Shifting Shape in January: Day 5 Dispatch (AR Talk, Juliana May, Ni’Ja Whitson & Wendell Cooper)

Ni’Ja Whitson & Kirsten Flores-Davis Photo by Scott Shaw

Monday, Jan 9, 2017. Feeling pretty hungover from the weekend’s performance and talk binge, but hit Doughnut Plant for an overpriced matcha and dive back in for a full day of Realness.

11am(ish), shift/shape, American Realness Discourse Series, Abrons Art Center, Underground Theater – Artist, scholar, writer, editor, curator, and Movement Research’s Coordinator for Diversity Initiatives, Tara Aisha Willis and AR Discourse Series curator Ali Rosa-Salas are my it-grrls of 2017, lead off with dancer, producer, curator, and manager Marya Wethers and you’d have my trifecta bets for a curatorial future landscape edging towards equity. On Monday morning, Tara moderated AR’s shape/shift conversation with Dana Michel and Ni’Ja Whitson, who according to the description contend with the symbolic, corporeal and affective terms of blackness, each from distinct approaches to practice and performance. Bodies navigating through (and as) the emotional and historical landscapes of racial politics; shape-shifters activating and fragmenting recognizable identity signifiers and the stage’s familiar conventions. I arrived at the end of Ni’Ja’s (a former fellow faculty member at Hunter College) explanation of A Meditation on Tongues, as a re-envisioning of the 1989 Marlon Rigg’s film about gay, black men during the AIDS/HIV crisis, Tongues UntiedDana discussed the original impetus behind Mercurial George, in France, watching home video footage her partner’s cousin (an anthropologist) was showing of bonobos and feeling aware that, as the only black person in the room, it created a weird tension. I was speaking with the cousin and feeling… kind of weird and she said it was Freudian, the uncanny thing.” But, I couldn’t talk to her about it. So I went for a walk and then a friend dropped in to visit and we talked about it and started working on the piece. 

Tara asks how they manage that sense of responsibility and urgency when they’re making THAT work even though maybe they’d rather be making something else. Dana clarifies if it’s about how does a work go from the ‘bing’ or the ‘ehhh’ into actually working? There’s something that’s coming to my mind, I’ve been thinking about hoarding, of objects, thoughts and feelings. A mass of things and ideas and time. She states that the question is opening several doors for her and then decides on walking through one to say that she accumulates ideas and objects over 2 or 3 years, lined up opportunities to use her pile and reduce it. In the end, saying it sounds kind of like anybody’s process. But, Tara points out that it’s actually quite literal and Dana admits to googling hoarding at 3am in the morning. Ni’ja explained that they felt similarly, with things taking on meaning and shifting over time. That over a 3 year process, they were not going to be in the work at first, but then due to decreasing funds I join the cast and then it makes sense that I’m in the work.

Tara asks how the accumulation of things, ideas, movement, and archival material gets in the room, in the body, or in the action. How does it become live? Dana says that the process is so bloody indirect it’s hard to answer a direct question, but she pushes herself into deadlines so that the hoarding, writing, and looking at all the things leads to the moment for some kind of a sharing or a showing. Okay I’ve got my 3 suitcases of shit and I have to go to that place whatever shape it is and I let intuition push me towards the objects. Sculpting materials. Trust intuition way more than facts. Not at all efficient. She stops and asks the group: Where am I going? What am I saying? But, Ni’ja points out that that is the process. Right there. Dana responds with Yes, in terms of interacting with the situation object and thought. And then, after a pause…have I said something yet. I said a few things? I think it’s clear.

Ni’ja admits I just have to say I’d like to talk to you more often and I’m thinking about how food and sewing and long table the day before let the ideas flow, let the group sit in circle, let the conversation meander in a less forced way and I’m wishing we could coffeehouse this so that it could be the conversation Ni’Ja keeps pulling us towards. Ni’Ja explains their crisis of consciousness as the only black artist in their graduate school program program, how right at the end, the last thing said to me as an artist before getting my diploma was that there’s enough beauty, art for art’s sake, don’t do that – deal with the pain in the world. They express the impulse to make some shit that’s going to mean something, even words have to speak to something non-textual, trying to avoid the proscenium stage since that’s not how we live in the world.

