Showing up in January: Day 3 Dispatch (AR Talks, LAVA, Cynthia Oliver & Kimberly Bartosik)

Aesthetics live within a structure of whiteness just like we do – American Realness Discourse Series

Saturday 1/7/17 was a rough one. With an already daunting schedule, the snow storm and MTA made the day almost untenable. Several times, misdirected/redirected, freezing and running in white-out conditions, I wondered why bother at all. But, sometimes it’s all you can do to just show up…even if you’re cold and sweaty and late. Two parts of the American Realness 2017 DISCOURSE series, curated by Ali Rosa-Salas, had anchored the day.  An important rising curatorial voice, Ali had offered key perspectives during the Danspace Lost and Found Platform Conversations and for American Realness helped shape the planned discourse with an emphasis on “the urgency of critical artistic practice, viewership and scholarship as they concern race, aesthetic politics, cultural equity, and more.”

11:30am (1/2 hr late) – Aesthetics Live Within the Structure of Whiteness Just Like We Do ISSUE Project Room, Moderated by Jaime Shearn Coan, with Emily Berry, Moira Brennan, Cori Olinghouse, Craig Peterson, Jesse Phillips-Fein and Emmagrace Skove-Epes. From the description of the event: – white dance artists, presenters, funders, and writers will reflect on how their practices are informed by and operate within white aesthetic supremacy…With the intention of shifting the labor often placed on artists of color in discussions of racial equity to white artists…This event will feature presentations/conversations on three topics: 1. How white aesthetic supremacy structures the evaluation and reception of contemporary concert dance and experimental performance. 2. Identifying white aesthetics and cultural appropriation in dance-making practices. 3. Equity vs. Inclusion in presenting, funding and casting dance.

Jaime cited references to and influential thinking by scholars Brenda Dixon Gottschild and Ananya Chatterjea. We went around the room introducing ourselves. The fullness of the room made this a lengthy but valuable engagement of who was showing up willing to negotiate through the discomfort and towards equity. Several Movement Research staff and board members (including me and Moira) were present as that organization continues to face down its own legacy of institutionalized racism. There were many university faculty, graduate students, recent college grads, at least one current college student, artists, arts administrators, and writers from across the country and as far away as Australia (Deakin University is in town for a two week MR/Hunter College/New School program). I mentioned that just the title of the talk gave me hope since it pretty much described the framework I’d been trying to establish in my graduate dance-ed Aesthetics classes at Hunter, but also as a way of talking about the overwhelmingly unquestioned dominance we’ve all been immersed in within the NY contemporary performance community. Elena Light asked about addressing class difference. Rosy Simas pointed towards ignoring indigenous and native voices. Christopher Morgan spoke to the Eurocentric definition of aesthetics as aligned with white, postmodern aesthetics. There were posed questions about who gets to define what is disruptive and what different kinds of capital are. Ben Pryor, American Realness’s founder and Gibney’s new Director of Performance and Residency Programs, established the more contemporary curatorial perspective of personal accountability in a prelude to the afternoon discussion on Native American Realness (see below). Miguel Gutierrez reminded us that there is room as artists to handle things with humor, irreverence and messiness. The work of ACRE (Artists Co-creating for Real Equity) and People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond‘s “Undoing Racism” Trainings, as well as work with poet Claudia Rankine on her newly forming Racial Imaginary Institute (she’s donating her entire $625,000 MacArthur Genius Award toward it) were mentioned. The phrase “reparations in the field” floated across the expansive room. The sense of urgency in organizing was clearly expressed as was the clarification of a mythology of innovation we’ve been indoctrinated in.

