“Black people have always used interdisciplinary methodologies to explain, explore, and story the world,” writes Katherine McKittrick in her 2021 book, Dear Science and Other Stories. A professor of gender studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, McKittrick details how various Black creatives have invented ways of living and being outside traditional knowledge systems, often by merging art and science. McKittrick says this sort of interdisciplinary work “engenders practices of solidarity and collaboration that . . . [help] imagine new geographies of liberation.” Over Zoom, McKittrick sat down with fields harrington, a New York artist who, in installations and performances, explores what he calls “the aesthetics of science,” often turning to themes of invention, Blackness, and history. In his art, harrington frequently references various science experiments that suggest poetic or metaphoric implications. Below, the two discuss the elusive yet potent intersection between poetry and hard science.
KATHERINE McKITTRICK Tell me about Redox Drip (2019).
FIELDS HARRINGTON With that project, I was trying to create a stage for a few figures, arranging several objects on top of a speaker. The installation varies, but I typically have two speakers facing each other or one facing the wall. I got that idea from DJ Screw, who would angle his speakers toward the wall in his living room in order to bounce the sound and get a fuller sense of the reverb and bass.
On top of the speaker, I place things like a mechanical arm holding two Styrofoam cups and a beaker holding a black liquid substance. I built my own distillation system, inspired by the one invented by Black chemical engineer Norbert Rillieux [1806–1894]. When I first learned about his multiple-effect evaporator system [for sugarcane processing], I was really surprised to learn about a Black inventor. Growing up in Texas, I never learned about anyone like that. I’d never even heard of Rillieux until I was in my thirties. So I learned how his system worked, why he created it, and how he was able to access resources to work on it.
I also decided to distill my own crude version of lean, which is a mix between codeine and some type of soda, usually 7Up or Sprite. Lean is closely associated with DJ Screw, who is another figure evoked on the stage. I grew up drinking lean, and thought maybe by distilling it, I could get down to its essence. So I created my own crude version, using what was available at the pharmacy—NyQuil and 7Up. Once you start the iodine clock reaction, the substance goes from clear to black and back again, as iodine and hydrogen peroxide settle at the bottom. I’ve been distilling the same mixture each time I install the work for about three years now.
Sometimes, Frantz Fanon shows up on the stage too, in the form of a page ripped out from his Black Skin, White Masks . For me, that transition from black to white and back again speaks to what Fanon wrote about detection, about being seen and not seen.
McKITTRICK That project has so many layers and references. Still, when you step back, the work is something else entirely. You created a rich entanglement, but without letting us get lost and tangled. What does it mean to approach Black creative work by turning to science in such an explicit way?
HARRINGTON That’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot: why science? I got into it because I was really struck by these YouTube videos I saw demonstrating various chemical reactions, and I just thought, I really want to do that. My first work that involved the aesthetics of science was a performance called An Approximation of the Mix ; I built a sonic levitator and used a hair product called Luster’s S-Curl Texturizer from a syringe to attach some of my hairs to a Styrofoam ball, which I then levitated. I projected live close-up footage of the process on the wall. Around that time, I was reading about the physicist Asier Marzo who invented an acoustic levitator, while also reading work by people like Fred Moten and Hito Steyerl, and I noticed they were all dancing around related concepts concerning ground and force and levitation. Maybe it’s just because I was reading them at the same time, but still, it sparked my interest in the space between philosophy or theory and scientific thought.
As I moved toward Redox Drip, I became interested more specifically in the relationship between critical race theory and hard science. But I didn’t want to be too heavy-handed about incorporating the figures I was thinking with. I like that, as an artist, you have the freedom to experiment with alternative ways of reading. Importantly, this is distinct from misreading—for me, it means situating different kinds of knowledge.
Still, I have some trouble articulating my fascination with the aesthetics of science. Certainly there are some artists, like Crystal Z Campbell and Candice Lin, who incorporate science in ways I appreciate. Lin and Campbell both use scientific language and tools, and they do so in order to make a critique, often by helping us understand how certain tools are used in certain power structures. There are also plenty of art/science projects that I don’t enjoy. Still, I think when art and science meet, it opens up space both for criticism and for finding some kind of truth.
