“Darkness is the degree to which the state can have their way with you”: A Conversation between Artist, Curator, and Writer Christopher Cozier and Sean Metzger

The special issue of Theatre Journal on “shootings” prompted consideration of the recently reinvigorated Black Lives Matter protests at a transnational scale. These events revealed current as well as historical tensions between actual shootings and the various media platforms that show them to or conceal them from the larger world. What lexicons are available to express the relationships between state-sanctioned violence and its representations? Whose voices do we hear and whose voices remain silenced? What echoes from the past inform the present discussions around anti-Black violence?

These questions brought me to artist, curator, and writer Christopher Cozier, whose remarkable oeuvre, including drawing, installation, painting, and printmaking, offers an ever-evolving formal vocabulary for thinking through Black life within the fluid dimensions of past and present. In this manner, his work performs a response to social, political, and economic developments that have rendered certain bodies silent not only in his native Trinidad (which has, per capita, one of the highest murder and kidnapping rates in the world), but across and beyond the Caribbean. Cozier’s art creates dialogues across geographies and temporalities that might reconfigure how we understand some of the critical idioms of the moment.

The Conversation

Sean Metzger (SM):

The re-energized Black Lives Matter movement has returned focus to anti-Black violence. Perhaps we could start with that phenomenon and think about the impact of that movement in Trinidad and/or other spaces. What histories does the current moment activate for you in terms of violence?

Chris Cozier (CC):

Well, I think it’s really a hemispheric concern. It has implications for Europe, but I think it’s a hemispheric problem related to social and economic history in terms of how African and Asian people ended up on this side of the planet and became Black. We were brought here to work. We came as property to create wealth in Europe and in the colonies. And I think in some ways there is violence around that presence, in terms of trying to corral people into those conditions. There’s this kind of weird Romantic notion of the slave as an innocent Adam-like entity,1 as opposed to the slave being an aware person who has been conscripted into this narrative, into this economic engine, where they have no other life or other social reality. When you visit different parts of the world, you see how the Black presence is understood. For me, growing up in the Caribbean in the sixties, I saw two kinds of violence: there was the self-violence, of us trying to break ourselves to continue the process of “civilizing” ourselves, and then through the post-independence education system, bending ourselves into useful citizens. And in fact, when I was growing up, it was a kind of nationalist propaganda. They would show us images of people in the United States getting beaten and lynched. And then they would show us images from South Africa with bearded men with guns and make us feel that we were lucky to be in the Caribbean, reiterating that our new leaders protected us and that they had created this sort of social environment where we would find dignity and social transformation. But not everyone benefited. And then, of course, came the late sixties and early seventies when a younger generation produced by this same narrative started to question it. The falling out of Eric Williams and C. L. R. James in ’66: like everywhere else in the world, there was a generational conflict, whether it was the school of ’68 in Paris or the civil rights movement in the US.

In the Caribbean, in Trinidad in particular, there was the Black Power movement, and some people spoke exclusively about African values and things like that. But it takes a wider imagination to understand it as a generational war about people looking at other options, to look beyond the industrial capitalistic model. That’s when violence comes about yet again. I now see it as a problem about regulating dark bodies that are not African exclusively and what the implications are for the wider hemispheric context, whether it is Indigenous or whether it is Asian populations from China or India or about gender and sexuality. The construct of the ideal subject/citizen was way too narrow.

The context of the US was something that I had been thinking about for a long time, because when living in the US, you always had these types of encounters. I certainly had encounters as a student where I would suddenly realize that old conflict between what I represented as a physical presence and what I knew myself to be. It meant people clutching their purses or looking a bit alarmed or checking the whole street to see if somebody else was around. In many of those instances, I would look around and then I’d remember, I’m in America—and I’d remember what I mean to those people. I lived in Baltimore, and it was common to see arrests. I thought, this is a symbol of America, something you see every day: arrests, car chases, takedowns. These experiences left a message: there’s a war going on.2