In an effort to speak to the material realities of changing things, Jaime asked Moira Brennan (Multi-Arts Production Fund) and Craig Peterson (formerly Gibney Dance, now Abrons Art Center), as a funder and a producer, to speak to their work. Moira explained that she’d been invited by Dr. Tommy DeFrantz (Duke U. African & African American Studies & Dance Department) to Durham 2 years ago for a conversation as a part of their first Configurations in Motion: Performance Curation and Communities of Color because the MAP Fund has a profile of supporting communities of color. In prep for that talk, she started looking at the numbers from her 10 years thre and saw that numbers had gone down precipitously under her watch. I couldn’t go and celebrate because that wasn’t happening. MAP was housed by Creative Capital and the entire organization was doing racial awareness training. The conversations were interpersonal and helped foreground white bias. As I tried to unpack what was happening at MAP, I realized my racism was influencing the people I was hiring for panelists, that my internalized racism was in the panel room and that was resulting in an unfair outcome. It was not an honest reflection of the submissions received. Craig spoke from a place of doing arts administration for 25 years and how, in that time, there have been different iterations, different language, and different standards for this continuing problem. I do believe we’re moving to a better understanding of equity. Before curatorial aesthetic language was being applied to what we do, curation was talked about as programming, not as representing curatorial aesthetics. We’ve moved towards the visual art realm and that changed how we’ve started talking about these issues. He expressed an interest in a conversation about experimentalism and abstraction and how cultural appropriation fits into those practices.

Jaime then asked Risa Shoup (4th Arts Block & Invisible Dog) to offer a working definition of equity versus diversity. Risa began with a Qwirkle (the abstract game with 6 different shapes in 6 different colors) based example. Let’s think of objects. Diversity means there are 10 objects and each is different.  Equity is thinking about context along with diversity. So in deciding which objects get to do what – I’m not saying people are objects – in thinking about who is making decisions about what is present, what is visible, what has the opportunity to move around, who has access to power, physical resources, and financial resources – equity is about more than a diverse array of things. It’s an equality of access. Making sure resources are shared among diverse entities. In the days that it has taken me to write this recap, I’ve encountered the Arts Hub piece from Tania Canas, Diversity is a white word. So, there’s a little more required reading.

Around this point, I started trying to find notes from the early November Diversity and Accountability conversation with the MR Artists of Color Council to see if there was something in that discussion that could thread it’s way through to another overlapping group. But, I also caught a few phrases from Moira about fortressing ourselves in a white aesthetic and stepping back from that power, your gut level, body response, your cash and Jaime countering that our senses aren’t natural. Citing performance/lecture from last year’s AR by Tommy DeFrantz that you have to be willing not to know, stating that approach at the opposite end of knowing as much as I can, being as prepared as I can. Ali reminded us that we were on occupied land and apologized for not acknowledging that right at the start.

Jaime asked us to participate in a short activity of raising our hands to help identify our varying positions and to help us get at the messiness of making work, aesthetics, witnessing, etc. He posed a series of questions such as: Who has been asked to discuss their work in relation to race? Who considers their work to be about race? Who has been mistaken for another dancer of the same race? Who has chaffed at the term neutral body? Who considers themselves a downtown artist? [Big group ‘ugh.’] Who sees dance as a form of community organizing?  One question, about how often or if we ever have performed for audiences composed primarily of our identified communities or race brought a persistent question forward for me. Reaching back to a piece about an early Oct talk at Gibney on Cultural Equity, a later Oct piece on Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s historic gathering for Danspace’s Lost and Found Platform and notes from the MR Artist of Color Council Studies Project, I asked what we might be reaching for. Would more artists of color receiving fellowships, residencies, commissions, etc. be enough or did we need to change the actual landscape of curators? It took many more words to get to that (including a diverting substatement about the difference between a libertarian (live and let live) stance and a socialist (everyone should share) stance I was personally negotiating on a family level and the difference/similarity of equity as funds versus equity as freedom of movement), but Risa managed to tease out among the many ideas I threw out that, in the end, time was the most important thing to consider. There is an urgent need to deal with things at the level of artistic opportunity. So, the question was not only when will we arrive at cultural equity, but how will we get there. Yes, we want to see more people of color leading arts organizations, but on our way there, how else do we share power and change the structure of institutions. As a non-artist, Risa pointed out that its as simple as the stories that are told. Who is telling you the story? How are we allowing the people who own their own stories to share them and be recognized. And, how we get there.. starting yesterday.

