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A Topology of Infinity and Internal Alchemy

shawné michaelain holloway, Evan Ifekoya, and sidony o’neal come together around shared practices of engaging multi-dimensional space through the prisms of blackness and black queerness, and in the process they (re)imagine, (re)theorize, and (re)construct how modes of sensing, feeling, and being are disciplined by the environments we move through. For Architextures of Black Queer Practice they read June Jordan’s writing on and architectural plans for “Skyrise For Harlem,” a redesign of the violent sharpness of public housing into conical structures whose openness would generate more livable sites of communication, rest, and play for black people. Esquire, however, published the piece in 1965, under the title “Instant Slum Clearance,” as a utopian idea that they wholly attributed to her collaborator and friend Buckminster Fuller. In new writing (and a new video game) created for ARTS.BLACK, holloway, Ifekoya, and o’neal carry Jordan’s work forward as co-thinkers dedicated to the task of not only conceiving of but physically constructing environments wherein the queer and feminist doing of black life and black study might be governed in more ethical and humane ways.

Kemi Adeyemi, Assistant Professor of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, University of Washington // Director of The Black Embodiments Studio

In this essay I set out to present some questions I have developed in my practice as an artist. In doing so, I have reflected on the work of polymaths June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller in their collaboration on the 1965 architectural proposal “Skyrise for Harlem” which first appeared as elision in an Esquire article where Jordan’s name was omitted from the publication, and the proposal was retitled “Instant Slum Clearance”.

A TOPOLOGY OF INFINITY AND INTERNAL ALCHEMY

It is the generous operation of the cannibalistic substrate of neoliberalism that allows us to talk openly about the normalization of racialized and gendered life-value in terms of safety. Radiating-body, auric-body, cellular, and emotional safety. Generally a cosmic safety is less easy to account for and safety at the quantum and shamanic levels is even less so. Perhaps affect is an effective way to nod in this direction. An understanding that safety seems to always articulate with the basic mettle of material. How do the choices we make regarding material—including the material of research, and method act on the spaces we invoke and contour with our work occurring in a 3D space already marked by peril? What resources, knowledges, or other epistemologies can we collect and/or adapt in search of a way not out but toward infinity? Our ever-dwindling relationship to safety has impelled us to strategize across timelines, has pulled us to speculate between worlds, and has us dreaming possibilities, indeed “unsafe” proposals, that can only hope to remain nominally acknowledged in the name of impossibility or limit case. Even so, I am just beginning to learn about time crystals. About the way a body can die over and over ad infinitum and its consciousness can remain within the same timeline. 

Leaving the question of victory conditions aside, I often return to the game—no less than the theory of games—as a near-totalizing system to organize and predict behavior and outcomes across a wide range of cultural and theoretical environments. The full-time maintenance of safety becomes less useful to us as the opening of a game (or maybe beginning a campaign) often requires the understanding that many problems and solutions within a game can often be found, looked at, compared, and assessed not simply for an elegant solution, but as part of a larger set of rules, codes, and insurances that impact both gamers and those who might also be “non-playing” witnesses to gameplay. For the purposes of this essay we will hold in mind games marked by physicalized protocols using simple or symbolic objects, player-mats, or tools where algorithms, rules, and limit cases can be both essential to survival/victory and also generative of additional or meta-games. 

There are several common game types, each filled with various mechanics or operations that govern game play—some are more contentious than others, but generally I find that engagement with games and game logics reveals a kind of complex pleasure overall in my process. The pleasure I derive is not unduly related to the speculative achievement of victory in colonialist war-games—games that sought to strategize and to predict the world of Adam Smith’s investigations into the asymmetrical and colonial accumulation  and distribution of wealth and resources across the hemispheres. Yet the path of this pleasure also maintains Dutty Boukman’s ritual and strategic planning for Haitian liberation. It invokes West African children’s games that presage the sub-discipline of maths that is graph theory. It requires aspects of divination, devotion, and the interpretation of placeholders for deities and demons in determining the most effective or efficient (pace safest) passage through a given set of potentially perilous variables. This kind of pleasure is produced neither by erasing the labor of abstraction nor by negating indeterminance and incompleteness. Rather it compels us to account for the historical and contemporary facts of morass, of suffering. It asks us to make a move if we can or, perhaps until we can no longer. 

