Every and All: Fred Moten’s Oneness as a Poet, Theorist, and Artistic Muse
Fred Moten, the poet, theorist, and multidimensional muse for many in the art world, was five years old when Evel Knievel attempted his first and only jump over the fountain at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The year was 1967, and the stunt—which made Knievel a curious kind of American hero—did not go well. After what appeared to be an auspicious takeoff and smooth sailing over a 141-foot void, Knievel’s motorcycle came up short on the landing and launched its rider onto the asphalt. By the time he finished tumbling, Knievel had more than 40 broken bones and other injuries that left him in a monthlong coma.
Failure ensued again 13 years later when fellow stuntman Gary Wells, at speeds reaching 90 miles per hour, missed an ill-positioned landing ramp on his way down, and it wasn’t until 1989 that Robbie Knievel, avenging his father’s fateful fall, succeeded in the high-flying feat.
Back at the beginning of it all, far away from the ridiculousness of Sin City’s main strip, Moten had begun his gestation as a formidable thinker who would come to catalyze the realm of black studies and cultural criticism at large—over the years in different locales but, most formatively, as a child growing up in Las Vegas.
It was there that he began to assimilate ideas that course through his books, including In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003) and Black and Blur (2017). And it was there that his eye and ear became attuned to sensitivities that made him a favored collaborator and influence for numerous artists, including Arthur Jafa, Wu Tsang, Charles Gaines, Juliana Huxtable, and Maggie Nelson.
“A lot of people have trouble believing that people actually live in Las Vegas,” Moten told me. “But in order for what happens in Vegas to stay in Vegas, there has to be somebody there to keep it.”
Now 55, Moten was at his new home in Greenwich Village, where he recently moved to take up a professorship at New York University, the latest in a long line of academic institutions—among them Harvard; the University of California, Berkeley; Princeton; and Duke—that have guided his evolution as a kind of antiacademic iconoclast. His current posting is in NYU’s department of performance studies, but he has been at least as honored for his work in the field of black studies as well as his poetry (his 2014 collection, The Feel Trio, was nominated for a National Book Award).
Then there is Moten’s hard-to-characterize activity as an artist, which draws on his rigorous philosophical probing and his impressionistic poetics to triangulate a zone all his own. He cut a memorable presence as a beatific dancer in a flowing red robe in Girl Talk (2015), a video he made with frequent collaborator Tsang that appeared in “Trigger: Gender As a Tool and a Weapon,” a recent exhibition at the New Museum in New York for which Moten also served as an adviser. He participated in an interdisciplinary discussion and performance series organized by the choreographer Ralph Lemon at the Museum of Modern Art (2014), and his writing featured in “Blues for Smoke,” a prismatic show originating at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2012. At the Whitney, he helped lead a listening session during an exhibition devoted to jazz legend Cecil Taylor two years ago, and he is currently working with the conceptual artist Charles Gaines on an opera about Dred Scott.
All such pursuits draw on Moten’s expansive conceptions of blackness, which have been seized upon by artists and curators engaged with politics and race as well as ethics and gender, particularly in relation to trans-ness. And all his work traces back to his childhood spent in a tight-knit African-American community in Las Vegas, where many black Southerners migrated for the promise of union-supported jobs and abundant work in show business. “I grew up in a small black Southern village that happened to be transported to Las Vegas,” Moten said. “It was a kind of black bohemianism. I couldn’t have asked for more in terms of preparation for the kind of work I’m trying to do.”
His father worked as a janitor at the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear trials were carried out. His mother was a schoolteacher engaged in local politics and the fight for desegregation. Family friends were activists and entertainers, including a woman who ran an office for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and claimed that Duke Ellington wrote his 1940 song “Concerto for Cootie” in her bathtub.
“That was the political and social atmosphere in which I was raised,” Moten said. He remembered his mother and her friends listening to records and breaking them down in spirited conversation, and his father communed through music, too. “Reading was difficult for him,” Moten said, “but he would say these astute things that never left my mind.” One involved Nancy Wilson, the jazz singer. “He had been listening to her, and he looked up and said, ‘Nancy Wilson can’t sing, but she can style.’ I think I know what he meant, but there’s a depth to it that I still don’t fully grasp.”
