Introduction: Skin, Surface, Sensorium | Uri McMillan (28.1)
This special issue of Women & Performance is dedicated to thinking about the surface. The etymology of the word “surface” is derived from the Latin noun superficies to refer to a continuous extent that possesses only two dimensions: something with length and depth, but lacking thickness. This original idea of surface undoubtedly informs more modern understandings of it as the upper layer of a structure distinct from its subterraneous workings. Surface, in short, refers to the outermost boundary of an object. In what follows, we will explore a more expansive and integrated vision of this term–what art historical discourses have recently termed “surfacism” or “surface aesthetics” – as an artistic medium, as a performance practice, and as a form of embodied perception for pondering alternative visions of the social.1
Traditionally, in line with the meanings of surface noted above, scholars in the humanities have been trained to plumb objects of study for deeper meanings, to look beyond the mere surface and probe deeper in order to reveal what they really mean. Yet, as key critics have affirmed and the essays in this special issue assert, an opposite approach is necessary. Surface is a key term in a Gilles Deleuze-derived version of affect studies, as José Esteban Muñoz (2009) has noted, and in literary studies, as what Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus (2009) delineate as “surface reading.” These recent schools of thought all challenge our conventional perspective, and in particular our psychoanalytic understandings of surface versus depth, which privilege the latter through a focus on interiority and its attendant metaphor of essence. The surface, this perspective tells us, is useful only insofar as clues or symptoms of hidden and unconscious psychic depths register on the surface and, hence, must be deciphered in order to elicit meaning. As a result, as Best and Marcus suggest, more often than not the surface possesses a negative connotation. Surface is viewed with suspicion: as superficial, or as deceptive, or as unable to hold up to rigorous scrutiny. In short, truth resides in deep insights gleaned through rigorous “symptomatic reading” (Best and Marcus 2009, 3). Surfaces, conversely, are “false” and opaque, since the most significant truths are understood not to be visible and immediately discernable. Yet, as Muñoz suggests, an attention to Gilles Deleuze’s examination of surface–through the concept of the fold–counters such logics. If we understand the body and matter, Deleuze (1991) argues, as a series of “curved movements” (231) and folds, rather than straight lines or points, then we can start to see any and all embodiment as elastic and flexible yet still cohesive, as a “labyrinth of continuity” (231) composed of infinitely smaller folds. The fold, Muñoz (2009) argues, disrupts prototypical accounts of subject-formation, since it “permits one to see the inside as merely the other side of the outside or surface” (124). Adopting this perspective enables a more liquid and relational sense of how surfaces, or bodies, interact. Meanwhile, Best and Marcus position “surface reading” as an array of interpretative strategies for reading texts. Surface reading, they explain, privileges what these objects of study say about themselves, on the surface, in lieu of the archeologist-turned-critic who seeks to excavate the text’s buried secrets. Surface is evident and apprehensible; it conceals nothing. As Best and Marcus (2009) insist: “A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through” (9). By theorizing surface as depth and as relational, I join Muñoz, Marcus, and Best, who propel us to consider the fecund potentialities inherent in a more robust and cogent theory of the surface, particularly as an instrument of multisensory perception.
These emerging revaluations of surface become even more potent when we bear in mind how the historical events of slavery, imperialism, and colonialism also inform our typical understanding of surface versus depth. That necessary revaluation is embodied by the emerging concept of surface aesthetics, or “surfacism.” This term, as delineated by Christopher Pinney (2003), describes local photographic practices in South Asia and Western Africa that reject narrative, perspective, and detachment in favor of “a world of surfaces and materiality that reach out to their embodied viewers” (218). Surfacist strategies build on Baroque pictorial traditions emphasizing the texture, tangibility, and shine of the world depicted. These practices counter the Cartesian perspectivalism characteristic of European modernity, especially as seen in the pernicious historical linkage between early photography and European travel, that favored a detached observation of the world-as-picture and hence reaffirmed European superiority. In contrast, contemporary photographers in South Asia and Western Africa employ surfacist strategies–the use of backdrops, shallow picture planes, collage and montage, and props, costumes, and gesture–as tools of self-presentation for postcolonial subjects. Thus, the closeness of the surface in these photographic portraits, in contrast to the height and distance favored by colonial European practitioners, urges a sensual immediacy. This reframes the focus of photographic images “from the space between the image’s window and its referents to the space between the images’ surface and their beholders” (219). Krista Thompson (2015) deepens this conversation by underlining the taut relationship between slavery and surface aesthetics. Contemporary African diasporic artists’ insertion of black subjects into re-creations of paintings from the history of Western art, for instance, “underscore how the representation of black figures and modern slavery at times literally provided the background and formed the flesh against which the surfacist aesthetics could be staged” (38).2 Thompson, then, urges us to consider surface aesthetics in historical and racial terms, indexing the “historical relation between the surface in modern art and blackness” (ibid).
