“Come the Light, Come the Hope”: Revisiting Kat Anderson’s John and Roundtable Conversation
by Rabz Lansiquot
I write this piece as I encountered the work, as myself, a Black, queer person with first-hand experience of mental illness, and second-hand experience of those institutions set up to deal with mental illness through friends and family in various ways. I guess one could say that I also have third-hand knowledge of the ways in which mental illness and the conditions of those institutions have and continue to cause pain, trauma, and sometimes untimely death to Black people disproportionately. I say this to assert the subjectivity inherent in all engagements with art, foregrounding James Baldwin’s notion of “the flesh-and-blood-person”, an embodied spectator whose experience of art and film, how it makes us feel, what it makes us think of, what we think of it, is always informed by how we are or aren’t able to move through the world. 1
I first encountered Kat Andersons works John and the accompanying Roundtable Conversation as part of her solo exhibition ‘Restraint, Restrained’ at Block 336 in 2019, when I initially wrote a version of this essay. There, the works were curated carefully by the artist, alongside other pieces of print and sound, as an act of care for the Black audiences interacting with the intensity of the subject matter. To revisit these films as part of this online programme at BFMAF during a still raging global pandemic, within which the reality of Black people’s proximity to premature death has been thrown back into the fore by the largest anti-racist uprising in generations, just reinforces my already-held view that Anderson’s work on screen is some of the most stunningly crafted and politically vital I’ve seen in my lifetime.
This particular uprising, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery—documented on film—and the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade—not documented on film—has been characterised by abolitionist sentiment in a way that we have never seen before. Activists across the world are demanding an end to prisons and police, the prison industrial complex and the carceral system, which responds to harm with punishment, and to mental health crises with force and restraint. Kat Anderson’s film John is singular in its exploration of carceral ableism and its violent manifestations in what abolitionists term the mental health industrial complex.
The two-channel film follows John, a dark-skinned Black male patient of a psychiatric hospital. The oscillating soundtrack acts as a sonic representation of both mental illness, a dull hum, bass which vibrates the room as you watch it, so constant that sometimes it seems to disappear and other times it is debilitating, and white supremacy, high frequency ringing, tapping and buzzing in your ears. When they converge they become bigger than the sum of their parts.
The film begins with a black screen, a group chants “Come the light, come the hope”, a refrain from the poem Revolution by H.S. and C.B. (two black sisters), one of the many text references Anderson employs from her research at the Black Cultural Archives. The voices call John’s name and he wakes on an in breath, as if from a nightmare. He struggles to wake comfortably, stirring, thrashing, stretching. The only adornments in his light grey room, which his clothing almost blends into are a mirror and a red mark on the wall. Blood? He approaches the mirror, pulls at his face, rubs his eyes. Waking up black in racial capitalism feels like this. Heavy. Dull. As John slowly emerges from his room through a neon-lit corridor, the fact of his institutionalisation becomes clear. A concrete room with blue walls is populated with patients and white medical staff, who appear to engage calmly and sympathetically with the only white patient before they all turn to glare at John as he enters.
He wakes again, same weight. The red smudge on his wall is now bigger and is the head of a horse. As he leaves his room again, faster this time, he witnesses the three white staff members restraining an older black man: arms around his neck, hands pulled behind his back as he struggles to the ground. John is scared, tearful and runs away as we witness the man fighting for his life. This is not a fantasy. Anderson’s work references the formal modes and aesthetics of the horror genre, and this work specifically references the sorts of ‘clean’ dystopia’s created in sci-fi. As a fan, I’m constantly fascinated by the ways in which the worlds and stories, most often told through white protagonists in worlds without any significant black presence, parallel black experience in the lived world and John is a film clearly made by someone who shares these concerns. This scene refers explicitly to, and draws from, real cases of Black people in mental health crises who have died in psychiatric institutions; carceral spaces which masquerade as care facilities. Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis, whose relatives appear in the film, are just two in a long list of UK cases that include both men and women.
John hides in a dark cylindrical space and follows a flickering light at the other end, which leads him to an orange room filled with a group of Black people who chant, over and over again, “come the light, come the hope”. The warm oranges and browns of their clothing, and the sun-like wall are a stark contrast to the clinical blues and greys of all of the other spaces we’ve seen John in so far. The group are Black revolutionaries, healers of varying types, including Marcia Rigg (activist and sister of Sean Rigg, a Black British musician who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and died in police custody in August of 2008), Hakim Taylor (teacher, mindfulness practitioner and child emotion coach), Barby Asante (artist, curator and creative activist), Melz Owusu (non-binary academic, activist and poet), Aji Lewis (activist and mother of Olaseni Lewis, who died in 2010 after being restrained by 11 police officers in Bethel Royal Hospital in 2010), Melba Wilson (writer and, mental health services advocate and manager) and Leslie Thomas QC (a barrister who specialises in civil liberties, human rights, police and inquest law and who represents the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire). These revolutionaries nurture John, hold him, hear him, and he is able to return to the ward and resist. Fist in the air, John stands in defiance, still visibly fearful, until one of the staff members tackles him to the floor.
