Ariel René Jackson on the “Detective Work” of Telling Truthful Stories

Even after four years of the proliferation of fake news, the storming of the seat of US democracy has forced Americans to consider their sources of information like never before. But for artists like Ariel René Jackson, the source of information has, and will remain, at the core of their work. As Jackson debuts a new film at Dallas Contemporary, the Austin-based artist sat down to discuss the connections between gathering information for a story and framing it — and how the stories in their artworks seek to lay out facts.

While a self-described ‘city-person,’ Jackson spent formative time in rural Louisiana where their grandparents were Black farmers. Bearing witness to their toil on family land inspired a curiosity about the notion of legacy, and the ways in which stories are passed down. But growing up between different landscapes also prompted an awareness of the ways in which one navigates different spaces, and how that can shape stories. Jackson’s alter-ego Confuserella, who first gained attention with video performances at the New Museum in Manhattan and the Studio Museum in Harlem, was known for navigating mental landscapes — a young woman searching for answers in her own mind while confronting the external realties of being Black in America. This ongoing exploration of landscapes (physical and mental), including through paintings and textile-based work, has led to Jackson’s most recent work — which continues to explore stories, from their roots.

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Hyperallergic: Can you speak about the role that storytelling plays in your work?

Ariel René Jackson: I’ll answer that with a story about my experiences in New Orleans, circa Hurricane Katrina. Before the hurricane hit, I remember talking to my friends in high school around a table — discussing what our parents were talking about, outside of what the news was telling us to expect. When the levees broke, the Army Corps of Engineers was held accountable, partly because of the local conversations — the sorts of conversations that I’d been having with my friends. Years later, the stories resurfaced for me when, on a residency through the New Museum in New Orleans, on a tour of the Ninth Ward, this guy starts talking about how the rumors and stories about a bomb at the levee were totally unfounded. But it triggered something in me: were the stories wrong? That thought lent itself to a kind of detective work — which is how I understand storytelling — a way of laying out all the facts to show how the way things are communicated don’t always reflect reality. The New York Times acknowledged the New Orleans community’s input in holding the Army Corp of Engineers accountable, but nobody from the community was quoted. The testimony was missing. Storytelling and narrative are one thing — building an arc etcetera. But I’m more interested in testimony.

H: Can you speak about the differences between testimonies, narratives, and storytelling?

ARJ: I believe that testimonials are the source. Everybody has a testimony based on what they’ve experienced. If we use meteorological forecasting as analogy, testimonials are like data — collected to predict what might happen. Forecasting is how artists of different mediums — whether it’s poetry or film — create stories. Forecasting is the output of collecting the data — what are you listening to? Who are you talking to? Who are you reaching out to? Who are you considering, before telling the story? A lot of times, institutions — whether that’s news or academia — are pulling from a very specific data source which oftentimes doesn’t offer a full picture.

H: I get that.

ARJ: But I also think that testimonies and storytelling shift the overall narrative. And the narrative is like one of those Goosebump books — where you choose your own ending, depending on the circumstances you’re faced with. In today’s society, we have several different options. We need to keep reassessing where we get our data from — like the circumstances in Goosebumps — to understand how the narrative is shaped. And how it shapes us.

Ariel René Jackson, still from “The Origin of the Blues” (2015), video, 4 minutes

H: I’d been planning to ask you about the weather (laughs) — because I know that weather balloons and the ways in which the atmosphere connects to the land are important parts of your work. And here we are talking about ‘forecasting.’ Can you talk about how, or why, weather is a consideration in your work?

ARJ: It’s a metaphor, really. We were just talking about how culture is shaped, right? Well, I think culture is sometimes shaped through metaphors. Metaphors are able to hold a whole conversation in one phrase. Within Black communities, when I say, ‘What’s the weather?’ I’m asking, ‘What is the vibe? Am I welcome here?’ Weather also has so much to do with place — people go to the south to be in a certain weather, or north to see seasons change. There are so many ways metaphor can be expanded upon—casually and academically. And I like that sweet spot. For my practice the weather covers all landscapes. The weather is also something I relate to how farmers function. My grandparents had to understand the weather — to figure out, how are we going to get the crops to function?

H: Let’s talk about your most recent work, the short film Doubt and Imagination, which is on view at the Dallas Contemporary. It’s a lyrical film essay, combining poetry, memoir, and overlaid with in-camera effects. And you wrote the lyrical poem?

ARJ: Correct.

Ariel René Jackson, “Doubt and Imagination” (still)

H: The film was inspired by your research into a back-and-forth conversation between two archaeologists, Leland Ferguson, who is Black, and Christopher Espenshade, who is white, as they discussed the origins of early Black American pottery in South Carolina. Can we talk about how this short film fits into where your work is headed?

ARJ: Yeah, it’s good to use Doubt and Imagination to understand what I think I’m doing. (Laughs.) When Ferguson suggested the pottery could’ve been made for purposes of traditional African medicine and waterside rituals as well as culinary purposes, Espenshade challenged Ferguson’s use of ‘imagination.’ In response, Ferguson wrote, “both imagination and doubt are essential components of the process.” The process being archaeology — but also finding the truth behind histories that are impacted by erasures and gaps. The film is less about these two archaeologists fighting, and more about Ferguson’s response. It inspired me to think about how you need both sides to understand the world around us, especially within the Black diaspora. I mean, I have a family legacy, but there’s only so much information that any of us can collect. 

H: How does your notion of ‘forecasting’ fit in?

ARJ: For me, forecasting is not so much about what’s going to happen but presenting something to consider. When a weatherperson says it’s going to rain tomorrow, it doesn’t rain. But the chance of rain is a consideration. Whether it happens or not is not really the issue. And if we’re going to push the metaphor, within meteorology, there is chaos, right? Chaos is part of the consideration. Chaos, it’s worth pointing out, is something we have to respond to — especially Black and Brown people.

H: Can you talk more about your transition from painting to film?

ARJ: Initially, I wanted to make my paintings move. Like really move. And I went through a series of experiments to make films seem like a moving painting — while respecting the viewer’s time. All of my films are short. In my earlier video pieces, my voice was prominent. With this work, however, I took my voice out completely to invite people to have their own voice. To achieve this, I use text. I want people to look at that text as part of the image.

H: That definitely happens because you sort of move the text in and out of focus — it becomes this integrated piece rather than a caption.

ARJ: I struggle with language with all my videos because I do care about accessibility. I want text to enhance the work rather than be a barrier or distraction. I’m really excited about using text and how to incorporate it because I think it’s one of the big differences between making cinema-film and film-art.

H: We’ve come almost full circle. We began talking about storytelling and landed here, talking about words and text in your work. Which, truthfully, is where I had planned to start the conversation.

ARJ: (Laughs.) We got to the same place, from a different path.

Doubt and Imagination continues by appointment at Dallas Contemporary (161 Glass St, Dallas, Texas) through August 22.

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