Recent interdisciplinary interventions–particularly in psychoanalysis, black cultural studies, sensation and affect studies, and aesthetic theory–have augmented this critical dialogue, while also shifting it to consider the black epidermal surface–the skin–as an overlooked site of our newly expanded sensorium. These scholars share a desire to more rigorously attune us to the different scripts that skin, particularly black skin, can enact when it is not simply seen as the visual ur-text of epidermal difference. Skin, Michelle Stephens (2014) argues, is not a hard or impermeable container but rather a sensual form of relationality, a “threshold, a point of contact, a site of intersubjective encounter, between the inner and outer self and between the self and the other” (2–3). This critical reframing invigorates us to reimagine skin as a porous fleshy interface, a “cutaneous medium” accessible through touch that circulates in a multi-sensory world, instead of simply an optical phenomenon (4). Skin is not simply seen, but exquisitely felt.3 An attention to surface, Stephens and others imply, vertiginously confounds our all too simple binary logics–between interior and exterior, essence versus covering, a superficial surface and a fleshy invisible depth–while also gesturing toward the emergence of alternative, even illegible, forms of representation and personhood.
Here, we will push these dizzying possibilities further, through a series of essays that all reckon with black surfaces in art, performance, and popular practice. The emphasis on surface in many of these pieces owes much of its conceptual logic to Krista Thompson’s (2015) robust efforts to “visualize another history of art, one that brings the black body (and other ethnicities) literally and figuratively to the surface” (220). Thompson details the unique uses of shine, glow, and bling in contemporary African diasporic artistic practices, specifically photographic media and videography, as emerging forms of image and art-making that counter traditional ideas of legibility and visibility. In so doing, these aesthetic strategies challenge the supposed transparency of photography by privileging visual effects, rather than the document of the photograph itself; in addition, they also call attention to other “notions of surface–the embellished surface, the reflective screen, the surface of the body, the surface of the photograph or screen, the backdrop and green screen” (35). In this way, in contrast to the flat surface of a sculpture or a canvas, these dynamic artistic approaches point toward what Thompson describes as “the surface of the surface–the effect of light reflecting off of surfaces–as the representational space for figuring black subjects” (ibid.). Mirroring Thompson’s focus on the skins, screens, and surfaces traversed by black cultural producers in the contemporary moment, the essays gathered in this special issue reveal various agile forms of representational becoming.
Building on these theoretical insights, several of the essays in this issue examine the ways that certain artists and performers “play” with surface; that is, the way they utilize the slippery, and often opaque, qualities of skin and surface to produce excess meanings and mobilize multiple selves. The realm of the aesthetic, these authors argue, functions as a vital resource for these minoritarian performers as they manipulate corporeal and technological surfaces in order to refuse the interpretative demands of readability, certitude, and transparency so often expected of artists of color. As Kobena Mercer (2016), Darby English (2010), Jennifer Doyle (2013), and others have discussed, this insistence on the part of critics produces a skewed focus on the identities of queer artists and artists of color at the expense of a rigorous engagement with the formal qualities of their work. This dilemma–the overdetermined reading of artworks–is particularly acute when it comes to the aesthetic production of artists of color, Doyle (2013) argues, because “questions of form and politics are frequently subsumed in criticism by racial metaphor” (95). I underscore this point here to position this special issue alongside other recent work that considers the interplay of aesthetics, form, and racial embodiment. Here I am thinking specifically of ASAP/Journal’s recent special issue on “Queer Form,” edited by Kadji Amin, Amber Jamilla Musser, and Roy Pérez (2017). Aesthetic form, these authors write, offers conditions of possibility for resisting “the violences of interpretation that prematurely fix the meaning of minority artistic production within pre-fabricated narratives” (227). In focusing on aesthetic techniques of opacity, indirection, and withholding, “Queer Form” draws attention to the aesthetic as a mode of knowledge production and world-making. The aesthetic, they exhort, has the capacity to offer new, and overlooked, ways of knowing, seeing, and desiring that surface in means other than the immediately transparent. This special issue’s collective conversation on surface, the senses, and aesthetic form neatly aligns with, and echoes, the mutual interests of Amin, Musser, and Pérez (2017) in tracking “the ways in which form often operates beneath the surface of the visual, trafficking in affective and sensuous modes of meaning-making” (228).
