Louis Henderson: Geophysical Matters

Commissioned by LUX (published on 8 May 2016)

A revolutionary cry is heard in Haiti. Police sirens race across a Parisian street by night, and we collectively listen to Angela Davis discuss the prison industrial complexi: “I want to try to urge you to think about the historical system of slavery and the institution of the prison together, and specifically I want us to think about the extent to which the vast global apparatus of imprisonment and particularly, corporate involvement in the business of punishment, are developments related to what I would call the sedimented history of slavery that we are living out today.” Further on, grainy cell phone footage captures a young black man in Ferguson shot down by a United States police officer.

lettresduvoyant_20449543_web_0.jpg              Still from Louis Henderson’s Lettres du Voyant, 2013

I would like to read Louis Henderson’s moving image work Black Code/Code Noir (2015) through an understanding of global blackness, where the historical terrains of black radical tradition meet with oppressive constructions of social control that perform as daily condition: the monitoring processes that manifest “policing” as an environment of contagion rather than singular identifiable acts in the body politic of the State, today. In developing an asynchronic timeline, and indeed a reading of fragmented histories, this artist-filmmaker brings forth a combined setting: the Haitian Revolution as a rebellion that uproots colonial currents of the Atlantic World and the algorithmic lens-based systems of Big Data policing that become entwined with the brutal killings of African Americans in the United States. Two public documents act as an immanent script within this film: first, the Code Noir, which was issued in Louis XIV’s edict of 1685 and taken up under colonial governance at the coast of Saint-Domingue, and second, the Black Codes of Laws passed in the Southern States during the mid-nineteenth century that greatly restricted the rights of newly freed African Americans, while also perpetuating the intrinsic mechanism of debt as a prolonged arrangement of economic slavery.

The screen is no longer a space of entrapment, but rather the realm for an exploded narrative. How to resist affirmation and the temptation to repair? Instead, continuing to allow fragments to be avowed—the shattered image—to dwell as both, witness and testimony. Henderson’s editing approach for Black Code/Code Noir is agential in staging a visual form of embodied resistance; sifting through citizen recordings, official speeches, mass protests, public remembrance and archives of the slave plantation; allowing for discord to play out in this assemblage of found media, which then appear as sites of contrasting evidence—rising through layers of narrative tension and optical dissensus. The restlessness of bodies invaded by constant vigilance is resonant in its digital corporeality, as images grapple for a clear horizon but instead become marked by each other, and through the semi-darkness of what remains resolutely unfilmable.

Henderson provides a haptic visuality, which challenges the camera-as-weapon under state violence through a reverse gaze that chronicles the lived struggles for a true racial democracy.

In recalling impact of the code on black bodies, the cinematic space emerges as fugitive, channelling the ethics of opacity necessary to approach a common pastii. These networks of dispossession call forth a refusal of the undercommons where the call and response is for dis-orderiii—an address to breakthrough into a world beyond this world—to rebel against the transparent hierarchy of the code as linear terror, embedded across genealogies of white sovereignty. If we then ask, what conclusion is to be reached? It may reside in the insistence of Frantz Fanon, who wants not the end of colonialism but the end of the standpoint from which colonialism makes senseiv.

The algorithm is a scheme of recurrence that regiments memory. Louis Henderson’s All that is Solid (2014) is a film entirely made with found and re-edited footage. In a sense it is an act of cannibalization that foregrounds the Internet as a zone of extreme contact. Building a relation between mass online storage, the cloud database, and the vertical descent of the mining pit, Henderson surveys the necropolitical scheme of an e-waste dump in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, intersecting with the neoliberal acceleration toward data storage, cyber security and incessantly upgraded devices.

The myth of immateriality when considering the trails of cyberspace debris is torn down with a penetrating gaze into energy-fuelled data centres and computer parts that form a rubble city. The clinically maintained storage sites for our collective ‘online’ footprint and the fleshy dramaturgy of Agbogbloshie, where technology may only reside as a body-in-pieces, become animated as a final frontier. Throughout the film we embark into acts of unearthing. In this sense archaeological language and techniques bear great importance for this filmmaker, not simply in rendering a snapshot of the geophysical state of media infrastructure but in traversing up-close to a techno-frontier where there is still a promise of futurity located via the skeletal remains of apparatus in a wasteland.

Henderson delves into the primal condition of global technology that thrives in administering a pyramidal web of planetary control and casting the grid of algorithmic sovereignty over the individual as data sample. Traveling through a hard drive, cloud contents and the residual sub-terrain of gadgetry, we are left spinning with geologic spectres of technocratic zeal.

There is a sedimentary affinity in Lettres du Voyant (2013), a film that precedes All that is Solid. While addressing the history of gold mining in Ghana through current regimes of capital, we roam from animated graphics of the mine as an underground panopticon, to the sentient life of the mineral. Henderson has mentioned the use of “video as clay”, and it is a quality of sculpting that he brings forward in this work. A correspondence ensues between an unseen protagonist and the filmmaker. The act of spreading internet scams perform as a historical reminder of the mineral sediment that has been stolen from the erstwhile Gold Coast by disparate colonial agents. The online practice of Sakawa is one entangled with the Voodoo belief system and ritualistic actions that covert the very terms of definition by which greed and fraud is determined by Euro-American hegemonic powers. The scam is instead seen to include ideas of retribution, collective interest and sacrifice to even out the distributive flows of wealth.

An extraction at symbolic as well as material levels—the film stages a mirroring between traversing the network cables of the Internet to illicitly access currency and prospecting for the rare earth minerals within discarded machinery. In the haunting of communication technology, there is a potential address to historical injustice. As a medium of investigation intrinsically linking the timelines of colonialism and earth history into a vertical composition, Henderson develops his cinematic works as a channel of deep listening.



Angela Davis, Slavery and the Prison Industrial Complex, 5th Annual Eric Williams Memorial Lecture at Florida International University, September 2003

ii Martin Munro and Celia Britton, American Creoles: The Francophone Caribbean and the American South, Liverpool University Press, 2012

iii Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons – Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Minor Compositions, 2013

iv ibid


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