The Ways In Which We Break: A Conversation with Taja Cheek and Ali Rosa-Salas

Submerge 2017: Break Time

Submerge 2017: Break Time is presented by BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange and The Helix Queer Performance Network. The festival will take place November 2-6, 2017 at MINKA brooklyn. A full schedule, event descriptions and ticket info can be found here.

The impacts of grief, however miniscule or massive, are the focus of “Submerge 2017: Break Time”, a festival curated primarily by Ali Rosa-Salas. Interested in the ways in which “we” are “permitted” to grieve in public space and, as the curatorial statement offers, a concern on the “expectation to bounce back,” Rosa-Salas has assembled an enriching near week of events, ranging from breath work to brunch to bike rides, in recognition of the ways the personal is political; the ways we are alone with others; and the ways in which everything, art or otherwise, is necessarily interdependent.

I met up with Rosa-Salas and Taja Cheek, the latter of whom curated an evening of music for the festival, to speak about the ways in which they approach their curatorial practice; which turned into ways in which they approach their creative practice; which turned into ways in which they approach their life practice. They are curators, artists and thinkers, who seem to fully exhaust the complications and manifestations of a thing before pointing to it and saying “that might go horribly wrong but let’s do it anyway.” They are weary of self-care as Self-Care and the ways in which we are made to feel our personal strife is eclipsed by the political state. They are challenging the boundaries of curation at a moment when audiences are hungry to gather, to witness, and to heal, but don’t necessarily know how to go about that. They dove into “Break Time” at a point in their respective lives when grief seemed to overstay its welcome. Then again, it always does.

[This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.]

Tara Sheena (TS): For purposes of this interview, do you want to say what you’re into right now and interested in? Something like, “This is who I am, this is what i am doing right now.”

Ali Rosa-Salas (ARS): I am Ali Rosa-Salas and I am the organizer of “Break Time”, which is a multi-day, mini-festival that’s produced by Brooklyn Arts Exchange in partnership with MINKA brooklyn. The festival is informed and inspired by grief. Both on a hyper-personal but, also, on a macro-level, there’s been a lot that I’ve been going through emotionally with regard to this life-state, or this affective state. And, this sounds so simplistic, but curatorial practice is my artistic practice, so it’s really the only way I process. I figured that, given everything that’s always happening in the world and the ways I made myself vulnerable in my personal processing, I realized that a lot of people that I was in conversation with were also thinking about similar questions. So, this felt really appropriate to expand the conversation and make it more public-facing. This [festival] felt like the right thing to do.

Taja Cheek (TC): Yeah, I feel that. I am Taja Cheek. Ali asked me to put together a musical component of “Break Time,” which came at kind of a crazy point. I had been working on an album that started out as an exploration of grief in an abstract sense. I was going through a lot of things and a lot of things were ending; I was trying to figure out how to process that. Through the process of working through that, [a close family member] ended up passing away and it took on a whole other meaning.

Ali reached out to me right after the album was released [in late August] and I was thinking about this [grief] a lot and thinking through what emotions are allowed in public, and how I really didn’t want people to have a straightforward reaction to the things I was making. I wanted people to feel confused and a little sad and to deal with that; to try and figure out how to put that in a live context has been difficult. Ali asked me to think through what a musical component of “Break Time” could look like, so I invited three people who I think have a lot of musical similarities but also some autobiographical similarities that maybe could allow for some kind of conversation around grief. I was also interested in what it means to grieve with other people, or how to interpret that language. I was doing a lot of processing as a solo person and artist. I was interested in seeing what happened if people were given the opportunity to talk through that together, even if they didn’t know each other that well.

TS: Hearing you both speak just now, I am reminded of the vastness of grief. I was really struck by that in the curatorial statement. And, it also makes me think of this thing of aesthetics: how, right now, the artmaking itself doesn’t feel like it’s enough. Or, if it is, what inside of it makes it enough? I want to plant that inside of this conversation because it’s something I witness amongst my communities, and something I witness inside this current life moment, where artists are questioning what inside their art is strong enough to address massive grief scales.

I want to tease out the original impetus for this festival and how you chose to translate out these ideas in the various events. Also, I am curious about the partnership with MINKA – what is their involvement and what’s the importance behind having this as the only site for the festival?

ARS: For me, the original impetus was a recent, significant life transition. And, I think in processing endings of that magnitude, it brings to the fore the ways in which people, or me specifically, manage loss. And, in my own therapeutic practice, so much of how one processes loss of any kind has to do with traumas and losses of that past. So, that has everything to do with loss I have experienced in my life and the ways in which I have been taught to manage loss in my familial and cultural circuit. So, that just really got me thinking about a lot of things. One, the kind of trauma and grief that my family has been processing for a long time. A lot of that has to do with, in my immediate family, trauma around poverty and trauma around the loss of opportunity on a systemic level. And, the loss of family and friends due to systemic inequality. Even loss from health conditions that has everything to do with all of that.

