GRISHA COLEMAN AND THOMAS F. DEFRANTZ
This essay explores Afrofuturist technologies in the pursuit of politically motivated renderings of contemporary and speculative lives – what black folx are ‘looking for’. Advancing theories of Afrofuturism to account for contemporary programming and technological design – Max, Ableton Live, and Arduino/Servo – the authors wonder at the possibilities for Afro-relevant interface design.
What if we reframe questions surrounding the goals of 21st century technology in the context of a neoliberal assault on black corporeality? Can #BlackLivesMatter predict a sustainable group ideology simultaneously imbricated in emergent tech- nologies, art practices, and varied, but connected social locations? Can we imagine an identity politics that imagines Afrofutures at once mediated, personal, and com- munal? Are black lives or Afrofuturist ideologies necessarily ‘other’ than future- tilted depictions or realizations of 21st century life? What could a viable ‘black ro- bot’ tell us about power, resistance, survival, or mobility?
DeFrantz and Coleman have found each other working across critical race and performance theory, movement practices, and technologies – imagined and pro- duced while black. In 2015, our creative paths intertwined in the afroFU- TUREqu##r performance platform realized at the Brooklyn live-art space JACK. Both Coleman and DeFrantz presented Afrofuturist work in this mini-festival, push- ing against expectations of black-queer-afrofuture. DeFrantz curated the event with niv ACOSTA, an exquisite young black trans performance artist whose work in- spires many younger artists. The event was imagined as a black gesture imbued with black aesthetic underpinnings – a curatorial act that explored black temporality and black performativity as an ontologically secure mode of production. The plat- form included a dozen artists who identified in some way as afro-queer and who also looked to afrofuturequeer as a way to imagine creative futurity together. The platform included a mix of carefully modulated work, as well as improvisational structures.
Tommy DeFrantz: okay grisha girl, it’s good to write together at a distance. me in north carolina, and you, where?
Grisha Coleman: In Tempe, Arizona.
TD: tempeh? isn’t that some sort of soy product? you livin in soylent green and stuff?
GC: Everybody asks! It is pronounced differently, so we don’t get confused…
TD: k. cool. so we’re gonna riff together on the questions of the black robots, black performance, black temporalities, what else?
GC: Conduction, Martin Delany, a depressed downtown Pittsburgh, and strate- gies for greater embodiment…
TD: Great, well let’s begin. Conduction. The movement among; transferal; maybe like the [delta] of change from one state to another. Or the process of change? The changes wrought by technologies that are rendered ‘universal’ only to inevitably need to be rendered black at some point. What is black technology and what is black conduction?
GC: Indeed. Impulses, sound waves, heat. I was referencing Butch Morris’ sys- tem of conduction, who rendered these multiple meanings in his music making with a collective of musicians in real-time through his lexicon of gestures-as-conducting. His musicians had not ‘learned’ his composition, but they had prepared. Like hiero- glyphs made dimensional, his gestures initiated the transferal, the process by which sound waves travel through a medium. When performed, the alchemy of the ele- ments was activated; seems to me he devised a technology of notation and interpre- tation that could be ‘universal’, but the people, the sound, and the process played as a deeply black art form: a funky study of state changes.
TD: So, something about conduction as relationship/response. A response to historical circumstances and shared knowledge; a response to the perception of rela- tionship in transformation. Maybe this is something like free jazz, which is the son- ic ground for Afrofuturist invention, of course, we all get that; free jazz is the gath- ering notion that set Sun Ra off, and also launched the funk of Parliament and Funkadelic and countless other funk bands that were willing to follow the groove together through a transferal of shared perception. Conduction as the movement of sonic possibility as a social relation, passed among musicians in empathetic re- sponse to the conditions of blackness shared in real time. Blackness as transferal
through free jazz: the sonic spaces of a shared sensorium, bound by experience, co- ercion, and creative cut.
GC: Let’s discuss the commensurate texts that theorize this movement among. TD, you have done significant theoretical work within black corporeality and group formation – Fanon, Moten, Martin, Lorde, Agamben, hooks… there are legacies of literary theory around black lives; how does that intersect with current theories of Afrofuturism, and how might technology impact this?
