The Kinship of Caring: “Lost and Found” Congregation without Walls

Archie Burnett Workshop Photo by Ian Douglas

Archie Burnett Workshop Photo by Ian Douglas

October’s my favorite month. Despite a deep love of summer and all of the ocean, mountain and not-teaching time that is offered then, it is the crisp, tart crunch of October that brings the world back into focus for me after the onslaught of September (the academic and art world’s true new year). Ironically, it’s also when my daughter was born and I was relegated to the realm of domestic caregivers. Schooled in the late 80s in the 2nd Wave feminist thinking that dominated the ethos of my New England women’s college, I resented the loss of autonomy, the gendered expectations (both projected and internalized) that I was the better parent, and the burden of combating an increasing societal irrelevance. So, after the boy unit arrived, and economic stabilization seemed imperative, I followed the path that answered the essentialist, cultural, and feminist calls of duty. I went back up to western Mass, got that MFA, secured F/T employment caring and molding the minds and bodies of (primarily, working class, primarily, people of color) public college students in NYC, alleviated my Asian mom’s fears about her grandchildren’s futures, and became primary breadwinner. And, despite sometimes reveling in my ‘bring home the bacon’ prowess, have consistently resented the isolation and drain of caring – how undervalued the work is, how little caring I have left for those I profess to love after hours, upon days, upon weeks, upon years of professional caring, and then, how little care I can take in artistic efforts.

However, I have been very recently reminded, most poignantly by Danspace Project’s Lost & Found Platform, just how powerful the legacy of caring can be and how vital dance is as a vehicle for compassion and humanity. As “love everybody” artist Heidi Dorow, noted during the “FOUND: Feminism, AIDS, and History” panel in Saturday’s Conversation Without Walls: One of Two session, we’re all seeking our own “networks of kinship,” and amongst my dance kin on a bright and beautiful October afternoon, we worked the net until some lonely knots unraveled into a web of remembrance, gratitude and fellowship.

Webs can spread and climb, they can be rhizomatic root structures – hidden underground – or, global information systems – democratizing data. At Danspace Project with her Platforms, Judy Hussie-Taylor has spun a web that has transformed our field. It has expanded the relevance of contemporary performance by situating it at intersections of practice, politics, presentation, history, site, community, joy, conversation, bodies, words, memories, fantasies, scholarship, and silliness. She calls it “relational curating.”  I’d call it fekkin brilliant. On Saturday, panelist, writer, healer, teacher and a guest curator for “Lost and Found”, Eva Yaa Asantewaa asked Judy: Woman, Do you know what you have done? As it is often difficult when trapped inside the binds of one’s current situation to see the whole interconnected puzzle and distal repercussions, she and we may not yet be able to know the full extent of what she has done, but it’s pretty clear she knew what she was doing. A couple weeks ago, in a piece on cultural equity, I pointed towards shifts in curatorial practices, but the Platforms have already been modeling them for several years. In some ways, they have leveled the turf and reached below the surface to expose the buried, yet interconnected, web of absent voices and perspectives. She explains quite clearly in an excerpt from a chapter in an upcoming anthology, how deliberate, though improvisational and collaborative in their generative processes, that effort to disrupt the status quo was.

With this 11th Platform, curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls to focus on the impact of the AIDS crisis, they’ve expanded across time, skipping across aesthetic differences, addressing dismissal and erasure and getting up close and, truly, personal with the place dance holds in many of our lived and lost lives. In the largest curatorial initiative in its 40 year history, Danspace, Ishmael, Will and guest curators have already begun to bring 50 artists into 28 events over 6 weeks. On Saturday afternoon, after frantically rolling my wrists and catwalking in Archie Burnett’s voguing and whacking workshop that morning in St. Mark’s sanctuary, I settled my sweaty, creaky joints into a folding chair and prepared a shift from participant to observer. In the end though, after several hours of talking and dancing and singing, those of us left leveled out to a communal circle, disappearing the distances of generation or geography.

As an “exhibition that unfolds over time,” the Platforms use the Conversation Without Walls as contextualizing talks. The panel discussion format has expanded into a long-form (4.5 hour) conversation that, while addressing the Platform’s origins, works to disrupt the typical lecture style of delivered expository curatorial statements by keeping live performance at the center. This is my favorite kind of discourse – the dialogues are holistic and multilingual, the views are not all in accord with one another but offer a multiplicity of experiences, there are side conversations and a fluidity of ideas, and we are close and casual with the moving bodies. On Saturday, Ishmael began and ended with references to the late John Bernd, the inspiration for the Platform. A Bessie-award winning choreographer and associate director at PS 122, he was instrumental in developing the kind of autobiographical storytelling and movement style that I had used right out of school, despite dying of AIDS before I had even hit campus and never appearing in any of my dance history lessons. At the end of the CW2, Ish mentioned that John had once snuck out of the hospital to come dance in the Parish Hall and that we had conjured his ghost. We had clearly summoned much, there was a gathering of disparate forces that allowed something quite magical to occur. It was more than catharsis, it was communion.