Black Lives Matter made me think a lot about being here [in Trinidad] and whether because of social media, people took it up here—people of all classes and interest groups. A lot of the people who are dying here don’t always have names; they don’t have names in Jamaica and other islands. But in my mind, I had names, and my mind went back to the early seventies and the murders of the young people who tried to imagine some kind of other social reality. Their names stayed with me. And their fates— executions and the murders of these young people who were seeking alternatives at the juncture of oil and oil wealth, in the post-independence period—said something to me. I wanted to remember their names because I think of the US in terms of the political activism that went on there. And there was a kind of attempt to erase these people and to suppress them. It’s not about whether I ideologically empathize with their positions; it’s really about the right to have a critique and to live to talk about it.


I appreciate what you said about regulating dark bodies in terms of creating ideal citizens that are servants to capitalist, or now neoliberal, enterprise. The movements that have pushed against that, especially in the Caribbean, were policed very strongly. What elements from that struggle are particularly reflected in your work? When you’re generating art, how do these struggles manifest through the different choices you’re making?


The trajectory of that in my work is kind of peculiar. That post-1970s movement left a very strong impression on me. I just didn’t understand how people of my parents’ generation made negative assumptions about these young people: were they common criminals, or were they just young people that were inspired or beguiled by the trends of the time? (fig. 1). As I got older, events like the murders of Walter Rodney3 and Maurice Bishop4 made me think, “What it is about us?” I was trying to make sense of it on a very personal level, the violence. But that’s not what we talk about when we talk about our societies.


Figure 1: When you miss me I gone (leaving the frame) (2020), featured at The Industrial Art Biennale (IAB) in Pula, Croatia. The piece features images of slain Trinidadian activists, Guy Harewood and Beverly Jones (Photo by Christian Oxenius).


The quotidian nature of violence?


Yes. When the crime rates escalate, the politicians say, “Oh my God, this is going to be bad for tourism.” But I’m thinking, if I sat down and watched one hour of mainstream American TV, I should be terrified to come to that country. But it doesn’t stop people from going there. But there’s a feeling in these kinds of societies that you may not have recourse, that you are still subject to a certain kind of violence, from the colonial to the national, and we haven’t seemed to cross that border. And when we look at our peers—Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic—it’s scary, you know? So I started looking at it in my work, but I wanted to understand it historically. What is the pathology? What is the root of this thing? But when I tried to talk about it, people didn’t seem concerned. It’s puzzling. And people are now being blamed for the violence that’s been enacted upon them. So the Black Lives Matter movement was, to me, a bit confounding at first. In the particularities of the US, I understood it in the larger hemispheric story of transplanted labor and the boundary of citizenship and becoming. But I couldn’t understand why the situation is almost the same here as it is there, because we are a “black state.” We are not a minority here. We don’t have the perception like the US does of being a “white territory.” That’s not what’s at stake here. That’s supposed to have been our colonial past. We’re supposed to have progressed in some kind of way. Yet I think actually the same rules are at play, because darkness now becomes compliance or lack of compliance. Your darkness is the degree to which the state can have their way with you (fig. 25).

Figure 2: Chris Cozier’s 12.30 (Now Showing) (2010-2012). Image courtesy of the artist. More details on 12:30 (Now Showing) can be find at the following links: https://vimeo.com/13418812 and https://www.artnexus.com/en/magazines/article-magazine-artnexus/5d64114590cc21cf7c0a3a93/90/christopher-cozier 


When you put it like that, I think through how people access BLM in a site like Trinidad and what that might offer populations there. On the one hand, we could think of it as consolidating a certain kind of resistance to dominant forces—and that could be whiteness writ as capitalism or neoliberalism. But it could also be the appeal of certain kinds of resistance as a trope in itself. There’s something about that notion that I think is quite appealing in a moment when people feel that their lives are being controlled by forces beyond their control because of globalization and the like.


