With Reverence | Ruth Nicole Brown & Emery Petchauer

With Reverence: An Actuality of Collective Formation

Emery: Having brought this project to a close, I guess the first thing I’d say is that I’m just proud of us. I remember in our first exchange session with the collectives when we were explaining the project, you said something like, “There’s no predetermined gimmick we’re trying to get out of this.” Which meant we designed the experience so everybody involved could shape the process and just being together would be enough. Just to be together. So it made sense to invite people into the process of making with all of the materials we had archived during our exchange sessions. It felt right. And I think the creating you and I did across the year with ritual scripts and tune-ins modeled the kind of making that we were inviting people into at the end. I mean, people would have made fly shit regardless of us because people make fly shit regardless of us. I don’t want to overstate our influence there. But by making art ourselves as part of the process, we gave ourselves objects to think with and to think through — objects that came about as part of the collective inquiry. I think about the whole thing as a kind of apparatus we facilitated for ourselves and our partners for helping us think about collectives and change.

Ruth Nicole: Yes! To our modeling and to our making, and to the conversations that go super deep and resonate in so many different ways. I appreciate us for how we set up the conversation prompts. It was always expansive enough for folks to be able to go there in all of the different ways that they had and did. I felt a kind of reverence for so many different things created. There was also a deep reverence for all of us, individually.

Emery: Both of our aesthetic approaches with this work evolved over the project. A question that came up for us a lot was what’s the relationship between your performance scripts and my tune-ins? And this seemed like an evolving question that didn’t have a stationary answer. It was in motion. It was uncomfortable for me at first, but I came to like that.

Ruth Nicole: I was committed to the scripts even if I was not always persuaded by them. At stages in the process, I was entertaining the idea that we’re listening to the same things — recordings of our exchange sessions — and coming up with these two different things where maybe they don’t have a relationship or maybe they do. Like, I love that part.

Emery: I remember when you said that, it started a shift in my thinking. Maybe they don’t have to have a relationship with one another, or at least not the relationship I had assumed they might — one that is representational, as if they are two different representations of the same phenomenon. You got me thinking that maybe they aren’t representations at all but rather objects brought into being by assembling these three collectives over a period of time. That’s a departure from representation for sure.

Ruth Nicole: Maybe that’s what I was leaning on: the trust of this group. Like if there’s one group who knows how to make something sonically cohesive it’s this group. I wasn’t worried about it in the end, which made me feel like I could come up with something so wildly incoherent yet would have fidelity to what we shared during our sessions with the collectives.

Emery: That makes me wonder — and this goes back to that point about the process and the poetic performing the argument — what that tells us about how collectives sustain themselves over time. If that’s the question that started us into this project, you’ve got me wondering how our processes of creation and the minor aesthetic performances in them kind of reverberate back to that question.  

Ruth Nicole: Right, did I just argue myself into not doing more with the scripts and leaving them as is, made from the transcripts of our conversations? I do want something different, of my imagination and how I hear us together, however, I don’t want something sonically cohesive in the end. How are these things going to fit together,  and where, is the better question. Maybe I just argued myself into something different. But that wasn’t my first intention.

Emery: When I was reading the scripts you wrote, I noticed the use of parentheses in some of them. Parentheses and collisions. Some conversation excerpts from the exchange sessions were made parenthetical. What was going on for you in those places?

Ruth Nicole: Gendered insights and brilliance! Listening to some of our exchange sessions I was struck by the ways I heard gender show up. And I wanted to note that in the performance scripts. Why is it parenthetical? Collision. It just became more of something I heard while listening to our exchange sessions and used the parenthetical as a device to show who is moving the discussion forward. It’s so often a difference in who speaks, and who moves the conversation along and I want to acknowledge this nuance.

Emery: I'm with you there because Blair's comment early on about wholeness…

Ruth Nicole: …set off the whole conversation.

