INTERVIEW: JAAMIL O. KOSOKO ON SÉANCERS
A featured project of Fusebox Festival 2019, Detroit-born, Nigerian American performance artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko's Séancers is a powerful auto-ethnographic investigation of the surreal states of the Black imagination as it perennially navigates the perilous wake of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the African Diaspora. Fusebox curator Betelhem Makonnen and special guest Carre Adams, the exhibition curator for the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, spoke to Kosoko about the beginnings and development of his psychic meditation on loss and resurrection in connection with his deeply cultivated connection to Black theoretical, political, and theological philosophies. The following is a transcript of the interview. Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity. Syllabus and more information on the Séancers inspired reading and discussion group, Liberation Technologies & Theologies, can be accessed here.
Betelhem Makonnen: Let’s begin by talking about Séancers, the beginnings of the project for you, it's origin or genesis.
Jaamil Olawale Kosoko: Sure. You know, this project started coming into being, I think pretty shortly after I premiered #negrophobia (2016) in Europe, and how this work sort of landed in Berlin. A lot of the folks who saw #negrophobia considered it as a kind of séance or a way in which the spiritual, emotional, extraterrestrial was sort of beginning to linger and conjure inside of my work and my thinking. And so Séancers rolled quite naturally out of that work. I also started reading Christina Sharpe's In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016), and in that text she's asking us to do this work, this “wake work,” she calls it. And I felt the need to really linger inside of that space.
What does it mean to do wake work? And, and how might I begin to construct a project that would begin my own sort of critical analysis of what it means to begin that process and that practice. Around that same time, I was also reading Calvin Warren's Onticide (2017). In this text, he's thinking a lot about this sort of fatal axis of queerness and blackness – saying that the "black queer" does not and cannot exist. So all of these questions about the ontological crisis of being a marked body, of being in the world while Black, of trying to exist and live with this really brutal reality that at any given moment really, as Black people, we are having to constantly contend with our mortality. So what is the project of trying, on a daily basis, essentially, to be risen? To go through this practice of rising and waking, and attempting to live fully embodied, beautiful, complex, and humane. Essentially, Séancers became a way of literally trying to organize and grapple, in a very public way, with these questions.
Carre Adams: One of the things that I'm really curious about is how fugitivity and black queerness and being located inside of and outside of the global south, because of who you are and where you were born, comes to your work.
JOK: Yes. I think about how this idea of coming to the theoretical framework of fugitivity really was quite game changing for me, especially early on inside of my academic career. You know, going back to school and getting a master's degree and sort of having to deal quite explicitly with content theoretically as it was literally moving in my body. I recall reading Bell Hooks, I think it was Teaching to Transgress (1994), where she talks about this idea of theory really being this healing experience for her. And I really gravitate to that idea of being able to shape my thinking — and my thought patterning if you will — and be connected to this lineage of scholarship, whether it's Baldwin or Lorde or any number of other, deeply important scholars and thinkers from our history as Black people in intellectual life in the U.S.
It became really clear to me, and continues to become clearer, how much information is inside of these texts that informed Séancers. There’s these maps, these systems, we are not having to reinvent the wheel here. We’re simply engaging inside of a systemic process that began well before our lifetimes and may not end, if ever, well after our lifetimes. I have reached an understanding that I am a part of this fugitive history and understanding that there are maps, satellites, and technologies that are portals already placed in the world. It's just a matter of how we choose to engage with them and learn the tools of engagement or the rules of engagement, if you will. You know, having the opportunity to engage inside of the theory and unpack it to allow it to really become a deep part of my life. It has helped me to create the kind of life, and the kind of future of a life that I have always imagined for myself. Does that kind of answer your question?
CA: I feel like it absolutely answers the question, ‘cause I think what you're saying is that all of this sort of “divine knowledge,” if that's not too challenging of a term, already exists and your work is about going “home” or finding your way “home.”
BM: And it’s also about how we carry this “home.” I don't know if home is necessarily a stable environment, really. I mean, I know it's not, actually! (Laughs) My own experiences have revealed to me that it is not an already existing thing, but more of a something we continually make and construct …
JOK: Exactly, yeah.
BM: And on the run!
JOK: And on the run. (Laughter)
BM: Very much like you were saying Jaamil, engaging in theory can be a way of finding “home,” but this is done as a fugitive act because our first encounter with it is mostly against us. There is an inherent connection between fugitivity and marooning — the creation of a maroon colony, a home — that is very important. We have to actually go through Theory and also History, as it is presented and propagated, in order to create an interdimensional wormhole to encounter the theories and histories that are related to the internal reality that we knew always already existed, right? The theories and histories that are connected to our lived experience. There is a lot of undoing that we have to do.
