Review by Jordan Aitchenson-Labarr
The Black Corporeal, Breathing by Numbers ACT I, part short film, part live performance, explores in its 1 hour run time, how black and working-class people are relegated to an environment that seeks at every turn to corrode their physical and mental sense of being by denying their humanity. While simultaneously rejecting the tangible effects that racism and classism have on their bodies and overall quality of life. When the very air you breath is made hostile by pollutants you cannot escape because of socio-economic conditions beyond your control, you are forced to breathe in a way where every breath counts. The very act of respiration then becomes precious, quantifiable in the sense that the danger to your life presents you with the reality that you may not have long left, that your breath can be totalled in numbers. What grounds this Studioknxx production is a documentary-style short, which features hard-hitting testimonials from air pollution campaigner Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who provides insight into her arduous journey to get air pollution officially listed as a cause of death for her 9-year-old daughter, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah was born and lived in Lewisham until her tragic death on February 15, 2013, when she suffered a fatal asthma attack. She is the first death caused by air pollution recorded in the UK.
There is a certain intimacy Julianknxx and Pablo Rojo (the director of photography) are able to capture in the way the film invites us into homes, council estates, and spaces of care where community is nurtured but concurrently devalued by the environmental factors that exist in congested inner cities. As Rosamund details her journey of resistance, grief, and acceptance, another set of visuals enter the fold, of people dressed in red and white, blind folded, dancing to the film’s swelling score of trumpets and horns as Julianknxx’s poetry begins to be recited, and the refrain we will hear throughout begins to play, “I don’t want no trouble.” These figures of red and white (or spectres, as I saw them to be) dance and sway on streets and beaches, seemingly existing on a plane of reality on top of our own, unseen but ever present. While there certainly exists a melancholia in the tragedy that off-sets this film’s production, there is a hope to be found in Rosamund’s words, a defiance that recognises our own mortality, and asks us what we want to do with the time we have here, and how we will choose to give back even when so much has been taken from us.
Once the film ends, an 8-piece choir and vocalist THABO appear to continue the gospel-like music contained within the film, as well as Julianknxx himself, who elaborates on his poems that were featured earlier. Thabo stuns with his booming, rich voice, and the choir’s lush harmonies make the performance even more beautifully haunting in the way their voices resonate together. Yet, it is Julianknxx’s poetry that guides this performance, in which with metaphors, allusions, clever word play, and references to works of scholars like Frantz Fanon, Julianknxx poignantly traces the legacy of marginalisation black people have had to contend with throughout history. With a wide plethora of references ranging from how black people’s lives are conditioned in the wake of slavery; water, and its symbolism from the time of the middle passage till now; police brutalisation; and environmental racism (to name a few), I found myself applauding his ability to connect poetically how these issues intersect and affect black people in ways linear time cannot capture. However, at the same time, I also felt the magnitude of what was being evoked meant sometimes one could get lost in what exactly was trying to be said in this part of the performance, which spreads itself thin at times in the scope of what it was trying to cover. It also didn’t help that Julianknxx’s words were partially drowned out by the noise of the music at times; closed captions on the screen behind them, or a handout with the poem to read for yourself, would have helped at a time like this. However, when the poem hit its stride, it was a stunning invitation for us to move beyond the ways we’ve been forced to grieve, to find life and joy in how we, as black people, conceptualise our relationship to our skin and the world around us. I am excited to see what fresh and artful innovations Julianknxx will bring for us next, and if this production is anything to go by, I am sure it will leave its mark on our creative and socio-political imaginations for years to come.