Books

Essays that Collapse Time

by Cassie da Costa on May 26, 2016

GIF from Hannah Black's "My Bodies"

GIF from Hannah Black’s “My Bodies”

Artist and writer Hannah Black’s videos — including “My Bodies,” “Intensive Care/Hot New Track,” and “The Neck” — combine images, texts, and sounds in a way that seems less about creating tension than exposing it: seeing what lies beneath the surface, understanding newly what is and has almost always been there. In “My Bodies,” clips of “my body” uttered in song by various black woman musicians from Whitney Houston to Ciara are synced to close-ups of white male faces. Grainy textures overlay the faces, which eventually transition to shots of limestone caves accompanied by text like, “you must keep hold of what it means to have hands eyes teeth” and “the dog is the evening star and the god of being disgusting.” The video seems to be establishing instability: black and white bodies are considered together, but while, through the use of music, black bodies are implied, white bodies are the ones displayed starkly on screen. In the video, blackness exposes whiteness and not the other way around; this act of reassembly offers an alternate way of seeing. For Black, video making is not necessarily about creating images or imparting experiences, but about dismantling and reconstructing established modes of understanding, particularly concerning race and gender.

So it is fitting that Black’s first book, Dark Pool Party, a collection of essays co-published by Dominica and Arcadia Missa, was not neatly summed up or announced in press releases, nor given a proper introduction at her reading at Lisa Cooley gallery in late February — instead, the collection would become whatever it had to be in the moment. When Black took the stage, she gave a few hurried explanations and disclaimers before launching into “Celebrity Death Match,” which she described as an edited diary entry wherein all the names of real people are replaced with celebrities’ names and all the most indulgently self-pitying bits are done away with. The piece seemed to be racing toward the finish from the moment it began, with ideas put aside just as soon as they were put forth and relationships abandoned just as soon as they were begun — and then begun again. “The significance of relationships is actually secretly inverted and the people you meet for ten minutes and under are the ones who determine your fate,” writes Black. What persists is the idea that every account of events is always in question, every (hi)story fragile. Black asks herself, “To what extent is the past still happening? There is the white fog that covers everything. There is irony and forgetting. There are competing claims.” Instead of trying to confirm histories or reestablish memories, Black allows all competing claims to come to a head. What’s left, both on the page and in performance, is an almost simultaneous collapsing and building, like a five-second Vine loop of a demolition.

In “Press for Service,” we have more of this looped demolition, this time of the self. Black earnestly asks the question the author Sheila Heti once rhetorically posited: “Why write life as fiction?” In the book How Should a Person Be? Heti decides not to, and instead writes fiction as life — her life — and thus, nonfiction as fiction. Black, on the other hand, plays more facetiously with the demands of invention by renaming and repositioning herself as “the character”: “The character writes in the gchat box: ‘it’s like someone writing from inside the place of their forgetfulness’ presses return.” Paradoxically, in employing this device, Black becomes as visible as ever. “The character must be the accumulation of my encounters with the world and the fullness of the life of the character must correspond to an equal thinness in the writer’s life,” she explains, before confessing that “the shame of invention is like the shame of being.” The idea is that even fiction is self-exposure, -building, and -destruction. Lines like “the character is thin,” “the character is relatable,” “the character has no money or a million US dollars, its easy” are not descriptions; they are professed anxieties. In the essay, Black seems to throw herself onto the page, “the character” held up against a sharp white background for both the author and the reader to examine.

Hannah Black, 'Dark Pool Party' (image courtesy Dominica Publishing)

Hannah Black, ‘Dark Pool Party’ (image courtesy Dominica Publishing)

At times, the pieces in Dark Pool Party feel less like essays and more like installations: each induces a kind of sensory thoroughness (thanks to a consistent yet dynamic style and voice) and begs to be consumed all at once. As I listened to Black course through her text at Lisa Cooley, rocking back and forth while she performed an 18-page piece as a poem, I thought about how my experience of reading the collection — in my bedroom, waiting for the subway, on the subway — always felt both directly contested by time and affected by the surrounding space. Not finishing an essay in one sitting felt like defeat, as if closing the book and resuming a daily routine would erase its unread contents. Black’s work seems meant to be experienced as instantaneously as possible — whether it’s being read by her to you in an eggshell white gallery or by you to yourself while rocking back and forth in a dimly lit subway car.

Perhaps this is because Black collapses time in her work, extracting history from the past and pushing it forward over and over again. In doing so she embraces precariousness and uncertainty, and makes them indelibly present. This is particularly important in writing about race and gender, especially the ways in which the two are directly implicated in each other. In Black’s work, black womanhood is not stated as an ultimate truth with a beginning or an end, but rather as a continuum of questions, broken illusions, contested histories, false starts, and new beginnings. In the penultimate piece, “Long Term Effects,” she implicates race in romance by asking, “Can I’m yours be redeemed from these histories of ownership: of non-black women by non-black men, of black women by everyone?” Redeemed or not, these histories are both contested and alive — being undone today in the very same places they are inscribed. Black’s work is strongest when it enacts this undoing. In Dark Pool Party, confusion is generative. As she does with her videos, Black takes each old construction — whether an image, a fact, a phrase, or an idea — and smashes it, only to consider if something new might be made of the pieces.

Hannah Black’s Dark Pool Party is published by Arcadia Missa and Dominica.

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