Friday, July 10, 2015

De Merveilleux Espoirs: On the work of Johanna Rocard

“In the quest for equality, black folks have tried everything. We’ve begged, revolted, entertained, intermarried, and are still treated like shit. Nothing works, so why suffer the slow deaths of toxic addiction and the American work ethic when the immediate gratification of suicide awaits? In glorious defiance of the survival instinct, Negroes stream into Hillside, California, like lemmings. Every day they wishfully look heavenward, peering into the California smog for a metallic gray atomic dot that will gradually expand until it explodes some one thousand feet over our natural and processed heads. It will be the Emancipation Disintegration. Lunch counters, bus seats, and executive washrooms be damned; our mass suicide will be the ultimate sit-in.”[i]

In this darkly comedic, decidedly pessimistic excerpt from Paul Beattys The White Boy Shuffle the idea of black agency is radicalized (has been radicalized) sometime after the 90s L.A. Riots, as a movement of mass suicide – a relational gesture in which the black body (re)commits itself to its own agency (see: Seppuku) in the face of anti-black racism and hatred. Beattys 1996 debut novel walks out the idea and possibility of radical liberation in the face of oppression the seeds of which, one might say, were planted in the popular imagination with the advent of the American Civil Rights Movement. The White Boy Shuffle imaginatively, fantastically, and fatally extends the provenance of 20th century black liberation into the 21st century an idea marched into the present. That is: if black bodies are consistently, reluctantly, inadvertently, and violently imbricated in the schemata of American capital, liberations only recourse is to deprive the system of its corporal capital.

I woke up this morning wondering: are we living through a suicidal moment? And are we, the living, tragically subsumed in the machinations of a system which tallies each slow death?

«les lucioles, quant à elles, tentent d’échapper comme elles peuvent à la menace, à la condamnation qui désormais frappe leur existence.»  Georges Didi Huberman[ii]

In May I visited Rennes, a charming city in the Brittany region of France. I stayed with my friend and academic colleague Nawelle and her sister Myriam two truly courageous French-Algerian women who, in the course of our time together, explain to me the cultural concept of métissage. Analogue to the American mulatto, the métis differs only in its choice of catachrestic illustration. The métis is a polyblend, a poor weave[iii] in the construction of a whole fabric. A mule cloth. Funny thing about the métis, if in our curiosity we were to look up the word on French Wikipedia, the first image to greet us is a handsome, confident portrait of the leader of the free world circa 2012. In any case, Nawelle and Mimi are gracious hosts, escorting me through various parts of Brittany (including a lovely afternoon in Nantes), introducing me to friends, functioning occasionally as my personal translators.

While in Rennes, Nawelle and Mimi took me to an art opening[iv] at a tiny two level gallery, Le Praticable, quaintly situated on the first floor of a well-kept half-timbered Breton home. We turned a corner on quiet, crepuscular Rue de la Monnaie and down a sloping, cobblestone alley found ourselves in another world entirely. The alley, in the grand shadow of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Rennes, was teeming with people chattering about anything and everything: gossip, politics, labor, art, sex, w/e. When finally I found the entrance to Le Praticable behind the buzzing phalanx, I entered the space half addled and without expectation. It was all a kind of happening. Something undeniably vital.

On the main level arranged along and between the small gallerys white walls were the curious works of a handful of artists. A series of uncanny photos by Laure Ledoux, featuring an almost recognizable portrait of Bernard Hopkins. Camera obscura fixed into whole eggshells (Sthéno, Dorothée Buffetaut) and rich black tableaus of carbon powder marked only on their fragile surfaces by accidental contact (Plaque dimpression carbone, Vincent Vallade).

Down a spiral staircase to the lower level I found myself in a small room lit by one bare hanging bulb. On the ground to my left was a large black geodic sculpture and mounted along the walls opposite sixteen black panels (paper?), each covered, at first glance arbitrarily, with gold leaf. The sight at first conjured thoughts and images of works in a tradition of geometric abstraction and minimalism. Then the leaf, perhaps an allusion to Klimt? The striking black and gold, traces of Rashid Johnsons Message to Our Folks. ΑΦΑ? I wasnt sure what I was looking at. But I was drawn in.