Las Vegas wasn’t ideal all around. The nature of industry there could be morally troubling and politically fraught. “We were aware that testing was going on because you could feel it,” Moten said of nuclear experiments conducted where his father worked. “We had these lights that hung from the ceiling, and they would shake.”
And beyond the neighborly environs of the West Side, the city and especially areas beyond its borders were racially dangerous. “It was known as the Mississippi of the West,” Moten said, “and we didn’t stray from Vegas because it was a very different atmosphere. I remember distinctly when the elders of the Mormon church decreed that black people were no longer to be understood as by nature sinful. The kinds of stuff that people now point to—right-wing land movements and survivalists—it’s not like that just popped up out of nowhere in 2007. Going to Utah was a proposition that one did not take lightly.”
Some settings on the edges offered a more welcome reprieve. “If you left your housing development, you went into the desert—there was desert at the end of our street,” Moten said. “This was the era of Evel Knievel, and we would go there and build ramps. A bunch of us had raggedy bikes, so we would take apart four bikes to put together one out of all the parts that we would take turns jumping.”
The daredevil life did not lack for poetic aspects. “I was always too scared to be first, but if somebody did it without dying, I would be second,” Moten said. “By the time of the second jump, invariably the bike would fall apart. I remember my friend from down the street did a beautiful jump, like Evel Knievel. I came up and did it and the pedal fell off—literally, in midair, the bike disintegrated underneath me.”Fred Moten as a child in Las Vegas.
Moten first made his name with In the Break, a dense, daring, and deeply moving study of what he calls at one point in the book the “experimental, performative, objectional, sensually theoretical, public privacy that animates the aesthetics of the black radical tradition.” His subject matter varies, beginning with an invocation of the echo and the feelings that continue to resound from a scream that Frederick Douglass wrote about in 1845 (as cited by fellow scholar Saidiya Hartman), and moving on through the likes of Amiri Baraka, Ralph Ellison, Plato, Karl Marx, Jacques Derrida, Emmett Till, and Adrian Piper.
“You should see my copy of the book,” said Adrienne Edwards, a curator for the Performa biennial in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis—and the newly appointed curator of performance at the Whitney Museum. “It’s marked up, highlighted with different pens and colored flags. I have a key that tells me when I made notes so I can see when I was writing what.” From Moten, she gained a sense that “blackness itself could fluctuate and circulate and levitate in a way that is not always attributed to it,” Edwards said. “He made it a multiplicity.”
The notion of blackness as multivalent figured in “Blackness in Abstraction,” an enterprising group show that Edwards curated for Pace Gallery in New York in 2016 around the premise of “black as a material, a method, a mode, and/or a way of being in the world.” Many artists in the exhibition were black, but race was only one of many matters considered within a purview that also covered blackness as a color and an enigmatic conception of either presence or absence—with all connotations coalescing into an oblique and elusive but also intuitive and consciousness-raising whole.
Moten situates blackness similarly, with as much a sense of suggestion as of declaration. “He writes about it in a way in which blackness is not stable,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, where Moten once taught. “And there’s a way in which Fred’s own writing is unstable. If you’re looking for stability, you’re not going to find it—his is an active mind doing an active project, and you have to ride with him in order to deal with the work most effectively.”
In “The Case of Blackness,” an essay from 2008, Moten took up such matters by way of an episode that pitted jazz pianist Cecil Taylor against the painter Ad Reinhardt. “The cultural and political discourse on black pathology has been so pervasive that it could be said to constitute the background against which all representations of black, blackness, or (the color) black take place,” Moten writes, before chronicling a group conversation among artists about the metaphysics of black in 1967. In the dialogue, after Reinhardt opines on black as both a color and a formal conceit, Taylor takes issue with the painter’s refusal to acknowledge matters of blackness that apply differently to some than to others. “One is black and the other is white,” Moten states, “which means not just different experiences that differently color their thinking about color but also Reinhardt’s palpable inability to take Taylor seriously, a handicap that more often than not still structures interracial intellectual relations.” As Reinhardt and Taylor talk at and around each other, a gap opens that grows only wider over “the question of black dignity in a discourse of black art,” as Moten describes it.
