New York, Sep. 2013: Laylah Ali isn’t a media guru by any means. Traditionally a painter, Ali is more at home poring over paint samples than messing with pixels. But after being asked by the Dia Art Foundation to create an online piece, she decided to venture outside her familiar mediums of paint and paper to explore the life and legend of militant abolitionist John Brown.
In John Brown Song! Ali assembled some nineteen videos of her friends, relatives, fellow artists, co-workers, and acquaintances singing various iterations (with various musical abilities) of "John Brown’s Body." The number nineteen is a seemingly significant nod to the number of men John Brown led in the raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry some 150 years ago. It was in this raid to liberate Southern black slaves that ultimately led to Brown’s execution by hanging, and, many argue, contributed to bringing about the Civil War and the ultimate abolishment of slavery.
Originally sung by Union Troops, the melody is both catchy and familiar—its most contemporary incarnation being “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Yet not all the videos are pleasing to the ear nor are any of them particularly refined from a video standpoint; most singers are reading the lyrics on the computer screen, some have to give it a couple tries, and one or two don’t really seem to be singing at all. Nevertheless the videos have an eerie, unsettling ability to stick with the viewer long after the browser is closed. Days after I first encountered Ali’s project, I found myself cleaning the kitchen humming, “John Brown’s body lies a’mouldering in the grave,” and later in the car, “and frightened ‘Ole Virginny’ till she trembled through and through,” and once again in the shower, “He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord.”
While “John Brown’s Body” is familiar in its melody, it feels completely new with its brutal, original lyrics recalling Christ’s sacrifice and marching souls. Indeed, the story of John Brown and his folk song have all but disappeared from popular memory, something that Ali’s project tries to rectify in bringing together not just homemade videos but also a mass of digitized historical documents and photographs. In doing so her piece creates a broader illustration of John Brown the man as well as John Brown the legend.
Like her paintings, which blur the boundaries between illustration and fine art, it’s this mix of media that makes John Brown Song! difficult to pin down. Part digitized historical archive, part user-generated YouTube-like videos, her project feels more like various stages in a research project than a finished art piece. And yet, it’s with this very form that Ali is able to evoke both the brutal optimism and terrible fate of John Brown while preserving his story in a new iteration of a folk tradition—this time from user-to-user rather than soldier-to-soldier or parent-to-child.
Laylah Ali, "John Brown Song!", 2013, video still; Courtesy Dia Art Foundation.
Max Nesterak: You’re a painter by trade, but recently you’ve stepped into a very new-media, interactive medium. It’s a website as part of the Dia Artists' Web Projects, which asks artists to explore the aesthetic and conceptual potential of web-based mediums. Can you tell me a bit about doing this new media project?
Laylah Ali: I thought it might be an opportunity to see if I could expand on my interest in abolitionist John Brown, to turn it into something larger and that was relevant somehow to our own time—but more of a series of questions rather than a statement. Initially for the Dia web project, I had envisioned one person singing “John Brown’s Body” as an entry into the project… “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave”… I have memories of my grandmother singing that song as a kind of marching song as we walked to go swimming. The person who I wanted to sing it suddenly became unavailable so I started thinking that I might ask others to see what could happen. I started thinking about some people I knew who had what I considered nascent or, in other cases, unrealized performative instincts—people who might actually enjoy such an invitation to sing if they could control it to some extent. That aspect has its own life in the piece as well. That’s how it began and I waited nervously for the first two videos to come in—there was a great deal of waiting for people to actually do it and send it. When I heard the first two, I thought: I need to hear more, there’s something here, I don’t know what yet, but I want more people to do this.
So the invitation to sing the song was a question about the song, and a question about our relation to that time, to slavery, to abolition, our distance from it. Does it have relevance to these people? How would they handle it? Abolition, formerly a charged and dangerous political stance, is such a antique word now. Could I find meaning in this strange old song through asking people who might know nothing about John Brown to sing it?
MN: It’s interesting that you chose John Brown. He’s certainly a figure of emancipation, and he’s a hero…
LA: For some. He still is controversial. What I found interesting was Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy and General Robert E. Lee were both given full pardons for their crimes against the Union and had their citizenship rights restored, though both of them committed acts of treason against the Union and both were responsible for many deaths. They weren’t hanged like John Brown, who has never had his crimes forgiven for trying to free slaves, which seems a justifiable position from our historical vantage point.
With 1500 U.S. troops in attendance to prevent any attempt at rescue or interference with the execution, John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, December 17, 1859. (Artist unknown.)
MN: It was striking to me. He’s a white man who helped bring about the end of slavery. Your work usually deals with explicit themes of oppression and emancipation with styles that can recall West African traditions or African American traditions so it seemed interesting that you were having multiple voices recall a single, white male experience of slavery and the fight to end slavery. I’m curious to know how you landed on John Brown.
LA: I can’t remember what first drew me to John Brown—I don’t remember learning anything memorable about John Brown in school so I was really an adult encountering him for the first time. I am thinking it might have been Russell Banks' novel Cloudsplitter, which mostly made me want to read non-fiction about John Brown. Clearly, a white man during the pre-Civil War era who was so serious about ending slavery that he took up arms to stop it was of interest. By all accounts, he treated black people in ways that were completely out of step with his peers, with far more respect and decency than was usual. So I wanted to learn more about him and the people he worked with and died with.
