Tosha Stimage is driven to stop language in its tracks at all turns. To wring it out, distress it, place it where it has no guarantee, and disclaim until it just feels strange. Speaking with the artist, educator, organizer, and attentive thinker, Stimage, you get her necessity to make language an elusive entity. “There’s a kind of freedom in not having to be a definition, to allow oneself to be connected to other things, other ideas in a very infinite way”, Stimage illuminates in thinking about the black body in relation to the authority of language and willfully turning towards obscurantism. Stimage is never immune to the gravity of history; how it governs the way we see, whether we choose to remain impaired by it or rather empathize with others in real-time. The ways in which individual subjectivity rub up against the workings of mass media is also crucial to the artist’s dispersal-oriented attitude towards linguistic meaning. Aside from her interspersed colour installations and image-oriented montages, Stimage spearheads the collaborative project Black Infinity—a free-form initiative that brings together a constellation of creators and thinkers through exhibitions, workshops, publications, and ad-hoc events. In a time marked by global social-political friction and disarray, Stimage's rich layered output whether as an artist or educator is a needed call to slow down for vulnerability.
Over the course of our conversation, Stimage shares generously with delicate candor. She reflects on her formative directionless years as a developing artist, her eventual discovery of her creative voice, her use of ‘orange’ as a proxy for bodies, the rewarding potentials of dissenting, and her humble ambition for connection at the crux of each role she occupies.
Language is a thing that is very much alive. I think the best language is in real-time that you can’t save. You can’t put it in a Tupperware and expect it to still be fresh after five years. I think that everything in the world is language, whether it’s verbal or visual language. We’re in a constant series of negotiations with how to do language better with each other[...]my work [isn't] so much about these surface notions of beauty and representation in that way, although they do have a small place. It [is]more about the systems of power that construct language.
Can you remember an early time when you felt you were torn between two directions?
I remember graduating from my undergrad and being really depressed, I was trying to figure out what the next steps were. I didn’t really have anyone who was showing me the possibilities of what the next steps could be. I just felt like I had spent a whole lot of time investing my energy into a degree that didn’t have anything attached to it for me at that time.
I remember my old basketball coach was asking me, “what are you going to do? You plan on staying in this space forever, you plan on not pursuing your dreams? You’re just going to stop once you have your education but not figure out what that degree can do for you?” So I started looking online for non-profits or educational spaces where I could serve or give my energy and the knowledge I did have.
I ended up getting a job involving art as therapy in a little town in Colorado called Alamosa. I was shell shocked: culturally, geographically... in every way you can imagine I was isolated from things that were familiar to me. I learned a lot about myself; I learned that I wasn’t this complete source of giving and knowledge. Those people taught me how to listen, how to communicate, and not to come in with preconceived notions.
I’ve never been more aware of how I appear to other people than in that time, and also of blackness and the kind of popular ideas of blackness that people try to figure out through me because they don’t have any real-time interface with a black body.
One of my kids at the place where I worked asked me one time - and kids are like the most honest form of human being, they don’t bullshit, they shoot straight tell you like it is - he was like “Ms. Tosha, are you a brown person?” But what he meant by brown person, was the Central and South American people who migrate up to those areas in the southwest because they’ve heard there’s work, even if there’s not a lot of work. So they come and they work in barns and they’re paid very little money. Lays, which I will not support, is notorious for getting migrant workers. Because they know these workers can’t challenge them on wages or fair treatment, they give them work for little to nothing to be out there literally slaving. Those people do it because what they make here is more than what they would make at home but the practices that are happening between these huge corporations and these labourers are not ethical at all. When he said “brown person,” he was referring to himself: he meant Latin person, they call themselves brown people. He was looking at me and saw that I was literally brown, but I wasn’t brown in the way that he was brown. So I was literally like an alien, another, in the most literal sense of that term. It was a strange experience where I learned a lot about what happens when people live in isolation, and what happens when someone comes from the outside and tries to implement their versions or their truths on that society. It was just interesting.
Were you ever thinking about possibly going to grad school at any point?
Yes, I knew that I wanted to do grad school so I had been applying to schools.
What did you think grad school was going to be like? A continuation of your undergrad, a way of getting towards an established arts career, or were you interested in teaching?
I actually didn’t go into grad school thinking about a teaching career. I felt like my idea of grad school was that it would be a space that would allow me to not only investigate concepts that I knew were underlying in my work but also to be around a diverse community of people that could speak to it in a way that would help to open up that space for me. The most beneficial part of grad school for me was being forced to really look beyond what I thought my work was about.