Emery: That’s right. In just the way that Blair does. And that gendered insight and brilliance, as you called it, turned out to be something crucial to “Us Whole.” Crucial to so much, actually. That insight and question from Blair — “What’s the wholeness of the situation? — is kind of parenthetical at first. It sounds like an interlude between what might be the main arcs of the piece, and it’s pretty random and jarring at first I think. But each of the times it shows up, it unfolds even more through your reciting of the performance script “Wholeness, coalition, togetherness, truth to power” down the list. There’s a progression to it. Like the poem that unfolds between songs on To Pimp a Butterfly. And in the end, the thing that was just in the parentheses, all the way unfolded, is the answer. It was there the whole time. It’s what we end on when you say, “a ritual of remembering, us whole.”

Ruth Nicole: I sensed the collisions in these conversations where we were saying some real — do I want to call it contradictory stuff? On one hand, we were like, “Integrity, it's who I am and what I say.” And you were coming through during the session with the, “Like can we widen it a little bit more? Cause we're sounding real rigid.” Cause you came back one time and was like, “Well, I think it's through conversation....because one time I thought it was integrity but it turned out not to be an issue of integrity at all,” but that directly followed an instance of, “Nope, that is what it is.”

Emery: I didn’t even notice that.

Ruth Nicole: It was the collisions I heard in that way. Also the collisions around collectivity. It was a lot of “this is selfless work” vs “controlling my narrative and me.” So I was like, collision no. 2. Gender collision parenthetical, no. 3. Emery’s collision of this is what integrity is, no let's widen it — collision no. 1. And then the fourth collision was leader and collective. Because all through the conversation it was so much about the leader. “The leader says this, so we gotta be about this.” And then it was “the collective” and the word “our” was used a lot, which implied belonging. I'm still sitting with the relationship between the leader and the collective. There was a lot said about that in this conversation.

Emery: And of course when I hear you talking about collisions, I’m thinking of the collision among forms, back to Carol Levine’s ideas in Forms.1 What happens when these rhythms, networks, hierarchies, and wholes that make up the collectives collide with one another? I think us connecting early on over that idea unlocked something for us and kind of set this project in motion. That’s one origin story I guess.

Ruth Nicole: There’s a repetition of voices in the “Integrity” tune-in you made, which is why I had to go back and add some repetition to some of my scripts. And I love the sound of the voices and conversation. I love the sound of my voice, which is rare! I don’t ever say that. I don’t say that ever. But the fact that I was, “Oh, listen to me!” If I'm being perfectly honest. It was dope!

Emery: I love that you love the sound of your voice! It’s the “I want you to answer your question, what has integrity done for you?” part, isn’t it? So what did you love about how it sounded?

Ruth Nicole: Even when I went back to our recording of the conversation, I don’t remember me asking that question in the way it sounds in the tune-in. Was I that pointed? I was channeling something inside of us all, maybe. I kind of remember asking it, but I definitely don't remember asking it the way it sounds.

Emery: What was it about the way it sounded?

Ruth Nicole: Esmé said in her notes from that session, “...and Dr. Brown is not okay.” I was so in and out, and I know why, but I never explicitly said it. But I guess also, as much as I can hear my silence, I can hear me being present. Now looking back, I can also hear myself like, “Oh look at you, activating those skills you have been studying.” I was really proud of myself because in real time during the session, I was so emotionally invested in Stevie’s story 100%, what he was saying. My focus was so much on him that I wasn’t really aware of myself. So listening to it, I was like, oh that's what I said? That’s how I asked it? Everyone has a reaction to hearing their voice, but if I hear me saying something and my first reaction is I’m proud of me, I guess I realized I like how I sound.

Emery: It was absolutely the particular grain or sound of your voice in that moment, plus the history SOLHOT and The Space Program. The question in the moment doesn’t hit the same register outside that history. And the way it was said, there is an aggressiveness I hear in it. An entitled demand for an answer that comes from a place of love. And in the tune-in, the demand that’s embedded in the question cycles through a loop, but the collisions across the two voices aren’t all under my control. There’s some chance and indeterminacy to the timing of it all that I build into the compositional process under the hood in Ableton. So for you and Stevie’s voices in that part — him asking a question and you demanding he answer his own question, a lot of those collisions are just the result of a performative process that has some chance and indeterminacy built into it. I wanted it to be a bit swarmy, if you will, not all under my control. But I don’t think any of it works the same without the sound of your voice in that moment. 

Ruth Nicole: I aspire to be that present every time.

