In 2014, as a cost‐saving measure, Flint, Michigan, switched its water supply to the Flint River — the unofficial toxic waste disposal site for meatpacking plants, car factories, and lumber and paper mills, as well as the city's depository of agricultural and urban runoff and untreated raw sewage. In what may be viewed as the Gothic trope of the “poisoned well,” the Flint water crisis has directly affected a mostly African American population where 45 percent of Flint's residents are living below the poverty line. This essay positions the Flint water crisis in conversation with artist Pope.L, who in 2017 created an installation/performance/marketplace in which he bottled the noxious water shuttled to Flint residents and sold it to willing buyers. I consider the aesthetics and performativity of Pope.L's Flint Water Project alongside the nautical world‐building of Drexciya and the aquatic hybrid figures in Wangechi Mutu's work. This assembly offers a speculative approach to an Afro‐Gothic liquidity through an understanding of black geophysics as an embodiment of alluvial monstrosities and aquatic refusals.
In 2014, Flint, Michigan, switched its water supply from the treated Detroit system to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure. The Flint River is the unofficial toxic waste disposal site for meatpacking plants, car factories, and lumber and paper mills, as well as the city's depository of agricultural and urban runoff and untreated raw sewage. In what has since become known as the Flint Water Crisis, studies revealed the foul-smelling water contained dangerous levels of lead, fecal coliform bacteria, and toxic chemicals, resulting in the third largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the United States, skin rashes, hair loss, lifelong health issues, and even death. In what may be viewed as the Gothic trope of the “poisoned well,” a villainous plot to tamper with a water supply, the Flint Water Crisis has directly affected a mostly African American population where 45 percent of the city's residents are living below the poverty line. Thus, flowing through these aquatic spaces are black geological extractions of horror and dehumanization located in cultural, political, historical, and mineralogical traumatic encounters. These “Billion Black Anthropocenes” reveal “a need to de-sediment the social life of geology, to place it in the terror of its coercive acts and the interstitial moments of its shadow geology,” to quote Kathryn Yusoff's work.1
Within this racialized terror we recognize the gothicness of black geophysics and, through the aesthetics and performativity of artworks like Pope.L's Flint Water Project (2017) that draw attention to a long-standing relationship between blackness and waterways, the refusal enacted through the transformation and adaptation of environmental exhaustion amid aquatic signatures (fig. 1). Flint Water Project (FWP), a pop-up marketplace selling bottled water from Flint, Michigan, to willing buyers, is an installation, performance, and an intervention.2 Collaborating with the Detroit artist-run gallery What Pipeline, Pope.L bottles the same noxious tap water shuttled to residents of Flint. A six-pack of Flint bottled waters signed by the artist in a hand-packed custom shipping box sold for $1,000, a box of twelve bottles sold for $2,500, and a twenty-four pack sold for $5,000, and proceeds from the sale were donated to organizations dedicated to alleviating the crisis, including United Way of Genessee County and Hydrate Detroit. Within five months, Flint Water Project sold out of the bottled water and raised $30,000. Finally, a bottling demonstration during the installation provided information about the Flint Water Crisis and other “serious water issues happening in Detroit, the Midwest, and beyond.”3Flint Water Project is a buoy in a sea of an Afro-Gothic liquidity marking the coordinates of environmental racism and neglect while privateering the black waves of fugitivity. This mapping moves through geographical, oceanic, and artistic surveys including the work of Pope.L, the nautical worldbuilding of the Detroit-based music duo Drexciya, and the work of artist Wangechi Mutu. These coordinates broaden the horizons of black geophysics and environmental racism and chart black aesthetic movements as imaginative refusals.
Within the scope of this work, I am positioning the water crisis as an Afro-Gothic trope of the poisoned well.4 As such, this formulation participates within the realm of ecogothic criticism, which engages an ecocritical approach to the Gothic and environmental destruction. The Afro-Gothic perspective is a transhistorical approach that functions as a lens for understanding how historical antecedents of the Black Atlantic have ripened into a new black Gothic or what Sheri-Marie Harrison has referred to as a black Gothic revival.5 Thus, while Kobena Mercer refers to the Afro-Gothic as an aesthetic means of coping with the trauma of colonial slavery, I am enlarging upon this definition by thinking of the Afro-Gothic as an aesthetic and theoretical framework that addresses the everydayness of black horror and environmental racism in particular.6 Afro-Gothic is fluent in its ability to flatten the panic associated with great terror and reduce it to the vicissitudes of a daily existence. It is therefore an expression of an elastic horror, a forever horror that characterizes ordinary black experiences and challenges the universality of fear and anxiety paradigms rather than capitalizing upon an isolated, frightful moment. It is the cruelty of being deliberately poisoned over time by the local and state authorities you trusted to protect the health and well-being of its citizens. As goes the plotline of many horror films, it is also the journey of physical transformation from a once healthy body to one that is diseased, pulsing with grotesqueries, and unrecognizable in the mirror. We find such a progression of health to horror with the victims of Flint's poisoned water supply, whose very constitution was appallingly altered beyond recognition.
