Edia Connole talks history, politics, and modernity, with the righteous but reluctant ‘artist’ behind the biggest album and magazine covers in the music business; an exclusive interview with Irish-born Los Angeles-based photographer and filmmaker B+.
It has been said that “while the name B+ may not ring a bell straight away, chances are you’re familiar with the man’s work and probably own some of it,"1 and nothing could be closer to the truth. For the uninitiated, Brian Cross (aka B+) is the Irish-born L.A-based photographer responsible for such ubiquitous album covers as DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing (1996), and Madlib’s Shades Of Blue (2003). He is author of Rolling Stone’s nominated ‘Music Book of the Year’, Its Not About a Salary: Rap, Race and Resistance in Los Angeles (1993) and Ghostnotes (forthcoming). In more recent years he is, perhaps, best known as one-half of a production company, Mochilla, lauded by critics for its development of a series of ‘time-specific’ music projects. These projects, Keepintime (2001), Brasilintime (2007), and Timeless (forthcoming), bring together the pre-recorded with the immediate, or ‘live’, and anticipated, to showcase a side of DJ culture, and music as a whole, that is either lost or ignored in mainstream material. Most recently Mochilla has engaged in an on-going project with Quantic (aka prolific producer Will Holland) that explores contemporary Colombian culture through music. Edia Connole caught up with the righteous but reluctant ‘artist’ in this outfit, on their return from documenting Petronio Alvarez, an Afro-Colombian folklore festival still in its infancy. 2
Edia Connole: Welcome home B. You’ve been in Colombia with your production company Mochilla, tell us a little bit about the project you’ve been working on over there?
B+: Thanks Miss. I went to Colombia to work with Quantic, an old friend and collaborator. He’s been trying to get myself and Eric Coleman, my partner in Mochilla, to go there to document the Petronio Alvarez music festival for the last 3 – 4 years, and we finally managed to do it. Colombia is a fascinating place and for me is, in many ways, the missing link in the study of Caribbean culture and its impact on what we now know as hip-hop.
EC: Petronio Alvarez is regarded as the largest and most representative celebration of Afro-Colombian folklore from the Pacific Coast – folklore as expressed through dance, ancestral chants and traditional percussion – and as an event that brings urban and rural Afro-Colombian cultures together. What are the colloquial implications of this event; is it true that rural tribes who otherwise live in total seclusion make an annual trip to Cali for Petronio Alvarez?
B+: Well, its less tribes than groups or communities that are the descendants of slaves who ran off into the jungle many years ago to escape the Spanish. They live in communities along the coast, and deep in the jungle, that are accessible only by boat. I visited one of these communities last year (Timbiqui) with Quantic, to shoot a video (vimeo.com/5902643) and to collect research for a forthcoming project. Petronio Alvarez is really the celebration of these communities and this unique culture. Its a relatively new festival but is significant in the daily lives of these communities insofar as it unifies, and verifies, the importance of a people who have for a long time been excluded from mainstream Colombian identity.
EC: That’s interesting, not least because you have a rather accented history of working on projects that broach the subject of resistance – to modernity in general and, perhaps, mainstream or ‘popular’ culture in particular. Insofar as you believe Colombia to be the missing link in the study of Caribbean culture and its impact on hip-hop, how much of this comes down to Afro-Colombian folkloric expression as form of musical resistance, what we may otherwise perceive in Petronio Alvarez, for example, as an unfettered celebration of the ‘anti-modern’ or indigenous?
B+: The first part of this question is really interesting to me in that I’ve never seen it put this way before, we should therefore come to agreement on some terms first. ‘Modernity’ is a very loaded and often quite vague term, so let’s set that straight. Certainly, I am concerned with resistance, that much we can agree upon. When I began working on what would become Its Not About A Salary: Rap Race and Resistance in Los Angeles (1993) it was certainly a big part of what drew me to music culture – its power to resist, but I’m not sure, historically, if anything that we can call ‘resistance’ is permanent. I think culture itself moves very quickly now, and things have become more fluid. I would find it hard to give a book about hip-hop in Los Angeles that name today, however, I’m still engaged in tracing syncretic things, and that’s certainly resistive in a way I hadn’t thought when I began.
