liquid blackness

A Research Project on Blackness and Aesthetics

Department of Communication, Georgia State University

Coordinator: Alessandra Raengo ( pageOn the Sleeve of the Visual)

Study Group

Liquid blackness – A Research Project on Blackness and Aesthetics

It remains exceedingly attractive and possible in this post-black, postsoul age of black cultural traffic to love black cool and not love black people

Harry Elam

Reflecting on Blackness for Sale—conceptual artist Keith Obadike’s eBay auction of his own blackness—Harry Elam asserted that in contemporary culture, blackness has become capable to “travel on its own, separate and distinct from black people.” Because of this newly found detachability of blackness from black subjectivity, identity and history, Elam argued, “it remains exceedingly attractive and possible in this post-black, postsoul age of black cultural traffic to love black cool and not love black people.”[1]

The purpose of liquid blackness, a research project on Blackness and Aesthetics of the Department of Communication at Georgia State University is to begin a conversation among scholars, artists, and curators about liquidity as a primary aesthetic form in which blackness is encountered in our contemporary visual and sonic landscape. The idea of the liquidity of blackness emerges both from an observation of salient contemporary aesthetic forms as well as a sort of thought experiment. If, as Harry Elam has argued, blackness does indeed “travel on its own,” then what aesthetic arrangements have become possible as a result of that?

What happens if we leverage, rather than condemn, this type of mobility? What happens when blackness is deliberately held in suspension, by the critical act one might perform in attempting to understand its contours? What if we could think of it, not as an attribute, but rather in its own terms, like a thing, like a substance, a “shadow [that] escapes from the body like an animal we had been sheltering”?[2] What if we held blackness in balance, so to speak, not necessarily to sever it from its lived experience, but in order to confront and come to terms with the many other ways in which it exists?

If blackness is placed firmly in the middle, held at the center of our conversations, affective investments, aesthetic concerns, if it is therefore made accessible, discussable, touchable, usable, re-purposable, then the focus might shift to new considerations: not what it represents, but what it does and can do, to its affective charge, and its sensorial reach; to the relations it facilitates, the fantasies it coagulates, and the sensible and sensorial configurations it orchestrates. One would therefore not be seeking a black aesthetic but rather to understand blackness as aesthetics.

Thus, as a research group, liquid blackness privileges the aesthetic mode of liquidity because it offers a provocative and generative characterization of one of the most mercurial, yet vigorous modes of interfacing blackness in contemporary visual and sonic culture, as well as the affects and intensities that this mode of engagement produces and circulates.

Liquidity is also meant to describe the fluid relationship between creative, critical and curatorial practices, as well as a bleeding between artistic community and academic community this research project is committed to pursue.

Finally liquidity intends to convey the desired adaptability of liquid blackness as a research group and platform for scholarly and artistic work, which will hopefully grow in pursuit of its research questions, spilling into those spaces where critical and creative thinking grapples with ideas of what indeed lies between us all, with the conviction that, given its enormous role in filling this in-between, there is no question about blackness that is not worth asking.

Here are some conceptual clusters that the idea of the liquidity of blackness is intended to evoke. They are meant to perform evocatively in order to trigger both critical and artistic responses.

  • Sensuousness – liquid blackness is sensorially rich and erotically charged
  • Affectivity – liquid blackness exists and moves in between bodies
  • Formlessness – liquid blackness fills all available space and fluidly transforms with the shape of its container.
  • Penetration –in its shape-shifting qualities, liquid blackness is capable of infiltrating anywhere.
  • Fluctuation– liquid blackness moves through ripples and waves, like electronic signals
  • Modulation – liquid blackness oscillates and vibrates within a spectrum of possibilities
  • Absorption and assimilation –liquid blackness manifests fantasies of racial amalgamation
  • Intensity– liquid blackness channels “intensive affective flows”[3]
  • Viscosity– liquid blackness produces fantasies of tactility and experiences of stickiness
  • Density– liquid blackness is tangibly material and thick
  • Slipperiness: liquid blackness can be seemingly touched, but not held, or held in place
  • Elasticity – liquid blackness can stretch, bleed, and slightly give in
  • Allure– liquid blackness beckons and yet withdraws
  • Vibration– liquid blackness is animated by the vitality of black matter
  • Unboundedness– liquid blackness is unstoppable and pervasive
  • Virality– liquid blackness proliferates and procreates, gaining incremental vitality with each reproduction.
  • Channeling– liquid blackness is a channel, a vehicle, a medium – it carries, funnels, and puts in contact
  • Plasticity – liquid blackness mutates within constantly mutating conditions
  • Organicity– liquid blackness wades fluidly through processes of appropriation, sampling, grafting, injecting, rejecting, implanting, and transplanting.
  • Glide– liquid blackness slides transversally across and between surfaces

Selected References:

Elam, Harry J., Jr. “Change Clothes and Go: A Postscript to Postblackness.” In Black Cultural Traffic. Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture, edited by Harry J. Elam, Jr. and Jackson Kennell, 379-88. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005.

English, Darby. How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. Boston: MIT Press, 2007.

Fleetwood, Nicole R. Troubling Visions. Performance, Visuality, and Blackness.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Lhamon, W.T., Jr., “Optic Black: Naturalizing the Refusal to Fit.” In Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture, edited by Harry J. Elam Jr. and Kennell Jackson, 111-40. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Holland, Sharon Patricia. The Erotic Life of Racism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012.

Murray, Derek Conrad. “Hip-Hop Vs. High Art: Notes on Race as Spectacle.” Art Journal 63, no. 2 (2004): 5-19.

Prettyman Beverly, Michele. “Phenomenal Bodies: The Metaphysical Possibilities of Post-Black Film and Visual Culture.” PhD Diss., Georgia State University, 2012.

Raengo, Alessandra. On the Sleeve of the Visual: Race as Face Value.  Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Press, 2013.

———. “Optic Black: Blackness as Phantasmagoria.” In Beyond Blackface: Africana Images in the US Media, edited by Akil Houston. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2010.

———. “Reification, Reanimation, and the Money of the Real.”  World Picture no. 7 (2012).

Shaviro, Steven. “Post-Cinematic Affect: On Grace Jones, Boarding Gate and Southland Tales.” Film-Philosophy 14, no. 1 (2010): 1-102.

Thompson, Krista. “The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop.” The Art Bulletin  (2009): 481-505.

[1] Harry J. Elam, Jr., “Change Clothes and Go: A Postscript to Postblackness,” in Black Cultural Traffic.  Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture, eds. Harry J. Elam, Jr. and Jackson Kennell (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005), 386.

[2] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 20.

[3] Steven Shaviro, “Post-Cinematic Affect: On Grace Jones, Boarding Gate and Southland Tales,” Film-Philosophy 14, no. 1 (2010).