This paper discusses the practice of contemporary artist Cauleen Smith as an ongoing exploration of the aesthetic and political possibilities of cinematic space, place, and movement. Drawing upon a range of critical frameworks from cultural geography and Black feminism, it locates in Smith’s work an aesthetics and politics of errantry that favors radically nonnormative forms of relation and mobility. Borrowing the term from Martinican novelist and critic Édouard Glissant, and drawing more broadly from his thoroughgoing elucidations of the spatial dynamics of colonialism, the plantation system, and their afterlives, the text frames Smith’s cinematic errantry both as a formal and technological operation and as a political one grounded in a Black feminist praxis of place.
Traditional geographies did, and arguably still do, require black displacement, black placelessness, black labor, and a black population that submissively stays “in place.”—Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, 20061
The way in which a cut can disrupt or cohere our conscious experience of time and space never ceases to enthrall me.—Cauleen Smith
The centerpiece of Cauleen Smith’s major 2019 exhibition at MASS MoCA, We Already Have What We Need, was a moving image installation unlike any I had ever encountered (fig. 1).2 A long, cavernous main hall was divided by a series of tall projection screens extending some twenty-two feet from floor to rafters, where they gave way to a row of ten clerestory windows treated with filters of varying colors, bathing the space in prismatic light. The screens were hoisted with heavy-duty nautical ropes pivoting at the loft and held down by oversize, checkered laundry bags filled with sand. They served at once to parcel up the gallery and as two-channel projection surfaces, the lower quadrant of a given screen host to 35 mm slide projections of photographs taken of Earth from outer space, and on the upper, a live broadcast of one of five distinct scenes originating from miniature cameras arranged at ground level throughout the gallery. The cameras were mounted on small light stands with thick black wires extending from their slight bodies into a meshwork of ropes and cables above, and each stood before one of five long tables bearing a distinct ensemble of objects of obscure provenance (books, potted plants, Polaroids, figurines). At the opposite end of any given table were LCD screens playing video loops depicting a variety of settings (a coral reef, a forest, a city street), furnishing what were in effect rear projections for the miniature theaters of each table. The sounds of wind, chirping birds, and the distant rumblings of a storm filled the atmosphere.
It is hardly possible for a written account to do justice to the sensory and spatial multitudes of Smith’s grandly ambitious installation. Wires and ropes were so many vectors pulling our eyes and bodies elsewhere from any given point in space. (Smith wasted virtually none of the hall’s horizontal or vertical expanse.) Tables, screens, and the spaces between them provided the architecture for such improbable shifts in scale as between a gathering of African figurines, a forest landscape, and the broader solar system. Even the screens with their breathtaking elevation evoked the sails of a ship, as if we had found ourselves on the deck of some wayward maritime vessel. Moving through that space felt like being pulled into the gravitational field of a mysterious cosmic body, with all its aspects conspiring to sustain a motion devoid of a center, origin, or destination. It was as if everything rested on this assemblage not being fixed, on its not being situated in a particular time and place, and that, since any exhibition environment tends toward the properties of a discrete setting, these processes be forestalled.
Smith’s installation was an errant machine hell-bent on repelling the seemingly inevitable workings of situatedness. In this way, it was but one manifestation of a problematic that has animated her practice for years, which has to do with the troubled and often obscure interplay between history, identity, and place. This problematic is perhaps best summed up in Smith’s video Triangle Trade (2017), made in collaboration with Camille Turner and Jérôme Havre, where a character wonders aloud, “Am I connected to a territory? Today, the answer is unimportant. I belong to this world. Do we owe a debt, we who are the creditors of a deportation?”3 These lines furnish an especially direct expression of how Smith’s discourse has sought to undermine the processes whereby the self becomes tied up with a particular location. The physical and psychic shaping of geography has always run parallel to the project of individual and collective self-fashioning, from the seemingly innocuous form of a garden to the conspicuous force of a border wall. Smith’s work reminds us that such endeavors are necessarily violent and exclusionary, and in the US context have occurred at grave expense to Black and Indigenous people. Here the plantation, the reservation, the ghetto, and the prison are points on a spatiotemporal continuum of racial abjection vouchsafing the ongoing filiation of whiteness to the American landscape. Whatever claims to place or mobility one might make for Smith’s films would thus need to be seen amid the violent, world-making prohibitions (at once historical and extant) that have rendered precarious virtually all forms of movement and emplacement on the part of Black and Indigenous people in the US landscape. Ultimately, Smith’s work is less interested in whether that landscape may be redeemed or somehow made amenable to liberation than in how it may be dismantled, and what comes after.
It is against this backdrop that this paper frames Smith’s practice as a novel and ongoing elaboration of the limits and possibilities of cinematic space, place, and movement. Attending to her work from this vantage allows us to account for the productive frictions between, on one hand, the nation’s carceral landscape and its manifold means of immobilizing and capturing bodies coded as other, and on the other, the imaginative capacity of cinema to furnish alternative spatial configurations to mobilize and sustain such bodies. To this end, I trace in Smith’s work an aesthetics and politics of errantry that favors radically divergent forms of movement and spatial relation. Borrowing the term from Martinican poet and critic Édouard Glissant and drawing more broadly on his and other key thinkers’ elaborations of the spatial dynamics of colonialism, slavery, and their afterlives, I frame Smith’s errantry both as a formal and material operation and as a political one grounded in a critique of place and movement as they are normatively construed. Smith’s work inveighs against the spatial tyrannies of white supremacy by resituating cinema’s language and technologies within the psychic, social, and historical milieu of the African diaspora and its attendant aporias.