Likewise, our shared attempts in this special issue–to theorize the sensuous ways of knowing marshaled by racialized subjects–is in direct dialogue with recent touchstones in black feminist theory, African diaspora studies, and performance studies. Recent work from these fields has highlighted haptic and affective analytical approaches, particularly for elucidating quotidian practices and styles of being that are enacted by black cultural workers. Nicole Fleetwood (2011, 2015) and Tina Campt (2017), for instance, push beyond vision as the predominant mode of analysis for studying black visuality and performance. Instead, both ask us to engage other sensorial optics when attending to the affective frequencies through which the black body and visual iconography register. Fleetwood (2015) urges us to consider vernacular prison photographs as “important visual and haptic objects of love and belonging”; when we pay attention to their emotive and haptic features, she contends, we are able to perceive “feelings of intimacy, kinship, and futurity that circulate between imprisoned people and their loved ones and through the porous boundaries of the US carceral system” (490, 491). In her discussion of black diasporic photography, Campt (2017) describes sound as a “profoundly haptic form of sensory contact” that is not simply heard, but also felt via vibration; hence, sound “registers at multiple levels of the human sensorium” (6). Similarly, in her introduction to the Women & Performance special issue “The Haptic,” Rizvana Bradley (2014) stresses that the collection of essays considers how “touching, folding, fingering, or tracing the texture of an object, offer themselves as techniques of knowing in art and performance” (130). The haptic, Bradley maintains, is the “abstract convergence of touch, feeling, and relation” (130), ultimately experienced in an “otherwise dimension” (131) that eludes our full understanding. In short, touch is our access point into the relational.4
This attention to the relational and haptic, in this special issue’s focus on surface, also prompts a consideration of affect. Here we join a growing number of scholars in affect and sensation studies urging us to recognize feeling and sensation as indispensable, though often overlooked, analytics for apprehending historical processes, especially those that operate at the granular level of everyday life. The utility of affect, as a methodological approach, is its ability to track, in Lauren Berlant’s (2011) words, “the conditions of life that move across persons and worlds, play out in lived time, and energize attachments” (16). Affect is, in other words, a “poetics, a theory-in-practice of a how a world works” (16). This affective mapping is especially important for delineating the contours of what Muñoz (2006) called feeling brown. For minority subjects unable, or refusing, the mandate to accede to “the protocols of normative affect and comportment” (676), feeling brown describes the “antinormative feelings that correspond to minoritarian becoming” (679). Surface, this issue argues, functions in similar terms. It is a lively interface that, akin to how LaMonda Horton Stallings (2015) theorizes funk, produces “alternative orders of knowledge about the body and imagination” (6) as well as “new sensoriums and ways of being” (11). The artists and performers featured in this volume, from Eartha Kitt to Mickalene Thomas to Lyle Ashton Harris, deploy numerous surface techniques in efforts to create possibilities for the emergence of what cinema and media scholar Kara Keeling (2007) calls “subaltern common senses,” or ways of knowing that subvert and evade what we might call hegemonic common sense (7). This collective embrace of sensuous forms of knowing and desiring upends the habitual analytics of black diaspora studies–be it authenticity, objectification, or visibility as a political goal–and the dangerous assumption that other analytical lenses are theoretically insignificant and/or of little historical value. When we remain open to these other, more sensuous possibilities, as we will see, we occasion a sophisticated and serious theory of the surface as feeling and fleshy matter.
A cogent conceptualization of the surface, especially one that acknowledges perception as a bodily experience as much as an intellectual one, necessitates a dialogue with artists and their inventive uses of the surface. This is largely because these artists’ manipulation of surfaces in their artworks acknowledges the viewer’s bodily presence by appealing to haptic, even erotic, senses. In accordance with this special issue's desire to converse with scholars and artists, I very briefly direct us to an aesthetic dialogue on surface occurring amongst black diasporic artists in the United States, one that strikingly overlaps with the themes I have discussed thus far in this introduction. These cultural workers’ engagement in playful and preternatural experimentations with surfaces and skins suggest a similar desire to reformulate prototypical assumptions of surface versus depth. Nigerian-born Toyin Ojih Odutola’s multimedia drawings, for instance, are noteworthy in their thoughtful probing of the surface (and colors) of racialized skin and their concomitant racial discourses. Her explorations of the sociopolitical construction of skin color through her black ballpoint pen and acrylic ink drawings produce black skin as a tactile topography. Odutola’s luminescent portraits–in their subtle gradations of blackness that emerge as textured surface and depth–prompt viewers to reconsider their own ideas about what constitutes blackness. Meanwhile, the Studio Museum of Harlem’s exhibition Surface Area: Selections from the Permanent Collection (2016) temporarily captured a loose intergenerational group of artists–including David Hammons, Howardena Pindell, and Titus Kaphar, among others–using surface, as curators noted, to explore “volume and texture within surfaces” and the “possibilities of surface as an expanded space that allows for material depth.”5 Howardena Pindell’s intricate Postminimalist abstract pieces, usually labeled Untitled and begun in the early 1970s, are an example of this surface play at work. As I have written elsewhere, Pindell’s Untitled pieces–“dense system[s] of meticulously numbered hole-punched holes,” usually set against a grid–often resemble “an almost undulating” landscape that jar the viewer’s expectations of surface (McMillan 2015, 159). Moreover, as exemplars of black abstraction, they also foil presumptions of what the ostensibly proper medium is for black artists (see Jones ; Harper ). Yet, to return to surface, perhaps what we perceive in the work of black abstractionists is the ability of surface to act of its own accord.
