Endurance at an AngleZoë Hopkins

Below, Legacy Russell, Jesús Hilario-Reyes, and Stella Rae Binion are in conversation on the topic of Drexciya, devotion, and repair. This interview has been edited for length and poeticism.

here, in the denseness of static impossibility, we descend to an insurgent heaven. i call out and hear my six times great grandma’s sister sing. the depths alive as disappearance, as protection, as cannot find us, as ain’t finna be found, as we find each other, as becoming. we breathe.

the motion of the earth is the motion of blackness. do you feel our rhythm?

running away, sovereign.

—Stella Rae Binion

Stella Rae Binion: In unbreathable circumstances, what are your gills?

Jesús Hilario-Reyes: Gills are just the apparatus of breathing underwater or breathing in denseness. It's the bare minimum of what you need to function. Carrying with my friends and family are my gills, knowing that I can go to a space or time to dissolve.

Legacy Russell: Lately I’ve been reminding myself that there have been so many folks who have been here before, who have navigated the very condition of the world’s impossibility, who came to the edge of a breaking point and survived anyway. Recently that has been the gill: at the edge of catastrophe, I recognize that we are engineered to do critical and speculative work that can extend beyond our current reality. This is the reason why we should keep going.  

SRB: We are here today in honor of the legacies and manifestations of the Detroit techno duo Drexciya, who imagine a world at the Atlantic's floor, born from the self-emancipated wombs of African women flown and thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. Water-breathing and militant, James Marcel Stinson and Gerald Donald sonify the revolution of this gilled generation. Drexciya warned listeners to “beware” and “proceed with caution” with electrifying eruptions, bubbling low-frequency intensities, and sharp-edged steady irregularities. These are the sounds of their disruption. We are their descendants, too. When did you both first encounter this resistant underwater extending-of-life? Can you remember the first time you heard Drexciyan frequencies?

LR: I went to graduate school in the UK and was very lucky to cross paths with Kodwo Eshun. With intersecting work and scholarship, as someone who’s deeply embedded in art history, I saw how aspects of Drexciya could be instructive. Artists such as Firelei Báez continue forward the mythos through their own work and practice. I also think a subterranean and/or aqueous life maps deeply to the geographical site and ontology of the club. The sonic in relationship to bodily presence, as Drexciya has instructed, has been really meaningful to me across many different points of my life.

JHR: Techno and house have been very present in my upbringing. Drexciya specifically, techno generally. I had to liberate myself first in a way to really understand techno or Drexciya, to understand this resistant underwater life. I’m a big Drexciya fan. The “proceed with caution” in your question I know is from “Bubble Metropolis.” When I first started DJing, myfirst ever mix opened with “Bubble Metropolis.” It was for this queer party called Rumors in Chicago with Ariel Zetina and Del Hale as Miss Twink USA. [Drexciya’s] music is quite capacious and it informs so much about my life and the work that I engage with—worlding and resonance and dialectics—all of that is embedded in what I'm thinking about. Like, Drexciya fan forever!  

SRB: Such a transcendent offering, honoring the depths of Black creation, these sprawlings that come off of the legacy of Drexciya itself, people like Kodwo and artists who have been inspired and continued their practice in various iterations. It’s honor work. I swim through honor in my day to day, practicing honoring as a form of prayer, a practice of summoning. Drexciya does this: their deep tradition of calling forth and resurrecting drowned histories. The practice of calling forth is so central to Black feminist practice and a Black devotional divination. So, I want to acknowledge all those who may not be with us, who we may not know, but we remember, who reveal themselves in every particle, wave, and motion.

I want to think with Saidiya Hartman's essential and noble project of critical fabulation here. How do you engage in the necessity of remembering? Of calling forth experimental histories? What is our role as the legacy of those who did not make it?

LR: Well, I think that the very idea of existing in a Black personhood and a queer personhood is in relationship to this question of “not making it.” It comes with dilemmas and crises in understanding what it means to keep going or to have the privilege to keep going, to continue. Particularly when it is at the sacrifice of so many. How do we bear witness to the contributions of those who are in the room and who are not? How do we choose to take up the task of carrying forward their memory?

Critical fabulation creates a space for speculation, space for a what if. What does it mean for there to be folks who are able to continue forward? I feel like it’s a really immense and dense challenge—to question what one's responsibility is. There are so many people bound up within each of us who we are trying to grapple with every day, narrate toward, continue to exist through and in purpose of. For me, remembering becomes really important in relationship to experimental histories. There is so much when I reflect, for example, about The Kitchen. The fact that there are 4,000 artists in The Kitchen Archive; asking who is remembered is a project within itself. The radical work of being responsible for those memories is thinking differently about who gets to be remembered. Perhaps that is the real responsibility inside of cultural production and creative work: recognizing the entitlement and the privilege and extending it broadly so that more people can live inside of it.