TD: In some ways, I believe that Afrofuturism arrives in anticipation of black possibility that could be lively, technologically modulated, and dynamically ‘funky’ in the way that funk generates rhythmic social relationships.
But we have to be willing to periodize Afrofuturist theories – or black group formation of any sort, for that matter. What Fanon needed to do in the 1950s was quite a bit different from what Moten intends to do today, or what hooks chose as her path in the 1990s through today, etc. For me, looking for trends rooted in grand political moments helps me understand what black folx have been ‘looking for’, or what we need as we wind our way across the planet. Right now, it seems that we need Afrofuturism as confirmation of our shared creativity that will not be bound by old-fashioned assumptions surrounding ‘black aesthetics’. Those aesthetics were rooted in liberation ideologies, maybe like those that Fanon offered up in his call for a circling of energy to ultimately exclude white/Europeanist presence in black art. The black arts movement was Afrofuturist by another name, as its contributors imagined it as of its own making toward an end goal of black liberation through self-love. The black arts movement spoke to black liberation through art making explicitly modeled as black.
In the 1980s and 90s, though, many people wanted to connect back to white- inflected technologies and modes of being; we saw the rise of black work in the context of black/white lives and loves. As radical and urgent as Audre Lorde’s scholarship and poetry continues to be, it surely emerged in this mold; advocating connection and intentional relationship. Afrofuturism went a bit underground in that moment of Reagan, when black subject formation was swallowed up, joining with social theories of the group bound by class and upbringing. Well, this happened for many artists and intellectuals, at least, if not for the people – the drylongso – who continue to tend and foment black art forms. Moten continues this trend in many ways, with his incredibly urgent work about class formations and the impossibilities of understanding black lives without understanding the formations of group subjec- tion. But he’s also ‘a poet who’ to quote Ntozake Shange, imagines his poetry to be
available to all, not just black sensibilities. Afrofuturism today probably follows at least these two streams of black affirmation, like the black arts movement, making space among ourselves for our future selves unbound by category or presumption of mode of working. But there is also the strain of Afrofuturism that tends to ‘explain itself’ to white readers/audiences; offering up the dull narrative of black robots as being an end of some sort that will place black creativity alongside the invention of the lunar rover or the Macintosh. That’s a sort of ‘us too’ gesture; sigh.
Periodizing the various social theorists might remind us that social theories ar- rive in context, and where Fanon needed to begin being able to claim a black global commons, bound by post-colonial mystery; Agamben describes a state that is much larger than black particularities; while Lorde needed affiliations and allies; hooks writes to help black folx recognize ourselves among those other people and needs us to see ourselves; when Martin describes a political sensibility that drives art- making and commerce and the possibility of social change that includes black lives; Moten theorizes black creativity to demonstrate its particularity among white modes of high-intellectual reflection. None of these modes of theorizing are especially of an Afrofuturist bent, whatever that might be. Afrofuturism, remarkably, has most successfully been theorized through its creative practice across the centuries. A challenge for theorizing Afrofuturism is that ‘technology’, which I think here we mean as shorthand for writing code or using machines in unanticipated ways, calls for a certain familiarity with the device/inscription method, which calls for daily time and practice. The interesting social theorists that you ask about are not neces- sarily coders or technologists. And Black folx don’t always get time to be invested in the creation of machines, even as artists might. So Afrofuturism arrives at a place outside the practice of many theorists and folx; as an aspirational sort of mode of creative engagement and realization of craft. Maybe Moten’s work comes closer to landing in the Afrofuturist creative camp, as he is an artist in his own right with his poetry, and that poetry has been well received by intellectuals and some audiences. In these poems, he reveals the literary tropes and ‘code’ that undergird his theoreti- cal writings. But unlike Langston Hughes or Zora Neal Hurston, who wanted all of us to have access to their creative inventions, Afrofuturists often write in a way that exclude many.
So, literary theory and social theorists have provided some backgrounds for us to consider the roiling circumstances that produce black subjects, or black ‘under- commons’, or black misery, and our artists continue to produce Afrofuturist innova- tions that resist these characterizations/predictions.