Mariana Valencia Photo by Ian Douglas

Mariana Valencia Photo by Ian Douglas

Though some in the room expressed concern about their own lack of direct experience of the crisis years, Ishmael and Will had masterfully considered how to bring forgotten or unfamiliar artists into the present. In their work towards establishing some kind of “an intergenerational discussion around artistic influence, portraiture, and performed history” they had provided artists with “dossiers,” compiled by Janet Werther, of “images, flyers, biographies, documentation, and other ephemera to explore the act of reconstructing, or responding to, the life, work, and mythology of artists” who had passed away. Mariana Valencia was charged with “Life Drawing” Response #1 to the work of poet and playwright, Assotto Saint. She grounded us in a walked-out cosmogram, was delightful in versions of fake French Edith Piaf, and broke our hearts in a sing-along Fugee’s style “Killing Me Softly.” Her generosity, light-heartedness and sincerity painted the room in a warm poignancy.

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Feminisms Panel Photo by Ian Douglas

The Feminisms panel, with Heidi Dorow, Lucy Sexton, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Muna Tseng and moderator Ali Rosa-Salas kicked in my knee-jerk 2nd Wave reading of the gendered nature of care giving, but the panelists pretty staunchly kiboshed that idea when Ali suggested it. As Muna explained, while detailing her familial struggles with her artist brother Tseng Kwong Chi’s illness and death, it didn’t matter. Care is care. The “tender urgency” of caring for the dying and the “bunker mentality” of fighting for medical help and acknowledgment from the government were shared across race and gender lines, but as Lucy pointed out the problem was being written out of the histories. It wasn’t that women were expected to or doing much of physical work the caretaking, it’s that women’s contributions to the fight have not been recognized. In the face of impending loss of life, one care’s for others in their own ways, but once again the absence of these stories from the dominant narrative of the AIDS crisis was made apparent. But, as Eva so poetically stated, in this and other other Platforms marginalized voices are getting centrality. Heidi reflected on how her marginalized status was a mobilizing force, a “galvanizing energy.” She had moved to NYC to work with ACT UP where she was praised for her angry gayness, could channel it towards direct action and “put it to good use.” Here, the righteous anger and the life and death aspect “concretized the loss and fury.” Jennifer Monson added to the conversation with reminders about how central women were to ACT UP’s organizational structures which led to a quick discussion about the establishment of Women’s Health Action and Mobilization, a standard bearer of feminist, direct action around reproductive rights, sex education and gay rights. Again, cementing the importance of historic inclusion and strengthening the agenda of the Platform to bring the ignored or forgotten artists and experiences to light.

Raja's big finish Photo by Ian Douglas

Raja’s big finish Photo by Ian Douglas

Raja Feather Kelly’s “Life Drawing” Response #2 was for downtown drag performer Ethyl Eichelberger.  Kelly had us stand for his 2nd performance of his proposed new national anthem, Barbara Streisand’s “Gotta Move,” questioning our blase patriotism during his first attempt. He also schooled us on the queer positivity hidden in Selena Gomez’s “Good For You.” And, while noting his hesitancy to make people laugh, allowed the day to include a celebratory note.  The early day questions about reflection versus direct action, burning urgency of political action versus sacred memorializing, romanticized pasts versus a fraught, conflicted HIV+ present didn’t dissolve, but started to shift out of headspace and into a heartier one.

Darrell brings it home Photo by Ian Douglas

Darrell brings it home Photo by Ian Douglas

And then, and then, and then, hours after I stalked and copied him during Archie’s workshop, Darrell Jones brought it all home, mobilizing his tremendous versatility in vogue and postmodern practices and potent personal vulnerability. Drawing from his Bessie-award winning “Hoo-Ha” and echoing a Jan 2105 (The Bitch Tracks) Salon, also in the Parish Hall, he took us through the very real pain that fear initiates in our bodies, the deep threads fear can create between us and our histories, and finally once we all placed our warm hands on the ground, the binding tissue of fear  – familiar feelings that transcended my various troublings about race, class, gender, sexuality and generational difference. Tears running down my face, I hear Muna sobbing, and all of the theoretical, ideological variations mean nothing in the presence of a sister still grieving the absence of her brother from this earth. My iconic elder, colleague and friend, her outpouring filled the sacred space that Darrell, Mariana, and Raja had assembled, and allowed each of us a personal, visceral response to the pains of living on after loss.

In the end, those of us remaining gathered into a circle and everyone shared an introduction and thoughts. Many of us thought of or mentioned beloved mentors or influences lost to AIDS. Nicky Paraiso very touchingly noted how much he had learned. The web of shared experience was thickly wrapping around and sticking us all to one another in many unknowable ways. I was grateful that having hit a “fuck New York” and “fuck, fucking dance” wall not too long ago that I was reminded, alongside Danielle Goldman, of the power of dance. And, the power of dance tied to larger debates. But, also, the power of a congregation. Of (another Eva-ism) the “convergence of voices.” Of coming together, showing up for one another, helping one another live and die well, and helping to remember and excavate lost treasures.

Congregation Photo by Ian Douglas

Congregation Photo by Ian Douglas

For the full schedule of events for the next 5 weeks, visit: Danspace Project

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