It’s a challenge of understanding where we are located. It’s harder for societies that are small to have these discussions. But I do think that the Trump era heightened that awareness. Even though the Trump era can be understood in the context of the US specifically, it was very understandable to us on the outside looking in. Because whiteness isn’t a complexion—it’s not even an ethnicity. It’s a kind of a systemic sense of what’s available to you, a sense of access—privilege and access to capital and doing what you want. Therefore, one could say, white people know why they are here. And the rest of us just had to figure it out. And to see that play out so raw and brutally was a very harsh experience. But it’s not a knowledge that we, as a society coming out of our colonial relationships, were unaware of. Sometimes we get distracted by racism in the sense that it’s not telling us what’s really going on. Some of these deaths happened right at the height of the Obama presidency. Like when everybody thought, “Oh, we’ll end Guantanamo Bay,” but in fact the violence increased and the guns increased—that is part of the same conversation.


Your more recent work is pretty explicit about inviting conversations around guns and extractive practices in different places. And I wonder if you see your overall oeuvre as developing with certain kinds of themes repeatedly? What are the themes that you find yourself returning to? Or do you feel like you’ve made shifts at different moments in your career in terms of the kinds of conversations you’re trying to provoke?


It seems cyclical to me, almost like call and response. A real turning point for me was in the mid-to-late 2000s. It suddenly occurred to me that there’s a kind of a vocabulary of the eighteenth and nineteenth century that started to come through academic research and its relationship to visual research practices. So that in a sense, even though the Caribbean is a modern space, it becomes more readable to people when we stay within certain markers—markers that orbit the plantation or the nineteenth century. But I said to myself, “No, I grew up in the sixties and seventies”—what was affecting the Caribbean then was bauxite and oil. Sugar is kind of lost somewhere in the nineteenth century. So that’s why I started gravitating to things like the breeze blocks, because for me they spoke to a modernist, tropical, utopian kind of concept. There’s a whole kind of architecture you find in all these [Caribbean] countries. I realized that while it seems to speak to a sort of ideal—a post-plantation utopia—it always comes with a tragic kind of violence as these experiments fall into contention with the forces that surround us.


I think the notion of a utopic as grasping for some alternative to a dominant kind of order of things is expressed in so many different ways visually in your work. We had talked previously about other artists that you find yourself in dialogue with. I wonder if we could pick up that conversation here.


I met Sandra Brewster6 in the early 2000s, and she was doing a body of work about gun violence and young Black teenagers within the urban settings of Toronto. You hear, of course, of the disappearance of Indigenous young women in rural areas, and that whole culture persists. But there is that kind of violence there, whether it is police or young people, in conjunction with each other. So Sandra had a series and our conversation started there because I was looking for affinities. Later on, Ebony Patterson7 started shifting in that direction in a more heightened way. I think the Tivoli Incursion really mobilized her.8 When that happened, we were together; I had gone to Kingston to do research for the show I was working on at the time and we had met up in a bar. And then we saw panic in the bar and people were running; everyone at that point thought, “That’s it, Jamaica is going to break out into a mass chaos.” So already there was a kind of conversation between us in the region. We were talking a lot about the summary executions of young people and the gang warfare, which was also mounting in Trinidad. When this conversation started, I thought about the early body of work by Sandra, the work of the children’s play room at the Studio Museum by Ebony, and then the more recent work that talks about mourning and commemoration and funerary practices.9 Then came the Blur series by Sandra that shows people on the move at the boundary of being recognized. When you see the photos, you recognize someone you know or someone that looks like somebody you know. And their fluid movement within the frame talks about them passing through space as opposed to being static. So that’s kind of the axis of the conversation. I am a Caribbean person living in the Caribbean; Ebony is a Caribbean person who now practices in the US, and Sandra is a person of the Caribbean diaspora. So you’re talking about Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, and the affinities we’ve found being in dialogue with each other. All of these conversations orbit around notions of the value of Black presence, both in a celebratory way and also in a kind of angst ridden [way]: how it is problematic, what it means to us and what it means to a system that hasn’t really been transformed. 


I wonder if you could say a little bit about where that work might go and how it addresses the turn both to affect and almost a phenomenological kind of encounter with art that also makes us think through how we inhabit the world right now. How do you create conditions for these sorts of encounters through your work? (fig. 310).