Jaime invited Emily Berry, Cori Olinghouse, Jesse Phillips-Fein, and EmmaGrace Skove-Epes to share about their work with the ideas of stepping back versus sharing and looking at how can white people can being doing the work rather than letting it be done, putting in the labor towards equity. I wondered about all the presenters who weren’t sitting in the room, who still absolved themselves of the responsibility just like the subjects of Stanford U studies that found expressing support for Obama makes some people feel justified in favoring whites over blacks (the psychological equivalent of the “some of my best friends are…”). The APAP season brings many people to the city and I started daydreaming about a year where the many NYC festivals OVERWHELMED everyone with both diverse and equitable artist rosters. One of the most notable comments came from Cori Olinghouse sharing her mistakes. When Voguing and Waacking icon Archie Burnett pointed out her walk, which I thought was neutral. He imitated my walk to a T. As an Alexander teacher, I know walking is hard. Archie picked up my affect in walking, not in a spirit in mocking, but he was absolutely reading me. That was the first moment I saw that my body, what I’d associated with postmodern neutralness, was operating in a construction. It was my first lesson…It’s important to be in situations where I am being read, where my whiteness places me in a minority

The discussion continued but I was going to be late for my next event, so I left vowing to look up how affirmative action (a staple of our 1980s multiculti advocacy) had been gutted over the years…

2:15pm (15 min late) A Goddessey – showing – LAVA, Dixon Place – The F train decided it was an E, so I ran through the snow from Spring & 6th just in time to miss the opening set up. But, I caught enough of the 15 year-old Obie & Bessie Award-winning, feminist, acrobat Brooklyn company’s latest work-in-progress to know that it’ll be another fantastic collection of stunning feats of female strength and resiliency. The human pyramids (two women on one woman’s shoulders, one on the other’s head, the entire group interlinked) alone are rife with metaphorical allusions to interconnectedness and literal readings of carrying each other through hard times. I mean, talk about bearing the burden of another! There are also plenty of ways to conjure up the politics of watching a group of women bend over backwards for one another, or scrunching into odd shapes to jump through someone else’s hoops. One sequence where a performer flies overhead was a fanciful diversion from the insistent post-election hopelessness. Founded in 2000 by Sarah East Johnson, the company will premiere their feminist survival story at The Flea Theatre in June 2017.

Native American Realness

4:15pm (1/2 hr late, again) – Native American Realness ISSUE Project Room (Brooklyn) Rosy Simas (Seneca) and Christopher Morgan (Native Hawaiian) in conversation with Sara Nash (National Dance Project/New England Foundation for the Arts). Worried about the F train heading back, I navigate the unfamiliar J, missing the entrance right in front of me in the chaos of slush and snow, and then stumble around in circles after exiting because I can’t recognize anything or get a signal in the snowfall… I consider giving up, but grab a coffee and slog on. This discussion is too important to miss. An Order of Pre-ceding Events from Minneapolis-based artist Rosy Simas (used with her permission): In mid December I stumbled upon the announcement for Latifa Laâbissi’s performance (in which she wears only a headdress) which will happen on Jan 8th at 2PM at MoMA PS1 in New York. At this time I sent out several personal emails to Native dance and theater people all over the country. I also put out a call for help from people in New York. I wrote a public letter and waited for response from the presenters and the artist and concerned people. Originally scheduled to be a part of the American Realness series – by end of December Ben Pryor pulled the show from the American Realness series. I had several conversations with Ben Pryor, MoMA PS 1 staff and Latifa. Several other people wrote and called MoMA PS1. They had a terrible answer to those people – “we are speaking with Rosy Simas.” I did explain that I do not speak for all Native people or dance makers. I speak only for myself. They need to explain to anyone who calls or emails them their rationale for programming this work. In mid December I had arranged for Dakota/Lakota healer and elder Janice Bad Moccasin to come to New York with me to address the issue of the headdress. I am Seneca and it is not my place to speak to the sacredness of the headdress to the Plains people. The panel which is organized by American Realness was created by them to address: 1) their blindness in their programming, 2) the use of redface in dance and 3) the lack of programming of Native contemporary dance. Because Latifa is a choreographer Christopher K Morgan and I were asked to address this. Also because I have been the one to bring this issue up. There are several Native dance makers and others who are coming as guests so they can also address this. The focus has been primarily to educate non Native programmers, artists and curators. Any perceived exclusion of anyone is not coming from Christopher or I. We are not “in charge” in fact our hands are tied when it comes to many aspects of all of this. I am a single independent artist without an organization supporting me to do this. So honestly doing the best I can with what has been offered. And I have repeatedly tagged and posted everything I know as soon as I know it. At this point what we know is that on Jan 8th at 2PM Latifa Laâbissi plans to do the performance the way she was for the last ten years – with the headdress. There has been no information given (and it has been asked for) that indicates otherwise. There is a post performance discussion. So anyone who wants to speak against this – including me – has to go to the performance and then will have the opportunity to speak. The one thing I have been able to arrange is that Janice Bad Moccasin will be able to speak first. I have secured some tickets for Native people who want to come to the performance. If you need one let me know.

