For Day With(out) Art 2017, Visual AIDS commissioned seven new and innovative short videos from artists Mykki Blanco, Cheryl Dunye & Ellen Spiro, Tourmaline, Thomas Allen Harris, Kia LaBeija, Tiona Nekkia McClodden and Brontez Purnell. Curated by Erin Christovale and Vivian Crockett for Visual AIDS, the video program ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS prioritized Black narratives within the ongoing AIDS epidemic.

Below, Che Gossett responds to Tourmaline's video Atlantic is a Sea of Bones. Read Tourmaline's artist statement here.

Atlantic is a Sea of Bones: Black trans in/aesthetics and the cinematic imaginary of Tourmaline

by Che Gossett

Tourmaline’s beautiful film, Atlantic is A Sea of Bones, is a remarkable and powerful work of visual theorizing. The film’s diegesis revolves around performer Egyptt LaBeija and opens inside the Whitney Museum of American Art, where Eygptt is looking out at the piers. The film zooms out from the non-sovereign regality of Egypt’s pose and glamour, to the outline of the cityscape over the Hudson River, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean and water, through which Black trans life, memory, joy and loss are mediated in the film speaks to the Lucille Clifton poem that is the film’s title: “Atlantic is a Sea of Bones.” The Atlantic Ocean is a necropolitical archive of slavery.

Egyptt time travels through water—the oceanic—dramatizing how blackness queers and trans-figures temporality. Black trans temporalities speak to the non-linearity of time, as seen not only through the ongoing violence of the afterlife of slavery but also through the connections that are forged in fugitive spaces of Black trans life, what Harriet Jacobs calls “loopholes of retreat.”1 Black trans fugitive spaces and times are liminal, what Hortense Spillers terms “interstitial” spaces.2 This is Black trans poesis. These are temporary fabulous zones that are at once precarious while also full of desire and electricity. They are how we make infrastructures of life while under threat of constant criminalization by defacto and dejure anti-cross dressing laws, the constraints of the gender binary, and the violence of the prison system. When Egyptt time travels via memory charged water in the tub, she also stages a memorialization of a time that is lost but never gone: “never forget where you come from.”

The film speaks at once of ephemeral spaces—the piers, the club, the meta/physical feeling and social fabric that is cruising. These are fantasy spaces. What is so incredible about Reina’s work is how she centers a Black trans imaginary and shows how Fantasy and aesthetics are modes of forging intimacy. Black trans intimacies are forged in cruising spaces that are abolitionist and fugitive from state policing of gender and sexuality—which doesn’t mean that policing can’t or won’t happen internally, but does mean that these are experimental spaces that are fugitive from normative versions of the political where we collectively gather to create abolitionist modes of living in and through queer and trans desire. This film shows how Black trans aestheticization means queering the politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics.

The cruising space, when we see it through the film’s Black trans cinematic lens of fantasy never registers as a normative “political” space. Political spaces and movements aren’t always trackable according to the register of mass movement or the march; what Ellison would call the “lower frequencies”3 of Black trans life don’t appear through those analytics, likewise with the queer in/aesthetics4 of Black trans beauty. We subvert and violate white, heteronomative and colonial aesthetic precepts in our defiant glamour. Trans in/aesthetics signals the imperceptible excess that cannot be reduced to the aesthetic (from Greek for perceive with the senses) regime of trans visibility. Our aesthetico-political struggles arise out of desire. The film speaks of Black trans desire that creates amidst seemingly impossible situations. In the film we see what desire does, how it is at the heart of forging spaces of resistance and social experimentation and joy and pleasure that are also always precarious. What Reina’s Black trans cinematic gaze of fantasy allows for is a way to show how these ephemeral spaces are both joyous and lost, and how they must be remembered. The piers are sites—now abandoned through a process of capitalist “organized abandonment”5—that index temporary fabulous and temporary autonomous zones of queer and trans life. We see the choreography of queer and trans life in the dancing staged at the Spectrum, where Egyptt and Jamal are in memory’s hologram, where time is queered and bodies and genders are spectral—which speaks to trans as gender self indeterminacy. The dancing scene dramatizes how trans fractures the liberal claim to self-possession and the refuses the demand of trans visibility that trans be rendered through a linear and medicalized autobiographical testimony. Eygpt’s self is queered and multiple in the dancing scene. She is both her present self and her past self as Jamal and there is the interplay and indeterminancy in between of memory itself. This speaks, to channel Fred Moten, to trans as “consenting not to be a single being.”6

