This interview was conducted after TBA:16 Guest Scholar Kemi Adeyemi and Sidony O’Neal sat on the Black Queer Feminist Performance NOW panel during the 2016 TBA Festival. The two had a brain meld and needed more time together. After the interview was conducted, there was still more to be said, so Kemi asked Sidony to annotate the transcript.
Kemi Adeyemi: I feel like one of the reasons I wanted to keep talking was because, well, there was a lot of bouncing off happening at that panel. One thing you said in particular was about condensation—you were talking about porousness.
Sidony O’Neal: Yes.
KA: What were you saying?
SO: Yeah, it’s coming up a lot for me: pores, passages, the opening and closing of passages and how that can be something that’s either voluntary or not voluntary. But, specifically, a project that I’m working on right now called Counting Devices where I’m dipping porous objects in resin—so, sealing them—and thinking about how porous objects will still collect a surface, in the context of shine, like we were talking about; a sweat. But that surface, wetness, or that moisture that can build up depending on environment isn’t always produced from within. So the body sweating, right, the porousness of my body, my body producing sweat because I’m exerting a physical or cognitive or emotional energy, is one process. But if I’m thinking of myself as an object that is non-porous in so many ways, that is working to protect a certain level of opacity, then that moisture, I’m reading it differently. It’s not a sweat; it’s more like a condensation on a dense black object.1
KA: So then what is the work that that does? What does that help you think about? Why are you thinking about that?
SO: I think that the work that that does just in the space of performance is to allow me to inhabit the performative. I’m not by any sense of the word comfortable working through an embodied sense of blackness or whatever it is that I’m taking up. Like, I would much rather—I think my first instinct is to put it on a page. Is to put it in a video. Into a soft sculpture.2
KA: There’s a lot of things I’m thinking right now. Do you think that’s also a conversation about abstraction versus representation?
SO: Deeply, deeply. Which is always on the table, right? I find myself looking for something, a mode, a way of working that collapses that, because I don’t know that, necessarily, working with blackness as material or medium. Sometimes I feel like I can sidestep questions of representation entirely by being like, “This is material, this is disposition, this is attitude, or approach,” not like some fixed jumping off point.3
KA: Yeah, so, do you feel like you—I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrases “form and content.” I hear you sort of saying that maybe you’re interested in form and genre and mode, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not interested in content because you’re also obviously in conversation with a conversation about representation and the ways in which black artists are assumed to be making representative work or work is about narratives of representation, you know.
KA: So I guess I would sort of push you a little bit: you are also working—
[in unison]: —in representation.
SO: Sure, maybe “in conversation with representation” or “in refusal of representation.” There’s this moment in, I think it’s Pope L. talking to some people at the Met or something like that,4 where he’s, like, laughing because he’s like, “There’s nothing that I do that isn’t dealing with this conversation of representation. You’re not getting out of whatever ontological realities or harm or whatever that’s happening to us. We’re not getting out of that just by working in installation or working abstractly.” Sure, it’s always there, but I think what I’m interested in refusing or resisting is this way that narratives get, or representational narratives, get taken as a new universal or replacing5—I’m not interested in contributing to an archive cleanly.
KA: Well, I also think we’re talking a little bit about what does a contemporary black—what is the canon? Because there is an aesthetic.
SO: Deeply.6 And its heavily weighted towards representation; it’s heavily weighted towards recovering and re-situating black bodies in spaces that have historically been not for us. Yeah, a lot of it I think has been pushed that way for awhile and it’s easy to see why, you know?
KA: [asks question that anticipates readers, because she already knows all about it] Well, why is it?
SO: I think living, being just on GP [general principle] being a black contemporary artist is kind of, like, an a-historic or it’s like a non-thing, you know. So when you say “I’m a black artist, I work in contemporary art,” or something, you’re already speaking about your absence in this way that’s—you’re pushing up against something already. And so what I think tends to happen and has happened is this sort of flattening of, you know, perspectives and representations of blackness, of black people in order to create some sort of linear timeline or whatnot of our representation.
