A shorter version of this article was published in an August 2019 issue of DigBoston. Given that much of the work in question is free online, now seemed a good time to add to it and publish here.
The first season of the television show Random Acts of Flyness (2018-) aired on HBO in a run of six episodes, with its apparent success prompting the company to order a second season in August 2018. About 20 months later, that next season has yet to receive an official airdate1, likely due at least in part to the fact that series creator Terence Nance had been attached to direct a Space Jam sequel until semi-recently, plus also the shutdown of the entire planet. But the group of artists who collaborated on the first season have by no means been quiet in the meantime.
There were six recurring directors on year one of Random Acts, but it wasn’t a one-per-week sort of thing. Instead each of the individual episodes were credited to at least two or three of the team, with some to as many as four or five. And since the first season concluded airing, each of those directors have moved onto their own projects—sometimes collaborating with members of the show’s crew once again, and sometimes branching out to form wholly new collectives and partnerships. But even when doing work on their own, the group is fairly united in producing movies that keeps one foot planted in the sphere of corporate-funded popular art and the other defiantly situated in a more radical and experimental space—much like Random Acts itself.
They’re also united in traveling down artistic paths far removed from those usually followed by directors of pay-cable television. Many of the filmmakers credited on Random Acts have produced or released short films, experimental works, and/or other television programs in the time since it concluded airing, and some have even begun work on feature-length films. I might be missing one or two, but let’s run down the list anyway:
Writer/director/actress/editor Naima Ramos-Chapman, who did all four of those jobs on Random Acts, released her 2016 debut, the short film And Nothing Happened, onto Youtube in late 2018. The film depicts a young woman as she negotiates the effects—physical and mental and financial and otherwise—of a sexual assault that occurred years earlier in a different city. Ramos-Chapman’s strong direction constantly moves between the tactile and the abstract, the direct and the indirect, to document the many forces that continue to exert their will over the character’s existence (the criminal justice system, the legal claims system, the internet, her family, and her phone, among others). Unveiling new information with every cut, and complicating what’s already been established at pretty much the same rate, And Nothing Happened unfurls its portrait slowly and deliberately, and in doing so reaches a place more interior and mysterious than this description probably suggests.
Since the show aired, Ramos-Chapman has also traveled the festival circuit with her 2018 short Piu Piu (which Nance produced and performs in), directed the pilot episode of How To Make Love To A Black Woman (Who May Be Working Through Some Sh*t) (which Deadline recently noted will not be going to series at its network), and wrote and directed an episode for the new HBO series Betty (2020-).
Nuotama Frances Bodomo, a director on three Random Acts episodes, has also made an older short film, Afronauts (2014), available free online. Additionally, Bodomo’s website notes that she is “currently developing the feature film version of Afronauts”, with support from the Sundance Institute and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation among others.
Darius Clark Monroe, a director on most Random Acts episodes, has completed “four short documentary films on racquet sports” that screened as part of the Whitney Biennial in early June 2019. I was able to see one of them, All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club, at last year’s Camden International Film Festival, and got the impression the project will be of greater interest when seen in its entirety. The iMDB actually now lists the shorts as being part of a five-episode television series called Racquet, although no further information seems public just yet.
Finally Mariama Diallo, a director on four Random Acts episodes, has since then completed a new short film, Hair Wolf (2018), an extremely goddamn funny cultural-colonization satire made in the language of horror movies—not braaaiiinnss, but braaaiiiddss. It plays semi-regularly on HBO affiliates, at least for the time being.
And on March 5 of this year, it was announced that Amazon Studios had commenced production on a feature-length film by Diallo called Master, starring Regina Hall. The film “follows three black women who strive to find their place at the celebrated Ancaster College, an elite university in New England,” per Deadline. “The school was built on the site of a Salem-era gallows hill and the ghostly legacies of Puritan-era persecution haunt the campus in an increasingly supernatural fashion.” One has to imagine Master hadn’t finished shooting before the shutdown, but one also has to imagine that with Amazon’s backing it’ll be finished whenever the world allows.
That leaves only Jamund Washington, who has produced multiple feature-length movies for other directors since the show went off the air, and Nance, who’s been typically prolific in his practice. For one thing, he’s also been active as a producer of other filmmakers’ work: Nance is credited as such on some aforementioned films including Master and Piu Piu, as well as on The Burial of Kojo (2019, Netflix) and Selah and the Spades (2020, Amazon). And since Random Acts ended, Nance has of course also directed projects himself—but notably just one among them, the four-minute Guisado on Sunset (2020), is credited to him alone. The rest are collaborations, even on a directorial level.
For example Nance worked as one of five “contributing directors” on the latest music-film by Solange, When I Get Home (2019), which has been made available online in a couple different iterations since original release. And as part of the filmmaking collective Ummah Chroma—comprised of himself, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, cinematographer Bradford Young, editor Marc Thomas, and writer/director Jenn Nkiru2—Nance also contributed to As Told to G/D Thyself, which like When I Get Home before it is a mid-length music-film tied to the release of an album (Washington’s Heaven and Earth, 2018). Currently available to stream with an Apple Music subscription, As Told to G/D Thyself is mostly composed of slow-moving tableau-esque scenes that in their unreal—but not unproductive!—slowness allow the music to pretty much take over the surface and rhythm of the film.