One important characteristic of the Afro-Gothic that distinguishes it from its Western counterpart is its rootedness in lived black experiences, like the gothic nature of environmental destruction, as opposed to a Eurocentric Gothic and its reliance on the invention of fictional horrors. Afro-Gothic stands in opposition to the alienation of a Eurocentric Gothic because it serves as an ever-living embodiment of psychic terror rather than as a fictive narrative wherein the “white reader is both repulsed and fascinated with its horrors.”7 It is this same fascination with the spectacle of black subjugation that Pope.L's oeuvre demystifies by foreclosing access and developing what he terms “hole theory,” which claims that the “withholding of legibility can make the aperture simultaneously more inviting yet more threatening.”8 It is this withholding of legibility that is strategically applied to the development of monstrosity in fictional narratives wherein the monster's presence is cleverly obscured and thereby increases the victim's fear of the unknown and amplifies the horror experience. It is why we often don't get a clear picture of the monster until the very end or until it's too late.
The Gothic's birth of monstrosity, the concomitant rise of Victorian Gothic literature and the height of transatlantic slavery, is the colonial project's obsession with power and control through imperialist capitalist white supremacist patriarchal systems of oppression. Monster-making is a technology of race that positions blackness as a convenient source of fear and horror in order to advance capitalist gains. The construction of monster-making is a kind of othering that includes the stranger, difference, queerness, and ultimately blackness under the modern colonial project. As Leila Taylor eloquently states,
The Black body (not Black person, but body) is susceptible to violence without reason, degradation without ramification, and available for exploitation. The monster is despised and feared by the very nature of its monstrosity. The monster is dangerous and threatening and therefore can be tortured, killed, or maimed with impunity. It may sound like I'm equating monstrousness with Blackness. I'm not. What I am saying is that the process of dehumanization is a process of monster-making. But monsters have power.9
It is the last reference as an ominous aside that connects Afro-Gothic liquidity and Pope.L's Flint Water Project, a connection I will attend to throughout: “Monsters have power.” Again, what makes the Flint Water Crisis Afro-Gothic is the trope of the poisoned well as an everyday lived black struggle of a dreaded existence. Although one might argue the population of affected Flint residents is not 100 percent black (neither was New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina), it is understood that this crisis would never have happened in a majority white, middle-class city and that environmental racism is a chief mitigating factor in the crisis wherein the residents are perceived as a black subjectivity, in a way that is referential to the inhuman.
“The Idea Was to Turn All That Water into Money”
As the narrator of the documentary “Flint's Deadly Water,” airing on PBS's Frontline in 2020 confirms, the city's aim was to turn the water in Flint into money.10 Thinking through Afro-Gothic flows and liquidity also refers to the movement of capital and its production of surplus through the dehumanization of black and brown communities. Elizabeth DeLoughrey identifies how in the late eighteenth century, “ ‘flow’ and ‘liquidity’ suddenly became the ‘dominant metaphor[s]’ for the circulation of capital, information, ideologies, and power.”11 This liquidity was able to manifest by way of Vandana Shiva's explanation of “cowboy logic,” “which allowed the transfer and exchange of water rights among individuals, who often disregarded water's ecological functions. . . . Miners and colonizers, assumed to be the first inhabitants, were granted all rights to use the water sources.”12 As such, Flint's water cowboys believed that after struggling financially for many years, they could gain $200 million over twenty-five years with the switch from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water sourced from Lake Huron, the third largest body of freshwater in the world, to the Flint River. The original plan was to use the river as a short-term solution until Flint could receive treated water from the Karegnondi Water Authority. This decision was made by the state-appointed emergency manager, Darnell Earley, and not approved by the local city council.13 In less than a year, Earley was reassigned and replaced by Gerald Ambrose, who was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder's office. Two months after Ambrose's appointment in March 2015, the Flint City Council voted to return its water source to Detroit, but Ambrose said this would be “incomprehensible” and signed several legal orders making the switch back to Detroit water impossible. Both Earley and Ambrose are among over a dozen local and state representatives facing criminal charges.
Immediately, residents noticed the difference in the water, which was running brown, odoriferous, slimy in texture, and terrible to taste. The Flint Water Treatment Plant that was tasked with purifying the water was itself in a state of disrepair, underfunded, and incapable of processing the water to meet the Environmental Protection Agency's standards especially with regards to the Lead and Copper Rule of 1991. The rule established a lead contamination level of zero as the maximum contaminant level goal, because there is no level of lead in the blood that is considered safe. Furthermore, the effects of lead contamination are irreversible and contribute to cognition failure, joint and muscle pain, hair loss, memory loss, skin rashes, headaches, high blood pressure, and miscarriages. That being said, Flint's water reached levels that would classify it as toxic waste. When the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was not forthcoming about lead levels in Flint's water, the Virginia Tech Research Team led by Professor Marc Edwards and his students volunteered to test Flint's water and confirmed an average parts per billion of 2,000 and the highest at 13,000 ppb—again, safe levels are at 0 ppb. Flint's water was a poisonous cocktail of contamination. But lead wasn't the only contaminant.