KA: That ties to a question that I had—or, the way you’ve been speaking right now is reminding me of one of the questions—which is, I said: “Let’s talk about your relationships to institutions, discipline, and training,” and those were three separate question I had but they are related. So, what kinds of disciplines, academic disciplines, do you see yourself in conversation with. How would you think about training? What is your “training”?
SO: Um. Shit. Yeah. So, I have a story that institutionally is just full of fuck-up, right? I went to school to be a linguist. I wanted to be a translator, and in that I wanted to translate poetry, diaspora poetry. And I have a language background, I speak a lot of different languages, and that was my early, I guess, practice if you will, was translating and working through it that way. I wrote a lot and I think when I left school and I did a bunch of traveling, really, and never went back and was living all over for maybe two or three years. But in that time, I mean, training has happened mostly through meeting other artists. I keep a pretty a pretty aggressively rigorous reading schedule that has nothing to do with shit else except these are the books that I pick up and I’ve always had that reading practice.
KA: Well what do you mean? Do you actually have a schedule?
SO: Yeah! Absolutely.
KA: What does it look like?
SO: Yeah. I mean, it looks like several thousand dollars worth of book-buying every six months, and then a schedule that’s like: if I’m working through these three artist monographs, these three, you know, these three theorists whose work I’m interested in putting into conversation, and then I’m producing, you know, hundreds of pages worth of notes that then I’ll work from for the next six, eight months.
KA: So how are you organizing—you’re basically making yourself syllabi?
SO: Yeah, absolutely.
KA: Are you like, “Over the course of these couple months…” Talk about that planning process.
SO: So, making syllabi—
KA: [Growing increasingly overwhelmed by the magnitude of what's being said] Like, do you actually make a syll…like, are you actually like…—
SO: [Sustaining eye contact to convey said magnitude] I am actually. I keep lists a lot. I’m a lister. And so what it looks like is a series of readings, articles, you know, lectures that I’ll watch or, real talk, listen to while I’m—I’m a grant writer by day—while I’m at work writing grants I’m listening to two or three hours worth of lectures. Then I’ll go home and I’ll take my notes from that and I’ll sit with whatever text that I’m working through. It’s nice now I feel like part of the reason I can’t leave Portland is because I have so many good people who are also doing similar work that I can chat with. So I build that in. I will have lunch or dinner meetings with folks and be like, “Hey, I know this is your work because you’re a professor of Black Studies,” or, “You’re working as a practicing translator or performer,” or whatnot. “Can I run some things by you?” So the training is really happened on that level.
KA: What are your thoughts on it being so self-directed?
SO: I don’t trust it sometimes. I have to push back. Obviously it’s harder for me to pick up something that I wouldn’t want to read.
KA: Yeah, yeah.
SO: I think being in institutions you’re made to—formal, so-called formal education—you’re made to read things and encounter things that you might find uncomfortable but you grow from it, you know? So sometimes I try to push myself in that sense. People have started giving me texts and materials to look at and work through and so that’s also a way that I can kind of hedge my own self-direction. But, real talk, I think sometimes people talk about the value of institutional education or formal education being a mentor relationship, and I don’t have those for very long, if at all, you know?7
KA: But you just said that you also are creating those informal conversations.
SO: Now! In the past it was really searching for the ideal balance of me looking at work, going to see work, picking up texts, and having folks that I can feel in community with around that.
KA: I’m very interested in how people learn and read because I’m also a very regimented: I can read very quickly, I have a very particular reading practice. How I read is very particular and intentional. And I have always operated on a 9 to 5 schedule. I’m talking a bit specifically about grad school, but I start at 9 o’clock and I’m done at 5 o’clock. Or, more usually, actually 6 am to 2-3 pm. And having that stopping point is very important. So I’m hearing you talk like “I’m self-directed” and I’m thinking like I actually need to hear more about your schedule.
