Interview with liquid blackness Editors Alessandra Raengo and Lauren McLeod Cramer

In keeping with the “Raise UP” theme of University Press Week, we’re excited to spotlight the addition of liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies, an open-access journal, to our publishing program starting with its special issue “Liquidity” this spring. The journal seeks to carve out a place for aesthetic theory and the most radical agenda of Black studies to come together in productive ways. Founding editors Alessandra Raengo and Lauren McLeod Cramer recently discussed with us the creation of liquid blackness, the importance of the journal being open access, and the journal’s relationship with our current climate.

DUP: How did liquid blackness come to be?

Alessandra Raengo, founding coeditor of liquid blackness

The liquid blackness journal began informally; it emerged from the liquid blackness research group, which Alessandra began in Fall 2013 with the support and assistance of graduate students and alumni of the doctoral program in Moving Image Studies at Georgia State University. Without an institutional mandate, the group came together in response to a curatorial project we inherited: “The LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black American Cinema tour” curated from the UCLA Film and Television archive. In the summer 2013, Matthew Bernstein, chair of Film and Media Studies at Emory University, asked Alessandra if she would co-host the tour with him. The question immediately became: how does one create the right environment for this material? Beyond gathering an audience for these films, creating an “environment” meant organizing a community experience because this collection of films constitutes a type of radical cinema made with, and from, communities of color in Los Angeles. Along with free screenings and artist talks, we hosted a series of teach-ins and community conversations in historically significant sites of political gathering in Atlanta. 

At the end of the tour, Alessandra asked the students involved in this project to write about it. That first journal issue is really an expression of our commitment to two archives. First, we were thinking about giving back and giving thanks to the UCLA archival project, from which we had just benefited, by accounting for our experience of watching these works that were previously very difficult to see. At the same time, that inaugural issue was a way to begin to reflect on, and therefore assemble, a record of our own collective processes and emerging praxis. The first editorial board—Lauren McLeod Cramer, Kristin Juarez, Michele Prettyman, and Cameron Kunzelman—formed around the production of this issue. And this has been the praxis since.

From this initial gesture of “giving back” to an existing archive of Black expressive culture, while reflecting on liquid blackness as a potential emerging archive, the journal became profoundly intertwined with the group’s activities: each research project would culminate in a public event featuring a practicing artist and a call for papers. For example, the research project on Larry Clark’s Passing Through inspired a journal issue on “The Arts and Politics of the Jazz Ensemble,” the research on Arthur Jafa’s Dreams are Colder than Death prompted an issue on “Black Ontology and the Love of Blackness,” and our approach to Kahlil Joseph’s aesthetics was channeled in an issue focused on “Holding Blackness: Aesthetics of Suspension.”

Over time and through this organic approach, the journal grew into a forum for the exploration of Blackness in contemporary visual and sonic arts and popular culture at the intersection between the politics and ethics of aesthetics. “Liquidity” thus designates, among other things, a commitment to generative entanglements and to follow processes of intellectual production that are inspired by the experimental style of the jazz ensemble, which is what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney identified as a productive model for their idea of “Black study.”

DUP: How does the journal fit into our current climate?

Lauren McLeod Cramer, founding coeditor of liquid blackness

liquid blackness became a nonprofit in 2019, so over the last year we’ve had the opportunity to make explicit some of the core values that have inspired our praxis since the beginning. Our goal is to mentor the next generation of scholars of color and other scholars fully committed to the agenda of Black studies, while creating a vibrant, extended, and sustainable community. This journal is entirely committed to the aim and scope of Black studies: centering on Blackness—Black people and Black art—and critiquing Western civilization’s attachment to the project of whiteness. As we condemn the atmospheric reach of anti-Blackness, we also make the rejection of white supremacy and privilege the goal of our scholarly pursuits. 

While we are devastated by this summer’s most blatant episodes of anti-Black violence, we understand these tragedies in the context of pervasive white supremacy. Further, we refrain from expressing shock as a way to dismiss the totality of anti-Blackness. Instead, we remain focused on interrogating the political stakes of representation, to think critically about the efficacy of public statements, performances of solidarity, and analytical language that rely on the tools of oppression.

