There have been several significant moments in recent history when the latest camera technology has been used to record episodes of police officers using brutal or lethal force against African Americans. The Rodney King incident in 1991 was the first, and demonstrated the power of a camcorder to expand the parameters of what it meant to be a witness; and in the past decade there’s been the seemingly never-ending litany of fatal events captured on mobile phones. Perhaps the most harrowingly involving such record of recent years was Diamond Reynolds’s Facebook Live broadcast, on July 6, 2016, of the moments after her partner, Philando Castile, was shot during a traffic stop, as she sat in the passenger seat, clearly in a state of shock, filming and narrating and futilely intoning, “Please don’t tell me he’s dead,” over and over.
Over and over indeed. Inevitably, Reynolds’s footage was picked up by news outlets and circulated around the world—repeated endlessly, branded with media corporations’ logos, cut for editorial purposes, and generally manipulated according to ideological requirements. It is these degradations that Luke Willis Thompson’s film autoportrait (2017)—the sole work in his Chisenhale show—intends to respond to by providing a counter-narrative, or a counter-image (what he calls a “sister-image”), to Reynolds’s original broadcast. Here, Reynolds, whom Thompson reached out to via her lawyer, is the sole subject. But unlike the Facebook footage, autoportrait was shot on 35mm film, so the work is contained on a physical reel, serving as a unique artifact—one, moreover, that Thompson is withholding from digital circulation. Also, the black-and-white projection is silent, because to mix in a soundtrack would have been an editorial act, an effect of postproduction, detracting from the ethos of simply using a camera to record whatever Reynolds chose to do for the length of the filming. The idea was for the piece to be as immediate—as unmediated—as possible.
As it happens, Reynolds doesn’t do very much. A single, fixed-position shot frames her head and shoulders, as she sits in three-quarter profile, wearing on-trend aviator glasses and her hair in pigtails, looking slightly uncomfortable, her eyes mostly downcast. A second shot follows, representing another roll of film stitched on, this one focused more tightly on her face. After a little while, she looks more steadily ahead and seems generally to open up. She starts softly mouthing words, nodding her head—she’s speaking, perhaps, or singing. Without sound, it is impossible to know. It could be some favorite song she and Castile shared. Or maybe she’s praying.
The work invites such conjecture, of course. Warhol’s “Screen Tests” are an obvious touchstone. But autoportrait is less about the allure, the unknowable seductions, of cinema as a medium. Rather, a lack of knowing, it feels like, is presented as a sort of offering—for indeed there’s a quasi-religious tone to the film, with its slow, somber mood suggesting a sense of ritual and reverence, and with Reynolds herself, in her stillness, appearing vaguely Madonna-like. What is being offered, then, is the promise of respite from the twenty-four-hour news cycle of information overload: a cinematic space of safety, and silence, and perhaps even a selfhood that isn’t defined by extraneous discourses of race. And the implicit sadness of the work is that this offer is impossible to take up, because, after all, we have to live in the real world—a world in which the police officer who killed Castile was acquitted of all wrongdoing the week before the show opened.