An icy-cold 11th century church might seem like an unlikely location for Brandon Covington Sam-Sumana’s first ever installation. Located in the Northern English city of York, the Fayetteville-based artist’s Life is… Grand centres around Lyric, the heroine of writer Mesha Mesh’s e-book trilogy Jus’ Wanna Leave This Ni**a (IJWLTN) who struggles in her marriage to abusive womanizer Ty. The work was on display in The Stained Glass Centre of St Martin-cum-Gregory, as part of the York Mediale 2018, which ran September 27 to October 6, 2018. Hosting gestures to Covington Sam-Sumana’s often-opaque though highly evocative imagery, sounds, enactments and samples, the staging of the exhibition confounds visuality by playing with scale. There’s a video soundtracked by Melanie Fiona’s 2009 RnB hit ‘It Kills Me’ playing on a tiny screen on the stone floor. Large format photos of ‘book covers’ resembling those of the digital pulp genre hang suspended in view of a small, bullet-ridden casket. It looks like an aftermath.
“Resisting the ubiquitous violence originating out of both clinical and cultural surveillance takes ingenuity requiring interventions that challenge the realm of visuality,” writes Covington in a conversation that stretches across the internet and this very cold medieval church. “Some of the most daring interventions happen in the world of literary fiction and Black pulp, where women writers spin narratives depicting themselves thriving, loving, embracing their contemporaneity, and engineering their own freedoms amidst the backdrop of a system built upon their consumption and pain. That alone makes these stories critically important.”
Otherwise known as sound artist N-Prolenta, Covington Sam-Sumana’s prolific output includes releases on labels like PTP Recordings and NON Worldwide, as well as live performances and exhibitions at Wysing Polyphonic and Lausanne’s Les Urbaines. As an artist, their cross-disciplinary oeuvre traces sensitive explorations of narrative structure, system metabolisms and, of course, violence. In Life is… Grand, Covington Sam-Sumana reimagines the scene of a funeral shooting that occurs in the final book in Mesh’s trilogy. The figures in Covington Sam-Sumana’s glossy book covers draw on the visual style of Mesh’s e-books, while acting as proxies for her protagonist Lyric’s life events framing an assemblage of debris from the moment of the massacre. Standing within it, time is palpable and slippery, in the same way that the three books evade chronology, ignoring any sense of linearity. The identities of Lyric are equally evasive in the installation, drawn from different moments in the story and represented with stock images of different women. In one of these, the figure of an older woman hovers alongside the femme protagonist as if from a shadowy Lynchian parallel place, while her abusive spouse is represented by Spanish tiles.
**I’m interested in your idea of ‘pulp’ — its historical status as a cheap, low-grade substance for making easily and quickly distributable fiction — and its relationship to your idea of a systemic byproduct. Can pulp be a way of challenging the (social, political, economic) system of which it is a byproduct?
Brandon Covington Sam-Sumana: First of all, I just have to say: Mesha Mesh’s trilogy is probably the most American piece of work I’ve ever consumed and engaged in conversation. It’s really interesting because the story isn’t intended to be a pulp work. So, it isn’t one. She wrote the story as a way to touch women who were experiencing or have experienced domestic violence. That said, I would absolutely call IJWLTN a viral cult classic — Mesha Mesh says that it’s gone viral about three times a year since its debut in 2015.
I’d be careful to designate it instead as a story that operates the signifiers of pulp. That operation has much more to do with the requirements of the publishing style than the core of the work itself. There is a separation between that core and the pulp signifiers and cultural tropes that Mesha Mesh uses as a vehicle for her message. This separation is good, because it means these things can serve as easy vectors to assess and meditate on some of the ways that black femme chattel slave descendants and our productions are rendered as social nitrogeny
The work of this genre emerges from the fact that there is literally no time to construct too much deep metaphor. It’s very baroque. Things end up being plot driven, highly eroticized, and sometimes crudely complex. And more honest than other genres, when it comes to evidencing some of the very ugly cultural machineries that people prefer to abstract out of view. Descendants of chattel slavery aren’t privy to the honest humanity that even colonial subjects are but instead are enmeshed with these cultural machineries, and are abstracted out of view alongside them.