Notwithstanding the diverse range of approaches and concerns across Smith’s films, each in its own way interrogates the production of space and place from the dislocated positionality of blackness. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that Smith deploys blackness as some quasi-mystical antidote to traditional geographies, but more precisely that her work seizes upon what Katherine McKittrick has termed “the dilemma of black placelessness” at once to explain the violent erasures structuring traditional geographies, to redress that violence (however provisionally or partially) through acts of historical recovery and reconstruction, and to imagine an altogether different praxis of place.4 More than an appeal to inclusion within the prescribed coordinates of a given social order, such a spatial analytic is inherently difficult and disorderly business, for it seeks to locate that which is without place—to again invoke McKittrick, it amounts to a “placing of placelessness” itself, or to “re-placing that which was/is too subhuman, or too irrelevant, or too terrible, to be formally geographic or charted in any way.”5 I cast errantry in Smith’s cinema as a mode of expression keenly attuned to the overlapping histories of racialization and place making, and born of the insight that blackness cannot (and indeed should not) be incorporated within the normative spatial coordinates of dominant institutional, geographic, and social paradigms. Such a Black spatial analytic, as opposed to a spatial analytic of blackness, does not seek to inscribe blackness into the preexisting places of the world. Indeed, errantry seeks meaning, identity, and solidarity not in particular places but rather in their accumulation and continuity, or more precisely in the spaces between them. In short, what underlies Smith’s project is precisely the kind of fundamental reconceptualization of cinematic space necessary for a rigorous account of Black placelessness not only as an effect of white supremacy, but also as an indispensable means of critiquing it, and finally as a mandate to think place otherwise.
Finally, a word about perspective and framing. The films I examine here comprise only a small sampling of the substantial body of work that Smith has built over the last few decades. I center these works because I find that collectively they convey a sense of the sheer range of forms by which errantry expresses in Smith’s work. Just as importantly, I have chosen works that showcase Smith’s deeply involved practice around particular representational techniques, from her unorthodox uses of conventionally cinematic devices such as chroma keying and montage to her repurposing of flag semaphores as a communications technology. By attending closely to her engagement with these and other technologies, I hope to show that errantry registers in Smith’s work not simply at a theoretical or conceptual level but decidedly also at the level of practice. I invite the reader to consider errantry broadly as a relational praxis animated by, and ultimately seeking to transcend, the disjunctures of race and place.
Errantry and Black Spatiality
The more time I spend with Smith’s films, the less I feel I am on solid ground. This sensation of groundlessness reflects a basic way in which Smith’s films never seem to stay put, as if their very reason for being (both individually and together) was to repel any effort to fix them in place, or, worse, to recognize them as innate settings for some essential aspect of Black activity. In this respect, Smith’s work may be seen alongside a current of Black feminist thought that has endeavored to critique the efforts of liberal humanist discourse to enclose blackness. So out of place is this mode of thinking that it bedevils the very premise of blackness constituting a “discursive location” within the landscape of liberal humanist discourse at all.6 Hortense Spillers, a foremost figure of this dissident practice, attests to the “interstitial spaces” occupied by Black people, where “you fall between everyone who has a name, a category, a sponsor, an agenda.”7 For Spillers, blackness is marked not by a particular space and time but by a movement of falling through the interstices of representational structures. In the spatiotemporal order extending from the abyssal event of the Middle Passage to the present, to be Black is to be socially dislocated, confronted at every turn by a “landscape of prohibitions.”8 Building upon the interventions of Spillers and other Black feminist thinkers, Tiffany Lethabo King posits “Black spatiality” as that which lies “outside of (ejected from living within) human space” but is also “necessary (in its negation) for the production of human places.”9 If blackness at once enables the spatial coherence of civil society and is exterior to it, black movement would seem both a precarious and an insurgent thing. As we will see, Glissant suggests precisely such a dual conception of movement with the concept of errantry.
Glissant’s philosophical project may be regarded as the articulation of a global, even cosmic interconnectedness among people and places while avoiding the pitfalls of a totalizing universalism, passive relativism, or fixation on negativity. In this way, his aim is to think difference as a concrete and inexhaustible source of mutual becoming, or what he calls relation. Glissant deploys relation against the prevailing notion of subjectivity in the West as a coherent and selfsame project across the discontinuities of time and space, where difference is neutralized in favor of linearity and totality. Relation takes numerous forms in Glissant’s poetics, but in terms of movement it is overrepresented as errantry (errance). Whereas Glissant aligns the totalitarian impulse of territorial expansion and colonial domination with a movement so linear as to be “arrow-like,” errantry by contrast assumes a circular form. This “circular nomadism” does not work toward closure and is the very antithesis of plotting and trajectory, for its sole directive is to enter into a genuine relation with the other instead of overcoming otherness through conquest or comprehension. “One who is errant,” says Glissant, “strives to know the totality of the world yet already knows he will never accomplish this.”10 Even as errantry unfolds in view of some notion of the absolute or an experience of wholeness, it nevertheless rests on the utter contingency of encounters with obscure singularities, namely people, cultures, and places in the full consequence of their difference. Neither seeking to enclose nor itself susceptible to enclosure, errantry’s quest for meaningful connections to human and nonhuman agents renounces filiation as a means of doing so, for it has no origin or end in any given cultural or geographic situation. Errantry occurs not in or toward people and places, but between them.