In early January, Ben Pryor wrote On Learning from Native American Realness. I include an excerpt about his progression of understanding around Latifa Laâbissi’s use of the headdress: I saw it as a work from a Moroccan-French Arab woman that focused on immigration and had resonance with marginalized communities around the world. I failed in my process of critically examining and understanding the complex implications of presenting this work through the lens of “American Realness.” My actions were unconsidered and this failure speaks to the genocide of Native American / Indigenous / First Nations peoples across the US and around the world, as well as the attempted white-supremacist erasure of these people, their history, cultures and sacred objects. I acknowledge and apologize to Native American / Indigenous / First Nations communities and Latifa Laâbissi, her collaborators, and my colleagues at MoMA PS1 for this failure and its particularly egregious nature as a festival that aims to illuminate authenticity and critical examinations of American-ness; as a program that prides itself on being a space for marginal identities; as a white male curator with no history of presenting work by Native American / Indigenous / First Nations people; in the face of Native American struggles and resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Choreographer Orlando Zane Hunter Jr. has shared a recap for InfiniteBody, as well for all who did or didn’t show up. I missed the very large group’s self introductions. Grateful for the turnout, I was sorry to not hear from everyone in the room. I arrived during the discussion and explanation of Redface, the term encompassing the propagation of stereotypes and cultural appropriation through the wearing of headdresses, warpaint, and other forms of “playing Indian” that artists and sportsfans (and suburban elementary school children in Thanksgiving concerts) continue. Questions about language arise as the redundancy in the term Native American is pointed out. The question of how experimental is defined and statements about borders and boundaries were floated. Rosy noted that Redface is a funded American activity, citing an instance from only a few years ago wherein a contemporary choreographer said they wanted to study Native American dance in order to bring it into contemporary culture and received the grant. Its radical to get onto a stage reserved for white bodies. I remember seeing a Moroccan performer who is muslim do a show at the Walker. She took off her clothes, put on a man’s suit and sang. It was a radical act, but it was dismissed by the audience. The morning’s discussion flowed into the explanation that the whole system of programming and funding has pushed us into ideas of what is disruptive or innovative based on an aesthetic continuum defined by white artists, curators and funders. People don’t know what’s radical to my tribe. Panelists can’t know that. So, artists trying to fit themselves into boxes for a long time.