IJWLTN subsumes this fact from the beginning, and allows it to inform many of the temporal-spatial devices and intercharacter relationships that happen in the trilogy. It’s like this woman is doing experimental math with the ways she operates her characters. The crudity of the digital pulp genre keeps the ride fun.
**Can you tell me about the particular scene you reconfigured from I Jus’ Wanna Leave This Ni**a for Life is… Grand and how you approached the staging of time in the installation?
BCSS: There’s so much to say here. Life is… Grand is basically a staging of the imagined aftermath of a funeral scene from the final few chapters of the trilogy. The protagonist achieves ultimate vengeance against an abusive spouse, with the help of her friends. In charge of his estate, she holds a small funeral for him. During the funeral, however, the protagonist’s sister-in-law arrives to avenge her brother’s death by attempting a mass shooting in the church but is ultimately killed by the preacher. A total spiral. Something that is key to note is that both the protagonist and her sister-in-law were engaged in acts of proactive self-protection… The protagonist, through her initial achievement of vengeance on the spouse, and the spouse’s sister through her avenging of his death.
Life is… Grand, asserts a conception of time as material, by freezing in the rubble of this tragedy and playing host to other scenes of proactive self-protection from the trilogy re-envisioned as ‘book covers’ with titles of their own. These scenes are organized based on the actual material and figurative resonances they have to one another, and also the site of presentation. It’s something like Deleuze’s event-based conception of time but without the nihilistic overtones. In a small way, it’s closer to being an attempt at rectification, if that is at all possible.
**The poet, Ai Ogawa, and in particular her poem ‘The Good Shepherd: Atlanta 1981’ has been influential to Life Is…Grand, can you say how?
BCSS: ‘The Good Shepherd’ is a persona poem in which Ai Ogawa (Ai) speaks from the perspective of Wayne Williams. Williams was convicted as a serial killer accused for the murders of 25 people, 23 of them black children.
Ai had gone on record for her choice to disregard race as a marker for her identity, so when I hear these lines in the poem like, ‘Work/ Work for the joy of it/ For the Black boys who know too much, but not enough to stay away/ And sometimes/ And sometimes the girls too’, her conception of race, and of Blackness in particular become very clear. Blackness, here, for Ai, is a predicate, and these children spoken about are qualified as Black because their Blackness predicates them as being, figuratively, and almost literally, burnt offerings. Blackened.
In the poem’s cinematic reading, the silhouette of the killer is depicted as a non-Black person in contrast to Williams, who is Black. It’s important to note that even after Williams was convicted, the killings continued. It’s suspected by many that he was simply the ‘fall guy’ who — due to the racial climate and social outrage around the case in Atlanta during that time — knew that there was nothing there to save him, whether or not any direct evidence pointed to another person as the culprit. It appears to many that Williams instead decided to lean-into the conviction rather than to do what needed to be done to clear his name. So, for Ai, Williams becomes, also, a burnt offering. She challenges visuality by using Williams as a strawman to provide active voice to the real devourer — the one who has devoured Williams, as well as the murdered children. The devourer who has attempted to devour her, too.
Ai Ogawa’s prior name was Florence Anthony. She likely assumed her name Ai Ogawa, which means ‘love stream’, in order to protect ‘Florence Anthony’. Changing her name honors her own efforts to resist the corrosive, burning effect of her predication, however problematic those efforts were. And they were certainly problematic. Ai wrote a work called ‘On Being 1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw, 1/4 Black, and 1/16 Irish’ where the sum of those numbers does not equal an entire person, and this poem is an ode to her status as a fractional, and therein digital, being. True or not, I have a problem with her constant portrayal of Blackness as the source of her misfortunes, and the quiet assumption that her Blackness would not play a part in her life if contemporary conceptions of race did not exist. She would not exist if those conceptions had never existed.