GC: I love your observation that Afrofuturism is more often theorized through creative practice, a drive to make space for our collective and subjective Afrofuture selves. And that this making-with-technology is a distinctive part of this practice, which also links physical experience to our technologies. And, like machines, Af- rofuturist creativity unleashes fumes.
TD: FUMES, yes, maybe it smells a bit. It has stank like funk, and it creates a tangible sort of after-affect. This adds terrifically to the sense of how an Afrofutur- ist provocation sounds in the air, lands on the body, in the sensorium mobilized by scent. Smelling bad like jheri-curled-processed hair, as a signal of its resistant provocation.
TD: You’ve been working in Afrofuturist genres for a number of years as an artist, working with new code and available softwares to create imaginary and impossible vistas of black life. And yet everyday we learn of racisms and violences that try to push us back in time, past Jim Crow, back to the reigns of terror that surrounded slavery. As artists and black people, we reach beyond; we reach outside. But we also reach with hands up. We reach. A few years back, you made a subtly public art piece in Pittsburgh, PA. about the reaching [black] robot, the ghost in the machine. What is Reach! Robot?
GC: With Reach! Robot, the blackness emanating from the city of Pittsburgh is catalyzed by an enactment of a gesture. A reach that lifts your gaze, the front of your neck opens and sequences down [hopefully] to move your chest. Inspired by Butch Morris’s Conduction, I wanted to devise a method for spontaneous composi- tion amongst the public in a prominent outdoor plaza in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. I was imagining a robot to move the people; so the robot was not an an- thropomorphic object to be seen, I made a simple score: walk, pause, step, and when we realize we are ‘in’ something, we reach.
The sensing system, an invisible set of motion-detecting lasers, was finessed to make legible the link between the four gestures and the sonic environment. Archi- tecturally, an intricate web of visible blue twine suspended sixteen feet from the ground mapped the PPG plaza, so that the parts of the movement recognized as those four gestures would trigger a response from the multi-part database of sound segments, creating a spontaneous collective composition as a kind of distributed choreographed Happening. A black Happening, that the people didn’t know was happening. But, of course, some folx did. The sounds reflected a distinctly afro-past of Pittsburgh, a perpetually shifting soundscape composed of words and music from Earl Hines, Billy Eckstien, Billy Strayhorne, Mary Lou Williams, Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers, George Benson, Ahmad Jamal… among others. The extraordi- nary legacies of jazz in Pittsburgh in ghostly dialog, a uniquely generated conversa- tion between their visions of the future to speak to the current, blighted present. The robot sort of sneaks up on the public crossing the plaza as they begin to realize that their movement is rendered in a choreographic invocation. And other black ghosts were present; while specking the site I came across a historic plaque of Martin R. Delany, not at the center of the plaza but off on a side street, partly obscured by newer construction. Who was this?!? The plaque reads:
Martin R. Delany (1812-1885)
A promoter of African-America nationalism, Delany published a Black newspaper, The Mystery, at an office near here. He attended Harvard Medical School, prac- ticed medicine in Pittsburgh, and was commissioned as a major in the Civil War.
REACH, ROBOT | 59
I recorded portions of Martin Delany’s antebellum, activist, Africanist newspaper, “The Mystery” with the tag line: “Hereditary Bondsman! know ye not / Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow?” and made these text excerpts a sonic ‘bonus’ for the people who really wanted to dance – the texts only triggered during the reach gesture to enliven and un-earth the local black activists and aestheticians of the past.
Ironically, the mixed public response to the project, which was installed over a two-week period, set a rather fugitive tone. During the ‘white-collar’ daytime, resi- dents of the building complex complained about the noise raised at lunch hour, a cacophony set in motion as crowds crossed the plaza. The corporate management even went as far as to instruct the plaza guards to pull the plug on the software gov- erning the music database, causing the robot to fall silent. As it happened during the install, however, the guards at PPG Plaza were curious about this ‘robot’, and many of the guards were black. In a furtive collective rebellion, I would get a phone call from someone different each day; quick to alert me when the plug was pulled. I would hustle downtown and plug it back in again! By night, a different public emerged; students at a nearby art school and homeless people who lived downtown got wind of the robot and came out to pontificate and play, creating elaborate cho- reographies of group skateboarders covered in aluminum foil [the better to trigger the lasers] and long passages of speechifying by homeless men that would ebb and flow throughout the night; the volume space of the robot became a lovely, motely, dynamic undercommons.
