism,” Joseph’s ongoing two-channel project revels in the expansiveness of Black history and experience. Music videos, viral memes, home movies, academic lectures, archival footage, film excerpts, and newly produced segments are spliced together in ways that counter the corrosive effects of our profit-driven, reactionary mainstream media. VICE News correspondent Alzo Slade, curator Helen Molesworth, and actress Amandla Sternberg play quirky newscasters. Mock-chyrons flash by, swapping out breaking news cycles for rhizomatic narratives that complicate what we do or do not deem newsworthy (one chyron addresses the high rates of PTSD among gang members).
In addition to Natraliart, I visited two other sites, both cafés — Hilltop Coffee and Bloom & Plume Coffee. The sound was turned off at Hilltop Coffee, allowing for a deeper engagement with the iridescent visuals. Bloom & Plume set up the screens on a community board located just outside the entrance, an unexpected discovery for customers and pedestrians. Most people seemed curious, tuning in every few minutes as they waited on orders. It was refreshing to see the bemusement on their faces — realizing, perhaps, what the news could be if it focused on representing the nuances of experience. Encountering BLKNWS® is like picking up a signal from a renegade channel, one that decenters and deviates from the hierarchical impulses of news-making.