I should say that my trip to France was such a breath of fresh air, a relief from the violence (mediated and physical) of the nation to which I am legally bound. Having lived this past year in Marfa, west Texas. Having worked at the Chinati Foundation. In the solitude of its rolling plains, under its uncompromised sky, I felt myself burn. Ghosts linger in the quiet density of this little desert town. Marfa, separated in time and space from the rest of the country, is also a concentrated representation of the nation at large. Today the town is an America in microcosm dealing with the devil of gentrification, disputations of border control, dramatic changes to cost of living, the exigencies of Big Oil, and the specter of segregation (abolished in the sixties, well after Brown v. Board of Ed). All of this twenty minutes away from Jeff Davis county (the monument of Jefferson shortened to a more familiar Jeff). This is no condemnation of Marfa, as full of love and beauty as it is. This is only the confession that my solitude in its small vastness turned into days and weeks, then whole months of loneliness the kind of loneliness one experiences still around people, people (mostly) for whom I had to perform a persona, people around whom I could not be myself. So France and old friends signaled a freeing prospect.

Of course gone are the days of France as black utopia just as the north no longer signifies, per se, a radical notion of (black) freedom. Today I am, we are, haunted everywhere by the post-exotic notion that I or we could run from it, and still be in it. Such is the reach of globalization and modernity.

But in a world where hate can find you anywhere, so too can love. For my brief moment in May, in the west of France, I could live the fantasy of my liberation. I could occupy the sense that I had escaped something horribly virulent and oppressive. I could talk about the traumata of America objectively. I felt a kind of hopeful newness being there between worlds, between languages, with my Gauloises Brunes and bière blanche.

Where was I ontologically, being in opposition to what? Could I replicate or exist perpetually in that feeling of hopeful newness? What does it mean to run from something while you’re still in it? That was the issue I was trying to work through. One of the constraints that we are held within is the whole history of the meaning and value that is attached to the “I” and to the proper name,” explains Fred Moten in a recent interview.[v] It, perhaps for the poet, is the realization that freedom is only in the making, that the walls of language and identity hold one to a carceral reality which undergirds fantastical escape and hinders imaginative transcendence. It, something in the way of things that remains, if youve seen it, without name. The haunting and haunted mutability of a mans sunsum. More concretely it is the attempted enslavement of a psyche and the corporeal death of a woman who could have been your mother, your sister, your friend, hanged in prison her life, her body, bent post-mortem into a question mark.[vi] The dialectic nightmare and commodification of Freedom itself.

Like bowerbirds we (re)construct our self-image by recourse to objects material (cigarettes, beer, cheese) and immaterial (language, thought, culture) these acquisitions, this system of imposed values being the scrim with which modernity veils itself, through which we see and fetishize each other, behind which we might hide.

In France I want to know if I can be French. I want to know if I can shed a dead skin. I can buy French. I can study French. I can learn what is French. But I suppose I know this does not make me French. It does not negate a past and it does not protect me from the present. Whiteness invariably secedes, crosses the street, crosses itself, rends as it is rent, differentiates withdraws in attempt to claim and (re)cover wherever my presence constitutes and asserts ahistorical blackness, fugitive property, hypervisibility (as would be the case in a legal dispute) or invisibility (as is the case in healthcare and labor), I am at/a systemic risk and may be treated or revealed as such.

