for the people below the surface trying to emerge
Kei Miller, "A Smaller Song" (2007)
slippery surfaces refers to an ongoing practice of loosely connected projects, activities and workshops imagined by Ada M. Patterson, including Body-Keying at COLOR BLOCK 2020, Ponderosa Stolzenhagen, Berlin; Wukshop: Magic Portals at Tender Center, Rotterdam (2020); Locating the Digital Key at The Black Joy Sessions, University of Sussex, UK (2019); DIY: Green Screen Charivari at Live Art Bistro, Leeds, UK (2019).
Using green-screening, digital keying, post-production, magic portal conjuring, surface-slipping, horizon-crossing, paper-cutting and collective reading, this project treats all of the above as tools for changing our bodies and lived realities. How can we edit the world around us to make it more livable? What images of ourselves do we want to bring to surface?
This site features a short collection of documents including letters to friends / loved ones / collaborators, an essay and some photographs, stills and animated .GIFs.
Scroll down to begin.
I’m sitting in your room in Amsterdam with a handful of queer cuties you invited here. There are boxes of vegan pizza strewn across the floor, to keep us fed, to keep us well, while listening to what you have to say. You’re on a weird Zoom panel called “How to Assemble Now”. You’re experimenting with the Zoom structure by having a live element. You’ve invited us all here to be here with you, to support you. We each know the risk; we have consented to hold the risk together.
A question that guides the panel:
What are the means, limits, and possibilities for mobilizing and forming lasting collectivities in this crisis-driven present?
Mm… crisis-driven present. Juicy.
I remember something you surfaced in the panel; your performance, Joyride. The image stuck with me, your words stuck with me, and there’s a dissonance between your words and the words of someone else writing about Joyride:
a fast and dangerous ride, especially one taken in a stolen vehicle.
Joy Mariama Smith’s body is not a stolen car. Instead it is a queer black body, freighted with danger in a different way. Or in the same ways: likely to be policed, likely to be questioned, likely to be followed.
I remember you mentioned how this work was received and read as heavy, intense, disturbing, but that you felt really… joyful in it. I wonder how many times the abundance of your joy has been misread as dangerous, as too much, by viewers who can’t catch your rhythm, by viewers who can’t catch your feelings. Maybe it is dangerous—for them, that is. But I’m not talking about them.
Crisis-driven present… It makes me think of “queer death drive” (I still can’t remember exactly what that’s all about). But thinking about Joyride, watching it, hearing you talk about it, I’m feeling you feeling yourself. I’m feeling you be present in your own body, riding the waves and currents of your body. Joyride, for me, is a queer life drive. You’re living so much life—slowly, soaking it all up, taking it all in—this is one wild f*cking ride.
Joy, you’ve been taking me on such a wild ride since we first met at The Black Joy Sessions.
Color Block 2020 was everything I couldn’t anticipate needing, and I’m so grateful that you took me with you. I’m thankful for all your facilitation, for all the checking-in, for giving support and reassurance where risk felt conditioned and threatening. I’m grateful for that deep turquoise skirt you lent me; the way it hugged my hips and let me walk with a rhythm I thought had long been silenced in my body. I’m happy for the sequin top that brought to surface all the shimmer, glimmer and glamour that was stuck at the back of my life’s throat. You are a living affirmation.
Color Block really feels like a world away from the world. It is a retreat for QT’s of colour; an exercise in worldmaking and unmaking, in images different to that world we turned away from. It is a space to get in touch with, rehabilitate, attend to and heal our relationships to our bodies, nature, each other and the complicated crossings of all these and more. At the very least, it is room to breathe; at most, it is an affirmation that hope for something more than just survival is real, difficult, practicable and livable. And, for me, it is the place where my new name took root in the mouths of others; its sound, a flowering of everything to come.