SO: Yes, yeah.
KA: And, like, literally how many texts you’re trying to get into a day, what time do you start and stop. How do you read? Do you read and take notes on the side? Do you highlight? All of that stuff is what I want you to talk about.
SO: Yeah. So, I am weekly probably putting in two to three books, five or six articles, and at least a lecture or two that’s related. And that’s a seven day week.8 I count my weekends. I’ve never not worked through weekends in some capacity. And in that there is, you know, the reading that is very intentional: highlighters are coming back into my reading practice, but it’s always been a pen. I’m a marker. I need to mark my books. They’re dog-eared. There’s food in them sometimes. But the notes happen, I’m writing them and I’m also later transcribing passages into a document. So this summer I spent the summer in Finland in a residency where I had a document running that was all my reading notes from that period because I was doing research for a specific project, and so everything goes in there with a very specific citation. I can call up certain trajectories that I want to keep following and even outside of that, a selected bibliography from other things I was looking at.
KA: And that’s all in a Microsoft Word document?
SO: That’s in Google Docs, I use Pages a lot, and then I’ll put it on my drive.
KA: I find when I am reading I also take notes but I also for a long time was forcing myself to, as soon as I was done with whatever text, I had a template where I had the bibliographic reference, cut-and-paste the thesis or the main point, and then what’s the methodology of the text—
SO: Yes, yeah.
KA: —I was making like a reference section but for each text though. So I have folders and folders and folders; just in terms of searchability, I found that really useful. Because also when I was doing one long Word document I wasn’t able to return to it. And I also have a little bit of a photographic memory and so I needed some bold moments to check.
SO: I use color. I definitely use color in my notes. I think it’s interesting what you say about pulling out a text’s methodology, pulling out…the things that we choose to pull out from the text and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about methodology and thinking a lot about how that’s really muddy for me. Sometimes I wish I had this really lucid clear way to be like “This is the framework that I’m working in and this is how I approach every single text or piece I’m working on.” And sometimes that’s not clear even within some of the texts that I’m working in, but having that much—I already feel like I have too much structure behind what my readings are and whatnot. I feel like I am around people who are doing the exact same readings, digging into the same work, but they’re like, “I mean, cool. Whatever stuck. Whatever impression I got.” And I’m like, “You mean you don’t have that citation from page 79? And this section where it goes to—” You know? Like that’s how I think about text, which is also how I think about books in a way that’s probably unhealthy [laughs].9
KA: Why? Say more about that?
SO: I mean, like, books and a physical—like I’m still one of those people that’s like…I need the tactile quality of the text. And so that probably accounts for 80% of my personal effects at this point in time: books.
KA: So if you had to describe your methodology, how would you describe it? Even if it’s messy. Because you said, “I don’t really have a methodology.” But I see it, and so I wanted to hear you talk about it.
SO: You see one?!10
KA: I see it, but I want to hear how you see it.
SO: I’d be curious to hear how you see it. Yeah. As in, which formal traditions I’m working in in terms of research?
KA: [how can you temper the sound of the word "no" when written? What does a generous exchange via "no" look like on the page"] No, no. I don’t want to overdetermine…
SO: I would love to hear it because I sat down with a friend recently and I think it’s important to me to be able to point to something because people are so ready and looking for that. Like, I don’t know how I’ve managed to not come to that, or not have a bio that I rely on for instance, because it seems so important to opening conversations up. And still I’m feeling like it’s not there.
KA: Yeah. Okay. Let’s talk about this question, because I think is the question I’m asking you: What does that moment look/feel like when your reading/writing practice turns into, or needs to become, performance? Let’s say there’s a passage that’s really sticking with you and it’s in your head and you can’t let it go, you can’t let it go, so you’re like “Let me sit in that moment in a different way, through a different mode.” Or is it like epiphany-style and you’re reading and this project will come to you—which relates to my initial question of are you crafting your own syllabi. That’s research. It’s not just “I like to read and I have a life of the mind.”