Here I am less interested in thinking through player perspectives in the gaming experience, as in my work I have been mainly focused on the maps, boards, paths, and collateral, as well as the physical and virtual landscapes that can constitute the game site. Rather I am concerned with the use of game space in which gaming can be invoked primarily as a maquette or spatio-temporal protocol that supports the rendering of similarly extensible sites and works that pay close attention to laws that are more permeable than what empirical research has allowed only some humans to experience as yet. That is, a theoretically “empty” game site always nurtures the potential, like a sand box, to become infinitely extensible in terms of method and it provides space to work out several problems that cannot yet be worked on given our currently enforced onto-political or even mathematical laws. Or perhaps if we consider the infinite set of contemporary spatio-temporal collusions and interventions made by colonized people, the flesh subjects of subjection, it takes very little calculation to see that many works in this realm remain exposed, undernourished, or unprotected. In less temeritous terms, I am talking about the feelings I held when I first came across documentation of Maren Hassinger’s the outdoor works. I am talking about raw crying in front of a Martin Puryear drawing or Norma Sklarek building. I am never alone here but I am still only talking about  game sites and not yet about the child-objects who play (or are forced to play) in them. 

The spacetime of queer black life—when considered as a kind of inhabited game site for the subatomic, elementary, or quantum particle and for truly energetic thought—allows for what we might call an “infinite re-spawn” hack or metagame. A theoretical endlessness-ness which is itself I believe a development on self-terminating conversations within/on black ontology that often assume the long life of atomic-level destruction as a synchronic phenomenon but rarely seeks to redress the small universe of consciousnesses that constitutes the actual infinity set in motion through practices of black internal alchemy. That is, black life is a cosmic and infinite turn within the set of axioms governing racialized Earthly existence. It has produced a body of esoterica that extends outward in all directions and its ontology cannot be localized to a virtual genetics of one single event. Diaspora is still a delineation of the scope of consciousness I am referring to, yet it provides a malleable material reference for many. 

After a bookseller solemnly recounted the seemingly un-investigated disappearance of a black child who ran into his bookstore, and never returned, I might consider a single ceramic tile to have inherited the consciousness of a child who was once observed in body and is now only here in narrative. The simple, high gloss, smooth, 100-per box, standard 4” x 4” tile rhymes with an ontological fungibility that is often imposed on black children and correlates with the rudiments of tiled game boards, domestic backsplashes and other functional objects that constitute our built and gaming environments. For the bookseller, a black child running alone in the bookstore was a Dedekind cut, a strong force of interruption in the assumed relational continuity of “real life.” A black child appears from nowhere and makes a bookstore into a game site. How did they get in? Why didn’t anyone see them leave? The math is already traumatic.1I promote the use of traumatic math or “the math that comes after” based on Nick Mauss and Ken Okiishi’s systems-oriented observations of Hanne Darboven’s drawing/computing practice We can register consciousness/virtuality as a discrete infinity in the material and commercial properties of the tile itself. The tile perhaps agrees for a moment to hold or resist these projections, and I rush to learn more about it all.

I oscillate in my research in order to work in a field of sculptural inquiry that can register these protocols, or what Reza Negarestani has referred to as “entanglements of matter and thought”, through various material and metaphysical states—child qua computational object, corpus both from and into mineral—at the epistemological and energetic levels as well. As I continue to develop spaces for working from a de-ranged laterality, one that might also value the flexible grid and the labor of material abstraction (as they are both present among the non-living as well the living), I am thinking about the intelligences, the moves, sometimes esoteric, we can maintain with our own hands and breath. The movement of pieces across or onto a game board that prompts a new question or perhaps a peek behind a veil. Simply put: virtual and/or de-ranged questions can constitute new and applicable material knowledges. The infinite and extensible game site, while radically defamiliarizing our geography, moreover our physics, of Earth, can also affect our relationship to the compositional, providing us with aesthetic strategies that function across worlds. To think an as-yet impossible Earthly materiality, to place Earth’s own blackness into the sand-box, moves us into a realm of visual and verbal intelligences that cannot be understated in their importance to the study of infinity.

COMPOSITIONAL INTELLIGENCES

Indeed, no geology is neutral.2Katherine Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None Katherine Yusoff presents us with a kind of emergent genetic mineralogy to field several limit cases in the relation between “inhuman” geographies and the short-sited anthropocentrism marked by the  Anthropocene. If the bio-political body is equal or made lateral with mineral in geologic time we can derive that no sculpture produced of planetary material is neutral. Thus any material study similarly invokes a hermeneutic of concerns at the planetary level. Torkwase Dyson’s sculptures, installations, and writings make discrete the development of what the artist calls “black compositional thought.”3http://pelicanbomb.com/art-review/2017/black-interiority-notes-on-architecture-infrastructure-environmental-justice-and-abstract-drawing Dyson is similarly concerned with the ways we might survive exploitation of and in hostile landscape asking “how can black people survive abstraction?” I and many others are riveted as she continues to draft and fabricate around this question across a wide range of works and conversations. Last year I watched from Instagram as her poignant reflections on the water table became a series of paintings. Recently, the specific slope and corner of an Ancient Egyptian tomb seems to have served as the basis for a study rooted in a philological method invoking esoteric knowledge and abstract protocol. Dyson understands that the maintenance of ecological and even minimalist aesthetic inquiry as valuable to the survival of black people requires the development/acknowledgement of the “fugitive architecture” or radically different spatial planning generated by non-canonized and/or historical stewards of spatial knowledges.