I remember trying to have conversations about things that I felt inside but that I didn’t have the language to say what I really meant. A lot of my work was textile-based, I did a lot of paintings, portraits, and prints that were ornate and pretty. I remember one time I put it into my MFA thesis dissertation and there was a guy in undergrad who told me I would do well in art because I make pretty stuff. It was kind of one of those backhanded compliments, it wasn’t really him complimenting my skill, it was more of him saying “your work has no substance and is just kind of all frill and people will enjoy it.” I remember internalizing that and taking it with me. Grad school was a space where I had advisors that asked me difficult questions and made me upset at moments. But I realized I was upset because I couldn’t articulate myself in the way that I wanted so I really had to contend with those ideas. It wasn’t about me pointing a lens to something or someone else, it was about me confronting ideas of blackness and my relationship to blackness. I think it was the most valuable space and conversation that I’ve ever been a part of.
My advisor asked me a question that I asked my students and I still ask myself when I make work. A lot of the work that I was making contained a lot of symbols that already had strong historical definitions or contexts so that when you bring them into conversation now, it’s like people can’t even see them because they’re depending on their past relationship with that form. Like, if you see a Clans member, there’s automatically connotations of shadow slavery and the south. You already had an opinion that’s based on the strong history of that image so if someone were to bring it into a contemporary conversation, you’d have to really do a lot of work deconstructing those forms and putting them back together in a way that we can see them anew.
That was the thing I was struggling with: I was using a lot of language that was kind of dead. Language is a thing that is very much alive. I think the best language is real-time that you can’t save. You can’t put it in a Tupperware and expect it to still be fresh after five years. You look at it after five years and it’s something totally different. I think that everything in the world is language, whether it’s verbal or visual language. We’re in a constant series of negotiations with how to do language better with each other. That was the thing that I discovered in grad school; that my work wasn’t so much about these surface notions of beauty and representation in that way, although they did have a small place. It was more about the systems of power that construct language.
I was really looking at the unspoken language of things and the powers that support and reinforce those unspoken languages. I was hyped on semiology and looking at colour as a way of forming language. This opened up my concepts. I was trying to talk about blackness, and blackness is a thing that has these very generic and assumed collective ideas. So I couldn’t talk about blackness because people would shut that conversation down. You would mention an image of something you already knew about, so then you couldn’t have a base conversation because people already had a built-up tolerance to that kind of visual language.
I was forced to really look at work that I was making and figuring out ways in which I could use language against itself as a way of critiquing itself and critiquing these ideas of blackness and representation.
We, humans, make definitions for everything, it’s a survival tool. No, I don’t think anyone ever sees colour. Maybe before a child receives the kind of language that’s been constructed by parents or teachers, we see colour, and maybe then you’d call it something. Your virgin experience of the phenomena of color isn’t the agreed way of thinking about that colour. They’d correct you and say, “This is red.” So every time after that, the more they reinforce it, you never really see it, you just know it is red because that’s what you’ve been taught red is. We move through the world based on memory and not on real experience, based on our history with things and not on what’s happening present-time. I became super fascinated with that beyond blackness, with how most of seeing -our physiological function of seeing- is dependent on memory. No one is ever really seeing because seeing requires some prior knowledge to make sense of what’s happening at the present. So you can only observe it in hindsight.
I started to think about that in relation to identities, to blackness, to whiteness, to all these different or nuanced marginalized groups of people and how they’re trying to be visible. It’s such a trap because you’re never being seen for what you are, you’re always being seen based on the history of that person’s association with something they have assumed to be like you. It’s not even based on you. It’s based on, you know, an averaged set of qualities from people that they’ve assumed are like you, and they do that so quickly.
We do ourselves a disservice because there’s someone who embodies a perspective about the world that we can never embody. In the same way that you and I embody perspectives of the world based on how, or where we were raised, the language we were taught to speak, and our manner of speaking. All those things have shaped who we are. I owe it to myself to at least suspend judgement and to see what being human is from your side of that conversation. I should never have to experience it as you, but I can learn from you. Hopefully, we combine all these perspectives, about this thing we’re all experiencing which is being human. -- We’re all going to die and that makes us human. But if we can really see each other (and not just seeing with the eyes, I mean “seeing” like hearing and empathizing), if we can take in those perspectives I think it can help us be better humans together. I realized that this ideology drives most of my work. I became most interested in thinking about language, the places where it breaks down, collapses onto itself, and is reborn. Language is assimilated, parts of it are adopted or replaced with other languages. Most of my time Is spent deconstructing the world and thinking about it in terms of language.
You said earlier how all this relates to that experience you had with that little kid in Alamosa when he saw you, being confused and asking you if you were ‘brown’. So his idea of what brown is was kind of shattered in a way.
Yeah, and I’ve never thought about that. Wow, I’ve never thought about that. Thanks.