Emery: When you hear Stevie’s voice, you can hear where he is from. You can hear Longview, TX in his voice. It’s immediately locating. And I hear the South in your voice too. I hear your people and movement in the way your words swing. So those parts of the tune-in, where there is a pas de deux between your voices, I hear two voices from the South talking to each other  Two people and two peoples. I mean, I guess I should ask since I don’t know the answer. Before Chicago, where do your people come from?

Ruth Nicole: Kentucky

Emery: There you go. That’s part of the ear review.  I’ve been thinking about this whole concept of academic peer review and how this relates to – and really doesn’t relate to — how we brought our creative pieces during this project before the people who are a part of it. They really are our peers, but that notion of peer-review can be so corrupted by academia. So I was thinking about an ear review. That’s something I’m trying to put in play, and I do mean play. You with me? Because we have our group of peers, but we’ve brought sonic material before them during these sessions. It’s not just a peer review. It’s an ear review.

Ruth Nicole: I like it because, I’m always thinking about the sonic and the deaf and the hard of hearing and ear review still works.

Emery: There is something to play with in there.

Ruth Nicole: Katie Got Bandz has this song where the hook is “you ain’t squad.” To me, it is the most perfect theorization of collectivity because it is life or death like that. Katie nuanced collective in the best way, better than in most of the ways I’ve read. I feel like we need to bring more Chicago drill to the academy because we have criteria to supposedly determine who is a peer but how do we determine who is not? We need some language to be like, “Same in some ways maybe but not a peer.” Of course, I have the SOLHOT homegirls to thank for putting me onto Katie. I don’t remember if it was specifically Jessica, or Sesali, or Sheri but when we needed to have this conversation in a really deep way in SOLHOT they brought Katie’s music to my attention and to our practice, and it resolved whatever struggle we were having at the time and brought in some much needed clarity. I will always remember the wisdom of that moment. It made how we move better.

Emery: And then there’s when people try to peer — as is in try to sneak a look. Like no, you don’t need to peer over here. Mind your own work. 

Ruth Nicole: Yes, I’m here for the ear review.

Emery: You brought up Am’re and the orchestra piece “And Be Free” he composed to share with the group. When he was playing it, I was thinking about how it is the only creative piece from the collectives that doesn’t allow us to listen semantically. There are no words for us to interpret. It made me think about how much the spoken word — or what we have said being together this year collectively — shows up in the things people made or just in what we think we know. And what words might not be able to do. But I didn’t even have to ask the question about this during our ear review session because Am’re started master classing, to use that term you always put in play. He broke the whole shit down when he spoke about the compositional choices he was making and how sonically and compositionally he wasn’t even trying to represent sonically a kind of interruption to whiteness. I understood him meaning that to represent an interruption to whiteness also meant having whiteness in there somehow. But he was like, “Nah, forget that. I don’t have to do that. It doesn’t even have to be in there.” And that resonated we me so much for what I was feeling months before while making the “Black Genius” tune–in. You said it was “an ancient story of Black Genius.” When I started the listening process for the tune-in, initially I felt like the part where Stevie explicitly named whiteness and white supremacy had to be in there. Like I felt that it had to be named explicitly, doesn’t it? And as I got deeper into the making, I started thinking about who the imagined listeners are for the piece are. Or who are the ear-magined listeners? I got to thinking that if I played this for Us, everybody would know what the deal is without having to explicitly name whiteness and white supremacy. Because when Stevie says, “And in that moment, all I could think about is how they’ve been viewing me for so long,” everybody knows who “they” is and what that gaze is. And by everybody, I don’t mean Everybody. I mean Us. So Am’re’s compositional choice to work outside of whiteness and white supremacy by not even representing an interruption of it — it brought me back to that compositional choice I ultimately worked myself into. And why I moved away from even having to name whiteness and white supremacy because this is for Us. I was ear-magining Us as the audience. And that moving away and moving beyond is a kind of freedom I think. Freeing you up for something else.

