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Interview with Garrett Bradley

The polymorphic work of American artist and filmmaker Garrett Bradley challenges notions of linearity to reveal the circularity in her subject’s lives, and the way the past continues to play out in the present. Through collagic sound scores, archival footage, a beautiful, mostly monochromatic visual aesthetic and process of collaboration, Bradley’s films address the erasure of African American history, the effects of the carceral state, and the psychological repercussions of the pandemic. Creating close studies of individual lives, Bradley expands upon the bigger socio-political issues facing underrepresented communities today.

 

Her first feature-length film, Below Dreams (2014), charts the lives of three characters trying to navigate the everyday realities of single-parenthood, poverty and loneliness in New Orleans. Wanting to centre the experiences and personal exchanges of actual people, Bradley found her cast using Craigslist. This set in motion a process of collaboration in her filmmaking, whereby her subjects inform and generate the work. In America (2019), she elaborates the existing archive, interweaving her own footage, re-staging scenes of African American innovators from the fields of aviation, sport and music, alongside archival stills from an unreleased film, Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1914), one of the oldest surviving feature films made with an all-Black cast. Bradley’s documentaries on the other hand explore the resilience of women in the present. Time (2020) is a lyrical portrait of Sibil Fox Richardson, and her decades-long campaign for the release of her husband from prison, while Naomi Osaka (2021) follows the tennis champion and her attempt to seek space beyond the spectacles of sporting competitions, criticism and fame. Allowing her subjects to ‘be the camera’, Bradley’s documentaries and collaborative process create intimacy between the viewer and the viewed, and trust between the director and directed.

 

Collaboration also underpins Bradley’s shorts like Alone (2018) and her ongoing trilogy, starting with AKA (2019) and SAFE (2022), both of which were created with or star long-time friends and collaborators. Whilst Alone sensitively deals with the impact of the carceral state on one woman and her partner, AKA returns to the particular issue of colourism in intergenerational relationships. Her latest film in the trilogy, SAFE, continues this interpersonal exploration of what Black women in the US experience today, but goes one step further by focusing on and recreating their inner, affective worlds.

 

Shown across three rooms and with a score featuring recordings of sirens, cars and helicopters, SAFE transforms the gallery space into a hyper-alert and sensitised interior domain, one where ‘the inarticulable qualities of intuition and instinct’ are poetically articulated and conjured. It was on the opening night of SAFE, at the Lisson Gallery, that I spoke to Garrett Bradley about the trilogy and her wider oeuvre, as well as her collaborative approach to direction and film, the place of the archive and its function as another ‘interior space’, and how it all started with a hand-held camera and conversations with strangers on a Greyhound bus.

 

Q

The White Review

AKA is the first film in a trilogy that explores the impact of colourism within families, between Black mothers and their daughters. Instead of looking at skin tone and racial identity from a position of division or hurt, you consider these multigenerational relationships from one of healing and harmony. To bring this about you employ dreamy and tranquilising prismatic light effects across a montage of scenes depicting parent-child communion, women gazing meditatively into pools of water, refracted reflections and audio referencing Zora Neale Hurston’s words ‘Are you colour struck?’. What prompted you to make this the first film in your trilogy?

A

Garrett Bradley

— I found it liberating to imagine a trilogy, and to intend to make a large body of work. I felt no pressure about when these films would be made. Rather, the idea opened up a space to answer to the present moment. AKA started from a prompt of thinking about what it would mean to do a traditional adaptation of American films like Imitation of Life (1959) and Pinky (1949) that were investigating race and gender, but within the confines of the period. In my attempt to make that adaptation, I realised I had more questions than answers. This pushed me to look outward – in my work, I’m less interested in how I feel about things than what other people think and feel. So I went to friends, family members and people I’d met through social media and asked them a series of questions in order to find the answers. This process developed into a dialogue that really informed the shape of what AKA became. In that moment, I knew it had to become part of a trilogy, because it was too big to exist in just one piece. But did I know where it was going to go from there? No.

Q

The White Review

— Your second film in the trilogy, SAFE, turns away from multigenerational relationships to those Black women have with themselves, and their environments. It’s shown across three channels, each screen showing your friend and collaborator, Donna Crump, enacting a different interior or affective experience: Donna cutting material, rolling down a hill or standing still while debris falls inches away from her. The mood of this film feels more sombre, harsher even, than that of AKA. What effected this tonal shift in your work?