TD: The robot moves the humans. But how can we escape the weird object-ness that surrounds blackness as a product, or as an excessiveness of productivity? We surely can talk about people as metaphorical objects or as bodies, but what if we talk about each other as people, born and embedded within the water of liquidness, with complex shiftiness always available as a survival and sustenance resource? This way we might turn our attention away from theories that force us into objec- thood and imagine ourselves coming to sense with each other in various registers that shift in time.
I’m not an object; I’m not a black body; I’m a black person with complexities born of three billion neurons firing. Well, this is how I will narrate myself.
GC: How does your project “fugitive futures” play this narrative? I imagine this as part of the Afrofuturist work you are doing?
TD: A few years ago, artist and theorist Ananya Chatterjea and I collaborated on a project “Dancing Fugitive Futures.” We were working with the figures of the
fugitive, foundational to understanding black possibility in the context of the United States, where black life is always transitory and embattled, and the fugitive nature of ephemerality, which seems to be foundational in discussions of Western modes of dance theory. If our futures are fugitive and our pasts are fraught, what can we expect? How and what do you imagine forward? Do you imagine from the empath- ic space of relationship with others to think about a black tomorrowland that can include us all as it values our particular contributions? What could a future for black experimental tech performance feel like?
The event included workshops, conversations, and artist statements, as well as a curated performance for the participants. I created a short invention, “fugitive fu- tures,” a duet for myself and a video patch I created in processing environment Isa- dora. Working with my back to the audience in a darkened performance space, I faced the camera on my open laptop placed on a table at the back of the stage. I moved toward and away from the laptop, as my image was manipulated by the patch and placed among various film and still imagery culled from themes related to a brief text created for the performance. The projection arrived in a tiny format, on an 8”x10” screen placed on a table at the front of the performance space. The audience had to decide when to watch my live back, moving toward and away from them, or when to watch my physical front and face, projected into a tiny screen and superimposed with other images that also needed to be deciphered and evaluated. The text that the audience heard was pre-recorded:
I see myself coming and going. where have I been?
sometimes I forget.
I guess we all do.
but I do wonder at it.
the past is the essence of the future. should I escape it?
can I try?
I love my past.
I live in what happened before. Here’s the thing:
tomorrow is not promised. yesterday is indeterminate. today is a fiction.
of course the future is fugitive. held hostage
or just held
by those who can’t see beyond the past.
[vote for me and I’ll set you free] well, we must vote.
I choose us.
but then I’ve been holding myself back. watching myself come and go.
The text intended to open the space between now/then, reduce the space between you/me, and charge the space of here/we in the choosing of ‘us.’ I also wanted to critique the watching and waiting for others to act that seem to surround some modes of theorizing and performing. I continue to wonder, ‘what if we all consid- ered ourselves to be artists? What if we all made creative interventions to the on- slaught of normative temporalities and racial assumptions, to make fugitive circum- stances where something else happens for a brief moment?’ This would be my hope in theorizing Afrofuturism at all: to claim a common fugitive future that embraces black particularity, black queer particularity, cis female particularity, and on and on that recognizes itself through creative invention widely practiced. That we all find ways to get our neurons firing within the creative actions.
GC: Rap on, brother. Rap on.
BLACK PERFORMANCE + AESTHETIC INVENTION
TD: Isn’t a black robot necessarily liquid? Black performance has always been liq- uid, or post, or excessive, or many other things because it is concerned with adorn- ment and elaboration, individual expression within a group dynamic, and respon- siveness to its own communities. Black performance does not arrive in ultimate consideration of its form, which makes it so elusive and concrete at once; so water- to-ice-to-mist, to keep with the liquid-ing metaphor. Black performance offers a thinking-through-experience-with-others by way of aesthetic invention.