One could reasonably wonder what makes errantry any different than, say, exile in its most traumatic and inoperative sense, or even aimless wandering. Or for that matter, how does errantry avoid rehearsing or even (re)mystifying the wayward voyage of the conqueror? These are precisely the questions Glissant anticipates when he contends that “in contrast to arrowlike nomadism (discovery or conquest), in contrast to the situation of exile, errantry gives-on-and with the negation of every pole and every metropolis.”11 Errantry does not merely recast the totalitarian impulse of the conquering voyage or the violent uprooting of exile because its innermost movement cannot be reconciled with territorial thinking or any notion of identity as somehow contiguous with a given place (Glissant calls this “root thinking”). It is only next to concepts like intentional trajectories, center and periphery, and immanent belonging that errantry appears as aimless wandering. Betsy Wing aptly points out, “In errantry one knows at every moment where one is—at every moment in relation to the other.”12 This copresence of a non-teleological contingency on the one hand and a continuity (one could even say identity) on the other is perhaps what most clearly distinguishes errantry from the insurgent countermovement of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s rhizomatic thought (for instance “lines of flight”) or even that of négritude, for, as Glissant attests, errantry “does not proceed from renunciation nor from frustration regarding a supposedly deteriorated (deterrritorialized) situation of origin.”13 Here, it is important to keep in mind that Glissant finds errantry in its most advanced form among people whose connection to the land is both immediate and visceral because they have shaped it with their labor, but also highly tenuous because they have been historically barred from forming substantive material and spiritual claims over it. Importantly, such a situation does not come about accidentally, but is the outcome of a set of historical processes that impel a community to reckon with a history of violence inflicted upon land and people, wresting memory and imagination from the traumatic shards of history. Glissant writes:
The consequences of European expansion…is precisely what forms the basis for a new relationship with the land: not the absolute ontological possession regarded as sacred but the complicity of relation. Those who have endured the land’s constraint, who are perhaps mistrustful of it, who have perhaps attempted to escape it to forget their slavery, have also begun to foster these new connections with it, in which the sacred intolerance of the root, with its sectarian exclusiveness, has no longer any share.14
As this passage makes clear, the shift from what Glissant calls “root identity” to “relation identity” is the function of a displaced and culturally alienated people’s tenuous connection to a given place. This unstable dynamic explains why errantry as “poetics” cannot be achieved through conventional expressive modes, for as Glissant insists, the “misery” of the land is not merely self-evident or transparent but rather “contains a historical dimension” for which “realism alone cannot account.”15 This notion that the land could be regarded as a kind of mutable text most acutely by those historically barred from it is explored at length in Cauleen Smith’s short video Remote Viewing (2009).
The idea for Remote Viewing came from a public radio story concerning an event that took place in Arkansas in the mid-1950s, orally recounted by the Revered James Seawood, who was a boy of nine at the time.16 Faced with a federal mandate to integrate its schools, the town of Sheridan conspired to forcibly remove its Black population. Seawood and his mother, who was a teacher in the town’s lone Black school, ultimately left as well, but not before witnessing a bulldozer dig a giant hole and bury their schoolhouse. Regardless of the historical veracity of Seawood’s account, the image of a buried Black school has the basic power of elaborating the spatial hydraulics of racial abjection, whereby Black people are subjected to a radical contingency of space, deferred infinitely to an elsewhere (recall Spillers’s “falling”). In the 1950s, this often took the form of entire Black populations being exiled, as with the Sheridan case, or the infamous example of Prince Edward County, Virginia, where leaders opted to defund their public schools rather than integrate them. Today, while racial abjection assumes such novel forms as district gerrymandering or the rhetorical gymnastics of white parents who repudiate busing as a “transportation” issue, its basic effects have hardly changed. The spectacular failure of desegregation in the United States bespeaks a prevailing conception of blackness as a threat to the structural integrity of civil society, and this is no less true of the idea of a school itself. Seawood’s story is a reminder that success in the US public education system is overwhelmingly aligned with whiteness, and that every exemplary school has a buried “Negro schoolhouse” as its foundation.
Remote Viewing reimagines Seawood’s account less in narrative terms than in almost strictly audiovisual ones. In a wide shot we see a life-size re-creation of the schoolhouse situated in a desert landscape and framed by a wall of chroma-keying fabric held up by scaffolding in the proximate background—effectively a giant green screen. A bulldozer enters the scene and proceeds to excavate the earth in front of the building. In the remaining fourteen minutes, a twenty-foot hole is dug, the schoolhouse is pushed in, and earth is poured over and flattened (fig. 2). Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Smith’s video is also most pertinent for the purposes of this discussion: namely, the fact of the green screen itself, which is simultaneously conspicuous throughout Remote Viewing but strangely nonfunctional, almost unremarked upon. The whole point of incorporating a green screen is that it allows for chroma-keying, a common postproduction technique used to layer two or more images into a single composite shot.
Staging a scene before a green screen of course makes it possible to displace that content onto virtually any background. More broadly, however, chroma keying enables a theoretically infinite number of configurations among otherwise distinct images within a given shot. This fundamentally loosens up the spatial dynamics of the frame, making for a basic interchangeability between character and setting, between figure and landscape, so that bodies may be moved from their “original” surroundings to any location. In a sense, a green screen provides an intuitive if manifestly inadequate spatial metaphor for the psychic and material economies of the plantation system and its afterlives. In her well-known account of fungibility, Saidiya Hartman suggests that the captive slave’s value lies not in their labor power but in the “replaceability and interchangeability endemic to the commodity,” such that their very body becomes “an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of others’ feelings, ideas, desires, and values.”17 As Hartman’s study powerfully attests, a sentient being whose body is operationalized as fungible—inexhaustibly malleable, exchangeable, modular—is barred not only from obtaining the rights of civil society but from the very spatiotemporal coordinates preconditioning the subject’s social coherence in the first place. On one level, Remote Viewing suggests the green screen as a spatial figure of that economy of abjection where Black bodies are moved arbitrarily along the social, material, and psychic coordinates of the relational map of white culture. It is difficult to imagine a more precarious form of mobility.
But if Remote Viewing casts the green screen under a critical light as a figure of white (spatial) power, it is because Smith does not engage the technology’s normative function as a postproduction compositing tool. Having framed the action with keying fabric, Smith could have easily extracted the schoolhouse from the landscape (or vice versa) with relatively basic postproduction software. Rather than seize upon this plasticity of figure and ground, Smith (re)casts the green screen simultaneously as a constituent element of the mise-en-scène and as a visual symbol of the psychic and symbolic processes that render Black bodies and places fungible. Consider the closing image of the video: a wide shot of the solitary green screen, resembling some monument in the desert landscape (fig. 3). To reiterate: a green screen is not merely a technological assemblage enabling certain visual effects, but the infrastructure of an arbitrarily expansive field of figure-ground relations. In this way, a green screen reflects the basic human capacity to imagine one’s body, or those of others, in any number of spatial situations. Seen in this way, we could say that the final image with which Smith’s film leaves us is essentially that of place itself. By simply repurposing the green screen as a framing device for this theater of racial abjection, Remote Viewing confronts viewers with the violence underlying virtually any project of place making. The critical impulse of Smith’s film thus hinges on an invitation to regard space not only horizontally but (as it were) vertically, recalling Jared Sexton’s assertion that “Black life is not lived in the world” but rather “underground, in outer space.”18 This radically peripheral or interstitial positionality of blackness in turn bears out in the way Remote Viewing depicts people, and this is where we find errantry more explicitly operative.
