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MOCA’s presentation of Kahlil Joseph’s 14-minute film, m.A.A.d. (2014) attempts to validate the cultural importance of this film within a legacy it has been excluded from. The institution’s positing of Joseph’s work as a kind of contemporary version of Jean-Luc Godard does emphasize shared filmmaking techniques (including elements of autobiography, improvisation and atemporal structure), but on the whole the connection seems tenuous and contrived. Part of the struggle discussed in Joseph’s work is the need to treat all culture as complicated, to exist freely, on its own, in its own time, with its own movement. Those wayward alignments with the work of a white European for the purpose of giving institutional context only underlines the implicit whiteness of the museum itself.
Joseph’s recent entry into this white site—first with his music videos in Kara Walker’s 2014 ICA exhibition—has made him an inadvertent image-maker during another critical time for black rights in America. Joseph has been promoted in press as a representative of contemporary African-American culture, someone filling a gap in its iconography. And there is a Manichean dichotomy that preoccupies Double Conscience, evidently inspired by collaborator Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical thematic in his 2012 breakthrough good kid, m.A.A.d city (the album for which this film first appeared as an hour-long version for Lamar’s support act on Kanye West’s 2013 Yeezus tour).
As an autonomous artwork, it communicates as openly as a music video might, with Lamar’s soundtrack constituting a big part of the emotional effect of the images. But what you get here is not a music video. Their portrait of Compton painted on film is an elegiac celebration of the conflict between loyalty and escape: it’s blissfully sad, euphorically melancholy. Affection pours from the screen.
The dialogue with that ongoing conflict in the film’s iconography doesn’t shy away from Compton stereotypes: Joseph shows us gangs, guns, blunts, Hennessey, lowriders, disenfranchised youths. But the standout quality in his treatment of these portraits is a kind of innocence that saves the film from succumbing to cliché: there’s no blood, no sex, and no desire to linger on brutality or violence. Instead, we get deeper sensations from home videos of family gatherings, good kids doing normal activities, gangs fooling around—yet always with a suggestion of fragility—that says as much about collective prejudice as it does about individual choice.
The uneasy feeling that arises from these apparently inconsequential moments is built carefully, through a series of crescendos that are suddenly shattered each time—often by gunshots—before they peak and circle back to start over, never culminating or ending. Multiple voices overlap, characters pass in and out of the frame, then later reappear. Night and day intertwine. As a two-screen projection, the film has some technically astounding moments: parallel panoramas of Los Angeles remind of Gaspar Noe’s pans over Tokyo in Enter The Void.
Subliminally, this doubling effect reminds us of the film’s position, a literal double perspective to reflect this ‘double conscience’. But that perspective isn’t shown to us as an object-spectacle. Joseph’s camera angle throughout puts you inside the frame; riding in the back of a car, standing on the street watching someone dance; waiting in line in a store; diving underwater in a swimming pool with a bunch of adolescents. But then characters look through you and you’re again not quite a part of it: you’re an inside observer, complicit but voiceless, a prescient ghost. Like a good kid in a mad city.
It’s a dissociative feeling like a hard drug experience; perhaps in reference to Lamar’s encounter with PCP, one of two meanings of the acronym m.A.A.d. (“My Angels on Angel Dust”). Joseph’s involvement in the hallucinogenic Hip Hop and LSD rap movement of recent years has clearly left a mark on this film. It is here, in its ethereality, where Joseph finds the most genuine and open expression of a dichotomous feeling of cultural confusion in our generation. It’s an artwork that gives you a vibe; only once experienced, you realize how surprising and rare that is. Despite all the hype this show has received, it does dissolve cynicism, if only for a moment. I walked out feeling the imprint of a warm California sunset felt through a car window.
Kahlil Joseph: Double Conscience runs from March 20–August 16, 2015 at MOCA Grand Avenue (250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90012).