I don’t want to say what happened there because it’s not only mine to share. All I will say is this:
where queer brown and Black bodies gathering is already risky, precarious, policed and too dangerous for that world—
where queer brown and Black gatherings are more urgent and more under threat because of the pandemic and its culture of police measures—
where queer brown and Black gatherings, contact, intimacy and connection are precious and necessary to our survivals—
where queer brown and Black bodies gathering in a pandemic means to choose risk, joy and love over precaution and where that is never a choice taken lightly—
Color Block gives the space to navigate all of this complication, conflict and grief, and to dream with a difference. It is a space to feel seen without being sighted.
Thank you for the joyride. I hope (and trust) that the mileage of this queer life drive will carry us far or, at the very least, to where we need to be.
and with an overwhelming capacity for love,
Counting to Three
Why is pain the conduit of identification?
– Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection (1997)
Why are we still talking about race?
– Participant, DIY16: Green Screen Charivari (2019)
Green Screen Charivari was a 5-day project which took place under my guidance at Live Art Bistro (Leeds, UK) in July 2019. Although open to everyone, priority in selecting participants was given to those bodies which have been made to feel defined, reduced, fixed or pigeonholed by categories, frames and expectations around origin, race, gender, sexuality, creed, ability, and/or class. Involving dance and movement exercises, collective readings, mask-making, costuming, digital keying and procession. With a selection of videos and literatures concerned with slippages around racial identity, carnival rites, queer and trans* reflections on becoming and the worldmaking potentials of refusal, the project culminated to a collective procession runway. Costumed in green, participants’ surfaces were live-keyed, revealing short films to other worlds contributed by international makers, allowing a transnational dialogue between the filmmakers and the performers’ bodies. A proposal for the right to be unfixed, the project was guided by the following questions. How may we change our bodies and realities by means of post-production? How can we edit the world to accommodate us more comfortably? What images of ourselves do we want to bring to surface?
Remembering the first day of the project, a moment had arisen for participants to air their concerns and pains as these related to experiences of being fixed within frames used to identify them (in particular, the frames considered included race, gender, sexuality and ability). This airing reminded one participant of a question I regretted including on the application form for the project: What interests you about challenging society’s expectations of yourself (and your body / appearance / identity)? They remarked, upon receiving that question, “Oh, is this the part where I tell you how I’m different?” My regret stemmed from my decision not to articulate the question differently out of concern for lack of clarity. The question I wanted to propose – and which I did propose during the project – in its place, “What more do you want from your identity?” felt more open and generative, helping participants to better anchor themselves to the potential (dis-)identifications of the project rather than being weighted by their own already known and very familiar pains in being (mis-)identified. Amid the airing, a passing consensus was reached among the group to hold the alternative question – What more do you want from your identity? – in the backs of our minds, while letting this airing session be the last of its kind. Though these airings may be useful for collectively signalling pain – telling each other where it hurts – they don’t help much with thinking beyond that pain which identifies; pain as the conduit of identification.
Midway through the project, following a group reading of Who’s Passing for Who? by Langston Hughes (1996), one of the participants, admitting frustration, asked, “Why are we still talking about race?” Locating my own frustration within it, the question may be amended to “Why are we still talking about my race?” or “Why are we still identifying with race?” or perhaps “Why are we still talking about race in these same non-generative ways?” The frustration at play within the question locates itself in the site of one’s pain being picked at while being identified as its fester. With this in mind, it may be asked, “Why are we still picking at this wound?” Of my decision to include Who’s Passing for Who? the short story reads as a sort of satire on race in America, paving the way for something else to be expressed – alternative expressions of possibility – beyond lines of race (as well as making race behave and articulate unexpectedly). Of course, it’s difficult to imagine alternative expressions and performances of possibility beyond this pain while we’re still hurting, while we’re still made to hurt. It’s difficult to keep that question in mind – What more do you want from your identity? – especially when the sting kennels you to the perimeter of the wound. At this point I am reminded of Toni Morrison (1975) speaking on distraction:
The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.
