THE MESSAGE IS DEATH
ARTHUR JAFA in conversation with
portraits by amanda demme
MICHÈLE LAMY — Your path as an artist was not a conventional one. How did you arrive at making art and film?
ARTHUR JAFA — My path was never a straight line. There is no map. And even if there was one, I would burn it because nobody should do it that way. My path really started when a friend called me to replace him on a job as a cinematographer. Shortly after, another friend called me to shoot a pilot for a TV show — not what I had ever envisioned for myself, but at the time I felt blessed because it allowed me to make a chunk of money, fast. I went back to LA and bought a new car. Then a friend called me up to see if I was interested in making a film about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for ZDF in Germany. I said yes and wrote an insane treatment, thinking they would never approve it, but they did. We had no oversight, so I made a crazy film for German television. After that, somebody hired me to do a commercial in New York, but they released me because it scared the shit out of them, and they found somebody else. So, I was in New York for five days and didn’t have anything else to do. At that point, I was thinking that my future was doing commercials.
MICHÈLE LAMY — So, how did you start working as an artist?
ARTHUR JAFA — In the early 2000s, I said: “I don’t know about film. I’m going to try to do art.” I began collecting footage, and I cut Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death in about two hours. I was half done with it before I realized I was doing something different. I remember staring at it for days and thinking it was intense. One day I turned on Saturday Night Live, and Kanye was performing “Ultralight Beam.” I thought it was an amazing song, so I added it to the video.
MICHÈLE LAMY — And how did the video, which started as an experimental personal project, take off in the way it did?
ARTHUR JAFA — A close friend of mine happened to have a copy of it on his laptop while he was in Basel, Switzerland, where he was having a private screening for Beyonce’s Lemonade — which he directed — and he showed Love Is the Message before that, with no preface. Gavin Brown was in the audience, and he tracked me down some days later. I was driving my son to school, and my phone rang. I’ll never forget it. He said that he saw the video and that we should show it by itself, in two weeks. That’s the thing about Gavin that I love — he’s insane. He’s a “yes” person — that’s part of his superpower. I can’t imagine anybody else who would’ve tracked me down after seeing a video on someone’s laptop and propose a show within two weeks.
MICHÈLE LAMY — Do you think your art is part of a collaborative attitude?
ARTHUR JAFA — It’s not the only metric, but it’s a metric that matters to me. Do you create work that makes other people want to create? It was true of hip-hop, and it’s true of punk rock. There’s something very deceptive about both of them: on the surface, it looks easy, and you think you can do it. But that’s part of the magic of it.
MICHÈLE LAMY — But you are not afraid of taking creative risks?
ARTHUR JAFA — Fear is important to me because I cannot function without it. Everybody has fear, but it’s about what your relationship to fear is. Fear will make some people be still, and for other people fear will make them move and get out there.
MICHÈLE LAMY — Yeah. It’s the way you deal with it.
ARTHUR JAFA —
Fear of being stuck, that’s my thing. There’s a term that
people use a lot, “fugitivity,” the sense that you are always
on the run. If you stay still too long, they’ll build a box around
you. So, you have to just keep moving.
MICHÈLE LAMY — “Fugitivity”: like being a criminal?
ARTHUR JAFA — Yeah. I’m from Mississippi. I spent the first 17 or 18 years of my life just trying to get out of there. The Delta, outside of Appalachia, is the poorest region in America. That was the part of Mississippi that had slavery and the biggest plantations because it’s flat with large expanses of land. Everything I grew up around was directly connected to slavery. When I was in high school, half of my classmates were the first generation in their family to be off plantations, which is crazy when you think about it. I always call it the Black Jurassic Park. Even now, you know you’re in a place where the primordial whatever began. Mississippi is ground zero for Black American culture. You could probably argue it’s ground zero for world culture in the 20th century because pop music is clearly the dominant culture form.
ARTHUR JAFA — Do you know the Danish photographer named Jacob Holdt?
MICHÈLE LAMY — No.
