“liquid blackness” is a term that describes several things at once:
it is the name of a research group founded by Alessandra Raengo, at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA, comprising graduate students and alumni of the doctoral program in Moving Image Studies collaboratively studying blackness and aesthetics;
it is the name of an online scholarly journal that offers a forum for the exploration of experimental methodologies for the formal analysis of blackness in contemporary visual and sonic arts and popular culture at the intersection between the politics and ethics of aesthetics;
and it is a theoretical concept that focuses on blackness as an aesthetic mode, one that emphasizes multiplicity and experimentation.
We deliberately deploy the same term in all of these cases because for us “liquidity” also describes a way of doing things and specifically the strategic way in which the research group blurs the line between scholarship and practice by producing work that faces different communities within academia and beyond. In fact, as part of its research projects, the group organizes critical encounters around art addressed simultaneously to scholars, artists, curators and local communities, which are then developed into publications, where the same research questions are opened up to contributions from the larger academic community.
A bit of history…
The expression “liquid blackness” began as a classroom prompt, to foster a conversation about Nick Hooker’s 2008 video for Grace Jones’s song Corporate Cannibal. Although its first utterance was merely descriptive, it immediately emerged as a powerful concept which has become more complicated over time and has been enriched by the research projects conducted by the liquid blackness group.
The first liquid blackness “manifesto,” with a brief essential reading list, written by Professor Raengo, was published on this website in the Summer of 2013 and reprinted in the summer of 2015 in the exhibition catalog for Mark Bradford’s show Scorched Earth, curated by Connie Butler, at the Hammer museum in L.A. The same manifesto was used for a call for work for artists invited to the first liquid blackness Symposium held in April 2014, keynoted by Professor Derek Conrad Murray and curator Hamza Walker. The Symposium coincided also with the publication of the 2nd issue of the liquid blackness journal containing the first essay outlining the theoretical underpinning of the concept of “liquid blackness” by Professor Raengo as well as a series of responses to the invited artists’ works.
One of the goals of “liquid blackness” is to affect a shift from prescriptive notions of black aesthetics to ideas of blackness as aesthetics. In this sense, “liquid blackness” describes the thick complex of material forces and conditions that have to be negotiated in order for blackness to act expansively and to be free to explore its own genius and possibilities.
“liquid blackness” is an unavoidably ambiguous concept and serves as a pressure point between identity politics and materialist immanence, lived experience and form, politics and aesthetics, the diagnostic and the critical. We embrace this ambiguity because we think it’s a productive place to start, and with the belief that, as written back in 2013, there is no question about blackness that is not worth asking.
As a research group, liquid blackness began in the Fall 2013 to facilitate the co-hosting of the “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black American Cinema” tour in conjunction with Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies. Since then, the group has treated each of these events as opportunities to develop more research questions and expand the scope of the group’s collective study. For example, after partaking in an experimental collective study of one of the most celebrated and yet elusive films of the L.A. Rebellion, Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977) in 2015, the group continued to explore the art and politics of the jazz ensemble with an event organized around Barbara McCullough’s 2017 film Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot, a “poetic meditation” on the strength of African American music and activism embodied in the history of Los Angeles through the life of musician, composer and community activist Horace Tapscott (1934-1999), which included a screening and a masterclass with the experimental filmmaker. Similarly, our research project on “Black Ontology and the Love of Blackness,” centered on Arthur Jafa’s 2013 film Dreams Are Colder than Death (April 2016) was followed by a research project, symposium, screening, and artist talk with Jafa’s frequent collaborator Kahlil Joseph entitled, “Holding Blackness in Suspension: The Films of Kahlil Joseph” (October 2016) and two years later with “Figuring Suspension: A Study of Visual Recording Artist Storyboard P” (February 2018), a project about the flex dancer who features in many of Joseph’s and Jafa’s works. In April 2018 the group completed “Bradford Young and the Visual Art of Black Care” (April 2018), which included a screening, artist talk, and masterclass. The group recently led a community conversation, “Holding Place. Taking Flight: Childish Gambino, Terence Nance, Bradford Young, and Grace Jones,” that brought together the work of experimental artists who operate in both fine art and popular cultural spaces and consider the world-making potential of black art.
Throughout these projects, the group has developed a collaborative and intrinsically interactive approach to arts and visual culture, with an immanent and object-oriented methodology, whereby it is the object that each time dictates the terms of its engagement. This has been a way to experiment with the possibilities of intra- and extra-institutional study as well as the mingling of theory and praxis.
An account of the beginning of the research group appears in Alessandra Raengo, “Encountering the Rebellion: liquid blackness Reflects on the Expansive Possibilities of the L.A. Rebellion Films,” in L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, ed. Allyson Nadia-Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jacqueline Stewart (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).