Past Versions of the Present Future in niv Acosta’s DISCOTROPIC
Iterations of niv Acosta’s DISCOTROPIC, a performance that “explores the relationship between science fiction, disco, astrophysics, and the black American experience,” have been shown at venues as diverse in feel as the Kimberly Project and New Museum. This version, part of the 2016 COIL Festival, brought us to the basement of Westbeth, a labyrinthine building that has functioned as subsidized artist housing since the 1960s. Science meets art here—before it was home to painters and actors, musicians and writers, Westbeth was Bell Laboratories, where early technological components of automatic telephone panel switches, the first experimental talking movies, black and white and color TV, video telephones, and more were developed. I’ve heard from longtime Westbeth residents about the early days in the building, how it was the artists’ blank canvas. The apartments were bare and industrial, and each was different. Artists built lofts, partitions, and platforms to make their spaces livable. As a venue for a performance drawing on science fiction and aspiring to transmit to its audience members (especially those who regularly feel marginalized) a sense of power over the space they’re in, Westbeth feels right.
We were led in small groups through Westbeth’s basement hallways: white, with a thick black line well over my height that I later learned was the Hurricane Sandy floodline. As we entered the performance space, an usher gave us permission to wander all of it, except for the raised stage in the center. I wandered. With rough, musty walls, high ceilings, and side chambers, the room read more as ruin than basement. The audience already present was gathered at the mouth of one of the side chambers, looking in at a dancer in a rubbery cape and goggles, dragging his feet through fine black dust, an explorer feeling his way around an unfamiliar space. The other chambers were empty and I played explorer myself (so far as I noticed, I was the only one). I found them lined with nylon strings glowing in blacklight that also revealed marks and smears on the walls. Deep at the back of this chamber’s throat was a video camera and, crouching, I saw my face dark and large in its screen, framed/backlit in purple by the doorway behind me leading back out into the main room. I gave a little wave and walked back out into the purple.
Shortly after I left it, the rest of the performers entered, each taking the center of a chamber like a pod that was nurturing and growing them. The blacklights told us where to look on their bodies: white-smeared ass cheeks, heads, and fingers glowed. The dancers pulsed, embryonic. Or they were atomic nuclei. Or separate planets, each moving to their own celestial rhythm.
Eventually all four performers (niv Acosta, Monstah Black, Justin Allen, and Ashley Brockington) emerged from their pods. The movements of their converging bodies defined and redefined the main space, which flashed from club to disco to spaceship to primordial ooze to solar system and beyond throughout the remainder of the performance. Over and over we were called on to remember that we were creating the performers’ bodies by looking at them, from Brockington’s slow fabric-draped crawl across the main stage as she intones I exist for you / I am in your minds / you create me / I can feel my creation to Acosta’s twerk-as-tic solo. Even when he reclined, his ass didn’t stop moving, and his unwavering gaze acknowledged his agency in the action as well as the fact that our own gazes kept the action alive.
DISCOTROPIC “reconsiders past futures,” says Acosta’s website. I’m not fluent enough in sci-fi to parse specific quotations in the piece, but I felt satisfyingly awash in the handmade aesthetic of pre-CGI science fiction films, in which spaceships and non-human characters have a simultaneously unlikely and tangible quality that runs counter to what’s telegraphed by sleek, plausible, ephemeral digital structures. Seeing live performance that integrates technology can end up feeling like watching humans play with a big, fancy toy (like the Seinendan Theater Company + Osaka University Robot Theater Project that Japan Society brought to town in 2013, which featured “real” robots and androids that were a stage distraction on the level of dogs and babies). The headdress Acosta donned towards the end of the performance was clearly made out of white Christmas lights that won’t do anything but flash, but it had weight and took up space and drew my attention to the magic of Acosta’s moving body rather than the magic of a technological trick.
The proposition to consider past futures is a powerful one: rather than simply asking us to imagine possible futures, Acosta reminds us of all the discarded, forgotten, and half-realized past and present imaginings to which we’re adding ours. What happens to a future deferred? DISCOTROPIC didn’t completely deflect impulses toward sadness. When Tamir Rice’s face popped up on the screen that for most of the performance showed starscapes and sci-fi movie outtakes, I was socked in the gut with the awareness of one particular “past future” that’s extremely painful to consider. And there’s also the weight of all the artistic archives and ephemera Westbeth residents lost during Hurricane Sandy in that very basement. Overall, though, Acosta seems more interested in approaching this dusty basement full of past futures with playfulness rather than a sense of mourning. The dancers were celebrating the gymnastic capabilities of human minds trying to guess at tomorrow before tomorrow comes. The fact that DISCOTROPIC as a larger project consists of sequels (in the sci-fi tradition) rather than remounts speaks formally to the importance of marrying past material with present perspective. The lens (in DISCOTROPIC’s case, black and queer) through which you view the past changes everything. One of the great gifts science fiction can give us is the memory of how many times we’ve been spectacularly, beautifully mistaken.