Also at issue was the disparity in the kind of respect accorded to painters and musicians, since music and the experience of it is integral to Moten’s ways of thinking. “The unthinkable is a tone,” he writes in In the Break, which also stipulates that “Ellingtonian meaning swings in a way that Freud probably can’t quite reach.” In his poetry and at his often spirited lectures, he has held forth on purportedly meaningless grunts and utterances by James Brown that, through Moten’s reading, mean as much as language ever could.
“When I found Fred’s writing, I found a way of understanding how different strategies could do more than be contiguous but could unify,” said Charles Gaines, whose early training as a musician has in recent years moved into his work as a conceptual artist in different mediums. “Fred allows you to see the relationship between different things and find a common politics between them that doesn’t eviscerate their difference.”
The presence of politics mattered to Gaines when he first learned of Moten from his students at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, who started talking about his work. “Fred gave them a way of making art part of their larger and wider lived experience, rather than a kind of activity that was specialized,” said Gaines, who drew a connection from that to his own artistic aspirations. “The strategy of my work is to experience the aesthetic through the political and to understand that if you erase one, you’ve erased the other. I was interested in the way Fred theorizes that process, particularly around ideas of race. The notion of the radical and radical difference is built into black representation.”
Blackness in Moten’s writing is a concept that rarely touches down to take up just one meaning, and though its foundation owes to the horrors of the slave trade, it is not contingent on race. At the beginning of In the Break, he defines it thus: “Blackness—the extended movement of a specific upheaval, an ongoing irruption that anarranges every line—is a strain that pressures the assumption of the equivalence of personhood and subjectivity.”
But other meanings proliferate, including one from a stirring essay about Michael Brown—the teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Moten wrote the piece with his close collaborator Stefano Harney (with whom he also coauthored the 2013 book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study), and among its moving passages is this: “We fall so we can fall again, which is what ascension really means to us. To fall is to lose one’s place, to lose the place that makes one, to relinquish the locus of being, which is to say of being single. This radical homelessness—its kinetic indigeneity, its irreducible queerness—is the essence of blackness.”
A certain kind of uncertainty is a defining feature of Black and Blur, which was published in late 2017 as the first of a trilogy conjoined by the collective title consent not to be a single being. (The other two volumes, Stolen Life and The Universal Machine, are to be released in June.) Once again, points of reference abound: Thornton Dial, Charles Mingus, Michel Foucault, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Shakespeare, Stokely Carmichael, Immanuel Kant. And the idea of “blur” that serves as a bonding agent is fundamental to Moten, who seems to abhor borders and privileges reaching toward notions that lie just beyond one’s grasp—or “the space between the notes,” as he writes near the beginning of the book.
At a talk at the City University of New York marking the publication of Black and Blur, Moten described the idea of “blur” to his friend, the artist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa, as being defined by those moments “when the level of precision goes up but in a way that doesn’t allow you to make simple distinctions between all the elements of whatever it was you were trying to pay attention to.” He likened it to his ongoing critique of individuation—among people, primarily, but also as it applies to any and all things. He attributed his reverence for the concept in part to an experience he had at an overcrowded museum exhibition where artworks reflected off one another and blurred together so that no one work could be seen on its own. “For me that was totally brilliant,” he told the audience of several hundred in attendance to see him and Jafa commune. “I felt like it gave the lie to the idea of the work as individuated.”
Moten gave the lie to the idea of his own works’ individuation, too. “My grandfather used to sell vegetables out of the back of his truck, from what they called a truck farm,” Moten said. “There’s a unit of measure in Arkansas called a mess. ‘You want a bushel?’ ‘No, I just want a mess.’ Basically that’s what these books are: a mess.”
