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Melanin-o-phonic Space or, The Speaker Body As Totem

Melanin-o-phonic Space or, The Speaker Body As Totem

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

SOUND SYSTEM FUTURES

Darkness is not mere absence but rather an abundance

Sound System Bass Body Feels
Lose me find me by the speakers.
In the thick of it,
A groove.

Find the floor
Too shy but contact brings out.
Find the drop to start it off
Lip sync into your eyes,
Don’t go.

Back and forth.
Arms bent at the elbows
Thigh between thighs,
Contact essential.
Little tongues heat up
Back when Soho was. 

My people
The “we.”
We are where I get down
We are where I get down.

—“Darkness in Abundance,” extract of text for She Was a Full Body Speaker, 2016

She Was A Full Body Speaker, 2016, 16mm film digital transfer and video (still)

In 2016 I finished the short film She Was a Full Body Speaker. It combines found footage from my personal archive and from Liverpool-based filmmaker Sandi Hughes’s Rewind Fast Forward archive. It explores cycles of trauma, mourning, and celebration through an investigation into spaces of sociality past, present, and still to come. Layers of speech and ambient sound repeat and reverberate over the archival images: the echo as affective encounter. The video considers the voice as index of experience, whilst exploring experience as evidence. Darkness, also, is so abundant in this work. Suspended in the time of the loop you are held in “the zone” of comfort, refuge, and release.

Here, the speaker body is the anchor that grounds the looping images in the present moment. In life—in the club, for example—it’s a beacon as well: an object that aids in being found and finding yourself. At other times it is an antidote to queer Black loneliness and melancholy—a home, a confidant, a friend. 

Lose me, find me by the speakers

She Was a Full Body Speaker was a first for me in many ways—most importantly the first video work I made in which I am not physically present. Instead, using the space of the film studio, I constructed an environment wherein the interaction of objects and projected images does the work of performance. It provides a moment of suspension in time that can be experienced at a cinema, gallery, or at home. For some time now, the speaker has acted as stand-in or metaphor for the body within my practice. With the more recent work Ritual W̶i̶t̶h̶o̶u̶t̶ Belief (2018), I take the potential of the speaker body further with an immersive environment that envelopes the viewer in the sonic spatial experience. Yet it currently only exists in an exhibition context, which limits its engagement. But both are about tuning into the frequency of abundant Blackness via the cyclical nature of the work.

AN INVOCATION FOR ABUNDANCE

Darkness is not mere absence but rather an abundance

Work from a place of abundance,
Rather than scarcity or rarity,                               rootedness.
Start from a place of accessibility,
Gain skills and technical knowledge
Build something that has an element of portability.
Draw inspiration from religion as habits to live by,      rituals.
Think functional and resourceful
The right sound system in the right environment.

No 1_Start From a Place of Abundance, 2018, photographed by Bernice Mulenga

On July 4, 2018 I opened my solo exhibition Ritual W̶i̶t̶h̶o̶u̶t̶ Belief at Gasworks London. Central to the work was the question of what would it mean to start from a place of abundance rather than scarcity or lack, which is often the case for marginal subjects (Black, POC, women, queer, trans*, and/or disabled). Abundance is cyclical in nature. It involves replenishment and is a cup that refills itself. It is the idea that everything we need we already have within us; it is the act of cultivating that which you want to grow.

THE SPEAKER BODY AS TOTEM

A durational sound work played over a custom-built sound system and filled the gallery. The refrain “can I catch my breath?” marked the passing of each hour. A “Sea Sparkle Ocean” vinyl covered the gallery floor. 

A fugue of voices structured the sound. Different qualities of recording techniques evoked different spaces, surroundings, compressions, and, in turn, ideas around time. At any one moment you could hear healing frequencies coming out of one speaker and non-linguistic vocalisations (breathing, moaning)—affirmations or ululations—from another: the speaker farthest from you might be playing snippets from film scores such as Twilight City (1989) by Black Audio Film Collective alongside penetrating, sub-bass sounds. Even in the stillness of the space, echo provided an affective encounter. 

The sound system was built by hand over a number of weeks with a group of people leading the design and build: James Bunton, Kiera Coward-Deyell, and Nick Sigsworth. Collaborating on the build were Naeem Davis, Shenece Liburd, Natasha Nkonde, Shy One, and Gin Wilson—a group of black, queer, female/non-binary creatives working in sound and live events. It was built with the intention that the system would become a community resource after the exhibition. I didn’t want the sound system to be built from scratch to merely become an art object: I wanted it to be able to proliferate beyond the exhibition context. I saw it as a gift to my community—an offering that I am now realising requires a lot of work to sustain and nurture. But this exhibition moment at Gasworks planted the seeds that allowed for it to grow. The sound system, now called Black Obsidian Sound System, continues to live on independently of the exhibition as a collectively run enterprise (that has its own Instagram). 

