Rupture This: Artists Co-Creating Real Equity, Create NYC, Eiko, The Bureau for the Future of Choreography
I don’t remember the first time someone called me “chink.” That was, definitely, the more common epithet than the regionally correct “gook” (Senator McCain’s preferred term) which would have required my suburban New England tormentors to distinguish among the many countries that make up the planet’s largest and most populous continent. I do, though, remember the first time my daughter experienced her own version of that greatest-of-the-greatest-hits: “go back to your own country.” November 9, 2016. Day after the election. Except this time the threat was targeted, familiar and anonymous. Rewind to the 1880s, congress passes its first law banning a specific ethnic group from immigration with the Asian Exclusion Act (only repealed in 1940s), jump to the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during WWII, to my post-Vietnam War alienation (My mom and I were actually born in another country, so I often took the directive to go back literally as a kid), to today’s attempted Muslim bans, and it’s clear that Edward Said’s theoretical structure of “Orientalism” has found plenty mainstream variations in the US. My experience of the omnipresent white organizational culture (see below) that permeates our lives was that of “Other,” of not belonging. But, those histories of patronizing, exotification, harassment and segregation is different from the deeply dehumanizing labors of kidnapping, enslavement, and sanctioned murders against American’s with historic, genealogical ties to the African continent. Being treated as different is different from other degradations. Our household has been grappling with the roles we should play in this new era, not only with the new regime in Washington, but the era of arriving adolescence and the responsibilities that our fraught, but privileged role as (according to Asian American scholar Takeo Rivera) undercover agents in America offers. My daughter and I would tend to align ourselves with Susan Cain’s Quiet introverts who are thrust into role model positions (say on a video that makes her cringe) or have trained for years to overcome the thumping cavalry in our chest and speak. The safety of the stage or the distance of writing offers us both a way out of the silence, but just last week at a CreateNYC breakout session hosted by The Field, I was reminded that urgency necessitates action. And, as session facilitator Sarita Covington, artist, mother and co-founder of Artists Co-creating Real Equity, pointed out: “there is no way my daughter is growing up hating herself.” I was a complicit participant in many diversity schemes until you went after my kid, and as difficult as emancipating from abiding agreeability will
be, there’s no way to reconcile racism with reasonability.
Saturday, March 11, 2017
1pm: I joined a couple dozen members of ACRE, thanks to an invite from choreographer, organizer and ACRE co-founder Maria Bauman (thanks to a suggestion from magic maker Eva Yaa Asantewaa) for a discussion about the 3rd point in the their 5 point platform: undoing racist media coverage in the arts. ACRE is an intergenerational, multi-racial group of artists, cultural workers and community organizers operating out of the anti-racist principles of The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB). ACRE is focused on racial equity in arts education, funding, coverage in media, curation, and casting. I’d just flown in that morning from speaking about race and gender in my work at UC Berkeley, but I noticed that I was much more terrified about speaking about race and my arts writing. Despite my own tales of racist “from these Western eyes” reviews over the years, my own advocacy based intentions as a writer don’t absolve me of misrepresenting others in public documents. I arrived wondering about how to recognize the ways the capitalist, white structures are woven into my DNA so that even when working for equity, I’m still perpetuating a racist patriarchy.
Last fall, I wrote about working towards cultural equity, but I remain entangled by the puzzle of whether the call for equity, as in equality, can disengage from the kind of equity that means more pieces of the same ol’ pie. Equity is leverage. Equity is value. Equity means we’re stakeholders in something, but, as someone who has literally been told to “go along to get along,” I have begun to wonder whether the equal shares part of equity keeps us indoctrinated even in pursuit of freedom from subjugation. It’s a “Master’s Tools” conundrum. But, on my way down I took heed from a different part of Audre Lorde’s seminal essay: “I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.” As I shared with the group, I write from a place of personal subjectivity. I do not write from the false stance of objective observation. My deconstructive, feminist anthro profs made sure of that in school. I can only truly speak my truth. I also shared that I became a writer, by writing. I did it for free tickets to shows. Then I did it because I didn’t see enough other people like me writing. I still don’t. And, I write for free. I have been paid to write, but very, very rarely and even then, it was a blurb or a feature for Dance Magazine, and that’s it. So, the choice to write is available to all, we could populate this landscape with more equitable coverage, but as far as I know Eva’s the only one to have sustained her particular level of service to the field for so long. We need more writers. It doesn’t alter the mainstream as immediately as the direct interventions mentioned below will, but if the tributaries begin to overflow, perhaps we can be the true affluent – water flowing freely and in great quantity – with some equity in the bank too.
