The Struggle for Happiness, or What Is American about Black Dada
Skip to main content

The Struggle for Happiness, or What Is American about Black Dada

Installation view of Belgian Pavillion at the Venice Biennale (2015)

“How do you respond to state-sanctioned physical and intellectual brutality? How do you respond collectively? The reply of artists to these questions after World War I was called Dada. In my own work, I tend to put an idea out there, and then I deliberately delay its being represented in any physical manner.” Adam Pendleton’s concept of “Black Dada”—which has guided his art making practice—melds references from LeRoi Jones’s 1964 poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” and Hugo Ball’s “Dada Manifesto” of 1916. In many of Pendleton’s related works he renders language—from “Black Lives Matter” to “victims of American democracy,” Malcolm X’s oft-repeated descriptor for black people—abstract, Xeroxing and collaging them into new forms. It’s not a practice dissimilar to that of his Black Dada Reader (Koenig Books, 2017), a 350-page volume that brings together historical and contemporary writers in the same conceptual space, including Hugo Ball, W.E.B. Du Bois, Stokely Carmichael, Sun Ra, and Adrian Piper, as well as Ad Reinhardt, Joan Jonas, William Pope.L, and Thomas Hirschhorn. Published in October 2017, the book has garnered numerous honors, including selection by New York Times critic Roberta Smith as one of the “Best Art Books of 2017” and inclusion in Culture Type’s “14 Best Black Art Books of 2017.”

To bring context to Pendleton’s work within the Walker exhibition I am you, you are too, we share, with the artist’s permission, an essay by Adrienne Edwards, the Walker’s curator at large, on the  “overwhelmingly American assemblage” that is the Black Dada Reader.


Adam Pendleton has a predilection for machines. All of Pendleton’s art objects are made with them. These mechanical and electrical tools range from computers such as a MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and iMac, an Epson large-format inkjet printer, a laser copier, a scanner, an automatic screen printing press, and most recently a “painting machine,” an enormous, low-tech device that “prints” with oil paint.1 This predilection is perhaps exemplified in this very book, the Black Dada Reader, which, like the paintings that are the culmination of the process that is Black Dada, begins with a photocopier. The photocopier is an essential tool for Pendleton—it is his machine of repetition, given his tendency to photocopy images until they begin to lose the integrity of their original form. Precision pleases Pendleton, as beautifully evinced in his monochromatic “Black Dada” paintings, which are strikingly exact yet sieve a motley collection of ideas, concepts, and poetry.

Pendleton is a voracious reader and image seeker. He has amassed an ever-evolving personal library of books on literature, modern and contemporary art, experimental dance, film, and philosophy. The Reader, built from photocopies of texts from this collection, is an assemblage—more precisely even, an assembly line—in which the laborers are the likes of poets and writers June Jordan, Joan Retallack, Gertrude Stein, and Ron Silliman; artists Hugo Ball, Joan Jonas, Stan Douglas, Adrian Piper, Lorraine O’Grady, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Félix González-Torres, William Pope.L, Ralph Lemon, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Ad Reinhardt; and black activists W. E. B. Du Bois, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Excepting Ball (who was German), Douglas (who is Canadian), Hirschhorn (who is Swiss), and philosopher Gilles Deleuze (who was French), it is an overwhelmingly American assemblage.

The concept of assemblage, famously formulated by Deleuze and his collaborator Félix Guattari, is the basic set of conditions to enable a becoming.2 It is a mode of agency that works by constituting a multiplicity in response to the apparatuses delimiting a subject’s pursuit of his or her most fundamentally motivating desires. These desires arise from a confluence of aesthetic, political, and social intentions and can include profound ethical implications that necessitate action. In articulating the concept, Deleuze and Guattari make an unlikely turn to Soledad Brother and Marxist George Jackson for the notion of a “line of flight,” taken from his prison writings.3 Here we come to the heart of the matter for Pendleton, which is to say to the black radical tradition, or more precisely in his case, to the fact that the radicality of blackness is inherent not only to his oeuvre but also to the very foundations of Western art and thought: Deleuze and Guattari through Black Panther Jackson, as well as philosopher Georg Hegel’s formulation of the master/slave concept through the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), and André Breton’s embrace of anticolonialism through the poetics of Martinican Aimé Césaire, to name only a few.4

Pendleton thus enacts on paper a right expressly laid out in the US Constitution: the freedom of assembly, or the individual right to collectively express, promote, and defend one’s ideas. His convocation of these writers and artists is a speculative and conceptual manifestation of this right. Having no choice in the matter, the assembly’s creative production is decontextualized and enlisted in Pendleton’s cause. They are now fragments of some distanced whole, separated from their origins yet not void of their own particular genealogies, references, and discourses. It is an assemblage of seemingly incommensurable minds, which coalesce on an aesthetico-socio-political plane that is Black Dada. This vibrantly loaded field is an event horizon, a pregnant abyss of total blackness.

