Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.
– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
In Vivid Seams (2018), Adee Roberson, a percussionist, visual artist, and translator, manipulates drumming technology to travel and communicate across time and space.1 Using a simple camcorder, she encodes love into the video by deploying a current of beats generated with a Korg microKORG synthesizer and Vulca Beats drum machine, which threads the energies of the ancestral, contemporary, and descendant.2
Vivid Seams underscores interconnectivity as an ongoing continuum, reflecting Michelle Wright’s notion that the diaspora flows through epiphenomenal time, a mutable temporality where the artist’s or beholder’s sense of now is the situating point for all tenses and dimensions. Epiphenomenal time is liminal and destabilizes the Black Atlantic privileging of linearity with regards to spatial, temporal, and narrative dynamics. By countering the notion of the Atlantic as an immutable center, epiphenomenal time expands the boundaries of the diaspora and opens other possibilities.3 Roberson’s possibility is an audiovisual mandala that is stretched, layered, and cycled from the banks of the Los Angeles River and back again, passing through a Pensacola Gulf beach and City Park in New Orleans along the way. This streaming of drumbeats through electronic media positions Vivid Seams as a processional circuit of presences and locations in loving multitude. As Antonio Negri suggests, artists create loving multitudes through industrial technologies that “metamorphize” the world. This is evident in the film by how Roberson renders analog drumbeats with a synthesizer and camcorder to establish a sense of a collective love and healing in alignment with the generations, color, artist-collaborators, nature, and sites.4
Vivid Seams’ chorus is a primordial hum mixed into electronic drum pulses that sets the tone for the video as a meditation.5 With a cut from black, the chorus materializes on the oasis-like banks of the Los Angeles River. The water flows with algae and runoff and fast-gliding birds [above]; blooms of trees partially block the roadways. A cavalcade of Roberson’s artist-collaborators walk upstream while carrying offerings past a sculptural altar formed from a set of drums and a beatbox. A cloth designed by Roberson with codes evoking Haitian Vèvè and Nigerian Nsibidi glyphs drapes the altar. This cloth, as well as other features of the video, are replete with visual and sonic signs informed by what James Perkinson calls “a solidarity of the ear” where sound organizes the video’s aesthetic, connotations, texture, and flow: syncopation renders the pulses of painted Vèvè and Nsibidi; padded drum beats emanate the video’s soft light; synthesized percussion and hand-game claps evoke traditional djembe’s slaps and tones; the sound of waves conjures diaspora shorelines. Drumming, as cross-diasporic and intergenerational communication, attunes the cavalcade in alignment and harmonizes viewers with its pulse.6
Roberson accentuates the epiphenomenal folding of time and space with the inclusion of an orb that follows her collaborators as they walk, visually bending the environment in rhythmic unity with the processional and beats. This gesture brings the undercommons to mind where palpable endurance and innovation within spaces of Black transience and marginalization “speaks to the drive and possibility to create a new future out of what is given, even if that is a scene of urban devastation, a faraway planet, or… a blank spot…”7 “What to come is here . . . in that space of no space.”8 Vivid Seams recalls this spatio-temporality intersected with diasporic sound reflected in precedents like Senga Nengudi’s Ceremony for Freeway Fets (1978).9 Drums, woodwinds and “traditional instruments” provided the grounding aurality within the urban “rubble” under the elevated Los Angeles Freeway where Nengudi performed with an ensemble of fellow artists. Manipulating African-styled sculpture, Nengudi danced as a spiritual interlocutor to heal tensions between the feminine and the masculine. As Nengudi once noted, “the 70s were …a difficult time for male/female relationships in the black community,” and Fets was her African ritual-based redress.10 Roberson and her collaborators reflect a new generation — one comprised of cis, trans, non-binary and queer artists — brought together under her vision of loving multitude, where, as in Freeway Fets, the spirit of African performance collectivity combines to create undercommons community.11
The film’s transition from the Los Angeles River sequence to the Pensacola coast shore may seem incidental, but the mix of salt water sounds from the Black Atlantic and spillage from the Mississippi River’s mouth suggests a current that free and captive Black people navigated.12
Roberson’s appearance on the Pensacola shore reflects history, possibility, and the present. The camera is distant as she, partially hidden from view by a bank of sand, intermittently wades and immerses herself in the surf. The sequence points to and offers blessing, cleansing, spirits, rebirth, and a sense of diaspora on the gulf, a margin to the Atlantic Ocean center. With epiphenomenal layering, the video fades through a sonic and visual morendo to a New Orleans’s City Park where a young woman plays hand games with her daughter.
Their handclapping resonates with the hymnal beats Roberson creates as the sound of angel trees, the Southern Oaks indigenous to the U.S. South. These sounds join an ambient arrangement of singing ancestors, contemporaries, and descendants.13
The video next cuts to faintly trembling sounds of thunder as the camera moves through sheer curtains of branches and foliage back to the Los Angeles River which is now at its apex and lateral to the young Black folks who were formerly walking along its lower banks.
