Apr 28, 2016

Black Across Time, Space, and Depth

Rasheedah Phillips

GIF art and sounds by Black Quantum Futurism

“Black is admired, in a negative way, as the colour associated with warfare, ancestral ghosts and above all the untrammeled freedom of the forest, away from society and man.” —Alfred Gell [1]

Black(ness) and temporality are themes that feature prominently in my creative work, comprising two of the dimensions of a tri-dimensional creative practice, Black Quantum Futurism (BQF). In its foundational essay, “Black Quantum Futurism Theory and Practice,” I refer to a multidimensional concept of Blackness, one that “permeates deep space, mental space, and inner space” and “the speed of darkness which surpasses that of light by not needing to move at all” [2]. I think that Black is sometimes a feeling. Sometimes it is a sinking sense of depth, a bottomless pit.

Time and temporality as explored through BQF similarly consist of multiple dimensions—not just mechanical, linear, clock time, or other conventional and historic measures of time. From a young age, we are taught to map out major events, world history, and even our own lives on a timeline that runs from past to present to future. The timeline typically looks something like a straight line, with major events representing points on the timeline, where time comes from behind us and moves forward. From a BQF perspective, however, causal order is not presupposed or inferred. BQF believes that the future, both near and far, impacts the present, now, reaching back to meet the past and create our experiences of the present. The future can alter the present and the present can alter the past.

Rodney McMillian’s The Black Show likewise gives multiple answers to the question of what is Blackness across time and space, ultimately landing in a place where there simply is no finite definition. Blackness is multidimensional, relative, sometimes classical, other times quantum subject/object. Blackness is sound and object. It follows us unknowingly, and it is because of Blackness we see depth. It terminates in the wilderness; it sits on subway trains unnoticed. It is a taboo that appears moaning through the grass. It is a ghost that sits rocking on front porches.

The depth of Blackness is intensified by the paradoxical and massive nature of its presence, explicit without explanation. Sometimes Black(ness) becomes so present that it’s invisible, unseen, like oxygen, filling a space. Likewise, some of the works in The Black Show are subtle, blending into the space of the gallery, as if they had always been there, interwoven into the structure of the gallery itself. McMillian himself remarked that the vinyl wrapped around a column was one of his favorite pieces in the show, because he had to cut around the small, square, red fire alarms mounted to the column, which then became a part of the piece.

The Black Show speaks to how Blackness disappears and reappears to repair itself time and again, stretched, as it were, inside the dark matter of the universe. And just how does Blackness appear, disappear, reappear, again and again? The Black Show explores Blackness as recurrence, as patterns interspersed.
Rodney McMillian

Rodney McMillian, A Migration Tale, 2015 (filmed 2014), single channel video. Courtesy the artist and Maccarone, New York.


“To save the planet, I had to go to the worst spot on Earth, and that was Philadelphia, which is death’s headquarters. This is where liberty started, but the bell cracked on them, because liberty wasn’t what it’s cracked up to be. And that’s why you have so many teenagers here smoking crack.” —Sun Ra [3]

In some ways, the trickle-down effects of white flight and urban blight—and their reverse evil, gentrification—have caused time to stand still for Philadelphia. In certain areas of the city lie time vortices where the Philadelphia of Sun Ra’s day is superimposed on top of the present. The racism, poverty, and inequality that incited profound emotion and inspired profound genius within Sun Ra remain entrenched in parts of the city. In Philadelphia, named the poorest major city in the country in 2014, poverty continues to disproportionately impact people of color, single mothers, and children. Compared with a citywide poverty rate of 27%, 31% of African Americans, 41% of Hispanics, half of single mothers, and one in three children live in poverty.

When the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed by its white, slaveowning drafters, securing the future of the United States, Blackness was not meant to be part of that vision except as mere commodity. Black bodies, being denied full humanity under the color of law and in the eyes of the country’s forefathers, had no stake in humanity’s future, and had no more agency in that future than a field plow or a herd of cattle.

Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred explores the implications of the inaccessibility of the future to enslaved Africans, and the utility and futility of fore- and hindsight when traveling along a progressive worldline. Butler’s time-traveling protagonist Dana lands 200 years into her relative past, pulled back by a soon-to-become slave-owning, slave-raping ancestor whom she must choose to continue to save in order to ensure her own time/bloodline. The date of Dana’s last trip is the bicentennial of the Fourth of July. Philadelphia, once the ultimate futurist city of the white male utopian vision, is a city built upon the graves, ghosts, hands, and backs of Blackness. A place where, in present day, gentrification and racialized segregation have changed the landscape of Blackness and pushed its memory and residents to the edges of the city, into temporal-spatial ghettoes, and other vortices or prisons of temporal chaos.

I thought of this as I read the oral history/oral future stitched in red fabric “ink,” woven in the burlap cloth hanging in The Black Show, which tells of one man’s experiences with the seeming paradox of fighting for a country that would eventually disenfranchise him. Past, present, future are all mixed up and collapsed here, emulating the structure of an American flag.

The Black Show sets up its own space-time vortex right in West Philly, creating a place where the usual hard line between speculative and real is rendered unnecessary at best. Stepping into it creates a space-time shift and a self-determined, subjective temporal-spatiality. What if I experienced your space-time at the same time as my own, and vice versa, as we walked side by side through The Black Show? To step inside the gallery is to step onto the deck of a space(time)ship(machine). Key, however, to The Black Show’s space(time)ship(machine) is realizing that it is not bound for outer space, and never was—though the cosmological connections are present and clear. It is meant to disrupt the space-time down here, the one enveloping us where we stand, the space between objects, between people.
Rodney Installation 8

Rodney McMillian: The Black Show, 2016, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.


“Recall a memory, then get inside of the memory to actually re-experience it. Not just a flash or an image, but build up the scene of the memory like a play set, and step onto the stage. Describe the memory from the perspective of the other objects in the room.” —Rasheedah Phillips [4]

One radical notion of objects sees them not as merely functional but as artifacts of memory and meaning, storing up energy—energy that is neither created nor destroyed in the larger universe. These artifacts of memory tell events as they actually happen—as they have been experienced. Objects are never to be decontextualized or objectivized. The subject comes back to the object not as mere representation but as perspective and experience.

With his companion show, Views of Main Street, up at The Studio Museum in Harlem, McMillian continues to meaningfully disrupt traditional spatial-temporalities of the gallery. The pieces in Views of Main Street prompt different but parallel questions about objectivity, subjectivity, and functionality to those in The Black Show. Does being an object imply objectivity? Divorced from their practical and pragmatic usage, their commodified value, do objects have stories to tell? Do objects have their own perspectives? Much like these objects, how have Blackness and Black existence been denied their own subjectivity?

Objects and artifacts in Views of Main Street also signify a dystopian reality for a specific group of people, places where entire worlds and ways of being have come to an end. Science fiction worlds seamlessly blend into common experiences for marginalized and oppressed peoples. Here again, the languages of science fiction and the speculative emerge with more efficacy than metaphor. The Black Show and Views of Main Street, taken together, affirm that science fiction is reality—hidden in the mundane, in the everyday events and objects like refrigerators and couches, as well as in the grander, cosmological ones, like black holes and stretched space-time fabrics.
Rodney Installation 10

Rodney McMillian: The Black Show, 2016, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.

Rasheedah Phillips is a housing attorney, mother of a Creative and Performing Arts High School student, author of Recurrence Plot, creator of The AfroFuturist Affair, co-creator of Black Quantum Futurism, and founding member of Metropolarity.net.

[1] Alfred Gell, The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images (Berg, 1992).

[2] Rasheedah Phillips, ed., Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice (Volume 1) (House of Future Sciences Press, 2015).

[3] Mike Walsh, “Sun Ra: Stranger from Outer Space,” missionCREEP. http://www.missioncreep.com/mw/sunra.html

[4] Rasheedah Phillips, Recurrence Plot: And Other Time Travel Tales (House of Future Sciences Press, 2014).