Ruth Nicole: Me and Jessica talk about this all the time. It’s always some point in time that someone is doing SOLHOT and realizes we are doing this for us, by us. The external gaze that is so often used as metric, barometer, and criteria is decidedly put aside for all that is Black. That is when you start doing Black Studies. Jessica is so quick to point out that not everyone can make that leap. Not everyone can put down the white supremacy of it all. Some people won’t show up without the cop in their heart because they don’t want to or don’t know how to let it go or love it more than well…what we call freedom. In SOLHOT, we recognize it almost immediately. They can’t do it. White supremacy has such a grip on their imagination that they just can’t. I feel like we’re working on our patience with that process. Patience may not be the right word but we certainly feel like it’s a wait and its weight. But, when it’s let go. Jessica is always, like “Whew, finally!” we can talk about what we need to talk about. Folks really be going thru! But, certainly and always the joy is after that. Meaning they either decided to let the cop and external gaze go or they held onto it and left SOLHOT. Either way, joy showed up after the decision was made. This is another way of how I heard that process when Am’re told the story. It’s such a joy to be in it, fully, and to decide it’s where you want to be. The center of collective movement is Black. It’s not a vacuum either. It’s so generative you like, yeah, we ain’t coming out. That is also what I heard when Esmé shared her story about beading and understanding herself as an Anishinaabekwe. Because when you get there, in the collective groove, there are so many calls for you to come back out of it. But it’s like nope, we not doing it. We’re not backing out to talk about what white supremacy demands or speak on its terms which for us sounds a lot like folks wanting us to talk about how supposedly fast the girls are, or the boys, or etiquette. Nope, we not coming back out. And the pull is so strong. That’s why I really resonated with how it sounds, because it sounds horrible. Or as Am’re said, there is a composition to that sound. I’m very aware of it and can do without it. 

Emery: One realization I had during this project was that these collectives are evolving before our ears.

Ruth Nicole: Oh yeah, when you texted me that I was like, Yes!

Emery: I came into this project thinking that it was backward-facing — like we’re talking about what these collectives have done, how they have evolved to sustain themselves over time. But no. It turned out we were listening to them real-time evolve, trying to sustain themselves, and wrestling through those struggles. They’re thinking about different organizing patterns and strategies, circles of connection among people, what leadership is, who the leader is, if there even is one, who has to stay or go, or if the whole thing could get passed to another person.

Ruth Nicole: You’re making me get into really esoteric stuff. This project has really tested me to say these things out loud in a way that I haven’t before. For example, when I told Stevie that I heard everything he was saying that he was going to create, I knew it was going to happen. He was in that zone. He was literally speaking the things into existence. Everybody don’t hear that when it's happening and I don’t know what it means that I do. I do know that a lot of the times these people who be in that zone get called leaders or visionaries. Stevie was talking to us and every word he said it was like, “Yeah this is what the ‘vibes crowd’ calls manifesting”; he was just in that zone. I don’t see it happen all the time. I don’t always see it put into practice, and maybe people do it in their own personal life, but I don't always see people doing that for the greater good of other folks. Other people manifesting cars and whatnot while you are out here speaking life to stuff that has nothing to do with you, or has everything to do with you but not for you, and I get it. Knoxx does it too. This is what I mean by speaking the ‘collective formation’ of it all. Calling it forth so that it is for everyone. At another point Knoxx was all up in that same zone. I know you can’t give this gift away. We probably do want to give it to somebody else sometimes. It’s a lot. After almost two decades of organizing the way we do, I now know that it’s the gift nobody is going to take. Sometimes it is a point of contention because it doesn’t work and we want it to work that way so bad.  I heard the contention come up in different ways during our sessions — ways we kind of talked around it. When the expectation is to get something back directly from the people you were with, which is an entirely human thing to expect, it’s time to unmanage the expectations because it don’t work like that. When collectives are asking really hard questions about the work, especially when it’s about the person or persons who started it needing to step back, away, or just change in general, we can so desperately want to see a mirror but it's most always a window. Gotta step through. And the answer you’re searching for that keeps you up at night about how is it going to go on is always right there among the folks you love. I was listening to him speak and ask the questions he asked himself to our group and found myself thinking like, “Whatever the answer is, it’s right here already; it always is.”

Emery: You’re reminding me of a moment in one of our exchange sessions where that happened, where the answer was already there. Stevie mentioned he had been going back and listening to Curriculum of the Mind in the midst of what he was going through and you came right in like “C’mon Stevie! The thing that you made before is the thing that you needed right now?” I mean, something took me over when I heard that.