John’s protest is, unsurprisingly, met with violence. What happens next is obscured somewhat with darkness. Flashing lights in blue and red are all that illuminate the struggle. But the struggle we see is not of John, restrained, being killed, yet. It is of John, fist still raised, and of the institution’s staff, writhing in pain, brought to the ground by fear, despair and torment. The oscillating bass intensifies and Anderson’s voice emerges, reciting a complex and nuanced text with Fanonian inflection. “…that moment when, you realise that you yourself are dying, and have been for centuries. But up until now, you have thought that you were somehow, utterly alone…” This segment continued to ring in my ears. “They let you go on thinking that you were alone. Thinking that somehow in your superiority, and moral making, that you were the rights and they were the wrongs of the earth. That you could find a way to finally rid them, the ones of no worth.” I realised quickly that this text was not about me, or John, but was about them, those white people wrapped up in institutional racism to the point of violence.
I read this in two ways. First, the effect of violence, its burden, is not just held by those it is enacted on but also on those who enact it. It, and the culture, or more specifically hegemony, of justification around it, reverberates in their psyche’s, warps reality, produces and reproduces itself. Second, that this act of defiance, this resistance and strength, causes a psychological fissure in the minds of white subjects. It challenges all that they think is right, and just, and all that it has told them, throughout their lives and beyond them, of their superiority and of their claim to privilege. The inclusion of this performance of fright by the white actors, who we see screaming, crawling, unconscious, dying, turns the gaze onto whiteness, points the finger, illuminates. It also resists the expectation of the evidencing of acts of violence against Black people, the spectacle of black death and pain displayed in film, journalism and art so commonly in recent years, “the demand that this suffering be materialised and evidenced by the display of the tortured body or endless recitations of the ghastly and terrible”. 2 It addresses the double standard in the media, of withholding such imagery of the deaths of white victims of violence, and gratuitously displaying that of black ones.
This explosion ends with everyone on the floor, seemingly unconscious, and the Black man who appeared to die earlier in the film, coming to, approaching John and with sadness and intimacy placing his hand over his head. He says a prayer, kisses John’s head, and suddenly, John’s unconscious body transforms into that of a blonde, white man. The other man stands to his feet with strength, as if he has accomplished what he set out to do and as he stands he is lit in orange light, wearing orange clothes, mirroring those of the revolutionaries. He has changed John’s lifeless body into that of a person may demand some collective sorrow, or even receive some justice for his death. Possibly, in death, he may now be afforded some dignity, some humanity.
John blends reality and fantasy seamlessly, as if to say, there is no such thing. This may reflect the fractures in reality caused by some mental illnesses but it may also reflect Black living in the world. “Come the light, come the hope”, again.
The accompanying video piece Roundtable Conversation gives voice to those real-life revolutionaries in John. This work begins with a question; “can we map the impact of technologies of race, gender, law, colonialism, empire, capital, and governmentality on Black minds and bodies?” They reflect on the themes of the film at large, they talk through the psychic effect of policies such as the hostile environment and institutional racism in general, their own mental health challenges, the cases of their loved ones who were stolen from them as a result of institutional racism in psychiatric institutions, their strategies for survival and for resistance, and on violence. This piece gives voice to those doing the work. Those fighting back, those trying to heal and encourage others to heal. It makes real the fantasy, elucidates the terror, reminds us that sci-fi is not just fiction. As I compare this moment, of isolation, collective grief and uprising, to the first time I saw these works, I realise that, while others may feel like the whole world has transformed completely since the beginning of the pandemic, anti-black violence and carceral ableism remain largely unchanged. Roundtable Conversation is an eerily timeless document that could just have easily been staged yesterday, in 1992, or in 1969. Being Black or otherwise other-ed in a world built on white supremacy is proven to be bad for your health. This kind of violence and negligence from state institutions at every level (yes, that includes the NHS) is, quite literally, a killer, and it is imperative that this work be shown alongside John, to remind us of that, from the lips of those who deal with it everyday.
Roundtable Conversation situates John alongside a lineage of ongoing, fierce and powerful collective resistance to the conditions he, and we, face. There’s no avoiding the fact that these films are painful to grapple with as a Black person, any exploration of these issues would be, but Kat Anderson is an artist who makes work with careful consideration of the context of resistance, through painstaking research and attentiveness to historical lineages, not without hope, not without community and not without revolutionary intent. Kat Anderson’s work is liberatory, an act of resistance through the moving image, film work made in defence of Black life and in service of abolition. I’m so glad it exists.
- James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, 1976.
- Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-making in Nineteenth Century America, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Rabz Lansiquot is a filmmaker, programmer, curator and DJ. They were a leading member of sorryyoufeeluncomfortable (SYFU) collective from its inception in 2014 and now work alongside Imani Robinson as the curatorial and artistic duo Languid Hands, who are the Cubitt Curatorial Fellows for 2020-21. Rabz was Curator In Residence at LUX in 2019, developing a public and educational programme around Black liberatory cinema. Their first solo exhibition ‘where did we land’, an experimental visual essay exploring the use of images of anti-black violence in film and media, was on view at LUX in Summer 2019. They have put together film programmes at the ICA, SQIFF, Berwick Film & Media Festival, were a programme advisor for LFF’s Experimenta strand in 2019, and are on the selection committee for Sheffield Doc Fest 2020. Rabz is also training to deliver workshops in working with Super 8 and eco-processing at not.nowhere.