Some Thoughts on a Constellation of Things Seen and Felt
This summer’s persistent melee of images and videos circulating in news reports and on social media of the extrajudicial, gratuitously violent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the collective uprisings they incited under the mantra Black Lives Matter drew me out of the intensity of that present moment and into a descent imbricated and wedded by the beholding of the inextricable combinatory assembly that is embodied Blackness, acts of barbarity, and a yearning for intimacy. In this spiral, which is not an undoing, but rather an unfolding across events, some learned, most told, I thought of when I first saw images of Frank Embree. It was 2017, during a class Ralph Lemon was teaching at Columbia University. We were discussing the incessant excessive force inflicted upon Black life in the United States and the complexities of not only visually representing them, but also then publicly displaying those representations.
Frank was abducted and lynched on July 22, 1899 in Fayette, Missouri by a mob of white vigilantes upon the accusation he had assaulted a white female. Nearly one hundred and twenty years later, on February 16 at 6 p.m., there was an unannounced performance held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where Kevin Beasley was presenting a major solo exhibition titled A view of a landscape. Ralph was screaming a text he’d written and from various books, three dancers’ hurtling bodies danced non-stop in the corner; it was a line dance of sorts and it went on, throughout the entire event to the point of exhaustion, sweat dripping from them. They worked. Okwui Okpokwasili kind of “sang,” Darrell Jones was utterly feral, and Kevin serene, negotiating sound from his cotton gin sculpture in the next room. In the performance space, Ralph and Kevin had placed a couple of things. I noticed one of which, out of the light of the “stage,” was a black form, placed on the floor, leaning against the wall. After the show, I asked Ralph about it, and got a fairly oblique response: it was Frank. I had forgotten about Frank. Three days later at 11:14 a.m. I received an email from Ralph with four images: a defiant looking Frank, mid-lynching; defiant-looking Frank’s back of his body, split and bleeding from innumerable lashes; no longer defiant-looking Frank’s body suspended from a noose, hanging from a tree; an edited photo of defiant looking Frank’s face, a sneering portrait with no body, framed and bubble wrapped. Ralph told me he had given the portrait to Kevin, who then draped a black leather jacket over the frame, a dermis of sorts, or maybe the fallibility of the dermis, veiling it entirely, then drenching it in resin. That was the black bulge on the floor, in the corner.
I understand Ralph and Kevin’s extension of mutual aid towards Frank, the enveloping of his image in a kind of armor juxtaposed by a clear, if wary desire to keep him close at hand, as a gesture of impossible reciprocity fundamentally foreclosed to them precisely because such care was foreclosed to him, and thus it must be foreclosed to us. It is in this context that I reflected upon the reactions to Blackout Tuesday, a kind of digital visual pause intended to metaphorically hold space on social media through a two-part deployment of black screens in place of videos and photographs and the tag #BlackLivesMatter. Some activists were concerned that the black posts would hamper the functionality of the virtual outlets, particularly the sharing of information and images—the documentation of terrorizing acts and the protests that they instigated. Visibility was determined as an essential tool in the arsenal to counter violence without realizing the embodied Blackness was always already there. The black monochrome1 with the hashtag is what they saw as compromising the message. When placed together, the activists felt the events were being erased, and it was their voices that were felt to be needed most.
