Jonathan González

BRIClab Essays:

to be unmade, to be unfinished, to only ever be-with

By Jah Elyse Sayers

“The smallest unit is each other”: a radical declaration in itself and an opening to the imperative to refuse to see or be any smaller. It is a potent poetic formulation with the potential to color reading, assessment, action—a lens for a worldview. In the 35 minutes following the 10-second holding of the title, this declaration, The Smallest Unit is Each Other, on the screen, Jonathan González constructs a six-sided film through which to breathe life into this declaration. While González names the sides as “like a cassette,” we might imagine a living hexahedron, six sides coordinated into angular and mobile relations. If “abolition geography starts with the homely premise that freedom is a place,” this hexahedral space traces out freedom’s infrastructure and offers many openings to step inside. The flexibility and spaciousness that González coordinates move with the ongoingness of Black radical tradition, most centrally responding to Sylvia Wynter’s calls for a transformed humanity by way of the Third Event, or our reflexive evolution as a species through intentional telling of new stories. Per Wynter’s vividly transdisciplinary theorizing, it is our stories that make us, down to the synapses. She names the storyteller’s imperative as being to “come to know/think/feel/behave and subjectively experience ourselves… in quite different terms.” The Smallest Unit is Each Other holds open a space for feeling out, thinking through, and beginning or renewing a commitment to experiencing ourselves, that is being, differently, by only ever being-with.

Side A ushers us in with a three-dimensional cartography displaying landscapes, borders, and a route that, if not a tracing of, is at least infrastructurally and logistically implicated in the transatlantic slave trade. While the route crosses borders, mountains, and seas, the map itself melts and our flight overhead transitions to a scrolling through another still-present and influential infrastructure often situated as mere historical artifact: the written “area descriptions” behind what is typically referred to as “redlining” and more commonly signaled by their accompanying maps. Both an overdubbed soundtrack and Achille Mbembe’s voice move on a hard pan from speaker to speaker, feeling like a haunting presence in its motion. Mbembe provides an analytic for the routes and documents by naming the brutalist depletion that makes the planet increasingly inhabitable. The dub picks back up, and we’re carried with a bird’s eye view through iconic landscapes of the natural rendered unfamiliar with strikingly artificial color treatments. While the imagery of Side A is largely disorienting, the panning audio somatically alerts us to our own spatiality as a listener, as a perceiving body made to perceive itself. On the echoes of Mbembe’s words and inflected with these color treatments, the out-there is a touch closer, if only because we’ve been transported.

The Smallest Unit Is Each Other, video still, 2021

As our attention touches our own perceiving bodies, we find ourselves on ground we’ve only seen represented, abstracted, looked down on. On Side B, we don’t see the ground; we see from it. We peer into the sky, straining to hear whispers from above. We are invited to breathe, listen, and tell. A stark contrast to the brutalism depicted on Side A, but the low whispers and calm blue sky still require an intense labor of listening even while they soothe. Though what is passed through whispers “is not yours to hold or to name as real,” it is undoubtedly in your ear, intimately passed with trust and intentionality to you, should you listen. If Side A disorients, Side B welcomes you somewhere, and though you can’t be sure where, it is “as real as you are breathing right now” and pregnant with the possibility of listening and life.

The Smallest Unit Is Each Other, video still, 2021

It is tempting to treat each side as a contained short. But when the smallest unit is each other, there is neither contained nor isolated. The stark contrast between sides is, nevertheless, unsettling, and that is the point. González commits to unsettling divisions through the poetic, the cinematic, and the geographic, colliding together frames of vast landscapes, each occupying small timeframes. González insists on the closeness between the seemingly far-apart. They invite us to not only notice interdisciplinarity, but to think interdisciplinarily as we’re left to triangulate the expanse between sites and between sides.

Where sides B and C join, the angle feels less acute. Blue, cloud-spotted skies and whispers give way to blue-tinged smoke and sounds like water. We’re brought—still listening, still breathing—to California wildfire, an erupting volcano, a whale breaching the ocean’s surface; spectacular disruptions, blips in interminable catastrophe. Where sides B and C join we might ask: what do those fires whisper, if I listen? What air is the whale breathing? What do volcanoes tell? Then Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s urging to use our consciousness to think beyond isolated experience and with each other and the earth takes the screen. How can I be with catastrophe?