Dyson’s work also seeks to address the urgency of architectural and infrastructural representation alongside the possibility or livability of oppressed peoples existing in less-than-livable geographies. She invokes the compositional to introduce bodies and their movement through these landscapes. However, I also understand her phrasing as a kind of intentional language-ruse that—in addition to marking itself with/through a specific middle-passage black environmentalist epistemological position4Michelle Wright, The Physics of Blackness—also lends important value to the kind of intelligences offered by the compositional itself. That is the manipulation and presentation of line, form, and gesture in (at least) 3D space can radically alter the way we approach conflict and accord at the level of environment, home, neighborhood, etc. We can allow the term “infrastructure” to live another timeline as both the considered physical composition and internal alchemy of blackness as it relates to the many histories, epistemologies, and non-corporeal forms that shape and are shaped by black life. That fact that the physical realization of spatial composition in the Americas has been marked largely by the use of forced, exploited, and unwaged black and indigenous labor is not lost here. 

Dyson’s careful consideration of blackness in relation to the compositional as a limit case for the dominant discourse in the United States around global ecological exigencies can help us understand how game sites, as they articulate with a received context of the world, often contain and generate their own rules for creating meta-game sites or invite layering as an effective strategy for topographical development. Specifically queer, black practices of architecture, spatial planning, and language can work to create meta-game sites—sites that utilize logics and topological teachings that have elsewhere been considered defunct, speculative, unsafe, outside, or inadmissible—wherein queer black life is not only possible but maintained and protected as a function of the compositional itself. We are primed to study the sui generis method of Jordan’s use and insight into compositional intelligence as the core of “Skyrise for Harlem” dilates and grows across dimensions, through virtual space, game sites, and collective and individual memory. Dyson’s work and thinking transforms our understanding of timespace itself as it is structured and queered by racialized and gendered compositional intelligences.

SPACESHIP EARTH & ADJACENT ARCHITECTURES

Drafted in 1965, “Skyrise for Harlem” is an architectural proposal outlining a collective redevelopment of Harlem optimized for the asylum of black life. Initiated at a critical nexus of thought, considering both infrastructure and the elevation of human life and wellbeing, by non-architects June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller. The proposal wanders in the space of a black eco-feminism encouraged by a speculative math and spatial logic of the infinite set. It seems that a recovery of aspects of the pseudo-rationalist position or moreover a non-philosophical5François Laruelle, Principles of Non-Philosophy approach to art and the visioning-of-making has widened the road toward a method that thinks and articulates its own stakes. The visioning-of-making, or the proposal, invites a surface for the kind of environmental intelligences and mathematical physics that persisted in a letter Jordan wrote to Fuller in the early stages of the project:

I would think that this new reality of Harlem should immediately reassure its residents that control of the quality of survival is possible and that every life is valuable. Hospital zones where strict control is exercised over noise, dirt, and traffic serve as examples of peculiar exception to city habits of chaotic indifference to environmental functions on behalf of human life. I am much heartened by your insistence on the invention of a physical device rather than efforts of social reform. I also believe that the architecture of experience deeply determines an incalculable number and variety of habits  i. e., the nature of quotidian existence. 

Here, Jordan agrees that physical structures themselves, or more broadly city planning as the material siting of a “new reality” (determining an “incalculable” and/or infinite number and “variety of habits”) might prove a more terrestrial rupture in the regime of subjugation than would reformist lawmaking merely used to liberalize the magnet of sociality being drawn across a professedly permanent and inviolable architecture. In the letter she goes on to assert the need for  multiple curvilinear esplanades that would allow for route differentiation and surprise alongside “the natural intelligences of the river”. For Jordan “the architecture of experience” appears to be just one intelligent variable, like a game mechanic, in a constellation of habits or functions that determine human (and, one could argue, structural) livability in a given landscape. While the project falls in line with a kind of eco-optimism, it is also worth noting that she is not merely talking about a literal elevated plane offered only to a select few black people. Rather she invokes the quotidian maintenance and protection, the asylum, of racially black life (as a radical for all human life) as something to be normalized, made hyper-familiar, and allowed to rest in the mundane.  

