Artist Profile: Hannah Black

The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have developed a significant body of work engaged (in its process, or in the issues it raises) with technology. See the full list of Artist Profiles here.


Hannah Black, My Bodies (2014). Digital video.

Your work concerns bodies, or the condition of being bodied. Your last video Fall of Communism (2014) feels like a sculpture in the sense that as a viewer, one's own body is pulled into relief, as with an object in space. I felt pulled into the space of the video, vertiginous. At your show at the Legion TV gallery in London, one half of what was on display was a hand-cut latex the color of skin. Is the work an analog for the body, or otherwise, where does the body (of the maker or the viewer) intersect or interact with the body of the work for you?

It's true that if you look at a lot of my work there is an interest in viscera, in the interior of the body—but it's not a Paul McCarthy guts and blood thing, it's a stand-in for interiority in general, for the inside being outside and vice versa. The phrase "being bodied" could mean "getting killed" as well as "being embodied" and I think that tension is one of the ways that I'm interested in what it means to have, or not have, something called "a body." I tried to write about how our concept of the body might one day, in a utopian way, be replaced by the framework of lifetime or different concentrations of experience. My wildest idea was that this reinterpretation of sensory experience would "render death merely chronological," a phrase I still love, though it's hard for me to recall exactly what I meant by it. Something about placing yourself in the long flow of time, allowing your self-conception to accommodate more than just your own conscious physical experience, I think. In the end it was too sci-fi an idea and didn't work out as an essay, so instead became the video My Bodies. I wanted to say something about how there is no generic body, no such thing as "the body"; bodies are raced, gendered, and assisted differently in the world. I collected images of white business executives, and you hear the voices of African-American female singers—Aaliyah, Beyonce, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson, and many others—all singing the phrase "my body." I also use Ciara's song "Body Party." There is a whole tradition in black philosophy of trying to think about to what extent white thought is able to conceptualize black people as having bodily integrity. Hortense Spillers says that the enslaved body, for example, becomes just flesh; Frank Wilderson picks up this train of thought. This is part of the black critique of white feminism: the latter assumes, absurdly, that all women have bodies in the same way. The first part of the video presses on this tension. The second part of the video imagines a realm in between lives where someone is considering whether or not to be born again into a new body, knowing all of the implications of that, knowing how many people in this world have bodies that are racialized or impoverished or perhaps don't, in some senses, fully have bodies at all. It's like the famous romantic scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where they realize they have had their relationship before: would I do it again? Would I choose to be embodied again?

Hannah Black, Intensive Care II (detail) (2013)

The Intensive Care latex piece that you mention is obviously evocative of practices of self-harm and self-beautification, and the mortification of certain bodies. My work in latex draws on the issue of how our subjectivities are formed by histories of brutality, with aggressive literalness. I cut line drawings, like ruined linotypes, into fabric whose texture and color evokes skin. Again, this is simultaneously violent and reparative; More Love Than I've Ever Seen (2014) suspends a carved image of the young Whitney Houston amid childlike representations of planets and creatures. (As in my video The Neck, I am really interested in drawings by and for kids, and also just the mode of drawing in general. Video editing and drawing are the most like writing of anything, and I don't know why. I made a fan drawing of Houston for the Wysing screensavers project in 2013.) The title borrows an emotionally ambiguous line from her song "All the Man That I Need" that reminded me of Mike Kelly's More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid: Houston sings, "He fills me up, he gives me love, more love than I've ever seen." It evokes both the laborious process of cutting the images into the latex, and the difficult idea that love given is often not commensurable to love received. I don't mean this as just a universal emotional observation, but also specifically to women, and even more specifically women of color and black women: historically that's who the wealth of colonial countries is ultimately derived from, and what did they get in return? Houston is an iconic figure, almost a sacrificial victim who gave abundantly and didn't get enough back, and her voice and image recur in my work.

She's in my video Fall of Communism, for example, where her famous, virtuosic sustained long notes become the scream of a falling body. I was interested in how a body could be both fungible with other bodies (through social forms like race and gender) and singular, in the same way that a commodity is both itself and a portion of everything else at the same time. We could think of a body is a register of experience: it's the place where we experience the world and where we carry experience as identity.