I hope that you have occasion to linger in the multitudinous meanings surfaces summon in the pages that follow. The three essays featured in this special issue share an emphasis on attuning to the sensual and slippery performance work that surface play enables. In her essay “Yella Gal: Eartha Kitt’s Racial Modulation,” Colleen Kim Daniher constructs a theory of what she calls racial modulation to powerfully re-situate Cold War entertainer Eartha Kitt, and her racially mutable self-stagings, squarely within black feminist performance theory. As Daniher suggests, if Kitt’s obscurity within black feminist theory and praxis is in part due to her focus on personality, as opposed to vocal virtuosity, her erasure is largely due to her ambiguous racial aesthetics–both as a biracial “yella gal” and her eclectic repertoire, which includes Turkish folk songs, Orientalist novelty songs, and flamenco and rumba-inflected pop. As a result, Kitt’s black radical protest later in her career is largely forgotten, as it fails to align neatly with the polyglot personalities and ambiguous internationalism that defines her shape-shifting career. Building on the scholarship of Shane Vogel and Daphne Brooks, and their respective concepts of “impersona” and “afro-alienation,” Daniher proposes racial modulation as an “aesthetic surface strategy,” one continually and playfully employed by Kitt to transform, or modulate, herself from the shameful product of miscegenation into an exotic, often Asiatic, global citizen. Racial modulation reveals how the seductive persona of Eartha Kitt is repeatedly and strategically produced, rather than seeking to uncover the “real” Eartha Kitt. In sum, Daniher’s essay powerfully illustrates how an emphasis on the mechanics of style and surface–as opposed to authenticity, “soul,” or transparency–re-positions the elastic performance work of “pop’s first world music figure” squarely within historiographies of black feminist self-alienating performances in the Cold War and Civil Rights eras.
Meanwhile, in her essay “Surface-Becoming: Lyle Ashton Harris and Brown Jouissance,” Amber Jamilla Musser zeroes in on the manifold surface tensions and plural selves inherent in the work of Lyle Ashton Harris, a black American artist. Musser focuses on Billie #21 (2002), a performative self-portrait of himself as musical icon Billie Holiday, replete with fur stole, pearl earrings, makeup, and surgical tape. Deftly moving through psychoanalytic theory, black feminist theory, performance studies, and art history–including the work of Hortense Spillers, Judith Butler, and Krista Thompson–Musser argues that Harris’s portrait gestures toward the pleasures of opacity and surface in its refusal of the intimacy and transparency so often desired of black artists and their respective work. In contrast to the typical interpretation–that Harris becomes Holiday in this performance piece–Musser suggests that his citation of Holiday does not produce a coherent subject with psychic interiority, nor is it a sincere performance of Holiday, since it lacks depth. Instead, his performance is a role-play, what Musser calls “citation as a mode of inhabitation that shifts the dimension of selfhood. One does not become, but rather sits alongside, the other in citation.” In Harris’s reimaging of himself-as-Billie, Musser suggests, we begin to sense Harris’s own brown jouissance in this temporary inhabitation, a deliberate reveling in the pleasurable possibilities of multiple mobile selves. In doing so, Billie #21′s engagement with shine, ornamentation, and glamour indexes a trans-generational relationship between Harris and Holiday that relies on surface and fleshiness to resist legibility and deprioritize a singular sovereign subject; in the process, he is able to explore the shifting possibilities of selfhood.
Similarly, Sarah Stefana Smith foregrounds black artists’ manipulation of surface strategies as a part of a larger effort to reconfigure representation and incite alternative modes of perception. In her essay, “Surface Play: Rewriting Black Interiorities through Camouflage and Abstraction in Mickalene Thomas’s Oeuvre,” Smith suggests that Mickalene Thomas’s use of camouflage and artifice–such as textiles, rhinestones, and glitter–in her paintings, collages, and installations function as techniques of deception, partially obscuring subjectivities and thwarting clear-cut interpretations. Drawing on a Deleuzian framework, Smith argues that the surface play in Thomas’s art frustrates sharply defined borders between the surface and depth, since her black interiorities, paradoxically, rest on the surface of the canvas or photograph. Yet, if surface play examines that which is in plain view, it also delimits that which is hidden from view as well. Abstraction, especially for African American artists, Smith suggests, becomes a mode to enact this surface play, and hence vacillate between the legible and illegible. Smith’s essay, then, dovetails with Musser and Daniher’s in her counterintuitive consideration of the surface as a sticky or gelatinous threshold through which profound depths of meaning can emerge.
