The Only Good System is a Sound System

By Reba Martin

In this essay, writer and programmer Reba Martin discusses B.O.S.S Collective’s Collective Hum, one of the new commissions in our Second Sight film tour exploring the legacy, methods, aesthetic strategies and histories of the UK’s Black Film Workshop Movement.

What is the sound of this collective in black collective cinema?  Articulating complex feelings, ideas, and history in films that embrace both video and audio pleasure as well as narrative displacement (1) are a trademark of collective and workshop black filmmaking in the UK. B.O.S.S. have detected and expanded within this territory in Collective Hum that traces this between testimony, memory, nostalgia, and documentary to mediate our perception of abundance.

Following the sound of heartbeats and footsteps, rather than any personal representation B.O.S.S. makes us listen in order to find our place in the succinct expanse of Collective Hum. In a frame mostly obscured by darkness, possibility opens up within the black grooves of the sound system.

Collective Hum, dir. B.O.S.S. Collective / Onyeka Igwe, UK, 2019


Collective Hum privileges no voice nor image in constant layering and displacement in an all-embracing 5 minute refrain. Questioning common formations of image and sound through image and sound, B.O.S.S. multiply dialogue to create a resonance which plays with the possibility of social change. Speaking equates to listening, to repeat and speak back is to participate in the trance, the gradual enmeshing of voices articulate that all we need is within, and between us.

Sound moves through space and time with an ease our bodies rarely achieve. In moments of sensory connection – between your body and a projection on a screen, between our bodies dancing in front of a speaker – the difference (the space) between what we see, what we hear and what we feel feels unintelligible and all encompassing. The funny and familiar clue that there are hands orchestrating the trance-like experience of Collective Hum is heard in the rewind: a sonic break of the fourth wall.


B.O.S.S. speak directly to my (our) love of the freedom of the club and cinema as dark spaces (we) willingly relinquish control, collectively, moving into the good type of sensory overload. Here, we are all on the same track, focused, moving in unison, unable to misunderstand each other because we cannot say or hear a single thing over the sound. 

Brian Kuan Wood links the fortunes of humans and machines, as discoveries of cosmic mechanics that displace the human observer (2). How would it feel if technologies did not encase and erase us within uncanny personal ‘worlds’, did not keep us in anticipating surveillance, and instead machines were made and operated to amplify and connect pleasures and knowledge? Thinking of the intricacies of industrialism and colonialism, it is freeing to see how black people, shuffling through displacement, have created communal liberation, joy, and ownership in music technologies and nightlife.


In 1992 Stuart Hall asked why we are tempted to use ‘black’ as sufficient signifier and guarantee of the progressive film and media; “as if we don’t have any other politics except whether something’s black or not”. Only too familiar now, Hall saw representation as “difference which does not make a difference” (3).  Understanding collective as the unifying commonality in black british filmmaking – especially of Second Sight – B.O.S.S. maneuver into the space to do what Hall (and, you if you are reading this) is interested in: creating “orderings of culture that open up culture to the play of power”(ibid).

Finding ourselves submerged within the depths of the B.O.S.S., we slip into the abundant darkness, and consider how to transmute the here vocalised collectivism into the space our heartbeats and footsteps occupy. 

“The Only Good System is a Sound System”

(1) Eshun, Kodwo & Sagar, Anjalika (eds.) (2007) The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective 1982-1998, Liverpool University Press.

(2) Kuan Wood, Brian ‘Insurgency of Life’, e-flux, Journal 109, May 2020, Accessed 23.11.2020.

(3) Hall, Stuart (1992) ‘What is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?’, in Black British Cultural Studies: a Reader, (eds.) (1996), Baker Jr., Houston A., Diawara, Manthia, Lindeborg, Ruth H.

Reba Martin is a writer and programmer interested in movement, music + personal relationships to technology by way of film. From Bristol, and living in Edinburgh by way of Manchester. Follow her on Twitter @discorebekah.

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