“Can a dominant regime of representation be challenged, contested, or changed? What are the counter-strategies which can begin to subvert the representation process?”
-Stuart Hall, Representation: Cultural Representations & Signifying Practices
Every January, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) holds its annual conference in New York City in an effort to further develop and support the performing arts industry. The APAP website claims that “More than 3,500 presenters, artists, managers, agents and emerging arts leaders from 28 countries convene in the city for five days of professional development, business deals and exciting performances.” More than 1,000 artist showcases make up a mini festival that takes over performing arts venues throughout the city.
One such showcase is Dance New Amsterdam’s LateNite series. According to DNA’s website, the LateNite series is a “triannual event that gives a voice to artists working within the mediums of performance art, burlesque and experimental theater.” This year’s series features emerging curator, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, who has selected an assortment of movement/performance-based artists in this two-part event called other.explicit.bodies (Jan. 11-12, tickets $17). Kosoko’s curatorial statement says that he is “exploring the work of artists who deal explicitly with themes of eroticism, gender, and otherness in live performance.”
But what is this Otherness? What is the Other?
In his famous chapter, The Spectacle of the ‘Other,’ critical theorist Stuart Hall writes about the operations of difference, noting that “Difference has been marked… difference signifies. It speaks.” He goes on to say that, “Marking difference leads us symbolically, to close ranks, shore up culture and to stigmatize and expel anything which is defined as impure, abnormal. However, paradoxically, it also makes ‘difference’ powerful, strangely attractive precisely because it is forbidden, taboo, threatening to cultural order.”
Each of the artists featured in other.explicit.bodies play with this paradox of difference and threaten cultural order, both in content and in choreographic practice/production. They call attention to the “markings” of difference and complicate dominant representations of “otherness.” For example, artist Lawrence Graham-Brown says of his work, “I deal explicitly with themes of Black male sex/sexuality, notions of beauty, desire, public display of Black male affection, cleansing, nurturing, consumerism and at the foreground asking a larger question about the Black male body in the public domain.” And artist Kate Watson-Wallace says of her work, “I consider being an artist, period, an act of social change, especially a female artist.”
As a whole, all of the featured artists are working collectively to explore and contest various identity tropes by employing the presence of the erotic body as a political and performative tool. For example, artists Jasmine Hearn’s piece asks, “Why has the female sex been so over valued but her sexuality so underappreciated? Each work is asking, What does this body mean? And how does it read? In this way, other.explicit.bodies plays in what Kosoko calls the “material of dissidence and unrecognizability” and subverts dominant representations in multiple ways. Artist devynn emory “makes space for gender variant and transgender bodies on stage” and artist Jen Rosenblit calls for, “weathered bodies whose weight and complex identities carry rural notions to urban time frames.” It becomes clear that Kosoko’s collection of artists is creating the counterstrategies necessary for teasing apart notions of otherness. In this way, other.explicit.bodies re-animates the notion of “outsider” art in this rigorous, two-part curatorial project.
In addition to exploring and challenging markers of race, class, gender, and sexuality, each artist was asked to take on something new in their own performative practice. Kosoko describes each of these artists as having a “post-disciplinary” practice because of the ways they continue to blur the boundaries between art forms. Thus, each artist has pushed themselves to explore new terrain for this platform and to further defy categorization or distillation. Artist Rebecca Patek says of her experimentation, “I am interested in reclaiming elements of performance that are considered wrong, awkward, uncomfortable, overlooked and that are frequently dismissed. “
To push otherness even further, Kosoko also deliberately curated artists from outside the often insular New York performing arts world. In addition to a couple of New York-based artists, he primarily culled from around the Northeast region, in general, as a way to confront and counter New York-centricity. He hopes to have this platform comment on New York’s preference for New York-based artists and he aspires to break this particular mold. He asks, “How can the conversation broaden and expand, and work to include others who are making work in cities and venues that are not necessarily in New York?” Thus, his is an effort to take other regions more seriously and to potentially call attention to the ever-present hierarchy or canon of contemporary dance/performance. Even in this alternative artistic economy, there still remains a hierarchy, a consolidation of resources, and an underlying investment in celebrity. Performing arts writer/critic Andrew Horowitz recently wrote, “There is a class system in the arts – it is real and it is significant and gets worse every year.” There exists a very real scarcity of resources and accordingly, this platform presents artists who HAVE to do other things in order to support the production of their works. Kosoko’s curation inevitably brings up economic questions… How can a dance artist/choreographer make it in NYC? How can someone maintain a life in the arts while also supporting themselves? other.explicit.bodies features artists who are forced to wear multiple hats — “multi-taskers” as Kosoko calls them. How does this “multi-tasking” inform the work? How is the creative process informed by the daily grind of searching for material resources and social legitimacy? What day jobs do artists/performers/dancers/choreographers actually have and is this balancing act sustainable? Is it possible to still “make it” in New York? These questions pull the curtain back to reveal the vulnerability of the performance arts community and speak to the realities of many working artists within it. Kosoko observes a kind of “grunge aesthetic” in the curatorial project, in that it questions these hierarchical models of production and explores the margins of the contemporary dance scene(s). Kosoko asks each of us, “How can we collectively create opportunities for artists to make work, instead of subscribing to an older, competitive model that isn’t working anymore?”
other.explicit.bodies artists include:
Jaamil Olawale Kosoko