With the I Jus’ Wanna Leave This Ni**a trilogy, Mesha Mesh, like Ai, also plays with facade. The protagonist, Lyric, has all the markers of the ‘Good Girl’ tropes… the joyless sort familiar to Tyler Perry’s stage plays, very neatly placed and well-executed. Then there’s the villain of the trilogy, Sarah, the inversion of this trope who has much more of a tolerance for pain than Lyric. She serves to darken up the protagonist, and the real motion of the narrative doesn’t actually start until they have an altercation. Much of the trilogy is spent detailing the proxy war between these two characters. More substance lies here than the war between Lyric and her spouse. In many ways, Sarah and Lyric feel like dual protagonists, though the story is focused more explicitly on Lyric’s perspective.
With Life is… Grand, I deal with this a lot. The idea that a single role can be played by multiple characters, characters that might have little direct contact. They may even have conflicting intentions. I’m careful not to affirm the kinds of reductions that can come from this idea’s application, but I make heavy use of this idea as a material.
**Can you tell me about your infographic sketch ‘The Shithole McGuffins’ and how it influences current projects?
BCSS: I’ve been working quite a lot with two invented terms that frame the bedrock for ‘Shithole McGuffins’. Firstly, ‘systeme’… another word for an autopoietic or self-regulating closed system. And secondly, ‘econeme’, which gestures to the synthetic logic of that closed system — how it moderates itself, attributes value, and allocates the resources for systeme’s self-regulations to occur.
The chart itself associates death, degradation, and fossilization with eugenic terror, digitality, crudity, and abstraction by examining the process of catalytic cracking that is integral for the refinement of crude oil. It presents energy production as being totally reliant on fossilization and death for the creation of nitrogenic byproducts that are then meant for the enrichment of both soils and air, which feed the biosphere as a whole. Something important to note is that these nitrogenous byproducts aren’t gesturing strictly to dead, decaying bodies. They are as much compost bins, sewage, and earthworms as they are ghettoizations, gentrifications, and genocides. ‘Shithole McGuffins’, through its direct reference to the invented term ‘econeme”, aims to characterize these processes as being largely automated… and like any automation, it means that these processes had a start, and when the infrastructures constituting them fail or become obsolete, they will face an end.
My recent contribution to the …and their tooth, the finest gold exhibition for this year’s Les Urbaines was basically an installation-based elucidation on that chart. Here it became a lens for examining the 18th century Peace of Westphalia treaties, which ratified Switzerland’s status as politically neutral. Behind so-called ‘peace’ and ‘neutrality’ lie war, genocide, and colonial domination keeping the neutrality intact. Neutrality is an abstraction, or production, much like the processes of catalytic cracking illustrated in ‘Shithole McGuffins’. It’s synthetic. Abracadabra makes a healthy embrace of historical revisionism, understanding the Peace of Westphalia treaties as Wars of Westphalia, instead.
**I’m interested in your photographic collages you use, the hyperreal aesthetic of them. There are similarities between elements like the scrolling font used in the imagery of your piece ‘For Banana Island: Hublots’ and those used in the collages for Life is… Grand. What made you want to use this?
BCSS: One of the more disparate inspirations for the photographic collages featured in Life is… Grand (besides, yes, book covers) are also the currently very popular new age divination tools often called ‘Oracle Cards’ or ‘Goddess Cards’. What is interesting about these cards is that they aren’t to be used as predictive tools, but rather, as tools to help seekers when it comes to creating strategies for dealing with contingency. This wasn’t the initial plan. Initially, we wanted to stage original photographs and to use those to create the book covers. However, because of Hurricane Florence, I was unable to do the traveling necessary to make the photographs happen. So, in many ways, Life is… Grand is an artifact of Hurricane Florence, as well. I didn’t know what to do, so, I consulted my own ‘deck’ of Oracle cards through these book covers. It’s pretty funny how ‘Banana Island’ was a piece about Black precarity, conceptual Blackness, and Black futurity, in respects to climate change, and that this piece is a lived artifact of many of those things. It’s funny how life works.**