I could say that the body of work is also my body, or  part of how I circulate in the world. I sometimes think that my work is a way of expanding my possibilities of intimacy with others, but maybe that's also just a way of saying that intimacy can be really hard. Channeling desire into objects—texts, videos, whatever—is a way to acknowledge the problems inherent in any kind of desire.

Hannah Black, screengrab from video Fall of Communism (digital video, 2014)

Language feels like a sinewy thing running through all your work, like an expertly handled weapon. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to language, your story with it?

The writing in the videos is inseparable from the images and other sound; I write and rewrite according to the rhythm of the edit, so when I'm asked for the text (which happens occasionally, like if it's being screened in a non-Anglophone country) I have to watch the video to reconstruct it. The texts I write for video and performance are very different from my essays. Working with images brings my language closer to how I speak, how I am. A good friend who read my writing before he met me said that I laughed less in writing than in real life. But I know how to laugh in a video.

I resent writing, but I also love it. Earth is the language planet.

I was thinking about whether it's possible to identify something like "straight materiality" and "queer materiality," the hypothesis being that all works are an analog for the body in the world, and when the condition of that body is complicated or compromised then the work seeks to/is forced to/learns to occupy space accordingly. Could we speak of, for instance, a white materiality and a non-white materiality?

I read your question as something like, "How white is the white cube?" The tradition of western art does seem kind of bound up with whiteness, at least for now, because a certain mode of self-conscious cultural production becomes part of the alibi for white supremacy, part of the sketchy evidence for the white bourgeoisie being exemplarily human. "Look, we create Great Art, we're not like these savages!" Contemporary practice still evokes the modernist gesture of appropriating indigenous culture, seen as unselfconscious craft that can be transformed into art by the more refined subjectivity of the artist. In a way, art is always implicated in these transfers of power and vitality away from the specificity of their origin and back into capital flows. I don't think this is specific to any particular institution, but just is about the institutionalization of art. I'm not sure if I can claim any ethics in relation to this, maybe only that I hope my work also has its own power and doesn't rely on vitiating other people's. 

My work isn't really "about" race, but it comes from my experience and thoughts and my experience and thoughts are marked by race, or specifically blackness and Jewishness, in weird ways. Can my work be part of a black tradition? I hope so, but I don't know. As a person who has both black and white heritage, who grew up partly in white households, obviously I have a particular kind of experience. In any case, I don't think this is only a matter of what some people dismissively call "identify politics": questions of globalization, the commodity and circulation are already ingrained in these experiences. 

A lot of the work that I come across is by white men—some work I like, some I don't, but certainly a lot of it. As a result, I know a lot about what that experience of the world is like, perhaps more than I even know about my own experience. As people who are not cis white men we have to try to take art as an institution approximately as seriously as it takes us, which is not very. 

Can art be a legitimate form of activism or otherwise an agent for social change? 

I don't think art or at least my art should aim to be activist. All I can do is to express a relationship to my own conditions of being. Those conditions are historical and I didn't determine them, but I can think about them. For me, that's basically what art does.

I'm sometimes really surprised that people want to read my work as activist. I make artworks, objects, in an approximately conventional way, even if they are mostly videos. I'm always trying to drag big geopolitical or historical narratives into the realm of direct individual experience, and I even go so far as to find that kind of funny, that weird combination of scales: funny and also a bit painful. For example, The Neck puts together my bad childhood drawings where I didn't understand how to draw a neck between the head and the body, and my dad's black radical politics that he had at one time, some of which was great but sometimes we would go to political meetings and be told, "The man is the head of the household and the woman is the neck." Jaki Liebezeit During A Power Cut Circa 1970 fuses the economic changes in the organization of capital that happened in the 1970s and a child listening to her parents' records. The child is partly me and partly someone else—I wasn't born yet in the 1970s, but someone I was in love with at the time was. I don't see how any official politics can be any more important than the intensity of listening to music. Maybe, more than anything else, the videos are about rhythm. I fantasize that one day I will just make music.

Hannah Black, Jaki Liebezeit During A Power Cut Circa 1970, (2012). Digital video.