Finally, in this issue’s “Ampersand” section, Jillian Hernandez’s deeply poetic photoessay “Beauty Marks: The Latinx Surfaces of Loving, Becoming, and Mourning,” juxtaposes the lush Instagram posts of Latinx artists with family photographs of her Cuban and Puerto Rican grandmothers as a sensitive and sensuous praxis of memory, longing, and mourning. Focusing on a different type of surface play–the beauty marks and mask-like made-up visages shared by her grandmothers, Instagrammers, and Latinx musical and artistic figures like Mario Montez and Selena–Hernandez argues that a “knowledge of our racialized gendered Latinx surfaces” can lead to a reconsideration of these beauty practices (and the digital and photographic platforms they circulate in) as a form of healing work that affirm, and mirror, Latinx embodiments while offering new performance possibilities. Arguing that the aesthetic innovations of these cultural actors too often go unremarked, except to serve as a fulcrum for white male artistic genius, Hernandez persuades us to re-envision the armor-like makeup of these artists, family members, and cultural icons as a form of surface aesthetics that index queer Latinx identities, genealogies, and intimacies. In doing so, Hernandez crafts a “poetics about the relationalities, recognitions, and femme generations that these surfaces engender” while gesturing toward spiritual, mujerista, non-Western ways of knowing. Ultimately, she suggests, the vibrant objects and surfaces of drugstore hair dye, Wet n’ Wild cosmetics, and India-ink-colored moles are world-making practices that bind us together in memory and loving relation.
Likewise, the punchy, playful, and polyglot work of Nuyorican artists Antonio Lopez (b. 1943) and Juan Ramos (b. 1942) under the signature of “Antonio,” featured prominently in this special issue, mirror this immersive world-making approach, albeit the neon-like energy (and surfaces) of fashion, art, street culture, and queer nightlife in 1970s and 1980s New York City.6 Born in Puerto Rico and raised in East Harlem, similar to his eventual partner and collaborator Ramos, Lopez injected the staid Eurocentric form of fashion illustration with the propulsive force of hip-hop and the decadent sheen of disco; Lopez’s bold flashy graphics redefined and electrified the form with sass, swagger, and unabashed sex appeal. Lopez’s career as the doyen of fashion illustration included his tenure as the in-house illustrator for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, commissioned portraits of Diana Ross for British Vogue in 1979 and Tina Turner and Patti Labelle for Playboy magazine in 1985, and album covers for funk siren Betty Davis. The Kodak Instamatic prints and Polaroid portraits of black models featured in, and on, this special issue underscore Lopez and Ramos’s acute awareness of women of color as palpable absences in the milieu of high fashion and hence their commitment to both advancing the careers of, and creating unique forms of representation for, models including Pat Cleveland, Tina Chow, Amina Warsuma, and Grace Jones. Yet, I also highlight Lopez here as an under-recognized and under-theorized exemplar of surface aesthetics whose drawings and photographs revel in luminous, effervescent, and polished surfaces–be it skin, water, or burl wood–while indexing women of color as iconoclastic figures of glamour, shine, and exquisite potentiality. In doing so, his artworks generate new geometries of being while remaining, paradoxically, on the surface.
I close this introduction, and its extended meditation on skin, surface, and sensation, by slinking toward the sumptuous surface play enacted by one of the most striking, and perpetually forward-thinking, artists of the twenty-first century: Grace Jones. I want to consider other ways of sensing this Jamaica-born performer, singer, model, and avowed art groupie, whose singular career–she was described by The New York Times as a “style icon, disco queen, avant garde rocker, Bond girl, provocateur, and sphinx ”–has spanned four decades (Shulman 2015). Jones’s consistent pursuit of the “new in style and practice,” an inclination shared by Los Angeles-based black artists of the 1960s and 1970s as Kellie Jones argues (2017, 3), is rendered in her working relationships with avant-garde artists in New York City’s 1970s underground scene as well as prominent photographers and fashion designers in Europe and the often category-defying products of these collaborations.7 These performances, music recordings, and often-erotic visual art traversed the borders between queer nightlife, haute couture, pop performance, fine art, and African diasporic performance practices. Aptly described by Francesca Royster (2009)as a “heady cocktail of glitter, camp, androgyny and fear” (78), Jones’s multimodal aesthetic praxis merged “disco and punk, art and fashion, male and female, animal and human, and human and machine to create new notions of black sexuality” (78–79). Rendering both blackness and gender otherwise, Jones’s astute ability to shock, excite, alarm, and even arouse her audiences was neatly (and presciently) summed up by Ebony magazine in 1979: “Grace Jones is a question mark followed by an exclamation point.”8 I continue our rumination on surfaces–as depth and relational, as flexible forms of representational becoming, and as corporeal and technological mediums–by thinking-with the figure of Grace Jones and her cutting-edge video work.9 Specifically, Jones’s spellbinding black and white digital video for the 2008 single “Corporate Cannibal,” directed by Nick Hooker and featured on her tenth studio album, Hurricane, will be our focus here–as opposed to Jones’s other equally mesmerizing and disorienting video work–because it inches us the closest to a surface-oriented notion of embodiment that embraces liquidity and plural selves, while refusing to reveal Jones’s inner psychic depths. She becomes force, energy, and presence. Put simply, in her own words: “I am not decoration; I am pure signal. I transmit” (2015, 305). Surface, specifically the oil-spill-like unfolding of black skin, emerges below as a sensuous site of relationality and the grounds for alternative modalities of being.