Overall, you’ve taken to this kind of abstracted way of talking about the body, which I find interesting. After looking at your work, I feel like I am hesitant to call orange a colour. It’s so more than a colour to me so I feel like calling it a colour is limiting. But for the sake of this conversation, your use of the orange as this kind of abstracted way of talking about something greater is also kind of mapped back into the body... I think using abstract terminology or an abstract way of seeing the world is an interesting way of talking about more down-to-earth everyday interactions. Was there a conscious choice to take away the body from this exploration and focus more on abstraction?
Initially, I felt I had to take it out of body to view it differently and put it back into body. I don’t think I ever could have put it back into body until I took it out of body. I say that because the immediate critiques, which weren’t really critiques, were people coming into my studio and literally standing there and not having anything to say. It’s the worst feeling as an artist.
You have no information to take back with you to evaluate, you still have no other perspective but your own l so you’re still stuck with dealing with the problem of blackness on your own. For me, it was just like, they’re looking at the work and they see my black body and automatically -- you can just feel the shutdown. I will forever love my advisor, he asked me if it was more important to hold on to the forms that I was using to talk about the ideas or if it was more important to have conversation about the things that I care about. I was like, it’s more important to have a conversation.
He said, if the conversation is more important then I’m going to challenge the form. He forced me to take a step back. When he gave me this advice, I was making wallpaper and I’d been looking at the history of goods and how they travelled the world. I was fascinated with wallpaper because it was this specific thing for people to purchase. They could pick out of a pool of designs and pick something specific to identifying them and their space. There was a way of thinking out-of-body about identity. I looked at the history of design and people like William Morris of the arts and crafts movement, where those certain arts practices were being translated to how we can make a lamp or mirror and make things that have an art element but also serve their own function. They also allow people to choose an aesthetic or a self in space form.
I was sourcing images from the internet and specifically curating the wallpapers. Here’s an example: there’s an image of a clansman’s head and there’s an image of an ice cream cone; there’s an image of a clansman’s head and there’s an image of an obtuse triangle; there’s an image of a clansman and there’s an image of a conehead or a skull (you know, those skulls that are really tall because they used to stretch people’s heads). I was trying to think about context and how it frames the way we see the world, but also to challenge this idea that an object is just a singularity. It exists in relationship to the world. There was a whole myriad of wallpaper that I created.
On encounters with icons of Mickey Mouse and O.J. Simpson in relation to Blackness:
I had an image of O.J. Simpson – it’s the famous image of him looking at himself with the gloves on in the courtroom – and Mickey Mouse. The first thing that I noticed was that they both were black and they both were characters in some way. One of the things that was kind of the proxy between them was the gloves. I asked myself, was there a time when Mickey Mouse didn’t have gloves? There are two films where he doesn’t, one of them you can watch on YouTube and is called Steamboat Willy and it was made in the late 30s, early 40s. Also at that time, I was thinking about what was happening in the US with race relationships and representation of race relationships and these ideas of voyeurism with the television and cinema. In Steamboat Willy, the characters are all animals. Disney often personifies animals. If you look at the history of vaudeville and minstrel shows, the Disney characters’ early iterations or presentations are all kind of based in those histories of minstrel shows and vaudeville, like performance and music with black characters or people that were pretending blackness, but these hyper exaggerated versions of blackness like Al Jolson for example.
No one’s able to speak. They’re all performing for an audience that’s looking at them. There is music and Mickey whistles but no one ever speaks. They’re all playing instruments and Mickey’s the head maestro. He’s steering the ship and no one has gloves, Mickey doesn’t have gloves. There are moments when he’s dancing and lets the ship go, he’s doing his little Mickey thing. The very next film after Steamboat Willy, Mickey has gloves. There are only two films where he has gloves. The animator was quoted as saying, “the reason that we gave Mickey gloves is that we wanted to make the actions of his black body visible.” When I read that quote, I felt like my face exploded. I was like, on so many levels that’s the most interesting thing I’ve ever heard. Even when you see his hand moving across his mid-section because he doesn’t wear a shirt…
In Steamboat he just had shorts, some boots, and a hat on. When his hand passes across the front of his body, it becomes this kind of black, ambiguous space where you can’t tell what he’s doing. I thought about the idea of the hands being the site of action and kind of determining people’s character. I thought about the glove as this thing that is related to the body that can be taken away from the body but can be related to the body for action. That’s where the Mickey investigation ended because while I was fascinated by those facts, I was like, what do I do with that information?
So then I started to look at O.J. Simpson. I was younger when everything was really popping off with the LA riots but I do remember watching the car chase and it being an event for the country waiting for the verdict of the O.J. Simpson trial. It was the first time a trial had ever been publicized in that way, real-time on television. And it was the last time a trial was allowed to be publicized that way because of how problematic it was for the jury, for the people involved to have an objective opinion about what was happening and because there was so much celebrity surrounding the event that it tainted the way they could conduct their business in the courtroom.
