AFC Exclusive: An Interview with Frequency Artist Wayne Hodge

by Art Fag City on January 17, 2006 Events

In a departure from the usual AFC programming, we bring you our first interview. Wayne Hodge graciously agreed not only to talk to AFC about his work, but to feed me brunch as well! The perks of journalism are very tasty indeed.

Wayne Hodge, Doppelganger II, Video Still


Wayne Hodge is a twenty-eight year old video and performance artist who lives and works in Manhattan. For the last 6 years he has been appropriating and recontextualizing cinematic touchstones, creating visually stunning and richly layered work. Frequently seen today though often in the form of fetish, Hodge extracts film shorts from the twenties and thirties that have been created out of historical circumstance.

Doppelganger I and II, currently on display in the Frequency show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, are silent videos in which a mirror-frameset displays edited sequences from two films starring Paul Robeson [The Emperor Jones (1933), and Body and Soul (1925)]. In these works Hodge identifies scenes in the films where the historical back story reveals itself through perverse characterizations of Robeson's roles. The Doppelganger series uses a variety methods to demonstrate the split between self (meaning the actor in this case) and representation, ranging from a literal use of the mirror, to the doubling of film imagery, to the personal narrative of the performer himself. It is in this way that Hodge reconstructs a specific cinematic histories, deftly adding his own mark to the timeline of Black American identification.

Just before Christmas, AFC had a chance to catch up with the artist. Since we have often spoke at great length about comic books, I felt the need to pester him how the conventions of medium applied to films at the Studio Museum. Apparently, they don’t. At least, this is what he tells me.

AFC: When you were making the Doppelganger Movies, you put the two video frames side by side”¦the framing is a comic book convention as well as a video editing convention. Is this something you were considering?

WH: Actually, this particular framing device, which I use a lot in digital photography, comes out of a relationship of the work I had done earlier working with Polaroid's, and how with a Polaroid print things could be framed or cropped. I was using this photograph to appropriate imagery from film and other media sources and was creating this wall from which I could pick and choose images from. I think this was the most influential aspect of how I chose the framing device for this video.

AFC: In Doppelganger I, the first scene when the Robeson character enters, you have cropped the mirror out of the picture in the first frame and in the adjacent frame, it looks like I'm looking at, the mirror itself. Can you talk about this a little?

WH: Yeah, what I was interested in doing at that particular moment, and it kind of shifts in the video, is capturing this moment when Paul Robeson regards himself, in his regalia. It's really interesting, because I was at the show the other day, and I heard some people whispering that he sort of looked like Marcus Garvey, and I think that's a very intentional positioning of Paul Robeson's character, in sort of the Emperor Jones, in his regal gear, in his empirical accoutrement. I was interested in creating this zone, this place between the mirror and the subject, the subject of the emperor and this sort of mirror reflection. And if in the mirror, the mirror is very clear, whereas the subject that is being reflected in the mirror is the skewed point, and those two places, and that's kind of where I was entering the video at, this sort of notion of Lacan idea of subject construction, and the mirror as this point of regarding the self and the larger implications of that. Paul Robeson, and Marcus Garvey, and the notion of black subjects in theater and cinema.

AFC: For those who don’t know, who is Marcus Garvey?

WH: Garvey was a Jamaican guy, who was a black nationalist, he had a UNIA (The Universal Negro Improvement Association), and the long and short of it is that he wore these admiral clothes and had an entire social program dedicated to the improvement of Negro peoples, and this sort of culminated in his black star line which was to book tickets for black Americans to settle in Africa. He was eventually charged with fraud and died penniless —he was exhiled back to Jamaica, he was a very important figure in the history of Black politics and the idea of black consciousness, in the area before it was the nation of Islam, Malcolm x or a civil rights , there is the race movement, in terms of Booker T Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois, and Garvey was the maverick of that era. I think that any parallels to the nation of Islam, are not without merit.

AFC: So the first Doppelganger movie, uses footage from The Emperor Jones which was filmed in 1933 and Doppelganger II uses footage from Body and Soul, which was done earlier in 1925. Was there a Reason for beginning with the later movie first? Is it the actor Paul Robeson, in particular that you are interested in, or the content of the movies themselves that drew you to these films?

