more from the
May/June 2015 issue:
Kahlil Joseph's Double Act
– Lilly Lampe
– Travis Diehl
Abra: BLQ Velvet
– by Sam Thorne
Movement as Social Consciousness
Interview: Lauri Stallings
– Maggie Davis
A Pilot for a Show
– Martine Syms
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Text / Lilly Lampe
In 2012, Hilton Als wrote a powerful description of Kahlil Joseph's work for The New Yorker: "Joseph records the fragmented, intense world
of the kind of place where I grew up: a ghetto world that wouldn't call itself that without the help of sociologists or social workers [...] Nature
is relative, while all human experience is natural. Joseph shows us all that, from different angles." Joseph is a filmmaker and artist whose
(primarily music video) work has received coverage from major national newspapers (The Los Angeles Times), and music and pop cultural outlets
(VICE), but has yet to catch the eye of visual arts editorial. This is about to change.
Kahlil Joseph, m.A.A.d., 2014, film stills from double-channel projection [courtesy of the artist]
"You missed a real rager last night," Kahlil Joseph says as he pours us drinks. "Pope.L was here until 3 am! He wants us to do it again Saturday
for his opening." It's late afternoon in Los Angeles on Friday, March 20, and we're at the halfway point between two openings at the Museum of
Contemporary Art that week: William Pope.L's Trinket [March 20-June 28, 2015], and Joseph's own Double Conscience [March 20-August 16, 2015].
Double Conscience is Joseph's first solo exhibition at any museum or gallery. At its opening, one of Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles'
founding board members approached curator Bennett Simpson to sing Joseph's praises: "I sat through that video three times! MoCA's got to acquire
that work. The artist who created it, who is he?"
For years, the name Kahlil Joseph seems to have traveled via word of mouth: The New Yorker critic Hilton Als heard about him from writer Sharifa
Pitts; Kara Walker found his work through artist Deana Lawson.1 The opening of Double Conscience, however, inducts Joseph into the institutional
framework that is contemporary art. The exhibition features one double-channel video, m.A.A.d. (2014), a 15-minute loop that caroms throughout
Los Angeles, with a focus on Compton. Home video footage from 1992 is mixed with tracking shots of LA's long boulevards and backyard views of black
neighborhoods. If m.A.A.d. recalls the title of rap wunderkind Kendrick Lamar's breakout good kid, m.A.A.d city, it's because Lamar commissioned
the film. With the buzz surrounding Lamar's latest album—which was released within a week of the LA MoCA opening—Joseph stands to be introduced to
audiences well beyond the museum's reach.
Kahlil Joseph, m.A.A.d., 2014, film still from double-channel projection [courtesy of the artist]
Kahlil Joseph is best described as a filmmaker. What complicates that identity is that he's a filmmaker who's poised to
profoundly disturb the boundaries between art forms, and disorder the depiction of race on film. His works erode lingering
distinctions between music video, art-house film, and new media art. A common experience in front of one of his films seems
to be that viewers don't care what they think they are watching—they just want to see it again.
Joseph and I have been in touch since March 2014, when I saw his work in the exhibition Ruffneck Constructivists [February 12-August 17, 2014],
curated by artist Kara Walker for the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia. He is soft-spoken and interview-shy, which may be why
relatively little has been written about him. Some critics have found other ways to talk about the work: writing in 2012, Als described Joseph's
films as not only resurrecting the dying medium of the music video, but transcending the form with "visual riffs on the music that, in turn,
infuses his very real, present, and fantastical images."2 Als continues, "It's a measure of Joseph's modesty, and of letting the work speak for
itself, that there's very little biographical information about him out there."
Joseph is reluctant to disclose personal details such as his age (he was born in 1981, though the gray in his beard and his youthful slimness makes
this ambiguous), or where he went to school (he attended Loyola Marymount, where he played basketball) for fear that it might "distract from the work."
In Ruffneck Constructivists, a memorable exhibition that included such art world heavyweights as William Pope.L and respected names such as Jennie C. Jones,
Joseph's work made an impression, garnering praise in critical responses to the show. Two films by Joseph were exhibited at the Philadelphia ICA:
Until the Quiet Comes (2011) and Black Up (2011), made as music videos for the hip-hop artist Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces, respectively. Both act as
love letters to the predominantly black neighborhoods where they're set, but their separate moods are in stark contrast. In Until the Quiet Comes, a young
boy in a drained pool mimes shooting a handgun. The invisible bullet ricochets off the walls, striking the child—and hitting the viewer with morbidity.