Contingent on understandings of modernity and ‘anti-modernity’ are notions of inclusion and exclusion, so better I think, I can answer your question about the Colombian experience. Petronio Alvarez is exemplary in this regard because modernity, or the modern version of inclusion, missed them. The Afro-Caribbean culture in Colombia was co-opted in the ‘50s with the advent and growth of Cumbia. In many ways this resembles the way Samba was used for nation building in Brazil. Cumbia was used as a tool to bring indigenous and blacks on board the Colombian project, but they never paid attention to the Pacific Coast Afro-Colombian culture until quite recently, when the State had de-centered enough to begin to cultivate peripheral regions. Petronio Alvarez is a product of this. Folkloric culture has existed in Colombia this whole time, and as a really strong point of pride and identity for the various communities, but finally they have a festival, and are paid by the State to celebrate it. This festival is clearly, for the time being at least, still resistive in content though. And the music of these men and women who literally ran away from modernity, escaping slavery, is extraordinary. The inclusiveness of its rhythm, the tenderness of its lyricism, and the way people experience it, is freeing in its own way.
EC: I think I should flag the fact that by ‘modernity’ here I mean it in the sense that was alluded to by Nietzsche and attributed to Paul de Man: that which exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier; that which is predicated on a ruthless forgetting of history, and tradition: a sort of ‘strategic amnesia’ apropos of Dublin’s own Dr. Francis Halsall, who might argue – as he has done with regard to Ireland in a recent edition of the Irish Arts Review3 – that Colombia should forget its own past, and Cumbia, in order to be truly modern.
B+: Let’s get something straight here, history is not like a stain in your carpet. It cannot be wiped out or away. It is bound up with a resistive desire that is out there sublimating into all kinds of things. We have this view of history that is unequivocally transformative – Impressionism into post-Impressionism into Cubism. Well, they’re all still Impressionists. Look at the RHA. Music is a very fast and beautiful way of measuring change, for example, but as soon as you think we have seen the end of one form of music it reappears. Social change can be like this.
EC: I agree. While such ‘ruthless forgetting’ of history in the name of posterity appears, on paper at least, to escape the paralyzing weight of past practices, it doesn’t speak to the fact that much contemporary art, like music, literature, and film, has gained vitality recently from perusing history, and tradition.
You cited an interesting example on Colombian television when you said that the tradition of ‘marimba’ – as we find it in the marimba-led currulao from the south of the Pacific Coast represented at Petronio Alvarez – emerged as the most important instrument in the revolution Zapatista. I think this revolution exemplifies the necessity of history, and tradition, to the ‘still incomplete project of modernity’, perfectly. The study of history undertaken by the indigenous of Chiapas not only generated particular events – like those of ’94 – but also generated the revolution in its totality – contributing to everything from preparations for war to the development of a political consciousness of communities connected to Zapatismo.
B+: Yes, Mexico is a very interesting example here. Myself and my shooting partner Eric Coleman spent some time traveling with the Zapatistas. Its interesting to note that the indigenous don’t see themselves as outside of time, or ‘history’, as quite often we do in the West; they simply live, breathe, and resist with all their capacity, while continuing their traditions.
It was astonishing to see nomadic peoples come together around the indigenous of Chiapas, and in solidarity – proclaim their autonomy, protest the broken treaties, and lay claim to a brighter, more just Mexico – despite death threats, harassments and 500 hundred years of systemic violence, but I have to say, for Mexicans in the Distrito Federal, or in the North, there is an extraordinary disconnect. Its as if they don’t see their well-being as connected to the Huichol Indians; as though, somehow, they symbolize a backward and un-modern Mexico. In truth the Huichols have a firmer grasp on the future than the urban reified Mexicans. But of course the real story with brown people from a US perspective tars all of these views with the same brush. Illegal immigrant and terrorist.