The glove was still that thing that was super intriguing to me. I feel like I’m an O.J. expert because I spent so much time looking at the character of OJ Simpson. The most interesting thing to me about the whole thing was not that our legal system was trying to find the truth. If you ask any lawyer, it’s not about truth necessarily, it’s about the best argument. The best argument wins. Even if you think about that as the premise coming into a legal situation where we’re trying to determine guilt or innocence, if you already know their objective is not to find the truth but is to make a good argument, then you understand the points at which our system falls apart. At no point have we ever been invested in truth. It’s all about who can craft language in a way that convinces you enough.
I started to think about this as a theatre or stage in which we act out a persona or identity or we impose identities on people in the space of performance or assumption about facts. OJ plays into it because if you watch the live footage of it, he’s making all these weird faces. It’s kind of bizarre to watch. Then I started to look at what was happening before the actual case. Two years prior to the OJ Simpson ordeal was the Rodney King beating. You have this black man, live video footage from a police dashcam, being beaten by five or six officers for, not even a parking violation, it was some simple kind of minor violation that could have been handled in a very different way. But it escalated into this situation where this dude is pulled out of his car and he’s being beaten until he can’t even move.
Then you see the photos of the aftermath, he’s unrecognizable. His face is swollen, he just looks like a gargoyle. All the officers involved in that beating ended up getting acquitted. There’s a piece of writing by Judith Butler where she deconstructs the defense case on that Rodney King beating and talks about how the officers got off scot-free. The defense knew that if they showed real-time footage, it wouldn’t be as convincing of an argument for them with the jury, if they were watching this man helplessly being beaten by six officers, obviously outnumbered. There’s a point in the video where Rodney King is on the ground, looking up at the officers, obviously, he’s trying to stop himself from being hit, trying to protect the central part of his body by using his arms. They take a still image from that video of his hand like this and they blow it up so that all you can see in the frame is the hand like this.
Their argument is that the minute that he put up his upturned hand, he posed a potential threat. It’s quoted, you can read the defense, his upturned hand posed a potential threat of violence. So, if we didn’t continue beating him, he could have unleashed his violence on all of us. I was like, this is the argument that convinced a whole panel of jurors to let these officers go free? The six-armed, towering, baton-wielding officers of the law were endangered by this single black body? Amazing.
After the verdict was given that they had all been acquitted of that crime, you had the LA Riots. LA is already really polarized, it’s one of those places where there’s no grey area. You’re either really well off or really poor. It’s mostly communities of colour that exist in ghettos. The same thing that’s been happening in America since America started. The LA Riots pop off, people were going ham, burning everything down. It went on for a long time. Once everything settled down, the powers that be were like, we don’t wanna ever have to deal with a situation like that ever again. Even when O.J.’s case came up –normal legal proceedings would take place in a court that’s in the actual county where the crime was committed. But because it was committed in LA county and they didn’t want to have to deal with all the backlash of the recently squashed beef of the LA riots, they moved the case. Then you had Al Sharpman, who was heavily involved, showing his face around the town. It became this spectacle.
I own all the publications from that period of OJ’s trial. There are quotes in there where people said OJ was never viewed as black by the black community because he married a white woman, he lived in a gated community, he had a lot of money, he had extreme physical talent in the way of sports. He was not viewed as black because no one associates wealth with blackness. You start to see what people’s ideas of blackness are based on how they’re responding to this character who is obviously performing a certain identity, a white identity – until the idea of criminality is introduced. So as soon as we introduce criminality, then everybody’s like “OJ is black”. Because all the other attributes were ways in which whiteness could embody OJ. So after all of these investigations, I didn’t know what to do with any of that information. I was like, this is interesting and that’s where it ended.
I was walking to The Mission, which is a neighborhood in San Francisco. Blood oranges were in season and I bought a bag. Then I walked to an art supply store in downtown San Francisco and I bought some neon orange paint, new brushes, doing stuff I didn’t have a reason for doing. I went back to my studio and I painted this huge canvas that I had neon orange. While I was waiting for it to dry, I was eating this blood orange and I was looking at those two images. And I remember looking down at the blood orange in my hand, then looking at OJ and looking back at the blood orange and I was like, “oh my god!” I literally screamed in my studio. I was like, that’s it! That’s what I’m going to talk about. Blood orange, the bloody gloves, OJ, his name. The product orange juice is his name, which is a byproduct of an action to a bodily thing of fruit. You have to squeeze it to get the juice out. His nickname was The Juice. I was looking at this orange, and thinking this is how I’m going to talk about blackness. I’m going to talk bout it through the lens of an orange. Orange was this thing that had so many iterations of itself.