I wander/wonder back to conduction, and whether conduction, then, is some- thing like a shared nervous system, or at least the connection across nervous sys- tems that imply a depth of relationship among people. We want this connection in our intimate affairs to be sure; is this also what you’re talking about as you work with participatory audiences in your Afrofuturistic ‘reaching robots?’
GC: With Reach! Robot, I was looking to create conditions for this thinking- through-experience, with the thinking being movement. An experience where the form of movement emerged, was a function of the cues in the plaza; walk, pause [did I just hear something? on my way to lunch?], step [up on the strategically placed platforms throughout the square, in view of the sensors], reach [towards the weave of blue twine… has that always been there?] And, suddenly, you notice oth- ers are making moves too, and the opportunity to move individually and collective- ly, simultaneously and in counterpoint is revealed, and accepted or rejected, in a constellation, yes, a kind of distributed nervous system. To arrive at a place expect- ing one thing and being imbricated in another – not as a trick, but as a transference of expectations, and expansion of possible moves in that place, as a spontaneous, kinesthetic event; offering a public space to play amongst the ‘ghosts’ of the loca- tion, and all the while the physical movement of the people results in the further dispersal of the robot, as an object that also takes in data and responds uniquely. With this in mind, Reach! Robot was created, not as a single object structure, but as a dispersed robotic field. The pedestrian can activate, or ‘conduct’ this robotic field through walking, pausing, stepping, and reaching. Would this dispersal and ‘call to movement’ call attention to parallels between our corporeal structure and the elec- tronic ones?
A few years later, during your Afroqu##r festival I was playing with another manifestation of black robot; a piece called ReCombinant, a duet between myself and a robotic Djembe, created by my then doctoral student, Michael Krzyzaniak. An iconic West African drum as black robot, one that ‘listens’ and ‘responds’ with the polyrhythms of an enormous database.
TD: Yaaaas, that piece brought it! The ‘oldest’ African musical object as a fu- ture-present functional robot was intensely provocative. There was something about the way that a musician was no longer needed for the robot to act in relationship to you as a dancer that surprised and provoked anxiety. Somehow the drum was liber- ated in its electronic playfulness; it seemed to be in and of its own workings. With no visible drummer, it seemed to somehow transcend race as a primary vector for understanding its abilities to shock and awe our sensibilities in the room.
But I’m not sure what to think about liberation or transcendence as goals for Af- rofuture performances. What if we aren’t trying to *not* be on the planet with oth- ers, but trying to find ways to shift possibilities so that the spaces can allow for temporary diversities? We all come and go; maybe this is like the liquid that seeps and stalls; freezes then bubbles. Liberation and transcendence seem unlikely to me, and imply a ‘not being-ness.’ My skepticism here feeds into a distrust of Afro- pessimism, even as I surely find the ground where it grows to be familiar. Being black is somehow related to the tension of holding an ontological possibility for black presence; to hold that tension productively, freedom will be an unattainable,
momentary goal. Is that okay? Black aesthetics suggest, well, yes, it’s okay; of course it is all temporary and contingent.
In my own body, as I reflect on my various identities and relationships, I don’t feel overdetermined so much as overwhelmed by life in the 21st century. Others might think too much of me; but that is their predilection. Can we talk about how to have access to materials that will allow for the enhancement of black lives in vari- ous locations? For my cousins on the Virgin Islands; my nephews in Hayward, CA; my brother in Indianapolis, IN? For my play-family in South Carolina?
I think of the aesthetics of blackness as methods to produce contingencies that enhance possibilities. As in the free jazz/passing through project. Making black art is making black relationships palpable and making these relationships dynamic and unstable. So we can learn in the making. Then what if we all took time to make black art? To invent performances/installations/writings that resist, that speak of family and spirit. That engage rhythm and unexpected arrivals of group commun- ion. That subvert hegemony. Black performance pretty much always arrives queer; our concerns with adornment and elaboration ensure this.
GC: You have been dancing, making dance work, and working with the multi- valences of black dance in your scholarship: what’s a black gesture?