When someone asks about audiences that don’t have the context to understand, I’m reminded of work that has been required repeatedly whenever my peers from Southeast Asia came to the US to work. Sara Nash had been overseeing Dance Theater Workshop’s Suitcase Fund supported multi-year Mekong Project, at the time, and could speak to the challenges of translating work from one context to another. I’m thinking specifically of tours of a former collaborator Le Vu Long from Vietnam, but also the work of California-based Khmer artist Sophiline Cheam Shapiro whose work I saw in NYC and during a Ford Foundation (under Roberta Uno) supported delegation of Asian diaspora artists at the Asian Women’s Theater Festival in New Delhi. One is a contemporary choreographer, the other a protector of the almost decimated Khmer traditional dances (after the Khmer Rouge targeted and massacred 90% of the artist population in Cambodia), both have been considered radical in their originating cultures and dismissed by American audiences as either not very innovative or just plain traditional. I admit, despite knowing the context these artists were operating in and feeling quite differently when during a residencies in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand we would develop and perform together, that once I was watching their works in a NYC venue that the context had not traveled with them. Having to write about how the simple shift of a head turn in Sophi’s work was revolutionary (aka “banned”) back in a country fighting hard to renew an almost disappeared legacy or that Long’s minimalism was as challenging for Vietnamese audiences as early Trisha Brown could have been. The question of whether the artists or presenters are able to provide that kind of context for today’s audiences (and there are many examples of context notes, conversations, etc.) as the opportunity that’s missed more often than not – totally missing the opportunity to understand, prompted me to draw on my morning question about curators, funders and producers but continue to reach it towards the writers of dance. In thinking about the legacy of documentation and scholarship that validates and preserves certain voices, I agreed with the idea of more contextual events. (The discourse components of AR have been exceptionally rich and rare events. Thank you, Ali Rosa-Salas). I didn’t quite get to my point that the dominance of an art-for-art’s sake critical approach included internalized racism and homophobia, left over from the days when McCarthyism taught us that our political selves could, in fact, cost us our lives and livelihoods as artists. Decades later, in the wake of the AIDS crisis of the 80s and subsequent Culture Wars of the 90s, we’re still living the shadow of multiple federally funded efforts to quash political art (see my “Dancing at the End of Empire” MR Performance Journal, Spring 2013 for the full conspiracy theory). Coming from a deconstructive anthropology undergrad education at a small women’s college, I’d been schooled by Frederique Apffel-Marglin and Yvonne Daniel in the subjectivity of writing practices. Free from a journalistic confidence in objectivity, I welcome a bit of insight and the artist’s perspective. Rosy shared a story about the usefulness of the worst review she’d even gotten. Rosy does share contextual information and writing, but this particular critic despite many years of writing, and considering herself an expert in dance found for the first time that she didn’t understand what Rosy was doing in her work. As a much-lauded Minneapolis artist and Guggenheim Fellow, Rosy appreciated the chance to give up our ego a bit and took a step back. I recalled Jaime’s comment from the morning session about trying to be willing to admit not knowing instead of trying to be as prepared as possible. In the end, I think as writers we’d all hope to be able to do both, try to represent another artist’s work with as much cultural understanding as we can, but admit we’re singular in our responses and the endlessness and indescribable parts of art are the seeds of why humans pursue it. Rosy also put a call out in support of native writers writing on native performance (in the end, the one clear idea I took away from that degree, let native voices speak for themselves) and asked writers and scholars to mentor new voices. This reminded me that it was actually a Native (Cherokee) artist, Robin Prichard, who as a visiting professor during graduate school mentored me in writing as a scholar and in her 2006 “A Story of the Body” introduced me to the systematic process of educating to extinction through the American Indian Boarding Schools that removed Native children from language, family, home and culture.

Rosy then asked Emily Johnson to share about her work.  Emily Johnson would be hosting Umyuangvigkaq – a Durational Sewing Bee and Long Table discussion as part of PS 122’s COIL Festival the next day (see Dispatch Day 4). She spoke of her time at the Standing Rock reservation as witnessing a resistance that was based in a continuum and ceremony, a single moment within 500 years of resistance and a war that continues. She acknowledged this resistance –the Native American Realness gathering and related discussions and protests. There were other examples of ways to bring the discussion before or after performance works. The idea of supplying reading lists along with performances was offered from Jaamil Olawale Kosoko. A speaker commented on writers who write about our culture, but they never approach us. They just assume things, they pull from us and take away. Sara asked How do we, those people in positions in power, how do we handle failure publicly? How do we hold ourselves accountable and acknowledge that? Acknowledging that the spark for this conversation, was when she entered this discourse online and it felt like a personal failure in co-running a program. If I value equity, if I value being inclusive, value having respect for cultures other than my own, what was happening online revealed a failure to me. A response included noting that NYC has the largest indigenous urban population and in the spirit of building trust and community there is work happening. Redface is not unique to the dance community. Wooster Group and Canadian author Joseph Boyden (his Indigenous identity is being questioned) were mentioned as examples in theater and literary circles. Reaching beyond the non-profit sector, expanding to corporations and governments that perpetrate institutional racism was made important. The language we use is important. Someone spoke to the centuries of things taken from us and beaten into us. There were several statements about value and the need to share our people’s stories. Being documented as not-human, less than human and spending the past 500 years trying to prove we’re humans. At the end of the day when there is a battle it still goes back to that we’re seen as less than human. The system has devalued our art our ceremonies, our dances are seen as “less than” unless there is money to be made from it. The reason we’re called Indians or Native Americans is because we meant so little that [the larger We] couldn’t be bothered to learn our different names.