As Jordan knew and Dyson’s work continually grapples to redress, the current regime of algorithms that serves to surveil and police our bodies ultimately seeks to forestall the study and production of alternate schema, systems, and ways to resolve. Thus persistence in the realization of form, language, and structural gesture amounts to nothing short of the maintenance of a kind of axiomatic incompleteness that always keeps hidden the proof of an ontological truth or complete algorithm. What subjugated peoples have is and always will be much more than systems that work to subjugate can see, but what we make also remains cloaked by the very thought that would seek to undo it. As the garret and the loophole of retreat6Christina Sharp, In the Wake reveal the limits of Western study of geography and architecture, virtual landscapes such as the Skyrise for Harlem and other game sites function as a sub-atomic bond or hyper-black truth of Kurt Gödel’s elemental contributions to set theory: the identification of axioms without proof that bind a given set. This consideration of specific ontology as both bond and principle of incompleteness itself is also something that would not have been knowable to mathematician and progenitor of set theory George Cantor and his Aleph null, ℵ0, denoting the smallest cardinality or size of infinity. 

Jordan’s concerns with the maximization of human life as a kind of mathematical proof or acknowledgement of a algorithmic incompleteness, manifested in the need for a poetics, the rendering and siting of a noetic and an ontological inquiry that Gödel’s infinite sets were unprepared to reconcile. A plan for the unique elements of a particular infinite set that was more than simply a place beyond “placing.” Jordan theorized a complex game site wherein functions of the current physical and metaphysical laws governing bodies incommensurate with, for instance, the legal and synthetic practice of human-being were to be entirely reevaluated. 

See Also

The fact remains that “Skyrise for Harlem” was trivialized in publication as a waste management project, and it is still unrealized in this timeline at scale. However this has not necessarily precluded “all life” in what Jordan understood to be surroundings that would make survival a pointless endeavor.7June Jordan, Chapter 3: Letter to R. Buckminster Fuller (1964) Jordan’s work in and across disciplines has opened up a method of thinking what infrastructure—or at least a set of specific structures—can have to do with the maintenance and infinity of black life. Still, funding for large-scale artistic and speculative projects that seek to impact and elevate the lives of both humans and infrastructure remains lacking, and there are few opportunities in the United States for black artists  and architects to see through multiple large-scale and/or more permanent projects in the same series of thinking that might constitute or mandate the collective re-siting of an entire neighborhood for instance. 

Not very long ago Gilbert Simondon8Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects worried that the telephone might have its own life path/purpose outside of supporting human communication. Today we wonder if our bots laugh with each other about non-aug human ineptitude while we sleep. Similarly, I wonder if the game sites and asylums that we construct as artists, architects, and cosmologists might have motives outside of our rulebook as yet unknown. I am ultimately interested locating/developing an inherited and synthesized thought-manual9Reza Negarestani, Torture Concrete of dis/organization and hyper-familiarization that functions across many dimensions of space and importantly, against recognition: Hello dear object, forgive me, I barely noticed what you were doing there. Or: Here I am home, outside of the timeline. 

In any case, Jordan recounts that the initial publication of the plans in Esquire minimized the scope of the work as a “utopian plan.” Utopia was not nor could ever constitute sufficient acknowledgment of an infrastructural project that sought to establish a new order of black domestic and social life with its base as a constellation of fifteen light-filled spires hovering ten stories above green “cultural” space and, only there beginning an ascent to one hundred celestial stories above the ground. She goes on to argue for the text accompanying Shoji Sadao’s highly detailed drafting for the project be more than a simple restatement of the visual, undermining the intelligence of the marks themselves, but rather she asks for a poetic co-text that condensed the verbal aspects of the problems resolved in devising the plans themselves. Against technical protocol and/or embracing a concretist gesture, Jordan advocated for the verbal and visual to occur as coextensive functions slipping in and out of translation. 