Through his writing and the ways he discusses it in warm, beckoning language that complements his conceptually intensive texts, Moten has become a siren of sorts for artists and curators who find in his words ideas to put into their own practice.
“It was a third eye opening,” said artist Kevin Beasley of first working with Moten as part of Ralph Lemon’s “Value Talks” series at MoMA in 2014. “Fred is a retainer for a lot of traditions, things that aren’t necessarily recorded or passed down through pop culture or larger platforms.” For their collaboration, Beasley played a DJ set of sculpturally abstracted music—old free jazz, dance music from Detroit, Sly & the Family Stone—while Moten composed a poem on the spot. “He instilled for me an approach to theory and intellectualism that I actually felt I could identify with,” Beasley said. “It made me think there is an approach to theory that I can enter into, bear a relationship to, and see myself and my peers and my family in the work itself.”
“Most theory is cut-and-dried,” said American Artist, a young artist based in Brooklyn. “Maybe the language is too heady or is somehow alienating, but with his language there’s this human component that is gripping on a level that most theory isn’t.” In a group exhibition last fall at Koenig & Clinton gallery in Bushwick, Artist showed The Black Critique (Towards the Wild Beyond), 2017, a sculptural arrangement that consisted of smartphones displaying passages of text that had been rejected when inserted as command lines into the phones’ software code. One of the five passages came from Moten and Harney’s book The Undercommons, which advocates for self-organized modes of collaborative resistance and bottom-up ways of working in the world. The invocation of the book (which also figures in the artwork’s title) in the predominantly white domain of technology development served to help “think about other worlds of habitable positions outside of whiteness,” the artist said.
Ben Hall, an artist and musician based in Detroit, met Moten at a jazz study group that convened in upper Manhattan. “The first time I got a hug from Fred Moten,” he remembered, “I was like, ‘This is my dude!’ ” Their connection deepened when Moten wrote an essay about Hall’s Oft Used Prologue (For 5 Turntables, basement, ice cream and sloe gin), a vinyl record from 2014 that—as fantasized by Ralph Ellison in a section of his novel Invisible Man—delivers the sound of five versions of Louis Armstrong’s song “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” playing in unison.
“If you’re a poor kid or just find your way to art, you’re happy because you think it’s going to open up the world,” Hall said. “But then you realize the critical world has a bunch of hurdles and hoops, and if you don’t come from that space, it’s hard to know what the program is. But there’s a truth in Fred’s language that is not proacademy or pro-institution—it’s pro-language. There’s a lot of generosity there.”
Courtney Martin, deputy director and chief curator of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, remembered when Moten and Harney traveled to visit a group she was working with at Brown University for women of color in academia. They were to there to discuss the kind of collaboration their work together had come to espouse, but when a snowstorm changed their plans, they ended up staying and assisting the group far more vigorously than anyone had expected. “I was shocked by their generosity,” Martin said. “I think of the way that art historians use what we deem to be theory. It comes into fashion—you get into it or disagree with it or take it on—but it is the fashion of a moment. On the best days, I think art historians use theory as a crutch. But listening to them talk through what everybody else around them was doing, it dawned on me that this was the work of ‘the undercommons.’ If I hadn’t seen them do it in practice, I wouldn’t have believed it—because I definitely didn’t believe it before.”
Edwards, the curator, laughed while wondering if Moten’s storied generosity and conversational ease might merit a conspiratorial inquisition. “When he talks, there is this incredible gentleness about him,” she said, “which serves him well because his ideas are so radical. My question is: Did Fred always talk like that—or was this something he learned to give a little bit of sugar to make it all go down easier? It’s heavy stuff, with a darkness to it and a profound sense of loss. But in the sinkhole he creates, there’s a way out.”
The artist Adam Pendleton came to know Moten’s work through his poetry first and then by way of other writing that retains the aura of a poem even when it’s intensely theoretical. “Fred’s work is wonderfully difficult to locate, and I think that’s why there’s so much heat that radiates from it,” Pendleton said. “There’s something both familiar and alien when you engage.”