What I'm saying is, my work is a kind of refusal of politics, as much as an affirmation of politics. But I want to take those things seriously. I'm not sneering at any of it. I ended up reading the neck as the idea of mediation, the impossibility of mediations between the image and the self, between a racial identity and the self, partly because maybe we don't even know what's really there, in the place of the self. I don't think this follows the logic of activism at all. Those kinds of links are so insubstantial, they are almost arbitrary, something to do with memory, maybe, and I think they can only really happen in art or in a joke.

An artwork might change something I guess because of how it is received or how people carry the memory of it. When we're talking about art changing anything, we're talking about art changing a person, and what that person might do in response to this encounter with a work. There are definitely artworks that have changed me and not all of them were even works that I particularly liked. 

Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not sure which is more prominent: my desire for change or my desire to give form to some kind of anger/sorrow. Those things are all mixed up: look at what's been happening recently in the USA, the Ferguson moment, where anger and sorrow are politicized. But in terms of the direct concerns of my work, I don't have anything to say about changes that might never happen.

Can you describe your process, e.g. with a video? Do you begin with a text or with an image or a proprioceptive kinetic sense of something, or what? And then how do you proceed? In conversation, you have spoken about your editing style, which you have conversely described as no style at all. This relates back to rhythm of course, and materiality—I want to know how you make your work. How do you know it's finished? How do you know what it's becoming, or become?

This is a really good question because it's hard for me to say. The videos mostly begin with texts, but the texts just decompose as I'm editing. Sometimes I rewrite directly into the titles box in Premiere. There's a thing that happens as I'm working, which you're right, is rhythmic. I discover what the rhythm of the edit should be. It doesn't feel like a style because it's like dancing: I know I do have a style of dancing, I'm recognizably myself dancing, but I don't approach it consciously. I collect images from the internet but the recent videos also have something approximately "hand-made" even if it's only vaguely so. That's a kind of weird compromise between making new moving images, which seems so weird and pointless, and not wanting the kind of stylistic collapse or neutrality that can come from just collaging other people's images.   

Hannah Black, Intensive Care/Hot New Track (2013). Digital video.

Intensive Care/Hot New Track began with this text conflating celebrity gossip about Rihanna and Chris Brown with Abu Ghraib and then everything came from there, using the karaoke track for "What's My Name?", the spinning images. That video was very personal, but look how many impersonal things I had to use to give myself that permission. I still laugh sometimes when thinking about how I took a song about oral sex and turned it into a video about violence: "The square root of 69 is 8 or something…" Fall of Communism came from the idea of someone falling into an abyss in Manhattan and at every level they change into a different person, but it didn't start to really work until I realized that Whitney Houston's voice could also signal falling. At some point, the text, the images, and sound fuse together.

The video I'm working on right now is a nightmare because I tried to start without a script. I'm really curious to see how it goes. Maybe it will be my first wordless video, which would be really weird for me.

Hannah Black, gif from You Must Not Be Your Mother's Body (digital video, 2013)


Location: Berlin

How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?

That's a really hard question. Do you remember when we would go on weird forums online and just make shit up, when we were around 15? Maybe that was performance art. I made my first video with Final Cut Pro in 2007 where I made a papier mache head in Jamaican colors to represent my dad and then cut it up with scissors. I was at film school at the time and had a boyfriend who made real films and he laughed when he saw it and said, "Why did you make that?" and kind of patted me on the head. Now I use Premiere. That man moved back to Serbia, I think. I hope he's doing OK, but I am sure he would still hate my videos.

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

In my teens I wanted to be a dancer and left home at 17 to do a one-year program in that, but then I went to Cambridge and got a degree in English literature. A few years later I went to film school on a scholarship, but dropped out after six months as I realized I really wanted to go to art school. I graduated from the MFA in Art Writing at Goldsmiths in 2013—it was an experimental text-led art practice program and no longer exists, but it was really wonderful, I now realize, because we were basically left to our own devices. Last year I did the Whitney ISP in New York.

What do you do for a living, or what occupations have you held previously?

I've done bar work, clerical work, babysitting, sales work, whatever. Now, I have some income from screenings, but mainly I do writing, editing and video editing for money. I'm an editor at The New Inquiry. My first job was in a stationery store when I was 14.

What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)