Vantapower: An Imaginative Concept Whose Time Has Come

11.3 / On Being Included

Vantapower: An Imaginative Concept Whose Time Has Come

By Treva Ellison May 6, 2020

It is beginning to feel as though what has looked like inclusion is turning out to be a fungal multitude siphoning off all that it can from a pile of decaying Cheetos. What if what has looked like inclusion is actually the negative of a blueprint for how we are generating embodied anti-capitalist and anti-racist theory and practice? Black feminist historian Barbara Ransby and Black feminist activist Ejeris Dixon have described this pandemic moment as an “interregnum,” thinking with imprisoned Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci who writes: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”2 The interregnum is a dangerous and painful place of impossibility: the paradigm shifts we need in order to move away from racist and patriarchal practices of property and individualism are being actively strangled by the entrenched, violent ideologies of institutions that have enormous power. Queer and trans of color culture and politics are attuned to impossibility.3 They present and preserve a route to where the “new” or emergent in Gramsci’s metaphor persists and endures, even as its “birth” or breaking through into social and political recognition and legitimacy is actively negated, or at best, provisionally managed.

Wu Tsang. A day in the life of bliss, 2014; two-channel HD video, color, sound; approx. 20:00 min. Courtesy Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, and Clifton Benevento Gallery, Los Angeles.

In Wu Tsang’s short film, A day in the life of bliss (2014), the main character Blis, played by collaborator boychild, is living in a dystopian reality where everyone is governed by an artificial intelligence called the Looks. Blis is a culture worker who earns a living by performing on a panoptic social media platform called PRSM. Tsang’s film highlights the exploitative and carceral aspect of inclusion: for Blis, visibility as a performer is inseparable from hyper-surveillance. Blis has an online presence and platform but is simultaneously muted as the PRSM encourages text and selfies over speaking. The geography of the film’s projection requires the viewer to turn away from the visual landscape of the film, which is mostly non-vocal with a music soundtrack, in order to fully engage with the text dialogue of the Looks, which pops up on a separate chat screen. Tsang’s film is incredibly prescient, as it predates the invention of the social media live stream feed while imagining how we might challenge political domination under such a scheme of hyper-self-surveillance, a question we must deeply reckon with right now.

I remember the feeling of dislocation as I tried to keep up with the text being separated from the moving image, and then how I became grounded in the segments where boychild’s embodied movement brought the text chat stream to a momentary reprieve: the breath, the hands, the breath the hands. I am back in my body; I know how to return to my body, how to stretch its bounds, how to contract it almost to nothing. A day in the life of bliss reminds me that we have been practicing for this: how to grieve and challenge what has been done to our bodies and our hearts and our knowledge and our labor. Trans and queer artists of color have been generating vantapower, the power that comes from living in the flesh that disorganizes hegemonic social relations. Vantapower is the power generated when that which is never meant to survive endures and pushes through, the way mushrooms can push through pounds of heavy leaves on the forest floor, through plastic and asphalt, channelling water to create motive turgor pressure. Vantapower is a term that came to me in order to imagine and speak about the power that comes from Black geographies and from queer and trans of color aesthetics.4

Queer and trans of color artists, scholars, and activists are often, but not always, laboring within institutions to fill the expanding gap between the putative universality of the social contract in civil society and its actual uneven practice and death-dealing social dispersion. Inclusion under this dynamic is at best provisional and often elusive. For decades, radical activists, artists, and scholars have grappled with how we are variously positioned within this matrix, often in ways that pit us against each other, creating a binary of managers / resource gatekeepers and people in perpetual need.5 In naming vantapower, I wanted to follow a line of thinking that considered what Black queer and trans aesthetics in particular, and queer and trans of color aesthetics more broadly, had to offer to the project of getting free, grounded in understanding that inclusion is a trap.

Romi Morrison. Rituals of Black Fugitivity: Protection, 2018; mixed media installation. Installation View, New York, Sheila C. Johnson Design Center. Courtesy of the Artist. Audio available here: https://elegantcollisions.com/rituals-of-black-fugativity-p

Los Angeles–based artist and researcher Romi Morrison offers a protocol for dealing with the provisional scraps of “inclusion” offered to Black subjects in the ongoing dystopia in Rituals of Black Fugitivity: Protection (2018). Rituals is a mixed media altar installation that includes a large, interactive quilt made of recycled newspaper and fabric. At the center of the large stitched quilt are three folded newspaper fans that signal a pre-recorded track to play in the attached headphones. The headphones are perched atop a break-up candle, used in Afro-diasporic spiritual traditions like hoodoo to dissolve energetic cords of attachment between two or more beings or entities. The break-up candle is positioned on the ground in the center of the installation next to several small bottles of tinctures and oils and a bottle of Florida water.