The humanity and inclusivity of it are also right for the times, Pendleton suggested. “It’s essential, particularly in the moment we occupy now, when we’re trying to understand the value of human life, whose life matters, and how we characterize our humanness. He’s carried a torch forward. Somebody had to muddy or queer the waters of black art and the black radical condition, but who knew he would make a home for somebody like me?”
‘I don’t know how I got involved in the art world—it was kind of an accident, I think.” Moten was taking stock in modest fashion at his home in New York, surrounded by boxes still awaiting unpacking after his recent move with his two sons, ages 10 and 13, and his wife, Laura Harris, a fellow NYU faculty member and author of the forthcoming book, Experiments in Exile: C. L. R. James, Hélio Oiticica, and the Aesthetic Sociality of Blackness. In the middle of the living room was a surprise: a big double bass of the kind musicians pluck and thrum. “That was my midlife crisis,” he said of the instrument he procured when he turned 50. “Some people get a Corvette. I got a bass.”
Recordings spilled off the shelves, lots of good Southern gospel and abstract jazz. Books, too: Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, Samuel R. Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, and hundreds more.
Wu Tsang, the artist, was “blown away by his library,” on first meeting Moten when he lived near Duke University in North Carolina. “He had this smoking room, and the library had rows of books two layers deep.” On a desk nearby were a couple of volumes by the science-fiction writer Octavia Butler and the gender theorist Judith Butler. “I asked him about it and he said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to teach a class called ‘Butler Squared.’ That was it.”
Although Moten’s first artistic collaboration was with Jafa (writing and narration for a 2009 video titled Deshotten 1.0), he fully entered the realm of visual art by way of his collaboration with Tsang. After meeting through a mutual friend, the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, Moten and Tsang made Miss Communication and Mr:Re (2014), first as a performance and later, a two-channel video that features the two of them reading voicemails each left the other. “We got to know each other through these messages we were leaving,” Tsang said. “We became friends after that.”
Then came their “sculptural performance,” Gravitational Feel (2015–16), created during a residency with a group based in Amsterdam, and followed in 2016 by a publication titled Who Touched Me? Also from 2015 is Girl Talk, which featured prominently in the New Museum’s “Trigger” show, with Moten in makeup and fluttering fabric swaying in a dramatically sunlit backyard. “One of the reasons I feel it’s important to work with him is that I never know what will happen,” Tsang said. “Every time I have an idea of what I want to do and tell him what I’m thinking, he comes up with something completely different—what he responds with is never what I expect.”
The initial idea for Girl Talk was to work with Moten’s voice, notable for being deep and hypnotic. “But he was like, ‘You know, what I really want to do is lose my voice,’ ” Tsang said. So together they struck up the idea of engaging the song “Girl Talk,” with lyrics amended by Betty Carter in 1969 and sung for the present by Josiah Wise, who makes music under the name serpentwithfeet.
“Fred comes from a tradition of black studies, and I come from being schooled as a trans activist,” Tsang said. “Where those intersect is something I am interested in, different notions of histories and struggles and how we articulate our stances. He has this openness in the ways he thinks about blackness, and I can identify something in his thinking that is similar to the ways I would like to think about trans-ness. His voice is a plural voice, and I love to journey through the constellations.”
Moten said his thinking about gender and a trans-minded sense of becoming has been affected by his friendships with Muñoz and Tsang, as well as by others in the field of black studies. “The most important and powerful critical work in my field in the last 50 years has been feminist work,” he said. “To do black studies in my moment has been to arrange oneself, hopefully in a rigorous and critical and open way, in relation to black feminist work, which takes up questions of gender in ways that are both obviously part of a larger feminist insurgency but also disruptive and dissonant within that insurgency precisely because of the place and the force that race takes up there. The problematic of blackness is inseparable from the problematic of gender and sexuality.”