Pipes in Flint are made up of a combination of lead and iron, not an unusual combination as lead allows for more flexibility around various obstacles. Usually anticorrosion chemicals, like orthophosphate, are added to prevent lead's leaching into the water as was the practice with the Detroit system. Yet Flint did not add anticorrosion chemicals to the water; instead they added chlorine but not enough, allowing a growth of the bacterium Legionella pneumophila. Legionnaires’ is a waterborne disease likened unto severe pneumonia that shares familiar symptoms of cough, muscle aches, pain, fever, and shortness of breath and may lead to hospitalization. In Flint, it led to the death of twelve people and infected at least eighty-seven others. Some investigative reporting concluded that the cause of death listed as pneumonia on death certificates at this time may very well have been Legionnaires’ disease, and therefore these numbers may be underrepresented. To combat the bacterium, Flint added more chlorine to the water, which contributed to elevated levels of TTHM, total trihalomethanes, a group of disinfection by-products caused by the chemical reaction of additional chlorine. TTHM are carcinogens and with increased exposure can lead to the degradation of liver and kidney functions, neurological disorders, and a toxified reproductive system. Taken altogether, the lead poisoning, Legionella pneumophila, TTHM, fecal coliform bacteria, and other toxic chemicals illustrate what Yusoff describes as “racialized territorialization of the earth . . . and how geomorphic moments are marked in the flesh of targeted communities.”14
In October 2014, the remaining GM engine plant in Flint successfully convinced officials to change its water source back to Detroit once they discovered that the Flint water was corroding their engines. Ordinary citizens of Flint had also petitioned to return to the Detroit system but were denied because, according to Shiva, pollution is a by-product of industrial businesses and global trade; thus “the struggle between the right to clean water and the right to pollute is the struggle between the human and environmental rights of ordinary citizens and the financial interests of businesses.”15 As Yusoff writes, “This is precisely why Whiteness (as a formation of power) gets to ‘choose’ environmental conditions and black and brown are still the colors of environmental exhaustion and the exposures to excess.”16 Whiteness as a formation of power is also responsible for the illegal dumping of toxic pollutants that were destroying GM's engines, despite the Clean Water Act of 1972, wherein the EPA instituted standard criteria for water safety levels and its implementation for pollution controls focused on industry.17
An ecocritical approach to the Flint water crisis produces a nautical mapping of transformation among black “aquapelagos,” the term Philip Hayward introduced to conceptualize the “integrated space of islands and their adjacent waters and seafloors.”18 Although recent scholarship on archipelagic thinking has forwarded creative remapping of island spaces, challenged historical processes, and offered invigorating conceptual frameworks, the term aquapelagic keeps the focus on waterscapes, as opposed to the archipelagoes’ focus on mostly island spaces. Similarly, Epeli Hau‘ofa's holistic perspective pictures things within the totality of their relationships. Hau‘ofa offers the example of viewing the Pacific as a “sea of islands” rather than as “islands in a far sea,” with the latter emphasizing “dry surfaces in a vast ocean far from the centres of power. When you focus this way you stress the smallness and remoteness of the islands.”19 Thus I am positioning the Flint water crisis within the conceptualization of Rinaldo Walcott's work on the black aquatic, that is, “the ambiguous and ambivalent relationship that black people hold to bodies of water. The black aquatic pursues the relationship black people have to bodies of water as foundationally formative of blackness, and it seeks to provide an aesthetic narratology and hauntology of contemporary claims of black subjectivity.”20 The “sea of islands” and “black aquapelago” consider the relationships between blackness and the aquatic in their totality. Black aquapelagic assemblages also allow for a mapping of contingencies in the black aquatic, facilitating an ecofeminist approach of “connectedness and wholeness of theory and practice.”21
Anissa J. Wardi's Water and African American Memory: An Ecocritical Perspective is an excellent example of a historical retrieval of ancestral knowledge, literature, film, and current ecological disasters in her crisscrossing of oceanic waters. Wardi suggests that bodies of water within African American culture operate as a lieux de mémoire, “embodied sites where memory and history converge.”22 It is her spectral mapping of the liquidity of embodied memory, its sensuousness and abstracted fluidity that considers our watery cellular makeup as transport that this essay attends to. I am ultimately advancing the Flint River within a larger project of aesthetics that informs a black aquapelago of rivers, oceans, seas, bayous, streams, and other bodies of water. Thus a grammar of the black aquatic emerges with its alluvial monstrosities and submarine marronage wherein we may consider how I am positioning black aquapelagos here as a conceptual mapping of these aquatic episodes between blackness and waterways, as a way of organizing constellations in the black aquatic.
I have belabored the explanation of chemical toxification of Flint's water supply, the order of events, and the deleterious health ailments, diseases, and causes of death in order to think about the Flint water crisis as an act of poisoning and to properly contextualize Pope.L's intervention. In fact, the February 2016 cover of Time magazine featured an article by Josh Sanburn, “The Poisoning of an American City,” which elaborated on the poisoning of Flint's water system. The Flint water crisis operates as an example of the gothic trope of the poisoned well, a villainous tactic plucked from the plotlines of popular culture.23 Whether utilized as a wartime tactic to destroy enemy forces or for other controlling purposes, the trope of the poisoned well narratively functions as biological warfare in its contamination of a population's water supply that results in either weakening or destroying a city and its people.