Figure 3: Detail from the Tropical Night series (2006-2012). Top row (left to right): Papa in the forest ( see-through jersey), See-through barrel, See through body. Bottom row (left to right): Afro Ophelia, Open drawers (state as cash register), Venus of Avianca ( 21 years and over). Images courtesy of the artist. More details on the Tropical Nights series can be found at the following links: http://tropicalnight.blogspot.com/2007/05/one-narrative-thread_8216.html and http://tropicalnight.blogspot.com/2015/08/afro-ophelia-on-lake-ontario.html 


Yes, there’s a phenomenological side of it and then there’s a transience—movement. There was a game I loved playing when I was a child; it was called Rescue, we used to play it in the schoolyard. I suppose every culture has a version of it, like tag. Somebody has to hit you three times, and if they hit you three times, you have to go into a prison on one side of the courtyard. And then somebody on your team hits you three times to get you out of prison. So if you’re watching that game from a balcony, it just looks like mayhem, just lots of kids running and trying to hit each other. But if you learn the game really well, you could just stand there. By how you moved your body and moved around the space, you could be dodging somebody and not getting hit and still trying to hit somebody. I like this notion—those little moments when you can’t be caught. 

I find that game to me speaks to me about the Caribbean experience—the fluidity of it. Being transported into the Caribbean and having gone through three different relations: being property, being subject of the Crown, and being potential citizen of a republic. Those are big shifts of rationales of being. And then by extension, people go out into the diaspora. But why are they doing it? It’s because they’re looking to find value and meaning with the skills they have. So transience and movement is inherent, I think, in the Caribbean experience. But there is a school that tries to impose a kind of a Heidegger-esque, dasein-like sense of rootedness on us. But the people who are rooted there didn’t start rooted. They were trapped. And then they had to make something of it. So it doesn’t make a difference where you are (to get back to where our conversation started), because conditions are the same. It makes no difference if you’re Brooklyn or Toco in terms of economies and the purpose of you being there. Maybe because there is a breadfruit tree in Toco as opposed to a McDonald’s . . . but it doesn’t make a difference. People are on the move because they’re searching for opportunities. Searching for it doesn’t necessarily always have to be consumer-related. It could just be a sense of possibility, a sense of meaning, or both, or a combination. 


[1] Here, I’m thinking of the recent Emancipation monument in Kingston (Laura Facey-Cooper’s Redemption Song).

[2] Walter Rodney was a Guyanese historian, pan-Africanist, and Marxist scholar critical of the Caribbean bourgeoisie. His dismissal from the University of the West Indies in 1968 led to the Rodney Riots. assassinated in 1980 after establishing the Working People’s Alliance in the 1970s.

[3] Maurice Bishop headed the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada; he was executed during the 1983 coup.

[4] More details on 12:30 (Now Showing) can be find at the following links: https://vimeo.com/13418812 and https://www.artnexus.com/en/magazines/article-magazine-artnexus/5d64114590cc21cf7c0a3a93/90/christopher-cozier

[5] Sandra Brewster’s Blur series can be viewed at: https://sandrabrewster.com/sandra-brewster-blur-ago/.

[6] Ebony Patterson’s work can be viewed at: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/ebony-g-patterson-12-when-they-grow-up-installation-view. Her project on the Dudus-Tivoli incident can be accessed here: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/ebony-g-patterson-of-72-project

[7] In 2010, the US requested that Jamaica extradite Christopher Coke, aka Dudus, who was a drug kingpin and leader of the Shower Posse. Jamaican security forces raided Tivoli Gardens, an area of Kingston where Dudus had support from the local population. The armed incursion left at least seventy people dead, mostly civilians.

[8] More details on the Tropical Nights series can be found at the following links: http://tropicalnight.blogspot.com/2007/05/one-narrative-thread_8216.html and http://tropicalnight.blogspot.com/2015/08/afro-ophelia-on-lake-ontario.html