My Sister’s Skin: Nadia Tykulsker and Jennifer Harge, performing race and death in America

Photo: Maria Baranova

Photo: Maria Baranova

I entered Standard Toykraft, a theater space in a Williamsburg loft where Nadia Tykulsker both crafted and presented Saw You Yesterday, and my breath was immediately stifled by an oppressive humidity. I imagined how the subtropical climate of Standard Toykraft might affect the performer’s and audience’s body, and perhaps their relationship to each other. I would soon find that choreographies of space would shape the work of both pieces that evening.

We were asked to read the program before viewing the work, but hours before I had already seen the following on Tykulsker’s Kickstarter page: The evening includes movement installation “mourn and never tire” by Detroit artist Jennifer Harge responding to the number of unarmed black americans killed by police over the last 15 years.

Nadia’s own artist statement similarly points to “femininityracelabor.” With North Carolina in a state of emergency, systemic violence and racial inequalities have been at the forefront of my mind, and I was interested in how Tykulsker and Harge’s work would perform the intricacies of this present racial strife.

The performers meandered into the space, speaking to each other in tones that were only barely audible. They removed their shoes, and once unshod, deposited them beneath a small shrine (perhaps not unlike those left at the sites of recent fatal police shootings), which had been comprised of a mirror and some tea candles, to which they added photos and trinkets. The stage had been already set for a kind of mourning ritual, so it was clear that death had some kind of presence in this room and in this work. The title of the work itself suggests the passage of time and the remembrance of the past. If one had been seen yesterday, then does one exist only in the past? Is Saw You Yesterday the mourning of someone who is gone, or does it promise that that someone will be seen again?

Perhaps the most omnipresent aspect of Tykulsker’s work is the massive “lazy susan” created by artist Hiroko Ishikawa. Tykulsker and Lydia Mokdessi, both donning harnesses, connect themselves to the lazy susan with rope and begin turning it continuously. It looks like hard work, and in fact, it is, which we later find out when Tykulsker pulls up a man from the audience to join the women on stage and help turn the lazy susan for a while. Tykulsker asks, “It’s hard, right?” and he nods, struggling to keep the wheel turning.

In The ontology of performance, Peggy Phelan qualifies most Western theater as that which “evokes desire based upon and stimulated by the inequality between performer and spectator- and by the (potential) domination of the silent spectator” (163). When Tykulsker asks the male spectator to share in her labor, this challenges the dichotomy of passive viewer/active performer and the implied ownership of the latter by the former. We (the audience) are no longer just watching Tykulsker and Mokdessi work, but, through the audience participant, we are laboring with them and therein “the viewer feel[s] masterless” (158).

Furthermore, Tykulsker and Mokdessi’s turning of the lazy susan (revealed as hard work) blurs the boundaries between labor and performance and points to the labor/performance of the female body (often sexual labor and domestic labor) for consumption by the male gaze. We know Tykulsker is interested in gaze; she asks the audience “Can you see them?” referring to the performers when they step to the periphery of the stage later in the work. She may be really asking “How do you see them? As the always already sexually available object? Or as a fully formed autonomous subject?” After all, the audience’s spectatorship, and desire, is framed within our “phallocentric representational economy” which seeks to objectify the female performer or erase her altogether (152). There are several moments in the piece where the female performers seem to robotically mimic undulations, hip swivels, and entire burlesque choreographies. They are doing work for men, but refuse to be desirable. Their movements here are only pantomimes of the real thing and serve to “make counterfeit the currency of our representational economy” (164). Shifting the narrative of this economy, making the spectator active and thwarting the male gaze, affirms the performer’s subjectivity.

More eerily, the obvious effort required to turn the lazy susan nods to the forced labor of black bodies upon which our very nation was built. In addition to the sexual and domestic labor of the white woman, the black woman is caught in the antebellum world of having been literally owned and made to labor. The black woman is working in an entirely different economy of historic fungibility, in which she was, and often still is, purely object. Tykulsker and Mokdessi’s pulling is animalistic (reminiscent of oxen pulling a plough), but also brings to mind the image of bodies tethered at the waist in the infamous formation of a chain gang.