Regality in motion, the promenade is “a producing and a loving which characterizes multitude, an art.”14 All precious objects from the first scene are accounted for, though the “mothership” sculpture previously visible at the film’s start is conspicuously absent. Its physical presence may not be necessary because we continue to feel its pulses as electronic drum conduction. What remains is a lineage of people whose verdant seams pulse black art, love, and resistance to spatial and temporal enclosure.
This is one of four essays from the thirteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 13.1 / Braids tuh’da flo(w) / Amy Herzog
b.O.s. 13.2 / The Throne of the Third Heaven of Nations Millennium, General Assembly / Taylor Renee Aldridge
b.O.s. 13.4 / Numbers Station [Red Record] / Julie Beth Napolin
Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.
Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.
- Adee Roberson, in discussion with the author, Los Angeles via Zoom, May 8, 2020.
- Michelle M. Wright, Physics of Blackness: Beyond Middle Passage Epistemology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 4, 110.
- Antonio Negri, Art & Multitude, trans. Ed Emery (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011), 86–87 and Roberson, in discussion with the author, May 8, 2020.
- Roberson’s sonic approach reflects in part her interest in jazz innovator, Angel Bat Dawid’s blues and spirituals: “Played in a minor key, they activated the sympathetic nervous system connected to the tear ducts. The release is a tool for survival for black people.” Roberson, in discussion with the author, May 8, 2020.
- James W. Perkinson, “Trancing Terror: African American Uses of Time to Trick the Evil Eye of Whiteness, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 7 (1): 68 and Roberson, in discussion with author, May 8, 2020.
- Nick Stillman. “Senga Nengudi’s ‘Ceremony for Freeway Fets’ and Other Los Angeles Collaborations,” East of Borneo (December 7, 2011): unpaginated. https://eastofborneo.org/articles/senga-nengudis-ceremony-for-freeway-fets-and-other-los-angeles-collaborations/. The term undercommons is taken here more generally as decentered spaces inhabited by those “resisting enclosure.” Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 18.
- Harney and Moten, 98.
- Roberson cites Nengudi as an influence [Roberson in discussion with author, May 8, 2020]. More broadly, Roberson’s interest in ritual, non-linearity, time-travel, physics, and expansiveness rendered with conceptual and formal esoterics places her in lineage with various Black women artists from the mid-20th Century, among them: Betty Blayton whose paintings captured metaphysical dynamics “relat[ing] to reincarnation and the possibility of lives lived between lives [Lowery Stokes Sims, 57];” Mildred Thompson’s bold polychromies of “science and sound… motion… and the vibration of color… [as] interpretations of the invisible world [Messina,11];” Alma Thomas, who painted how light reveals the inner-spirit [Thomas, 1056]; and Howardina Pindell’s elegant expanses of chaos and order [Pindell, unpaginated]. See respectively: Lowery Stoke Simms, “Mildred Thompson: An Artist’s Odyssey” and Melissa Messina, “Radiation Explorations and “Magnetic Fields: Paintings by Mildred Thompson from the Early 1990s,” both in Mildred Thompson: Radiation Exploration and Magnetic Fields, ed. Melissa Messina (New York: Galerie Lelong & Co., 2018), 54-61 and 8-15; Alma W. Thomas. Callaloo 39, no. 5 (2016): 1056; Howardina Pindell. “Controlled Chaos: Howardina Pindell Interviewed by Jessica Lanay,” Bomb (May 14, 2018): unpaginated. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/controlled-chaos-howardena-pindell-interviewed/
- John P. Bowles, “Side by Side: Friendship as Critical Practice in the Performance Art of Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger,” Callaloo 39, no. 2 (2016): 413 and Stillman, unpaginated.
- Roberson, in discussion with author, Los Angeles via telephone, August 3, 2020. Roberson uses her codes, processional, lucent visuality, and omnipresent drumming in a manner that recalls both the processional dance movements of Sun Ra and the Arkestra, whose performance at the Giza Pyramids (1971) has a similar sense of the undercommons and black familiarity, subtle light, and soft, ubiquitous percussion and The Second Line in New Orleans, a processional artform to swinging drum lines with West African roots, that “reconstruct[s] community histories and reclaim[s] neighborhood space… ultimately to forge an expressive narrative of resistance and pride against the threat of cultural erasure.” See Benjamin Grant Doleac, “‘We Made It Through That Water’: Rhythm, Dance and Resistance in the New Orleans Second Line.” PhD thesis. UCLA, 2018, iii. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/8vb4t0wx.
“Black familiarity” is used in the sense Lisa Kennedy suggests: “To be black without trying to explain [to others].” Lisa Kennedy, “The Black Familiar,” The Village Voice, October 16, 1990, 16. The Sun Ra Egypt footage may be viewed here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5azChH6Z7QA.
- A nod to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
- Roberson’s strategy of layering the aural textures of various people, places, sentient beings, nature, and temporal moments of the diaspora reflects, in part, her interest in Afro-Atlantic historical precedents of transition between the U.S. mainland and the Caribbean. She shared with me that she was intrigued by the overlaps between Kongo and Houmas Indigenous tenses based in the region and the sonic connection between New Orleans and the Caribbean. “[T]transistor radios in Jamaica and New Orleans could pick up sounds and transmissions between the two, so there was this exchange.” Roberson, in discussion with the author, May 8, 2020.
- Negri, 87.