A boy child comes out of Belmont at the corner of Cadiz Road or Jerningham Avenue, and faces the Savannah. He soon sees them, throngs of them, on Queen’s Park East, racing like the plague. Ten years old, he frames the scene, or, rather, his eyes register thousands of frames in minutes. An outbreak of black with slithers of pink and coatings of grey. Rats! Black are the masks, pink the standards, and grey the costumes. Rats! They’ve come down the hills, out of the gutters, to run their yearly race. “Dey say he get horn.” “For Truth?” “A Homo?” “Punch say”…. The slogans that adorn the standards they bear have turned into a loud gossip. Their protest, if it is one, is a carnival. Their race is a rat race. Ratrace!
Almost three times ten years later, I look for cues of Marlon Griffith’s witnessing of what he would later describe as the foundational event in the formation of his artistic vocation. Beyond his recollecting and my fictional narrating, there is a flurry of photographs online and I have folders full of tiffs and jpegs of Peter Minshall’s Ratrace mas’ performance in Port-of-Spain during Carnival 1986. The teeth I can see in the photographs are frightening; the ears, grotesque. The whole thing seems to come out of a comic book, speech bubbles and all. And the tails. So long they needed to be held up—and they were: under the arm like a clutch, in the hand like a whip, above the head…for what now? The shimmer of freshly molded plastic conferred appeal to otherwise unseemly disguises. Something about it must have captured the ethos of the era. I mean, we’ d just entered the second half of the 1980s and people wore that for Carnival: rat costumes!
It’s been almost thirty years since Minshall’s Ratrace sprawled through the streets of Port-of-Spain and almost ten years since Griffith’s performances started to unfold before the world in so many displaced Savannahs. In 2008, in Gwangju, South Korea, the May 18 Democratic Square, in effect a large traffic island at the confluence of three major
avenues, became one such Savannah and the Seventh Gwangju Biennale, the first international arena in which he presenteda mas’ -inspired art performance.1 Up until then, Griffith had kept his masmaking and artmaking activities separate, designing kiddies bands for Carnival on the one hand and making drawings and installations for exhibitions on the other. His artmaking practice was infused by masmaking techniques and themes and his masmaking designs were much touted for their distinct artistry.2 Griffith was also invested in performance, though the first he did was on the smallest possible scale, his own body, and in Cape Town, far away from Port-of-Spain.
At an even farther geographical remove from Trinidad, and further into a conceptual leap forward towards an integrated artistic practice, Griffith created a potent precipitate as his contribution to SPRING in Gwangju. RUNAWAY / REACTION, whose title borrowed from the name of a chemical reaction, offered no King or Queen, no jury prize, but it did offer a people’s prize. Other photographs attest to the impact of Griffith’s experiment in the early fall of 2008. The audience seems struck by surprise as SPRING sweeps through the streets. When RUNAWAY / REACTION rolled past, creatures of pure imagination borrowed a futuristic disguise of projected abstractions of water and became moving human screens of spiked costumes. The rats are long gone. The images remain.
Enough already. All that old talk. Griffith is in Nagoya now and I am back in New Orleans. “He writes me from Japan. He writes me from Africa…” Half-way through Sans Soleil (1983)—or maybe closer towards the end, I can’ t recall—Chris Marker introduces the motif of Carnival as part of his fictional epistolary recollection and filmic retrocollection of castaway images. Carnival in Guinea Bissau, not Trinidad, though roughly from the same period that Minshall’s mas’ awakened Griffith’s artistic sensibility. As a backdrop, there are the independence struggles, though against the Portuguese, not the British. The role Carnival plays in national affirmation in the post-colonial period is better analyzed in—indeed, the centerpiece of—another, slightly earlier, landmark film essay, Antonio Olé’s Carnaval da Vitoria (1978), but I digress. Then, of course, yes, there is Japan, the other pole of the sunless world, where Griffith has been based since 2009.