ARTHUR JAFA — He made a book titled American Pictures. Holdt grew up in a family of ministers and was on a path to becoming one himself. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, he hitchhiked across America and wrote letters to his friends in Denmark describing what he was seeing. Nobody could believe it because they had all these ideas about America, the land of milk and honey, without poverty. So, he started taking pictures and made this book, which was a really big influence for my work APEX in 2013. The first time I saw the photos, there was a shocking recognition because I’ve never seen anyone take pictures of the Mississippi I grew up around, where there’s abject poverty and an intensity in how people live. To me, the horror and madness in the South is intensely present in Mississippi. A lot of the intensity of the music and the expression that came out of there are directly tied to that.
MICHÈLE LAMY — That intensity is present in the work, the agony and the ecstasy. You were born in Tuelo, Mississippi, the same place as Elvis Presley. Do you think there’s something about that particular environment that breeds a certain artistic sensibility?
ARTHUR JAFA — I used to get into arguments with people in college because they would say that Elvis ripped off everything from Black people. To which I would say, “Elvis was a bad motherfucker.” Whether it’s Little Richard or James Brown, everybody is always taking something from somewhere. We have to be careful to not confuse critiques of the way Elvis’s creativity is overvalued compared with other people who were equally, if not more, innovative than he was. That’s separate from whether Elvis himself was a genius. He was — there’s no argument. You can see how electric he was. I feel the same about Jackson Pollock, who essentially took the jazz methodology and applied it to painting.
MICHÈLE LAMY — In your point of view, how deeply is Black culture undervalued?
ARTHUR JAFA — The problem is not that Black people are undervalued. The problem is that we are also overvalued, with slavery for example and things like that. On one level, Black people are the icon of a certain life force. But at the same time, there’s a negative death energy floating around Black people. It’s a weird polarity that I am fascinated with. I’m fascinated with the flux because I was born in Tupelo but grew up in Clarksdale. It was only a hundred miles away, but it was a totally different environment. Tupelo was the model, post-integrated Southern city, and Clarksdale was not. It was totally segregated, and it was like going back and forth between Nazi Germany and non-Nazi Germany. And going back and forth between those environments, having to switch codes — it makes you alien.
MICHÈLE LAMY — And your work exists in that intersection as well. It’s in the in-between.
ARTHUR JAFA — I mean, Elvis is a product of it just as much as “Black music,” but Elvis’s music is Black music. That’s the thing about it. Elvis talks about this as well. He’s one of those in-between people. He’s half of an equation, to me.
MICHÈLE LAMY — Yeah. I suppose it is the half-life, as well. The mutations.
ARTHUR JAFA — Mutation. That’s it. That’s the word. A lot of people my age are obsessed with Blackness. But not as a sociopolitical designation, which is real. Blackness, in an ontological sense, is what people are fixated on and trying to unpack. I know all Black people are of African de- scent, but I don’t think most Africans are Black. The experiences of people of African descent in the Americas is what produced Blackness. I think so-called Black people are the canary in the mine shaft. Black music is inscribed with the experiences that Black people had. It has become part and parcel of what it means to be a thinking, living, feeling person in the world right now. So, when people hear Black music, they hear the emancipatory part of it.
MICHÈLE LAMY — Love Is the Message makes me think about divine inspiration in pop culture.
ARTHUR JAFA — I was an altar boy.
MICHÈLE LAMY — So, you were brought up Catholic?
ARTHUR JAFA — Oh, yeah, I was attracted to the pageantry and the processional.
MICHÈLE LAMY — Love Is the Message has that feeling of an otherworldly experience.
ARTHUR JAFA — I mean, even when you point out that I like Bernini, I’d be reluctant to admit it because it can come off like I’m trying to align with the Western European art tradition. I get disturbed when people try to box me in. I just saw something today — an article that was recently published in Le Monde about my work — and it started out by talking about Black Lives Matter. Love Is the Message predates Black Lives Matter. Nobody had heard of Black Lives Matter when I made Love Is the Message. I agree with the objectives of Black Lives Matter, but the idea of being an icon for the movement, that’s not me. Some see uplift in the video, but not in the way that I meant it. I think Love Is the Message is pretty dark and funny.
MICHÈLE LAMY — Yeah, because the message is death.