Tara asks Dana about her relationship to language in Mercurial George. Dana admits to trying on language in a way that is hard for me to say in the States. I was trying on a southern accent. And trying to put on a St. Lucien accent because I can’t do my parents accent. And then, was trying on a British accent because family members also went there. It was part of my mom’s dream for properness and those were our geographical landings. Yesterday after Latifa’s performance at PS1, the moderator said “I think this is the first time that anyone has used an accent before.” Obviously, that’s completely false. Ni’Ja: I can’t talk about that or wtf happened. But in meditating on Tongues Untied, there was a recovering or borrowing of a language used as a male. In giving it up as having any particular definition I could only embody, with a kind of absolute, if it’s not in my cosmology as it were, it’s not appropriate to step into that. That kind of appropriation too close to institutionalized oppression and I do my best to be aware of that. I say things aloud in my artistic community, so I can be called on it. I feel okay saying it aloud, not as policing, but my politic stance is about impact on communities of people and historically. Artists cannot and should not be given a pass for our choices. There is a pretty significant assumption that maleness, black maleness and in seeing the violence to cis male bodies, that for some reason other folks those stories needed to be quieted for justice and freedom. I’m tired of that. So I’m occupying my own self instead of waiting for someone to give me permission to interrogate me.

Tara: What are some of the tactics that you use, or strategies or practices, for finding your way through this dense landscape of symbolic pressures, the dense forest of racial politics, the dense landscape of race for dealing with or refusing or mixing messages around those meanings? The question requires a few re-readings and deconstructions. Dana: I favor indirectness. I favor giving a wide berth. Things running in parallel. Delving directly in speaking, reading, writing – watching film. It’s loaded enough that we’re here. That’s one tactic. Holding an umbrella on top of the conversation. It’s not an umbrella – but shape/shifting. Ni’Ja: Tactic? My first response is “naw,” I don’t do it. I’m not dealing with definitions. I’m hearing it as identity or definitions – the way those things are perceived. I’m not trying to explore that. I’m doing that in the work but the language I composed around what the piece is doing comes from after I understood what the piece was doing. Not what I’m doing with the work. I’m already open and proud about being a black person, so I’m not conscious about doing that. I am aware that my work IS black and I want it to be black. My work in Theatrical Jazz Aesthetic with Sharon Bridgforth…my queer identity, it’s not black identity I’m paying attention to but black, Africanist aesthetics I’m paying attention to.

Tara reads/voices it for a 4th time – What are some of the tactics for finding your way through the potentially dense symbolic landscape of racial politics, or blackness. Dana explains that she’s working for a place of what if you expect it of me, then I’m going to do it. Tara asks her to reenact an explanation that requires the use of a water bottle. Dana put out a water bottle and pointed at it and since it’s there nevertheless, regardless Tara points at the bottle water this is blackness, there’s nothing I can do to avoid that, so I’m gonna say that I’ m talking about this and I’m gonna do it and it’s there and it’s there anyway – pounding the bottle on the floor – so it’s doubly there now I’ll do what I’m doing anyway.

Tara – Have you felt at any version in the act of performance where you were navigating some kind of an intimacy or alienation with audience or objects that were because of having to find tactics around race? Was there a conversation after a show where you thought this is a moment when I’m having to deal with this? Ni’Ja remembers something that came to the fore after their BAX showing. Someone sent an email to the ED talking about how much of what they were left with was black violence and pain. That’s ALL you saw? There is such a nuanced and wide ontology of blackness and idea and emotional experience why are those words coming up so readily. I’m constantly dealing with that. Ni’Ja commented on having to respond in a way that educates folks on their language. That all the viewer apparently received after the 40 minutes was violence and pain. I do go to a place that is, maybe, aggression but it minimizes the reach of my emotional depth and experience. And, what’s happening with this work. Dana explains that this comes up no matter what I do. This comes up very often. I could come up with examples but it often comes back to a certain kind of dark, violent…I recognize the way it is out of my control. I’m reminded of something from Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art about the dangers of staging acts to a public that is still unwilling to consider the actions within the context of art, especially when/because they can’t access the wide ontology of even a single black body’s being-ness enough to distinguish between the performative act and any originating source material.