Fellow guests independent producer, Baraka Sele and Angela’s Pulse and Dancing While Black founder, Paloma McGregor brought the immediate, the real, the calls to action. Both were insistent on calling out racist arts coverage. Paloma has started an initiative called “#ByeRacistCritics,” encouraging us to challenge racist criticism. Baraka shared that she recently responded to a request to offer a “white paper” (an authoritative report/persuasive paper) by issuing her own Black Paper. She spoke about moderating a discussion for the DeVos Institute. Jason Tseng reported in American Theater that Michael Kaiser supported the DeVos Instititute’s paper that recommended consolidating funding and giving more to fewer organizations for Black and Latino groups while Zannie Giraud Voss, National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) defended their white paper wherein they had controlled for sector and age, to show that the the budgets and physical facilities of organizations for PoC were of similar size to those of mainstream equivalents and calling DeVos’s recommendation to fund fewer organizations of color “detrimental to the field.” Baraka spoke of how her “dearest fellow grant makers talk about issues in foundation world” while needing to have a “facilitated discussion on racism.” There were many examples of dysfunction of language, where things are written and spoken that are harmful, inaccurate, and sloppy. She pointed towards language like “non-white” does not describe in the positive. What if we introduced all men as “non-women” as one critic, who had dismissed the “non-white” critique as just semantics, was? She spoke of the power of the written word, the power of words and that we, as writers, are the cultural gatekeepers, barometers of cultural consciousness, providing measuring sticks of cultural awareness. She challenged “BAME – black Asian minority ethnics” language and stated: “I have similar concerns about ALAANA communities and cultures. Let go of categorize, the code words for race, like ethnic, disadvantaged, non-white, underprivileged, even People of Color. It’s convenient labeling. Language and lexicon are important barometers.” When asked what her word was, she said “How about “us, just…us.”
Paloma mentioned that during Dancing While Black events it is valuable to acknowlege both tension and agreement. We “surface our own languages around how do we want to be called. It’s a Black space and we want to be more clear and rooted as we’re coming from a spectrum of aesthetic common commitment to be with one another in community.” That interrelation focus is most present in the DWB fellowship, a small group who believe in personal and public interactivity. Everyone in the room had written questions down and Paloma responded to the one she pulled from the stack: “How can arts writers work collaboratively with artists?” She noted that this was the fifth anniversary of DWB and she had brought in a journalist to help with the effort towards self definition and to find the ways “our voices can live in the public realm.” She recalled a commitment during an engagement in New Orleans to have an ethnographer of the project, as an artist and a collaborator. “She has info I don’t have.” And now, there’s a 135 page document that Paloma will get an editorial panel so “we can reflect back the work.” Facilitator, and ACRE co-founder Maria Bauman, observed that it was a common feeling among the group that as artists we’re strapped and playing many roles, so when you’re told to write about yourself, but you’re already overloaded, it makes sense to bring in an ethnographer or a writer who is also an artist. We may not always have the means for this, but there must be a way to bring more writers into residence to work towards responsible writing. Carla Peterson is bringing Eva into residencies and planning at MANCC. Other institutions could follow this model too. This is easily an investment in future writers or finding the people who are already doing the work and helping them to keep it going.