The two principal actors portrayed in Smith’s video, presumably stand-ins for the young Seawood and his mother, are first seen together, blurry and backgrounded by vegetation, standing beside a mound of excavated earth and framed from behind by a vertical keying wall (fig. 4). The staging and lensing here already suggest an air of fungibility, a pervading threat to any coherence of character, setting, and action, as if the two could be erased or displaced at any moment. In a subsequent (in-focus) medium shot, we see the boy extract a magnifying glass from his pocket and bring it to his eye, gazing into the camera—a gesture that quickly undermines the idea that he is merely a passive witness to this event of burial (fig. 5). At one point, the woman and the boy move together along various points in the landscape, their facial expressions and comportment bespeaking neither anger nor fear as they take stock of this violent incision into the earth from multiple angles. Later, we see the woman walking along the edges of the hole as though she were committing its shape and volume to some psychic map. Meanwhile, the boy, having found a perch atop a mound of excavated earth, gazes downward into the abyss. The last time we see him is at the end of an upward tilt of the camera from the hole’s interior, framed precariously between the upper edge of the frame and the chasm below. This upward tilt itself seems to risk reinforcing the course of falling charted by this violent act of burial in the first place. The boy stands still and meets the camera’s gaze for a beat, then turns around and takes his leave toward the upper edge of the unmoving frame. We are made to watch, to register this act of self-removal as he gradually departs the space, becoming smaller in the frame as he straddles its edge (fig. 6). Throughout Remote Viewing, the mechanics of fungibility, which beyond the green screen itself manifest as excavation, burial, and stillness, are countered by moments of errant movement, detection, and flight. Smith mobilizes the Seawood figures within the landscape of this non-place not only to enliven it but also to critique the means by which (white) space is stabilized through the erasure of Black bodies and places.
The spatial mechanics of fungibility take on further historical and metaphysical implications in Smith’s film Egungun: Ancestors Can’t Find Me (2017). The sole figure in the piece is an incorporeal entity clad in shells and seaweed, wandering in an island landscape. Throughout, Smith subjects the film’s visual field to effects of fragmentation (for instance jump cuts), distortion (such as sudden shifts in color grading and visual noise), and repetition to endow both the figure and landscape with an elusive, tenuous quality (fig. 7). At one point, we see the creature emerge from the ocean and pick up a long ax as if embarking upon some unknown mission. As the entity moves toward land, static televisual noise enters the sound and image tracks, followed by a series of disorienting close-ups of watery surfaces, the creature barely distinguishable below as an abstract, kaleidoscopic form. Gestures and movements such as these recur throughout the film without added clarity as to their meaning or purpose. While Smith inserts certain visual cues to give viewers the impression that something of narrative consequence is happening, the film ultimately suggests little beyond an arbitrary series of disjointed movements set on a loop, as if something were being tested but not working, as if the alchemy of character and setting were off. What is it precisely that falters?
Consider the title of Smith’s film: a nod to the elaborate masquerades produced by the Yoruba of West Africa in ancestral reverence and invocation. This could support a reading of Egungun as itself a ritual act meant to bridge the spatiotemporal divides among Yoruba ancestors and their descendants. But the subtitle, Ancestors Can’t Find Me, complicates such a reading by positing an obstruction in the metaphysical relay between points on a genealogical map. “On the slave ship,” Glissant writes, “we lost our languages, our gods, all familiar objects, songs, everything. We lost everything. All we had left was traces.”19 Here is an inventory of loss resulting from the historical abyss of the Middle Passage—one that dispossesses an entire population of its cosmology, and by extension a sense of narrative continuity across time and space. By besieging the act of ancestral invocation with such an array of audiovisual abstractions, Egungun gives expression to the inevitable failure of any attempt to resolve the spatiotemporal caesura of Atlantic.
We could take such a pessimistic reading even further by pointing out the ways in which Egungun effects a series of slippages between human and natural domains. This occurs first through the figure of the ancestor, which, while coded in particular ways as Black and human, is a hybrid assemblage of various synthetic fibers, marine exoskeletons, and macroalgae. Human and natural registers are also mixed by the film’s jagged editing, which moves rapidly between images of the creature situated on the land and somewhat precariously embedded within its layers of water, vegetation, and soil. This turbulent movement between appearance and disappearance, between emplacement within and dissolution into the landscape, culminates in yet another act of burial when the creature digs a hole and covers itself with earth (fig. 8).
