In Steffani Jemison’s split-screen video In Succession (2019)—the most recent, longest, and largest work in the multimedia artist’s first show at Greene Naftali in Chelsea—four Black men (it took me a long time to decide there were four), all dressed more or less identically in starched white button-down shirts, khaki pants, and black sneakers, are engaged in a mysterious choreographed activity on the lawn of a large white house (we often see shots of cornices and gables; we often see shots of the grass from above). The motion of the video is gently slowed. The tightness of the framing and the juxtaposition of different perspectives on the divided screen mean we never see the whole bodies of individual men, let alone the structure they are collectively forming as they move through the frame. It’s impossible to tell whose limbs or torso belongs to whom, an effect heightened by the sameness of the clothing.
That they are involved in some kind of collaborative, careful gymnastic activity is clear: you can see hands supporting ankles, feet resting on backs or shoulders, legs extended into the air. At moments you can also just hear—over what sounds like wind and traffic, noises that may or may not be diegetic and often serve to amplify a general sense of silence—the men indicating how to support or position one another’s bodies: “That’s it,” “Shoulders,” “Over here.” The video’s drama of lightness and weight is subtly echoed in the presentation of the video in the gallery; instead of projecting it onto the wall, Jemison constructed a large screen, sixteen by nineteen feet, that rests on the floor.
Watching In Succession (2019), I find it hard to identify when a body is horizontal or vertical, when a body is supporting or supported, where the force of gravity is being resisted and how. It becomes fascinatingly difficult to sort relaxation from strain, a difficulty compounded by the shots of the men’s faces when they appear: they often have their eyes shut; they could be at rest or intensely focused on holding their position. Images of the grass or house or a tree in the yard or the sky that might be from the perspective of the men themselves—someone facing up or down while holding a pose—also prevent any clear orientation to the horizon, to direction or downward force.
I’m using words like “confusing” and “difficult,” but the video isn’t headache-inducing; it’s beautiful, balletic, hypnotic, moving. (This quality is what first attracted me to Jemison’s work. After I saw her video Personal at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014, I wrote to her about the piece; we’ve often been in conversation since.) The grace of the editing of In Succession (2019), the strange mix of gentleness and strength in the men’s quiet collective effort, the gradations of light and dark in the shifting folds of the clothing, the wind in the grass and the leaves, the slowed motion—the piece is, among other things, a study of the effort involved in the appearance of effortlessness, which is one definition of discipline, for an artist or athlete or acrobat.
And yet there is also an unmistakable sense of peril. What is the relation of these four young Black men—who are dressed more or less uniformly, more or less in uniforms—to the large white house? Do they live here? Do they work here? Is what they’re doing work? The plainness of the clothing, the black-and-white tonality, the details of the house’s architectural ornamentation—all of this renders the historical moment indefinite. The men’s shoes and hairstyles and tattoos seem contemporary, but long stretches of the video could depict any number of pasts, with their different relations of servitude and bondage.
The “succession,” the sequence, of shots is ambiguous (sometimes the frames show the same moment from different angles), but so is our place in the succession of historical periods. How long could these men do whatever they are doing together before the cops arrive? I find it impossible to watch these Black men suspended in the air—with expressions suspended between concentration and unconsciousness—without thinking of lynching, or of their activity as a kind of dance or memorial or ritual reenactment of that horrendous spectacle of suspension. Jemison’s exploration of lightness and heaviness, of bodies giving and receiving support, of the individual as both an agent and an object, makes me feel the interplay of historical and physical gravities.
While nothing on the wall of the gallery says so, In Succession (2019) is a subtle reimagining of a historical event. In 1931 The New York Times reported that a group of African American men in Hightstown, New Jersey, saved a white woman from the second floor of a burning building by forming a human pyramid before they “left the scene without giving their names to the police.” Just before seeing Jemison’s show, I finished reading Burning Boy, Paul Auster’s biography of Stephen Crane. Once I learned of Jemison’s source for In Succession (2019), I immediately thought of Crane’s novella The Monster (1898), which tells the story of Henry Johnson, who works as a coachman for the family of Dr. Trescott. Johnson is Black; the Trescotts are white. In the act of heroically rescuing Dr. Trescott’s young son from a fire, Johnson is horribly disfigured—“His face had simply been burned away.” The townsfolk were ready to celebrate Johnson when they were sure he’d succumb to his injuries, but when he survives as a “monster” (a mirror for their monstrosity) they want him expelled from the community.