During the ominous opening sonic notes of “Corporate Cannibal,” instead of viewing an entity akin to a person, we perceive a mysterious black diagonal strip that resembles a pulsating electrical current. Slowly, this shape unfurls itself to reveal an eye and then eventually a mercurial morphology with a visage resembling Grace Jones’s. Dressed in an open black jacket with pointed exaggerated shoulder pads, an ever-morphing Jones states: “Pleased to meet you. Pleased to have you on my plate. Your meat is sweet to me. Your destiny, your fate. You’re my life support. Your life is my sport.” As the video progresses in one fluid take, with Jones mouthing the lyrics and proclaiming herself a “corporate cannibal/digital criminal” that “consume[s] my consumers with no sense of humor,” this liquid-like approximation of Jones stretches and contracts. It slowly dissolves and reforms itself into black molten matter. Alessandra Raengo (2012) concurs: “This shape-changing blackness is haptically rich. It is sticky, viscous, wet, slippery, thick” (4). Occasionally, this liquefied blackness duplicates itself into multiple versions of Jones, albeit deformed alienesque avatars. Throughout, Jones’s shiny skin is manipulated, flattened out, and elongated into a seemingly limitless two-dimensional screen, an effect visually heightened by the sharp contrast between the blank white background and the sheen of Jones’s charcoal-like skin. Jones becomes one of the fantastical larger-than-life doubles, or “impossible Graces,” that saturate her visual archive, particularly her work with French graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude (Jones 2015, 307). In her recently published memoirs, Jones underlines her intentionality as an artist, emphasizing the distinction between herself (the person) and the “stretched, fractured, crushed, expanded, liquefied” (371) image of herself that was constructed as a visual effect. Identity and representation, however, are not the raison d’être of her aesthetic praxis. Instead, she repeatedly identifies herself in more amorphous terms. Specifically, she defines herself as an “artist-creature-object,” a theatrical effect or presence that enhances an artistic atmosphere, and a form of kinetic energy (300). Put simply: “I was outside race and gender: I considered myself an energy that had not been classified” (259). In line with this logic, Jones repeatedly uses the phrase “surface energy” to describe her work; it seems to be the perfect description of the performance strategy she employs in this video.
Instead of viewing a body that resembles a hard container, with the borders around it clearly delineated, we perceive a digital approximation of one that is in a state of sustained mutation, a polymorphous corporeality. Black skin becomes an endlessly pliable surface, rather than a finite one, as we witness a body seemingly without depth, pure surface. Jones’s skin here, Raengo (2012) argues, resembles a “reflecting metal surface. Blackness is something fluid yet dense, an ever changing surface, and yet never simply just that: it cannot hold an identifiable shape and does not have a distinguishable inside.” (11). Surface is not inert, but vibrant, pulsating, and constantly in motion, undulating, like a wall of water. “Matter thus offers a texture that is infinitely porous, that is spongy or cavernous without empty parts” (230), to quote Gilles Deleuze (1991), a curvilinear and elastic body of infinite coils, “curved movements” and of subterraneous folds, that threaten–but do not obliterate–coherence (231). And in doing so, we perceive a challenge to subjectivity. Instead of an inner depth versus outer surface, we apprehend something else, a “relay between epidermal certitude and stylistic vicissitude,” as Anne Anlin Cheng (2009) elegantly puts it, a body seemingly without organs (114). The terms that racial legibility are based on–that which is naked and visible as opposed to that which is veiled and hidden–are foiled. The body becomes plastic-like, stretchable, and seemingly two-dimensional, nothing but black surface. We perceive what Tina Post (2015) terms the “agency of surface,” its athletic abilities to act on its own behalf (87). Within “the aesthetic of black shininess lay cultural possibilities for a performer” (97) like Grace Jones, who offers to us the sensual pleasures of surface and shine, via skin, and a spectacular opacity in lieu of transparency.
