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Like Shards From Some Vanished Civilization: An Introduction to Space Is the Place

29 May 2013

Space Is the Place screens at 8pm on 29 May 2013 at the Crowley Theater in Marfa, Texas as part of Ballroom’s New Growth Film Program, co-curated by Rashid Johnson and Josh Siegel, MoMA. Admission is free and open to the public.

Like Shards From Some Vanished Civilization: An Introduction to Space Is the Place

In the 1970s, Sun Ra wasn’t yet recognized as the eccentric genius that he is understood as today. He’d been leading bands for almost three decades, placing ecstatic chanting alongside percolating synthesizer pieces, using improvisational percussion and cosmic expansions of big band styles to create a voluminous if obscure repertoire that placed classic jazz and swing in an extraterrestrial timeline. This destabilized polyglot sound was too conspicuously wacky to fit in with the jazz establishment or its free jazz fringes, and though he’d already graced the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969, his music seemed as equally confusing for the Anglo psychedelic music scene.

His canonization as one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism would have to wait until later in his career, though of course his work now looks right at home next to similar explorations from Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, and would help set the stage for Funkadelic’s Afro-cosmic psychedelia, MC5’s liberation rock, Sonic Youth’s deep noise grooves and the Boredoms’ melted drum ensembles.

One place where Sun Ra did find a home was as an artist-in-residence at the University of California at Berkeley, where he delivered a series of lectures in 1971 under the heading “The Black Man in the Cosmos, Hyperstition and Fast-Forward Theory.” The course’s now legendary syllabus included the King James Bible, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, work from 19th century occultist Madame Blavatsky, poetry from Henry Dumas, as well as texts about the pagan roots of the Catholic Church, Egyptology and African American folklore.

Someone in the Berkeley AV department had the foresight to record one of these lectures — archived at ubu.com — wherein Sun Ra holds forth in such a way as to indicate that he’s both serious about his cosmological thinking, while at the same time deliberately provoking laughter from the gathered students as he tsk-task-tsks his chalk across the blackboard.