b.O.s. 6.2 / Atlantic is a Sea of Bones / Tavia Nyong’o

Details, left to right: Image from Diamonds are Forever, 1971; image from Atlantic is a Sea of Bones, 2017; album cover from D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, 2014;  and Odell Beckham Jr. doing the Challenge, 2018. 

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 sixth transmission (8.13.18) features Lisa Uddin on Thumper’s Descent in Diamonds are Forever, Tavia Nyong’o on Tourmaline’s Atlantic is a Sea of Bones, Tiffany E. Barber on D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson on the #inmyfeelings challenge. 

– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)

: :

At the one-minute mark of Tourmaline’s Atlantic is a Sea of Bones (2017), the aspect ratio dramatically shifts from vertical to horizontal.1 This shift from camera-phone aesthetics to the sumptuous landscape of cinema has an almost anamorphic effect on the star of this film, Egypt LaBeija. We see her transform instantaneously from an ordinary look, sans makeup, to a dramatic vision in red. She vamps for the camera from a balcony of the new, Whitney Museum building in downtown New York. Transformation is fundamental to the dark arts of gender dissent; this early shift in perspective in Atlantic is a Sea of Bones is a clear indication that Tourmaline is as interested in how such trans_ alchemy occurs behind the camera as in front of it.

While still in vertical mode, the camera catches LaBeija looking out over the Hudson River, down on the West Side piers. Once a haven for black and brown gay and transgender folk, this neighborhood has now been entirely gentrified for upwardly mobile leisure-seekers.2 Recalling her own period of homelessness on those piers, LaBeija casts a long glance into this watery expanse, sheds a tear, and then turns to the camera to declare: “The memories! People should never forget where they came from.” It is a plaintive injunction, considering how imperative forgetting and erasure is to the anti-black, anti-trans world we inhabit.

In Tourmaline’s hands, LaBeija’s statement cues a tonal shift from a handheld documentary aesthetic to a moody cinematic fantasia, in which we find the queen, now relaxing in her boudoir and descending into the prismatic shards of memory. The character Egyptt now assumes a para-fictional relation to the performer, LaBeija. Intercut with more footage from her stage appearances, the mostly wordless remainder of Atlantic depicts Egyptts’ angular encounters with another, younger self, Jamal. Played with cunty fierceness by Jamal Lewis, LaBeija’s doppelgänger vogues around her surreally anamorphic bedroom before leading Egyptt into a mysterious interzone of trans and queer conviviality. They transform into and through each other.

While a mainstream television show like FX’s Pose gives us a glossy mimetic reconstruction of the house and ball world-making of transgender, gay, bisexual, and lesbian black and Puerto-Rican New Yorkers, Atlantic is a Sea of Bones gives us a glitchy and glamorous methexis of history and futurity.3 The title of Tourmaline’s film is itself a methexis, insofar as the title is shared with a Lucille Clifton poem, as performed online by Alexis Pauline Gumbs (in another act of digital feminist methexis).4 Clifton’s poem evokes the middle passage that connects Ouidah with New York City. Through its black feminist, femme, and transgender lens, Tourmaline’s film shares the poem’s abiding interest in generations, survival, death, and rebirth.

The onscreen interplay between Egyptt and Jamal is redolent of what Che Gossett, discussing the film, has termed “black trans intimacies.” “Black trans intimacies,” Gossett writes, “are forged in cruising spaces that are abolitionist and fugitive from state policing of gender and sexuality.”5 Such cruising spaces are seen only fleetingly in a show like Pose. Evoking these spaces in Atlantic points viewers toward an afro-fabulous elsewhere and elsewhen. With a moody soundtrack by the artist Geo Wyeth, memory affords a window not just into what was, but what may be.