Together with Naima Ramos-Chapman, Nance also directed No Where No Body (2019), which is based off tracks from an Earl Sweatshirt album and is probably the one work among those mentioned here that pretty closely resembles Random Acts on a formal level. The short film/music video, which now available free on Youtube and elsewhere, begins with vaguely realist 4:3 home video-style footage of a youth basketball game being coached by the performer, then quickly cuts through images that introduce the various motifs that will recur throughout the video—including the musician’s house, plaster-cast hands, and blank walls, to name a few. From there, the film constantly depicts those items and spaces being transformed into literal examples of “life”—like in one scene where sculptural pieces, sometimes quite pointedly covered in plant life and roots, transform into living people between edits. With that and other comparable sequences the piece visualizes a literal push-pull between the objects of art in the frame and the life experiences that presumably animated or informed them in the first place, a dialogue where neither side ever takes control as of course one is never complete or even really extant without the other. On that note, the film casts one actor in the role of the musician’s doppelganger.
And finally in recent months, Nance has added onto a cycle of work that he first began in 2014: 18 Black Girls/Boys Ages 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and are thus Spiritual Machines: $[X] in an Edition of $97 Quadrillion. Either a live desktop performance or a filmed record depicting one depending on what context you’re seeing the work in, the series has evolved in various ways but the general premise always remains the same: The main view is of Nance’s desktop screen while he pulls up Google and searches for “[X] year old black [boy or girl]”, moving from age one up to 17 or 18 while clicking through some of the top autofill completions and related links for each year, like for example “6 year old black girl twerking” or “7 year old black boy steals car”.
As mentioned the performances have changed as the years go on. The first four iterations, done between 2014 and 2017 and available to view here and here and here and here, were performed by Nance at home and recorded directly from his computer screen, and so the resulting short movies or performance records or video art pieces or whatever you want to call them are “desktop films”, at least in a formal sense.
The next two iterations of the performance were at Sundance 2017, and mixed in live sound by Norvis Jr. You can see the “Girls” entry, which is a live recording of Nance’s screen like the prior videos, here, and you can see the “Boys” entry, which instead was shot by a cameraman moving around the tent where the performance was being held, here. In these performances, Nance adds new details and tasks to the concept, like holding conversations with fellow artists via Skype or text aside from his browser tab. He also begins to zoom in and out on specific elements of the desktop screen throughout the performance—a move that, in tandem with the droning soundtrack, creates a certain dissonance: If the early performances represent an unmediated vision of the mundane computer-image, then certainly these live performances are something different, more poeticized if nothing else.
And in September 2019 Nance uploaded the latest video record of the performance, which you can see here. Combining elements from basically all prior iterations, this “SFFilm Edition” edits between the direct view of Nance’s computer screen and footage of the performance itself (as seen below)—with live sound by Norvis Jr., Cheflee and Sosotopic, and live dancers choreographed by Ramos-Chapman working in front of the screen.
Whether considered individually or altogether, the series already seems a vital cultural artifact, and invites countless lines of inquiry. There is of course the philosophical: The project searches for “what Google thinks I want to search for in a Black boy,” per the notes written by Nance under the first video. “The algorithm generates results based on the most popular searches so it can be theorized that the Black boys that the algorithm predicts are the Black boys we are searching for.”
And then there is the more practical extension of that same philosophical inquiry: By showing us “the Black boys we are searching for”, the project works to unveil the very specific activities, histories, incidents, and injustices that the online media apparatus—consisting of search engines and journalistic outlets together—allow to be prized and hoisted up high by the algorithm. To wit, a lot of specific boys and girls recur from one performance to the other. And perhaps that’s partially because there is some premeditation on the artist’s part, but it’s also certainly because the images of the boys and girls in question fulfill the sort of sensationalized image that’s constantly pushed up to the top of our internet feeds, which are of course guided by the exact systemic biases structured far beyond them.
So because these specific boys and girls fulfill what the search engines are looking for, or rather what they want you to look for, you see them in these performances again and again: A four year old girl who’d been invited to join MENSA, or a ten year old girl performing a semi-viral rap on Youtube, or a clip from the television film Carolina Skeletons (1991) that fictionalizes the state-sanctioned killing of George Stinney and which comes up most times Nance does the search “fourteen year old black boy”. And obviously it’s not just specific people that recur across the performances but particular scenarios too: To put it bluntly, the Google represented in these performances expects that its user wants to see black girls or boys that dance, or sing, or do exceptionally well in school, or shoot people, or get shot. Sometimes it expects that the user wants to see a black girl or boy that was featured on a television program or in a news story for a different reason, but those instances are tellingly quite few and far between.