Ruth Nicole: Yeah. That’s a movement in and of itself.

Emery: A whole lesson.

Ruth Nicole: It has a lot of implications if you really get into it. One, I think it’s easy to see in hindsight, but also, I think that in the time he created it I wonder how it felt. Did it feel as necessary then as it does now? I am sure the thing that makes so much sense now, did not at the time. Of course, in real time, it sounds good because you put it out there. But it doesn’t feel necessarily complete. Like it can’t, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. It cannot. It cannot feel so important at the time of making it. Or, at the time it saves your life, it will feel so important and you’ll reflect on how it came to be and probably shake your head. Maybe even laugh out loud. Then you give big thanks!

Emery: One of the things these exchange session had me thinking about is how capital is wrapped up differently in this collectives and the ways the university mediates the collectives and their relationships to capital. From the way people talk about the collectives, there seems to be differences in how capital and the university operates. And when I say “university,” I mean a set of interacting forms and also in most cases a settler-colonial state project. It seems like the university and the different ways it might operate in relations to the collective is a key difference, especially for SOLHOT and The Space Program/Fire in Little Africa. I mean this even at a very basic level, like the notion of a GA-ship within a departmental configuration and how money and a bundle of hours come from it. For a collective that operates outside the reach of the university, the money might flow directly through individuals rather than, say, departmental or grant line items. That doesn’t eliminate issues. It’s just a particular way contradictions show up. 

Ruth Nicole: That’s what I’m saying. Somebody said, “Wow, the University can come out looking like a mediator for anti-capitalism” but still, the colonial project that it is demands that it wears that mask. Like I felt the quiet when we were talking about who volunteers, who gave internships, and people who were offered jobs because of what they made doing collective work. Like who would have thought because it was not at all the point for doing this work??!! I can still hear the secondary voice that says what about the grants we wrote to get people hourly wages? It wasn’t enough. The university can pay people for the work via assistantships, work study, etc. and it all has a particular scale. In SOLHOT, we tried to make sure we paid at the top of the scale. It wasn’t enough. I think that is the part where it gets tricky, like are we mad that we couldn’t get paid more from the university? This is an argument in favor of the nonprofit that we in SOLHOT intentionally did not pursue. But then we could have set our own pay scales, maybe. Or, should we have organized more with the labor union to get that scale higher? Porshé
had us all out on the picket line when she was a teaching assistant on strike! It kind of falls apart at that level. Or maybe I should say SOLHOT had us working with the girls so much we didn’t have time to strategize for better pay for us all. We couldn’t get to that part of the whole.

Emery: There it is again, that question from Blair: “What’s the wholeness of the situation?” As you tease it out, it’s not that SOLHOT is solving this problem by refusing nonprofitism or having an intentionally elusive relationship with the university. It’s just that the university mediates and maybe even determines where those contradictions manifest in our relations with one another.

Ruth Nicole: There was a lot of language at times in our exchange sessions around capital and money. I tried to get at that in the performance script with the sentence: “Our authenticity is what gets their attention.” In our conversation, the “their” is the funder, the fiscal sponsor. Attention is capital. Or better yet, under racial capitalism our attention is commodified by whomever is funding us. We never said that. I kept it implied in the script. But that knowledge was definitely in the room. When people think about collective work, they think there's an assumption that it's all for free and it's anti-capital but this one case was like "nope." So that's why I was sure to put branding into the script. Because branding to me signifies capitalist entrepreneurship. And to bring Moten and Harney back into it, there’s the whole aspect of debt and indebtedness. I’m thinking about the chapter “Debt and Study.”2 And how they talk about remaining indebted to one another. Which takes me back to the Care Bear Team and why I fell in love with it so hard. I'm trying to say that that holding is a labor too. And it must be as tended to as the visionary labor of being in the hospital exhausted. You’re gonna need to recuperate from all that holding in a way that we want to be attentive to. People can ask you how you’re doing but you need an ask from someone you can actually tell the truth to. That's that holding work. That too is part of the actuality of collective formation.

Emery: Speak on it.