We should first acknowledge that the insistence with which Egungun blurs the borders between human and natural domains to some extent risks rehearsing a settler-colonialist perceptual paradigm that, as Tiffany Lethabo King characterizes it, rests upon the imaginative capacity to see Black flesh as “part of the vegetation and the abstract space of terra nullius.”20 Confusing human and natural boundaries in this way divests beings of their social and historical coordinates, much as it severs a given place from its ecological context, thereby freeing up both human and nonhuman matter as raw, mutable material for consumption and exchange. From this perspective, it is ironically by means of the dynamic, swirling interplay between body and landscape that Egungun may be said to reproduce the violence of fungibility, acting as a cautionary lure into an optical prehistory of colonial violence and enslavement. Nevertheless, if I dwell at all on the perils of blurring human and nonhuman domains, it is not to cast Egungun as a violent or wholly pessimistic work but rather to bring its politics into sharper relief. Egungun was shot on Captiva Island off the southwest coast of Florida, which was inhabited by the Calusa Indians when the first Spanish explorers arrived there in the early sixteenth century. In the years that followed, the Calusa were besieged by disease carried to the continent by European colonists and invasions by warring tribes armed by the British, and some were even captured and sold into slavery.21 When the British acquired Florida in 1763, the few remaining Calusa are thought to have left for Cuba. Given the Calusa’s well-documented practice of using shells for tools and ornamentation, it would be reasonable to read the shell-adorned figure in Egungun as a hybrid assemblage of Calusan and Yoruban signifiers.22
One can find throughout Smith’s work a deep engagement with historical Indigenous relationships to the natural environment as a way of thinking through a whole ensemble of questions around place, identity, and belonging. Noting the tendency of English words to divide the world into (and distinguish between) people, places, and things, Smith alludes to those Anishinaabe languages of North America that confer the status of being onto a diverse range of matter:
So water is a being, trees are beings, grasses are referred to as a being. Can you imagine our country if instead of eradicating this world view, we had studied it, incorporated it, and embraced it? Can you imagine? So that’s what I’m thinking about now. Imagining a country in which we are able to recognize the consciousness and life-force of everything around you, people, places, things all alive and all worthy of respect and consideration and love.23
Indeed, if we adjust our perspective slightly here, we could read the techniques of abstraction and nonlinearity in Egungun less as fixing human and nonhuman matter as fungible, and more as endowing both with the animacy of being. In this way, the blurring effected by Smith’s film, whether between indigeneity and blackness or figure and landscape, appear less as acts of violent abstraction, a function of colonial optics, and more as occasions for relation. Such a counter-optics would be in keeping with what Glissant refers to as “the right to opacity,” a basic sense of difference or otherness that propels errantry and sustains the thought of relation in the first place. In this sense, Glissant seems keen on forestalling a strictly dialectical conception of relation, urging readers to “give up this old obsession with discovering what lies at the bottom of natures,” and thereby jettisoning the “obsolete duality” of “self” and “other.”24 For Glissant, opacity’s mandate is a deferral at once to the totality of beings as well as to the fundamental singularity and obscurity granted to each being across the “weave” of relation. The right to opacity in Glissant’s thought applies not only to human agents, but to the nonhuman domain as well. This includes the land itself. Take the following passage from one of his prolonged discussions of Creole folktales: “The relationship with the land, one that is even more threatened because the community is alienated from the land, becomes so fundamental in this discourse that landscape stops being merely decorative or supportive and emerges as a full character.”25 Note the almost animistic tenor to this account of landscape as it moves from passive, raw background material to agent in the fore. This is not the product of magical thinking but of a difficult and in some ways mutual history of oppression, of being rendered fungible, between a community and the natural environment.
Elsewhere, Glissant notes the tendency of these stories to treat landscape not as a fixed locale or even set of geographic features but as “succeeding spaces through which one journeys,” since, as the author insists, “landscape of the folktale is not meant to be inhabited” but to be regarded as “a place you pass through, it is not yet a country.”26 As elsewhere, here we find Glissant immersed in the thicket of relation, having set about the difficult task of imagining a form of being between people and places that not only resists claims to possession or ownership but in its very movement repels the lure of filiation. The arduousness and the patience required of such imaginative labor bears out in Smith’s own statements about the aporias of belonging and place, as when regarding her avatar’s volcanic domicile in Triangle Trade she suggests, with characteristic humor, “Really, the only place you can arrive at and settle in without doing harm is at a lava berg.”27 How is one to be in place but without power? How can a particular place be a site of gathering or community without perpetuating racial abjection, mystifying colonial violence, or even creating new filiations between identity and land? These are some of the questions Smith confronts us with, powerfully, and without resolving them.
In the MASS MoCA exhibition, Egungun was set on a looped projection facing four chairs created by the artist from reclaimed polyester cord and artificial hair—strange materials constituting strange seating for a whole cast of strangers who would find themselves in that projection space. This configuration, appropriately titled Quorum (2019), was in turn backlit by a series of LEE filters of various colors affixed to individual panes of glass comprising the room’s grand postindustrial windows (fig. 9). Entitled Weather (2019), this assemblage cast the space in a bath of color depending on meteorological factors, leveraging the movement of the Earth around the sun in service to the unknown and unplanned, just as Quorum seized upon the errant movement of bodies through the gallery in view of some emergent, collective deliberation around Egungun. These movements occurring at human, planetary, and even cosmological levels together furnished an ensemble of productive contingencies, which in turn made for an ever-changing setting capable of sustaining the errant movement of Egungun.
In the two case studies we have examined so far, mobility assumes a tenuous and even precarious form. This is because both films are at once spatially constrained and geographically nonspecific, even abstract. Moreover, both films suggest a combustive and even violent dynamic between the bodies that populate them and a larger spatial order that constrains movement and threatens enclosure. We have also seen the other side of errantry in certain instances, whether in the steady peripatetic witness of the Seawood figures, the immanent ambiguity of the ancestor as a figure of captivity and fugitivity, blackness and indigeneity, and even in the disorderly, contingent field of movement orchestrated in the gallery exhibition of Egungun. All of this is to say that we have so far remained in an early stage or nascent form of errantry. In Smith’s films Pilgrim (2017) and Sojourner (2018), discussed below, errantry manifests in a more advanced and even exultant form.
