Visiting Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Documentary Studies
Terry Adkins created the forty-two-minute audiovisual work Flumen Orationis as one component of The Principalities, one of the “recitals” for which he was known. Central to Adkins’s oeuvre, the recital is a form that combines installation and live performance in the service of an abstracted memorialization and tribute to important individuals from American history. Adkins dedicated The Principalities to Jimi Hendrix, an artist whom he frequently named as an influence alongside other electrified sonic experimentalists such as Miles Davis. The video’s soundtrack consists of the audio from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech “Why I Am Opposed to the Vietnam War” overlaid with performances of Hendrix’s “Machine Gun”—a work Adkins called, in one of his few published writings, the “coming of age rallying call” of his generation of black artists, those “precious few” spared the “genocide” of conscription to Vietnam. (Thus, Adkins suggests, this war was a matter of life and death not only for drafted Americans and the Vietnamese, but, in some sense, for a threatened and precarious trajectory of black experimental artmaking.) The combination of Hendrix’s guitar and King’s voice surprises not with a sense of contrast or mashup juxtaposition, but rather with how naturally the two fit together. Adkins creates, via a kind of radiophonic illusion, a “theater of the imagination” in which the two men seem to perform together on a stage, collaboratively synchronizing their impassioned intensities in rhetorically impeccable rhythm.
It is perhaps a cliché of cultural criticism to refer to the orality of African American music (for example, Hendrix’s popularization of the wah pedal, which allowed his guitar to literally form vowel sounds) or to the black preacher’s musicality. Yet Adkins’s alignment of these two forms of sonic virtuosity makes the underlying connection both immediate and profound. The video’s title, Latin for “flow of speech” or “river of oratory,” suggests the joint effect: a pummeling torrent of human communicative discourse. But this is also electronically amplified, mediated, acousmatic sound, flowing from no visible origin, which is to say, flowing from beyond and outside the hypervisibility of blackness.
Adkins was committed to abstraction and felt that many younger black artists, caught up in identity politics, were insufficiently so. Consistent with the ways his recitals often abstracted their subjects and themes, this video’s image track—found stereographic images of early twentieth-century military aircraft, balloons, blimps, and parachutes—complicates the soundtrack’s obvious anti-war content. These grandly pictorial images of war and flight refuse any standardized visual language associated with Hendrix—aside from the biographical reference to his 1961–62 paratrooper training—with King, or with any of the 1960s’ overused memorial tropes: peace signs, peace marches, protests, etc. Adkins revivifies these unfamiliar still images. Originally produced to be viewed through a stereoscope to create an illusion of three-dimensionality, here the images utter between two frames that were intended to be viewed by the right and left eyes. The artist thus refashions frozen historical imagery into visual music, creating a kind of mechanical rhythm that phases in polyrhythm with the more organic discursive flow of the soundtrack.
Though its sources are archival, Flumen Orationis bends our newsreel stereotypes of the 1960s and creates new ways of hearing King and Hendrix that evade their obvious iconicity. Adkins takes them at their most radical (King came out against the war well before most other mainstream leaders and was widely condemned in the press for doing so), and, restoring to them the shock and the dissonance they once conjured and represented, he radicalizes our hearing of the history itself.