I must admit that I don’t really know what a different or eloquently generative way of identifying and speaking about ourselves may even begin to look like but, perhaps the following participant feedback (2019) shimmers something of that prospect:
I love dancing, but with my various disabilities, it’s been a very long time since I danced at all. So, thanks for making it safe for me to dance!
Recalling Toni Morrison’s (1975) remark on the function of racism, it is useful to consider these frames or perimeters of fixation as distractions from working, living and being; interrogation tactics which fix you back to the hurt of explaining yourself. The participant’s experience seems to be accounting for something else being performed beyond expectation and explanation. That is, suspending the provisional condition of having to explain themselves (alongside ensuring conditions of support for participation and engagement), the participant was able to imagine, access and engage with activity otherwise withheld from them; or, more specifically, from the ‘them’ outlined and measured by the perimeter of fixation.
To reiterate, “a proposal for the right to be unfixed” is how I described the hope of this project; a hope that has preoccupied me longer than this project and continues to preoccupy me beyond its closure. I am reminded of June Jordan (2002) “reaching for the words to describe the difference between a common identity that has been imposed and the individual identity any one of us will choose, once she gains that chance.” Once she gains that chance; a phrasing which points to an articulation not yet pronounceable but nevertheless on its way. Something else, but not altogether separate, which preoccupies me alongside this project are feelings I’m having over ‘they’ and ‘them’. Not wanting to explain myself too much, the singular plural ‘they’ has felt an incredibly accurate means to describe singularities present within a plurality of embodiments (Steinbock, 2019). Marlon James (2019), speaks against binary thinking through his character, Tracker, in Black Leopard, Red Wolf:
Just like all you men of learning. Everything in the world cooks down to two. Either-or, if-then, yes-no, night-day, good-bad. You all believe in twos so much I wonder if any of you can count to three.
Refusing the given contract of a subject position (in this case, within the gender binary), points to an unfixed positionality or, in other words, an unstable positionality generative of a plurality of imagined and performed embodiments. “A series of aliases, unravelling like a tangential pass or dribble with the ball – producing and obscuring simultaneously,” or “a strategy for ‘being’ and/or living without being seen or scrutinized,” both indexing and erasing a subject position; I’m curious how strategies of becoming in performance may support others in imagining, accessing and engaging with an unfixed positionality (Cozier, 2009). I’m curious what lays unaccounted beyond the threshold of the three.
Returning to the question which prompted this reflection – “Why are we still talking about race?” – what alternative articulations and performances of self are possible when the hold of such frames becomes dislodged? “When we get the monsters off our backs,” (Jordan, 2002) what may be performed when we are dislodged from the fixed trajectories and positionalities assumed by these categorical frames? How may performative and artistic strategies encourage a porosity and vulnerability to a host of uncertain embodiments? Diverging from narratives ‘known’ around us towards those erotic knowledges felt within, what undisclosed, proliferating and excitable embodiments begin to resonate in refusing those frames to which we have already failed to perform (Lorde, 1984; Halberstam, 2011)?
COZIER, C. (2009) Shifting Signs and Transactional Moments. In South-South: Interruptions & Encounters. Canada: Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto
HALBERSTAM, J. (2011) The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press
HARTMAN, S. (1997) Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. NY: Oxford University Press
HUGHES, L. (1996) Short Stories of Langston Hughes. Ed. Akiba Sullivan Harper. NY: Hill and Wang
JAMES, M. (2019) Black Leopard, Red Wolf. USA: Riverhead Books
JORDAN, J. (2002) Report from the Bahamas, 1982. In Some of Us Did Not Die. NY: Basic/Civitas Books
LORDE, A. (1984) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. USA: Ten Speed Press
MORRISON, T. (1975) A Humanist View. In Black Studies Center public dialogue. Pt. 2. Public Dialogue on the American Dream Theme. Portland State University, 30 May 1975. OR: Portland State University.
STEINBOCK, E. (2019) Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment and the Aesthetics of Change. Durham: Duke University Press
Sent: Thu, 25 Jun 2020 10:59:20 +0200
To: joy mariama smith
Subject: feeling the feelingz
Something you said back at The Black Joy Sessions (TBJS) has been staying with me, resonating and repercussing.