In the next cut, he lies prostrate on the ground, his blood spreading into the pool like a grisly banner. Later, in what seems like a flashback, we see
the same child, alive and running across an empty football field with a friend in an exuberant shot that is a paean to the all-American childhood often
depicted in film or commercials (though typically with a white cast). Elsewhere, a man—dancer Storyboard P—is resurrected in Nickerson Gardens in
South LA: he examines his bullet wound, then picks himself up off the ground, sliding his way across the sidewalk in gorgeous movements that mix the
bodily language of street dance such as flex with those of a Pavlovan dying swan. In this incarnation, rather than coming to rest in poignant death on
the stage, Storyboard P's swan winnows its way to an awaiting low-rider, which rides off into the distance like a modern-day heavenly chariot.
Black Up turns the spaces beneath the elevated train tracks of the Bronx into a stage for encounters—casual, performative, romantic,
even spiritual. A girl with her hoodie up leans tenderly against Shabazz Palaces' front man, Ishmael Butler, while they wait in line at a
cheap food counter. Men bust moves and rap in empty streets, their only audience the video camera. Images of white horses and tangled forest
intermingle with shots of their concrete counterparts; the camera briefly pans over an overgrown patch of ground strewn with the face-down bodies
of black men and women, all wearing white.
Though Until the Quiet Comes earned Joseph the Short Film Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 2013, Black Up has stuck with him. "I love
that it starts with the lyric, 'Pilgrim Marketing Plan Rebuttal.' It's just genius. People don't even have time to process it. It's like looking
at someone through a screen door: you don't even notice the screen, but there's something between you and what you're looking it. That's my whole project."
There is a personal aspect to both films, too: "I made Until the Quiet Comes around the time my dad got sick," Joseph explains. "A lot of that emotional
stuff that people feel in that piece is me not going to therapy after he died."
Joseph started making films in his early twenties, but had been encouraged to make art from a young age. His mother was an art teacher in Seattle,
where Joseph grew up, and she enrolled him in a photography program at age 15. (He laughs about the work he made there: "I took a picture of a basketball
in '97. It was on the floor in my entryway, black and white, shadows on the basketball, real moody. It was the most mundane still-life.") Joseph's first
internship was with Doug Aitken, as Aitken was developing Sleepwalkers (2007) for the Museum of Modern Art. He also worked with Sofia Coppola and
Arthur Jafa, but it was a job working with Terrence Malick that has defined much of Joseph's style. "It was amazing, at the highest level," says Joseph
of his experience with Malick. "There are all these rules in film—two-shot, linear time, when the actors are acting you need quiet on set—and he doesn't
abide by a single [one,] which is pretty radical for someone who's considered an institution!"
Malick's influence is evident in m.A.A.d. Joseph's films consistently evade linear narrative in favor of haunting, elegiac scenes, complete with
dance—an analogue to life in all its joys and difficulties. Horses appear again like a motif of freedom; in m.A.A.d. they live in urban lots and
are cared for by black handlers. Men also hang upside-down from street lamps and roofs, their arms crossed over their chests like deceased Egyptian
kings—both vampire and strange fruit, perhaps, a resurrection of extra-human strength against an inhuman history. These scenes are spliced with glowing
aerial views of Los Angeles sprawl and glimpses of the city's monuments. Compton glows through the haze of the city, a protagonist in the film as much as
Artifacts from Lamar's life and work are woven seamlessly into m.A.A.d.. Lamar gave Joseph a USB drive containing home video footage from
1992—and carte blanche to use tracks from the good kid, m.A.A.d city album. Joseph layered the deconstructed stems in ways that disguise and confuse
the original songs, creating a mix that diffuses the linearity of a musical track. Joseph describes a scene in which the Martin Luther King Jr. monument
in front of the Compton City Hall appears on both screens: "You're floating around this big architectural thing and there are three elements: the harmony
of Lamar's song Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe slowed down all the way to 10%, the vocals of another song on the album, and on top of that I slowed down the
bass line—I screwed it, which is when you take a song all the way down to 2% so it sounds like a monster."
More difficult than Joseph's musical freedom was incorporating Lamar's home footage—on seeing his editor's selections, Joseph recalls thinking, "this is
the best shit in the whole film. ... [H]ow do I make what I've shot equal to what an amateur uncle made in 1992?" Joseph cares about his work's dimensionality
and resonance above his own acclaim; footage like Lamar's, he says, gives the film a "sense of, and connection to, black history."
