The following discussion was recorded at Black Marks That Make up Letters on December 15, 2017. Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Morgan Parker, Simone White, and Meg Onli spoke about how to refuse a language "that has never been able to recognize" the speaker, in the words of James Baldwin; how to alter the reality that is constituted through language; how else to communicate (or refuse to disclose) the experience of blackness, and what kinds of responses might follow.
Language is typically thought to enable the speaker to be understood by others, and not just on the level of a phrase, a question, or an argument, but as a person. Of course, we are disabused of this notion by our daily interactions as well as by critics, philosophers, and poets, and yet we make use of the tools that we hold in common. The artists and writers who are participating in Black Marks That Make up Letters are interested in the inadequacies of language as well as the possibility of communicating—and representing oneself—differently through abstraction, through what the poet Dawn Lundy Martin calls “unrecognizable speech” in “A Bleeding, an Autobiographical Tale” (2007). This brand of speech counters “the tyranny of the prosaic, the beautiful, the poetic utopia,” and characterizes the work of black experimental poets from Amiri Baraka to Claudia Rankine. “Where does language go limp,” Martin asks, and where is it encountered merely as “black marks that make up letters?”
The limits and repercussions of conventional expression, especially for black people in the United States, are of particular concern for the exhibition “Speech/Acts,” which is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and is the occasion for this event. “Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker,” writes James Baldwin in “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” (1979). “Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other—and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.” The exhibition asks how to refuse such a language, how to alter the reality that is constituted through language, how else to communicate (or refuse to disclose) the experience of blackness, and what kinds of responses might follow. This question will be addressed through brief readings and a discussion by Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Morgan Parker, and Simone White, all of whom are participating in “Speech/Acts,” and Meg Onli, the curator of the exhibition.
Black Marks That Make up Letters is organized in collaboration with the ICA and Futurepoem, which are copublishing the forthcoming “Speech/Acts” catalogue. The event is part of Triple Canopy’s Corrected Slogans series, which asks how conceptual strategies have transformed (and might still transform) conventional notions of expression and of reading—both as an exchange between an individual and text and as a public activation of the written word.
Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. In order to ensure that events are accessible and comfortable, we’ll open the doors at 6:30 p.m. and strictly limit admittance to our legal capacity. Please check Triple Canopy’s Facebook and Twitter accounts for updates, as we’ll indicate if events are sold out.
Triple Canopy’s venue is located at 264 Canal Street, 3W, near several Canal Street subway stations. Our floor is accessible by elevator (63" × 60" car, 31" door) and stairway. Due to the age and other characteristics of the building, our bathrooms are not ADA-accessible, though several such bathrooms are located nearby. If you have specific questions about access, please write at least three days before the event and we will make every effort to accommodate you.
- Tiona Nekkia McClodden is a visual artist, filmmaker, and curator whose work explores and critiques issues at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and social commentary. McClodden has exhibited and screened work at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania; Project 4 Gallery (Washington, D.C.); Vox Populi Gallery (Philadelphia); Esther Klein Art Gallery (Philadelphia) On The Ground Floor Gallery (Los Angeles); MoMA PS1 (New York); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, among other venues. McClodden has been awarded the 2016 Pew Fellowship in the Arts; received the 2016 Ossian Arts Research Fellowship under the Jain Family Institute; attended the 2016 Sommerakademie Zentrum Paul Klee as a fellow; and attended the 2015 Flaherty Film Seminar as a Philadelphia Fellow. McClodden is the cocurator of "Julius Eastman: That Which is Fundamental," an interdisciplinary, multiartist project that examines the life, work, and resurgent influence of Julius Eastman, the black, gay minimalist composer and performer.
- Meg Onli is the assistant curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Her 2017 exhibition "Speech/Acts" explores experimental black poetry and how the social and cultural constructs of language have shaped black American experiences. Prior to joining the ICA she was the program coordinator at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. While at the Graham Foundation she worked on the exhibitions "Architecture of Independence: African Modernism" and "Barbara Kasten: Stages." In 2010 she created the website Black Visual Archive for which she was awarded a 2012 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.
- Morgan Parker is the author of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House Books 2017) and Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015). Her third collection of poems, Magical Negro, will be published by Tin House in 2019, and her debut book of nonfiction will be published later that year by One World, an imprint of Random House. Parker's poetry and essays have been published and anthologized in numerous publications, including the Paris Review, The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, Best American Poetry 2016, the New York Times, and the Nation. Parker is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a 2016 Pushcart Prize, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She is the creator and host of Reparations, Live! at the Ace Hotel in New York. With Tommy Pico, she co-curates the Poets With Attitude (PWA) reading series, and with Angel Nafis, she is The Other Black Girl Collective. She is a Sagittarius and lives in Los Angeles.
- Kameelah Janan Rasheed is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist and writer. She works in installation, photography, printmaking, publication, and performance. She is on the faculty of the MFA Fine Arts program at the School of Visual Arts and also works as a social studies curriculum developer for New York public schools. Her work has been exhibited at the 2017 Venice Biennale, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Jack Shainman Gallery, the Queens Museum, the Bronx Museum, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Weeksville Heritage Center, Project Row Houses, National Gallery of Zimbabwe, and Pinchuk Art Centre, among other venues. She is the recipient of awards and honors including the Harpo Foundation Grant, Magnum Foundation Grant, Creative Exchange Lab at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art Residency, Smack Mellon Studio Residency, Queens Museum Jerome Emerging Artist Fellowship, Artadia Grant, Art Matters Grant, and Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant.
- Simone White is the author of Dear Angel of Death (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018), Of Being Dispersed (Futurepoem Books, 2016), Unrest (Ugly Duckling Presse/Dossier Series, 2013), House Envy of All the World (Factory School/Heretical Texts, 2010) and the collaborative poem/painting chapbook Dolly, with Kim Thomas (Q Avenue Press, 2008). A former Cave Canem fellow, she was selected as a New American Poet for Poetry Society of America in 2013 and received a 2017 Whiting Award for poetry. She lives in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.