Baraka countered, from her decades of experience, all of the finding our voices, fostering the future and advocacy won’t work if we don’t “CALL OTHERS OUT.” She proclaimed that having lived past 65 years, through Nixon and Truman, that we must push back against the system because it won’t change on its own. We have to challenge language and the choice of words that writers use, challenge the whiteness of language like “diversity and inclusion.” I don’t have her level of experience, but I’ve seen how these things evolve. I was a heavy “multiculturalist” undergrad in the 80s and fervently sought “affirmative action” faculty and administrative hires at that time, and then it was “pluralism, diversity and inclusivity” initiatives in the K-8 and CUNY world. Today, it’s cultural equity. Later this afternoon it’s undoing racism. Tonight it’ll be justice. And, hopefully, in a coming tomorrow it will simply just be US. It’ll be us writing about us performing so that when we’re on the funding panels we’ll recognize… us. But, in the meantime what if we inundated our grant proposals with quotes from Eva – a poet, a person, a presence writing about dance for over 40 years? Establish our own authorities. Hell, I rode a single, stunning paragraph from her in a 2000 Village Voice round up all the way to getting my first “real job” at 36. What if we just told ignorant writers they weren’t welcome at our shows. What if we stopped buying in. Stopped circulating.
There were many more things said, some off record, some I didn’t capture in my notes. After several other revelatory events and a few more weeks of living, I know the time I spent in the room with Sarita and Maria’s facilitation, ACRE members, and Paloma and Baraka’s organizing wisdom, remains a vital, regrounding moment in an ongoing, long march for equality. (The joke is that if you get one other person to join you, you’re organizing, but if no one’s with you on the march (or as I often feel about the void into which I send my writing), then, honey, you’re just going for a walk.) ACRE’s platform intersects with different fronts my household battles, the realities of racist educational systems that my children are submitted to and that I work in, presentational/curational/organizational structures I encounter as artist, advisor, awards committee or board member, a receiver of and contributor to arts media, and a partner who deals directly with the way the writers and producers creating the demand that casting directors feed have dictated what roles he’s played on many, many NYC shows. Every time we call out inequality and every time we don’t, it matters. We just have to make sure people are listening.
4pm: I arrive back up in my neighborhood to catch the last parts of Eiko’s “A BODY IN FUKUSHIMA” at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine commemoration of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. It’s been 6 years since the Tohoku, or 3.11, Earthquake, the most powerful one to hit Japan since documented recording began in 684 A.D. It moved Honshu (Japan’s main island) 8 feet to the east and shifted the earth on its axis. It resulted in an enormous tsunami that triggered level 7 meltdowns in 3 nuclear reactors in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Over 1,800 residents of the prefecture were confirmed dead or missing as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. While there were no immediate deaths due to radiation, but projections reach up to 600 more people who may succumb to cancers as a result of exposure. Eiko had visiting the area alone soon after the earthquake and in 2014, she and fellow Wesleyan professor, Japanese historian and photographer William Johnston made two visits to the irradiated areas around the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. People had only recently been allowed to visit for limited hours. Last year, as part of her Danspace Project Platform “A Body in Places,” Eiko hosted a 24 hour vigil, panel and photo exhibition in St. Mark’s Church for the 5th anniversary. Sitting in the space as the bells rang midnight was an indelible experience, singular in its sorrow and serenity. The next day Perry Yung and our son, Jet, accompanied Muna Tseng on the Japanese shakuhachi and gong during one part of the many artist performances. This past fall, Eiko was awarded a Special Citation from the New Dance and Performance (Bessies) Awards for her platform and in January, Judy Hussie-Taylor, Executive Director and Chief Curator at Danspace Project was awarded the 2016 Presenters Award from the Bessies Steering Committee. Last summer, Eiko and Johnston returned to the area and found it radically changed with rebuilding, though no one lives there. The event this year included many new photographs, also part of the larger Christa Project, from that visit where Eiko once again danced in these places that remain highly irradiated. Eiko and Johnston capture the sense of desolation and fragility in these stunning images. For the closing performance, Eiko collapsed among black feathers on the steps of the altar before crossing a raised platform on which many of us had placed folded, origami cranes. She encountered DonChristian who slowly collapsed in her embrace and continued on for a final dance in the Nave of the Cathedral.
From the Christa Project brochure:
For a long time, I thought of “Dignity” as an essentially human attribute, a constructed idea about humans created by humans. I resist using glorious, big words when they come from authorities and powers. To understand what a word represents, I look at what it is not. However, when I ask, “What is the opposite of dignity?” an answer is not easy. What are the world and beings without dignity? Can dignity be nulled? Do I really need it? How do I articulate, feel and desire dignity?
People might be ill, poor, hurt, or incapacitated, but they do exist. Even the most basic human rights are denied to some people, but even in critical conditions, the urgency to live brings an unadorned dignity, humanity’s nakedness.