Deep Diving in the Under(water) Commons
Because water is necessary to sustaining everyday life, it has often been viewed as common property. Shiva situates water as a commons because “it is the ecological basis of all life and because its sustainability and equitable allocation depend on cooperation among community members.”24 She warns against the privatization of water resources and reminds us that water “has been managed as a commons throughout human history and across diverse cultures.”25 In her treatise on water democracy, she outlines nine principles, with number seven stating that water “is by nature a commons. It cannot be owned as private property and sold as a commodity.”26 The impact of FWP takes on profound significance considering how clean water is vital to our very existence, as Wardi notes: “One could say that each of us—every man, woman and child—is a small river; ebbing . . . flowing . . . seeking replenishment. A 1-percent deficiency of water in our body makes us thirsty, 5 percent causes a slight fever; at 10 percent we become immobile. A 12-percent loss of water and we die. There is no option, no alternative, no substitute. From the elderly to the young, the rivers within each of us need a continuous supply of clean, fresh water.”27
Thinking about water as a commons would then position Pope.L's FWP as a fugitive act in the undercommons, or what I term in this case “the underwater commons.” Stefano Harney and Fred Moten's work provides a landscape of the undercommons as a site of marronage visited through the lens of the university: “To enter this space is to inhabit the ruptural and enraptured disclosure of the commons that fugitive enlightenment enacts, the criminal, matricidal, queer, in the cistern, on the stroll of the stolen life, the life stolen by enlightenment and stolen back, where the commons give refuge, where the refuge gives commons.”28 Pope.L's FWP is a rupture in the capitalist-approved commensality of Flint water consumption. FWP is a demonstration of how, in a move that is part agent provocateur and part privateer, “the life stolen by enlightenment and stolen back” operates in the underwater commons. FWP is part of Pope.L's much larger practice of drawing attention to racial and class disparities, especially those suffering from going without, as he remarked: “Have-not-ness permeates everything I do” (fig. 2).29 Hayward says that “aquapelagic assemblages are ‘performed entities,’ ” through human or other actants’ interaction in island and aquatic spaces, and therefore I consider FWP as a performance within a black aquapelagic assemblage. In alignment with Kamau Brathwaite's “the unity is submarine,”30 which poses a submerged collective, FWP is a subversive submarine intervention operating as an expression of unity and refuge for citizens of Flint through its provisions of clean water ushered in the flow of an underwater commons, “where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.”31
The launch of FWP featured a demonstration of live water bottling, offered special deals on Flint water, and included the raffling of prizes, a piñata, tacos, and an overall sense of community. The clear plastic bottles of water feature the artist's signature and an image of the Flint Water Plant tower. The iconicity of Flint's Water Plant tower is a reflection of the plundering of empire through environmental destruction and the wielding of capitalistic forces by local and state authorities, and as the central image on the water bottles, it assumes monstrous proportions, taking on the appearance of a giant, immobilized white jellyfish. Packaged bottled water is also a signifier of the Flint Water Crisis, a ubiquitous symbol of government neglect and bodily harm that has now resulted in a $626 million settlement from a class action lawsuit on behalf of the residents of Flint, where 80 percent of the money will be earmarked for minors who will have lifelong struggles with learning disabilities, cognitive function impairment, behavioral problems, and other afflictions. These health hardships are reminders of capitalism's targeting of vulnerable communities and the fleshly despoliation produced by its appetite for consumption.
In a conversation with Stuart Comer and Danielle A. Jackson regarding his work Eating the Wall Street Journal, Pope.L explains, “Capitalism is, at its root, a ritual based on superstition which is based on the myth and a training for empty consumption and endless evacuation in a loop of some perverse sort.”32 This quote allows us to consider Pope.L's underwater commons as a maroon community, a collective familiar with hunger's provocation triggered by food and water insecurity, and consumption as a material practice. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz reminds us of the hunger of slaves that motivated movement and revolt: “Despite the many laws prescribing cultivation or rations, slaves commonly died of hunger, and a prime reason for marronnage—running away—was hunger.”33 Accordingly, themes of pathologized overconsumption and the diseased gluttonous body as monstrosity appear throughout contemporary black art, including the video work of artist Wangechi Mutu in The End of Eating Everything (2013). Mutu's first video commissioned for the Nasher Museum of Art, The End of Eating Everything is in the vein of the artist's maximalist collages that often feature humanoid mash-ups of hybridity and Afrofuturist cyborgs. It is an animated collage of a central female excrescence whose blistered body is covered with tumors, mechanical parts, wheels, and multiple arms flailing between pearls and bloody pustules.
Mutu worked in collaboration with recording artist Santigold, whose head is dispatched on the grotesque floating body. Santigold's Medusa-like locks writhe and whip back and forth, curling in synchronicity with mechanical precision. The creature's body hangs heavy in the foreboding brown sky. A flock of birds noisily linger around the creature as she sniffs their bodies, sampling their succulent smells. The creature's terrifying mouth opens wide as she launches a banshee-like, bloodcurdling scream bound in pain and extreme suffering. Like the banshee's scream foreboding death, what follows is the administering of the kill by feasting upon the birds in an aerial bloodbath (figs. 3–4). I am thinking of The End of Eating Everything as a kind of alimentary eschatology that explores acts of consumption along with Pope.L's reference to capitalism's gluttonous appetite bound in myth and ritual. As the ritualistic action of gluttony implodes the creature and births more rapaciousness in the squid-jellyfish spawn, so does the compulsion for capitalistic consumption produce hatchlings whose DNA is encoded with ritual and excess in this cult of death. Mutu's greedy cyborg is animated gluttony throbbing with disease, detritus, and desire. She is an unrelenting monstrosity in her avaricious consumption, whose hunger is never quenched; likewise neither is capitalism's appetite for profligacy in “extractive-racialized-industrialized complexes,” not unlike the conditions that triggered the Flint water crisis.34 Moreover, a closer attendance to aesthetical dispositions reveals a body of synchronicities in Mutu's monstrosity correlative to the contaminated Flint River.