Our unwavering solidarity with voices raised in protest in the US and all over the world is inextricable from our condemnation of other expressions of violence, including the political and social neglect that caused COVID-19’s devastating effects on communities of color and academia’s persistent disregard for the true needs of these same oppressed communities. We call out white supremacy as the most denied pandemic of the modern era and insist that the work of eradicating it cannot rely on the emotional labor of the communities it has already victimized. So, at the same time we recognize these violent continuities, the journal is committed to creating space for the expression of art and scholarship that is not exclusively tethered to, and indeed may de-link from, anti-Black terror. We envision it as a place that supports art and scholarship that makes pressing historical claims for justice, recognition, and rights into new, and newly expansive, futural registers.

DUP: Why did you choose to make liquid blackness an OA publication?

This question of access is inextricable from our history—the liquid blackness group began at GSU without an institutional mandate, so the journal’s first issues were published without institutional support. At the same time, we were developing an ethos based on the practice and praxis of “Black study” that had to be outward-facing, hence, freely available online. The fact that the journal’s readership quickly transcended institutional boundaries and became global (reaching highly selected but nevertheless highly engaged scholars, artists, as well as graduate students in North America, Europe, and the Global South) affirmed our experience and belief that there is a community, inside and outside of academic institutions, that could use an open and accessible space to work together. Simply put, open access began and continues to be a political choice and the response to challenges about scholarly sustainability. 

The idea of creating a platform that would allow what we call “Black digital study” became a way to think about the ensemblic process/projects of “Black study” forging new connections and taking new shapes in digital space. This remains an important goal of the liquid blackness nonprofit website, which has an entire section devoted to “Curating for Blackness” where we feature projects, writings, and pedagogical interventions that continue to share the research and praxis of the liquid blackness group to broader communities through digital means. In this sense, we feel that both the website and the open-access journal are part of a larger Black digital humanities project.

Something we value about publishing this work in a journal and online is the opportunity to facilitate a more timely and nimble commentary on art, popular culture, and the scholarly scene as it unfolds. Thus, the liquid blackness journal offers the possibility for “Black study” to take place in the form of a shareable and archivable publication. The journal is particularly interested in maintaining and expanding the conversations built by Duke University Press’s African American studies and Black diaspora book lists and extending the spirit/agenda of its successful series—“Perverse Modernities,” “Series Q,” “Theory Q,” “ANIMA: Critical Race Studies Otherwise,” “John Hope Franklin Center books,” “The Visual Arts of Africa and its Diasporas,” “Black Outdoors: Innovations in the Poetics of Study,” to name a few—by quickly responding to these books and allowing authors inspired by this work to continue the conversation.

DUP: What is your vision for the journal? How do you see liquid blackness evolving going forward?

We see the journal acting as the center for a growing community that shares a similar commitment to the radical agenda of Black studies from the point of view of aesthetic theory or for its unfolding through aesthetic practice. We’re aiming to offer that community a journal that is innovative, immanent, descriptive, and predictive. liquid blackness began simply under the invitation of Alessandra’s chair at the time, David Cheshier, who, once she received tenure, encouraged her to imagine the scholarly community she wanted to be a part of. Alessandra  realized that this kind of community is best built from the bottom up and therefore requires experimenting with forms of sociality that would bring people from all educational levels (from the undergraduate to the postdoctoral) around the same table. This community came together around similar questions, investments, and through praxis: by doing. Thus, we describe liquid blackness as innovative because it fills the gap between theory and practice—as called for in academic discourse, but often neglected in institutional settings. 

The methodology that inspires the liquid blackness research group and informs the journal’s editorial process, from our openness to nontraditional scholarship to our approach to the journal’s design, is immanent because it is fashioned after each object of study. To us, it is the object that poses the questions; it is the object that points to the archives that are relevant for it or the disciplinary tools that will allow it to fully perform its formal and political work. To return to our early days documenting our encounters with Black art and artists, our methodology is also both descriptive and predictive because our goal is for the journal to both archive existing artistic lineages and anticipate future developments.