EC: I wonder how long more we are going to be subject to this perspective? The general sense among political philosophers, and theoreticians, is that the US’s hegemony is going, if not gone. And it certainly feels as if something is happening, has happened, of late, either with or in history. Which is to say, it would appear that after a long period of respite and reflection – postmodernism perhaps – modernity is in motion once again. We need only look to the emergence of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas (ALBA) which pose a substantial threat to the bullying and aggression of the US and its allies. I think ALBA is particularly pertinent here given the fact that in July they just introduced their own currency; although this is only virtual now they do have plans to permanently replace the US dollar, as hard currency, with the SUCRE. As an initiative, ALBA was proposed by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Its founded on socialism and social democratic forms of governance and, I suppose – although its still quite a contested term – what has come to be called ‘solidarity economics’: ALBA attempts regional economic integration based on traditional visions of bartering, social welfare and mutual economic aid, in opposition to the dominant capitalist model of liberalization and free trade. This type of thinking is radically different to theories and practices of the project of modernity in the past, and there are those, such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who would argue that this passage apropos of Chávez, Petronio Alvarez, and the revolution Zapatista, is one from anti- to Altermodernity.4
B+: Altermodernity is an interesting notion here. I am familiar with the work of Hardt and Negri, at least the work Empire (2001), but I am grateful to you for having made me aware of this emerging form of modernity outlined in their work. I must say it reminded me, when you first brought it up, of the term ‘subaltern’ from Guyatri Spivak, and in some ways I think it can accommodate her thinking too. It certainly provides us with a chance to steal the notion of progress away from those who have done so much to destroy our planet, our people and our culture.
I am struck here by images, and how they manage to describe things in ways better than words. Somehow, the images I like best manage to catch a sense of this – a sense of ancestral wonder with a critical sense of the now – Jamel Shabazz has this, as does Gabriella Iturbide, and even Nobuyoshi Araki. Hip-hop has it too. I think this complexity is already out there in a lot of areas of study. However, in spending this many years thinking about hip-hop many models present themselves as possible maps, or alternatives to a single route, but very few actually live up to the complexity and intellectual strength of the diaspora.
And I’m not sure I buy Nicholas Bourriaud’s particular intention of the term ‘Altermodern’. For example, when he says that we are “living in an era that is ‘Google-earthed’, every millimeter of it now totally controlled, there is no terra incognito anymore, the last one is history, the last continent to explore is time,"5 I would have to respond by saying that Google is not even close to building a program that looks at mapping landscape the way those that live on it do. We are reaching the limits of rational perspectivalism maybe, but there is plenty of terra incognita left, even within our cities. How can street artists do what they do? By careful prolonged observation. The same way the indigenous do.
But time is a continent that I visit frequently and think about a lot. It is no coincidence that most of my important work over the last ten years has ‘time’ in the title.
EC: True. In fairness to Bourriaud though, this lack of terra incognita is mediated in a theory of form (the ‘aesthetics of heterochrony’) precisely in response to the rise of time-specific artworks like yours – Keepintime (2001), Brasilintime (2007), and most recently Timeless (forthcoming) – where the work brings together heterochronic elements: delay, analogous to the ‘pre-recorded’, coexists with the immediate, or ‘live’, and anticipated. The emergence of this theory of form implies that there is more to modernity than a type of international futurism; altermodern art, altermodern ‘ism’ employs the anachronistic – it reuses the tools of the past in order to confound the present. And, ultimately, this is a phenomenon that, Bourriaud suggests, speaks directly to the closure of cartography departments, if nothing else.
B+: Its funny, in all my years outside of the academy I’ve never stopped thinking in terms of art. This is a fact. I’ve always thought of myself as a conceptualist undercover. But I’ve never seen my work called out like this either. I mean, the values I brought with me from those years at NCAD – being part of Blue Funk, and then going on to study with the amazing Michael Asher and Allan Sekula – it’s not like I retired them, I didn’t. Yet, when I see you call what I do ‘art’, I feel weirdly betrayed.
B+: Maybe we can call it sub-alter art?
EC: As in, ‘sub-altermodern’ art?
The slideshow of photos from the Petronio Alvarez Festival including an audio piece by Quantic (www.quantic.org) can be seen here. The slideshow is part of an ongoing project by Mochilla and Quantic that explores contemporary Colombian culture through music. B+’s Timeless is released in November 2010 on DVD, CD and vinyl throughout the world, and all matters relating to Mochilla can be found here (hyperlink www.mochilla.com). B+ is currently working on finishing his second book, Ghost Notes, and plans to show some time in 2011 in Dublin.