Black trans femme visual theorizing is crucial given the violence of trans visibility in a time when Black trans femmes and women so often figure as the abject object of trans studies. Black trans femmes and women are faced with the double bind of visibility and fungibility, yet we are also always creating and the film shows this in such beautiful relief. The film centers Black trans life, experience and theory. Egyptt LaBeija and Jamal Lewis’s casting is an important and powerful directorial imperative because it situates Black trans women and femmes as the protagonists. This is doubled because they are both amazing artists and activists and thinkers, as we can through Eygptt’s and Jamal’s own work outside Atlantic is a Sea of Bones and as figures inside the orbit of the film. When we see Egyptt and Jamal inside the orbit of the film and know of their own work—Jamal’s film No Fats, No Femmes and Egyptt’s legacy of the House of LaBeija—then we can see how Black trans desires traverse so many dimensions. The film also refuses to be a spectacle for cisgender consumption, which is so often how Black trans women and femmes figure in academia or in film—as always already dead. The film shows the creative force of Black trans art and aesthetics. The film also mobilizes Black trans affect. We see the archival video of Egypt’s performance and the audience jumps and we feel the vibration of frequency of the song, it saturates and becomes a sensorium. There is also hardly any dialogue, except the imperative to remember, and this remembrance is facilitated through sound and music. The audience is awash in sound and color and light—compelled by what Tourmaline has called “movie magic.” Tourmaline’s work shows the trans aesthetics of abolition, which is another way to say, how we make and have made abolition beautiful. “Atlantic is a Sea of Bones” bends the binary between “reality” and fantasy until it reaches its breaking point. Even more, the film goes further than blurring and trans-figuring the reality/fantasy binary—the film reveals how fantasy is central to the production of “reality” itself. Fantasy spaces have historical import, cruising spaces where to quote Alvin Baltrop, the Black queer photographer who documented the piers in New York City before the AIDS epidemic: “In the dark we can all be free.”

[1] Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the life of a slave girl: Written by herself. Vol. 119. Harvard University Press, 2009, pg. 146.

[2] Spillers, Hortense J. Black, white, and in color: Essays on American literature and culture. University of Chicago Press, 2003, pg. 14.

[3] Ellison, Ralph. "Invisible Man. 1952." New York: Vintage 19 (1995).

[4] While Alain Badiou has written about “inaesthetics” I play with or queer the term to indicate the ways in which trans queers aesthetics and produces its own aesthetic forms.

[5] See Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. "Forgotten places and the seeds of grassroots planning." Engaging contradictions: Theory, politics, and methods of activist scholarship 31 (2008).

[6] Moten, Fred. Black and Blur. Vol. 1. Duke University Press, 2017.

Che Gossett is a black trans femme writer, perhaps best described as a non sovereign theory queen. Gossett is also an archivist at Barnard Center for Research on Women and graduate student in Trans/Gender Studies at Rutgers University. They are the recipient of the 2014 Gloria E. Anzaldúa Award from the American Studies Association, a Radcliffe research grant from Harvard University and the 2014 Sylvia Rivera Award in Transgender Studies from the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies at the City University of New York, and the 2014 Martin Duberman Research Scholar Award from the New York Public Library. Most recently, they received a Palestinian American Research Committee grant and are currently serving as a 2017-2018 Queer Arts Mentor.