Atlantic is a Sea of Bones responds to what Tourmaline has elsewhere termed the “trap door” of trans visibility politics (in a volume of that title, co-edited with Eric Stanley and Johanna Burton).6 The promise of state recognition brings a lucky few into the charmed circle of citizenship, at the cost of excluding those unable or unwilling to perform assimilation. Very often the rhetoric of family underpins ventures in visibility, erasing in the process the rhizomatic modes in which transgender and gender nonconforming people invent kinship. In its own powerful meditation on generations, we might even say Tourmaline proposes a vision of Black trans intimacy and kinship that is radically extimate.

Extimacy, in Jacques Lacan’s subversive theory of visual art, views subjective experience as a moebius strip; the inside that is forever turning into an outside. For Lacan, a visual analogue to this “intimate exteriority” can be seen in anamorphosis: the “optical transposition” by which “a certain form that wasn’t visible at first sight transforms itself into a readable image.”7 The film’s moment of anamorphic shock occurs when Egyptt submerges into her milk bath, only to remerge as Jamal. Jamal is larger than life (at one point her hand touches the ceiling); she cuts an uncanny figure as she sashays with LaBeija in this dark chamber of recollection and illusion. As they move through the nightlife interzone, Lewis and LaBeija catch each other’s image in a mirror, the gaze reflects back not the self but the other. A shared dispersal of self binds this scene of trans-sociality, sending lines of influence, desire, and longing in multiple temporal directions.

The Hudson river flows into the Atlantic Ocean, and New York City was an important port in the ‘triangular’ trade that brought millions from Africa into bondage in the islands of the Caribbean and the mainland of North and South America. The slave trade left a legacy of violently ungendered black flesh; flesh that became a site of perpetual experimentation and improvisation.8 Atlantic is a Sea of Bones thus posits history through the angular entanglements of transgender subjects who are caught up in non-linear temporalities and non-sovereign subjectivities. Stolen and disposable life finds new dispositions for itself and others.9 Abandoned to liberty, extimate grounds forge creative kinship.

: :

This is one of four essays from the sixth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 6.1/Thumper’s Descent/Lisa Uddin
b.O.s. 6.3/Black Messiah/Tiffany E. Barber
b.O.s. 6.4/In My Feelings/Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson

: :

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.

Endnotes

  1. Tourmaline made this film under her former name, Reina Gossett. This essay is one of a series of works also written under the auspices of A Structural Crisis in an Emotional Landscape, an artwork by Kenneth Pietrobono (https://kennethpietrobono.com/section/459315-A-STRUCTURAL-CRISIS-IN-AN-EMOTIONAL-LANDSCAPE.html).
  2. The arrival of the Whitney museum in this neighborhood is just the latest confirmation of the way “art-washing” can mask such violent urban removals.
  3. On the distinction between methetic and mimetic queer film and video, see José Esteban Muñoz, “Toward a Methexic Queer Media,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 19, no. 4 (2013): 564–564. See also my discussion in Tavia Nyong’o, “In Finitude: Being with José, Being with Pedro,” Social Text 121, 32.4 (Winter 2014): 71–85.
  4. “Atlantic is a Sea of Bones” is from Lucille Clifton’s sixth books of poems, Next: New Poems (Brockport, NY: Boa Editions, 1987).
  5. Che Gossett, “Atlantic is a Sea of Bones: Black trans aesthetics and the cinematic imaginary of Reina Gossett,” Visual AIDS blog, Tuesday March 27, 2018. http://visualaids.org/blog/detail/atlantic-is-a-sea-of-bones-black-trans-in-aesthetics-and-the-cinematic-imag
  6. Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton, eds., Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).
  7. Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (New York: Norton, 1997) 135.
  8. On the work of “flesh” in black feminist study, see Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); and Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
  9. Fred Moten, Stolen Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018); and Neferti X. M. Tadiar, “Life-Times of Disposability within Global Neoliberalism,” Social Text 115, 31.2 (Summer 2013): 19–48.
Tavia Nyong'o
Tavia Nyong'o is a Professor of Performance Studies at Yale University. In 2017-18, he was visiting faculty at the University of Southern California. His latest book: Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (NYU Press) is out in the Fall of 2018.