Shiva's ecofeminist approach to ecologies of waterways considers the sacredness of water as manifestations of divinity and worship. She identifies the sacred rivers that have been important to her over the years and their powers for washing away spiritual and material impurities: the Ganges, the Yamuna, the Kaveri, the Narmada, and the Brahmaputra. Shiva follows this discussion with a quote from T. S. Eliot, who wrote of the Mississippi River, “I do not know much about gods, but I think the river is a strong brown god.”35 If the Mississippi River is a strong brown god, then the Flint River is a strong, brown, angry goddess. I am considering Mutu's grossly infirmed creature as an animated embodiment of the Flint River. To be clear, Mutu has not referred to The End of Eating Everything as referencing rivers or water deities nor the Flint water crisis, which occurred the year after the work was first exhibited, in 2014. Nevertheless, the creature's body is pulsing with an ebb and flow of disease and flotsam of toxic waste that anticipates the Flint River's hideous display of excess filth and contagion. Layered among large white and bloody vesicle sacs blistering her skin, we find the remnants of industrial waste and automobile tires, and I imagine these tires and industrial pollutants as references to GM and other factories responsible for defiling the Flint River (fig. 5). The creature's shrill wailing is rooted in agony and woe from the inescapability of the alluvial monstrosity she has become. It is the howling of a river body condemned by imperialist domination and capitalistic appetites for authoritarianism and material excess.
Likewise, Theodora Danylevich positions the creature's bodily accumulation as a site of waste, adding, “The creature's massive body is at once terrifying and seductive. Its surface and shape and size variously manifest an animate archive of the effects and accumulated waste that are testament to the continuing after-lives of slavery, colonial violence, and global industrial and post-industrial capital. On her flesh is the indelible excrement of the extreme violences of anti-blackness in the history of the present, then and now.”36 While Danylevich places attention on the corrupted corporeality of the body, her description of colonial violence in the afterlives of slavery exacerbated by post-industrial capitalism is biographical of the city of Flint and the water crisis. Moreover, it is the gothic slippages of how Danylevich applies an analysis of psychic interiority that coincides with this project on Afro-Gothic liquidity: “the creature is a deracinated cinematic organ of memory that relentlessly draws viewers in and assaults them with her archive—a black hole in a white wall, a haunting time capsule, synchronous, and on repeat.”37 The black hole is often the most re-created vision of horror—as a site of compressed fear and the unknown. Danylevich also refers to the episode as one of haunting and repetition, another trope of horror being stuck in a time loop of haunting.
Yet the creature's superfluousness of traits also allows us space for thinking about The End of Eating Everything, the Flint water crisis, and FWP within multiple registers. In the moments before her devouring of the birds, what we assume are the creature's thoughts are revealed to us as a sequence of text overlaying the action: “I never meant to leave / I needed to escape / And now it's so far / Who knows where? / It's been like this for a very long time . . . / It follows me, and I them / We've always been / Hungry, alone and together.” This confession is a lament of loneliness, separateness, hunger, and isolation. Her violent appetite, like FWP's generous distribution of compassionate fugitivity, stands in contradistinction to environmental degradation and racially targeted forces and speaks to a desire for wholeness and connectedness, that the sacredness of her waters may be restored and overflow. This conceptualization of The End of Eating Everything as the Flint River can also be read as a reference to the water goddesses in Yoruba cosmology. The Yoruba goddess Oshun, a devotional spirit known as an orisha, presides over river waters, and her older sister Yemaya, also an orisha, reigns over the surface of the oceans. The palette of characteristics associated with Oshun reflects her changeability in crafting herself as an enigma and as a ruler of the rivers. As Joseph M. Murphy describes her varied traits, “She is an oricha, a constellation of traits. . . . Ochún is water, river, mirror, gold, honey, peacock, vulture, gestation. Ochún manifests several personalities depending on the way that she is invoked in divination and ceremony.”38 I am including The End of Eating Everything within a long art representational tradition of anthropomorphizing river gods and goddesses but also as a way to introduce an African-centered cosmology within a black aquapelago. In addition, the characterization of Mutu's Afro-Gothic creature as the Flint River provides a visceral embodiment of the Flint water crisis indexing environmental corruption and dramatizes the pain and suffering in a way that is imaginative and graphically imperative.
Hope Floats—Buoying Blackness and Tales from the Afropelagic
Although FWP was a pop-up marketplace for the residents of Flint, its operations were based in an artist-run gallery in Detroit. It is in Detroit where we may expand our black aquapelagic assemblage in ways that address the underwater commons and marronage and plumb the depths of the black aquatic even further. In Jim Jarmusch's film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), a pair of centuries-old vampiric lovers tour the ruins of Detroit at night in a vintage white Jaguar XJS that floats like a ghost through the dark deserted streets. Eve (Tilda Swinton) inquires of the gothic ruins, “What's that?” Adam (Tom Hiddleston) replies, “It's the Packer Plant; they once built the most beautiful cars in the world. Finished.” Eve responds assuredly, “But this place will rise again.” Adam questions, “Will it?” She answers, “Yeah, there's water here. When the cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom.”39 The Afro-Gothic Victorian decrepit ruins of Detroit are redeemed by their aquatic contingency—“There's water here” is a heralding of possibility, one that is problematized when considering a supernatural marronage in the submarine. Swinton's character refers to the resurrection of a city that will once again bloom, but what if that preternatural resuscitation isn't one that rises and blooms but one that sinks and fluoresces in the deep? Visual and sonic seascapes find a new habitation in the aquatic abyss with Detroit's Drexicya.