WH: In terms of the squewed chronology of the two Doppelganger videos”¦The Emperor Jones: Robeson had been performing the Emperor Jones on a stage before it was made into a film. He wasn't the original person who was doing this role. It was a guy named Charles Gilpin. A man who was of smaller stature, slighter build, than Robeson was, but when Robeson began to take over that role it was a pretty big moment. It was in the middle of the 1920's. If you look at the film Body and Soul which was made by Oscar Micheaux in 1925, in this essay “Troubled Relations”, Robeson, Eugene O'Neille, and Oscar Micheaux, Charles Musser talks a lot about the relationship between the two and that Body and Soul is an elaborate coded, scathing indictment of Robeson for performing in the Emperor Jones, a play written by Eugean O'Neille, a white man, and in a sense, he characterizes the relationship as being very volatile, after performing in Body and Soul Robeson and Micheaux never spoke again, and afterwards Robeson only considered the Emperor Jones to be his first film and he sort of discounted or disregarded Body and Soul as being an actual film that he had acted in where as in fact he had starred in it. I was interested in the complicated nature of these texts, these films, these plays, as they go in and out of one another and comment on each other. And the nature of Robeson's occupying different roles albeit The Emperor Jones and Body and Soul and in fact in Body and Soul he does play two different characters. Even though the scene I'm presenting is only of one particular scene from the film, but it's just sort of been doubled in the same notion of this skewed and blurred space has been applied in Doppelganger I as in Doppelganger II.

AFC: So in the Emperor Jones, the woman walks down the carpet after the King”¦Who is the fat lady in this scene and what is her significance?

WH: I'm not sure. I don't think she's even credited in the credits. I wanted to show this scene, because I was fascinated with the idea that this is the Emperor Jones court, and there is no sound in this video obviously, but if you were to hear the sound it would be this sort of summons in the court. And each of these couples who come and bow in the presence of the emperor, are each given these names, “Lord and Lady Baltimore”, “The Duke and Duchess of Richmond”, um, and they all relate to prominent, economically viable African American communities of the time, and they are put in the context of this sham display of power. That the emperor doesn't really have power because he is not a right and true king, but because he has connived, and used his own raw power to gain his way into prominence, not that that's what Kings do [editors note: this is a sarcastic statement], but in this case we are supposed to take a special exception to brutish Jones, Paul Robeson’s character in the film. I just found it to be really interesting being that these were places that on a personal level I had had some sort of personal relationship with, either lived, or have known people who have come from those places, or lived in proximity to them, and thinking about an entirely different construction of how the cities or places in the United States were considered based on segregation based on how ones relationship to those places pops up, how the economics create a city within a city and there was a point of time where they were regarded, now these cities are much like mining towns or industrial towns. These places were once hubs of some sort of industry or some sort of crossing either through railroads or passing of Black people and now these areas are for the most part economically depressed and the black community are for the most part cut off and struggling, and this was something that was presented in cinematic terms as sort of this almost half joking display of the court of brutish Jones. The rest of film doesn't go into that, it's just sort of this moment where these people are in this garb of the court, and these are images that you hardly ever saw or see today black actors in and the terms under which these particular people are placed in the clothing is made very clear in the context of the narrative of the film.

AFC: The last scene is the bowing of what looks like young maids, and this is pretty much the end of the scene. Can you talk about how you choose the end point of this video?

WH: Yeah, I mean what happens is the narrative sort of shifts after this point, in the film itself. After the court is introduced, he is then given these prisoners these other”¦I mean, this is all supposed to take place on some non-descript Caribbean Island, so these are other subjects of the former king that was disposed by brutish Jones, and they are planning some sort of a coup against him so he begins to punish them, and it is at this point that we begin to understand that he is a bigger tyrant than the previous king. I decided to stop it at this point because I felt like it was a really nice way to end it with the three graces in his court and this moment where we are considering the internal subjectivity of the Jones character, looking at himself in the mirror and holding the court that completes the circle and then there is this moment where we go back into the narrative. I think that that circle of the court and regality, that's the area I most was interested in for this particular video. There may be possibility for me to examine other aspects of this film. I mean it's really fascinating, there are a lot of things in it that are very fascinating, but any more than that would have been too much for this particular imagery. And that was one of things that I had with the sound. There is a certain beauty to the images on their own that I wanted to keep. And you know, Blacks in chains, that's a whole other video for me.

AFC: So one of the more interesting things about the Emperor Jones and Body and Soul is the historical background on the movies themselves and, you know, and your knowledge of it. How important is it you that your audience knows the same things you do?