JHR: I've always thought of remembering as a decolonial act, but I don't necessarily know if I fully agree with that sentiment. So much of the work is excavation and redress. And so much about Detroit techno and Drexciya, specifically, was about the conscientious notion of filling the rupture. Knowing that so much is gone and so

much needs to be filled. In a sense, Drexciya is redressing the wound. Drexciya is critical fabulation and afro-fabulation. I think fantasy and fiction and science fiction are quite generative in producing potential. Potential is hopeful and fulfilling. I think my role in this entanglement is staying true to myself. As someone who loves fantasy and sci-fi, I've gotten to a point in my own practice where I think I’ve figured out what I need from it: the blurriness that comes with fabulation. More like a kaleidoscope effect maybe, rather than blur.

SRB: I want to continue situating us back into the underwater site of Drexciya: the bottom of the ocean. This site is uncolonized, unseen, so deeply feared by so many land people. How does opacity, or the condition afforded by the absolute depths, offer us an antidote, perhaps hope, perhaps a fugitive escape, from capitalism and white supremacy? How does this site of opacity nurture and generate as a womb might?  

JHR: I love pulling in the womb and the depths to think about opacity. I think opacity has this really incredible power of closing in. Opacity does not necessarily have a relationship with whiteness. It doesn't have to be invested in that sort of system. I think recognizing difference shouldn't be about transparency. Unintelligibility and confusion are quite impenetrable, which is why it’s antidotal. Whiteness seeks to make sense of things, to flatten, to index. But so much about Black life and language is ineffable, working in tandem with the fluidity and speed of blackness. Motion is integral to fugitivity, perpetually rendering and reifying. And Legacy, you have a quote in your book Glitch Feminism that I feel like really gets to that: “Our blur is a dance floor at 4AM, that moment where in the crush of all-bodies lit up under strobes like firecrackers, we become no-body, and in the gorgeous crush of no-body, we become every-body.” I think that's a beautiful way to describe the perpetual disembodiment and re-embodiment. But opacity is also quite porous, it has holes and is cavernous, like the bottom of the ocean is. So, it does let some of us in.

LR: I think that's powerful. I believe deeply that not everything is for everybody. A very important Black strategy.

Being inside the imperial structure of institutional space requires an assumption of access to all of us, informed by a white gaze and a white infrastructure of sight. Opacity allows a model of fugitivity. It is an enclosure, it's an encryption. It’s also the woodshed, it’s the backstage, it's the rehearsal site, it's the after-hours. Some of these models of porousness can be structured intentionally, as you said Jesús so gorgeously, to let those who need to be held, be held, while also acknowledging those who need to be set apart for the mechanisms of protection and nurturing that we deserve. The reproductions of different ideas of fantasy and speculation can allow for that to occur, and occur through and beyond the mechanics of reproduction that are purely biological, which really asks us to think differently about what are the structures of family and of community that allow for us to be carried forward and sustained. The bigger question maybe is what does that room look like in terms of social and cultural reproduction?

SRB: The hinge of the word “re/produce,” Legacy. There's so much to be thought about there.

LR: It’s really important to ask what does the womb teach us? There are parts of this that can be instructive. We see this with the history of Drexciya—the womb is this site that in so many ways is self-contained, but also is a radical political site. So what does it mean to think about this idea of the womb and of reproduction as being something that can extend beyond our physical self and take on new definitions? This could help us better understand how to broaden our reach toward one another, a broader project, a conspiracy even with a mission and a purpose. 

SRB: I’m witnessing an as above, so below mirroring right now: the womb on this very intimate, internal scale, and then also the womb as a broader site of generation. I want to think about how the womb is cataloged to the human. Holding close to our gilled Drexciyan ancestors, what possibilities exist for us outside of the role of human? How can we talk about our more-than-humanness, our outside-of-humanness, without discounting our humanity? Why fight for inclusion in a framework that isn't big enough for us?

JHR: I really do believe that being human is more than enough. Earth is really enough. So much of the history of our subjugation has been about being outside of human. But I'm also coming from a Caribbean background and so much of that life is anthropomorphic, outside and more than human, it’s magical in a way. I think a lot about Wangechi Mutu’s work in this anthropomorphic sense.