ARTHUR JAFA — I don’t know how to be more explicit than that. A friend of mine said that the reason Black folks take it as uplifting has to do with the fact that we are gaslighted a lot. And it’s something that actually tells people that, no, they’re not fantasizing. It’s anti-gaslighting. I would say I’m more of an undertaker than an uplifter. I’m not really attracted to the light. I’m attracted to the shadow. I’m interested in what it means to be a Black person who’s interested in black metal and the occult dimensions of Blackness. And I think Love Is the Message is consistent with that.
MICHÈLE LAMY — And how does this shadow, the darkness, manifest in your work?
ARTHUR JAFA — The hardest thing I’ve ever made was a piece called I Don’t Care About Your Past. I tried to put it on posters on the streets, and my gallerist Gavin Brown told me that he was afraid it was going to cause a stir in Harlem. It was a picture of a lynching, but it’s next to gang members with guns. When I first had a show at the Serpentine Gallery, they scraped it off the wall.
MICHÈLE LAMY — What about racial violence today?
ARTHUR JAFA — My brother said something about it that hit me like a ton of bricks. He said, “There’s so much violence directed toward Black people’s bodies in your work, but the only time you’ve ever gotten any resistance to showing it was when it was just Black people with guns.” Now, increasingly, I feel I’m on a Monopoly board game, and I’m just moving around. It’s fascinating, but it’s also perplexing.
MICHÈLE LAMY — There seems to be a fluidity to the way you create, and a willingness to reinvent your practice.
ARTHUR JAFA — There was an exhibition at Artist Space called “Artists Select,” where established artists select an emerging artist, and they have a three-person show. My friend Kiki Smith asked me if I wanted to be part of it. I asked her what I would have to do. She was like, “You can do whatever you want to do. You can show a video. You can make new work.” The only advice she ever gave me was, “Take up as much space as you can. If you’re interested in doing other things, if you want to paint or do photography, do everything. Forget about the quality of it. Do everything that you want to do, and just put it in there because what happens is artists start off narrow, and then you do video and you want to expand, and there’s a crazy resistance to it. So, just do whatever.”
MICHÈLE LAMY — You were the top artist of the year at the Venice Biennale.
ARTHUR JAFA — Weird! Because I didn’t grow up with that reference. I didn’t know they had an award in Venice until a guy called me and told me I was selected for the Golden Lion. I was literally on my laptop Googling it while he was telling me. I didn’t grow up with fantasies of a Golden Lion. I grew up with fantasies of the Heisman Trophy, which you get in college football if you win. In my brain, that’s the oldest image of an external verification that you were excellent. After that, it’s the Academy Award. And when I won, it was crazy. They kept asking me if I was happy all night.
MICHÈLE LAMY — What do you think about the art and fashion connection that has been happening over the last 20 years?
ARTHUR JAFA — Fashion, to me, is more straight forward, and art exists in a weird relationship with “you sold an item.” I got into a fight at a conference in Chicago, where I was presenting Love Is the Message because I casually said that art has no inherent value, and everybody freaked out. Art is not like a piece of coal. It’s not like water; you can’t drink it. And it’s not clothing, which at least protects you from the environment and expresses who you are.
MICHÈLE LAMY — But don’t you believe that the pleasure of the eye is as important as having a new t-shirt?
ARTHUR JAFA — I didn’t say it wasn’t real. I just said the value it has is assigned value. Hence, you can have Piero Manzoni [selling] literally a can of shit, and it’s great art because people collectively agree that it’s great. Or Duchamp’s urinal — it’s just a piss pot. It’s a game. It’s not an engagement that transcends.
MICHÈLE LAMY — How would you describe your work?
ARTHUR JAFA —
The term I use for that is the abject sublime. I often
get asked, “What are you trying to say?” But my work is
not trying to say anything, as if saying something is the
only way you can make meaning in the world. The question is
how do you make work that has an affective capacity, that makes
people feel something? I don’t know if that makes me apolitical,
but I generally don’t care what people think. I make work for myself,
and I try to inscribe things with what I feel.
MICHÈLE LAMY — With a presence.
ARTHUR JAFA—Presence? I like to say intensity. In a way, Kenneth Anger is my most direct reference in this. How can I make a moving image work that casts a spell, that can conjure, that’s catalytic, that’s chaotic, that can do all these things? It affects people in a certain kind of way and destabilizes the fixed internal relationships that people have.
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