Here is this thing with one association I have for it, but if I present that information only in one context and don’t give people the other necessary information to figure out what I mean, they’re left to assume something about what I mean when I say “orange”. This is how I’m going to talk about blackness and how we assume so much based on singular experiences and primarily the experience of seeing something, and seeing a body or a black body in particular. Then I started doing these things where I was re-arranging information.
With any type of translation, you compress information in order to make it simpler, mobile, or accessible, the new form. Photography involves a three-dimensional space, and objects transformed through a lens and film into pixels on a flat surface. During Grad school, I had a studio visit with Laura Wexler from Yale. I told her I was frustrated and she was looking at the wallpaper. She recommended that I go to the Met Cloisters and see the Unicorn Tapestries. I knew about the unicorn tapestries but I’d never seen them in person. She also suggested I look at The Silk Route. I later went to New York to see the Unicorn Tapestries and immediately understood why they were recommended.
The tapestries are these huge elaborate weavings of wool, gold, and cotton thread with a decorative and functional purpose, to keep castles warm in the wintertime. It is fascinating that their creators were really thinking about how to represent themselves in real-time, but they didn’t have the same technology of documenting moving images. So they made sequenced stills of their lives. Animation owes major props to the weavers. They started thinking about methods of representing real-time events using objects. The tapestries were made by candlelight in the dungeons or basements by skilled labourers or people who had been convicted of crimes who as terms of their punishment were forced to do the work of creating these images. I could go on about that all day. Who determines which images are depicted, who builds them, and who do they ultimately serve? Representation was something I was really thinking about. Who’s represented?
There was a whole slew of people from that time whose, lack of financial capital has erased them from artistic/visual/historical representation. It’s also this conversation about how art can provide a source of visibility to certain bodies. Because of the money and labour required to create tapestries, designers and artists like Phillip Ruskin, and William Morris were really revolutionizing beautiful, and accessible objects for the everyday person. Wallpaper is a direct result. Tapestry simplified and affordable. It was easily mass-produced because it was on paper. The imagery distilled into simple symbols, flowers and floral motifs. Now we use wallpaper on our phone’s home screen or to curate other digital spaces. Conversations about social status, economic status, and legacy are changing and becoming economically accessible to new demographics. Greater accessibility but less information. With any type of translation, especially in reproductions, you compress information in order to make the new form. To take a photograph, you have a three-dimensional space and object that when photographed becomes pixels on a 2-D surface. When you photograph an object you lose a dimension, depth. The same thing happened with the tapestries, they stayed flat. In the wallpaper I was making, images were pulled from the internet as a commentary on space, identity, and representation.
The orange originates in early Chinese literature, it’s where we first see language about the orange as a fruit. Biology has a system of classification for living things called Binomial Nomenclature. Every living thing has been organized into categories; Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. If you look at the taxonomy of oranges, the genus and species name is citrus Sinensis. The origins of the sweet orange and its parentage are widely contested to this day. . So, all sweet oranges, no matter what variety have the same genus and species. All modern human beings are homo sapiens. If you cut an orange open, you’re really able to see the differences and if you taste them, you can taste the difference, like the sweet orange, blood oranges, Valencia, caracara, navels. Some of them have visual colour differences or shape variations where you can identify them. But some of them you’ll never know until you go beyond the exterior, seeing them, getting the orange and looking at it, tasting it, experiencing it in different ways than seeing it.
The orange is believed to be a hybrid of the pomelo and the mandarin. I looked at how the orange travelled and got to other places in the world. It originated in China. At a certain point, the trade route straight through Europe was cut off, I forget the name of it though.. Then they had to go around the continent of Africa to get to the original destination they were trying to get to and vice versa. People were trying to get to India using certain routes.
I think about the fruits and spices travelling to certain regions. I think about the orange, but I also think about it as a body. Not necessarily as a fruit or commodity object. You think about slave routes and you think about how slaves got from Africa to the West Indies and areas in the Caribbean and even to North America. Areas like Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Even if you think about actual black bodies, they weren’t viewed as humans, they were viewed and sold off as commodity. That’s when I thought maybe I could use this actual orange as a proxy for bodies. I was thinking about ways in which I could interchange those two and talk about the histories of slavery using a thing that wasn’t going to be immediately threatening to someone to have that conversation. I’m interested in how things are connected, where things are coming from, who they’re coming from, who they’re for, what they’re for and how to rearrange that information so that people have to actually work. I feel like I’ve been rambling for a long time.
But you’ve said a lot of very interesting things.
That’s how Oranges came to be. I think the work that I’m making now, you can still see traces of those original ways that allow me to have conversations about language. But now I’ve been fixated on death and the very literal use of signs. I’m interested in death because I look at the objects or symbols found in its proximity. I’m trying to deconstruct the language of death and who death is happening to in ways that could be avoided. Or who is death being inflicted on, outside of just the natural causes of death.