McKITTRICK Your work is remarkable, I think, for telling us that the creative sciences already exist, while also paying meticulous attention to the hard sciences. Your pairing of science and creativity is one expression of what [writer and cultural theorist] Sylvia Wynter calls “the science of the word,” which posits that human beings are both biologically and mythologically determined. You’re not saying science is bad, or scientific racism is overwhelming. Instead, you’re showing us the different ways that Black people do science. This is atypical, it’s not what we’re supposed to do as Black people. We’re supposed to say, science is bad and it’s suppressing me through scientific racism, or the alternative: that science might save us from all this, so let’s dump a ton of funding into, say, space exploration. You’re sitting between those two positions and providing a different kind of laboratory, a place where we experiment, invent, and reinvent. For me, that’s an act of rebellion, because as you know, Black people have so often been experimented on.
HARRINGTON I remember DMing you on Twitter to ask for a copy of Aimé Césaire’s essay “Poetry and Knowledge” . I revisited that text recently, and a part at the beginning stood out for me. Césaire says: “In short, scientific knowledge enumerates, measures, classifies and kills. But it is not sufficient to state that scientific knowledge is summary. It is necessary to add that it is poor and half-starved.” What do you think he’s getting at here?
McKITTRICK For me, Césaire is putting us on notice that scientific knowledge has been separated from creative knowledge in disciplinary ways. For a long time, science was considered a neutral site of pure fact-finding and classification, but in the process, it was clawed away from what we consider creative thinking. With his statement, Césaire allows us to think about what happens if poetic knowledge starts to condition scientific knowledge and vice versa. It’s deeply troubling to acknowledge the path that scientific knowledge is on, to see that it’s “half-starved.”
Wynter once suggested that if we use these skills of creative and scientific knowledge to radically rethink what it means to be human, racial hierarchy will go away. Pure scientific knowledge has long been bound up with scientific racism, and categorized Black people as closer to apes than white people. A biocentric knowledge system grounded in that bogus “neutrality” affects Black people in profoundly damaging ways. Wynter and Césaire propose a complete undoing of how we understand and organize our world. As you know, this is a conundrum that Fanon presents us with as well: if I’m being read as a purely biological, how do I express my humanity? How do I inhabit full humanity as a Black man? He never says he’s less than human—he says you see me as less than human. A number of canonical Black studies thinkers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, are part of this conversation about the trouble with science. But they are also invested in the possibility of science, in reimagining what science can do. If we always thought about science using your term, “scientific aesthetics,” what a world we could invent.
HARRINGTON In that vein, Rillieux is an important but also complicated figure—he was a Black chemical engineer who invented this amazing multiple-effect evaporator system that aided the enslaved body on the plantation, because it made sugar safer and less labor-intensive to process. Before, a slave had to pour boiling water from one pot to another, which could be dangerous, and the resulting sugar was inconsistent. Rillieux was from Louisiana, and his father was white, so he was educated and able to leave the [United States] for France. While in France, he started to win patents, and when he came back to the US, he installed his system on a few plantations. Some slave owners were hesitant, fearful this invention by a Black man might stir up rebellion.
Even though he developed this tool that helped keep slaves safe, I still have some ambivalence toward Rillieux, because he was certainly able to move through the world differently than most Black men during his lifetime. He eventually decided to stay in France and ultimately left chemical engineering to study hieroglyphics. While thinking about my ambivalence, I made a work called Steam Economies , which is a small print of a Rillieux portrait displayed behind a privacy filter, the kind you might use on, say, an iPad—it allows you to see the image only if you’re looking head on. If you’re directly in front of the work, you’ll see both Rillieux and a formula for latent heat. Rillieux was thinking about latent heat while developing his system, which used steam.
McKITTRICK This study of Rillieux is so interesting, because it’s not a case of subversive reinvention. I think there is a tendency to make a hero out of any kind of Black inventor, but you’re asking us to consider his privilege, too. You’re showing that he really embodies ambivalence—because of his white father, because of the nature of his inventions, because he disappeared into another field. There’s so much to his story. This piece brought up something I hadn’t really thought of: what do we do with Black inventors? We should be thinking not just about the scientist, but about the work that gets done, especially that work in relation to Black communities. For me, the ambivalence is deep and painful. You’re asking “how do we live with that ambivalence?” not “how do we resolve it?” We know it cannot be resolved. This is the true soul-striving Du Bois wrote about. This is the double consciousness.
—Moderated by Emily Watlington
This article appears in the May 2022 issue, pp. 14–16.