8pm Returning to Gibney Dance Center after those two profoundly resonant experiences, the Bureau of the Future of Choreography’s 1776 was as stark a display of white organizational culture as one could expect to find in America. We had to participate in a re-enactment of annotated US Senate proceedings. Oh the pain. During the recent CreateNYC symposium, about New York’s impending Cultural Plan, Sarita Covington’s session, “Creating Equity in Facilitation, Committee Structure, and Other Ways to Disrupt Racism and White Supremacy” asked participants to describe white organizational culture. The group started with pharmaceutical companies, the international art market, corporations, schools, families and, from someone working with the U.N. on human rights brought us all the way back to…The Constitution. Our democracy is based on white organizational culture. The “supreme law of the land” is white organizational culture. It is inescapable in this country. As Sarita noted, its “water to the fish.” We don’t even notice we’re swimming in it and how to survive outside it. There are havens – for me, La MaMa under Ellen Stewart’s guidance was the one institution in my life, in this country, that clearly did not operate by the same rules. (Of course, having everyone fight for MaMa’s love and attention brought it’s own relational culture woes.) Complicity offers success within the hierarchy of white supremacy and patriarchy, making it difficult to rupture the structures of our built world. 1776 highlighted that in painstaking detail. I have time to attend these events and write about them as a result of abiding by the rules of schools, but ohhh the agreements one must make to reach the senate floor.
The Bureau, Moriah Evans 7 year old dream of collective authorship and agency, is making us look at the making of movements and the movements of democracy. 1776 was conceived and produced by Bureau agents Evelyn Donnelly, Moriah, John Hoobyar, Elena Rose Light, Benny Olk, Jeremy Pheiffer, and Will Rawls, with research and performance contributions from Madeline Wilcox and Culturebot’s Lydia Mokdessi. It invited us “to examine artifacts generated by the US government” through which “structures and choreographic procedures impacting the organization of bodies inside a nation-state” are exposed. This more clearly highlighted the seemingly insurmountable task of challenging the existing State than my endless drone of C-Span does. The Bureau preceded our recent general election, but with all of the daily civics lessons, this project and their US in the US installations at Abrons Arts Center during American Realness and still up at Gibney offer inroads for the New York performance community into observing and joining collective action, as well as the ways our system is fundamentally flawed. US in the US allows the participant to “READ critical texts on government, equity and forgotten histories; CALL US government representatives to lodge complaints, grievances and/or poetic propositions; and MARK sites of political protest and/or injustice on an interactive map of the US.” This past January, during American Realness, I spent a chunk of one afternoon reading the Indivisable Guide, a practical methodology for resistance that was easier to digest in paper form than on my phone. But, oh friends, the paperwork. When The Bureau took on the Senate Proceedings of January 12, 2017, the cost of copying must have been a huge budget line. Each of us had our own 70+ page copy of the redacted and edited proceedings, individually highlighted should you, as the senator whose seat you occupied, be called upon to speak during the 2+ hour grind through language, language, language, rules, rules, rules of order, order, order. Behave. Abide. One of the congressional pages tried to seat me as Ted Cruz and I refused. I was then placed in a seat that was already assigned to someone else, so I asked to be Tammy Duckworth, the first mainland Asian American woman serving in the senate and the first disabled woman elected to the House, but turned out that seat was taken too. I thought about hunting down Kamala Harris or Mazie Hirono’s seats, but had already caused enough distraction so I sat down as “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it-SNL icon-turned challenger of the absurdity of Neil Gorsuch,” Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. Oh save us…The rules of order, the silencing, the tedium, the paperwork, the sitting, the cold, bleak order. I couldn’t imagine a full day of this. It shrouds important statements and hinders so much humanity, but it is here were the fates of many, the futures of our country, the world we inhabit, the DACA/dreamers, the sex trafficked teens and many other pressing, urgent concerns are discussed. But, this body has barely seen recognizably familiar bodies in that body. Much to be done. But, I was purposefully distracted by a request for a joke from Senator McCain (remember him from up top?), so I obliged and sent the congressional pages back and forth with an original: “Knock, Knock. Who’s there? Nobody, it’s the apocalypse.”