James Stinson and Gerald Donald are the founding members of Drexciya, an electronic music duo in Detroit active during most of the 1990s (1992–2002). Both African American musicians were influenced by 1980s Detroit techno and pioneered a Detroit sound with their electro-heavy, water-themed studio albums Neptune's Lair (1999), Harnessed the Storm (2002), and Grava 4 (2002). The duo revealed in their sleeve notes to their 1997 album, The Quest, that Drexciya was an underwater haven of descendants of children born to pregnant African mothers who were thrown overboard from slave ships during the Middle Passage. The unborn children learned how to breathe underwater while still in their mother's womb. In a similar function to Pope.L's compassionate submerged fugitivity, Drexciya imagines an underwater seascape of survival and mythological counternarratives that gesture toward Afrofuturist nautical worldbuilding. The duo was also thinking about their relationship with the Black Atlantic, an African diasporic kinship, and the possibilities of a subaquatic marronage. How can transformation, even perhaps metamorphosis, translate a denouement from a watery grave to a saline sanctuary? What are the biomorphic strategies for survival, and how does the body respond and evolve into a parahuman society of superpowered Drexciyans?
It is water that sustains our lives and composes the majority of our bodily constitution and with which we are constantly in the flow—traversing bodies of water, quenching our thirst, bathing, and embodying. Astrida Neimanis's work reminds us of these relationships as something more than human, likening it to “a sea, a cistern, and underground reservoir of once-was-rain.”40 Referring to the work of Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway, she continues, “Our watery relations within (or more accurately: as) more-than-human hydrocommons thus present a challenge to anthropocentrism, and the privileging of the human as the sole or primary site of embodiment. Referring to the always hybrid assemblage of matters that constitutes watery embodiment, we might say that we have never been (only) human. This is not to forsake our inescapable humanness, but to suggest that the human is always also more-than-human. Our wateriness verifies this, both materially and conceptually.”41
Drexciya therefore is a conceptualization of a black aquatic life, an underwater commons where the “inhuman” is biomorphed into the fantastically more-than-human and thus moves antithetically to a patriarchal anthropocentrism obsessed with racially targeted extraction and excess. We are presented with an Afro-Gothic epochal shift in the subterranean narrative that is a refusal of spectral haunting through its deployment of a metamorphosis based upon a symbiotic cellular remapping, an interconnectedness that embraces the fluidity of oceanic organisms. In other words, rather than focused on the horrific terror of pregnant African mothers being cast to their deaths, a place where the gothic narrative swells and dies, we are confronted with the possibilities of life. Because Afro-Gothic is rooted in everyday lived black experiences, it is compelled to articulate strategies for survival and is therefore full of refusals, resistance, and recalibrations of one's own bodily presence.
I am intrigued by the launching of Abdul Qadim Haqq's graphic novel The Book of Drexciya: Volume 1, published in May 2020 by Tresor, which illuminates the first five chapters of the Drexciyan mythology and offers a visually stunning counterpart to the duo's sonic seascape in its ultramarine blues, vibrant seafoam greens, and illustrations of Drexciyan life. We are introduced to an aquatic community whose biological adaptations harmonize with oceanic life in the depths (fig. 6). The graphic novel's artists have thoughtfully attended to the biologics of marine life and genetically recombined Drexciyans as aquatic mash-ups assuming proportional characteristics of sea creatures, such as possessing larger “fish” eyes to see at depths where sunlight cannot penetrate the waves. I am reminded of our watery bodies in relationship to other forms of life as Neimanis goes on to vividly describe our interconnectedness:
We are literally implicated in other animal, vegetable, and planetary bodies that materially course through us, replenish us, and draw upon our own bodies as their wells: human bodies ingest reservoir bodies, while reservoir bodies are slaked by rain bodies, rain bodies absorb ocean bodies, ocean bodies aspirate fish bodies, fish bodies are consumed by whale bodies—which then sink to the seafloor to rot and be swallowed up again by the ocean's dark belly. This is a different kind of “hydrological cycle.”42
Christina Sharpe recognizes a similar hydrological cycle when thinking about Africans thrown overboard during the Middle Passage:
My colleague Anne Gardulski tells me it is most likely that a human body would not make it to the sea floor intact. What happened to the bodies? By which I mean, what happened to the components of their bodies in salt water? Anne Gardulski tells me that because nutrients cycle through the ocean (the process of organisms eating organisms is the cycling of nutrients through the ocean), the atoms of those people who were thrown overboard are out there in the ocean even today.43
In the case of Drexciya, the hydrological cycle was interrupted in ways that created new life forms in symbiotic cellular relationship with oceanic life and that exists as a living embodiment of Brathwaite's “unity is submarine.”
Locating Drexciya somewhere among the mesopelagic (650 feet beneath the surface) or within the bathypelagic (3,300–13,000 feet beneath the surface), we find a new black aquatic—one that I refer to as the afropelagic. Standing in contradistinction to the black aquatic of surface-related waters—oceanic sailing voyages, the domain of ships and other shallow surfaces—afropelagic is a spatialized term allowing for exploration of the ocean's depths. Afropelagic is the deep, deep underwater commons wherein one may find rest and reinvention from ruins and wreckage. It offers a way to think conceptually on how to withstand tons of underwater pressure as a metaphor for withstanding the pressures of everyday black life and grants the expansiveness of creativity through a refusal and renewal. The afropelagic is in conversation with Derek Walcott's poem “The Sea Is History,” which reminds the reader that the sea has entombed our fallen. It is that wet gray vault of history, but it is also an inhabited space; Walcott advises readers to “strop on these goggles, I'll guide you there myself,” as if navigating a path to Drexciya.44 Ruth Mayer adds, “This is why the underwater world, the submarine, gains so much attention in turn: by contrast to the chartered and mapped high seas, this world below emerges as a realm beneath existing lines of power and signification, an ambivalent space . . . a fantasy space which is always as much of the future as it is of the past.”45 The afropelagic offers sanctuary for unmoored maroons through the fantastical metamorphosis of being in what Hau‘ofa confirms: “the ocean is in us.”46 Afropelagic is an invented oceanic term and a way of thinking that opens up an imaginative abyss that is uncolonized, unmolested, and uncontested. It rests in the depths of hopeful new possibilities as opposed to wading through the shallow puddles of surface-level thinking that can only imagine black bodies languishing in watery graves.