Garrett Bradley AKA, 2019, Film Still, Single channel video, HD (color, sound) 8 minutes 17 seconds © Garrett Bradley, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
A

Garrett Bradley

— The first answer is that the world is different. Since the making of AKA, the pandemic has occurred and the world has toppled over in a way that is much more visible. We’ve really ripped the façade off most of society, which is a good thing. SAFE came out of much more informal conversations with my friends during the pandemic, many of whom I’ve worked with before, such as Aloné Watts, who was the central figure in my short film Alone, and Donna, who appears in America. Conversations with these women began by asking ‘how do you feel?’, ‘how do you feel about how you feel?’ and ‘do you think you’re able to make a difference in the world at this moment?’. A lot of the answers were, ‘I feel paralysed’ and then ‘I feel guilty about my paralysis’. During these discussions we considered how we make decisions in these moments. Are we making decisions based on our instinct and internal intuition? What’s the difference between those two things and how do they manifest in our bodies in diverse ways? These questions and our inability to articulate what we felt as a small collective became the premise of SAFE. How to visually articulate such feelings, therefore, became the real challenge. So the work is an attempt at making that difficulty visible, at making a case for interiority and our imagination, and the things inside of us being equally vivid, powerful, radical and effective as that which we might say or do in overt and louder ways in the physical world.

Q

The White Review

— Let’s talk about this visual articulation. If in AKA, mirrors, water and light affect a sense of calm, then in SAFE it’s the opposite. The light is harsher and the refracted images of Donna are more unsettling. I found the scenes of Donna cutting into reflective material particularly evocative. They captured the disturbing paradox of the body itself – to be interior and exterior at once, like a Mobius strip. Did you want this material to feel bodily, interior, and dangerous? 

 

Safe, 2022, Film still, Single channel video, HD (color, sound) 20 minutes © Garrett Bradley. Courtesy Lisson Gallery
A

Garrett Bradley

— That material is a synthetic polyester called mylar, which is used as an insulator in buildings, crisis blankets – even NASA’s astronaut suits. It keeps you warm, and protects and saves you. It also has this liquid reflective quality, but remains solid. It functions as heat and coolness, fire and water. Looking specifically at mylar, there’s a few things that are happening in the film. At first, it looks like a green planet is coming towards you, to the side of where the mylar hangs, but it’s actually an out-of-focus production light. The camera then zooms in and we cut to Donna walking up to the mylar, which is hanging on a C-stand. She unclips the material, takes it off the stand, and then cuts it. While this is happening, the other channels show all these offshoots, greens and blues that are made with studio lights and by turning the camera a little to the left. These are the secondary images from the source. I’m really interested in what it means to take something that is secondary and make it a primary, to the extent that you forget where it’s come from, and it becomes autonomous, its own thing. I’m obsessed with this and continue to think about it in my work. The secondary is also another way of talking about the effects of things. I don’t always think that what happens is as important as the effects of that initial happening. Certainly in past work like Alone and Time, both of which directly look at incarceration in America, the instinct or desire to want to better understand what somebody did to become incarcerated is less important than the effects of what happens – to them and their family – when they are imprisoned. This is distilled and explored in SAFE too, but with objects. This is the closest I can get to articulating instinct and intuition, which is something we know and is familiar, but also hard to pin down.

Q

The White Review

— The final channel shows a refracted image of Donna, standing still against a dark backdrop and staring out, almost directly at us, while debris falls millimetres to the left of her. It’s a striking scene, one that compels you to look on despite Donna’s stasis. Could tell me about this visual metaphor?

A

Garrett Bradley

— In some ways, this is Donna’s subconscious at work. She looks at the lens, which is us, as rocks fall beside her. But it’s also about the viewer. All you’re doing is projecting assumptions onto what she’s thinking and how she makes you feel. The more you look at Donna, and the more she looks back at you, she becomes a mirror to your thoughts.

Q

The White Review

SAFE is shown across various rooms, but the score is constant. It contains a collage of recordings featuring sirens, street corners, traffic, public parks. I felt the sounds surge through my body; they enabled me to have this all-encompassing interaction with the film. Did you create the score yourself?