I’m also looking at literal signs. I was on campus the other day with my class and there’s a lot of construction happening on our campus. I saw these three signs that were almost the colour of my nails, the diamond shape sign with the little crosswalk figure. It was on a neon greenish-yellow sign. But there were three of them. From my vantage point, looking at those signs, there was a sign here, here, and here. All the figures were walking in different directions. The point of signs is to condense an idea or instruction into a symbol so that there’s clarity to what you should be doing. I’m looking at these three signs, but the way they’re oriented and then my orientation to them confuses me. I’m not being given clear direction when the purpose of that sign was to tell me where and what I needed to be doing at that time. I know it’s silly but I was fascinated by it. This is a language that is meant to be very direct and clear yet I’m standing here and I don’t know what to do because the same sign organized in this way is telling me all these different things. I’m making this work now that deals with signs and thinking about how to arrange spaces so that signs are in conversation in a way that makes viewers think about what signs are doing.
I’m also looking at typography. I really like hand lettering and I’ve been looking at hand lettering culture and the language of styles of type. There’s a website called dafont.com where you can type in your desired text and you can look at your text in all these different styles of font. Looking at the styles of font, it makes you feel differently about the same set of words. I’ve been looking at those two things specifically for my new work. Like how to say something and imply something different based on appearances. So still thinking about language and how it appears and our relationship to those things influencing our definitions of them.
My whole mission is to see how possible black is, how many connections, how far can black go, what can black do, instead of what it can’t do or what it has been. It doesn’t always have to be just its history.
Fred Moten was saying something about fugitive planning and this idea of doing all these things to kind of reject (like a sustained refusal of how or like a non-performance of the body) expected body presentations. Your body is a fugitive from moving from one space to the other, so it’s never going to be stable. He was relating that to the black body, and I was thinking about all these things you were thinking about, all these strategies of destabilizing blackness and highlighting and emphasizing its multiplicity. I’m sure as black individuals we are aware of that and we see ourselves that way. People on the outside who aren’t, don’t. I’m just trying to think about where this need to present as being a fugitive comes from. Is it a thing that black individuals are going to have to keep doing for as long as…
I think about those things, and to part of me, the thought of that feels a little crippling. It feels like you’re always having to negotiate yourself and always having to justify your right to be in a space. To always be doing that, it’s diasporic really. To always be moving in and out of body or moving out of place so that you’re able to exist is exhausting. I don’t know how to answer that. It’s just a hard thing that may or may not have an answer. If it does have an answer, there could be many. I feel weird about answers too, because it feels close to something. The answers that I typically try to give to stuff like that are more questions, like questions are the answers.
To me, that’s just like language. If you come up with something that’s definitive for it, then it closes up that space in a way that isn’t liberating. On one hand, there’s something very liberating about being able to move around. It’s like what Kristina Sharp was saying in her book On Blackness and Being, In the Wake. She talks about that. I think a lot of people have talked about it. Frantz Fanon about double consciousness of the black body. Kristina Sharpe relates it to death and she uses these different iterations of wake and personal experiences in her own family where she’s been close to death as a way of talking about the black body in relation to death. There’s one passage that opened up my mind to a way of thinking about blackness. She was talking about how there’s this kind of embedded idea that blackness is irresolvable. I think that’s sometimes thought about in a negative way, the fact that we can’t resolve what blackness is. She was talking about it in a way that opened it up to be an advantage. Instead of always trying to define it and figure it out and being upset because we can’t figure out what blackness essentially is, we should embrace this as a way of thinking. The fact that it’s irresolvable should be the way that we approach it and think about it. Which allows us to be whatever we want. There’s a kind of freedom in not having to be a definition, to allow oneself to be connected to other things, other ideas in a very infinite way. Which is how the Black Infinity
Nice segue! [laughs]
I was thinking about it from a physics point of view, as in space and matter. So black matter and black energy and space can’t be seen or be quantified with the tools that scientists have. The only way they know it exists is because there is this mass of the universe that they’ve kind of accounted for. There are certain masses they can see and identify and quantify, like the planets in our solar system. The black matter is the x in the equation. We have the energy. Four plus x equals a sum. They know the sum and they know the four but the x they know exists but they are only able to make sense of it in relation to other things and it takes up the majority of the universe, the black matter. There is something about it that is super fascinating to me. That there was this thing that was formless, but it existed and it existed on its own terms and other things had to relate to it in order to be made sense of. I don’t even know how to put words to it. I started thinking about it as literal people or bodies – there’s been this concerted effort to divorce us from each other. To contend with each other in a way that makes us more enemies.