JOK: I'm right there with you and, I think I'm getting goosebumps now because that is so much of the work, as someone who is taking in this information, trying to make sense of it, and then attempting to very publicly recalibrate and share how this information is literally moving inside of my experience in my body. I think about means to create futures. I think that's what we do as artists, as curators, as cultural producers. We're in this act of conceptualizing alternative possibilities for ways of being in our present, these presents that are on the horizon, these horizonal present moments. I think there's a brilliant possibility in conversations like this and other conversations that are happening in various parts of the world, and specifically our country. But how we can really engage, critically inside of a very complex, modern, contemporary moment.
BM: Exactly. And I mean, this actually brings us to something I really want to touch upon in our conversation today. I think it's absolutely brilliant that on top of the labor that it took for you to create Séancers, you've also created this wonderful syllabus to accompany the work; an invitation that you are presenting, a support network consisting of these texts that you've already mentioned that have fed the work. We loved this so much that Fusebox and the Carver Museum, in collaboration, are doing a reading and discussion group using the syllabus that you've created. At Fusebox, we see this as part of the curatorial work for Séancers in preparation for the performance in April. I think that this touches upon what you're saying about the scaffolding that is necessary when you are dealing with ideas that are yet visible or impossible futures that we have yet to make real — they require this accompanying labor as well. I want you to talk a little bit about this syllabus, where it came from and, and how you're seeing it as being part of Séancers.
JOK: The syllabus rose quite naturally. I teach a course at Princeton called An Introduction to the Radical Imagination. And so with this syllabus I want to consider, “How do we live our classroom?” “How does the act of learning and transmitting knowledge move, either with or without me?” The syllabus felt like one of many strategies that I could take to allow for there to be multiple entry points inside of this very hard work. I know it is hard to sit in at times and to witness. It can be difficult. It shakes, it stirs, it literally rumbles. It vibrates inside of the body of the spectator. And so just being aware of all of that, it feels important to create as many opportunities for engagement as I possibly can. And for those of us who are more inside of the academic world, or really interested in concepts of the body and unpacking that more deeply, you know, here's a séance.
Here's a syllabus for séancers, that one can really get their teeth into, and really think about how they're considering these ideas before they even enter into the performative space. In addition, there's this idea of what I call the Transgressive Body, which is another workshop, or engagement proposal that I use to create an opportunity to engage with this world of séancing — so it offers a more embodied experience. It’s really important for me to be thinking, almost as a part of the choreography of the piece, about the way in which, literally, the bodies and the minds that are circulating around the project, how those thoughts are moving as well. It can get kind of metaphysical, I guess, at times. But I do think it's important, conceptually, to my work and how I think and just the kind of thinker and maker that I am, to have this sort of multifaceted, multilayered, multi-tiered way in which one can engage with the ideas that I'm trying to push forward.
CA: As somebody that works inside of an institution, I often think about the compounded labor that Black artists, particularly, have to do to make work and then produce their work. (Laughs.) But then also explain their work and its aesthetic values to make it accessible to people who may find it disorienting. I want to ask what your self-care process is in relationship to this labor, and also if you have any reflections on lessons learned from working with different types of institutions.
JOK: Yes. Well, thank you Carre for asking that and I think it is integral that we think about the process of care and systems of support, and also systems of pleasure. I do think it's really integral that we think and reposition what those modalities can mean as we relate to each other, as we build with each other, collaborate with each other. Especially as people of color, you know, working inside of some pretty, intense, complicated communities. There are a lot of ways in which one might go about answering this question. I'll say that I feel systems of care are deeply important to me in how I try to relate and be in the world. I do create space or the space that I need or I try to create the space that I need to meditate, to get therapy. Therapy is really important. Thank god that I have access to the health care that I need to be able to do this work, which is very laborious. I like to think I'm getting a little bit better at asking for support and I need it. But yeah, it’s an ongoing process, you know.
But I will say this, which is to tie in our syllabus, which is to say that I think there is something medicinal and there's something healing about the construction of one's own bibliography, or one's syllabus, if you will. You know, this is a very specific syllabus that I created for a project, but this same idea, can be applied to our lives, whether it's conscious or unconscious. We all have a kind of psychic library of texts and images and film and songs that we return to, that help us heal and remember, and survive and move forward. My proposal is that we make that process more explicit, if only to ourselves. You know, like sources that I need to exist fully, completely happy inside of this human body, this human being for which I am solely responsible.
Please come join the Liberation Technologies & Theologies reading and discussion group on Sunday April 14 from 2 - 4pm at the Carver Museum. Featured text: The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons by Jack Halberstam. Download text here.
Photo Credits: Leni Olafson