Evan Ifekoya, Ritual W̶i̶t̶h̶o̶u̶t̶ Belief, 2018, installation view, Gasworks London
Final sub-unit drivers being installed, 2018

“Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S.) was established in the summer of 2018 with the intention of bringing together a community of queer, trans and non binary people of colour involved in art, sound and radical activism. Following in the legacies of sound system culture we wanted to learn, build and sustain a resource for our collective struggles. The system, based in London, is available to use or rent by community groups and others with the purpose of amplifying and connecting us” (B.O.S.S. mission statement).

See Also
Image of artist Dozie Kanu. Kanu's eyes are closed as he poses serenely against a backdrop of trees. He is wearing a black collared shirt.

WE HAVE COME TO OCCUPY YOUR FREQUENCIES

B.O.S.S. exists because of films such as Born in Flames (1983) and black women-led sound systems such as Nzinga Sounds, Sista Kulcha, and Sistamatic. Like the folks at Radio Regazza in Born in Flames, our marginal status is what has brought us together as a collective, and in our individual togetherness we have everything we need: we are abundant. The sound system is our sacred object, our totem, a symbol of our collective struggles and desire for more. Coming to life during Ritual W̶i̶t̶h̶o̶u̶t̶ Belief, the sound system was the perfect system because it was built by my own hands and those of my community—the fact that it sounded good too was a bonus. There, it truly was the definition of the right sound system in the right environment. Together now as B.O.S.S., with the right system we create the right environment. We do what we can to create the kind of space in which we want to exist and find joy in. B.O.S.S. lives on in honour of all who sought, and sometimes fought, to make space for one’s politics and pleasure to come together.

“Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S.) events prioritise the comfort and safety of Black and of colour women, femmes, queers and trans folk. We aim to make accessibility a priority. However, we are open to everyone. As always – No racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia or hatefulness. If any of the above is compromised during an event, please reach out to one of the collective members (in B.O.S.S. T shirts). Members are: Adae, Deborah Findlater, Evan Ifekoya, Gin Resis’Dance, Jlte, Hakeem Kazeem, Marcus Macdonald. Mellowdramatics, Mwen, Naeem Davis, Natasha Nkonde, Onyeka Igwe, Shenece Oretha, Phoebe Collings-James, Shy One, Sad Queers Club and Shamica.” (B.O.S.S. mission statement).

Black Obsidian Sound System collective technical demonstration, 2019

MELANIN-O-PHONIC SPACE

Melanin-o-phonic Space is an enquiry into how to make (Black) (queer) sound spatial: How might sound generate a space of belonging in a place where we are not welcomed, or when physical space doesn’t exist? Is it possible to make Black space anywhere, everywhere? The Black queer social centre does not exist in the present; it is now a story contained within the archives of Rukus! at London Metropolitan Archives and within the Glasgow Women’s Library, for example.

Melanin-o-phonic is the base track that grounds a number of sound works I’ve created as part of the project A Score, A Groove, A Phantom (2015–2019). It features in some way across the following works: This Catalogue of Poses (a radio play, 2016), She Was A Full Body Speaker (video, 2016), and A Net Made of Individual Knots (audio work and installation, 2017). With samples from audio such as “Cosmic Dark Matter Pineal Healing Frequency” and the sound of trumpets in procession at my grandmother’s funeral in Nigeria, the track moves through moments of spaciousness, mourning, joy, and melancholy all whilst tuned into the frequency of healing. 

The “Darkness in Abundance” text featured in the film She Was A Full Body Speaker takes on another life as part of the sculptural work Ebi Flo (flex) (2016). Here the text for speech is made rhythmical and spatial through the process of layering, re-colouring, and scaling up and down text over each other, placed onto a loop of holographic vinyl. Here the loop is not audible but rather physical. As a viewer you have to participate, moving your body in (your own) time with the unfolding of the text. Melanin-o-phonic Space in its literal and physical form, transportable and accessible to those that need it.

I continue to be concerned with what it means to manifest Blackness sonically and spatially, simultaneously. Strategies such as Melanin-o-phonic Space and the Speaker Body as Totem continue to be the primary modes of investigation. Melanin-o-phonic Space is sacred: it makes sound spatial and sacred in its Blackness. Intentional. It’s affirming and asks “how does the listening feel?” Anchored across all works is the loop, the chorus, the affirmation, repetition, reiteration.
Sound System Futures enacts a new possibility for how we might move, and groove, through the world together.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

What would it mean to start from a place of abundance, rather than scarcity? Drawing on ancestral and intuitive wisdom; as well as the transformative potential of water, Evan Ifekoya’s recent moving image and audio works explore a cosmology of healing through sound, stillness and the creation of intentional space. Their work has been presented at: Gasworks, De Appel, Serpentine Gallery, Camden Arts Centre, La Casa Encendida, KW Institute and Wysing Arts Centre. They established the collectively run Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S) in 2018, and recently won the Kleinwort Hambros’ Emerging Artists Award 2019.

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