Hannah Black is an artist and writer from the UK, living and working in New York. Their works have been recently exhibited at mumok, Vienna; Chisenhale Gallery, London; Real Fine Arts, New York; Arcadia Missa, London; Château Shatto, Los Angeles; and W139, Amsterdam. Readings and performance have taken place at the Centre D’Art Contemporain, Geneva; the New Museum, Interstate Projects and Cage, New York; the Whitechapel Gallery, the Showroom, and Café Oto, London.
Hannah Black’s now relatively long-standing occupation of a space in which written material, moving image, and installation all collide, could lead to a reading of their work through the categories of ‘writer’, ‘videomaker’, and ‘artist’. In fact, numerous interviews with the artist actually start that way, with Black asked about their relationship to the mediums. The particular space they occupy has led to the art world labelling Black as an artist-activist or, sometimes, the reverse: an activist-artist. For Black, the order matters.
There may be a reason to this. In the wake of critical studies, the bridge established between the arts and academia has led to the formation of a certain figure: the artist with something to say – which was already a thing, but had previously taken other forms. Following this shift, artists could also be considered academics, they could say things with words and establish a discourse outside the field of aesthetics. With the rise of social media, a new generation of artists embraced these tools to be even more vocal and share their experiences. This would lead to a surplus of early awakenings around a multitude of oppressions.
Hannah Black’s My Bodies (2014) is a symptom of this situation but doesn’t seem to operate within the simplistic pattern of an artist with something to say, which implies a direct relationship between format and content. In fact, it appears that Black might not have anything to say with this work. As stated by Black themselves, the video resulted from a failure of writing about the necessary re-configuration of our bodies, and the ideas surrounding – and imposing themselves on – our bodies to better conceptualise and understand gender non-binarism, among other things. For that very reason, it would be a mistake to consider My Bodies as a video-essay; it is about the necessity to undo the very vocabulary employed to talk about our bodies.
To do so, it operates via appositions of words – whether sung or written – and images, which are notably images that are not moving but superimposed, sliding and flickering. We first have stock images of smiling white male CEOs whose skin is textured by layers of what seem to be close-ups of abstracted paintings. The accompanying sound is a collage of short excerpts of songs by Afro-American pop stars, among which Rihanna and Beyoncé, all containing the lyrics ‘my body’. After one minute of image-sound bombardment, we enter a calmer space of caves and grottos, via the semi-open mouths and nostrils of the CEOs’ bodies – entering through their eyes is impossible as they have been cut out by the artist. Two layers of texts share the screen: the background is occupied by oversized karaoke subtitles, which could be from the same songs of the ‘my body’ sequence. The foreground seems to be the voice of a subconscious being, talking about ways to belong to your body. The soundtrack, another collage, merges a karaoke version of a downtempo R’n’B song and the ambient sound effects of a cave . Finally, we return to the series of ‘my body’ excerpts.
Black attempts to re-assess our relationships to our bodies and their conceptions as self-contained entities through images and sounds that create both comfort and discomfort. The gap of meaning that lies between the musical performances of ‘my body’ – sometimes celebratory, sometimes moody – and the portraits of CEOs, enables a projection onto and inside these bodies, and finally prompts the question: If you were offered the chance to be reborn, would you do so in another body?