Before seeing Scaffold Room at The Kitchen I saw Scaffold Room (Memory) Refraction #1. I saw it twice: one version at Walker Art Center in September and another at The Kitchen as part of the recent Scaffold Room run there. It’s a lecture/performance that revisits and reframes much of the material of Scaffold Room to create a new discrete work. Texts that are read or said in Scaffold Room by Okwui Okpokwasili and April Matthis are read in Refraction #1 by Ralph Lemon in conjunction with visual content from the piece. Each work draws from the same material but it produces two different aesthetic proposals.
Both instances I saw of Refraction #1 and much of Scaffold Room proper rely on a compositional structure of pairing original and sourced texts with ambiguously related video, costuming, and movement, among other more nuanced elements of staging. The semiotic interplay challenges the audience’s desire to find linear meaning in the stories we’re hearing and images we’re seeing.
Midway through Scaffold Room, a video plays of someone in a Star Wars costume lying on the bed of a hotel room while a fan blows on them. The video cuts to to a woman, Edna Carter, in a gold metallic collar reading an unidentified text: “But he went anyway. Of course he did. For it was too late to turn back. And what happened? I didn’t recognize myself.” This is all in the context of a tale of outer space travel that Okwui is telling the audience. April begins the second half of the piece recounting a Hurricane Sandy dispatch: “8:24—Cars under water at 14th Street.” A video plays next to her of a boy standing in the woods wearing a giraffe costume hat. Her dispatch story culminates with “We woke up in the bedroom like, ‘how did this shit happen, oh baby.’” Hurricane Sandy by way of giraffe costume by way of Beyoncé. These are a few of the clips that have made it into my own memory refraction of the work. The accumulating dissociation of textual and visual elements throughout the piece invites the audience to make semantic leaps between them. The compositional formalism invokes various art history traditions of abstractionism, minimalism (the namesake set is a scaffold of a room, after all), and Euro-centric experimental dance/performance.
Contained in this compositional structure of Scaffold Room is the story telling. Okwui and April tell stories—linear oral histories that don’t ask the audience to do the same kind of interpretive work. The ones that stand out to me are those of pop culture—specifically tales of black artistic traditions being appropriated and exploited by white artists. April recounts: “That young white Brit who just won four Grammys, I quote. ‘It was only when I started to be myself that the music started to flow, that people started to listen.’ Yeah be myself—myself as Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston…” Okwui reminds us of the recycling of the narrative of pop stars. “When you’re lonely, I’ll be lonely too. And this is the fame, Gaga says. And how all of this keeps going. On and on. Ornette Colman Rest in Peace becomes Lou Reed rest in piece becomes David Bowie, becomes Grace Jones, becomes Lady Gaga, becomes The Weeknd, you know what I mean?” We do.
These devices and much of this material functions as the meat of Refraction #1 too. We hear the same text of recycled pop stars and see the same video of Edna Carter. The works depart from one another in their cast—Ralph is the only performer of Refraction #1. It’s his (Memory). They also depart from one another in their endings and, consequently, in their narrative arcs.
At the end of her last monologue in Scaffold Room, April leaves the stage and walks out the doors to the lobby. Amy Winehouse music starts to play. Heads of the audience bob to the beat. The doors to the Kitchen lobby open behind the audience and Malcolm Lowe, Omagbitse Omagbemi, and Paul Hamilton begin a dance for us. They are dancing in time to the music—indulging in the union of percussive music and movement. The vocabulary is body rolls, splits, syncopated clapping, high legs, and voguing—all with weighted pelvises dropped into the floor. We have left the worlds of minimalism and abstraction through dissociative semiotic interplay and entered those of Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Ornette Coleman, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, and that young white Brit. It’s a proposition of a different aesthetic ideology that retroactively informs everything that came before it. It’s a very effective ending—the embodiment of an aesthetics that, until that point, had merely been talked about, had merely served a discursive function in an Art historical frame.
Refraction #1 eschews such a cathartic and theatrically satisfying ending to keep us in the realm of ambiguity and dissociation. It forgoes the narrative arc of minimalism to populism to be less a work of theater and more a work of something else, something messier. “Lecture/performance” doesn’t do the mess justice. The work ends when Ralph simply leaves the stage without fanfare.
Scaffold Room is set up to be the main attraction but Refraction #1 holds its own as a discrete and complete work of art. It is less without being lesser. But maybe comparison misses the point altogether. Events like Refraction #1 that are presented in conjunction with Scaffold Room expand the work. They are more. Scaffold Room and Refraction #1 become two acts in a larger work—one that envelopes both of them and plays off the tension therein: scaffold apartment.
Ralph is not the first dance maker to manifest one conceptual object from multiple configurations of the same material. This scaffold apartment is a neighbor of Trajal Harrell’s Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, also presented at the Kitchen. Is it coincidence that both of these artists have been darlings of the dance-in-museums craze? Or is this multi-channel approach to making art a step in the direction of creating multiple editions of the same ephemeral work, each available for purchase by an institution? Ralph said it first: “I wait for the day when a museum acquires a dance.” Scaffold buildings of scaffold apartments.