The quandary of spirit this augments is one of active versus passive faith, of doing and being. When is it prudent to act on intuition, to risk the leap of the fool, to beat against a current? When is it best to play the hanged man, to retreat, wait, and expect the moral arc to bend agathotropically toward you or us? I mean, what is my and your relation to the future?

die in dies Buch
geschriebene Zeile von
einer Honung, heute


The installation in the small subterranean space of Le Praticable was comprised of two pieces by French artist Johanna Rocard. The titles of both pieces presented as a single installation: Ce que nous avons trouvé sous la terre, Nous avons de merveilleux espoirs (What We Found Underground and We Have Marvelous Hopes). Johanna, a young woman dressed smartly in black, was present and rapt in conversation with another visitor, discussing the nature and properties of her geodic sculpture.

Not intent on talking to the artist I figured I would start with a close viewing of the series of sixteen black panels. These were mounted neatly along the wall opposite in two rows of seven, with the last two pieces (also one above the other) installed along the adjacent wall, the work wrapping slightly around its viewer. At first I found their installation more curious than the pieces themselves. They were projecting out into the space, mounted close to, but not against the wall with impressive, square-head black nails. This brought dramatic dimension to the sixteen flat surfaces (which otherwise would have been framed or mounted directly onto the wall), not only allowing for shadows cast behind each panel, but the nails also evoking urgency, emergency, fixity, the clavo of esclavo of esclavitud.

Each of the panels, made of what looked to be heavy-stock paper (Arches maybe), were warped slightly. The way wet paper warps, the memory of its fibers altered by the introduction of a malleable, living fluid. Trying to read the work at different angles I noticed, beneath the neatly applied gold foil, each panel marked by an inky after-image, a photographic negative. Cause perhaps for the warping. These were laser-etched prints, flash-burned ghosts in queue, black bodies gathered under the lean limbs of trees, along gates, in open roads and open spaces. Who were these people, their contexts, etched like nuclear shadows into these nail-fixed pages? The gold leaf seemed to cover these figures in odd ways. Sometimes obscuring the face. Sometimes draping the chest. Nawelle asked if I recognized any of the images. I couldnt and wasnt sure I was interested either. Their ambiguity caused in me some ennui. Where was the artist taking me and whose bodies were being used to take me there?

Then there was the sculpture, a large lustrous black stone of alien provenance. Walking finally around it I realized that the sculpture had been placed/installed so that upon entering one might see only its black surface. On the other side it reveals a surface open and coated in gold glitter, geodic revelation. I knelt to inspect it closer, witness to a tiny spider crawling across its surface, from black to gold and back.

I thought at first of Rashid Johnson and his show Message to our Folks. I remembered seeing one of art21s New York Up Close features on the inception and creation of his black and gold shelves, their signifying symbols, textual references in post-modern blackness. The video was titled:

A reference to a childrens artbook by Lawrence Weiner (which also happens to be one of my favorite books, a gift from an old friend). Black and gold. Black and yellow. These colors are featured prominently in Johnsons work, are integrated into the language of his installations. The decadence of his shelves speaks to the moment, for the presence of a black present born from a historical past. In Rashids work you also find surfaces etched and branded The Gordon Gartrell Episode (reference to an episode of the Cosby show in which Theo acquires a fancy black and canary yellow Gordon Gartrell shirt to impress a crush) features branded red oak flooring. Mounted on the wall, its dark grain implicated in the proprietary act of branding, the graff culture mark of etching, gold spray paint. In The Gordon Gartrell Episode Rashid fashions a kind of surface burdened more by the weight of its branding than by the objects it carries. As with many of the shelves, theres this marvelous push and pull between the surface of the shelf and the objects it shoulders. Others of his shelves feature objects like space rocks spray painted in gold his use of spray paint spare dots, dashes, lines resisting the morphology of a tag/name which might eclipse the work itself the work itself being the sincerest signature of the artist.

Several of Johnsons conceits, I thought, were present in Johannas work. Was there some transnational, cross-cultural affinity? The artist was clearly experimenting with perceptual revelations, but how?