Our history of slavery has a lot to do with that and the way in which certain slaves were treated differently. The ones in the house that were a different tone or shade. You had the ones that would rat on the other ones. So there’s all these divisive ways of pitting people against each other. Even nowadays, it still happens a lot. I think about blackness, or even just humanity like a body, that if we’re more connected to each other, we’re all benefitting.
After I read that from Kristina Sharp I was really sitting with that thought of the idea of the body as the ambiguous, and of not being able to really be located. Like, you can’t pin me down to something. Even thinking about diaspora, there are disenfranchised people, divorced from space, because of economic, political reasons but they’re resilient in the face of that because they take up space in another area and they bring their thoughts and ideas with them and they survive. I think there’s something really beautiful about that idea, and a lot of times we think about those things in the negative. My whole mission is to see how possible black is, how many connections, how far can black go, what can black do, instead of what it can’t do or what it has been. It doesn’t always have to be just its history.
How do you see Black Infinity in relationship to your personal practice? And why do you think it’s significant to open your own personal practice to a more participatory public?
My creations are a product of my life. I don’t see my ideas, art, or myself in a vacuum. I think that much of our experience of the world is a very passive and not engaged experience of the world.
I am constantly re-negotiating myself and interactions in relationship to histories and new interactions. This is my way of keeping in touch with the world that I live in. I think that keeping the space of dialogue open, dialogue in a literal sense, like talking to people, helps to inform the work that I make and hopefully makes it relevant to the world I live in and the conversations in the world.
But also opening up space allows me “to be for and with” people and to examine my own biases. The Black Infinity is not just a space for black people or people that identify as black. It’s a space that starts there and I do try to include those people first but even in the inaugural show, the idea of intersectionality is something that’s super important too. There are people that are queer, Muslim, Iranian. There’s people that are young, people that are not able-bodied, people that are students, people that are working professionals. I’m also thinking about the intersections of our human experiences and how I can learn from those things. Like, picking things that challenge me and challenge the way that I think or challenge my initial hesitance because I’m thinking about how it’s going to be received and should I include that thing because that audience is not privy to that conversation, they may not like it. Or do I include it and then challenge my bias of being biased to consider what people will think versus allowing that expression to be itself outside of what someone will think of it. I think I’m always trying to keep these checks and balances for myself too, which is why it’s so necessary for my practice to have these things that are happening outside of my own personal home space or personal studio space. It keeps me alive, it keeps me negotiating.
I’m forever invested in the idea that human connection is vital to being human. The minute you’re isolated from other humans, I think that you start to develop a totally different world that is very much out of touch with what is actually real. Case in point, people that live in social isolation aren’t as informed about changes in society. You look at splinter groups and movements that are really, really outside of society and some weird shit starts to happen. Like Jim Jones, taking people to Guyana and forming this whole compound and they end up committing suicide. Because they believed the hype. I think stuff like that happens because people aren’t being held accountable for ideas and for how they’re representing other people and themselves in the world.
Dissent is a good thing. An even better thing is to dissent; to come together and to allow for dissent. To allow for challenging points of view and to have a discussion about it and for people’s bodies to not feel threatened because they have a different opinion. In our society today that problem is becoming all too common and it’s gaining traction. People have always disagreed but I think that people disagreeing has become a space of contention in a negative way where people are being threatened. People’s physical person and their ability to be in the world is being threatened because they don’t think like you think or believe like you believe. There’s a problem in that. Those differences can be embraced and respected in a way that people don’t feel like they have to be dishonest or hold back because of them.
I should be able to talk to anybody, and it may not be popular to maybe have a conversation with a Nazi sympathizer, and really trying to hear beyond those words that sting. I say ‘nazi’, or ‘sympathizer ’, ‘neo-nazi’. These buzzwords hit you. I think there’s an opportunity for you to shut down because you have a certain association with something. You know it as something specific so you shut it down and not try to engage. Or, you can try to engage and have a dialogue past what you initially hear to see if there’s something there. There’s no harm in that. If there’s something there that’s harmful about what that conversation is doing, you can totally shut that down. But I think we owe it to ourselves to suspend judgement temporarily to allow for those different points of view to see if there’s merit, to see if there’s something beneath the words.
A common understanding in language often keeps people from really being able to articulate what they feel and mean. We all just using the language we’ve been given. Sometimes we assume that just because we use the same words, those meanings are the same for both parties. It’s becoming popular to hop onto anything that’s controversial. People aren’t invested in bringing solution to the controversy, they’re just invested in the idea of controversy. People are in the digital space, the social space adding commentary about something but not having a follow-up solution to that opinion about it. It’s becoming a cesspool. It’s becoming a space where people are putting in opinions but no one’s pulling out solutions.
My idea for The Black Infinity was like, what can I do with what I have to affect change that is positive? Or that generates, at least, a sense where people can come together in a space that’s safe and have ideas and share ideas and learn things? That was my immediately doable thing. I have these resources, I know these people, I can pull these things together and at least provide something that feels like a creative solution to a problem. There’s not enough of that.
