Details, left to right: Olalekan Jeyifous’s Improvised Shanty-Megastructures, 2015; Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village), 2018; summer fucking mason’s Copper, 2017; Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born’s Sitting on a Man’s Head, 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 fifth transmission (7.30.18) features Charles Davis on Olalekan Jeyifous’s Improvised Shanty-Megastructures, Steven Nelson on Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village), The Black Aesthetic on summer fucking mason’s Copper, and Tina Campt on Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born’s Sitting on a Man’s Head.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
Walls of translucent plastic frame a raised wooden platform. The walls veil a series of shadowy figures that register like ghosts. They emerge in fuller detail as they traverse an opening then return to fuzziness as they pass back behind translucent sheets. Several of the figures are normal folks like me, not the purposeful dancers I expect. But the dancers are there as well, discernable by their inescapable focus and poise. I’m distracted by the sound coming from the room. It’s music, but I can’t make out where it’s coming from. I assume it’s a recording as I can identify neither its source in a body nor an instrument, but neither can I locate any technological mode of delivery.
Commissioned by the 2018 Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Nigerian-American artist, choreographer, writer, and performer Okwui Okpokwasili and her partner Peter Born’s stunning work, Sitting on a Man’s Head, is most accurately captured in the words of its evocative subtitle: an unfolding score for a collective utterance, the ongoing making of an I, you, we, and us. Its title references its inspiration in the protest strategies of women in eastern Nigeria referred to as ‘sitting on a man’s head.’ A peaceful and powerfully disruptive practice used to create space for the voices of marginalized women, Okpokwasili’s reworking of it is markedly different, yet equally profound.
I am invited into a vestibule to begin a conversation. The question posed is both unexpected and overwhelming: “What do you think happens after you die?” “What does it feel or look like?” His response is unanticipated: “I imagine it might feel something like the gap you experience when they knock you out for a procedure. You’re counting backwards, then you wake up and there’s an absence you can’t account for.” To which I respond, “So maybe death looks like the absence of or a different sense of time?” And then he asks if I am ready to enter the space.
His instructions are simple: take three breaths together and begin to walk slowly through the space. Very slowly. It begins with a shift in weight. Transfer it from your heal to the outer edge to your arch, through the ball of your foot and into your toes. Lift it, suspend it, very low, a little higher, higher, and higher still. Balance… breathe… lower… then slowly shift the weight again—slower than that, slower still. The intense focus creates extreme intimacy and vulnerability, endless sensation, and heightened awareness. The focus required to break down bodily movement into increments of centimeters, sustain it and remain upright without succumbing to gravity’s insistent downward pull; the focus required to hover in micro-seconds of non-movement and anti-motion is a haunting instantiation of the state of being after death that framed my entry into this unexpectedly precarious space. It is a liminal state that slowly becomes an equalizing practice of stasis—an effortful balancing of forces that suspends the body’s relation to space and to time. Returning to the question that preceded my sojourn within these translucent walls: what if death is the absence of or a different relationship to time?
In the sublime space of slow-walking created by Opakwasili, Born, and their collaborators, time is measured not in duration, but as a relationship to space and proximity. Its passage is marked by how far or close you are from a point of origin or an unknown point of arrival. Where did you come from and where do you hope to arrive? What is the path you choose to take across a blank space? What is the distance or proximity between you and the other bodies inhabiting this space alongside you? What mediates the relationship between self and other, and when does it merge, intersect or diverge? How do you ‘feel’ another when no one touches?
Passing bodies ambulate in the stilled motion of time-lapse photography. I locate the music that initially eluded me emanating from one of the dancers as he slowly moves toward me. “I am in me”—he sings over and again. And as he approaches: “I see you,” “I am near you.” As he passed: “I am with you.” We do not touch; there is no contact, or is there? In this shared space of slowness—a space where motion is reduced to almost-stilled-movement that neutralizes the passage of time and realigns the definition of space—touch and contact are rendered through a different modality: relation. It is relationality I call hapticity.
hapticity: the labor of feeling across a shared spatiality; communicating and collaborating across differential relationships to space and time; bodies required to feel out, feeling with, across, and through one another to create a sense of intimacy.
Hapticity is not empathy. It is not ‘feeling for’ another. It is labor. It is the work of feeling precarious or feeling precarity in relation to differentially valued and devalued bodies and using that feeling as the basis of a connection in the absence of any guarantee of respite, respect, affection or acknowledgement. It is a gamble that may very well end in failure that is worth taking the risk nonetheless. It is the gamble to allow oneself to be touched or moved independent of physical contact.
I have no idea how long I spent slow-walking in Opakwasili’s exquisite space. Time seemed to stop and maybe that’s what death does actually look and feel like. As I turned toward the doorway through which I had entered, thinking I was slowly nearing the conclusion of my journey, a beautiful black male body passed behind me. Seconds later, he was no longer visible, but I felt his proximity. At the edges of my peripheral vision I only saw his arms mimicking the broad, flapping wingspan of a heron. But I think I felt it much more than I saw it. I felt him moving my/our air. I felt his touch through the movement of the air we shared in a space of slow-walking.
This is one of four essays from the fifth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 5.1 / Improvised Shanty-Megastructures / Charles Davis
b.O.s. 5.2 / Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village) / Steven Nelson
b.O.s. 5.3 / Copper / The Black Aesthetic
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.