The literal connection of body and machine also deconstructs the binary opposition between subject and object. At first, the lazy susan seems to suggest the performers are mere morsels of food, presented to us and ready for consumption. But when the other performers eventually mount the lazy susan, their initial movements (small shifts in weight, swaying off balance, arms swinging) present bodies physically affected by the lazy susan, moving not just on it, but also with it. The performers and lazy susan move one another, an assemblage of moving parts. There is a real friction between the dancer’s bodies and the surface of the lazy susan, between the rope connected to the performers and the gears beneath.

Indeed there are moments where my eyes catch the gaze of a performer, but only by chance. Their general gaze suggests a more inward relationship, dancing for themselves and with each other, but not for us, the audience. When three of the four women who are dancing step off the lazy susan and kneel down, helping Tykulsker and Mokdessi to move it, Katie Dean is left to dance alone. Despite Dean being quite literally at the center, there were moments when I found myself watching the other women methodically move the lazy susan rather than the more choreographed dance. Who was I supposed to be watching? Who was meant to be objectified? It often was too blurry to be clear. Both static and moving, both active and passive, both on display and evading capture, these women are constantly moving between the static image of female performer, a socially inscribed body, and something other-than.

This constant turning also suggests the continual passage of time on the one hand and its cyclical nature on the other. Perhaps time is not linear here, as it is in “post-racial” white America where slavery and racism are a thing of the past, where time moves forward and doesn’t look back, where black people killed at the hands of police are gone and forgotten. Future, present, and past whir in a state of confusion here. Perhaps all three states of being are present at once, perhaps the past is coming back to haunt us, or save us. Will this spinning remind us that history is still present, that the turning and progress of our nation was built upon the forced labor of black bodies?

At the end of Dean’s solo, Tara Sheena joins her on the lazy susan. In this moment, Dean, a white body, is frozen in a pose and spins round and round, while Sheena, a brown body, continually steps forward in order to remain front facing as the lazy susan moves her away from us. Perhaps Sheena is resisting time as that which is ever-moving, fast-paced, forgetful. Her stutter defies the smooth and constant turning. By moving to move nowhere, Sheena warps time, and in this time warp, perhaps inhabits a space of potentiality.

In this (re)turning, space too is altered to become something other than the proscenium theater. The ground is not altogether flat and cleared out, but rather shifting and spinning by way of the lazy susan. These women evade capture within the black box of a theater, their images can’t be held within the stasis of a photo, or the pinpoint of our pupil. Or can they? Skin color, after all, is still visible in this whir of movement.

Midway through the piece, four women leave the lazy susan and move to the edges of the room. It is in this instance that they separate into black (and brown), Sheena and Harge, and white, Dean and Skove-Epes. While Dean and Skove-Epes step up onto scaffolding, just off center-stage, Sheena and Harge occupy a slightly elevated area on stage right. They begin to harmonize, singing an original song by Christine Hucal, the words of which I can barely make out. The one phrase I hear clearly is the mutual utterance, “trying on my sister’s skin”. While there is perhaps an element of sympathy present here in the desire to be someone else or feel what another is feeling, privilege seems inherent in the possibility of trying on another’s skin. Blackface comes to mind, the (not only historical) practice wherein white performers paint their skin black and act as a caricature of that race, or where black performers are forced to paint themselves “black again”, or perhaps paint themselves “blacker”, as they too act out a stereotype of themselves. As Franz Fanon muses in Black Skin, White Masks, “The black cannot be for another black, the black can only be for a white”. In other words, because blackness is ontologically in opposition to whiteness, it is always defined in relation to it. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for the black body to exist as a neutral being, without blackface, without connotations. Instead, they are continually reminded of their skin color, interpellated as black in daily interactions with regular citizens as well as police.

There may be a few instances of whiteface in American performance (the film White Chicks comes to mind), but in the overwhelming history of our nation, black people do not have the privilege of playing a white person. Of course there have also been numerous recent instances of brownface (Ashton Kutcher as an Indian man in a Popchips commercial; Paula Dean’s son as Ricky Ricardo), yellowface (Mickey Rooney as Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and redface (Cleveland Indians fans dressed up for a game). With whiteness as the aesthetic and cultural ideal of our society, it becomes neutralized as that which can become or do anything. It simply is. And it always seems to be right.