But collaborating so closely with Tsang has helped make such matters more than an academic concern. “Working with Wu, I wasn’t thinking about gender in some abstract way or in relation to somebody else,” Moten said. “I was thinking hard about gender with regard to me, and not by way of some already given framework that would fall under the rubric of black masculinity either. It was more personal than that. I was thinking about all these new structures and levels of enjoyment that come with a certain kind of trans performance that I was being allowed to be involved in. All these things I could experience for myself have had a good impact on the way I think.”
Girl Talk became a talking point in discussions relating to “Trigger,” including a New Yorker review in which Peter Schjeldahl mistook Moten as the source of the singing voice and characterized Tsang in a manner that neither collaborator liked. In a letter to the editor, sent to the magazine but never published, the duo wrote: “Wu Tsang is not Fred Moten’s female collaborator. It would be more accurate to say that he is her intermittent familiar and would-be Divine. Finally, while ‘her’ is Wu’s personal possessive pronoun of choice, she is not female. The video Girl Talk is part of an ongoing refusal of the imposition of such choices and every other mode of (self-)determination.”
Moten said working with artists in general has opened him up. “There was never any occasion for me as a writer when all of a sudden I was so aware of how light affected work,” he said. “My experience with books had not prepared me to take into account and pay much attention to texture and touch and feel. Even creative writing isn’t particularly concerned with the haptic, visual, and even sonic experience of turning a page. Those are the kinds of questions that working with artists has made me more aware of.”
He is also working with artists on other interests and inclinations. With a sort of committee convened to think together about blackness, trans-ness, and social activity “in relation to concepts in contemporary science that might be more in line with those terms,” Moten is a core member of the Institute of Physical Sociality, an amorphous project assembled along with Tsang, the writer/artist Denise Ferreira da Silva, and Barry Esson and Bryony McIntyre of the Edinburgh-based activist-curatorial collective, Arika.
“Some of us have some intuition that the nature of the things we study—art, blackness, social life—has something more than merely a metaphorical relationship to the nature of the physical world,” Moten said of the group, which in February met privately in New York with invited international guests, including mathematician Fernando Zalamea and quantum physicists Karen Barad and Gabriel Catren.
Arika member Esson said the group owes its existence in part to Moten’s stated directive to “consent not to be a single being,” borrowed from the French-Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant as the title for Moten’s trilogy. “Enlightenment or Western ideas of ethics were always influenced strongly by classical physics, so 400 years of European history tells us that we are individuals acting on each other through laws of force,” Esson said. “But particle physics has moved beyond that and says there are no fixed objects, that objects are entangled, that they can be non-locatable, that it’s better to think of individual occurrences as statistically probable emergences out of some kind of field.” A corollary to that, he said, could be Moten’s notion of blackness as “a social entanglement in which what seem like individuals are actually emergent properties of a larger social field.”
For Moten, entanglement is a fundamental principle that suggests social implications for ways in which people could and should recognize connections among them and also learn ways to improvise on the fly. “Einstein’s derisive nickname for entanglement was what he called ‘spooky action at a distance,’ but I was totally invested in the possibility of spooky action at a distance because for me that’s a very interesting and accurate way to describe some of what occurs within the context of a jazz ensemble,” he said.
And there might be some spooky action at work in his conception of blur, too. Thinking back to that overcrowded exhibition that helped clarify an idea he had been mulling—“Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology” at the Hammer Museum in 2014—Moten recalled a revelation: “The works blurred together and something else emerged.” That something, he said, amounted to the realization that an “oeuvre could be that of a single author but also that of a moment. To me, that’s much more interesting. There are things that don’t correspond to, or can’t be reduced to, an individual work or an individual artist.”
There was coherence in the mess of it, he said. “I’ve been thinking for a while now that, in a way, art survives the myth of the artist and the individual work of art. It survives under the tremendous pressure and duress that those concepts place upon it. Part of what’s interesting to me about the phenomenon of blur is that it can help alleviate some of that pressure and some of that duress.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 70 under the title “Every and All.”