A

Garrett Bradley

— Most of the sounds in SAFE were recorded in New Orleans. For a good part of this year, I’ve been living in LA and there’s helicopters that fly around constantly. The LAPD was trained the way Vietnam soldiers were in terms of how they navigate the city, so you have this heavy type of surveillance, which is sonic and very discomforting. The way I work with sound is akin to how I work with archives: I’m looking at different ways in which I can evoke less evident truths and insights around material for which I was not present at the time of creation. This position forces a certain kind of malleability. With sound, there’s a desire to experiment with that lack of linearity. In SAFE, when we hear helicopters or a boat, fire crackling or records spinning, a person speaking from the distance in a car – all these different sonic moments – what I’m trying to do is create an inside: that simultaneous interior and exterior SAFE is seeking to represent, and which can’t be fully articulated physically.

 

I would also say that sound functions as the interior space in SAFE, the way that the archive does in my films, Time and America. In having one sonic space, I’m making a case about presentness, as the ‘past’ of the archive and ‘now’ come together on screen, looping back to the same spot.

Q

The White Review

— Both Time and America centre the suppressed histories of Black subjects using archival material. America interweaves archival footage of actor and director Bert Williams (1874–1922), with reconstructed scenes of lost and forgotten Black figures from the worlds of jazz, baseball and aviation. Your documentary Time similarly blends archival material in with new footage to tell the story of Sibil Fox Richardson and her family’s decades-long campaign for the release of her husband Robert G. Richardson from prison. What was it like to use this archival footage amongst your own and would you say you were reanimating and expanding upon these archives?

 

AMERICA, 2019, Film Still, Two-channel high-definition video (black and white, 5.1 sound), fabric and copper piping, 23 minutes 55 seconds © Garrett Bradley, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
A

Garrett Bradley

— My relationship to the archive differs with these two films. America was the first time I worked in a hard-core way with an archive, and I was trying to build a kind of formula. There was a lot of trial and error about what exactly I wanted the project to be about, but I initially came to it through the archive. Bert Williams is credited as being the first Black actor to have a leading role in a film called Darktown Jubilee, in 1914. But I knew there was another film from 1913, Lime Kiln Club Field Day, which was not released. It was made several years after Plessy versus Ferguson the landmark case from 1896, in which the US Supreme Court upheld racial segregation as constitutional], and didn’t have an integrated production. I saw this film came from a place of power, despite the fact that Williams wears blackface theatre conventions of the day required one performer in a Black musical wear blackface]. I could see it in his performance, and I could see it between scenes, in the fragmented moments and shots that existed before the camera rolled out – which is why I opened America with still images. Through these still images, I wanted viewers to meditate not only on who Williams was outside of being an actor, but what he was like in his natural state. We see him pointing or gesturing to a producer, and giving directions in the recorded moments between actual takes, and this allows us to focus not so much on the obvious but on elements of his performance that are more nuanced. 

 

The archival footage for America forced me to think about how to collaborate with someone who is no longer on earth. It forced me to think about diverse methods of editing and most importantly how to get behind these images, how to take what exists around the material.

 

With Time, it was different. I wasn’t aware of Sibil’s archive – she handed it to me while I was filming, and that immediately informed how I was going to use the material. I started making the film with the intention of knowing what resilience looked like on a day-to-day basis. When you’re making a documentary you don’t know what’s going to happen. I didn’t know if Sibil’s husband, Robert, was going to be released from prison during or after the making of the film. When you’re filming you need to understand what things will enable you to still make this work if you have to stop tomorrow. Every day, whatever I filmed had to be highly curated. Once I realised the archive of Sibil’s private video recordings and photographs existed, I was able to build my case and expand what I wanted to originally articulate.

Q

The White Review

— The way you flit between archival footage and your own in film creates a kind of capaciousness, or a sense of deep time, or slowness. The scholar Tina M. Campt talks about the slow as part of an ethics of care; she considers the ‘infinite velocities’ and ‘intensities of microperception’ that ‘slowness demands’. Is there an ethics to the slow modes in your work?

A

Garrett Bradley

— I like slowing things down simply because they’re beautiful, but I also think it forces meditation. Linearity is a totally false idea and notion; everything repeats itself, everything kind of exists in the present, in our bodies. When you allow yourself to slow down – well, it’s interesting, I don’t know if the slowness is catching up to us or if we’re catching up to the slowness. But it certainly offers an entry point, to slow down, and I think that’s really important in a moment like this. The only way the world is going to change is if we allow ourselves that space.