Unlike Mbembe’s, Gilmore’s words are unaccompanied by an audible voice. We read; we must filter the text through our own internal voices. Throughout The Smallest Unit is Each Other, the word takes on many forms, variously voiced, strained for, written. On Side D, the words are the National People of Color Congress’s 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, signed by American Sign Language interpreter Brandon Kazon-Maddox. A steady, near-hypnotic beat plays behind Kazzon-Maddox’s signing and the audible reading of the seventeen principles, while the frame assumes the shape of an eye. Watching Kazon-Maddox sign invites those of us listening to consider our listening. The frame of the shot invites those of us watching to consider our watching. We consider the relationship between our consciousness and embodiment—our mind’s place perhaps behind the eye and between the ears, and just how it is the word lands.

Blue returns on Side E, this time artificially colored and rhythmically smooth, coloring iconic urban infrastructures while the bluesy “Tired City” plays. We’re made to feel city blues by way of an endless grid—office buildings, sidewalk scaffolding, subway stations, new construction. Blue is cut by red while the blues persist in place of the sounds of protest we can only imagine when police (“the blue”) and demonstrators clash on gridded city streets. As we trace the angle between Side A and Side E, the brutal and the blues go hand-in-hand; the brutalism of the built environment refuses to exceptionalize the brutality of the police. Through the persistence of song through the infrastructure of the brutal, we are grounded in the irreducibility of the blues to brutalism. The cinematic, infrastructural, the sonic all come together in a tradition of Black realism and a blues epistemology that exceeds it.

Hyperrealism gives way to the surreal as we are transported from the image of police cars sharply split by red and blue to the ocean floor and its organic hues. A manatee begins speaking to us about her farm in Brooklyn. It is a bizarre collision of elsewhere, futurity, and the everyday, for this farm exists, concretely, at the corner of Humboldt and Moore in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and the words spoken by the manatee are those of real-life farmer (and educator, plumber, and veterinarian, we learn) Yemi Amu. Side F reminds us that the future is in the everyday, that the geographies of abolition that will break the brutal are geographies that are already doing so, by revealing interconnections amongst life. Abolition is presence, and you, the viewer—or we, the viewers—are brought present as Amu-as-manatee disappears and the filmmaker’s face gently confronts yours, with the not-quite-eye-contact with which we have become so familiar through Zoom. They don’t speak, they barely confront, they perhaps just share the room, making visible the relation between you and the film and gesturing to your presence on Side F and in this ever-opening hexahedral space.

The Smallest Unit is Each Other’s angularity between sides and the constantly shifting modes of awareness of our own embodiments, relationship to place and the word, and consciousness with earth and each other serve as wayfinding tools towards demonic grounds, a geographic perspective derived from Black women’s production of space and the unfinishedness—and thus radical possibilities—of place. As geographies of brutalism and hyperrealism meet the poetic, the somatic, the surreal, and the possible we see affirmed that “practices of domination are in close contact with alternative geographic perspectives and spatial patterns that may not necessarily replicate what we think we know, or have been taught, about our surroundings.” The space to dwell in uncertainty about what we think we know and unfinishedness of where we think we are is this film’s great gift. Roll the hexahedron’s sides back on each other into new combinations. Let them make new connections, edges, vertexes, geometries. Let the space through which you give shape to the idea that the smallest unit is each other constantly morph and open up differently, breathing itself into new shapes so as to enlarge the habitable.


Jah Elyse Sayers (they/them) is a researcher, writer, farmer, and artist working at the intersections of environmental psychology, Black geographies, Black queer and trans studies, and Afrofuturism. Jah’s work draws on poetic, historical, and participatory methods to further Black queer and trans struggles for liberatory placemaking against racial capitalism. They frequently work with themes of belonging, transformation, histories, and futurities whether they are crafting clocks from scrap metal; facilitating Afrofuturism workshops; garden planning; or researching the ways QTBIPOC turn pathologized and discarded geographies into sites of home, dreaming, scheming and liberation. They are currently working on a PhD in environmental psychology at The Graduate Center, CUNY.