Visual Culture

Frank Ocean’s New Video Is a Surprising Reminder of Why We Should Care about Art

Molly Gottschalk
Aug 23, 2016 9:39PM

Photo of Frank Ocean: Jason Merritt / Staff via Getty Images

On February 19th, 2013, Frank Ocean announced plans for a second studio album. Three years of false starts, release date pushbacks, and cryptic teasers left fans of the R&B singer’s heart-wrenching falsetto in mass desperation. Some went as far as to create an app, (650)82OCEAN, which would send a text alert at the first signs of an album drop. But last Thursday night, those texts flew out to fans’ phones in a flourish as Ocean’s 45-minute “visual album,” Endless, went viral across the internet. Ocean’s long-awaited LP, Blonde, subsequently dropped on Saturday morning.

In the midst of the ensuing Tweetstorm and anxious to see whether all the hype was warranted, I logged into Apple Music, where Endless is exclusively streamed. Fresh off the VMAs, which introduced its first-ever long-form video award, I thought I’d be greeted with something combining the production value of David LaChapelle’s 15-video masterpiece for Elton John with the shock value of Kanye West’s post-coital orgy for Famous. Ocean kept us waiting for four years, after all. But what I found left me speechless for other reasons entirely.

The 18-track record, taking the form of a black-and-white short film, is as much video art as it is a music video. It carries forward the torch of long-form art, music video, and experimental cinema hybrids of recent years (Beyoncé’s 12-video opus Lemonade, which follows Bey on a nearly 46-minute self-journey, among them). Shot by Francisco Soriano, Endless opens to Ocean plopping down on a workbench and slipping off his gloves, where he’s joined by clones of himself who also roll up their sleeves and get to work building a spiral staircase by hand in an otherwise empty warehouse.

He drills holes, hammers, saws wood, and sweeps as photographer and (unbeknownst to many in the art world) remarkably good electronic musician Wolfgang Tillmans DJs, while Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood croons in the background. But that’s about it. The video continues in this way for much of the 45 minutes, save for a costume change into a hazmat suit or the moment when Ocean ascends the newly built steps. It chronicles a tremendous amount of physical work, but it’s entirely anticlimactic. At first watch, it disappoints.

I didn’t get the brilliance of Endless until reading artist Tom Sachs’s backstory to the 140 hours (roughly six days) of footage on which he collaborated with Ocean. (You can spot Sachs’s giant boombox, recently on view in his Brooklyn Museum retrospective, in a far corner of the warehouse.) “It’s a testament to the reality that things made by hand take time,” Sachs told Pitchfork. Endless is a meditation on the unglamorous hard work and dedication that goes into an artist’s practice. It serves to counter the expectation of a glossy, finished product among contemporary consumers—both of culture and more broadly.

Across visual media, artists are embracing workmanship and resisting the pressure to produce to perfection. Slowed-down processes are evident in young photographers swapping digital cameras for the imperfections and authenticity of film, fashion students opting for handmade garments over the seamless lines of mass produced fabrics, a resurgence of textiles in both art and design, and the ongoing fervor around all things ceramics.

In embracing this methodology, and laying it bare, Ocean ultimately reminds us why we should really care about art: It’s this beautiful journey of the artist, full of trial and error, tears, and triumphs, that separates their craft from mass-produced goods in a society predicated on perfection. And it’s these marks of the artist, the ones you don’t always see when the show opens or album drops, that become their true distinctions. After four years of waiting to get to their prize, Ocean sits his tested fans through 45 minutes to make well sure they see why it’s different than your average piece of pop.

Molly Gottschalk