You said it around the end, right after Anthea shared her songs with us, and you, Jaamil and I were standing close together. I can't remember verbatim but it was something feeling out the spirit of Black joy, "the joy we share together as Black folx when we're not being looked at". and i think it was also on the difficulty and precarity of such a joy, that it kinda shimmers, like it's only ever in a glimpse.
I remember you were making sound recordings, documenting everyone's experience and feeling of what Black joy meant to them, and I remember I struggled with it personally. I think I admitted to your sound recorder that I've felt a lot of confusion along lines of race. I feel a lot of resentment towards the experience of being marked by others--the words, whether used as compliments, insults or just neutral descriptors (black, mixed, queer, etc.), have never felt enough. but i think it's the usual reading and application of these words as identity categories which i'm dissatisfied and hungry with. And I've also always felt hungry at those who see shared pain as an immediate driver for connection and kinship. I think what TBJS helped me to remember was that there was so much of a particular and unique kind of joy (a Black [and also queer] joy) to be had and shared and that that experience could also be a way to make kin, love and life with others. I do not have that kind of joy with white people, I never did--I think Black joy is so particularly stunning, visceral and vivid because it radiates and shimmers on the thick and ever present horizon of global systemic Black pain and anti-Blackness.
But yeah, it is not about identity then. To feel the social force of Blackness, to move with it and be moved by it---might mean to, as Fred Moten says, "continually broaden out the concept of my folks and my family." I'm trying to get at the means by which we make connections and kin. It is not enough to share pain--that feels spiritually degrading and the pain does not account for the entire complicated tangle of our lives in and out of relation to one another. I can't do away with pain completely, well, because, pain is still here, is still felt, is still being remembered, is still being troubled, agitated, rehearsed and re-enacted. But if I said, for example, that the closeness I feel with and to you is defined primarily by pain, that would not only be untrue but also completely derailing. Pain reminds me that we are still here together, in this world that is designed to pain us along entangled intersecting lines of identity categories; categories of different inflictions of pain. In another light, Black Joy reminds me that there are ways and moments where we can feel ourselves together in ways that open up these categories, so that they are no longer prisons that fix us to one dimension.
In my own workshop at TBJS, I had hoped to point to this--treading another way or path, so that we might feel ourselves differently, feel ourselves along unmarked unmapped terrains of experience, to feel ourselves in that place that evades the gaze of whiteness. I think it was Jacob who remarked on the double feeling of talking about serious political dilemmas around identity while also being invested in the silly, playful moment of paper-cutting. And I think this is close to what I'm getting at. We don't have to disavow the pain, it is important. But we also don't have to be solely defined by it in any given moment (and frankly, we aren't). To be joyful and Black is also political. To be joyful with other Black folx, unseen by this world's gaze, is a political act. To take time to be joyful in a world that has no time to spare for Black joy is a political act. And it is an impossible moment like that that reminds me of who I am and who are my folx and family.
I miss you and everyone from TBJS so much. I feel bitter knowing moments like that are rare for me here in Europe--that is what moving to this place stole from me.
I'm looking forward to seeing you at Color Block next month. I'm looking forward to seeing my folx again.
Here's one of my fav songs from the legendary trini calypsonian, the Mighty Shadow, feeling the feelings .
"are you feeling the feelings baby?
most of Shadow's songs point to the magical infectious feelings of a community moving and living in dance and joy in a carnival context. and through this being together, the intimacy, the contact, the sweatiness, the joy, the high spirits, the friction, the sexiness, the love, the community and its individuals find their most meaningful selves.
Love, warmth and joy,
Ada <3 <3
Sent: Wed, 24 Jun 2020 22:46:57 +0200
To: Marijke Appelman
Subject: little frames / little portals
I'm writing you to thank you for something that you said a couple months back.