In turn, Ralph and Kevin’s obsidian aegis and the activists’ anxieties about erasure brought to mind Tony Cokes’s Evil.27: Selma (2011), which has as its conceptual through-line the paradigmatic events of the Civil Rights Movement, including the three Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, but most relevant here is the Montgomery Bus Boycott (December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956). What makes this video particularly meaningful in this constellation of events is the ways in which the question of technology figured then as much as it did now, during the BLM uprisings. In the 1950s and ’60s, the shift from radio to television was thought to demonstrate not only a transition to images, but also to evidence as a demonstration of authenticity of the event. In the context of the Selma to Montgomery marches, particularly Bloody Sunday, it is precisely the visibility of those events, broadcast in print and on television, which mobilized (white) American civil society towards “progressive goals,” as if this was the point. However, in the early years of the Movement, “Citizens had to imagine” the events without having a visual referent to them or a “pre-existing visual template,” a kind of “on-the-spot conceptualizing was required.” Rosa Parks’s rebellious acts were “underdocumented” making them “mythic non-visible material… the invisible rudiments for a vernacular of possibility.” It is the “imagelessness” of the Boycott that instigates the revolutionary acts of the following 15 years: transformation occurs paradoxically because there are no images thus evidence. Visibility allows for association, judgment, proximity, thereby eventually familiarity and comfort. Such a violent beholding fixes the unfamiliar in such a way that a false understanding or sense of solidarity takes hold: “I already know about that situation.” However, the event “that ‘has no image’ will be the fruit of the imagination. … Most of those participating in the Bus Boycott had no established visual referent for what they were doing.” They were “continually surprised by what they were already causing to happen … they had no way of getting a panoramic overview of the situation.” Images constitute “evidence of wrongs and proof of what is right, makes an undertaking more relevant and more available for having some effect in the world.” In fact, “non-visibility will produce the most revolutionary visibilities of all … and we will never see it coming.”2
As if in correspondence, Ralph’s instructions to Kevin were to “mark-cover” the photo portrait of Frank because for him the cultural grieving of this image should not be seen by the public in any aestheticized fashion. But such an insistence only elucidates how non-visibility is not invisibility: Frank is there but held in reserve. By reserve I mean to hold out for a reparatory potential that resonates even in the absence of proof of presence. To hold in reserve is an act of distancing, of retaining for oneself, which does not in this instance concern itself as an act of care because to reserve neither takes responsibility for something it did not bring into fruition nor does it observe or squelch the unstinting desire to show itself as pained, but rather reserve is a taking asunder, gathering the bits, fragments, shards and setting them aside as an absolute requisition against our overwhelming visuality. What can be imagined, what can be gained for Black life undemonstrated, when we reserve our interiority, take a reprieve for the sustenance of our interior lives, which is to say to embrace embodiment differently, to resist the endless proliferation of consumable violence against body Blackness? The American social contract has unacknowledged the limpid embeddedness of images of Black devastation as a compulsion, a predilection, an addiction, even worse, an expectation. The metaphorical capacity of the Black object—its uncanny plasticity—undermines the precipice of illegibility, the abject abstracting that structures embodied Blackness.3 Affirmation offers no relief to what Blackness apparently ruptures. One ought to have to earn access to such intimacies; they ought not be given so easily precisely because there is a demonstrated and illustrated perverse pleasure that readily traffics in the fleshiness of Blackness, and you won’t see that coming either. It makes itself known only in the aftermath, in the sick circuit of repetition.
- One of the earliest black monochromes was Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), the so-called “zero-degree” of painting, which has inscribed under its black veneer the racist joke “Negroes battling in a cave.” Here Malevich references writer and humorist Alphonse Allais’s earlier version of a black painting from 1897 titled Combat des Negres dans une cave, pendant la nuit (Negroes fighting in a cellar at night). These instances foreground and aestheticize the troubled anachronistic relationship between corporeality of color, material, and race buried and resurfaced like the Allais reference in Malevich’s as foundational to the evolution of modernist abstraction. See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/13/russia-malevich-black-square-hidden-paintings. Accessed: October 9, 2020; as well as Adrienne Edwards, Blackness in Abstraction (New York: Pace Gallery, 2016), “Blackness in Abstraction” in Art in America, January 2015, and “Notes on Blackness in Abstraction,” and Visuality and Abstraction Anthology, Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg, 2018 (translated in German).
- All citations in this paragraph are taken from the work of art, which references Our Literal Speed, "Notes from Selma: On Non-Visibility,” 2009, https://www.academia.edu/36538855/Our_Literal_Speed_presents_Notes_From_Selma_On_Non-Visibility_2009. See Adrienne Edwards, “A Splinter to the Heart: On the Possibility of Afro-Pessimist Aesthetics,” in “Afro-Pessimist Aesthetics Dossier,” eds. Sampada Aranke and Huey Copeland, ASAP Journal, Vol 5.2 (May 2020), 273-279.
- See Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an AntiBlack World (New York, New York University Press), 2020.