The Character of Setting
During the end credits in Pilgrim, Smith jettisons the customary attribution of roles to performers and instead acknowledges the contributions of three distinct places or “Locations in Order of Appearance,” including a Vedantic center in California, the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and the onetime site of a Shaker community in upstate New York. Pilgrim is a film acutely focused on places and the relations between them. However, roughly its first half holds space for a single setting: Sai Anantam Ashram in Agoura, California. For nearly three decades, this was home to a multifaith spiritual community established in 1976 by the legendary musician and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane. In keeping with what William David Hart has characterized as the “Afro-eccentricity” of Black spirituality, Coltrane built a hybrid and thoroughly global practice based on affinities between such ostensibly disparate discourses as gospel music and Hindu mysticism, while modeling an expansive vision of Black womanhood in virtually all aspects of her life.28 But if Coltrane and her Vedantic center take up much real estate in Smith’s film, this is due less to any geographic or even biographical features specific to a particular place or person than to the radically relational nature of Coltrane’s discourse.
Pilgrim opens on the sound of Coltrane introducing her track “One for the Father” at a live performance from the 1970s, and subsequently takes off as she launches into a booming, ecstatic piano solo that aspires to match the very rhythms and pulsations of the cosmos. Working as a visual accompaniment to Coltrane’s roving percussion, Smith’s editing carries us through the premises of the Vedantic center, including its meditation and performance spaces, a sun-dappled room containing her electric organ, and a tree dedicated her late husband, John Coltrane. Near the midway point of the film, we get a kind of retroactive establishing shot in a wide-angle view of the premises: a stout white building tucked in the Santa Monica Mountains beneath a brilliant blue sky. This shot lasts a long time compared to those before it, but just as the film appears to settle into this image, another space—namely, the Watts Towers in Los Angeles—begins to populate the visual field by way of a gradual cross-dissolve (fig. 10). Both shots subsequently cohabit the frame for roughly twenty seconds.
Unlike that of the Vedantic center, the Watts Towers footage is immediately distinguished by the fact that it originated on motion picture film (one notices for example the graininess, square aspect ratio, and visible frame lines). This new imagery is also marked by a higher frame rate and shaky motion as the camera proceeds restlessly toward the structures. What happens here is an especially direct visual expression of what Glissant characterizes as errantry’s “anxious, chaotic quest,” over which “majestic harmony has no claim.”29 It is as if the film were impelled to take leave of the tranquil stillness of Coltrane’s ashram for the spiraling waywardness of Simon Rodia’s sculptures. Because the overarching point is that the film does take leave in this moment, that it does build and sustain momentum. But even as it does so, the distended nature of the dissolve undermines such a decisive sense of departure.
The classical function of the dissolve is to carry the viewer over a temporal chasm or into another setting in a syntactically “soft” manner by blunting the edges of the cut. But, as Christian Metz writes, when a lap dissolve occurs, “the moment of travel is emphasized and expanded.…By hesitating a little on the threshold of a textual bifurcation, the text makes us attend more closely to the fact that it performs a weaving operation, to the fact that it is always adding something.”30 All cinematic transitions have an additive as well as subtractive valence, and the dissolve is particularly prone to revealing both. This inherently poses a risk to the tidy operations of cinematic continuity, unburdening images of their obligation to preserve discrete spatial and temporal markers. The dissolve in Pilgrim is especially noteworthy for how long it dwells within that moment of travel. In its course, even as we remain oriented in the “here” of Coltrane’s ashram, the film insists upon the proximate “elsewhere” of Watts fifty miles southeast. By the time the shot of the Ashram does wink out, its evacuation feels tentative since our perception has been attuned to a prevailing totality that cannot be fully expressed through any orientational fixity on, or specificity of, a given landscape. As Glissant writes, “The thinking of errantry conceives of totality but willingly renounces any claims to sum it up or to possess it.”31 Glissant perceived the workings of errantry not only in literary forms but in visual ones as well, as when he characterized the work of Chilean painter Roberto Matta as effecting a “visible continuity between inside and outside, the dazzling convergence of here and elsewhere.”32 The dissolve in Pilgrim suggests precisely such a convergence. When Smith distends the space between shots in this way, we dwell there for long enough to get a sense of the dissolve itself as a location. Would dwelling anywhere else not risk falling captive to the lure of filiation?
The Watts Towers in fact take up only a small portion of screen time, as the attention of Pilgrim is displaced in its second half to the Watervliet Shaker Historic District in upstate New York, which among other things is where the Black spiritualist and itinerant pastor Rebecca Cox Jackson became a Shaker (fig. 11). Again, the imagery here is distinguished from the film’s earlier footage by frenetic motion and a seemingly insatiable visual curiosity. In a tour-de-force sequence depicting one of the extant gardens, viewers are treated to a procession of floral imagery as Smith’s camera moves in close on hyssop, buttercup, indigo, rhubarb, and daisy as if to take in their scent (fig. 12). The editing also becomes more erratic during this sequence. Hard cuts accentuating Coltrane’s furious, staccato notes and multiple superimpositions of similar frames endow these moments with a euphoric, hallucinatory air as the landscape itself seems to come alive. Despite its content, Pilgrim resists the pastoral lure to see the rural as a space of calmful rejuvenation far from the hectic centers of modernity, jettisoning binaries of center-periphery and instead seizing upon the latent historical, conceptual, and aesthetic affinities between distinct landscapes to suggest their place within a larger totality thought and felt.
Further advancing the aesthetic as well as political implications of errantry put forward by Pilgrim, Smith’s film Sojourner gathers an even broader and unlikelier array of landscapes. Roughly the first quarter of Sojourner consists of grainy but shimmering images rendered on 16 mm film stock, and unfolds to the questing, resplendent incantations of Coltrane’s electric organ. It opens on an inner-city neighborhood street, with Smith’s camera tracing the scenery in an extended, roving pan before settling on a horse pasture at the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia, the first of Sojourner’s procession of settings. Two landscapes otherwise held apart cohabit these opening frames, as so many boarded-up windows, chain-link fences, and involuntary parks generally coded as urban and Black swirl together with rural and rustic signifiers typically coded as white (fig. 13). By opening on such a capacious setting, Sojourner immediately announces its restless, errant drive to uproot ossified filiations between identity and geography. Even the title, a nod to the famed US abolitionist Sojourner Truth, conceives errantry as an end in itself—an almost sacred mandate in its own right.