I'd say it's a human tendency to attribute our bodies to other species. Like, I don't think a snake is thinking about having legs as much as we're thinking about having gills or wings. In my work I use that as a means to explore futurity and the potential in generating an outside. And I think queer nightlife also has that potential embedded in it as well. The night and the darkness and our lack of vision produces that effect. The night being the space of obscurity, mischief, and invisibility.

SRB: If humanness is enough, then what is this historical tension between humans and machines? You both have work regarding mechanism and digital space. Legacy, all of your consideration of the glitch. Jesús, what you describe as the “failure of mechanical optics.” What are the technologies of survival? How are we in conversation with other-than-humanness?

LR: As Jesús noted, there’s an interesting tension with the category of human and our exclusion. The very language and theorizing around a cyborgian politic, for instance, inherently has anti-blackness built inside of it. And also, I recognize the tendency to lean into the mythos of cyborg to try to reconstruct through and away from an anti-Black premise. Simultaneously what does it really mean to try to advocate to fit inside of an infrastructure that is so failed, as you initially posed, Stella? The very idea of human—it’s an infrastructure that has been so manipulated to serve clear agendas that work against the possibility of our existing into the future. To reshape or redefine what human needs to be, I think, reflects on the needs of Black and queer communities and what we feel like we deserve.

JHR: Absolutely. I work in and think about this contention [of human and machine] quite often. I’m not in one area or the other, it’s always a battle. Technology requires the literal lives of people. It’s so pronounced especially right now with what is happening in the Congo and in Gaza, where Black and brown lives are being extracted and murdered for the sake of resources and land to sustain the mechanical need for the next [tech] thing. And all the technology we have is mostly a byproduct of military funding and expansion. So much of our tech has ghosts, and they haunt. What is the transformative work really needed to evolve the idea of what the cyborg is or what the android could be? There's also the question of artificial intelligence, there's so much I want to unravel in that. But it's all in tandem with the apocalypse of the Middle Passage.

The question about the technologies of our survival brings me back to techno. Absolutely techno. There's so much about techno that is about the integration of the human and the machine, as well as the reorganization and hijacking of time. It literally makes time. You could be at a set and it could feel like years. There is also a reason why it came out of Detroit at the precipice of the expansion of the motor industry. Detroit was in bed with the machine, the motor. The incorporation of the siren in electronic music as a way to revisit the site of trauma, to completely transform it and glitch it into something otherwise and expansive. Even sampling is dialectical, and is regenerative. It is language and it travels like language. Maybe the technology of our survival is more like an armature. Or maybe it's the wildness that one brings out of another. Or maybe there's something technological about language and dialectics and opacity that should be considered in this question. Or maybe it's the ability to perpetually render the constant mobility. Maybe that's the technology.

SRB: I want to return to a notion of aliveness. The tendency to attach to the nonhuman, to the cyborg, I see as a fear of “not making it," of the inevitability of unaliveness. Particularly in blackness, the constancy of fear and the tenuousness of life that is so embedded and assumed within our bodies. I want to talk about your Sunday Sermon at the Loophole of Retreat gathering, Legacy, and the freedom generated in not making it. The “independence in an anti-life” as you phrased it. Isn’t this what blackness is? Aliveness despite. And I want to ask a series of questions back to you, Legacy, that you posed that Sunday in Venice: Are we living now in an afterlife? How do we understand our proximities to unaliveness? What are the stakes of our aliveness?

LR: It feels really important to recognize that our very mobility, the fact of our aliveness as Black or animated or vertical, is in itself something that is rendered a threat by a white imagination. The very idea that blackness can move in its subjectivity, in its empowerment, in its conspiracy, in its collaboration, in its community, in its opacity—these are things that I think dictate a deep and complex pathology and paranoia within a white thought.

As it relates to stakes, in order for aliveness to no longer be perceived as a threat within the infrastructure of a supremacist frame, blackness must be rendered as still, as frozen, as held, and as captive. That actually becomes part of the strategy to flatten out what a selfhood can be, and to really rob or render extinct an idea of a Black personhood that has the right to move and the right to engage and broaden their aliveness. So it becomes incredibly urgent and important to think about the stakes of aliveness as something that is part of our radicality, something that we should be resurrecting for those who did not “make it.”  