To perceive, or re-sense, an elusive object (like “Corporate Cannibal”) in this way is to move closer to the more embodied perception I have been alluding to throughout this introduction–an experience that is multi-sensory, rather than strictly ocular-centric. Perhaps the surface is how and where we can best sense Jones, and thus the synthetic, the stylized, and the superficial, rather than the reliably organic and “authentic.” In doing so, we not only get closer to the surface rather than the body of Jones; we also yield to the other sensuous surfaces inhabiting Jones’ performances, such as the leather, plush fur, and the shimmer of purple lipstick perceived in Andy Warhol’s 1984 Polaroid portrait of her, commissioned by American Vogue. Sensing the surface, rather than searching for the interior life, paradoxically, inches us closer to the mysteries of the black artist.
In this special issue on surface aesthetics, I urge you to remain open to the profundities of the surface, allowing it to beckon you with its plastic possibilities, especially its adept abilities to reconfigure our expectations on the mechanics of performing race, gender, and sexuality. By theorizing the surface as a dynamic object of knowledge in its own right and rejecting a priori notions of it as lacking sufficient depth or rigor, we release it from a set of constrained and fixed meanings. Surface is not a hard edge of division, but a porous economy of contact. We sense the surface through tactile, aural, olfactory, physical, spatial, and other sensations and ways of knowing. Surfaces, in turn, register and sense our presence as well. The essays in this issue suggest surface aesthetics as a heretofore under-considered analytic for considering how artists circumnavigate corporeal limitations and resist over determined interpretations of their work. Embracing abstraction, ambiguity, alienation, camouflage, ornamentation, opacity, and–in Grace Jones’s case–distortion, these cultural actors wield surface aesthetics as an apparatus not only for partially obscuring viewership, or confounding the borders between the self and the other, but also for doing their bodies differently. Rearticulating “race and gender as aesthetic strategies of value rather than locations of social difference,” to paraphrase Minh-Ha Pham (2015), these artists make use of surface aesthetics to render the racial and gendered body pliable and multiple as well as ambivalent and ultimately unknowable (4–5). Imagination is key here, as artists (especially black diasporic ones) deploy surface approaches as powerful pathways to imagine an elsewhere and to exceed the containment of the body into legible parts (see Ellis 2015; Gaines 2017). In short, the authors and artists featured here prompt us to ask: how have we failed to perceive the liminal, luscious, and dark points of possibility summoned by the surface?
I greatly thank Managing Editor Olivia Michiko Gagnon for her unwavering commitment, expertise, and enthusiasm in the preparation of this issue and introduction, the editorial collective and anonymous readers for their nuanced and generous readings of the contributor’s essays, and the whip-smart insights of the contributors who I am honored to be in conversation with here and elsewhere. Finally, muchísimas gracias to The Estate of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos for their permission to reproduce the artwork that appears in this issue.
About the Author
Uri McMillan is Associate Professor of Performance Studies in the Departments of English, African American Studies, and Gender Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has published essays in Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory and GLQ: a Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies; artist interviews in ASAP/Journal and Aperture; and contributed essays to museum publications, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem. He is the author of Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance (NYU Press, 2015), the winner of the William Sanders Scarborough Prize from the Modern Language Association (MLA), the Barnard Hewitt Award for Outstanding Research in Theatre History, and the Errol Hill Award for Outstanding Scholarship in African American performance, both from the American Society for Theater Research (ASTR).
1. For more on embodied perception, see Marks (2000).
2.This approach dovetails with what Kobena Mercer (2016) named “cut-and-mix aesthetics,” or call and response in visual art by African American and Black British artists, as paradigmatic of post-1980s black diaspora aesthetic practice.
3. Anne Cheng (2011) concurs in her exegesis of Josephine Baker, Modernism, and the modern surface; she questions what other racial schemas become available when we move away from our longstanding assumptions about skin–namely, a Frantz Fanon-derived understanding of race (presented primarily in Black Skin, White Masks ) as an “epidermal schema” (7) tethered to the visible. An attention to the “surfacism of black skin” (110), Cheng suggests, illustrates how Baker’s nudity never stands alone; rather, her theatricalized nakedness often relies on its idiosyncratic intimacy with other layered, synthetic, and often feminized and racialized surfaces–banana skins, feathers, gold drapery, and animal fur (110).
4. See Amber Musser, Brown Jouissance: Inhabitations of the Pornotrope (forthcoming).
5. Surface Area: Selections from the Permanent Collection was exhibited from March 24–June 26, 2016 and organized by Doris Zhao. Quotes are taken from the exhibition wall text.