Ruth Nicole: It amazes me, and I don’t know why, because like you don’t see me looking ragged? I can’t believe we don’t ask each other how we’re doing for real. I think even to ask the question says so much. And asking the question, even if I can’t give you the real answer at work, is a practice. This is crucial because you do need to practice.

Emery: Practice? We talking about practice?

Ruth Nicole: Keeping it 100 because I’m not playin’ games. There is a lyric in one of the We Levitate songs: “As Black women, we were taught not to look like what we were going through.” Shout out to Denice Maurice! I think about that in a real way because if nobody is going to ask me how I’m doing, sometimes, I make it a point to look like what I’m going through as a kind of asking myself the question. But, if we have these practices, like check-in at SOLHOT, it means that we know how to do it.

Emery: It’s like the inverse of the phrase “I work too hard to look like I work too hard.” Which I love the rhetoricity of that, but you just turned that whole thing on its head by saying “I try to look like what I’m going through sometimes.”

Ruth Nicole:  I hear the hurt and I hear the pain from those pointed to, or are called as leaders. Sometimes so forcefully. But when Knoxx says “The movement ain’t always gonna come for you sometimes,” it’s devastating to me. I was surprised this sound showed up in your “Movement” tune-in. Knoxx was speaking up the ‘collective formation’ in this part, breaking down settler-colonialism. And then he tells the story of the manoomin rice. It’s the answer to our question about where the respiriting of collectives comes from. It’s such a heavy question. Then there is the part where Blair points us to the wholeness of every situation. She poses it as a question: “What’s the wholeness of the situation?” And I think that Blair knows the answer is also in the question. So that’s that. I guess the tension for me, the arc that I was working with in my script, is so counterintuitive. I just think that conversations around the hurt of leaders is so unexpected. It’s taboo, it’s risky, and so of course I want to go there, and I want to go into the risk. Does settler-colonialism explain that? I mean, yeah but the sound of it has more answers than the questions that I don’t think we really let ourselves get into. 

Emery: I think the sound of it gives multiple ways of entering into the contradictions and the hurt. There is just semantically what people said, like “Who has my back?” Then at least in the tune-ins there’s the composed sounds around those voices, like the rough edges of that saw toothed bass and that sharp filter cut off. You could look at them representationally, like the sharpness of the sound tells you something about the hurt and the pain. But on just a vibrational level too, those particular sounds are colliding with one another and hitting and echoing through your body. It’s material and not even representational on some level. That’s why in a few key parts of the sonic pieces, there are the sounds of voices destroying themselves and one another through excessive delay and feedback loops. And you want to talk about hurt and pain? That implosive feedback is painful to ears. There’s nothing representational about that for me. It’s the closest thing to that formless formation, refusing to represent itself, abandoning its own legitimacy — total abolition, and what’s left is “the assembly of our obligations to one another.”3 And like you said, I want to think that that sound has some answers in it.

Ruth Nicole: I’m also reckoning with this time and the global pandemic and the real-timeyness of it. I kept talking about the healing rituals because we keep creating them. I see our play with wholeness as a way to say that we also survived this moment because of the spacetime we shared. This is super dope.

Emery: It is! The particular time that this has taken place matters. You know, the time on the clock of the world — as Grace Lee Boggs would say. Or, what’s the time on the clock of the research project, or the time of the collectives? Like one of us said early on.

Ruth Nicole: I’ve been thinking about it more largely. I have just been thinking about how everyone is aware that we were experiencing a pandemic like it just was. But it wasn’t always so known. We are not giving pandemic excuses, but like of course you can’t make it to the function, because it’s a pandemic. Because of the pandemic we made adjustments to our plan. But I’m starting to lean into this is what it is though. Not looking at our exchange sessions as a bracket in pandemic time, but rather as a time where we called on wholeness that I think was only possible because of pandemic time. I want to honor and recognize that this is just a little bit of a shift in my own way of thinking about the affordances inherent to this moment. It allowed us to go deep in ways that I just do not believe we would have if we weren’t all sequestered in quarantine for as long as we had been. Or, for as insufficient as it all felt, but really what if it was just what it needed to be?

1. Carol Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton University Press, 2015).
2. Steffano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013).
3. Sandra Ruiz and Hypatia Vourloumis, Formless Formation: Vignettes for the End of this World (Minor Compositions, 2021), 8.