HD video, sound, 30 minutes
Introduced by Margarida Mendes
“Serpent Rain is as much an experiment in working together as it is a film about the future. The collaboration began with the discovery of a sunken slave ship, and an artist asking a philosopher – how do we get to the post-human without technology? And the philosopher replying – maybe we can make a film without time. The result is a video that speaks from inside the cut between slavery and resource extraction, between black lives matter and the matter of life, between the state changes of elements, timelessness and tarot. Together we ask: what becomes of the human if expressed by the elements?”
Margarida Mendes: Serpent Rain is structured around long shots of landscapes intermitted by images of the recent riots in London, Ferguson, and Baltimore, as well as J.M.W. Turner’s painting The Slave Ship (1840), inspired by the massacre of 133 African slaves on board of the British slave ship Zong in 1781. The length of the landscape shots provokes the exercise of contemplative meditation, where one is drawn to think with matter, and reflect about the world from the perspective of deep time. Can you say something about the dimension of time in your work?
Arjuna Neuman: The dimension of time—this was one of our starting questions, how to, or can we, make a film without time? This question led to all kinds of experiments—both with the structures and materials of film (and video); and with the structures and materials of the human (and life). Not all the experiments made it into the film, while others were more in the background, say to prepare a conversation or share an experience. One memorable background example was before we wrote the intertitles, we spent a day with Tor Steffen Espedal (Project Coordinator for the Bergen Assembly) and his daughter searching for frozen waterfalls.
Denise Ferreira da Silva: When we accepted Stefano Harney’s invitation/commission to collaborate on a film, we tried but failed to follow the traditional approach: Arjuna behind the camera and I in front of it. After talking for a while about how to get around my refusal to be in front of the camera, we arrived at the question—how to make a film without time? Why this question? For several reasons, but I can say that time—or a certain, but pervasive, conception of time, linear time—is at the core of the critique of historical materialism and its account of value which is in the film. The short answer to your question is: time’s ethical force is perhaps the most important obstacle to a political program that deals with the challenges of the global present, in particular the pervasiveness of racial violence and of the colonial juridical mechanisms that facilitate extraction.
MM: This film could be seen as a requiem for the Zong, where the lush underwater garden of the seabed is pictured as a vital space that does not forget but instead assimilates. What do concepts such as black light or residence time* advance to this form of collective memory that you are trying to address?
AN: Zong—yes, but we were also thinking about the Norwegian slave ship Fredensborg. In Serpent Rain we have a drawing of it sinking. The wreck was discovered off the coast of Norway in the 1974 and the diver who found it told me that seeing it for the first time was the best moment of his life: the discovery made it impossible for Norway to continue to deny or ignore its role in the slave trade. This shook up the traditional narrative.
DFS: Well, I would add that this “vital space” actually becomes (has become) what/how it is now, because it is constituted by these dead people who did not complete the voyage between the West African coast and the Americas or Europe. And not only the dead ones: those who completed the crossing to be sold as slaves also left traces of their bodies, as sweat, blood, urine, spit in the waters along the way. Residence time reminds us of that. Residence time also tells us that traces of the flesh of the dead slaves remains here/now as part of the composition that is the Atlantic Ocean. But if you consider how, for instance, fish from the Atlantic is consumed everywhere; and if you think about evaporation and how clouds gather all kinds of things (as aerosol, I think), and move them along, well, then you realize that these traces exist in the composition of all kinds of bodies on this planet. Blacklight, as I have been thinking of it, is about a method, a how. By throwing blacklight at something, one can attend to what is there but is not highlighted: to what is there as a filler, a detail, as means, or a raw material.
MM: I intuit that the peri-acoustics that you talk about in the film is a form of sensing the world through an attentive tuning of the undertones of existence. Can you share some thoughts about this form of sonic hapticality?
AN: Peri-acoustics—this is a type of hearing inspired by how we hear as unborn children and mother beings. In this more-than-individual state, we hear through multiplicity and mutuality, we hear through four points in space, we hear both internally and externally, and we hear our speech as both our own and not our own (alien). There might be something quantum about this type of sonicity. Hearing, of course, is the first sense we develop, which is to say our first sense of self is not cut-out and singular as our eyes and mirrors would have us believe, but rather we come to know ourselves first, acoustically—as much more-than-singular.
DFS: When Arjuna first called my attention to peri-acoustics, I immediately started to think about layers of sounding, which is something I hadn’t thought about before. I am also intrigued by this materiality, the physicality of it. Sound is vibration. It propagates through everything. So I can hear with my hands. This more evident haptic aspect of sound is a reminder of how vision is haptic. Our eyes refract light (electromagnetic waves) emitted by things around us, which the brain translates into images. These waves are ‘sensed’ by the cornea and the retina, but they emit radiation that ‘touches’ us. I guess what I am trying to say is that the haptic applies also to vision.
Perhaps we could say that what you are calling—a beautiful phrase, by the way—“an attentive tuning of the undertones of existence” names the awareness of the pervasive affectability that is existence at the molecular level.
MM: You remind us how symbiopoiesis is a condition inherent to life, and how we forget to think in scales of mutualistic relations. At the end of the film, you ask wisely “what becomes of the human if expressed by the elements?” Would you attempt to answer this question?
AN: Elements—lol, nice try, that’s like asking what happens after the cliff-hanger on a television show. I don’t think there is a short answer to this question it is more of an invitation to a collective imagining. Although I can say that our next film, 4 Waters-Deep Implicancy is another attempt to ask that question. Or at least, not to answer it, as much as follow the question towards more specificity.
DFS: As Arjuna says 4 Waters-Deep Implicancy has a lot to say about this question. I will just say that we are thinking at the level of implicancy rather than mutuality. Mutuality, as affectability, is a great descriptor for a principle that attends to existence at the molecular level. 4 Waters contemplates implicancy. That is all I am saying now.
MM: You have been discussing how to explore a modality of posthuman cinema through the strategies of camera work. I would even call this a form of elemental cinema. Can you tell a bit more about it?
AN: Elemental Cinema—I like the sound of that. I come from a background of historical materialist filmmaking, so you could say elemental filmmaking is a logical next step. We sometimes talk about quantum cinema, and what that would or could be like. I suppose this loops us back to the first question about time, but also forward to questions about universalisms, or at least, what is the universe made of? And how might it be re-made?
DFS: I think that is fine if Serpent Rain is named as part of something called posthuman cinema. It doesn’t matter. All we are doing is to experiment, literally: experimenting with ideas. As said before, Serpent Rain can be described as an experiment with the question of how to make a film without time. As Arjuna says, the elemental is a logical next step for a materialist approach that does not want to retain the kind of universality that renders historical materialism such a poor tool for the analysis of colonial and racial subjugation.
* “The amount of time it takes for a substance to enter the ocean and then leave the ocean is called residence time. Human blood is salty, and sodium, [Anne] Gardulski [Tufts University, Dept. of Earth and Ocean Sciences] tells me, has a residence time of 260 million years. And what happens to the energy that is produced in the waters?” Excerpt From: Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press: 2016).
Commissioned by Stefano Harney for The Bergen Assembly.
Serpent Rain will be screening on occasion of Céline Condorelli’s Cinema Zagara / Ecodrome, presented at the exhibition “Geometries” held at the Agricultural University of Athens, March-June 2018.