Dissent is a good thing. An even better thing is to dissent; to come together and to allow for dissent. To allow for challenging points of view and to have a discussion about it and for people’s bodies to not feel threatened because they have a different opinion.
We need a more problem-solving mentally instead of a problem finding one. If the reason you were bringing an issue to the table was so you could actually help, instead of spilling tea. I don’t think we would have as many of the problems we have now. Part of that is just us having to slow down and see each other.
It makes me kind of emotional because I don’t think we do enough actually seeing each other. We come to conversations and we already have in our minds what we want to say instead of allowing that very organic exchange to happen, where I’m hearing your ideas and I’m responding based on what I’ve heard and not based on what’s already been written down and trumped up. I think it happens with humans all the time, we don’t have time for each other. How can we have a better planet if we don’t even understand our own humanity? Because we don’t understand how to be together and sit in that discomfort and be vulnerable. Everyone’s afraid to be vulnerable and that’s at the core of your humanity. If you’re no longer vulnerable, are you even human? If you don’t have the ability to feel anything and you can just exist with this exterior that is protected and hard. On one hand, you are protected, you’re sheltered from any element that would try to penetrate your person. At the same time, there's something happening on the inside that needs what’s happening on the outside.
Your very skin is like this border that feels. It’s able to not only conceptually feel but also to physically feel and negotiate what’s coming in and out of it. It’s an organ, it’s alive. I think that we make borders that could operate in a similar fashion. We can create borders that empathize. We create physical structures around our geographic spaces. They say this is America and this is the wall that keeps the Mexicans out. This is us and that’s them. But I think we should allow for the kinds of exchanges that are mutually beneficial in a very literal sense as well as a conceptual sense. We can allow those borders to actually feel, to negotiate in real-time and not just assume the threat from outside but to also see that there are things coming from the outside that could be helpful and to figure out what kind of exchanges that could be helpful for both parties involved.
I think of those exchanges in that way because I feel like that’s my actual life. I don’t make work that doesn’t challenge me. I think intentional self-reflection is important to be alive in the world. Damn, you just made me really emotional! I mean, to be feeling in the world. I think that our access has minimized our ability to empathize with people. It’s like we, at our fingertips, we’re in touch with a space that is not the space that we have to negotiate with in real life. It’s a space that feels false. It’s almost unreal to be able to, at the touch of a button, know what’s happening in Afghanistan. Or to know someone got shot and murdered just this morning. Where’s the space of processing pain or processing death? I feel like it’s eliminated because the minute we have access to that knowledge, a new knowledge comes in that we have to contend with that doesn’t allow us that normal… [trails off] I don’t know. It’s very strange to me. I’m always having to call myself back. Last weekend, I turned my phone off the entire weekend, my laptop as well. All I did was make art. I feel like, because that’s our time and our technology, it’s very easy to get sucked into a certain system of behaving or interacting that you kind of forget what it’s doing. Not to say that it’s all bad but with everything, there’s a balance. You have to evaluate how that thing is functioning for you or against you. It showed me how much time I was spending doing this and in a different space with a different set of rules. I feel like I’ve strayed far away from the original question.
No, it’s good. It’s true that we are getting really desensitized to scrolling and not actually having any meaningful empathy for anything. Like you said, it does take work to have that empathy. That’s where you start to lose people when you try to get people to understand each other. They don’t want to put in the work, unfortunately.
Where do you see Black Infinity going? What future do you see for it?
I don’t know, I’m terrible with futures. Immediately when I start to think about the future I’m imagining what doesn’t exist yet. I get anxious. But I’m making plans to think about collectives that exist in different places and maybe seeing if people are willing to have The Black Infinity exist in those spaces.
I’m thinking about ways to be more collaborative. I think when I moved, I had a very limited knowledge about what was happening in the arts community in Columbus. I definitely wanted to support the efforts of people who have been doing artwork in the city and laying the groundwork and building infrastructure to make arts accessible and to provide quality art as well. The future that I can make sense of right now is a future that is more collaborative, that is definitely more in touch with what’s happening around it. Just really reaching out to people and spaces and seeing how we can combine efforts, share audiences, reach new audiences. Audiences that aren’t necessarily an art audience are something that’s of interest to me. And then just letting it kind of be. Hopefully, it’ll be bigger, and not bigger to say oh, we got big, but bigger because it’s a show of that growth and collaboration. If it gets bigger, it means it’s growing. Growth is a good thing. If I think about it too much, I would start to think about the nitty-gritty things and managing things and that makes me anxious. But then, I don’t know, I think there’s something amazing about the fact that you can’t control it. To answer the question, the future is collaborative.