Since Dr. Trescott will not send Johnson away to an institution or otherwise abandon him (no Black family is willing to house him, either), the Trescotts themselves are made pariahs, rejected by polite, white society. Jemison’s video also has its source in a fire and in Black men rescuing white people from their burning property, and while one could read the men’s declining to give their names to the police as selflessness (they require no celebration), to me it sounds like rational self-preservation; it suggests escape. (On the adjacent wall at Greene Naftali is projected Jemison’s video Escaped Lunatic.) Henry Johnson’s failure to disappear turned the town’s gratitude into fury.
Both The Monster and In Succession (2019) are concerned with, among other things, white people literally depending on Black bodies for their survival, which of course recalls the foundational American fact of white dependence on slave labor, and the dependence of the very idea of whiteness on the demotion of other races. It’s remarkable to me and refreshingly counter to the didacticism of so much contemporary art that In Succession (2019) evokes all of this even if you don’t know the story behind the men’s human pyramid. Jemison has activated these historical forces with such subtlety and precision that the video no longer requires the support of the source material.
In fact, each of the four videos in the Greene Naftali show has a source text, is in some sense a reenactment or revision or variation. In the same room as In Succession (2019) is Broken Fall (Organic) (2008), a brief (just over a minute long) looped video on a monitor that shows a man from the shoulders up as he hangs by his arms from something outside of the shot—maybe a tree branch, maybe a pull-up bar or other structure at a playground, maybe a window ledge. The man looks down at the ground, up at whatever he’s gripping, looks around as if he’s being watched, at times seeming to strain, at times appearing thoughtful or maybe a little bored. As in all three videos in the main room, there is a quiet that lets in the ambient sound: traffic, wind, birdsong, toward the end music from a passing car. The young man’s breath is visible in the cold. You can’t tell how high off the ground he is, although the houses in the background and the amount of time it takes for him to hit the ground when he releases or loses his grip at the end of the sequence imply that the fall won’t be mortal.
Regardless of the actual distances, the man is also hanging onto the edge of the image, and when he falls he falls out of the frame of the shot, so in a sense he’s hanging onto visibility. The gravity of the gravity is unclear: Is he killing time or flirting with self-harm? That the man is in ambiguous relation to the house in the background—that he might be in a neighborhood in which he doesn’t “belong”—forms an important link with In Succession (2019). Has he been forced onto a ledge? Is he trying to escape? I find myself reading his face for signs of worry or pain that will indicate the severity of his predicament as he hangs, and—wincing each time I write “hangs”—I again note the inevitable specter of lynching.
Broken fall (organic) is also the name of a film by Bas Jan Ader, a groundbreaking Dutch artist who disappeared in 1975, at the age of thirty-three, when he left Cape Cod in a small boat bound for England. In Ader’s short 16 mm film, the artist is shown in a much wider shot than Jemison’s, holding onto a tree branch high above a small river until he loses his grip and crashes into the water. Ader filmed a series of falls—off a roof, into a ditch, riding a bicycle into a canal. The “organic” in his film implies he’s like a leaf, part of the tree that falls, but a young Black man’s body invariably conjures the more historically situated metaphor of “strange fruit.” I feel the differences in the specific gravities acting on Ader and the young Black man, or the way these forces determine my looking. Jemison’s decision to make “Broken Fall” the title of her show draws attention to how she’s asking us, throughout these works, to consider the significance of race or its erasure in the history of avant-garde film and video.