Q

The White Review

— Slowness in your films also allows for contemplation. The camera lingers on faces in your feature-length film, Below Dreams, as well as in Time and another documentary, Naomi Osaka, a portrait of the Japanese tennis player. What’s the relationship between your camera and the subject? Is slowness part of your process? 

A

Garrett Bradley

— When I’m making a film I’m not looking at my subject – as in, I’m not chasing after them. That’s why it’s really important I get to spend time with the person beforehand. The film with Naomi Osaka was the one time I made something without knowing somebody, and so much of that process was learning and realising she was still discovering herself in that moment too. When I spend time with people, I want to know how somebody moves through space. I want to know how they see themselves, so that I can be there with them. This is what stops it being a chase, because I already know they’re going to go here or there, and so I know where my camera needs to be. When someone’s looking at themselves, I like to think that they are the camera.

Q

The White Review

— To what extent do you collaborate with your subjects, from closer friends like Donna and Aloné, to those whose lives you follow, like Sibil and Naomi? How does collaboration work on a practical level?

A

Garrett Bradley

— It starts with conversations and being curious. I don’t put myself in my own work in any kind of physical way, so the collaboration comes through the process of discussion. If someone says to me ‘Anxiety feels like Morse code all over my body,’ I’m being given an image. It comes to my mind, and it’s a matter of me asking, ‘I had an image of you rolling down a hill and grass all over you, are you willing to do that in the film?’ (which is what we eventually see at one point in SAFE). If the answer is yes, then that’s what we film. 

 

My process is about listening to people and letting the images come to my mind, and those images then become the script and then they perform them. Having said that I’m still manoeuvring people around. When you’re directing, it’s about having a really clear vision, but there’s a level of transparency and agency within that vision for those I’m working with. This is essential to what ultimately gets created. The transparency and agency come from those initial conversations, and from the question, not the assertion, of ‘this image came to me; does that resonate with you?’ If they agree, I hold tightly to that image, and so they really do become actors – but the source of inspiration is also them. Those I collaborate with both inspire the work and act in it at the same time.

Q

The White Review

— Conversation is also integral to Below Dreams, your earliest film, which follows the lives of different characters in New Orleans. There’s Jamaine, a young man recently out of prison and struggling to find work; a drifting New Yorker, Elliot; and a single mother, Leann. Action or is triggered by exchange – however trivial or loaded. Elliot, for example, has an epiphany after a tense conversation with his manager; Jamaine makes the dramatic decision to take the caps of his teeth after a passing conversation. What role does conversation play on screen – and off it?

 

Below Dreams, 2014, Film Still, Single-channel colour video/ audio, 74 minutes © Garrett Bradley, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

 

 

A

Garrett Bradley

— I’m dyslexic and I had a hard time figuring out how I could express myself and communicate with the world. Ultimately, that’s what everybody needs in life in order to feel loved – to be understood, to feel heard. I started making films by going out into the city with a camcorder and talking to people. It was something I could do without help. I could do it on my own. That was the foundation for the methodology that has stayed with me since then. The importance of conversation, the importance of dialogue and going outward in order to create something. 

 

With Below Dreams, I was taking Greyhound buses between NYC and New Orleans and interviewing people with a recorder about what they wanted in life and what they thought was going to keep them from getting it. That became the basis of Below Dreams. I met everyone in the film through Craigslist, except for Elliot Ellers, who’s the one trained actor. Through Desmond Watson, who also briefly stars in the film as Jamaine’s friend, I met Aloné, who became a friend and collaborator. And in fact, everybody I’ve worked with, in every project I’ve made, have come to me either through reading newspaper articles, or being in proximity to a something that I feel needs to be better understood. In all those situations, it feels unethical to try to do that without the people I see experiencing it. Below Dreams was focused on dialogue because that was how that film was made.

 

 

 


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Garrett Bradley is an American artist and filmmaker based in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou is a writer, the founding editor-in-chief of Lucy Writers, and is currently writing up her PhD in English Literature and Visual Material Culture at UCL. She regularly writes on visual art, literature and dance for magazines like The White Review, The London Magazine, The Arts Desk, Plinth UK, Burlington Contemporary and many others. She is currently working on a hybrid book of creative nonfiction about women and drawing also.

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