As with Pilgrim, these early sequences of Sojourner depict little in the way of people and focus primarily on places. As such, Smith’s editing becomes the principal source of errantry as she weaves together disparate locations in Philadelphia (including the onetime residences of John Coltrane and Sun Ra, and the supposed site of Jackson’s Black Shaker community), upstate New York (again, Watervliet), and eventually California. Underscoring this emergent creative geography, on the soundtrack Coltrane and her chorus repeatedly chant, “When I told you to come to California / you knew I would meet you in California.” The appeal to assembly implicit in Coltrane’s lyrics and the restless accumulation of disparate landscapes on the part of Smith’s editing both conspire to mobilize bodies and places in view of a larger totality. What “California” thus names here is less a discrete territory than an emergent, combinatory landscape of collective movement. The immanently mixed character of this geography is made apparent in an elegant series of transitions when Smith cuts from evening footage of a Shaker cemetery to a shot of the moon in the night sky, which dissolves to a wide shot of Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park outside of Los Angeles, the erstwhile “moon” now appearing in this sky as the “sun” (fig. 14). Through this dissolve, one celestial body is substituted for another, as if the film were leveraging the elliptical rotation of Earth and moon as a means of bridging the otherwise vast geographic divide between New York and California.
All this eventually leads into a sequence of images involving a central figure of Sojourner: the semaphore flag telegrapher. Something of an anachronism, this figure harkens back to the nineteenth-century maritime world, when flag signaling was a primary means of relaying information between ships or from ship to shore. This technology initially took the form of an optical telegraph system developed by the French inventor Claude Chappe, in which signs coordinated by an assemblage of movable arms were transmitted between relay stations placed strategically at high points several miles apart.33 In flag semaphore, which later developed out of Chappe’s system and is still used today, though to a much lesser extent than in the 1800s, the principle is largely the same but depends on the positioning of two handheld flags (or similar instruments) to encode messages. Unlike the sorts of flags that predominate in schools, transportation hubs, government buildings, borders, and neighborhoods, these flags would be of little help when it comes to aligning a particular location with a larger identity, institution, or ideology. And because they encode information syntactically, in moments of stillness between motions, semaphore flags have little in common with those bearing national signs.
Smith repurposes this relatively obscure and largely obsolete communications technology in Sojourner to orchestrate a cinematic communication relay between diverse groups of flag telegraphers positioned at various locations in a California nature preserve and the renowned South Side Community Art Center in Chicago.34 She cuts fluidly between the telegraphers as they signal back and forth across this two-thousand-mile divide rendered virtually negligible by montage (fig. 15). In the absence of a clear narrative or even thematic hinge between these disparate locales, Smith deploys semaphore telegraphy to hold the film’s turbulent accumulation of landscapes in balance. As if acclimating the viewer to the film’s ecstatic displacements and unfamiliar space-time, these wordless gestures of navigational assistance posit the film itself as a kind of maritime vessel moving among islands of an imaginary archipelago.
Following the telegraphy sequence, we find ourselves in Coltrane’s Sai Anantam Ashram. As with Pilgrim, the Vedantic center serves as something of a portal to Watts. In this case, however, to make this leap Smith furnishes a medium shot depicting a framed photograph of Coltrane atop an altar in the Vedantic center. We infer that Smith was nearing the end of a roll of film, as we see the light begin to leak in and overwhelm the image, at which point Smith cuts to a wide shot (the footage switching from 16 mm film stock to HD video) of the sun setting over the Watts neighborhood. This transition from the light leak to the sun emanating golden light effects a graphic match cut of sorts coordinated at once by a visual rhyme and by the elliptical orbit of the Earth around the sun. This deceptively humble cut does much to convey a larger sense of a nonlinear but deeply consequential journey through time and space—one that implicates viewers as much as the bodies and places that populate the film itself.
Watts is the pivot point for the principal action in the rest of Sojourner. We witness the slow, discursive travels of series of banners created by Smith spelling out one of Coltrane’s fragments: “At dawn, sit at the feet of action. At noon, be at the hand of might. At eventide, be so big that sky will learn sky.” With each successive line, Coltrane’s divination evokes a body so large that it defies familiar spatial coordinates (“so big that sky will learn sky”). Such metaphysical visions of individual and collective movement abound in Sojourner, not least in the film’s soundtrack, which includes vocal recordings of writings by visionary Black women, including Rebecca Cox Jackson, the Combahee River Collective, and Coltrane herself. Another of Coltrane’s fragments is especially noteworthy in this regard. “In an astral body,” she reflects, “you can fly through glass, through a brick wall of a building, or through any material obstruction without pain or impact, and you can move on air smoothly and swiftly without stepping and foot pedaling like a human being.” To underscore this ecstatic vision of boundless movement, Smith cuts to a sequence of images showing the banner carriers on a California beach. At one point, they appear to take flight as Smith frames their ambulation against a horizonless blue sky. She then cuts to footage of a political rally in Chicago’s South Side organized by a Black-led anti-racist community activist group (fig. 16).35 Mediating this transition is a sound bridge containing more of Coltrane’s meditations: “When traveling through some of the astral worlds, I find a beauty that is rarely seen on this Earth. The health and vitality of departed souls from this Earth is remarkably good.” This unlikely detour from California’s rugged coastline to Chicago’s South Side is Smith’s cinematic interpretation of Coltrane’s boundary-defying, Black feminist vision of movement.
