John Akomfrah grew up in the 1960s, in the shadow of Battersea power station in south London. As a child, he remembers “feeling as if I was enveloped in something whenever I played on the street. You could sense it in the air, you felt it and saw it, whatever was emanating from the huge chimneys. We were being poisoned as we played, but no one spoke about it. The conversations in the pub tended to be about football rather than carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Fifty years on, the local has become the global. Akomfrah’s latest art work, Purple, is an immersive, six-channel video installation that attempts to evoke the incremental effects of climate change on our planet. Shot in 10 countries and drawing on archive footage, spoken word and music alongside often epic shots of contemporary landscapes that have been altered by global warming and rising temperatures, Purple eschews a linear narrative for an almost overwhelming montage of imagery and sound.
Like all of Akomfrah’s work, it requires the viewer to surrender to sensory overload, while remaining alert to the often oblique connections being made throughout. “I kept thinking back, while making this work, to the local, working-class community I grew up in and how innocent we were in terms of trusting authority. One of the complex questions I am asking is about the relationship between our locality and the bigger issue of how we belong on the planet. Who can we trust with our collective future?”
Akomfrah’s ambition is nothing less than epic, the timespan of Purple stretching from the industrial age (images of factories, mills, machines and mass employment) to the digital revolution and beyond (the possibilities promised by biotech research, artificial intelligence and genetics). The looming threat of ecological disaster is implicit throughout, most ominously in the recurring appearance of lone, white-coated, hooded figures who gaze silently at landscapes threatened or already blighted by human progress.
“The kind of work I make is essentially time-based,” says Akomfrah, who is working on a new film project in New Orleans. “For that reason alone, I felt I had to widen my focus to take in the bigger narrative we are now all caught up in. Once you become aware of the implications of climate change for future generations, it is almost as if you have to respond. But I’m not a scientist or a campaigner, I’m an artist. I’m interested in the philosophy of climate change rather than the hard science.”
More than once, Akomfrah describes Purple as “a response to Anthropocene”, the term coined by scientists for the geological age in which we are now living, a period defined by the influence of manmade activity on climate and the environment. A major source of inspiration for Purple is a 2013 book called Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Written by Timothy Morton, an English academic, it posits the idea that global warming is the most dramatic illustration of a “hyperobject” – an entity of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that it baffles our traditional ways of thinking about it and, by extension, doing something about it.
In a perhaps unconscious way, Akomfrah’s overwhelming film evokes that very dilemma: our apparent helplessness as individuals in the face of rising sea levels and temperatures, droughts and melting icecaps. Against a stirring contemporary classical soundtrack, his film begins by summoning up the momentum of industrial England, a world of mass production that signals – but is utterly unlike – the hyper-reality of contemporary globalism and digital interconnectivity.
“I’m fascinated by the strange interregnum that stretches from the post-industrial to the digital present,” Akomfrah explains. “Right now, as I speak to you, I am looking at the outlines of oil refineries and sugar factories on the horizon. They are still there, still pumping out their poisons, but they seem to belong to a different age. Their numbers have dwindled, but they still have an impact on the environment and they still speak of a history of technology and exploitation. They cast a long shadow.”
This notion of the past – and, in particular, the colonial past – haunting the present is another recurring theme in Akomfrah’s work. It is there in the raw, turbulent montage of images and sound that marked his debut film, Handsworth Songs, which he made in 1986 as part of the Black Audio Film Collective. Its subject was the race riots in London and Birmingham the previous year and, in its blending of archive footage, still photos and newsreel, it set the tone for much of what was to follow, creating a formal signature known as bricolage, the creation of a new work from the layering and juxtaposition of various existing sources.
Akomfrah, who is of Ghanaian parentage, grew up in Britain and was influenced by the late Stuart Hall, arguably this country’s most influential black academic and cultural theorist. Hall’s writings on memory, time and identity in the wake of colonialism inform Akomfrah’s earlier films and he remains an abiding, if not so obvious, presence on Purple. “In a way, this is a person of colour’s response to the Anthropocene and climate change, which is not just a white, European fixation, though it is often presented that way. When I stand on a street in Accra, I can feel that it is a city that is literally at boiling point. It is way hotter than it was in the 1960s or even the 1980s. We need to start looking at climate change in radically different ways, not just as part of a western-based development narrative. It’s a pan-African concern of great urgency, but how long it will take people to see it as such is a whole other problem.”
In 1989, Akomfrah had what he calls “a major turning point”, when he travelled to Alaska to make a documentary for the BBC about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its disastrous impact on the Alaskan ecosystem. “The destruction of the livelihoods of the Inuit community immediately resounded with me because it recalled the worst excesses of colonial exploitation. It felt like I was in a post-colonial space that was very much haunted by the past.”
In 2015, Akomfrah’s three-screen film installation, Vertigo Sea, marked another turning point, a shift in tone and scale that signalled the grand ambition of Purple. In contrasting the brutality of the whaling industry with the experience of generations of migrants who crossed the sea out of necessity in search of a better life, he was struck, he says, “by the realisation that everything overlaps at some profound level, that the great shifts in human progress that are made possible by technology can also cause the profoundest destruction and suffering”.
All these big themes are embedded in Purple, but may remain elusive to those unfamiliar with the tropes of conceptual art and experimental, non-narrative film-making. I was baffled, for instance, by recurring appearances of those mysterious silent figures who stand mute before often elemental landscapes on Alaska, Greenland and Skye. “In a very real way, I’m present in the film. I’m the figure in the brown shirt who gets rained on,” says Akomfrah, laughing. “It sounds a bit mystical, but for me everything starts with place. Wherever we filmed, it began with me asking the landscape the same question: ‘What can you tell me about the nature of climate change?’ As an artist and film-maker, I’m dependent on the responses I get from the environment.”
Is he aware, given the often bitterly contested nature of the public climate change debate, that a multiscreen, non-narrative conceptual art film that provides no answers may be greeted by a degree of scepticism, if not outright dismissal, from those on both sides demanding hard facts and evidence? “Well, I’m an artist. I make work for a gallery. I’m not attempting to make a science documentary. I’m coming at it from a different perspective by asking the question: what is philosophically, ethically and morally at stake here if we continue on this course? I don’t think you need to be licensed by the scientific community to ask that sort of question about the times we live in or to reflect on the anxiety many of us feel about the future of the planet. My son is old enough to become a father. On a purely personal level, it certainly felt like the right time for me as an artist to be asking these questions.”
Purple is exhibited from 6 Oct to 7 Jan at the Curve, Barbican, London.