Kahlil Joseph, m.A.A.d., 2014, film stills from double-channel projection [courtesy of the artist]
Joseph recalls a moment during the installation of Ruffneck Constructivists in which he and Kara Walker were riding in an elevator
together after watching Until the Quiet Comes, when he realized that she was crying. "That was profound for me," he says. "James Turrell
has said, there's a distance artists sometimes create between the piece and the audience, and he's interested in bridging that gap. I very much
respond to that." Since Ruffneck Constructivists, Joseph seems to have embraced his evident fluency in the concerns of the art world, its protagonists,
institutions, and markets—a dramatic change from his previous skepticism a year ago, when he distanced himself from the term "fine artist" and brushed
off the idea of selling his work. "I've been getting a lot of requests to work with galleries," he says of the recent rapprochement, "and I've been
wondering what that work would be. It wouldn't be another Kendrick Lamar or Flying Lotus."
It seems unlikely that Joseph will relinquish the filmic aspects of his practice, although his is murky disciplinary territory: there are notable
video artists such as Steve McQueen and Sam Taylor-Johnson who made the transition into filmmaking, but Joseph's path could be said to be the reverse.
(He muses, "Ryan Trecartin said, 'I thought I'd always be a filmmaker, but the arts community saw and responded to my work,' and I said 'Yeah, that's
how it's been for me.'") Will he make a feature film? Joseph approaches the prospect carefully. "There's a lot of power in feature films," he says,
"and a handful of artists have made feature films and fine art. But most of the time, if you were to see their fine art and their feature films,
there's a big gap. I don't know if I'm interested in my gap being that wide."
Joseph is intimately connected to the art world through his younger brother, painter Noah Davis, with whom he shares a studio. At age 25, Davis was
included in 30 Americans, a pivotal group exhibition of contemporary art by black Americans, which opened in 2008 at Miami's Rubell Family Collection.
It has since traveled to six institutions, and it will grace two more this year. The brothers are the cornerstone of a burgeoning community of black
artists that has formed around a Los Angeles space called the Underground Museum. The Underground Museum serves both Davis and Joseph as an office
and experimental space, a place where they can show the works of artists they admire and preview some of their own. Located in a row of single-story
buildings in Mid City, between a Mexican Baptist church and a lawnmower supply, it incorporates a library featuring art books and African masks,
multiple exhibition galleries, offices, and studios. The backyard matches the square footage of the interior; a flattop with several picnic tables
easily transitions into an area for events and screenings. A black cat with a white patch at her throat ("Her name is Reverend," says Joseph,
"because she's real white collar.") guards the space. m.A.A.d. originally screened there, in an exhibition called The Oracle. When it opened,
passersby on their way home from work trickled in, drawn by the party and the lights of the film. "They said they'd never seen anything like it,"
recalls Joseph, with the first trace of pride I've seen in him all week. "That was a really great moment," he says.
Joseph is surprised his music videos have garnered as much attention as they have; while he hopes not to be pegged to the medium, he confesses a
love for the pairing of music and film. "I think some of the best scenes in movies are musical sequences," he says. "Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick,
Godard, Tarkovsky ... Woody Allen's movies have a ragtime quality. The shtick and the banter, it's all musicality."
Kahlil Joseph, Wildcat, 2013 [courtesy of the artist and What Matters Most]
Until now, all of Joseph's work has been shot on 35mm film. "I want to continue working on film as much as I can, but life is long.
Godard was my age when he made Breathless in '59. Imagine asking him about digital then! Now, he's exclusively digital." He adds, "I want
to shoot black-and-white on IMAX. I've never seen that before. It might be the last thing I shoot on film."
Currently, Joseph is working on several films. One is an ongoing project that touches on York, an explorer and enslaved person who traveled
with Lewis and Clark through the Pacific Northwest; another, apparently, references Neil Young, a musician Joseph had no previous exposure to
("He started a band called Crazy Horse," he tells me, incredulously). He's also talking with Pope.L about a possible collaboration. Meanwhile,
he and Davis continue to discuss plans for the Underground Museum, and Theaster Gates, an artist who transformed his South Side Chicago
neighborhood by creating new models for community art centers, has been advising them.
When I spoke to Joseph only weeks after his opening at LA MoCA, much had changed. His art career is moving so rapidly that his goals and
identity within it must necessarily adapt at a pace to match. "My imagination is expanding," he says. "The video projects I've shown in art
settings weren't conceived for that, but now I'm thinking about how the work will be shown in that context. I'm no longer concerned with a
musician, or three to four minutes of run-time, or single channel, or how the work will look on a laptop. I'm thinking about how I can
transform physical space."
Lilly Lampe is a writer and art critic based in Atlanta.
1. Hilton Als, "Kahlil Joseph's Emotional Eye," NewYorker.com, September 18, 2012,