Watching Broken Fall (Organic) and In Succession (2019), I thought of Wittgenstein’s writing about pain—about the unreliability of “pain behavior,” how the difficulty of verifying the authenticity of another’s expression of pain, or having confidence in the commonality of the experience of pain, is a foundational instance for many philosophers of the problem of other minds.1 But here philosophical questions of pain and privacy cross with the long racist history (an ongoing history) of disbelieving Black pain in particular, of the supposed insensibility of the Black body as a defense of the ravages of slavery.2 The question of the legibility of strain or distress in Broken Fall (Organic) takes on the weight of American racial history.
Am I projecting suffering where there is none, or failing to see it when it’s there? Ader’s three-minute silent film, I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1971), in which the artist is shown crying, is also relevant here. We can only speculate on the source of his pain behavior—he’s too sad to tell us—and we’re confronted with questions about what kind of interior experience can be inferred from such an expression. Jemison activates questions of visibility and knowability, of the relation between exterior and interior, with an astonishing economy of means.
The final piece in the main room is Escaped Lunatic (2011), an almost eight-minute color video. Here the implicit source being reenacted is the “chase film” of early American cinema, in which actors run away from some authority—police, the staff of a mental hospital. One also thinks of the persistence of shows like Cops, recently revived by Fox, that entertain viewers with pursuits of actual suspects. Jemison recreated these chase scenes in Houston, where she lived at the time, her performers recruited from a local parkour team. They run from nothing we ever see, through scenes of exurban desolation—overpasses, a playground behind a chain-link fence that looks like it could be part of a prison yard. They leap fences, tumble, and otherwise execute a kind of gymnastics of flight.
The men—all but one are, I think, men of color—are in vernacular uniform: jeans, T-shirt, sneakers, clothes that look like both everyday wear and prison issue. There is bleakness and comedy here, a kind of carceral Waiting for Godot; they are endlessly escaping from a prison into a prisonlike world, dramatically leaping over a fence when there’s a large gap they could just walk through, doing flips off a child’s playground structure, apparently crisscrossing the same landscape, maybe ending up where they started (and, since the video is looped in the gallery, always ending up where they started). But there is also a sense of possibility in the men’s strength and grace and purposeless displays of agility and—this aspect of the video was heightened for me by its proximity to In Succession (2019)—the freestyle dance they make of fleeing.
In Jemison’s work, the dystopian and utopian moments are impossible to separate—one contains the other. What could be heavier, more overdetermined in an American setting, than a human pyramid formed of Black bodies (all the more so since the world’s most famous pyramids were built by slaves) for the rescue of a white woman? And yet the men in In Succession (2019) defy gravity with their discipline and model a small social body stronger than any of its individual elements. There is no white person to be rescued this time, and the white viewer is not “rescued” with any narrative of racial progress, but these videos do subtly suggest possibilities beyond repression and mere repetition. Jemison’s work weighs and defies the weight of her materials with rigor and grace. Her videos do not tell me what to think or feel but invite me to locate myself in an American gravitational field. Meanwhile: birdsong, traffic, wind in the grass and trees.
The final video at Greene Naftali—in its own room at the back of the gallery—is The Meaning of Various Photographs to Tyrand Needham (2009–2010), which echoes John Baldessari’s 1973 video, The Meaning of Various Photographs to Ed Henderson. In the latter, the artist shows his friend Ed Henderson eight decontextualized photos from various news media and asks him to elaborate their “meanings”; Henderson obliges with shifting descriptions and associative responses and narrative projections. It’s like a parlor-game version of the thematic apperception test (TAT), a psychological test developed in the 1930s in which subjects are shown a photograph and asked to make up a story about what they see, narratives that are thought to reveal important information about personality and possible behavioral disorders.
As in Broken Fall (Organic), Jemison’s version changes the race of the participants and tests what difference that difference makes. Instead of the artist interacting with Needham, another man the credits identify as Lloyd “Flow” Johnson conducts the conversation. Unlike in Baldessari’s video, neither Needham nor Johnson ever appears on camera; we just see the images Needham is being asked to describe. They have a friendly, jokey rapport that echoes the casual dynamic of the 1973 video.