When the Q&A opens up to the audience, Dana shares that conversations about race are more prominent here than in Canada. Adventure in being comfortable. In 2013 I couldn’t say black or race and feel comfortable. I started to notice this in myself and found it problematic. Coming and doing the work here has been extremely important as a person. But sometimes it’s limiting. I ask, in recalling the two AR talks from Saturday (Day 3 Dispatch) – especially Jaime Shearn Coan’s morning questions about how often we’d performed to our own racial communities – about how often they find themselves commissioned, produced, performing to and written about others from their own cosmology. Ni’Ja explains that they’re not often commissioning my work. I have not at all been in a marked plan of I need to be in these [“notable” or translate: white] spaces [where most of the performance work is being commissioned]. What’s brought me closer to the folks in my cosmology is to invite folks in the room into the process of making. My people know what I’m doing, the circle keepers. But, it’s not happening enough, this larger institutional conversation about resources needed for presenters of color, queer presenters to house a show. There’s historical and institutional disparity with white led and founded art organizations and those run by folks of color. It’s much harder for those circles to grow. Folks are showing up to write about the work and I think that is critical. Writing about performance is a craft and I want to honor that.  Dana pointed out that there are a lot of rings and so, naively, I’m always showing to my cosmology. It’s really awkward to answer certain questions but there are rare moments in the US when I look up in and there are a lot of skin tones that look like mine. It’s happened 2 times and that’s gorgeous. 2 out of 6, so for me this is enormous. I grew up in Ottowa and have been the only black person in many of my circles. To be honest, this is normal – it’s not normal – my parents immigrated – it’s normal. I’m not making work for only one group of people, certainly not, but there’s under representation of all sorts of people. When I’m sitting with a journalist that’s a person of color, it’s liberating, extremely exciting, not shorted. The conversations are stimulating. I’m 40 years old and it’s just starting to happen. It’s all valuable.

Ni’Ja added that there’s been a whole lot of my cosmology present at the run of this show and if that doesn’t happen then it’s not working right. This is how we’re in community together. Showing up.
I heard that.

Photo by Ian Douglas

1pm, Adult Documentary, Juliana May, Abrons Art Center, Experimental Theatre. The floor is covered in entirely in sandy, caramel, shag carpet. Audiences are seated on opposite ends of the space and as I head towards an open seat, Juliana points me towards the other side. The view’s better. So, I snuggle into an open floor cushion and joke with Diana Crum, seated next to me, that I’m feeling lulled into playschool naptime. Connor Voss enters babbling in a high pitched voice with a coy smile like a muppet whose dosage is off that day, alternately adorable and terrifying as the chatter turns to screeches. Kayvon Pourazar adds a deep barking sounds, but the animalism goes adult once Lindsay Clark, Talya Epstein, and Rennie McDougall join them.  We find ourselves caught in a complex, clockwork loop that repeatedly resets with a naked Lindsay, lounging on the carpet retelling the same sad story about a group of people hanging out at “the institute” which was “a barn, really” and part of a church, once. As the gears wind, reset, accumulate, wind again, reset, accumulate and alter, reset and so on, the dancers spring in and out of action and text that is interspersed with vocal yelps in place of certain words. Lindsay is especially adroit and commanding in her vocal play and Kayvon looms ominously wielding an ancient Magic Wand. The overall effect is dizzying. In recall, I imagine us moving instead of them as if we were on a revolving stage circling past an anthropological exhibit of Young Urbans (native habitat), early 21st Century.

2pm, Frankie May & US in the US, Aretha Aoki & The Bureau for the Future of Choreography, The Cafe tables & Upper Gallery. Almost 5 years ago, Culturebot curated a week of events as part of Exit Art’s closing. Aretha Aoki (profiled here) was my selected artist. We’d met over 10 years ago during grad school and now along with raising Frankie Mayfield Aoki-McDonald has relocated to the shores of Maine as a full-time member of Bowdoin College’s dance faculty. She and producer Meredith Boggia let me drop in on their meeting for some catch up and so Frankie May and I could check out the interactive map from The Bureau for the Future of Choreography’s US in the US window map. On it festival visitors had written in various current and historic politic events around the country. The colors and designs kept the 5 month olds attention while I noted information about clinic bombings, protests and worker’s rights actions. We also hit the library of texts in the corner, including a hard copy of the much circulated (online) Indivisible: A Practical Guide to Resisting the Trump Agenda, written by former congressional staffers, it offers best practices for making Congress listen. HINT: They all want to get re-elected so stay in their ear, either with positive reinforcement or pushing them to go harder. As the first and primary line of defense against appointments and policies, our direct contact with them is essential.