There were additional statements about getting funding, self-education, tokenization and respect: artists are the healers, wondering about how we produce a more aware audience when we’re coming from such a pop culture influenced and entitled worldEducate yourself in this time of “sleepness”. What is it to self educate. Boarding school. Genocide. Throwing all of that up on them. Taking responsibility to educate yourself. In the US, there are 567 recognized tribes. Don’t have to make it about that kind of subject matter. Having to assimilate – and growing up in a white dominant scene – how to present my work without tokenizing myself in order to get the funding to continue my work. Extend the words that were shared – misappropriation of lands and resources. This goes back to land and place. What reconciliations? Recognize you are on indigenous lands. As, an indigenous mestizo I am prepared to enter into a relationship and we are generous people. And, in the end – Respect, Reciprocity and Responsibility. 

Post-publication update: I had promised in a FB exchange to include the news that Two-spirit Sioux Falls woman Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow was the second reported transgender murder in the United States of 2017. According to LGBTQNation, she was originally from the Pine Ridge Reservation in S. Dakota and was a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. It is believed she was killed on New Year’s Day. This is a realness we did not acknowledge during the day, the especially vulnerable bodies too often targeted in all of our communities.

6pm, Virago-Man Dem, Cynthia Oliver, work-in-progress showing, American Realness at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center Studio C – What you don’t see today, you won’t see. And, that’s none of your business. Cynthia welcomed us to her showing. Bronx born, Virgin Island raised, PhD in Performance Studies, professor, performer, scholar and choreographer, she brings a multiplicity of textures from the Caribbean into contemporary performances imbued with African and American aesthetics. She asks how as a woman can/does she choreograph masculinity, without resorting to stereotypes but instead locate its nuances, challenges and ambiguities? At this point in the process, performers Duane Cyrus, Jonathan Gonzalez, Shamar Watt, and Niall Noel Jones have clearly mined their lived experiences for a collage of witty, wild and wondrous moments. There are subtle hints that shift into explicit, loud shouts and shout outs. The cast is stunning, with virtuosic displays of endurance, vocal play, and extensive movement vocabularies. They are seductive, they are coy. They are spatially invasive, they are distant. They are powerful, they are exhausted. The material is rich and complex, at times iconic and familiar and others mysterious and personal. All of it leaves me eager for, when the work premieres later this year at Gibney, all that I didn’t yet see and a return to all that I did.

7pm, Étroits sont les Vaisseaux, Kimberley Bartosik, American Realness at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center Studio A. The rippling, provocatively enticing duet for Joanna Kotze and Lance Gries, shares its title with Anselm Kiefer’s 82-foot long, wave-like sculpture of concrete and exposed rebar, which in turn borrows from a poem by Saint-John Perse: “Narrow are the vessels, narrow our couch. Immense the expanse of waters, wider our empire / in the closed chambers of desire.” Kimberly Bartosik collapses an oceanic tidal cycle into minutes and seconds creating a tightly wrapped 25 minute dance of shifting energies in the close quarters of Gibney’s downstairs Performance Lab (increasingly one of my favorite performance spaces). We enter, having to slip past them, as they stand right beyond the doorway, breathing and staring at one another with a crackling intensity. For the next 1/2 hour, they wind around and ricochet off one another, halting momentarily and slowly rebuilding. Underneath collaborator Roderick Murray’s evocative curving, metallic and florescent cloudscape, the work inhabits the stormy and fraught landscape of a continuously evolving and deteriorating relationship. We could be glimpsing an endless battle on Mt. Olympus, Joanna and Lance are so extraordinarily compelling and powerful, alternately taut and wild. The effect is like a shot of compressed oxygen or standing at the edge of the Pacific, ions flying with each crashing wave. I emerge effervescent and grateful for the intimate rousing that the dance, sound and space afforded.

Joanna Kotze & Lance Gries dance beneath Roderick Murray’s set in Kimberly Bartosik’s “Étroits sont Photo by Scott Shaw

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