SO: It is a research practice.
KA: My question about method is—what’s interesting is it does, though, seem without a target.
SO: I don’t think that there is a11—okay, let’s go back to this moment of what does it look like when a passage or something that someone said becomes—I mean, sometimes for performance it literally comes out of what I’m doing when I am listening to a lecture, watching something. The actual physical action. If I’m folding clothes while I’m listening to, you know, Rinaldo Walcott give a lecture at Antipode and something about, you know, the institutionality of white childhood just sticks in my body as I’m folding these clothes in this way that I’ve folded them since I was a child, and reflecting on my own non-childhood as a young black…Yeah, in that moment then the performance is I’m sitting here folding these clothes until I can’t fold them anymore. I feel like this summer I wrote a prose piece about the limits of candy eating, and candy-eating is something I’ve done on and off since I was young to excess when I’m nervous and stuff. And so I was sitting there and I was eating this candy and I had this, like, “I’m going to eat this candy until…” and it turned into this prose piece, but it turned into a prose piece from, like… [trails off in thinking]. What is that little thing?! [laughs] That moment there is probably different than the moment I described, but yeah I hear you. Sometimes it’s both, right? Sometimes it’s like—I stray away from inspiration; I don’t necessarily feel like…inspiration to me has a lot to do with breath and taking breath and being animated in a way that I don’t necessarily feel like I am all the time. I think the process is pretty grave. It’s not very—you could be around me when it happens and not even know. It wouldn’t excite me to have decided that a text is becoming a performance now, but it would be more like a gear-shift. Like a necessity. Like I need to go from 60 mph to 75 in order to feel this way about a thing.
KA: When you said that my question was “what are the stakes?” Which is also a question of pacing. Is there an urgency? Which is…yeah. Leave it there.
SO: The urgency comes from certain material constraints. I feel that a lot. I feel like things build up and they keep recurring, you know, like a thought will keep coming up and a feeling that I need to realize a thing this way. And then it’s the wait; it’s the collecting of the materials. Sometimes I have to pull up really hard on what is initially a really exciting, a moment that maybe feels exigent in a way that’s almost irresistible. But I don’t know that I necessarily trust that feeling. So I’ve made projects span a year just so I can sit and “Do I still feel this way about it a year later.” And that takes me places. There might be a lot of detours in the work for that reason. There also are times when I don’t have enough time to sit in things for as long and I have to put something out, and the urgency behind that is a feeling that I’ve been fighting against.
KA: When you are, because you are reading and writing is so much—you’ve talked before about writing, but I’m actually really interested in the reading practice—do you feel that when you’re writing or when you’re performing, do you feel like you are responding to the writing? So, for example, in the Academy, 78% [completely arbitrary number] of what we’re writing, we’re directly responding to other people—and that’s about a citation practice. An “ethical” citation practice. It’s very visible on the page. We are also in conversation with those texts. Do you feel like you are responding to the text, or do you feel like you’re thinking about them?
SO: I feel like I’m responding. I feel like the texts that make it into the actual meat of a piece aren’t the parts of the text that are maybe the most…I don’t know. I feel like lately I’m noticing that the parts of the text that I’m considering really formative to how I think, I’ll be talking about them to some people who are like, “Oh yeah, this part. Everybody knows this part of the text is where we go,” and I’m in some other part, and that’s what became the most, the central, the focal point for whatever piece I’m working on, and I think for me I treat the text like I’m talking to a person, you know?
KA: Yeah I was going to say that that moment right there sounds like the difference between a self-directed practice and a formal, institutional “I’ve been to grad school, everybody reads these two chapters.” Like, that, what you just described, is for me the distinction of what is opened up when you’re not working in an institution.
SO: Yeah. Yeah. It’s possible to have read all the same texts as someone who’s gone through a graduate program or has an MFA and to come out with a completely different course of action or set of vibes.