Taken together, the music of Drexciya and the illustrated graphic novels offer a very different kind of hydrological cycle. I am thinking of the circulation of watery bodies within the depths of an afropelagic space and how life courses through its phases—cellularly, sonically, symbiotically, even spiritually. The music itself is bubbling with staccato electro-beats whose DNA is tangled among the synth-pop strands of New Order's “Blue Monday” (1983) along with darker tones of new wave, goth techno, and something altogether Detroitish. The compositions possess an urgent energetic flow that harmonizes with the kinesthetics of aquatic bodies in the dark abyss. Some of the songs, such as those from the album Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller I (2011), are punctuated with submarine sonar sounds mixed as acoustic underwater echoes, a navigation system targeting our location and calling us home. I consider this musical echolocation system as part of Drexciya's underwater world of highly developed fantastical hydroacoustics that can be read as biosonar—that is part of the biological design of Drexciyans’ adaptability to their environment. The pulsing rhythms, moody sonar echoes, and floating high-pitched chirping sounds found in various Drexciyan tracks are constantly reminding us of an otherworldly afropelagic realm.
To revisit the work of Mutu, it is within this pantheon of metamorphosis that I would add her aquatic sculptures Water Woman (2017), Crocodylus (2020), and Mama Ray (2020) (figs. 7–9). Presented as part of her exhibition at San Francisco's Legion of Honor, “Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?,” the bronze sculptures are expressions of subaquatic mash-ups in their hybridity of human/sea creatures, not unlike Drexciyans. I consider them sculptural counterparts to the afropelagic, a domain where they seem to yearn and belong, rather than among the racialized territorialization of the soil. Water Woman is a reclining female figure whose mermaid's tail swings behind her torso, emphasizing the sensuousness of the uninterrupted line reminiscent of a rolling black wave of water. Her webbed hands and geometric finned hairstyle are reminders of her aquatic origins. Crocodylus is a morphology of a giant crocodile and its rider that are impossible to distinguish as separate entities. The undulating grooves of both bodies seem to vibrate in sonic rhythms as they navigate their journey. Mama Ray is a glorious goddess mash-up of stingray and female figure as her cartilaginous body rises in noble acknowledgement of her presence. She floats with the regalia of her mantle trailing behind like queenly robes studded in fins and a fishy finer point of a tail. Her eloquent locomotion is ethereal and dwells in my imagination among Drexciyans in the afropelagic.
The horizontality of all three sculptures is situated low to the ground and opposes the architectural heights of verticality, the weight of the bronze emphasizing their gravitas. In this manner, I put them in conversation with Pope.L's crawl pieces such as Tompkins Square Crawl (1991), where he crawled around Tompkins Square Park in New York City wearing a business suit and holding a flower pot. Martha Wilson explains the scene as one that “takes him out of the upright posture representing power and places him in the position of the destitute, forcing his audience to directly engage with a disenfranchised black body that mirrors those others that have been rendered invisible.”47 Pope.L reinforces this strategy as one that de-emphasized verticality in lieu of a debased positionality in order to accentuate proximity to the gutter and the politically and socially vulnerable. His crawls always reminded me of an amphibian desperately seeking the water's edge, thirsting for the water's envelope so he could slip under and move with breathtaking grace hereunto never witnessed on land. This is how I imagine Mutu's sculptural goddesses disembarking the San Francisco Wharf, slipping from the Embarcadero into an afropelagic habitation among the Drexciyan community.
The Drexciyan world is one of aquatic hybridity or the more-than-human. When asked in an interview about the role of hybridity in her art, Mutu replied,
Hybridity for me is biologically and scientifically real. We are all mixtures. As we learn more about who we are and how we can create a future with new species, we must look at biological evidence of our human diversity. Finally, my fascination, absolute obsession, and comfort with hybridization has to do with my leaving home and with feeling at odds at home even before leaving it. From a very young age, I already described inside me the idea that I was from somewhere else and had landed there by mistake. Later, as an artist, I began to graft new ideas physically onto myself first, and in my work, and I became this new thing that had many parts. I believe that I am able to interpret hybridity in my work so completely because it is not unlike how I feel about myself.48
Mutu's thoughts present bold perspectives on the hybridization located in her own work and that of Drexciyans at a biological level, especially with regard to creating a future with a new species. Even more compelling is the implication of a detachment from a previously known life and the introduction to another that somehow opens up a newness of being rather than advocating a nostalgic turn for previous worlds of aquatic memorials. An Afro-Gothic liquidity is in flow with the burgeoning newness of hope in all its fantastical hybridity, never far from the sorrow of anti-black terror. Teresa Shewry's Hope at Sea characterizes hope as a response to injury and loss and as a mode of engagement. She specifically theorizes hope and its relationship with the ocean from ecocritical perspectives. “Hope cannot exist without temporal awareness of an undetermined future, an abyss into which may seep apprehensions of promising pathways, but also of losses and pain yet to come.”49 I am connecting these quotes because I am thinking of an afropelagic space not as utopic but rather as a hopeful space of connection, as a practice that runs like water. Afropelagic is a space of a yet undetermined future intermingled with the salty waters of sorrow but not drowning in it. The adaptability of hybridity connotes a newness of life that reigns in hopeful sanctuaries. The afropelagic Drexciyan/Mutu underwater worlds are ontologies and practices in the art of transformation.
