b.O.s. 17.3 / Loops of Retreat / Sarah Jane Cervenak

A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.

—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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How to enact a listening that abides by the light and the silence, the slow, expansive, sometimes unheard movement of horn and word, the fullness of sound in and out of the ear, across screen, tree, and air?

Poet and musician JJJJJerome Ellis’s collaboratively made film Loops of Retreat opens onto a robin’s egg/cream screen.1 I notice the blue.

Scientists say that blue light is what sighted people see as the color of sky and water, and of earth itself, because its shorter wave lengths make for more expansive dispersal.2 Beginning with the first frame, blue is a chromatic invitation to witness and dwell in that light. This happens just before Ellis’s words are seen and heard.

Music and words soon join color as poetry rises from the bottom of the screen. What sounds like violins is actually an “electronically processed recording of [Ellis] playing tenor saxophone.”3 As he reads the text, it blooms into the cream right-side of the screen: “My thesis is that blackness, (ddddddddddd[d’s repeat])dysfluency/and music are forces that open time.”4 The recited words scroll upwards on the right-side of the screen while the color-blocked blue on the left-side remains wordless, opening onto blue sky and then the tops of pine trees.

In the transcript of Loops, Ellis acknowledges a second definition of the word thesis (evoked above) as the “downbeat in music.”5 These meanings indicate that his recitation is sonic, “a wavering band of energy.”6His thesis is an argument about blackness, dysfluency, and time while also musicking the page as an energetic sonic-temporal opening of its own. It begins with what Audre Lorde might describe as the “quality of [blue] light” or that which precedes and attends the word.7

That opening and enduring blue light may mean something about what JJJJJerome Ellis untells us about art; that as “a cloud covers the voice,” art’s ecosystem shifts but doesn’t disappear.8 More directly, I initially regarded the first frame as unimportant, believing that the event of JJJJJerome Ellis’s art didn’t begin until I heard him speak.  Yet, as Ellis has elsewhere argued with respect to his experience of stuttering, that absence of a heard and seen word can nonetheless be a “clearing,” a place for togetherness.9 In that way, to presume that a recitation begins with heard word is a kind of interruption or speed up of stuttering speech. Put differently, as Ellis might caution, when the blue/cream blank screen and its silence is disregarded “an expanded present is foreclosed.”10

Part of Ellis’s intervention concerns how his stuttering infuses his artmaking, his aesthetic and lived relation to time, and his experience of being Black in the world.  The video is an occasion to regard the profundity of Ellis’s travel, to listen as his words are shaped and opened, dispersed and “aerated” by his stuttering.11 Transcribed on the screen’s right-hand side are extended and multiplied vowels and consonants that manifest in the visual field as words and blued and forested silence.

Following Harriet Jacobs, Ellis advances that “black loops in black music… are always black loop(holes) (ooooooooooo[o’s repeat])of retreat.” In that way, Ellis offers that “when the black stutterer loops a phoneme (m-m-m-m-m-m-mother), this too is a black loop.”12 This looped phoneme might be a place to travel in the blue, and access a togetherness, without being seen or heard.

Video still from Loops of Retreat. Courtesy of Jules Evens, Rissa Hochberger, and JJJJJerome Ellis. 

What the art asks, what the blue asks, then is how to enact a listening that abides by the light and the silence, the slow, expansive, sometime unheard movement of horn and word, the fullness of sound in and out of the ear, across screen, tree, and air. A mode of engagement that regards the letter not as index but as blued, blurred travel.  Depending on where and how your senses rest, with the left blues and with the right’s distention of letter, there is a challenge that the scattering of color, letter, and sound presents to aesthetic discernment. Arguably, JJJJJerome Ellis extends a line of listening inaugurated by thinkers like Harriet Jacobs, John Cage, and Stephen Best.13 This listening to lyrical and musical and visual creativity requires an expanded appreciation of art as environment. Blue, cream, the view of a forest without name, the letters as they engage in some, at times quieter, long-range travel.

Moreover, listening to Loops and saying something about it means that I want my writing to somehow support in/discernible travel.  I want to write alongside the art as it takes its time.  To not speed up and enclose Ellis’s speech as it slowly unfolds and travels into and out of the openings it engenders.  To recognize that black time here weaves with “crip time,” the invisible communiqué between sun and ocean floor, the words that rise and undulate (loudly, quietly) in between.14 In this way, the art asks for a listening against the clock as the long-ranged words and sounds amble into and out of the silent caverns of the larynx, tongue, and air.15

At the end of his recitation, Ellis muses “We can begin here.”16 I see his choice to end at this line as a lesson on what listening and its description could be. A mode of being with the art that begins by respecting its unnoted clearings as the sounds of black freedom vibrate into and outside of the forests of their creation.

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The author thanks the editors Lisa Uddin and Michael Gillespie along with Mercy Romero, Jennifer Nash and JJJJJerome Ellis for their helpful feedback and deep engagement.

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

17.1/That’s Pops Money/Mabel O. Wilson

17.2/The Laugh in Passing/Kemi Adeyemi

17.4/Cotton Ikebana 18??/Alex Pittman

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Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.

Endnotes

  1. There are a number of versions of Loops of Retreat online. Loops is a filmed recitation of a chapter that appears by the same name in JJJJJerome Ellis’s recently published book, The Clearing (Brooklyn, NY: Wendy’s Subway, 2021). The film version I am focusing is the “single edit, 5:24 video version,” which was made collaboratively by Rissa Hochberger, Jules Evens and the artist.  All citations reflect how the words appear in the film; their page numbers are from the book itself.
  2. According to Scientific American, “The ocean looks blue because red, orange and yellow (long wavelength light) are absorbed more strongly by water than is blue (short wavelength light). So when white light from the sun enters the ocean, it is mostly the blue that gets returned. Same reason the sky is blue.” “Why does the ocean appear blue? Is it because it reflects the color of the sky?” Scientific American. October 21, 1999. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-does-the-ocean-appear/
  3. From email correspondence with Ellis.
  4. The Clearing, 3.
  5. The Clearing, 3.
  6. The Clearing, 4.
  7. See Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press Feminist Series, 1984).
  8. The Clearing, 67. This is not from Loops but appears elsewhere in The Clearing. It resonated with my engagement here.
  9. JJJJJerome Ellis, “The clearing: Music, dysfluency, Blackness, and time,” Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2020): 219.
  10. Ibid.
  11. I’m reminded here of Fred Moten’s writing on black art as “persistent aeration,” that which “the (sur)real presence – of blackness serially brings online as persistent aeration, the incessant turning over of the ground under our feet that is the indispensable preparation for the radical overturning of the ground that we are under.” See Fred Moten, The Universal Machine (Duke University Press, 2018): 235.
  12. The Clearing, 6.
  13. Along with being a chapter title in The Clearing, the title of the short film evokes a chapter title, “The Loophole of Retreat,” from the 1861 slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl (Dover: 2001 [1861]. Also, the notion that silence is antesound and performance is ante or extra-environmental connects with composer John Cage’s famous performance 4’33.  Finally, the notion of the art’s frame as an extension of the “sovereign” will of the artist is powerfully critiqued by Stephen Best. See Stephen Best, None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018):
  14. In Feminist, Queer, Crip, Alison Kafer asserts that “[w]e can then understand the flexibility of crip time as being not only an accommodation to those who need “more” time but also, and perhaps especially, a challenge to normative and normalizing expectations of pace and scheduling. Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds” (27). Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).
  15. Ibid.
  16. The Clearing, 8.