A HALLWAY

Some of the most generative and urgent activity in U.S. art and architecture has come from without,10Social architecture is only one of many approaches folks are taking to understand and promote knowledge from the onto-epistemological practices of folks working in what is sometimes pejoratively and perhaps inaccurately referred to as “vernacular” architecture. or was first heated up by works functioning outside of these disciplines siloed as we know them it in their modernist and contemporary manifestations. Artists who did not seek or receive formal or institutionalized art education, along with artists working outside of the art market, have innovated and continue to sculpt spacetime through protocols that are dense with cosmology, liberation, and asylum (I push here for a consideration of urban and rural intentional and/or cooperative living sites as well); it is no surprise that forms from without are often recapitulated in the content of many contemporary works that would not historically have been included in a canon of Western art or architecture. Renee Gladman’s marking in Prose Architectures tears itself through and alongside a canon of spatial gestures in poetry and literature that has produced some similar compositional intelligences. Even still, I am overwhelmed by the entropy contained within a single year of proposals. How many unrealized or under-resourced visions are there for ways of structuring and responding to the peril or spatio-temporal exigencies of the life forms on this planet? Here I am also thinking about the hundreds of mirrors and plastic animal-shaped objects that accounted for the front yard of a particular house a few blocks from where I grew up.

Phillip Brian Harper11Phillip Brian Harper, Abstractionist Aesthetics: Artistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture perhaps unintentionally elaborates this point in a conversation on respectability and uses of black abstraction which I clumsily represent for you here with the fraught question “Where else is black poetic abstraction effective outside of the poem?” Asylum and utopia are in hectic relation. Incongruent helices bound by a catachresis of affect and effect, or the conflation of nationalist hope with utopian desire and, like the infinities, always maintaining an asymptotic relationship to arrival. In this bond, art works surface and re-surface as manual. Poems reveal themselves to be detailed game books. As structural engineering, and alchemy, and intimate maths. Generative redundancies within an order of thought that counts breathing meditation and internal alchemy as dense sites of material study—that is, to live a meta-poetics of space, of the sculpture itself occurring and evolving in spacetime, to find it in our breath and to let it grow from there. If we return to our asylum as a theoretical end, then a question of obfuscation or at least arm/ambulatory necessarily surfaces. 

Aside from the fact that rapid state change isn’t always in my wheelhouse, Greenland’s ice sheet and I have more than a few things in common. I can only begin to imagine the bridge that would make us both understand. For instance, an interest in the queerness of interspecies communication returns me passerine on another indoor bridge to word. Which is maybe another way to get to a hallway that feels less full of trap doors. The honeyguide bird shares a mutual faith with hive-seeking humans, and together they traverse a dungeon without teeth to do their thing. It hasn’t always been this way. It won’t be for much longer.

Last month, I nominated my mother to have her name engraved on a riverwalk bridge in Sacramento, the city where I was born, a bridge not too far from the house where I was raised. The request for proposals was essentially a directive to write a 250-word clip on whose name should be engraved on the walking bridge and why. The person need not have contributed to the city in any extraordinary way. While I do think my mother is a pretty competitive candidate, I am also conditioned to be deeply perverted in estimations of my own labor and usefulness as her child. What I mean is, I was keen to have my mother’s name written on something in public partly because of monument fetish and definitely because there is no reason for the cult of my mother not to extend beyond my family. I began thinking about the fact that nothing might change even if all the names of all living black femmes were enshrined in public just because. Still how often would I visit, finding clever ways to brag, show it off to visitors and friends. I have considered getting one of those plaques acknowledging supporters of the theater, but a bridge was too perfect. The acknowledgement of my mother’s actual alive life by complete strangers strolling over a body of water? She would have had nothing to do with the bridge being built, but over time her name might be said aloud more often than the architect of the bridge itself. And also the whole thing and all of us under water in my lifetime. The prospect was too overwhelming to consider in 250 words. Frustrated, I ended my nomination with a personal plea hugging to a wry plaint, a cryptic and reflexive composition qua pis aller:  “Please choose her. The community will not be disappointed.” I wish I had submitted a drawing instead.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

sidony o’neal is an artist and writer from South Sacramento, CA.

References   [ + ]

1.I promote the use of traumatic math or “the math that comes after” based on Nick Mauss and Ken Okiishi’s systems-oriented observations of Hanne Darboven’s drawing/computing practice
2.Katherine Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None
3.http://pelicanbomb.com/art-review/2017/black-interiority-notes-on-architecture-infrastructure-environmental-justice-and-abstract-drawing
4.Michelle Wright, The Physics of Blackness
5.François Laruelle, Principles of Non-Philosophy
6.Christina Sharp, In the Wake
7.June Jordan, Chapter 3: Letter to R. Buckminster Fuller (1964
8.Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects
9.Reza Negarestani, Torture Concrete
10.Social architecture is only one of many approaches folks are taking to understand and promote knowledge from the onto-epistemological practices of folks working in what is sometimes pejoratively and perhaps inaccurately referred to as “vernacular” architecture.
11.Phillip Brian Harper, Abstractionist Aesthetics: Artistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture
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