It is Pope.L's own words on connection, water, and his practice as they relate to things that really matter that I am considering: “I like the idea that practice aims to make, by implication, something perfect; though also by implication, this drive contains its own impossibility—which is good and perhaps allows us to do other things that really matter, like petting the cat or having a conversation with your Uncle Levert over oatmeal. Practice runs like the water.”50
Two years after FWP, Pope.L staged an intervention in New York City with a short video, “Flint Water Meets the Mighty Hudson.” Wearing a taupe trench coat, the artist carried one of his Flint-marked bottles of water to the pier of the Hudson River. A crowd leisurely gathered on the lawn of the pier enjoying the musical performances and the remaining moments of sunlight, seemingly oblivious to what was about to take place. The artist poured the Flint water into the Hudson in a scene that is edited to emphasize the continuous activity of pouring and splashing on the surface waters (figs. 10–11). The scene confirms the unity of a hydrological cycle meetup where the Flint River joins the Hudson. The tourist cruise ships were passing by, couples were dancing in the background, the sun was setting, and Pope.L was pouring. Nightfall covers the city as the last drop drips from the bottle marked Flint, where his practice runs like the water.51
Since antiquity, the trope of the poisoned well appears often during crises of war to prevent enemies from having access to potable water as a tactic of biological warfare. We also find examples of this in the fifteenth century with Prince Vlad III (the Impaler) of Wallachia poisoning the wells of Turkish adversaries and during World War I with German forces in France poisoning the local water supply as part of Operation Alberich.
“Afro-Gothic may be understood as a kind of excavation process that works to dismantle some of the inner defenses and psychic fortifications that have been built up around the subject of slavery as a foundational site of historical trauma in Western modernity.” Mercer, “What Is Afro-Gothic?,” 43.
DeLoughrey, Routes and Roots, 57, in conversation with Ilich, H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness, 43–44.
Shiva, Water Wars, 23. Shiva goes on to describe how cowboy logic or cowboy economics prompted the privatization of common water sources: “Although rights were based on first settlement, the true first settlers—Native Americans—were denied water appropriation rights.”
Michigan's Emergency Manager law is facing scrutiny resulting in lawsuits claiming that it “discriminates against communities where a majority of residents are black by stripping them of their governing power while not applying the law to similarly situated majority White municipalities and school districts suffering equal or greater financial distress.” McVicar, “Michigan's Emergency.”
Shiva, Water Wars, 33. Too often industrialization is viewed as a pinnacle of progress and therefore met with more relaxed measures around environmental safety and pollution. Shiva identifies several cases where courts upheld the rights of industrialists to contaminate the water supply: Deshi Sugar Mills v. Tups Kahar, Empress v. Holodhan Poorroo, Emperor v. Nana Ram, Imperatix v. Neelappa, Darvappa Queen v. Vittichakkon, Reg v. Partha, and Imperatix v. Hari Baput (31).
Flint is the birthplace of General Motors and once stood as a hallmark of industrial ingenuity and invention, creating the modern auto labor movement and contributing to the establishment of a middle class. In an all too familiar move, GM began closing auto plants, relocated jobs overseas, and took advantage of favorable tax laws outside of Flint, leaving the city to crumble with its departure.
Tampering with the water supply is a modish tactic of villains in film, literature, live action television, and other forms of popular culture. We find the trope of the poisoned well in Batman Begins (2005), The Twilight Zone (1959–64), Highlander: The Series (1992–98), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–94), and V for Vendetta (2005), to name only a few.
Harney and Moten, Undercommons, 18. The Flint water crisis also inspired the work of other artists that could be considered in an underwater commons collective. Examples include LaToya Ruby Frazier's photographic series Flint Is Family (2016) and Mel Chin and Tracey Reese's collaboration on Flint Fit (2017), wherein empty water bottles in Flint were transformed into thread and ultimately fabric as a demonstration of the interconnectedness of resources and recycling.
Pope.L quoted in Carr, “In the Discomfort Zone,” 49.
Pope.L quoted in Comer and Jackson, “Conversation,” 32.
Neimanis, Bodies of Water, 3. Hydrological cycle refers to the natural circulation of water within the earth's atmosphere through water vapor's precipitation and evaporation processes.
Pope.L quoted in Sims, “Interview with William Pope.L,” 65. Emphasis added.
This video was filmed in conjunction with Pope.L's exhibition Choir at the Whitney Museum in 2019. “With little fanfare, a short video appeared on the web page for Pope.L's Whitney exhibition in the month before its opening. It is dusk: Pope.L dons a khaki trench coat and stands on a pier along Manhattan's West Side, looking out at the Hudson River. He surveys the scene and then pours the contents of a plastic water bottle over the railing into the river. Water spills forth, and keeps flowing and flowing. As darkness grows, the pour continues from a seemingly bottomless bottle; we glimpse that it is labeled Flint Water, as if an invisible pipe connected the contaminated water of Flint, Michigan, to the plastic container in Pope.L's hand.” Lew et al., “Something from Nothing.”