What you hear when you put on the headphones and touch the paper fan are excerpts from Morrison’s personal rituals of protection. The first track starts off with Morrison saying: “When we carve out time and space to pay homage to an aspect of life we are engaged in a ritual.” The sense of carving space and time is felt throughout the installation. Within Southern US hoodoo traditions, conjure cannot happen without setting the scene for the work. The repetition of the folded fan as a motif helps to do this by taking up physical space and creating a field for conjure within the exhibit space, itself a site of inclusion. Hoodoo, a mixture of West African, European, and Indigenous spiritual and religious practices and knowledge systems, was developed by enslaved people to survive and challenge the anti-Black racist violence of plantation capitalism. Rituals engages hoodoo as a Black modality of time-space compression.

Rituals carves time by reworking a scene of heartbreak and subjection for Black people: the visual and symbolic representation of Black people, into a form, the quilt, that recalls practices of Black self-determination. The newspaper within Rituals is made suspect as a primary archive of linear and progressive time because it follows a visual common sense that attempts to scopically tether Black people and Black embodiment to capture. When I look at the quilt I see the bad news of Black capture fade into a visual pattern of interlocking rectangles. This re-stitching asks us to see ourselves re-figured in the shape of the myriad objects, rituals, and practices our colonized and enslaved ancestors used to imagine and enact self-determination and emancipation within a matrix of legally sanctioned terror, murder, rape, and exploitation. Rituals generates vantapower by inviting us to stand in the scene of heartbreak and witness, imagine, and enact what comes next. Morrison stages a reunion between the body and representations of the body in print culture, and the indeterminate questions of Black fugitivity, escape, and protection. Flesh, in this instance, is the position or zone of indeterminacy that unravels the specificity of the body into a force of displacement over time, which is to say it is a place where work is done over and on time, or a site of power, vantapower.

keyon gaskin and sidony o’neal. DEAD THOROUGHBRED, 2018; performance, New York, Performance Space New York. Courtesy of the Artists. Photo: Santiago Felipe.

Vantapower registers the potential in having a contrary or abolitionist relationship to racial capitalist productivity and racial capitalist social norms. These anti-Black norms seek to reproduce the aesthetic standards and labor conditions of a particular ethno-class modern ideal. We unmake linear capitalist time as we walk into the unknown, into darkness, into the hold, the backroom, through the back, on our backs, and allow ourselves to be unmade and remade. We know each transition is dangerous and that not all of us will make it. What is possible in surrendering to darkness? This is a question that I thought about during keyon gaskin and sidony o’neal’s performance as DEAD THOROUGHBRED (2018). The majority of the performance takes place in the dark. As it opens, we see gaskin and o'neal process out into the center of the room in the figure of a centaur-like being. o'neal is on gaskin’s shoulders, and they are shrouded in a long black cape, conjuring some amalgamation of Givenchy and Missy Elliott’s supa dupa fly.

The primary sound I can hear is water droplets dripping into a tin bucket from something suspended. This is punctuated by sonic poems that are played at several sound stations positioned throughout the room. The space goes dark as o’neal crawls around on the floor, slowly, dragging the microphone around. gaskin and o’neal refuse to use the mic to amplify speech, but instead experiment with the most unproductive ways to use familiar tools for dispersing language and meaning like microphones, recorded sound, dance, and even the engagement “time” of the performance itself. At one point, gaskin comes and sits down next to me, showing me a video clip on his phone of Aaliyah as “Akasha” in Queen of the Damned as she kills a bar full of white men. I laugh out loud with my whole body, and our interaction has now reorganized my entire embodied memory of the film, itself a complicated pop cultural relic. While Aaliyah as Akasha is meant to offer a kind of Black femme representational vengeance, Aaliyah also died in a plane crash soon after the film was completed, before its theatrical release. What does it do to experience familiar cultural props and artifacts in a scene of indeterminacy? DEAD THOROUGHBRED engages us in the haptics of enfleshment as an aesthetic experiment. How might we learn how to be still and be with each other in ways that are surprising or which dis-organize and re-wire what we think we know? How do we do so in ways that don’t continue to exploit Black labor? DEAD THOROUGHBRED offers us a practice of unlearning productivity and unraveling what it means to be (stuck) with each other, through the terror and sadness and laughter of unknowing.