There are moments in the piece when Sheena tries to act white. As Dean begins a monologue about visiting Virginia, her childhood home, Sheena interrupts her with sassy quips and valley girl speak. At first I thought perhaps Sheena was “mansplaining”, talking over Dean and telling a different version of the truth, avowing the mutability of history. But when Sheena starts reading from her iPhone and talking about “the last thing she said before she died”, while Harge chimes in with quips containing the words “hashtag” and “Twitter”, I begin to suspect that perhaps Sheena’s death is the death of her brown identity, and perhaps Sheena wasn’t “mansplaining”’ but rather “whitesplaining”, speaking over Dean in an exaggerated caricature of whiteness.

As José Esteban Muñoz discusses in his essay “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s The Sweetest Hangover (and Other STDs)”, national affect is “a mode of being in the world primarily associated with white middle-class subjectivity, [which] reads most ethnic affect as inappropriate” (69). By acting like a stereotypical white girl (self-absorbed and materialistic, and therefore obsessed with Instagram), Sheena tries to achieve a particular genre of this national affect, and in turn tries to fit into a normative place in our cultural society. But, Muñoz argues, “Latinas and Latinos, and other people of color, are unable to achieve this [white] affective performativity on a regular basis,” and are therefore barred from normativity as well as citizenship (68). Sheena’s “whiteface”, while funny, is also tragic in its impossibility. We know she is playing a role and is not the real thing.

There are two other arresting moments in which Sheena, laying belly-up on Harge’s lap, shouts, “Please, please! Don’t let me die!” while spinning atop the lazy susan. I initially thought of these vignettes as re-enactments of the death of a black person at the hands of the police. But maybe Sheena’s brown self is dying as her brown affect, that which is in excess of white affect, is suppressed and challenged through trying on her white sister’s skin. The references to capturing this death on Instagram and Twitter, a bastion of dominant (white) ideology (beauty #selfie, consumerism #treatyoself, happiness #blessed, etc.), suggests the erasure of black (and brown) bodies from the realm of hegemonic society.

Harge’s work, mourn and never tire, brings the memory of black death immediately into the present tense. Harge begins by intimately reading her artist statement to us, inviting us to read along: What does it mean when someone who looks like me dies? It feels personal, familial — it feels like Hennessy being passed around at Christmas, the spades table, getting my scalp greased with Dudley’s. Black loss has always felt like a black memory…

As we are led down the four or five flights of stairs to the front door of the building, the performers, Rodney A. Brown, Dean, Harge, Sheena, EmmaGrace Skove-Epes, and Tykulsker, position themselves on the landing of each floor. Each performer begins to jog in place while reciting names, ages, places, and dates. These are the names of each black person killed by police since 1999, their age at death, the place they were killed, and the date on which they were killed. The audience begins to climb the staircase, passing by each performer in a manner that feels uncomfortably close. The names, ages, places, and dates echo in the stairwell, and I wonder if others in the building can hear us. The echo in the walls fills the space with this mourning, becoming the very air we breathe, extending beyond the bodies of the performers.

For Harge, mourning is not finite. It doesn’t stop after a certain socially-acceptable number of prescribed days or weeks, but rather, extends into everyday life. It looks backward and forward. Furthermore, it extends beyond the confines of her immediate family, the Western prescribed nuclear family, and embraces all who look like her. While Sigmund Freud pathologies melancholia as a “mourning that doesn’t know when to stop”, in Disidentifications: queers of color and the performance of politics, Muñoz argues for de-pathologizing melancholia and understanding it as a “structure of feeling that is necessary and not always counter-productive and negative.” (74). Melancholia is not happy, not docile, and not affectively white, and as such, it refutes the national affect. It is rather, “a mechanism that helps us (re)construct identity and take our dead with us to the various battles we must wage in their names—and in our names.” (Disidentifications, Muñoz 74). As an integral facet of daily life in black America, and a means through which to never forget the violence perpetrated against the black body, melancholia persists in interrupting the narrative of white America. The neverending list of names, the urgency of the performer’s jogging, all this relentless doing and saying becomes uncomfortable and heavy. Running, yet going nowhere, seeming to expend pointless energy, the performer’s action is no longer in binary opposition to inaction. Similarly, melancholia, persistent mourning, is not in binary opposition to life, but rather a requirement of survival.

When it is over, I almost don’t realize it’s over. Each performer casually leaves their post and climbs the stairs when it seems their body tells them they’re too tired to keep going. Their bodies, having given life to those who are gone, now carry those lives within them. I descend the stairs a final time, and stepping outside into the newly breathable air, decide perhaps the end is not as finite as it seems.

Photo: Maria Baranova

Photo: Maria Baranova

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