Afew minutes into Arthur Jafa’s 2016 video work Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death comes a clip of black couples dancing in a dingy setting, grinding, one man guiding his partner by the hips from behind as she fans her face in slight slow motion. It is one of many moments of grace emerging unexpectedly, in the blink of an eye, in Jafa’s artwork. The next shot shows more moving hips, this time in a jumble. A split-second is enough to recognize the thrust of police bodies against a black man, next to cell bars. The vhs timestamp, September 1990, indicates this was shortly before the lapd officers’ beating of Rodney King, while the position of the camera suggests the clip was shot by law enforcement—an exception among the many images of racially targeted police brutality in this work. The screen cuts to singer Chris Brown, dancing the Dougie in a nightclub to the sound of Cali Swag District’s ‘Teach Me How to Dougie’.
The song continues as the image switches to 1960s black-and-white footage of performers on a stage, swaying their hips in unison, like the Dougie. This smooth audio-visual edit, known as an L cut, in which the sound bridges onto no-longer matching video, serves to propose a gestural ancestry for the Dougie, since the dance only emerged in the 1980s and was popularized in the early years of YouTube. The sound-image mismatch provokes a moment of delight. The sequence ends with scenes from the wedding of Jafa’s daughter, in which family and guests dance a variation of the Dougie. In the virtuoso cinematography of these shots, filmed by the bride’s father, home-video merges with the high production value of a romantic film. Without any guiding voiceover, and within the mere fifteen seconds that make up the entire dense sequence of montage, brisk hip movements and the Dougie’s side-to-side shimmy become a motif that takes us from viral African-American art forms to racist violence to familial love.
Film sequences are sometimes compared to sentences: discrete units within a broader discourse, which convey their meaning by ordering smaller units, such as words or shots, according to a set of conventions. Yet unlike sentences, Jafa’s sequences do not formulate unified propositions. As with many art videos, they do not follow cinematic conventions of continuity editing or other dependable narrative codes. If Love Is the Message has nevertheless become an emblem for anti-racist mobilization in the art world, it achieved this status not through a declarative stance, but rather through what we might call ‘editing chills’, aesthetic frissons that mesmerize or move the viewer, translating sometimes into dilated pupils or goose bumps. Here the sensation results from the velocity of the editing, from the evocative power of the film’s many clips, orchestrated to conjure the worlds of African-American life—everyday scenes, historical civil-rights footage, viral videos of white police violence, black music, cinema, dance, sport, sociability—as they flash by. The power of this montage does not reside in the promise of a fully resolved narrative. Rather it lies in the dense historical experience which these fragments concentrate into nuggets, allowing multiple ideas to be grasped together, conjoining supposedly irreconcilable forms of beauty and pain.
Love Is the Message is barely seven minutes long but it collates over 150 clips, echoing imagery that would become ubiquitous in the summer of 2020, after the police killing of George Floyd, as well as much older material. The work is driven by the insistent rhythm of Kanye West’s 2016 hip-hop track, ‘Ultralight Beam’, with its chorus: ‘This is a God dream, this is a God dream, this is everything.’ Jafa edits police shootings of black people together with dance scenes and parties; a home-video of a black child in tears, as he is made to hold his hands against a wall, in preparation for ‘what the police do to you’, with a post on Tumblr by teen actress Amandla Stenberg, inviting people to think of what America would be like ‘if we loved black people as much as we love black culture’; phone footage of Walter Scott, shot in the back as he runs from the police, with rarely seen black-and-white archive footage of Angela Davis, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Not only is Jafa’s film, to an important degree, about these hundreds of scenes, people and subjects; it also addresses the experience of watching them, as a multitude of often decontextualized images, each of which comes bearing its own history and layers of meaning. In a sense, then, Love Is the Message also depicts its own medium, as a thematic aggregator of digitized moving images.
This platform-like quality is particularly apparent when, instead of being projected in a gallery, the work is shown online, literally operating within the same medium through which many of its images were originally disseminated. While it was made in 2016, Love Is the Message underwent a cultural rebirth in the summer of 2020 when, at the height of the global pandemic, and despite the widespread lockdowns—which for many had reduced the world to what could be experienced onscreen—uprisings grew in protest at the killing of Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin. In June 2020, as the protests proliferated, filmed footage of them spread still farther and faster, both in the United States and internationally: demonstrators confronting teargas, toppling monuments to slave owners, circulating meme-based exhortations to revolt. This new digital iconography drew millions of protesters out of their homes, despite lockdowns, and rallied newly politicized layers online. The themes of Love Is the Message were now instantly recognizable to a mass international audience. Jafa’s work became something like a visual anthem for the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement.
In the first four years of its existence, Love Is the Message had mostly been screened in art galleries, as part of a larger show. But in late June 2020, a coalition of thirteen museums agreed to show the work on their websites for 48 hours, free of charge. They included the Tate, the Stedelijk, the Pinault Collection and la’s moca, as well as the Hirschhorn and the Smithsonian in Washington dc—some of the most prominent art institutions in the Northern hemisphere. These widely publicized simultaneous screenings were framed by an agreement between the artist and the institutional holders of the work that, in the wake of Floyd’s killing, Love Is the Message should be made accessible beyond gallery walls to as many people as possible. The Dallas Museum of Art drew attention to the clips originating in Texas: the brief but startling shot of a black teenager in a bright bikini, thrown to the ground at a pool party by white police, is one of them. By the end of the summer, Jafa’s work had become synonymous with the art world’s new-found commitment to racial justice.footnote1
Behind the mobilizations of 2020—and Jafa’s propulsion to the forefront of the art world—lay shifts in the broader visual and sensory culture that affected almost anyone with a computer or a smartphone. The past decade has seen an unprecedented growth in the scale and speed of moving-image dissemination. In 2016, when Jafa made Love Is the Message, an estimated 400 hours of video were being uploaded to YouTube every single minute—a volume that had quadrupled since 2014.footnote2 The artwork thus emerged at a moment when the relation between video abundance and the representation of current events was being reconfigured, with more recordings than ever available in widely varied visual, sonic and durational forms. The possibility of grasping their totality, or even a significant fraction of them, had become unthinkable. The claim—associated with the post-conceptual Pictures Generation artists of the 1970s—that we experience reality through the pictures we make of it, could now be updated: we experience reality through the moving pictures we make.footnote3 This applied all the more during the lockdowns of 2020, when for large swathes of the population, confined to their homes for weeks on end, the existence of the exterior world was also experienced as ‘edited’: footage was arranged in different combinations depending on the clips shared, the apps used, the algorithms applied, the tv channels selected. Love Is the Message thus also corresponds to a historical moment when events have been outdistanced in sheer scale and duration by their own visual recording. In this context, Jafa’s capacity to edit together scores of moving images from vastly disparate sources, to produce a work that evokes immensity and complexity rather than chaos and confusion, gains a new valence.