Photo by Scott Shaw

4pm, A Meditation on Tongues, Ni’Ja Whitson, Abrons Art Center, Underground Theater & Lobby – As we waited in the crush of the tight lobby space outside the theater, a door opened and an entirely naked Kirsten Flores-Davis walked through us. A former Hunter College student and collaborator, all I could think was new piercing! If there is only one thing (and there isn’t, Kirsten’s got plenty o’ game) that one can do, it’s hold our attention while doing very little. A commanding physical presence, quite tall with a shaved head, the walk through was a simple and astounding opening. After Kirsten and Ni’Ja passed through the door that leads to Studio G05, we file in, pressed against both walls for an exchange. As explained during the morning talk, A Meditation on Tongues is re-interpretation of the seminal essay film by Marlon Riggs, Tongues UntiedIn taking on a film that took on the experiences of gay black men during the AIDS pandemic, Ni’Ja opens the door, literally, for us to walk into a more complicated examination of blackness, queerness and maleness by setting their non-gender conforming bodies as the avatars of lives lost. In the hallway, there are memorials, candles and images of departed artists from the film. There is the furtive eroticism of dark hallways and obstructed views. Around the corner, Ni’Ja and Kirsten re-enact the precision of Snapology and then take us into the theater. The remainder of the work is mostly pain-filled, I can see why an uninformed viewer (see morning’s talk above) would take away a sense of suffering, but the pain when Kirsten is writhing in a wrenching sequence on the floor, pulling at their mouth, pushing at the skin is agony muted by the delicate blessing of blown bubbles that Ni’Ja showers the audience with. Their pairings (grasping one another, foreheads together, reaching into pants pockets and reading texts) are spaces of revolution. I watch them rise from the floor together and feel the charged power of partnership. I think to myself in all my life, I’ve never seen this and I’m not even sure what the this is, but I know, I know I’m seeing something, something whose name I am still yet to learn but something that rises and stands, defies old paradigms and is filled with heat and strength and a promise for the tomorrows. It was a moment, in the crazy mix of talk and action, amidst show after show, caught up in reading, writing and seeing. It was a moment and then I was off to another moment… but here, in this moment of writing days later, I’m still moved to tears because what was accessed is beyond aesthetics or performance or dance or race or gender or self, it was like a glimpse into the quantumly real.

Photo by Ian Douglas

5:30pm, Carrying Capacity, Wendell Cooper/Mx. Oops, Abrons Art Center, Playhouse – Next moment… we’re in a dream space. Wendell Cooper, also a former Hunter College colleague, as Mx. Oops channels multiple practices in sacred healing, chanting, a degree in Integrated Media Arts, various forms of house and hip hop dance, improvisation, contemporary floor work and a unifying no-holds barred approach to. it. all. y’all. We start with a guided meditation. Wendell’s going to take us to a space that crashes together the sexual and spiritual. And, we won’t be alone. It takes a while to get there.I’m restless. Charged up from the previous piece and from just too much sitting over the past several days. I stand next to my stool behind a couple rows and next to the tickled Nicky Paraiso. I want it to be much later in the day. I need a yoga class. I can’t be still. But, Wendell patiently rubs the edges of enormous frosted glass singing bowls. The space envelopes us in liminal forces, not the 3 young, feather clad initiates sitting at his feet, we are still participants in an unfolding ritual. Eventually, he rises those heels, holy death spikes and the energies are unleashed. With Jason Anthony Rodriguez/Slim Ninja, Shekoya Gordon, Phe-Be Smith and more former Hunter students and collaborators Timothy Edwards and Graziella Murdocca, Mx. Oops launches a tidal wave of staggering spectacle. He’s an urban, shamanic dasi calling forth spirit forces and flipping the world while balancing on top of head and tips of wrist and circling legs in various configurations. The effect is purely fabulous, the dancers keep pace, the show is unrelenting and Mx. Oops does not fail in delivering profane delights without desecrating her sacred beginnings.

Wendell Cooper/Mx. Oops Photo by Ian Douglas

updated 11/14/17: an earlier version misgendered Kirsten Flores-Davis

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