Writing History with Lightning

2015-16, HD video video with sound, 10:00

Researching D.W. Griffith’s deeply troubling film in the wake of recent events led to the creation of Writing History With Lightning. The Parkway Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland at the intersection of Charles Street and North, was erected a century ago, in 1915––the same year Birth of a Nation was released. This highly controversial film eventually made it to the Parkway and was screened again, years later. The Parkway Theatre now sits derelict, and the uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray spilled onto its doorstep a full century after Birth of a Nation hit American cinema screens.

To produce Writing History. a series of tableau from Birth of a Nation were modified and looped, then projected onto the interior surfaces of the Parkway Theatre. These projections spill across architectural details, theater seats, and discarded objects from the building’s past, merging physical structure with social structure. Filming these new projections and the dark and time-ravaged surroundings of the theater space resulted in this new, single-screen work. Footage was gathered over the course of several film shoots and treated in post-production in a way that reverses the racist structure of Birth of a Nation. Isolated from the film’s original narrative, the mythological presentation of white characters as the embodiment of American virtue (nobility, beauty, bravery, heroism, wisdom, loyalty, civility) are destabilized. Griffith’s dehumanizing depictions of African Americans are challenged through the treatment of both the archival footage before it was projected inside the Parkway and after it was recorded and edited. The original recorded score of Birth of a Nation was deeply manipulated to produce Writing History’s soundtrack.

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