During a Film Comment interview that provides a multitude of crucial notes and context regarding this project, Nance spoke about the kind of the news stories, video clips, and other internet ephemera that emerges during each performance of 18 Black Boys/Girls: “I think what I find to be distressing about it, but also what I find to be affecting about it, is that it’s the most extreme,” he said. “The most extremely terrible thing that could happen to a black kid. And then it’s the smartest black kid they could find on the face of the earth. And then it’s the funniest, or the best-dancing black kid, or the most articulate.”
In that very quality the performance cycle recalls another major recent work of American film art, Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016), which I saw a few times when it was exhibited locally in 2018 and which per MOCA’s helpfully succinct description is “a masterful convergence of found footage that traces African-American identity through a vast spectrum of contemporary imagery… From photographs of civil rights leaders watermarked with ‘Getty Images’ to helicopter views of the LA Riots to a wave of bodies dancing to ‘The Dougie,’ the meticulously edited 7-minute video suspends viewers in a swelling, emotional montage.” Like Jafa’s poetic film, Nance’s more rigorously conceptual project seems to simultaneously encompass two potentially-contradictory visions: Both the enormous vastness of black culture and imagery in the United States, and yet also how that same culture is broken down into a simplified, falsified, stereotype-afflicted set of roles by the media apparatuses that decide, whether by algorithm or committee, which of those images deserve platforming.
But then Nance’s instincts as an artist push the project somewhere even further past its obvious conceptual brilliance. For instance, watching some of the performances I hadn’t seen yet for the sake of this article, I was quite deeply moved by one particular moment that happens as a result of his, well, mousework:
When Nance types in “17 year old black girl” during the Sundance performance, Google gives him back “17 year old black girl on The Voice”. That leads to a video link, and like he often does in these performances, Nance clicks play then skips across the footage by clicking through its timeline. The clip depicts singer Wé McDonald doing a cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” on a 2016 episode of the show in question, where she’s a contestant being judged by figures including Adam Devine and Miley Cyrus. She wins over the judges, and in a very beautifully genuine moment somewhat ironically afforded to us by the cheap artifice of network television, she lets out a transcendent gesture of joy in front of the show’s light-adorned set. Nance works to loop that specific gesture by clicking specific points on the video timeline—and you realize he’s trying to find the point on the video’s timeline where he can loop it without also looping the shots that surround and interrupt McDonald’s gesture on either side, which show off Cyrus, Devine, and host Carson Daly among others. He eventually finds the spot where it’s just her, and lets that replay by clicking over and over again, as if to divide this one very real moment from all the bullshit that surrounds it. That loop where she’s allowed to be alone in the image lasts for about two seconds.
So it’s not just the idea of the project driving things forward, but also the implications of the specific clips it excavates, and then finally the “scenes” those clips foster in conjunction with Nance’s own hand. Yet for me, somewhat aside from that, the project’s most essential function may be its most direct and literal quality: The way that it records the very image of the internet as represented by a specific collection of pathways and searches at whatever moment that it’s being performed. To simply capture the experience of clicking through the sites and experiences this project typically lands on—the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post, Youtube, and the various other entities that are capable of pushing their links to the front pages of Google search results, and therefore in some way create a very real hold on the public consciousness—seems to me an exceptionally worthy endeavor.
And in that it also captures the uncanny of the internet experience itself, like the eerie silence of lingering on a page with no sound, or the curious and troubling juxtapositions suggested by the semi-random connections of advertisements and “content”, or the strange impulse that compels one to skip 10-second segments of a 2-minute video.
Along those very lines, the first performances done in 2014 and 2015 have already become period pieces: The pop-up ads, the shows and movies being marketed on the websites visited, and of course the news itself all call back to a specific historical period that’s already pretty faded. During a question-and-answer session following one of the Sundance screenings, Nance wrote that the project “can’t be locked into a specific moment of time”, but instead is meant to be performed on a recurring basis. And yet the video records of these performances do exactly that—they create a portrait of the English-language internet locked in at a specific time, with all its biases and tendencies quite literally on display. The rare time capsule artwork that not only records something potentially ephemeral for the sake of the future but also works to reveal something usually overlooked if not outright unseen about our cultural structures here in the present, the video records of Nance’s 18 Black Boys/Girls performances are some of the key American movies of the current moment.
1. In a tweet sent out earlier this week, Nance reported the excellent news that Random Acts will be “coming back soooooon”.
2. While As Told to G/D Thyself is to date the only film signed by Ummah Chroma, it seems rather certain that many of these artists will continue to collaborate. Indeed some of them already have—for instance Young was originally scheduled to be the cinematographer on Nance’s Space Jam project, and is also the credited photographer on the latest short directed by Nkiru, Black to Techno (2019), a collage-esque study of techno music in Detroit that explores the musical form’s perceived roots in mass industrial production methods. Black to Techno, which was funded and then released online by Gucci and Frieze last year, also played theatrically on various occasions, and often in programs with other films already mentioned in this article—showing just how regularly this particular group of artists overlap within the world of film programming, when they’re not already working together within the world of film production. For instance at the Whitney Biennial, Black to Techno was paired with the four short films by Monroe, and in the closing night program of this year’s BlackStar Film Festival, it played in the middle of a program where it was bookended on either side by As Told to G/D Thyself and When I Get Home.