6. For more on Lopez and Ramos, see Malagamba-Ansótegui and Rivera-Servera, (2016).
7. These tastemakers and artistic peers include Andy Warhol, Issey Miyake, Helmut Newton, Kenzo Takada, Antonio Lopez, Keith Haring, Azzedine Alaia, Robert Mapplethorpe, Yves Saint Laurent, Tse Kwong Chi, and her frequent collaborator Jean-Paul Goude, among others. As Jones (2015) herself notes: “I was always looking for the new, even if it makes life difficult for me. The new or nothing” (311).
8. I am reminded here of Jennifer Brody’s (2008) contention that punctuation marks choreograph thought. I borrow the language of thinking blackness otherwise, and thinking gender otherwise, from Christina Sharpe and Alex Weheliye respectively.
9. I follow the lead of José Esteban Muñoz (2013) here in his distinguishing between the work of music historians, specifically their reconstruction of biographical events, versus the charge of the performance theorist–considering the performativity of icons like Jones and their role as “figures that represent a certain way of feeling and being in the world” (99)
Amin, Kadji, Amber Jamilla Musser, and Roy Pérez. 2017. “Queer Form: Aesthetics, Race, and the Violences of the Social.” ASAP/Journal 2 (2): 227–239.
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. 2009. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108 (1): 1–21.
Bradley, Rizvana. 2014. “Introduction: Other Sensualities.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory. Special Issue: The Haptic: Textures of Performance 24 (2–3): 129–133.
Brody, Jennifer DeVere. 2008. Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play. Durham: Duke University Press.
Campt, Tina M. 2017. Listening to Images. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Cheng, Anne Anlin. 2009. “Skin, Tattoos, and Susceptibility.” Representations 108 (1): 98–119.
Cheng, Anne Anlin. 2011. Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface. New York: Oxford University Press.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1991. “The Fold.” Yale French Studies 80: 227–247.
Doyle, Jennifer. 2013. Hold it Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ellis, Nadia. 2015. Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press.
English, Darby. 2010. How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Fanon, Frantz. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks.
Fleetwood, Nicole R. 2011. Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fleetwood, Nicole R. 2015. “Posing in Prison: Family Photographs, Emotional Labor, and Carceral Intimacy.” Public Culture 27 (3): 487–511.
Gaines, Malik. 2017. Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left. New York: NYU Press.
Harper, Phillp Brian. 2015. Abstractionist Aesthetics: Artistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture. New York: NYU Press.
Jones, Grace. 2015. I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. New York: Gallery Books.
Jones, Kellie. 2017. South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. Durham: Duke University Press.
Jones, Kellie. 2006. “To the Max: Energy and Experimentation.” In Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem.
Keeling, Kara. 2007. The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense. Durham: Duke University Press.
Malagamba-Ansótegui, Amelia, and Ramón Rivera-Servera. 2016. “Critical Desires: Race and Sexuality in the Work of Antonio.” Reproduced for the exhibition Antonio Lopez: Future Funk Fashion. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio, New York, NY.
Marks, Laura. 2000. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mercer, Kobena. 2016. “Diaspora Aesthetics and Visual Culture.” In Travel and See: Black Diaspora Practices Since the 1980s, 227–247. Durham: Duke University Press.
McMillan, Uri. 2015. Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. New York: NYU Press.
Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. “Introduction: From Surface to Depth, Between Psychoanalysis and Affect.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 19 (2): 123–129.
Muñoz, José Esteban. 2013. “‘Gimme Gimme This...Gimme Gimme That’: Annihilation and Innovation in the Punk Rock Commons.” Social Text 116 (31), no. 3: 95–110.
Muñoz, José Esteban. 2006, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position.” Signs 31 (3): 675–688.
Pham, Minh-Ha. 2015. Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging. Durham: Duke University Press.
Pinney, Christopher. 2003. “Notes from the Surface of the Image: Photography, Postcolonialism, and Vernacular Modernism.” In Photography’s Other Histories, edited by Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson, 202–220. Durham: Duke University Press.
Post, Tina. 2015. “Williams, Walker, and Shine: Blackbody Blackface, or the Importance of Being Surface.” TDR: The Drama Review 59 (4): 83–100.
Raengo, Alessandra. 2012. “Reification, Reanimation, and the Money of the Real.” World Picture 7: 1–17.
Royster, Francesca. 2009. “‘Feeling like a woman, looking like a man, sounding like a no-no’: Grace Jones and the performance of Strangé in the Post-Soul Moment.” Distance, 19 (1): 77–94.
Shulman, Michael. 2015. “The Power of Grace Jones.” New York Times, September 18, 2015.
Stallings, L.H. 2015. Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Stephens, Michelle Ann. 2014. Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Thompson, Krista. 2015. Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.