The Unfinished Conversation (2012), a film that explores identity through the life of cultural theorist Stuart Hall by British filmmaker John Akomfrah, is currently being screened as part of the BP Spotlight series at Tate Britain. The spotlight series is mostly comprised of changing displays focused on a single work, or suite of works by a particular artist or group. These dedicated spaces function differently from the dense chronological galleries of the recent ‘Journey through British Art’ re-hang at the Pimlico site. As small asides the spotlights interrupt the visitor’s path through the gallery, they provide out-of-sequence breaks, pointing to the stories or details obscured and excluded by the otherwise sweeping, historical narrative. The display of Akomfrah’s film marks a particularly strong break in this linear flow. In both form and content the The Unfinished Conversation acts as an intervention. It demands a different mode of sustained, subjective and situated viewership as well as imagining the complex cultural fields that art and its viewers exist within.
The Unfinished Conversation is a multi-screen projection. The three screens that make up the work span the length of a single wall in a small, darkened space off one of the 19th century galleries. Two benches in front of the work provide seating for viewers, facing the projection front-on. Wherever the viewer is positioned in this narrow space, but particularly at this mid-point, part of the installation remains unseen or obscured. Even at the room’s furthermost point only one of the screens comes into focus while the others continue to play on peripherally.
Each screen shows a different cycle of images with the soundtrack switching between narratives, pulling the viewer’s attention from screen to screen. Akomfrah uses the three screens to present multiple narratives with images and footage that variously move apart and intersect. Clips from news bulletins are spliced with television debates, recordings of jazz musicians and footage from Stuart Hall’s personal archive. Taken together the multi-screen narrative constructs Hall’s life story from his childhood in Jamaica to his journey to Britain, his educational career, his activism and his academic work in the formation and expansion of the discipline of Cultural Studies. In some ways, then, The Unfinished Conversation can be read as a celebration of a great life. It presents its subject as eloquent, intelligent, radical and brave. Yet to see Akomfrah’s film as celebratory and heroic, especially in light of Hall’s recent death, is to ignore it’s the complex intersection of form, medium and process that works to communicate a more vital message.
Importantly, The Unfinished Conversation was made with the participation of Hall and his family. This collaboration is implied in the ‘conversation’ of the work’s title. The film is contingent on an interaction between living subjects rather than reflections in the past tense. In this way the film does not seek to memorialise its subject but to create a complex portrait of the man over time. Akmofrah is in conversation with Hall – the formal innovation of the film, Akomfrah’s language, speaks to the archival fragments of Hall’s life. Like any intercourse, focus shifts from one to the other or in this work from screen to screen, frame to frame. This tooing-and-froing is further suggested in the constant shift of the viewer’s attention (and head) from right to left and back to the centre. Viewing this film is like trying to follow a conversation and find one’s place within it. With no linear or unitary narrative, the spliced footage disturbs the smoothness of the finished life story, or the obituary. The conversation continues, looped and always unfinished.
So just as The Unfinished Conversation retraces Hall’s life journey, it does so ambiguously. It meanders, reaching back to William Blake and Virginia Woolf as well as routing new paths to hidden episodes and the expanded context of Hall’s lifetime. It re-situates one man in context, the self in the matrix, highlighting the action, activity and agency that marked his journey through it. In this way, the film does not simply make Hall’s life more visible, nor does it only reflect on his racial identity, rather The Unfinished Conversation seems to engage his methodology tracing a life through cultural interaction and intersection. Akomfrah presents Hall by challenging how the portrait or biography genre might function more broadly. Rather than represent Hall, his life and his work – Akomfrah blends these elements together as mutually constitutive in the formation of the subject. Hall’s life informs his work, his work informs Akomfrah, both inform the film. Akomfrah refuses to reduce life to narrative and instead places his subject in relation to a wider culture and to himself, in conversation. The film is a matrix of references, it describes a life made in and against culture.
Another way in which The Unfinished Conversation makes a break with the forward march of Tate Britain’s galleries (although it should be noted the rooms can be explored out of sync) is its temporality. The looped film resolutely refuses linearity. But Akomfrah’s film (and the spotlight series more broadly) does not simply participate in opposition to the main hang, instead it works to extend and complicate it. Its presence, marks out other absences as well as providing a referent for other works on display. In the context of the Spotlight programme the circular logic of an ongoing conversation brings ambiguity and failure to the fore. It pokes holes in that robust narrative and points to horizons beyond it. The Unfinished Conversation draws attention to the complexity of the stories we tell and the lives we live. The multi-screen projection demands more than one viewing and with each new encounter, new connections are made, new frames visible. As the viewer re-enters the flow of period galleries, this modality of viewing may persist asking more of our time in the gallery as a whole. In this moment, just after Hall’s death, there is no better way to remain alive to his ideas than giving a second look to Akomfrah’s film.
The Unfinished Conversation is on until 23 March 2014. The gallery is located off the 1810 room. Admission is free.