★ ECLIPSE Almanac page 31★
The pandemic meant an end (for now) to opportunities for exploring the sculptural component of my practice. However, it also meant a shift toward vernacular moving image pedagogy with digital circulation (via YouTube, Instagram, etc). As I look back, I realize that I’ve been applying sculptural thinking to the production of these video works, curricula, and other material.
My interest has been in ephemeral sculpture, the transformation of found material, and sculptural thinking in general as a critical mode of engaging materiality, space, context, etc.
The vernacular moving image pedagogy practice began with LA-based artist and philosopher Mandy Harris Williams’ commission of qué significa ser latinx (digital video, 21’05”, 2019) for an Ace Hotel latinx history month 2019 event. This video critiqued the eugenic concept of mestizaje and the contemporary youth rejection of Latinidad. I stitched together found videos on the topic with my own commentary. I produced this work in residence at Centrum at Fort Worden, Port Townsend, WA. Spotty internet necessitated a lo-fi aesthetic
Video proved to be useful as a critical space, especially when applying sculptural techniques of incorporating, arranging, juxtaposing, and commenting on found material. The ephemerality is like an emergent property– it comes in the moment of cognition of the network of materials, all their resonances and dissonances. I continued working in this mode with An Alternative History of Abstraction (digital video, 1’58”, 2020), which rejects the European modernist origin myth of abstraction and the functionless, autonomous art object in favor of an older Black and brown lineage of functional, socially- and spiritually-embedded, non-autonomous abstraction. In the work I discuss Tang-era calligraphy, wildstyle graffiti, the Gee’s Bend quilters, JB Murray and James Hampton's Black religious asemic writing, and others. This work was commissioned by Discrit and debuted online with Atlanta Contemporary. There was an implicit link in my mind between somewhat opaque and ephemeral sculptural gestures and historical processes of ornamentation of the textual toward illegibility (such as in calligraphy).
I realized that the kind of social / study experience of producing and sharing this work with the public– and their functionality insofar as they were pedagogical and critical in nature– directly mirrored the functional, embedded character of the type of abstract aesthetic labor I analyzed in the video. Los Angeles-based artist Kandis Williams also noted that there was room to delve deeper into both the violence of ‘abstraction’ as the secularized vestige of Christian rejection of the sinful material world, and the Black weaponization of abstraction against this colonial order of knowing. She astutely says in an interview with W Magazine: “the first [type of abstraction] is modern abstraction, born out of the colonial European encounter with the indigenous. The second is Black abstraction, the African-based conceptual thought (like carving an ancestor into a glyph on a rock and praying to it, or creating a family pattern to be woven for generations), and the third is Black Marxist abstraction.”
At Williams’ invitation, I expanded the ideas in the Alternative History of Abstraction into a ten-week course of the same name, offered in July 2020 via CASSANDRA Press, an artist run publishing and educational platform founded by Williams, which produces lo-fi printed matter, classrooms, projects, artist books, and exhibitions.
Executing a project of this scope showed me the pedagogical potential of semi-publicly demonstrating my independent research interests in the vernacular moving image format. A network of juxtaposed sources creates a kind of choreography of study; exploring its social components allows for the development of critical perspectives. The development of new concepts to parse the network of assigned material promotes greater sensory granularity, and the particular sociality of struggling with meaning resonates with the overall frame of rejecting the euro-colonization of abstraction.
This is of interest to me because video is also the privileged medium of disciplining the public into the western consumer mindset. It’s an equivocal medium that becomes explosive with circulation, and its radical potential must challenge this antiblack normative disciplinary role: the circulation of moving image documents of the humiliation, maiming, and murder of Black people is the contemporary silicon version of lynching mementos (a choice mode of entertainment for 19th century white Americans who might have missed the live event). As Aria Dean argues: “the history of black people in the Americas… is intrinsically bound up with the history of mass media and photographic and moving images.”
While I taught the Alternative History of Abstraction 101 course, I also made another work in vernacular moving image pedagogy, Debajo del agua: the wake work of Enerolisa Núñez (digital video, 1’06”, 2020). This work is about Dominican musician and spiritual-cultural worker Enerolisa Núñez and her salve criolla music. Here, the concept of "folklore / roots" is analyzed as a site of capture and deracialization of Enerolisa's spiritual labor and aesthetics in the context of Dominican antiblackness and tourist-modernity. More recently, I’m teaching a class called ZOMBIE: Fear of a Black Republic, which analyzes the origin of the ‘zombie’ trope during US occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) and its continuity with European fears of a Black rebel contagion in the wake of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). Moving forward, the Alternative History of Abstraction will continue with two simultaneous impulses: general critical work, and region- or maker-specific work.
I received the Support Beam grant from RACC to continue this work. For this grant, I’m working on a series of videos about Pacific Northwest artists! I’ll be making videos about Thelma Johnston Streat, sharita towne, damali ayo, Noah Davis, Natalie Ball and others. I think it would be fun to make one about myself as well (given that my public practice started in the wake of my arrest). I’m inspired by the concept of placemaking as explored by makers and thinkers of the region, dealing with contemporary manifestations of colonialism and antiblackness and rejecting a static, vestigial concept of "tradition." The PNW also has a special relationship to craft that deserves exploration in the context of indigenous abstraction, its long history, and its vibrant present of survivance. Whether specific considerations about video as a medium, sculptural thinking in relation to video, etc will find their way into this body of work remains to be seen, but I'm so excited to be making this work and grateful for a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Support Beam, spearheaded by Morgan Ritter. As well, I’d like to thank the ATHENS BIENNALE 7: ECLIPSE team for giving me space to perform some material from the ZOMBIE project. I hope that in some small way this body of work can operate as a form of speculative placemaking and be of service to the aesthetic history and future of the Pacific Northwest region.
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manuel arturo abreu (b. 1991, Santo Domingo) is a poet and artist, working in text, ephemeral sculpture, and what is at hand in a process of magical thinking with attention to ritual aspects of aesthetics. abreu has had solo and duo shows at Portland State University; Yaby, Madrid; the Art Gym, Portland; Open Signal, Portland; Institute for New Connotative Action, Seattle; and WREATH, Atlanta. abreu has shown in group exhibitions at Superposition, Los Angeles; Veronica, Seattle; Felix Gaudlitz, Vienna; Critical Path, Sydney; the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; NCAD Gallery, Dublin; Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva; and online with Rhizome and the New Museum. abreu has curated projects at Yale Union, Portland; Center for Afrofuturist Studies, Iowa City; SOIL, Seattle; Paragon Gallery, Portland; old Pfizer Factory, Brooklyn; S1, Portland; AA|LA Gallery, Los Angeles; and MoMA PS1, New York. They have published in Rhizome, Art in America, CURA, New Inquiry, Art Practical, SFMOMA Open Space, and AQNB, etc. abreu studied syntax at Reed College, and has lived in Portland since 2009. They co-facilitate home school, a free pop-up art school in its fifth year of curriculum.