From left, all details: James VanDerZee, Escape Artist (1924); John Akomfrah, Precarity (2017); still from Magic Mike XXL (2015), directed by Gregory Jacobs; Ash Arder, Broadcast #3 (2018); Derrick Adams, Sunday’s Best (2017).
Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.
As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.
With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.
This third transmission (7.2.18) features Shawn Michelle Smith on James VanDerZee’s Escape Artist, Mark Anthony Neal on John Akomfrah’s Precarity, Kristen J. Warner on the Augustus striptease in Magic Mike XXL, Jessica Lynne on Ash Arder’s Broadcast #3, and Uri McMillan on Derrick Adams’s Sunday’s Best.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
Let’s begin here: What non-humans hold space for you? Make you laugh? Keep your secrets? Offer wisdom?1
That is, our ecological terrains are active. They are presences. They are epistemologies.
Detroit. Before I first meet artist Ash Arder in 2015, I am told that she has been working with the stinging nettle plant. I do not say this aloud, but as I walk onto the balcony of Arder’s apartment where the artist keeps her plants, I realize that I have never heard of the nettle before. I am told the plant to which Arder tends is often considered a menace. It is not generally a plant for which folks care. And yet, despite its public status as an irritating weed (the nettle causes a stinging irritation when it comes into contact with skin), the nettle has tremendous healing properties. Its antihistamine and anti-inflammatory qualities are known to help alleviate allergies, eczema, and can be used as a diuretic.
I learn that Arder has been making nettle-based fiber art, such as Strange Fruit (2015), as she formulates a vocabulary for the interdependencies between human and non-human agents. I am struck by her meticulousness as I ponder my own relationship to the landscapes that I have called home. What have I known and not known? What can be discovered if I look more closely? How do I know to look more closely?
Arder asks, In what systems are we entangled? What can these entanglements teach us?
In Black On Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions, Kimberly N. Ruffin notes the following:
There is ecological testimony embedded in the blues.2
These various relationships with human and non-human nature birthed key elements in the sound that would become known as the blues: call-and-response, improvisation, backbeat emphasis, and the blue notes from an African-inspired tonal system.3
Broadcast #3 is a sonic installation comprised of soil, nettle seeds, plastic crates, and electronic devices. Developed as her Cranbrook Academy MFA thesis, Arder’s installation invites an un-learning of hierarchy.
Resting on the black plastic crates are four wooden cubes that contain soil and nettle seeds gathered from Detroit’s River Rouge, a body of water long plagued by pollutants. A cassette player, four speakers, an analog drum machine, and a MXR bass filter are positioned on shelves that jut outward from the cubes. Copper couplings are buried within soil; the seeds live inside. Together, the elements form a broadcast station that remains incomplete until Arder includes herself as part of the material circuitry of the work. She activates the stations with a 10-minute abstracted score, “Road of Grace, Parts I & II,” comprised of field recordings, excerpts of interviews with her father recounting his gardening experiences as a child as well as the live play of the drum machine. The resulting vibrations cause the scattering of seeds throughout the installation.
Arder is particular in her word choice. “Broadcasting” is both a term for the transmission of sonic information and the very thing that farmers do as they cast seeds for planting. Broadcast #3’s use of the sonic as a method for nettle distribution is an ecocriticism that calls attention to the interconnectivity and intersubjectivity of each agent that is present. What does it mean then to understand Arder’s position as that of a peer within rather than master of an ecosystem?
The blues emerge as an African American musical tradition in the early twentieth century in the heart of the Mississippi Delta and migrate north (and west) as black folks migrate from the deep South. It is an art form, as Ruffin states, “that tells the story of people from one environment trying to situate themselves in another, radically different environment.”4 Contained within the blues is quite literally a map of black movement and a record of our response to the landscapes we traversed as we searched for freedom(s). From “Flood Water Blues” and the Mississippi Flood of 1927 to “Detroit Moan” and the city’s brutal, isolating winters, the blues provide language for an ecological lineage.
Ruffin further contends that in spite of the commercial decline of the blues as a musical form of market value and popularity, what remains is the blues spirit, its ethos. That is, the blues is a presence, an epistemology.
She extends Clyde Woods’s argument that the blues is a self-referential, explanatory tradition for African American communities. Woods writes that for the Reconstruction generation, the blues became a way to grasp reality in the midst of disbelief, critique the plantation regime, and organize against it.5 He goes on to note that as the blues vocabulary matured and followed black people from the South as they migrated, the framework through which collective sensibilities were articulated and new power structures were named matured as well.
To name a power bloc and to name a resistance to that power is to name place. To name a place is to name our relationship to the land.
In Broadcast #3, Arder offers a (Detroit) testimony—the nettle, pulled from a polluted river in a black city still grappling with the consequences of deindustrialization and a neoliberal power bloc—as she imagines our possible roles within the systems of the natural world and what might live on the other side of the now. It is the gesturing toward a tomorrow that can only be informed by a close looking, a re-looking if you will, and the cradling of what has already been and been given to us.
This too, is the blues.
This is one of five essays from the third transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 3.1 / Escape Artist / Shawn Michelle Smith
b.O.s. 3.2 / Precarity / Mark Anthony Neal
b.O.s. 3.3 / Augustus Striptease in Magic Mike XXL / Kristen J. Warner
b.O.s. 3.5 / Sunday’s Best / Uri McMillan
About the editors:
Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.
Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.
- Amirio Freeman, “Reclamatory Environmentalism Audit,” 2018. https://www.beinggreenwhileblack.club/re-audit
- Kimberly N. Ruffin, “ ‘I Got the Blues’ Epistemology” Thinking a Way out of Eco-Crisis” in Black On Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions, Athens: University of Georgia Press 2010, 137.
- Ibid., 138.
- Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: Race, Power and the Blues in the Mississippi Delta, Brooklyn: Verso, 1998.