Perhaps it would be helpful to offer a concrete example of translating these ideas into the editorial process–how one turns informality into form. For instance, in the process of peer review, the first question might be: where does the necessary rigor come from? When one is doing aggressively interdisciplinary work—undisciplined scholarship, as we call it—the recitation of the canon cannot be used as a measure of quality. There isn’t one canon that can account for truly innovative work. One arrives at this type of un-disciplined scholarship because they’ve followed the immanent and object-oriented approaches we just described, which will often demand and activate the unruliness of Black archives and the creativity of Black expressive cultures. Thus, the way we approach the peer review process is much closer to what might be described as a curatorial attitude. To repeat the question the liquid blackness group asked in 2013: how does one create the right environment for the material? Then and now, this question really means: how does one assume the right attitude, the right orientation toward this work? This is the single most important guiding question and it will determine what disciplinary conversations have to be activated, which contexts, references, what type of expertise is needed, and so on. And it will also determine how peer review is conducted: who can best shepherd a piece along? 

Sometimes a reviewer can be selected because of their specific expertise on the subject matter, for example they are familiar with the artist or the question being posed in the piece; of course, that can be hard to come by, so one has to figure out what else is needed in order to bring out the full potential of the work. Perhaps someone who is astute in providing methodological guidance, someone who is very good at identifying research questions even when they are not clearly formulated, or someone who has just the right aesthetic or experimental sensibility. If the ultimate goal is innovation—progress in/of thought—then there is really no room for an investment in gatekeeping. Rank or seniority will not matter because this is really a “curatorial” attitude and it comes with a commitment to mentorship.

DUP: What are you looking for right now in submissions?

While aggressively interdisciplinary, and therefore open to a wide array of contributions, the liquid blackness journal seeks to carve out a dedicated place for aesthetic theory and the most radical agenda of Black studies to come together in productive ways. We see methodology as a major point of distinction between the liquid blackness journal and existing publications that discuss the expanding field of Black art and media. The mode of analysis offered by liquid blackness is deliberately interdisciplinary and, vitally, immanent and object-oriented. Instead of encouraging theoretical writing that deploys art objects to illustrate theoretical points, the journal welcomes writing that is compelled by how art objects—as already modes of “theory-in-practice”—place specific demands on existing modes of critique and require unique approaches. We’re looking for work that follows aesthetic objects to new and provocative connections, even when they disrupt existing paradigms. Thus, although the list of approaches welcome in the journal remains open and unfinalized, they are bounded by an audacious disregard for seemingly inflexible boundaries like the distinction between fine art and popular culture, traditions like the evidentiary value of the image, or more fundamentally the status of the human. The journal showcases a variety of scholarly modes, including audio-visual work, experimental writing, and essays. It aims to explore knowledge about who can do theory (scholars, artists, activists, individuals and ensembles), how theory can be done (in image, writing, archiving, curating, social activism), and what a Black aesthetic object is (“high”/“low” art, sound and image, practice and praxis). We try to treat the work we accept in a way that preserves its “liquidity;” for instance, our issue contents might not be divided by genre but rather by tone and pace. The main section—Studies in Black—assembles various modes of Black study; Critical Art Encounters offers sustained and at times meditative engagements with contemporary artworks; the section called Accent Marks indicates a shift in tone that emphasize possible lines of flight; and In Conversation features a dialogus with practitioners or theorists.

DUP: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience?

Practicing non-attachment to proprietary relations is central to the project of Black study and we think of the journal as creating a space where intellectual communities sharing a similar ethos can come together. As an interracial research group, liquid blackness never policed its boundaries but rather approached Black studies as an offering that is too good not to be passed on. The journal seeks to create a similar place, perhaps a community of care that is supportive of its authors, contributors, reviewers, and readers.

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