Handsworth Songs | Sus

Credit: Black Audio Film Collective/ The Other Cinema

Satya Hariharan

In 1986, Harun Farocki was commissioned by the German television series Filmtip to record a series of pieces, one of which was Catchphrases – Catch Images. A Conversation with Vilém Flusser. It’s a deceptively simple video. Farocki analyzes a German tabloid, Bild Zeitung, with Czech-born media theorist Vilém Flusser, focusing on the relationship between text and image, but as time unfolds, the viewer begins to realize the event is not just the discussion being held (and read via subtitles for non-German speakers), but the act of recording & transmitting video of this discussion. Flusser makes this clear with his final words in the piece:

‘…we are not just speaking in normal circumstances in a cafe here, but in front of a television. And therefore everything that we are speaking of here is itself plunged into an image and for the recipient is ‘magicised’ again so that we find ourselves on a very slippery slope. We are observing here, apparently transcendentally, this kitschness [sic] and brutalization and reduction of human dignity through this sort of demagogy and serve ourselves as factors of a new kind of magicisation [sic] on the part of the television’.

In the decades since this piece, the experience of receiving ‘news’ has been drastically transformed. The notion of a static printed object is a thing of the past. Reality is shifting, unstable, ever-changing; it’s imbibed through smartphones and computers. New York Times articles change their headlines days after publication, livestreams are edited into video clips where context can be stripped away or reassigned, and the media corporations sift through these ever-growing deposits of information to decide what is ‘news’ and how to reflect it in a way that maintains their established position within the current social order. Previously, the news occurred as a ‘daily’ concept, whether that was through the morning paper, or the evening television broadcast. Today, with omnipresent cameras and the internet’s rapid dissemination of media, ‘news’ can happen at a moment’s notice, without the approval of an editor, albeit still under the jurisdiction of the monolithic entities that control our social media networks.

There is a recent history of images that intersect between police brutality and racial violence in America, a history that grows only denser as imaging technology becomes more prevalent in society. In Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Flusser postulates that ‘…there is no everyday activity which does not aspire to be photographed, filmed, video-taped… All events are nowadays aimed at the television screen, the cinema screen, the photograph, in order to be translated into a state of things.’ His views mirror that of his larger ideas on Western society, that once the possibility of a thing emerges, that the societal apparatus will eventually manifest it as a reality. This stems from his experience as a Holocaust survivor forced to flee from his native Prague and exile in Brazil, while his family who stayed behind were killed in the Auschwitz camps. As such, a society where racialized violence from the police force that governs over its civilians is a constant part of the present reality will continually produce visualizations of this violence.

The 2010s marked a shift in the presence of imaging technology and distribution. Rodney King’s 1991 beating hangs as one of the major cultural memories of racialized police violence in the United States caught on camera during the 1990s; the public was forced to confront the visualization of racialized state violence, a constant in the reality of American history dating back to slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas. This process of visualization grew in tandem with the widespread access to imaging technologies. A pattern emerged of images of police killings circulating en masse, followed by mass protests in coordinated nationwide efforts, protests which have grown increasingly unstable following the latest iteration of a continually escalating series of counter-protest police state deployments, in turn begetting another series of images of police state violence, that of the riot police beating protestors. It’s a series of images that emerges from a system which reflects the reality of a broken societal structure via video & audio, though one’s perception of this reality is naturally shifted by how it’s mediated to them.

John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986) was a film that emerged in response to similar material conditions in the United Kingdom in 1985, when riots broke out in Birmingham and London that could be seen as the result of neocolonialism systematically disenfranchising immigrant communities and subjecting them to state violence. The film was characterized by cultural theorist Okwui Enwezor as ‘a historically inflected dub cinema whose spatial, temporal and psychic dynamics relays the scattered trajectories of immigrant communities.’ It is a film that escapes succinct definitions, a machine of parts that include celluloid shots of the riots, interviews with a number of immigrants, different voiceovers which destabilize and eliminate the usual authoritative hierarchy that accompanies the technique. While rooted in the issues that accompany the policing of immigrant communities, Enwezor notes that ‘Handsworth Songs reflects more profoundly the agency of the oppressed; it narrates their stories, not purely from the point of view of the event from which it derives its name, but equally through an archaeology of the visual archive of minoritarian dwelling in Britain.’

While Akomfrah deliberately fragments and mediates our viewing experience in a way that transcends the bounds of linear thought via visual and sonic juxtaposition, experiencing these images today through the stream escapes the delineation of the traditional filmic experience or projected image. Handsworth Songs has an ending, after a little over an hour of sounds and images, where a voiceover calls out ‘Let them bear witness to the process by which the living transform the dead into partners in struggle,’ over images of Black immigrants in transit. The call echoes an earlier voiceover: ‘In time we will demand the impossible in order to wrestle from it that which is possible. In time we will demand that which is right because what will be just will lie outside present demand. In time the streets will claim me without apology. In time I will be right to say ‘there are no stories in the riots, only ghosts of other stories,’’ a haunting statement juxtaposed over images of black and white infants. Today those children have come of age, and we’re surrounded by the ghosts of Akomfrah’s images, continually being made and transmitted to those willing to tune in. There is no emphasis anywhere, everything is inundating, and reality is overwhelming. The delineation of between the film and reality has dissolved, as new images continually emerge. The viewer can choose how much media they imbibe, and the media imbibed shapes their representation of the world. 

Farocki recognized the problems of attempting to convey the utter horrors of reality through the audiovisual medium. His 1969 work The Inextinguishable Fire opens with him addressing the camera directly, critiquing the atrocities the U.S. government was committing at the time in Vietnam. ‘When we show you pictures of napalm victims, you’ll shut your eyes. You’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close them to the memory. And then you’ll close your eyes to the facts.’ In a time when the immediate image of another space, place, and time can be grasped in an instant, different realities are mere clicks away. Yet as Flusser notes, ‘[Images] are supposed to be maps but they turn into screens: Instead of representing the world, they obscure it until human beings’ lives finally become a function of the images they create… Human beings forget they created the images in order to orientate themselves in the world. Since they are no longer able to decode them, their lives become a function of their own images: Imagination has turned into hallucination.’ We are left with fragments of reality, which can be threaded back together in innumerable permutations. Whoever forms this amalgamation conditions societal thought, whether that’s a television news network stripping clips of their context and inserting commentary, or an individual editing clips together and uploading them to YouTube.

The present is unstable and keeps shifting, and these changes in reality are constantly transmitted, though it is crucial to examine their mediation. We are in the midst of a shift in how we live with images. In 1985, Flusser published another work, Into the Universe of Technical Images, a series of essays which he described as a fable, which ‘narrates a fabulous universe, that of technical images, a fabulous society, that of cybernetic dialogue, a fabulous consciousness… It narrates the story with consummate hope and at the same time with fear and trembling. For this fable is a catastrophe about to break out of its shell. And we are that shell.’ We are in the midst of this catastrophe, a catastrophe of the horrors of our reality, which we want to blind ourselves to continually reemerging, horrors that are the result of our society’s construction. Where the images lead us is yet to be discovered.


Eshun, Kodwo, and Anjalika Sagar. The Ghosts of Songs: the Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982-1998. Liverpool University Press, 2007.

Flusser Vilém. Into the Universe of Technical Images. University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Flusser, Vilém.

Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books, 2018.

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