In a manifesto from 2012, Smith attests that “the true power of the Moving-Image is its resistance to plot. Images resist.”36 This is not a wholesale repudiation of story per se but rather of a narrative mode that affixes bodies to particular trajectories and draws boundaries around places. Smith’s insistence that “images resist” plot is thus essentially a mandate to move beyond the prescribed spatial coordinates of the Western realist narrative tradition. But this is a matter not only of form, but also of politics. As Smith points out elsewhere, “Hoarding a plot of land for a tiny family while thousands of people live in tents on the streets of LA are linked on the spectrum emitted from our current social/economic prism.”37 The above remarks reflect two seemingly distinct definitions of the word “plot”—the capitalist appropriation of land as property, and the narrative harnessing of space and time as setting. In an important sense, however, these senses of plot are fundamentally related. As Amitav Ghosh contends, setting is founded upon a “series of successive exclusions” whereby the “landscape is pushed farther and farther into the background.” A subtractive and extractive enterprise that parcels up space and obfuscates the connections among places, setting for Ghosh furnishes a metaphor for the nation-state itself, “that ultimate instance of discontinuity.”38 Not only the nation, but the neighborhood, the reservation, the colony, the plantation, the prison, the detention camp, the ghetto, the home—these seemingly discrete but in fact interwoven spaces are the constitutive settings of a global racial capitalist order. That order is safeguarded by the fact that most of us, in our daily lived experience, do not perceive such spaces as part of broader continuum. Our mental maps, our politics, and our stories are tailored more to atomization and separation than relation. In a world increasingly divided, on edge, and striated, Smith’s cinema represents the possibility of charting a different course.
I would like to thank Pamela Robertson Wojcik and Paula J. Massood for the invitation to contribute to this special issue, as well as the anonymous reader who provided invaluable feedback on the submitted draft. I am also grateful to Jennifer Bean and Xin Peng at Feminist Media Histories, and to Susan Cross, Isabel Quintana Wulf, Hayley Blackstone, and Cauleen Smith.
Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 9.
The exhibition was curated by Susan Cross and was on view from May 25, 2019, through March 15, 2020, terminating just as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in North America.
For an excellent discussion of Triangle Trade in particular, and more broadly of how the critique of humanism by Black and Indigenous artists and scholars may nuance the art historical/new materialist discourse around nonhuman agency, see Rebecca Zorach, “‘Welcome to My Volcano’: Art History, New Materialism, and Their Others,” in Ecologies, Agents, Terrains, ed. Christopher P. Heuer and Rebecca Zorach (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 147–66.
McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, 34.
McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, 33–34.
James Bliss, “Black Feminism Out of Place,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41, no. 4 (Spring 2016): 727–49.
Hortense Spillers quoted in “Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35, nos. 1/2 (Spring–Summer 2007), 308, my emphasis.
Hortense Spillers, “Peter’s Pans: Eating in the Diaspora,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 13.
Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 121.
Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 20.
Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 19. As John Drabrinski clarifies, “Without a territory to be firstly deterritorialized, circular nomadology begins with something other than, as with Deleuze and Guattari, the compulsion to ward off the state apparatus.…Rather than liberate life from the death-culture of totalitarianism and the re-calcification of compact nation-states, circular nomadism, in Glissant’s hands, forges Relation as an already creole and creolizing life. This life, which is already in Relation’s open and unexpected field of mixture and difference, is constituted as abyssal beginning.” John E. Drabrinski, Glissant and the Middle Passage: Philosophy, Beginning, Abyss (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 132.
Betsy Wing, translator’s introduction, in Glissant, Poetics of Relation, xvi.
Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 18.
Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 147.
Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, trans. J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989), 105.
Reverend James Seawood and Katie Simon, “A Minister Recalls the Pain of Segregation,” StoryCorps, NPR Morning Edition, February 20, 2009, https://storycorps.org/stories/reverend-james-seawood/.
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21, my emphasis.
Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” InTensions, no. 5 (Fall–Winter 2011): 28.
Glissant quoted Édouard Glissant: One World in Relation (New York and Paris: Manthia Diawara/K’a Yéléma Productions, 2009).
Tiffany Lethabo King, “The Labor of (Re)reading Plantation Landscapes Fungible(ly),” Antipode 48, no. 4 (2016): 1028. Also see King’s illuminating discussion of this imaginary in The Black Shoals, 124–28.
See “The Calusa: ‘The Shell Indians,’” https://fcit.usf.edu/florida/lessons/calusa/calusa1.htm.
Cauleen Smith quoted in Amanda Dalla Villa Adams, “Building Future Worlds: In Conversation with Cauleen Smith,” Burnaway, February 7, 2019, https://burnaway.org/magazine/cauleen-smith-interview/. Also see discussion of “the animacy of grammar” in Anishinaabe languages in Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 48–59.
Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 190.
Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, 105.
Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, 129–30, my emphasis.
Cauleen Smith, “Cauleen Smith Discusses Her Collaborative Work at Gallery TPW in Toronto,” Artforum, October 10, 2017, https://www.artforum.com/words/id=71562, cited in Zorach, “‘Welcome to My Volcano,’” 160n21.
William David Hart, Afro-Eccentricity: Beyond the Standard Narrative of Black Religion (New York: Macmillan, 2011).
Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, 107.
Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. Celia Britton et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 276.
Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 21.
Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, 117.
Chappe’s system was adopted widely in France but was also taken up by the British Admiralty and implemented in some form on every continent except Asia and Antarctica in the first half of the nineteenth century. See Geoffrey Wilson, The Old Telegraphs (London: Phillimore, 1976), ch. 2 and 3, cited in Alexander J. Field, “French Optical Telegraphy, 1793–1855: Hardware, Software, Administration,” Technology and Culture 35, no. 2 (April 1994): 315–47.
The SSCAC has been an indispensable hub for Black cultural production in Chicago since its inception in 1940 as the first Black arts institution in the United States.
The activist group depicted in Sojourner is the R3 Coalition: Resist, Reimagine, Rebuild. R3’s lead organizer, Dr. Barbara Ransby, features prominently in Smith’s film as well.
Kelly Gabron, The Association for the Advancement of Cinematic Creative Maladjustment: A Manifesto (New York: Nationsack Filmworks, 2012), 7.
Cauleen Smith in conversation with Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Song for Earth and Folk,” Vdrome, July 2018, https://www.vdrome.org/cauleen-smith.
Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 59.