Installation detail of Belgian Pavillion at the Venice Biennale (2015)

Blackness is an originary space-time where the human being collides with social structures that have forged a situation, which at times has been untenable, leaving no other recourse than to follow Jackson’s line of flight. It is a manifestation of blackness in its most abstract state. Pendleton asks that we linger here because the deep affection, the abiding radical love between blackness and abstraction, is foundational. It arises from the most basic and essential notions of what we know to be the United States of America; it is born of capitalism, the very historical and economic system on which this nation took form and in which a concept of blackness took shape, and it has rocked and been rocked by the capricious lullaby that is the assemblage of unalienable rights we know as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Like blackness in Pendleton’s art, his fascination with machines has nothing to do with deploying them as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Jean Tinguely did, that is, as artworks in and of themselves. Rather, they are a mode and a means of artmaking. Pendleton is invested in what machines can do for him, as the cover of the do-it-yourself photocopied version of the Reader indicates, “Black Dada, what can black dada do for me, do for me, black dada.” In this respect, Pendleton’s approach is similar to the tactile technology Jack Whitten created for his painting experiments in which the works are “processed”—the word is his—or the digital inkjet technology and scanners from which Wade Guyton’s digital paintings on linen evolved.

Pendleton commands the machine precisely because we are no longer machines, no longer commodities; he is not invested in technology merely for what it can mechanically do. Instead, he is expropriating its capacity to
encapsulate the black subject’s position in the development of the nation, a process in which, he reminds us, we are all implicated. The assembly, called up in the Reader in particular and by Black Dada in general, is far larger than what is listed in the table of contents. It encompasses all of those individuals, both known and unknown, who enacted slave revolts, led the Underground Railroad, and participated in the abolitionist movement; it includes those who fought in American wars despite being second-class citizens in a segregated army, those who organized the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, who worked as sharecroppers for a pittance and who labored in Dixie’s mills and the industrial factories in the North; it includes those targeted by racial profiling, those subjected to extrajudicial killings, and the millions languishing in the prisonindustrial complex. These are the individual histories without which “abstraction remains motionless,” as the Trinidadian Marxist writer and activist C. L. R. James put it. Pendleton correlates abstract ideas to real life to indicate that when the real is irrational, flight into abstraction in art, music, and language has been and continues to be a worthy and necessary endeavor.

I want to linger with James and particularly with American Civilization—his incomplete manuscript from 1950, whose sixth chapter gives this essay its title—because the Reader is engaged in a similar reclamation of the conventional language of American democracy: freedom, equality, individuality, and happiness.5 James, who was deported from the United States after living here from 1938 to 1953, adhered to the notion that art—especially popular expressions—was the foundational means through which people attempted to relate real life and the world of imagination.6 Pendleton’s disjoining and conjoining of texts as an assemblage both annunciates and inaugurates what James called “the future in the present.7 We need a future in the present because of the historical and contemporary reality of social and political alienation.

I privilege James over Marx in elucidating alienation because, like Pendleton’s own summoning of the writers in the Reader, James puts Marx to work in the service of the contemporary situation, deploying his dialectical method to demonstrate the singularly important place occupied by black people in the history of capitalism and how the black radical tradition arose in response. In The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution and The History of Negro Revolt—both from 1938, the same year he arrived in the United States—James narrates how masses of black subjects challenged capitalist domination. Crucially, in both accounts, the black experience is shown to be uniquely capable of illuminating the universal coordinates of modern society and especially so in the United States. As Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart have it, “For James the black question lay at the core of the American question. It encapsulated the central contradiction of a society whose original ideals of freedom and equality were, in the twentieth century, crushed at every turn by the coercive power of industrial capitalism. James’s work on the position of blacks in the United States led him directly into the question of the revolution in America.8

In American Civilization, James extends Marxism into the realm of aesthetic theory, making a compelling case for understanding black Americans’ quest for organized collective life as what he calls “creative social power.9 As James described, the social relationships developed by capitalism on the factory floor are contradictory. On the one hand, there is a mutual consciousness arising from the shared labor of the assembly, and this has the potential to nurture the development of individuality through creativity. On the other hand, the extreme antagonism endemic to the system itself negates such a possibility by generating alienation, or the illusion of an unbridgeable gap between the individual and the institutions that are sustained by their participation. For James, this alienation was most severe in the United States precisely because it obviously contradicted its founding ideals, doubly so when given to blackness. Pendleton’s assembly of writers is thus both evidence of and an antidote for alienation.