It’s hard to know how to take the “meanings” Needham elaborates when viewing the twelve images Jemison selected—to know when he’s being ironic or sly or funny (he’s often very funny), when he knows more or less than he says about what’s being shown. The images (all identified in the credits) range from photos of musicians (Kanye West; Earth, Wind & Fire; the rapper Slim Thug) to photos of protests (striking sanitation workers in the 1960s, Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their fists raised on the Olympic podium in Mexico City in 1968) to stock photos (image 6 is identified as “African boy climbing tree,” a “Royalty-Free Digital Stock Photograph”) and film stills (photograph 9, for instance, is from Charles Burnett’s 1978 movie Killer of Sheep).
Presumably, Needham is aware that this video will appear in art-world settings, in galleries and museums, which of course means predominantly white settings, and I experience his humor and evasiveness as both an acknowledgment and a refusal of the pressures this places on him—a refusal of the implicit demand to perform for a white audience, to elucidate the “meaning” of Blackness for a viewer like me.
His response to the first image takes up about a minute of the twelve-minute video. Needham and we are shown a photograph of a young Black man in an unmarked police car. Two white men who look like plainclothes cops are in a similar car behind him. (I didn’t recognize the photo and assume Needham doesn’t either, but the credits identify the Black man as Rudy Fleming, who was convicted of murdering a white woman on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 2005—a frightening inversion of the rescue of In Succession (2019).) The young man’s face is crumpled in pain, his body contracted, an image of loneliness and suffering more vivid in my memory than any of the other photographs in the video. A transcription of the audio:
Needham: Um, what I see is…. It looks like a Park Avenue, a blue Park Avenue…look like Shawty Lo [a rapper who died in a car crash in 2016] in the back seat with his head hanged down, with a Chevy Caprice, a bubble Chevy Caprice in the back of him. It look like two people in the back, they might be playing some Dan Elroy—you know the country singer—and he got his headlights on the blue car which is in front of that car, they don’t have no rims on the car, it’s just blue. It appears to be nighttime and…that’s it.
Johnson: Does he look alive to you?
Needham: He look like he happy…. Like there’s something wrong with his neck. He might be, uh, cranking that Soulja Boy.
Needham quickly mentions the young man in the picture, but only as part of the effort not to see him—saying he looks like a rapper, speculating on the music that might be playing in the other car, deflecting his attention onto the details of the cars themselves without mentioning that they are clearly state vehicles. “That’s it,” Needham says, as if eager to get out of the exchange without having to describe Fleming further, but his interlocutor dramatically refocuses the attention on Fleming: “Does he look alive to you?” Needham’s statement that the man looks happy makes plain the deliberateness of his refusal to acknowledge the suffering in the image, his refusal to identify or identify with the Black man in custody and obvious distress. He won’t say what he thinks Fleming has done or feels or what any of it means.
Especially in relation to the three videos in the other room, I interpret Needham’s refusal as a gesture of protest, a tactical evasion, not a disavowal of the reality of the pain being depicted but a refusal to participate in its spectacularization or to authenticate it for the viewer of the artwork, who is probably or at least possibly a white viewer. Needham is another Black man in Jemison’s work engaged in a drama of gravity and its defiance. In one sense he refuses to become an informant for the art audience. I think of the men in Hightstown who declined to give their names to the police.
Part of the history Jemison shoulders and shifts is art history, and the way she advances—through a mixture of homage and critique—the possibilities of experimental video is inspiring to me. She evades spectacle, but she also refuses to let art degrade into polemic, into paraphrasable statements about the politics of representation. Instead, her videos interrupt, quietly but decisively, my habitual forms of looking. That interruption is a challenge but also a gift. It suggests that our ways of seeing might change, that our senses might be reconfigured, that other systems of weight and measure remain possible.
As he writes in Philosophical Investigations, “If one has to imagine someone else’s pain on the model of one’s own, this is none too easy a thing to do: for I have to imagine pain which I do not feel on the model of pain which I do feel.” ↩
For an exploration of the simultaneous spectacularization and disavowal of Black pain, see Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997). A brilliant exploration of this logic in both contemporary visual culture and everyday experience—for example, in racial disparities in palliative care—can be found in Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016). ↩