JHR: This is such a chilling set of questions. It led me to think about salt. I've been thinking a lot about salt the past six months. I'm always thinking about motion. There's this poem by Édouard Glissant that I've been sitting with that I would love to share in this context. Really just its ending, because I feel like it applies to this question of what's at stake of our aliveness. It goes as follows:

Sand saver of solitude, When we pass into forever, O night, more than the path struck with twilight's alone, In the infinity of sand its route, In the valley of night its route, And yet upon the salt, There are only calyxes, Encompassing the stem posts of these seas, Where delight is infinite to me, And what to say of the ocean, Except that it waits.

The holy rape of imperfect light upon light to be perfected by the unknown gentleness forcing gentleness to open itself. You are love that passes beside me. Oh village of deaths, but your water is thicker than my leaves will ever be heavy. And what to say of the ocean, except that it waits. Toward the infinite flesh is the waiting, broken at the root, an evening of hail.

Oh, to be farther from you than, for example, air from root. I have no longer leaf or sap, but I go back up into the fields and the storms which are roads of the contrary of knowledge. Here in the air of myself, and emboldened myself with oblivion, if the hail comes, and what to say of the ocean except that it waits.

There's something about salt that is so potent—ephemera as evidence, the mobility and motion that blackness and queerness embody. Of course, I think about the clubs. I always think about the clubs. Something that's so Black about the club (not all of them you know, it's very specific) is the deeply devotional aspect that is embedded in those spaces, but also in its participants. You're really giving your body, your sweat, your energy, your best, your worst, your everything to the music. There's something quite devotional about that which goes unspoken. So I think about salt as evidence: sweat that has crystallized and grown up upon itself to produce mirrors and fragments and abstractions. Entangled in the deathward-leaning existence that we inhabit, our saving grace is motion. Fugitivity in itself is so much about that. 

I want to bring up a Fred Moten quote. He’s really my type of diabolical for real. He says in Black and Blur, 

Disorder is our service, our antidote, and anteroom, our vestibule without a story. We can't survive intact. We can only survive if we're not intact. Our danger and saving power is an always open door. Our venue is mutual infusion, the holy of holies in the wall, glory in a kind of open chastity, where the explicit body reveals itself demure and disappearance. Unenforced, slid, venereally unnatural, and convivial, we claim slur against drill and document. Confirmation of the flesh is queer and evangelical. 

And I feel like that really answers the question of aliveness.

SRB: Let’s talk about the club. I’ve always thought of sound akin to water, echolocational vibration, both a conduit between realms, species, cultures, and geographies. How can the sonic bring us beyond this realm, beyond the conditions of our subjugation? Perhaps closer to a Black celestial sight rendered in heaven or sea? How is Black queer nightlife in the subterranean scene of the club, a manifestation and alchemization of, as Kodwo Eshun articulates, the crushing pressure,” the “insulation and isolation” of the absolute depths?

JHR: Sound does not ask permission. It moves through you regardless. It's dialectical, it bounces back, it reverberates, it reflects, it divides.

I really want to think about the physics behind sound—water actually gives shape to sound and they are similar in how they move through material and how they dissipate. I had an experience at Dweller last year, at Introspekt’s set at Nowadays Nonstop, an iconic DJ. In these bass-heavy moments there were synthesizer samples that came up from under me. They erupted. It felt like the sound literally sliced through me. I don't know how to describe it really, but it felt so visceral. So delightful. [Those synths] felt so alien and outside, so incredibly transportive. It's weird to put something like that into words because sound and techno (and in this instance it was a dub track) are Black genres that really put into practice and materialize the ineffable. Where language seems to fail, sound flourishes.

The role of the DJ is also timekeeping. Like I said before, with techno, you have the ability to make time—a couple hours can feel like a day. You can really make the dancers toil. Juliana Huxtable and JASSS played this set at Merge this New Year’s. I was only there for a couple hours but it felt like years. The space we were in had so much potential, I felt like I could really live there. I walked out of that foggy warehouse in Bushwick that morning and the sun felt like Technicolor. Like the saturation got boosted. I had so much hope. I slept good that night. But I don't prescribe the language of utopia to these moments at all either, that's a lie. And not everybody is welcome, going back to what Legacy mentioned, it’s not for everybody. That's really important. The most vital part of it all is this communal becoming. How we become enmeshed in this amorphous soup of becoming and unbecoming that feels beyond this realm, but truly is what makes us more human. Maybe that's the result of that crushing pressure you mentioned, a blurring into one another, at those moments at the depths. It’s so sexy and sweaty and aqueous in nature. We are subverting and disregarding our conditions of subjugation.