KA: Which is where I think the conversation where we started on, porousness and condensation. Well, I see you; intellectually I can kind of “house” you. I can see how you would be an academic star.
KA: I’m not trynna stroke your ego! But what makes stardom is what a very fundamental, palpable curiosity, but also “original thinking.” [laughs] Like, whatever. We’re talking about innovation—which I want to pause and earmark because I want you to talk about inspiration and gravity. Actually, just go there.
SO: [laughs] Yeah, inspiration. I think from my back in the day I’m like a young kid interested in, whatever, French mathematicians writing poetry with algorithms. Like, that’s kind of where I was early interested in writing. French theorists who were talking about, “Oh, we need to absent hope, we need to absent inspiration from the text. There’s not sort of divine line [mimes a pulling a line from the air/heavens to the brain] but all there are is this set of guides that we can then manipulate and see the traces of their manipulation.” I was there for much of my late teens, early-20s and you get to this place where you’re like “That’s a lie.” Like, the set of rules is permeable, is porous, is shifting; is heavily influenced in this case by white supremacist ideals of masculinity and whatnot. I think now, lately I’m open to thinking through inspiration through breath, mostly, and how every time I’ve been told “You inspire me,” for instance, I literally think of someone like, “I have taken a piece of breath from you and I hold that.” And sometimes that upsets me and sometimes I’m like, “Right on, have that.” But that when I think about being inspired to make work, that is an inhale, you know. And maybe that’s part of some process but that’s as far as I get with it. Gravity and graveness and lowness and the things that I think an anchor come up a lot—in the sense I think, too, I talk a lot about what happens when we de-center hope, what happens when we de-center progress, we de-center linearity in a process—and I think gravity or graveness comes back to be the way that I think that I’m perceived to move through certain spaces, right. Graves with all of the death connotation, but just that I consider myself to be maybe grave, I don’t know, like theoretically, even, you know? I don’t know. There are a lot of ways I think that we can talk about the process of thinking as being one that is jubilant or ecstatic or something, and I guess I’m willing to take the idea I’m maybe a little bit more seated.
KA: Right. Yeah. For me the next obvious question—I hate it, and I don’t…—but to what extent are you thinking about Afro-Pessimism.
SO: Yeah. Right. Um. I think to this moment right here [mimes drawing a line directly in front of her on the table and laughs]. Yeah, okay, thinking about Afro-Pessimism that’s like, “Sure, I’m thinking about it.” I think I am treating Afro-Pessimism as one of many dispositions, maybe, that I can take on at any point in time. I feel like it’s one of things that now I’ve been exposed to, I’ve been around, I’ve thought in it for some time now to where I can be like, “Okay, I can put that on for a second and look at a thing, or I can put that on for a second and relate to a thing, but I think that part of what is understood to be Afro-Pessimism is not listening to any of that noise. To what extent am I influenced by Afro-Pessimism has also come for me several times as like to what extent am I influenced by my parents who raised me in a way that is deeply what might be considered Afro-Pessimist. Who raised me in a way that embraced a sort of grave, non-linearity, anti-progress failure narrative from just the specific places that they came from, and that I was raised in this house where it wasn’t—when I started encountering these texts, these Afro-Pessimist texts, so-called Afro-Pessimist texts—I wasn’t surprised. We talked about In the Break and Moten’s work briefly two days ago or whatever, and I grew up with a sense of black cultural producers that were doing the weird thing, that were doing the thing that was refusing virtuosity and/but were being praised for their virtuosity and their refusal. That was a normalized thing. I think within Black Studies maybe Afro-Pessimist are exceptionalized in their sort of “new” characterization of their anti-hope or their disavowal, but that’s been a consistent mold for me.12
KA: This question is hard to ramp up to, but I’m really curious what your theory of blackness is. I mean, I feel like as somebody who studies performance and works on everyday performance, to me it’s so commonsense—people are constantly surprised, my students are constantly surprised, when I talk about race as performance.