Eventually I sequestered a moment of the artists time, asking her the questions that lingered in me after seeing the work. The images on the panels, it turns out, were photographs of protests and the gold leaf, placeholders for their banners. Iconographies of protest in her oeuvre are associatively linked to the notion of hope locating her creations in the idea that resistance and hope are synonymous expressions. This, in part, inspired by philosopher Georges Didi Hubermans «Survivance des Lucioles» (Survival of Fireflies), the philosophy of Édouard Glissant, and Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey, among others.

Dialogue with the artist opened my eyes to her vision. The poetic act of searching these parapoetic objects for a trace of the familiar frustrates the viewer, forces the viewer to step back and regard the objects as a whole, regard their gold. That one finds gold, an object historically of commodification, here represents both resistance and hope value. Part and parcel of the installation were questions of activated resistance, actively searching for a provenance, and the suggestion that in the resistance, in the search itself was (a confrontation with) the object of value.


in this book
the line about
a hope, today…

from Todtnauberg
by Paul Celan
(trans. Pierre Joris)

Its not fully about the predicament of history. Its about what youre able to author yourself, and how youre able to form the future, rather than living purely, kind of, in the past. says Rashid at the end of Rashid Johnson Makes Things To Put Things On.

In France I remember I am someones nightmare and someones dream.

Back in the states I listen to Frank Wilderson III admitting in a talk that What civil society wants and needs from black people is far more essential, far more fundamental, than land and profits. What civil society needs from black people is confirmation of human existence.

Rashid builds upon what he refers to as an evolution of escapist practice.

I ask and she is not familiar with the work of Rashid Johnson, but later she notes, after looking him up, the aesthetic similarity. Black and gold. Or black gold. The black(ness) of Johanna’s work was for me both affirming and amusing. Amusing in that blackness is, has become, a foundation for representations of hope and resilience. Affirming in that blackness remains a symbol, a position remains beyond what can be claimed as human or of the world. In an artist statement Johanna admits reflexively an imposition of whiteness corollary to the structural position of blackness inherent in the work. «Dans un même mouvement, le geste d’uniformiser et d’occulter les messages n’est pas sans rappeler les pratiques de censure où les articles et photos gênants étaient remplacés par des blancs.» Paraphrasing: In the act of obscuring and making uniform (via gold leaf) the protest banners, the artist also commits an act of censorship, remembers how historically agitated and agitating bodies and articles were/are appropriated, replaced, blotted out, altered, censored by whites. I find in this final statement a poetic consciousness, a responsibility for and toward the presence of both positions in the parapoetic object. The value (gold) of these (black) figurations remains vital to a system which replicates, ad infinitum, subjection. Though complicit in its use of black bodies, her work exists in both vectors of whiteness and blackness, claiming neither in search and critique of provenance, in search of what turns a subterranean desire for emergence and actualization.

The risk that one might travel in search of, and never return to or find, a home home in a way marked by the invention of the new world animates a frailty which, in some venues, operates also as a kind of fugitive resilience. Neither suicide nor nomadism per se, because the exigencies of such lifestyle choices require an agency denied blackness. More like a repeated rejection, ejection always precipitated by a desire to know if one has arrived, or if one has simply sojourned. In search of arrival, constantly arriving. In search of. I want to caution you from letting any thing or any person take your tongue. I want to caution you being suicided.  

«there is a blessing which my humiliation no more/ is the distance at which it is yielding to love»
(from The Queen Johannes by Lew Daly)


Also published at 3:AM Magazine

[i] Beatty, Paul (1996). The White Boy Shuffle. New York, NY, Picador. Print p.2.
[ii] Didi-Huberman, Georges (2009). Survivance des Lucioles. France, Editions Minuit. Print p14.
[iii]  as in toile métisse
[iv]  Part of the larger Festival Oodaaq 2015
[vi] “She has a face that looks like family and so I feel it more than most…God have mercy…” said my Mother, Nancy Sanchez-Taylor, on the death of Sandra Bland. via Viber conversation, July 25, 2015; 9:40 a.m. EST. Followed by “sad” 9:43 a.m. EST.

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