IS IT REALLY A MYSTERY why Black Audio Film Collective have had to wait nearly ten years since their dissolution for their first retrospective? Founded in London in 1982, the group operated in a context far removed from Britain's burgeoning fascination with Turner Prizes and blockbuster YBA shows. Rather, their formation took place against the background of the country's tumultuous 1970s: a period of postindustrial recession and increasing racial and class division during which violent unrest was both cause and consequence of policing tactics seen by urban groups--and by African-Caribbean and Asian populations in particular--as the return of colonialism to England itself. The subsequent attempt by government agencies to redirect public turmoil toward cultural production lent support and visibility to BAFC's work, as the new public-service television station Channel 4 both funded and presented their films, along with those of other community-based collectives, including Sankofa, Retake, and Ceddo. (All these groups were part of a countrywide "workshop movement" that contributed to a renaissance of artistic and critical activity further energized by new institutions such as the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham and the feminism- and psychoanalysis-inflected film theory in journals like Screen.) While mindful of the potential co-optation attending Channel 4's sponsorship, BAFC exploited the opportunity for their own radical ends, addressing, among other subjects, the postcolonial decline of empire and the devastating effects of Thatcherite economic policies on urban Britain.
However, to position BAFC's practice as primarily political--easily done in a period obsessed with questions of identity--is to run the risk of obscuring the group's artistic strengths. It's true that their work appeared on television and at film festivals as well as in art galleries, but they used this flexibility to their advantage; it accorded well with their notion of filmmaking as both a political and an aesthetic endeavor. Commentators who see BAFC chiefly as a documentary enterprise offering a corrective to mainstream accounts of British history make it easy to overlook the experimental nature of the group's work. In fact, BAFC's critical approach to the visual modes that define political reality dovetailed with a skepticism regarding any claims to representing the definitive truth of historical experience. "Truly tough aesthetics ... neither explains nor forgives history," BAFC member Reece Auguiste wrote in 1988, quoting the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott. It's a wry observation that speaks to both the production and the reception of their oeuvre, and suggests why it resonates anew among like-minded artists today.
Indeed, we owe thanks to curators Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar--members of the Otolith Group, in whose filmmaking the legacy of BAFC clearly lives on--for this long overdue and beautifully organized retrospective, and for an accompanying monograph rich with essays, interviews, and photographic documentation. "The Ghosts of Songs" takes as its focus one early slide-tape work--the stunning Signs of Empire, 1982-84, remade here as a projected DVD--and three of BAFC's essay-films: their best-known piece, Handsworth Songs (1986), which examines the mid-'80s race riots and police brutality in Birmingham's outskirts; Twilight City (1989), a portrait of London as a city of uneven economic development and social inequality; and Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993), which combines interviews with his relatives, friends, and commentators with a retelling of the story of his life. The films were presented in cozy soundproofed chambers designed by architect David Adjaye; each viewing space was surfaced in a different shade of colored felt, playing off the films' distinct tonalities, which were frequently intensified by the use of chromatic filters. Supplementing this challenging but accessible selection of early and late works in the galleries were seven other of the group's films, available for viewing in FACT's media lounge--completing the retrospective's breadth and providing access to work otherwise not readily available. …