It was something like, "You bring everyone into your little frame," about my Kanga for the Present wukshop and I think my practice at large. lol full disclosure i took like full offence to this comment when you first made it (i think you might have got that vibe from me too lol soz)--- it was like really confronting bc i like to think somehow my practice is about breaking open frames, unfixing ourselves from frames and blah blah blah. Koes helped me to understand what you meant--that on a first very aesthetic level, I do tend to work with frames (whether in film or in the anatomy of kanga) quite a lot. and then on a sort of collaborative / pedagogical level, i tend to bring people into my little world (frame) in the hope that they might find space / tools there to play around, to find things that lay hidden, or things not otherwise picked up on. I've always found that stepping in and inhabiting someone else's practice, whether as a workshop participant, a critic or just a fellow artist, can be really insightful---you get to be so close to that person, their work and their values and you might find something in yourself that you wouldn't have thought possible / capable. so yeah, a stepping into my head, or behind my eyes, to maybe, at least for just a glimpse, see through them.
On that note, I wanted to also thank you for inviting me to guest tutor one of your classes. It was like the first official "teaching" thing i've done and i was so happy for that chance--i've wanted to teach for a realllyyyyy long time! i've told you this story before but i just remember in my foundation, noticing a moment where everyone was having like an "aha!" moment about what they wanted to do, what direction they wanted to take, where they were heading for the next how many ever years in practice.. and i just loved seeing it, and i just knew i wanted to be part of that process, to help support and guide it.
It was super cute to have a day of magic portals with the students. I think my fascination and suspicion with frames is that, yes, they have so much power in defining / confining what sits within them (as well as what is excluded from them), and then, you can also burst through them-- they need not only been a prison, they can also be a portal. There can be something really satisfying about taking something so standard, so dull, so deprived as a square of solid green polyester, or an A4 sheet of green paper, and making it a way out, a way through, a different way, a hidden way, a way home, making it your way. The day was a bit rushed so I wasn't able to get a good grip of what the students made of it, but i was happy to hear from you that at least one student used the findings / workings from the day for their project. Beyond the school stuff, it was cute to find a friend in Suelea, who recognised her home country in the steel pan video i showed from my time in Antigua back in 2009--it's always a happy moment to find the region in people elsewhere, each of us can also sometimes feel like portals to somewhere else, somewhere distant but somewhere still miraculously here with you.
There was a different variation of my Magic Portal wukshop which I hosted at Tender Center (TC), as well as at this project symposium thingie in Brighton called The Black Joy Sessions (TBJS). You had a taste of it at Roodkapje one evening when I was doing one-on-one papercutting / mask-making consultations with green paper. Except, with these two updates, I included a camera and projector, so that the surface of the paper would be magically transforming while we cut shapes from it. I included two texts, one by Eliza Steinbock on trans* embodiment as an aesthetics of change and use of the pronoun, they; another by Saidiya Hartman, on black waywardness and fugitivity. all of that to say: they were texts about finding other ways and routes for living and being, texts that talk about diverging towards some kind of elsewhere.
It was interesting to read those texts in both an exclusively black context (TBJS) as well as an exclusively queer context (TC). Each group preferred one text over the other. for TBJS, the group preferred the text by the white queer and at TC, the group preferred the text by the black woman. their preference was marked by the same reason, "the other text was too wordy and theoretical". it just made me smile a bit. i wonder if we, with our particular eyes and experiences, are a lot more critical of those texts that are talking about each of us, that are also told by people like us. it's just a tiny superficial speculation based on group tastes, but it's still funny and curious to me. at the very least, it was cute to see that each group held their preferred text like a portal-- each became a way for us to tell each other our stories with further complexity and complication.
I think that's all for now. I just wanted to share these thoughts with you in relation to what you said. I hope we can keep stepping through portals to better elsewheres, together. And I hope we can continue to bring each other into our little frames and worlds, as an embrace of the other.
Thanks for your Aries energy, it's a burst of love and honesty!
Love you loads,
Ada <3 <3 <3