TD: A black gesture would be an action that reveals itself among black people. Of course, black gestures will be available to others, but the gesture’s blackness will be contingent on its recognition among other revelations of blackness. Black aesthetics are harder to apply to visual objects that exist through time, because black aesthetics are concerned with right now. So we interpret objects and texts, but that experience is very different from running the sanctuary, or holding a neighbor's baby while our cousin dances in the pageant.
For me, the in-betweenness comes in the multi-sensory imperatives of black performance and its aesthetics that demand widened abilities to process in several registers simultaneously. Black aesthetics are always multivalent; we rely on rhythm to organize possibility.
So… transvaluation, yes, but not as something done because I decide so looking at an object, but rather in the context of political protest, a scream, and a swoop to- wards the ground and into the gutter, only to rise up again, wily and wet.
Hands up, don’t shoot!
GC: BLAM! Yes, that hurts… which kind of circles us back to our questions posed at the start; of power, resistance, survival, mobility impacted by this ‘black robot’. It is a compound idea, a double-whammy, to support the kinds of spaces not
supported by the commodified marketplace of technology. Beginning with the non- objectness of the robot was causing trouble. And then the blackness of the robot – that’s not there! I mean, the robot is not there, and the blackness is not there, in a kind of representational way, and yet, its unpredictably there in the sonic response to the movement, the gesture… the blackness works to enhance the cultural patina, a future blackness which is ambient and ever-present, it’s the rumble underground of the B side of these musicians and activists. In regards to resistance and power, I think it is not arbitrary that the normative daytime crowd wanted to dismantle the invisible art ‘thing’ that encroached on their sense of common-sense, while the teenagers and the homeless thrived and flocked to the plaza by night, to flex and flair their expressive autonomy. It created a kind of confusion, an annoyance, a wildness, a delight. This may sound weird, but the robot created a ‘safe space’ for expression by explicitly provoking an expression through one’s body. The plaza was so big, so public; so safety to throw your hands in the air […] is not actually something we can take for granted, you know, ‘living while black’ kind of thing. It allowed us some space to practice; but this is the embodiment model, which offers a different reflection and delight then seeing the recent uptick of black films [Moon- light; O.J.: Made in America; Thirteenth; I am Not Your Negro; Hidden Figures; Fences]. By creating a mobile practice and calling it a black robot I wanted to bring speaking out loud, and moving in many directions, and rolling through, and staying put, and listening, and climbing and reaching all into one lexicon. It’s a choreo- graphed collective, a chaotic and randomized one, but slowly, as people heard that the plaza had a ‘robot’, ‘regulars’ began to show up. And NOT the kind that ‘takes our American jobs’ or ‘mans our drones’ or ‘lands on the planet from another one and sucks our brains out.’ It was the transference of objectness into experience, his- toricization and performance and witnessing, with mobility as the means to practice these fugitive futures, and recognizing the possibilities for a multivalent collective. I still think that the get-your-booty-up-off-the-wall model is the power play. Black bodies as technology.
TD: Yes, and the technology of the black body tends to be realized as an act of escape. This is the fugitive in black corporeality: the invention of a body as an act of abjection and escape. The body resists, and in its refusal becomes fugitive to its own unexpected actualizations. For others, black bodies represent – or actually demonstrate – the alterity that produces stability; for this black bodies have to be in motion, coerced, disavowed, impossible, fugitive. Your black robot reminds me of this as it is there, but not there: it’s actually a system, in Reach! Robot, as much as it is an object. We can’t put our hands on this black reach robot; it’s out of reach and fugitively conceived as a process that requires our gesture to realize its presence. The robot djembe also confirmed a not-quite-here-ness that enhanced the afro- future-qu##r essence of black technologies. We seek something different from the creation of a stable technological device able to produce something in particular; as
performers we seek to create the space for unexpected encounters and black thought through gesture. The gesture, like the dance, arrives in its ephemerality, as a condi- tion of exchange, at once emphatic and indeterminate.
Maybe this duality produces a fugitivity as well: our encounters come and go, and Afrofutures admit freely the shifts of time that allow past and future to coincide now and somehow never. The impossibility of Afrofuturist design comes in the willful construction of improbable empathies.