Carnival, anti-colonial resistance, Trinidad, Japan, film, and travel: These are the coordinates of Griffith’s artistic map which Sans Soleil helps me navigate through. In this essay, I want to talk about film and memory more so than mas’ and performance, framing rather than making or playing mas’ . These are related (of course?), but not in the way in which I had previously thought, and maybe not in the way in which Marlon thinks about it at all. This text is very much an introspective conversation about artistic intention and curatorial projection, conflated with a non-exhaustive account of my ten-year collaboration with Griffith (2004–2014).3
“He writes me from Japan…” I do wonder whether Japan’s “neighborhood celebrations”, the counterpoint to the “the economic miracle” which belong in the list of “things that quicken the heart”, provide a fertile ground from which to rethink Carnival, that other neighborhood celebration (recall Belmont). I intend to ask Marlon. Sans Soleil seems to suggest that link. Sandor Krasna, the film’s fictitious cameraman/narrator and stand-in for director Chris Marker, writes that “things that quicken the heart” are “not a bad criterion … when filming”. Did it quicken Griffith’s child heart to see grown up man-rats sprawl out of his neighborhood in celebration of Carnival? My recollection of his account of the event registers like a still image, a framed scene a film still: a fact further reinforced by the photographic frame through which I am now examining Ratrace. But this projection all goes back to one of Marlon’s very first aspirations.
Griffith’s exhibition Symbols of Endurance, curated by Emelie Chhangur for the Art Gallery at York University, brings abundant evidence of the way in which Griffith framed Ring of Fire, and previous processional performances, in a quasi-filmic fashion. Sequence after sequence, storyboards which are on display here for the first time have always been central in Griffith’s drafting process to show how he intends the performance to unfold processionally. Now, to be clear, at the time of the first experiment of SPRING neither Griffith nor myself referred to the work he did as an artist nor I did as a curator as processional performance. The term I began using circa 2007 was procession, which I began envisioning as the possibility of curating public performance on a mass scale and for a large audience. Work included under this term might have initially come from a Carnival background but the concept could also embrace any contemporary artistic production.4 Processional performance is the expression I have been using since 2014 or thereabout, and turns out to be well suited to Griffith’s brand of mas’ -inspired large-scale public performances as well as provides further insights into the relationship between masmaking and filmmaking in this work.
This relationship between mas’ and film is one that begs further investigation generally, of which I cannot indulge in at length within the context of this text. What I can share is what is of general knowledge (among Trinidad Carnival buffs that is): In the fifties and sixties, masmen used film as a resource for selecting subject matters and as reference for making costumes. Mas’ bands of Roman centurions had the pepla-qualities of Cinecittà cinematographic productions of the same period while Fancy Indians donned feathers as fake as those of Hollywood Westerns. The most important, indeed foundational, relationship between film and mas’ , however, is not referential but structural, corroborated by the history of film or, as it were, the motion picture itself. From the Lumière brothers’ very first film (Workers Coming out of the Factory, 1895) to Georges Méliès’ later cinematographic experiments (including The Mardi Gras Procession and Mid-Lent Procession in Paris (both 1897) to Jean-Luc Godard’s “processional” filmic device (défilement), film pioneers and film avant-gardists have turned to actual processions to record images of bodies in motion and used the processional mode to set images into motion.5 For the former, organic opportunities were still amply available in the waning popular culture of late nineteenth century Paris through funeral processions, military parades, and Mardi Gras parades, while for the later they had to be reconstructed specifically for the camera.