Jonkonnu is an annual street festival-cum-public ritual celebrated across the Caribbean, notably in Jamaica, in Belize and in parts of North Carolina. Jamaican-American philosopher Sylvia Wynter places the celebration of Jonkonnu within a multi-ethnic lineage of communal traditions to reverse “ordinary time,” the temporality of racial capitalism.6 Jonkonnu, Wynter writes, is celebrated between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, the time “that [is marked] by the wax and wane of the moon appear at last! The five feast days that are out of time, the holy days, the maskarade time.”7 Wynter reminds us that Jonkonnu, Carnival, and other Afro-diasporic public celebrations developed as ways to carve away at ordinary time and to rehearse and perform Black people’s desires for self-determination and emancipation from enslavement. Black historian and theorist Cedric Robinson has taught us that the Black radical tradition is one of restitching our understandings of the past in the present to make more tangible our desires for social life beyond the property relation. These desires materialize first as structures of the imagination before they imbricate themselves as ideologies and organizations. In that way, the Black radical tradition itself can be thought of as a way of carving away at racial capitalist time to conjure sustainable imaginative infrastructures.8

Adee Roberson. offerings, 2019; video; approx. 5:00 min. Installation View, Palm Springs, Palm Springs Art Museum. Video available here: https://vimeo.com/377659604

Adee Roberson’s film series offerings (2019) is a repertoire of how we might practice portalling, or disorganizing and reorganizing racial capitalist time. In offerings, Roberson invites friends, loved ones, and collaborators to improvise enacting dance, song, and ritual among a variety of outdoor landscapes across the Black diaspora. Performers are given a baseball cap to wear that has neon colored fringe glued around the brim to disguise the wearer's face. In the mask-cum-baseball cap, I see a method of drag that conjures Jonkunnu, Mardi Gras and Ellen and William Craft escaping the Georgia plantation where they were enslaved. (Ellen dresses in drag as a white master in order to escape.) The elsewhere Roberson and her collaborators conjure is one that is not ignorant of the violent legacies that circumscribe Black peoples’ repertory of bodily and aesthetic practices. I see the baseball cap also gesturing to the criminalized aesthetics of youth of color, who are often profiled in schools and in public for wearing baseball caps, hoodies, and baggy pants.9 Roberson uses the baseball cap to stage a reunion between the body and the flesh in which the prop allows the wearer to temporarily place themselves in an indeterminate relationship to their everyday embodiment and to the surrounding landscape. Staging embodied experiences of indeterminacy allows the wearer and the watcher(s) to imagine and perform what indeterminacy might feel as a strategy or practice of social life. offerings archives a protocol for entering fleshly sociality.

Vantapower is one name for the power we generate when we endure or remain in the face of that which hopes otherwise. It happens when we are a force that refuses total negation over time, also generating power. The work that queer and trans of color artists do is powerful and generates power that is often recruited into the reproduction of institutions and systems that love wayward art and suffocate wayward lives, livelihoods, and living. Provisional inclusion, representation, and visibility are used to stultify and transfix us in the moments where we have the most leverage, in the moments when we are building real political power. These are often the moments where we are also the most worn out and hurt. Real political power is not only generated through organizing political movements, which is very necessary work. Real political power is also created when we expand our imaginations towards materializing our collective desires to live outside the relations of property, profit, and domination.

The capacity that comes from the power of what and how we can imagine is what vantapower names and amplifies. I see and feel vantapower in the experiments with space-time compression offered by Wu Tsang, boychild, Romi Morrison, keyon gaskin, sidony o’neal, and Adee Roberson. These experiments help me to re-member and re-stitch my imagination within kinship and familial and collective networks of care and struggle in times of crisis. They invite me to remember that facing the harm that has been done to me and the harm that I have caused passively and actively is a necessary step in opening up to a kind of existence that is not bound up in coercion, fear, and shame, the affective bulwarks of racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy.

Notes

  1. The title of this essay is adapted from James Boggs’ 1967 essay “Black Power: A Scientific Concept Whose Time Has Come.” It is republished in Boggs, James, and Grace Lee Boggs. "Racism and the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Workers Notebook." Racism: Essential Readings (2001): 129. The essay is also available online: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/79/94443/black-power-a-scientific-concept-whose-time-has-come/
  2. Antonio Gramsci and Quitin Hoare. Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 276.
  3. Shanté Paradigm Smalls and Elliott H. Powell. "Introduction: An ImPossibility: Black Queer and Trans* Aesthetics" in The Black Scholar 49, no. 1 (2019), 1-5.
  4. I gave a genealogy of vantapower at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia on August 9, 2018 that can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OExZBD2W8s
  5. Haritaworn Jin, Kuntsman Adi, and Posocco Silvia. "Introduction: Murderous Inclusions" in International Feminist Journal of Politics 15, no. 4 (2013), 445-452.
  6. Sylvia Wynter, “Maskarade: A ‘Jonkunnu’ Musical Play.” in Mixed Company: Three Early Jamaican Plays, ed. Yvonne Brewster (London: Oberon Books, 2012), 82.
  7. Ibid., 83.
  8. Rasheedah Phillips, Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales) (Afrofuturist Affair/House of Future Sciences Books, 2014).
  9. Andrew Millie, "The aesthetics of anti-social behaviour." in Anti-social Behaviour in Britain (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 102-111.

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