WH: Well, I would like to think of these works as igniting”¦I mean you see something in a piece of video art that you consider, but it kind of creates this spark that you want to check out the original source material that this is based on. And I think this is pretty important in this process, with having this in the show and everything, one of the most interesting things was that the writer who was writing piece for the catalogue, had never been exposed to the films before, and didn't know much about them, and through this process of talking about it, of me showing her the work and talking about it, she watched the films over and over again several times and I think that's pretty rewarding. Because on one hand you have the videos themselves that you talk about what happens in them, and then you have the larger context of the film, and I really like the idea of making a work that is multilayered, that there is the work itself but then there are contextual issues surrounding the work that get talked about it. That's sort of my ideal way of saying how I would present the work, not that you should know everything about the work, or know as much as I do, I am sure there are people who know more than I do. It's not the issue of expertise or any of those things it's just an issue of considering this work in a context that they may not be considered in. The fact that they exist even a lot of people don't understand that. They don't understand that these works, these film works, or texts, whatever, are related to certain conditions that we are still dealing with the reprocussions of today.

AFC: So in Doppelganger II, which is drawn from the earlier movie, Body and Soul, the feel of that video is much darker. There is something sinister about the whole thing. There's a scene at the end, which is a shot of the feet, where they turn towards the audience, which can be read as a bow. All of this happens very slowly. There is a very particular pacing to this work. Is this something you manipulated yourself?

WH: I definitely manipulated it and slowed it down. It is also edited in a very specific way to so there is certain cut scenes that go between the footage of the feet that give it a certain context that make it a more straight forward gesture and take out issues in that narrative context. What you are seeing in this film is actually, in my opinion, a brilliantly directed rape scene by Micheaux ”¦not that rape is brilliant, but”¦um, it is Micheaux as an independent black film maker in the 30's was under a series of impossible constraints, in terms of what he could show, what he couldn't show, depending on what state or what community, I mean this is what the whole issue of community standards in terms of censorship that we've had to deal with in the past decade. As in a sense really nothing compared to what this man had to endure. Um, depending on which state his films were shown in he would have to cut out certain sections of the film as opposed to other sections, and in this sense this is where the whole notion of the Doppelganger comes in – he would, as many film makers would in that era, what they were referred to in terms of Micheaux were called one drop melodramas. There would also be this issue of a love story involving people of two different races, and it would all be resolved by one of the people, most usually by the lighter, assumed white woman, would discover that she had one drop of Negro blood in her background, somewhere, and that would alleviate all the problems that were seen in the film. And these films were real hot beds. Well body and Soul is a little bit different in the sense that he doesn't take on the one drop melodramas as much as he takes on the idea of the corrupt preacher. And Robeson plays the corrupt preacher who is sort a fugitive criminal, and this is a side note, and this comes out of the essay as well, but in the beginning of the film, he has just come from England. Right before Robeson began filming Body and Soul he had just come from England performing the Emperor Jones, so there is the implication is there, Micheaux implicates Robeson as the criminal, as the criminal for performing Emperor Jones as a denigrating character to white audiences, and Micheaux sort of had his own ideas as about how he could uplift the race, and so there are these two tightens locking horns and I think this is very important, it is these two very important historical figures in this battle of wits so to speak”¦and in a way, Micheaux hits Robeson below the belt, because he can edit this film anyway he wants to after the fact. And Robeson plays two characters the corrupt preacher and the preachers brother who is a stolid, dyed in the wool, law abiding citizen, and so, the scene with the feet, that you see in Doppelganger II, is actually a scene of the corrupt preacher, advancing himself on this woman in this abondoned shack. All of the scenes with the woman cowering and that sort of melodrama are cut out, and the scene is sort of flipped and doubled on itself, so what you sense are two Robeson characters advancing on one another, confronting each other in this video space I have created. And then leaving and parting ways through this door. I really like this idea from doppleganger I, this mirror, and how the subject considers itself, reapplying them in this other context, so in a sense this is another version of Robeson, walking towards himself, and regarding himself. This sort of scene that is created in the construction of the video between those two screens, there is a point in the middle, it goes back to the idea of sequential space, space that is outside of the realm of the video, and that being implied as the place that they meet, and that is a space that we can't really access as viewers.

This interview took place Sunday, December 12

Additional images

Wayne Hodge, Doppelganger II, Video Still

Wayne Hodge, Doppelganger I, Video Still

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