Against this backdrop, Griffith’s work appears proto-cinematographic. Griffith is concerned with two facets of the great experiment with images that lead to filmmaking: the moving image on the one hand, and the projected image on the other hand. As concerns the moving image, Griffith, as evidenced in his use of storyboarding, does not so much look back to film for thematic references for making mas’ , as earlier masmen did, as he frames his mas’ -inspired processional performances like film—akin to earlier filmmakers recording processional movement to highlight the technical capabilities of cinematographic machines. The relationship between projection and procession was not lost on William Kentridge whose early projection experiments and processional imagery date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s and is worth contrasting with Griffith’s own experiments. But where Kentridge began with projections by way of drawing animation to figure processions only to arrive at processional performance over two decades later, Griffith furthered his interest in both projection and the performance of procession at the same time, with an emphasis on the later.6
As concerns the projected image, Griffith made his first experiment with projection with only the flimsiest of images: the cast shadow—where a solid object intercepts light between its source and the surface onto which it is thrown. In his installation for Lighting the Shadow: Trinidad In and Out of Light (CCA7, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, 2004), the objects that acted as the intercessors for the images to be projected were five plastic ‘ prints’ made with the vacuum-forming technique used in mas’ making—for molding the Ratrace masks, for example. The light source was light bulbs precariously anchored to the ground with hand-made contraptions. The surface was the white walls of the gallery space. The figures, including the artist himself in a self-portrait, formed barely visible reminiscences of human forms emerging out of darkness as in J’ouvert, the nocturnal mud masquerade and cleansing ritual that inaugurates the two days of Carnival revelry in Trinidad.7
Griffith replicated this technique, this time adding motion, for his second processional performance, A Walk Into the Night(CAPE 09, 2009), which took place in the Company Gardens, downtown Cape Town. Where lights fastened to the ground projected shadows onto immobile walls in Lighting the Shadow, in A Walk Into the Night the whole projecting apparatus itself was set in motion. One hundred or so masqueraders, many coming from Cape Town’s own carnival groups, doubled up as shadows projected onto moving screens. Kentridge’s Shadow Procession (1999) stop-motion animation of torn black paper puppets walking in profile with a heavy burden comes to mind. This “procession of the dispossessed” is particularly resonant within the context of post-apartheid South Africa out of which Kentridge’s drawing animation work emerges and towhich Griffith’s nocturnal walk brings further fugitive figurations.8 Marching three abreast, the line closest to the audience held white fabric screens aloft while those furthest carried hand-held torchlights so that an abstracted likeness of the middle line was projected, as shadows, onto the other side of the screens. Fittingly, for a piece whose title referenced the almost eponymous anti-Apartheid novel A Walk In the Night by Alex La Guma (1962), shadows were here used as a means to eschew the pitfalls of racial identification with skin color. “Holes in light”, as they were once called, shadows provide a representational gap to rescue the image from oversignification, the body from hyperidentification.
Griffith’s later experimentations with the projected image no longer involved shadows but rather light itself. For RUNAWAY / REACTION, a bluish hue unevenly highlighted fragments of costumes. Stemming from images of trembling water, alluded to in the title borrowed from the name of a chemical reaction, the projection turned the masqueraders themselves into ambulatory screens and Griffith, who walked backwards with a hand-held projector during the entire 90-minute span of the performance, into the projecting apparatus. Light became the primary character in POSITIONS+POWER (in EN MAS’ , Port-of-Spain, 2014). Casting two beams of light from helmet-mounted flashlights, the ‘ Overseer’ opens a path out of the darkness for a small group of masqueraders while the ‘ Watchdog’ , seated at the bottom of the surveillance tower on which the Overseer stands, features a mouthful of human-teeth-as-seeing-eyes thanks to a mini-projector hidden in the visor of his helmet.
In both nocturnal processional performances RUNAWAY / REACTION and POSITIONS+POWER, the projecting apparatus is used as a functional instrument for lighting.In RUNAWAY / REACTION, the abstracted meaning of the projected image—the overflow of substances under pressure—brought about a symbolic reenactment of the emancipatory impulses of the formerly enslaved and colonized, specifically as they manifested in the post-abolition , pro-Carnival, Canboulay Riots of Trinidad (1881 and 1884), and continued to manifest in Carnival through to Independence. In POSITIONS + POWER, the ‘ Overseer’ and ‘ Watchdog’ duo imply a continuum between the repressive colonial policing of the old and the police state and surveillance society of the new. If Griffith’s referential titles provide cues into possible meanings of his works, it is the economy of light among the constituent parts of each work, whether turned inwards onto the masqueraders as in Cape Town and Gwangju or outwards at the crowd as in Port-of-Spain or London, which enables the processional performances.
What if then, in simultaneously highlighting and disembodying the performance participants as specters, Griffith’s lighting apparatus propose a reordering of the lived and perceived experience of the performance? Though often thought as participatory, might the use of the body as a moving surface onto or from which to project light diffract the attention away from the embodied dimension of performance? Might the nocturnal performances discussed in this text function as dark chambers within which light is captured to be later released, primarily into filmic and photographic memory? How might mas’ function within a diffracted global space in which participants are no longer neighbours invested in the year-long elaboration of their festivals but rather volunteers culled from workshops and enlisted for the performance? If the use of projected light and its ensuing effect function as a necessary disembodiment of a performance that is no longer localized within particular bodies, then Griffith’s most enlightening contribution might come from answering this fundamental question: how to be a mas’ man from Japan?