SO: Yes! Michelle Wright has this lecture that she gave before Physics of Blackness came out, and she was like, “There are tons of blacknesses.” Her argument about where blackness, maybe the origins of blackness are located—whether that’s the sea, the checkpoint, or the border, this and that—realizing that all of those are blacknesses and that we can talk about blacknesses, black spaces, black bodies. And I think that was blow mind for a lot of the people in the audience because they realized they located themselves in a narrative that she had listed! Like, “Oh! It’s not that I don’t know, but this is mine.” And I was listening to it again recently and I was like, “But what is mine? What is my epistemology of blackness? What is my thinking through this performance or the mutability?” For awhile I’ve been bracketing the “b” in “black” and “blacknesses.” Thinking through passages and lacunae and lack. It starts there, maybe, but I think the work that I’m doing is maybe amounting or could amount—like if it has any aspirations or if I have any aspirations [laughs] for the work, it’s that at some point I’ll look back and whatever that lack is, I will know.
- the other day adee and keyon and i were talking and adee’s shirt said “very black” or something like that and that got them talking about some material that had recently been discovered, we couldn’t find the name in that moment, but it is supposed to be the blackest material ever. i love that. i’m obsessed with bitumen— which is a byproduct of petroleum distillation that is super viscous and black as fuck. it’s pretty dense and awful for the health of literally everything living. i have a line in a poem for a lover that i was feeling disconnected from. i posted it on instagram, it’s like “is this bitumen shit really growing in our gaulois field.” and it’s there now. the idea of a finite field, a discrete nominal category for whatever the fuck is going on between a couple, the bitumen is in there obscuring, short circuiting, fucking it all up. i know it’s exhausting. ↩
- this is funny because i actually have very little clue as to what kind of work that does sometimes. i mostly focus on where that work is done. the preservation of opacity is about articulating my objecthood with my own hands. and that objecthood has so much history to it— thinking about women in my family that have literally been vessels and brooms and homes and shit. so like on the panel, ariel osterweis asked me how i can turn into/remain an object/self-objectify and not worry about OBJECTIFICATION. i feel like being concerned with folks (especially white folks who, when this question is asked, are often cast as the desirable objectifying subjects) interpretation of me, my body, my work in the sense of working extra hard to prevent some abstract OBJECTIFICATION from happening is not a thing. in that frame, it’s never not happening. it CAN’T not happen. but maybe it’s not about escaping the black object to “become white subject.” i’m like, i can still open and close the door though. i can circulate the smell of myself in a way that’s less about the internal origins of sweat and more about the audience’s purchase of a temporary ornament for a room. ↩
- sidestep, talk out my neck, go nowhere. ↩
- it’s him at renaissance society ↩
- replacing older narratives in a discourse of “progress” ↩
- i say “deeply” so much in this talk. wow. ↩
- maybe what i mean is people who are comfortable engaging the work i do without needing it to mean something about goals, degrees, stability. when i have had “mentor” relationships in the past they have always been about forcing direction onto what is errant, and that isn’t what i’m about at all. ↩
- reading this and laughing at myself because of the way i seem so intent on communicating the volume, the numbers, the math of the research. the way that mimics so much of the flattened and essentialist ways blackness is often communicated in an archive: statistically, in decibels, charts, inventories. ↩
- musical notation is involved. ↩
- !!!! ↩
- i mean… ↩
- this question makes me think of how often i am talking about theory but not afro-pessimism or existing but not afro-pessimism or blackness but not race (nahum chandler is bae). how we decided that we both hate this question. how i am explicitly talking about blackness and not “afro” anything in the context of my work. how my relationship to criticality when it comes to my race or my gender or my queerness or my art or whatever is usually marked by exhaustion and not giving a fuck, but how the translation of that exhaustion returns with heavy sentiment. like why did i need to talk about my parents to dismiss afro-pessimism as exceptional? but also notice how stoked i am to be the object of an interview up until this question lol. ↩