SRB: Experiencing time is so surreal when you're in that absolute depth, that sweaty, hot, infinite place. Thinking about Drexciya makes me want to consider this particular solid land that we currently dwell upon as a constraint. What are the possibilities of an elsewhere, underwater or otherwise? What are our possibilities of creation, of change, of alchemy, of transformation? How does the sonic, the intangible, the ungraspable, the uncolonizable, the renderings of the persistence of Black life, create the conditions of futurity? What are we making?

LR: Black folks have always existed at the end of the world. I think queerness, too, has always existed at the end of the world. We must give ourselves permission for the beginnings of many worlds. What does that look like? How can that be something that is supported and celebrated, while simultaneously untangling and unspooling the complications of endings—endings of worlds, of people, of histories?

I'm coming back to this word entitlement. What does it mean to feel entitled to speculation and possibility that gives us the range and decadence and abundance that we so deserve? The question of what we are making, I think is a really beautiful question. I don't know if there's a singular answer, but what I do know is that the unspooling of this ending of the world feels like it must intersect with the reimagination and restructuring of a world that can continue to give us life, continue to invest in and protect our life systems. Acknowledging also that research is different than life—we can't constantly live inside the theory of our own blackness, we actually need to think about what it means to create space for aliveness to exist outside of our theoretical frame. I think [this] is what I'm trying to make. How can we be present with one another and not flattened through the lens of scholarship? Life is not in a book, it’s not something that is always contained. It has a necessary wildness that extends beyond the page and beyond the theory and beyond the classroom and beyond the institution. The vastness beyond, the extension of shadow, may be the place where a new beginning is created altogether.

JHR: Absolutely, yes. Drexciya’s somewhere in the Atlantic, yet on their later projects, they do shoot outward into space. But space is relative to us. I feel like the possibilities are just harsher. Our bodies are simply accustomed to earth's gravity; the human capacity to hold our breath is like one to two minutes. Drexciya is definitely tearing, but earth is enough for me. And I guess the elsewhere I'm interested in is the dismantling that Legacy is talking about, that sort of confrontation. It's not an abandonment or an escapism, but the ability to embody so many spaces, too. My fugitivity is not tied up with where I was born or where I came from, it's tied up with my sense of belonging to the people around me and to the culture I'm a part of.

Sovereignty to a geographic pinning is futile, especially after the Middle Passage. As the spirit of Black life is ever mobile, I’m generating sovereignty and futurity toward the drifting body, to the drifting body. That is ultimately the undercurrent of my practice as an artist: ephemerality, land practices, archiving, generating 3-D space, performance, et cetera. We are so bound up with memorializing and monumentalization, which ultimately produces stillness, which is counterintuitive to the fugitivity of blackness. Stella, you keep mentioning this term alchemy, and I really love it. That's such a good word. It makes me think about potions and elixirs, which is where I'm at, too: that sense of wonder. I really believe that wonder is the act that returns us to love, especially when we've reached our limit. And that true transformation at the site of trauma is the hard work, but in many ways, it's much more rewarding.


SRB: Yes, all the lessons that the earth provides us are more than enough. I've been recognizing the generosity of the earth. I’m so struck by your choice of language, “drifting body.” It thinks with the underwater, with the lessons of the water, with the pace and the texture of the water. I was just in the Caribbean for the first time, in Trinidad and Tobago. The Caribbean Sea is the most surreal place I've ever been. It felt like coming home. I was deeply present with the constancy of waves, how they are truly never ceasing. The waves have been here since the beginning of this earth and the waves will continue. Thinking with, always, Octavia Butler’s spell of hope: “God is Change”…

JHR: Yes! Earthseed. 

SRB: …I’ve learned lessons of coming and going, of how change is the only inevitable, the only constant. Stillness is un-inherent to the earth's rhythm. Somehow that gives me so much hope. When I'm confronting the despair of imperialism, and how stuck it is, I think about how change must occur. It is the only natural thing. It is the only divine thing. I’m like, oh the empire will fall. It will change. It is in the nature of this world.

A somatic practitioner Care told me recently that there is rupture in every relationship, yet what creates a secure relationship is the ability to repair. It’s not about lack of disturbance, it is about how we grow forward from the disturbance, from the rupture. Capitalism is purely rupture, supported by disposability and turnover. There is no mind to repair, there is no mind for a future, for a forward. A core dimension in most indigenous knowledge formations and practices is how repair is always a possibility. There are always possibilities of future. We can repair with this earth—all the earth wants us to do is repair. It’s offering us lessons. When you said earth is enough, for me the earth is everything.

JHR: Yes, redress. Redress the world.

LR: I’m here for it.