What I found intriguing was his willingness to fight on behalf of something that didn’t obviously affect his own trajectory. Recognizing that his death, his own white body was a potentially very important tool in fighting slavery. His real body, John Brown’s real body had a lot of political capital because that body represented the willingness of white men to die on behalf of black people. And that was terrifying to the South at that time. It threw them into complete terror. To look at white men and not know where their loyalties were… To me, that became a very interesting idea.
Many men who fought on the Union side didn’t necessarily care about black people or their emancipation, but their bodies had an actual effect. Their deaths have in some way affected my ability to be a free person. It’s so long ago that people don’t make that connection. And it’s not like black people didn’t fight for their own rights because they did, and they were instrumental in making some of these things happen, but the reality of the situation is that slavery would not have ended unless white men died. I’m interested in the idea that even unwilling participants have an effect on historical outcomes.
I come from an interracial family, one with deep US roots through the different parts of the family: slaves and later tenant farmers on my father’s side, white “aristocracy” through my half-brothers, early white New England settler ancestry through my mother. I think that this kind of interwoven, interracial history—some of it voluntary, some of it violent—is actually quite common in our country, though it becomes hidden through our reliance on using simplistic visual characteristics to identify people.
MN: What’s the best way to watch it or interact with it? I can tell you, I did not watch it linearly. I watched the first two, then I went to all thumbnails and I clicked around there, then I went back to the original one and clicked through, then I went to the last page. So I was all over the place. You obviously put in a lot of time thinking about how you placed that, and then I just disrupted it.
LA: I suspected that people would go into it in wildly different ways, though I suppose I do have my preferences for viewing it. I think it is also okay to mess with my usual ability to control things—as I would with paintings—because a premise of the series is that they’re asking artists to work in an unfamiliar medium. I mean, I didn’t even know how big a pixel was. I didn’t know what the refresh button was at the top. I worked with a technician who did the programming that made it all work. I designed what you are looking at on each page, all of the details, and how you move through the site. I chose the videos and the archival material and did some minor editing. The videos were made by the participants so you are seeing each person’s individual choices once you start playing the songs. Like YouTube, I wanted a button to get out, a button to pause, simple ways to give you maximum control. I wanted to give you choices because if you’re trapped with someone singing for that long and you’re not happy with it, you won’t want to stay. I went with what I like about looking at things on the Internet, and I have to be able to stop things. I don’t like being trapped, and I don’t like things that have a long load time.
One of the questions, given its simplicity: is the user experience going to be enough to hold someone who’s younger? My aesthetic is really pared down. If you look at my paintings, that carries over. Having it on a white background was a big decision. The guy I was working with was suggesting I could have things moving or changing or blinking and I came out of that conversation asking, “But could I have it on a white background?”
Laylah Ali, "John Brown Song!", 2013, screenshots; Courtesy Dia Art Foundation.
MN: To me it seems more like an act of curation than creation, like a drawing or painting the way you normally do. It’s reminiscent of a Tumblr or YouTube page that allows users to arrange and organize pictures and video and other media according to whatever categories they choose. Then they allow the users to come in and mess it up. Was that your intention in trying to bring John Brown into a contemporary context?
LA: That was one idea that definitely fed the project. I think making John Brown a question mark who you pursue through the songs became part of the project. The intention was not to make a didactic website about John Brown—those exist already. The performances that the people do are central to the project and you don’t really have to know anything about anything to listen and have some sort of response or reaction to what they do. Perhaps they lead you to the Endnotes on the site or off of the site to do research—or perhaps you are just left mindlessly humming that song, that relic of the Civil War. I think my goal was to allow different levels of participation with the site—so you could go deeper if you wanted and have options to expand your experience, or to keep it at a certain first-date level, where you might be a bit puzzled or put off or intrigued or not sure what is really going on. I don’t even know if people are going to have the patience to stay with it. I do know that contemporary life on the web includes constantly clicking on videos, too often silly, occasionally important or intense, and I wanted that ubiquitous action to be a part of my project.
MN: On the last page you have Whitney Houston and you embedded a book from archive.org. This project just feels like the Internet. You mentioned how we engage with a bunch of just silly videos, but you seem to approach this medium with a kind of optimism.
LA: I’m still paranoid about the Internet—I didn’t grow up with it so it is somewhat welcome but I can still remember not having it at all—but I love finding information. The real pleasure of this project for me, both online and off-line, was the research and gathering of the parts. The Chapin Library at Williams College is a rare books library, and some of the slide show images in this project came from original material. Literally, the librarian scanned the 1859 Harper’s weekly. I love old school, hard-copy research as well as clicking all over the Internet in search of worthwhile information. I tried to include images that I found particularly compelling. For instance, I really wanted to show the newspaper drawing of the two African-Americans (Shields Green and John Anthony Copeland Jr. who participated with John Brown in the effort to free the slaves) on the cart going to their execution. They were executed separately from the white men in John Brown’s “army” who were condemned to death.
The Dia project was a really great opportunity to pursue something I was interested in, and that didn’t really fit in with my painting practice, and figure out how to present it in a way that might pique someone else’s interest. The Civil War still has a palpable presence, if you are paying attention. The project is partially meant to speak obliquely to the progress that has come since then, and also at the same time, the exact opposite—that the Civil War, in some parts of our population, is still being fought in this country, and you can see that with recent Supreme Court decisions and state restrictions concerning voting rights, the entrenched resistance and refusal to accept Obama’s presidency, the incredibly high incarceration rate of black men in the US, etc. There has been a great deal of revisionist effort expended on making the Civil War one where each side had a kind of integrity and did what they thought was right.
ArtSlant would like to thank Laylah Ali for her assistance in making this interview possible.