It is Pendleton’s everyday activities in his studio that enact this freedom as a
practice rather than simply claiming it as an inherited principle or a foundational right of the American subject. The stakes are different at this level of production. What is required to produce paintings or videos as an artist, rather than commodities as a laborer, is precisely the joyful convening of this assembly, or that aspect of creative research that elides the myriad forms of alienation that beset the maker of things-to-be-sold. Therefore Pendleton needs comrades, a buttressing collective called to action to stave off alienation and establish James’s notion of “creative social power.”

Installed as wallpaper in the Walker exhibition I am you, you are too, Adam Pendleton’s Midnight (A Victim of American Democracy) (2017) abstracts Malcolm X’s oft-repeated phrase that describes black Americans as the “victims of American democracy.”

As James indicated, there is no better evidence of this power than black cultural expressions in the United States: consider the relationship of blues and dance music to labor, the historical role of spirituals as an aural veil of revolt and flight, the chants of chain gangs in the rural South defying federal laws of Reconstruction, the enlivened sense of cadence and pomp in organized processions and marches from the Garveyites to Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter, and on and on. Indeed, beginning with American Civilization and throughout the 1950s, James was “seeking to develop a critical method by means of which the work of great artists could be approached, both to open up the individual creative process itself and to assess its place in social life.10 This interest was especially concerned with the unique analytic possibility of combining contemporary art forms, demonstrations of democracy, and history. Pendleton understands this essential role held out by James for cultural expression in the process of social production.

For as I read Pendleton’s assembly as artmaking and his artmaking as assembly, the founding principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—always already somehow escape us. They are worthy aspirations situated just on the other side of a possibility toward which we must always reach, even as we understand that an aspiration is nothing more than a mere hope, a feeling, a desire for something to be actualized. We must be aware of this elusive setup. We must be willing to wager with it. The point is that one must act, one must assemble now, one must always be in the process of struggle that is the now. The imperative is to express one’s own character in our daily labor.

It is a fact that as an artist, like any laborer, Pendleton not only produces the objects that he needs and desires but also the very conditions of his life.11 He navigates circumstances that would hinder, deny, or quell these expressions by attending to the world in which his creative production takes place, and to the modes of production through which his artwork is realized. The image of the machine as irrepressible force is ever metaphoric for modern times. In an age when happiness has been conflated with status, influence, and material satisfaction—all barometers of society’s insatiable desire for progress and accumulation—for James, and, I suggest, Pendleton too, happiness is “the freedom to be a fully developed, creative individual personality and to be part of a community based upon principles conducive to that aim.12 We must remain poised for the aleatory possibilities of chance, for it alone opens the radical unintended potential, perhaps even the looming elusive threat, to the entire enterprise. Often these potentials can appear as spontaneous responses to sudden events, as with the recent protests across the United States following the killings of Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin.

With the Black Dada Reader, Pendleton coalesces a network of relations orbiting value, modern life, and the legacy of Modernism. What is gained, he asks, when we fabulate history, elevate the vernacular, defer to poetics, or act in and through love? Pendleton’s devouring of the photocopier is an unleashing of such possibilities. The machine’s very character is appropriated and exhausted, parsed down into Pendleton’s visual and textual lexicon, or becomes the aesthetics of the work itself: precise, restrained, calculating, and economically effective, reflecting nothing more or less than a desire for order and organization in the manufacturing of that most American of unalienable rights—happiness.

Notes

1Author correspondence with the artist on February 10, 2015.
2See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 232–309.
3See Michelle Koerner, “Line of Escape: Gilles Deleuze’s Encounter with George Jackson,” in Genre, 2001, vol. 44, no. 2 (2001): 157–180.
4Scholar Tavia Nyong’o remarked on this tendency in Western thought in his paper “Dream, Collage, Escape: Dark Future for Black Performance,” presented at Get Ready for the Marvelous: A Conference on Surrealism in the African Diaspora, 1932–2013, which I curated for Performa and which took place February 8–9, 2013, at New York University.
5See C. L. R. James, American Civilization (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1993) and also Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart’s preface “C. L. R. James and The Pursuit of Happiness” at http://clrjamesinstitute.org (accessed January 23, 2015).
6Ibid.
7C. L. R. James, The Future in the Present: Selected Writings (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1977).
8C. L. R. James, American Civilization, 11.
9Ibid., 209.
10Ibid., 17.
11William Adams, “Aesthetics: Liberating the Senses,” in The Cambridge Companion to Marx, ed. Terrell Carver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 249.
12C. L. R. James, American Civilization, 24.

Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.