The space that I was allowing myself to grieve felt very complicated, especially considering the macro, political circumstances that we’re in. So, I found myself often trivializing my sadness and loss in relief with everything that’s happening the world in regards to [things like] state violence against black and brown people, our current administration, climate change. I found myself being like, well I shouldn’t give myself the space and opportunity to really feel this because, in comparison to all of this other grief and trauma, it’s quite trivial. But, then I came to realize, that it’s all intertwined. For me to not take time and honor my own grief processes, then how I am going to process everything else that’s happening? So, I guess that comes back to the question of, is this enough? For me, once I can acknowledge and process how I am doing in relation to community, my intention is that that work will make some sort of dent or entry point or impact in the many kinds of ways I have to be there for myself and other people given the world that we live in.

TC: I relate to a lot of that. I always come back to this Amiri Baraka quote. In it, he’s specifically talking about Coltrane, but, more broadly, he’s talking about Black jazz music in the ’60s – that moment – and he says, “New Black music is this: to find the self and kill it.” That always seemed really relevant to me. Through the lens of legibility and finding space for a sort of confusing emotional and aesthetic landscape that gives me freedom to do what I need to to do to assert my blackness in that way. That’s always been my general interest in grief. And, all of things you were talking about, Ali, of trauma, personal trauma, and how that relates to Black trauma in a broad sense. Even freak accidents play into a larger narrative of Black trauma in terms of resources for mental health professionals. Or, time. The resource of time; to be able to not go to work one day and take care of yourself.

I have also been looking at a lot of performances of grief in funerals. They are really interesting to me. Like jazz funerals in New Orleans and the rituals that come along with that. Also, celebrity funerals, I have been watching a lot, like Whitney Houston and James Brown. You go on a emotional journey watching them. They are deeply joyful and people will break down in tears. The relationship to celebrity in general is weird because you feel like you know this person and this person is part of your life in some way. When they die, it feels like a person you knew died. I was thinking a lot about the ritual of a funeral and how people go up and speak and it’s this rotating cast of people who go up and speak about how they’re feeling in public, or how they felt about this person. Now that I am saying it out loud, it feels kind of crazy in some ways. But, it’s common. There’s definitely some similarities and the “round robin” format [in the event I curated]. I was interested in the personal and the collective and modeling that on a small scale.

TS: A funeral also seems like a really potent site of this curatorial exploration. Funerals are unique to each cultural tradition but, if we have to name a public space where grief is seemingly allowed, funerals seems like some of the only sites for that. That speaks to it for me and magnifies the idea of what we think of as external depictions of grief and where those are most appropriate in our society. You need that tangible reason to make it ok.

TC: It took me a while to realize that funerals are not for the person who died. It seems really stupid, but I had a moment where I realized that it’s not for them.

Katrina Reid in rehearsal for Obeah (A Black Ritual) by Jonathan González. Photo by Liz Charky.

ARS: I have been talking about grief as being synonymous with sadness, which is really important, but, of course, it’s so much more complicated than that. I don’t think grief equals sadness in this perfect, linear, dialectic way. I would hope that in the curation or organization of the events, there is room to feel many ways. I don’t want to prescribe one way of a socially acceptable state of being. That felt important to me as to why I asked artists working in many different types of disciplines to take part.

And, maybe it’s just the communities I surround myself with, but there seems to be a focus on self-care. And, I think that term is very fraught and very complicated. I think self-care, in one way, is necessary to take care of oneself with whatever that means. But, it’s definitely an industry now and has its own market in a certain way. It is also a very neo-liberal concept.

TC: It’s very linear and goal-oriented, too. Like, you do this thing for this result or you take this thing for this result, instead of this is a practice of something I have to continually do.

ARS: Right! And, that’s why I was attracted to MINKA because it’s a gathering place that very much aligns itself with a self-care ethic but in a way that’s practice-oriented. So, throughout the week, there are multiple things going on that happen every week, like community acupuncture which always happens on Mondays from 4-7:30pm. They have instituted these modalities that create community that are happening on a continual basis. It creates an anchor [for the festival], which I think is really important. I was attracted to that space for that reason and it’s also a queer, women of color led and operated space. That felt really important.

It also felt important to have the festival in a multi-use space. Having work of this subject matter in a traditional, proscenium [theater] setting felt really inappropriate. A theatrical context instinctively felt like it wasn’t right; I don’t want people to feel on display.

TS: A lot of the activities associated with this festival are not explicitly performance things, like a Pranayama workshop, the brunch, the bike ride. They all fit into this container but they aren’t meant to be consumed or witnessed in the way we expect performances to.

I am really curious about calling this festival “Break Time”. Part of your curatorial statement asks “How do you sound when you break?” And, I am struck by this conceit of breaking. I know both of your work is essential to give platforms to artists of color and The Helix Queer Performance Network [a producing partner of the festival] explicitly supports queer artists, and how those individuals, in particular, are routinely expected to reach a true breaking point before their trauma or sadness becomes legitimized. So, I am thinking of that, as well as “catching a break” or “taking a break” and other things that signify a break. The verb versus the noun and what resonates inside of each. How does it sound? Are we taking a break? Have we been pushed to our breaking point? That’s what struck me: the breaking point. And, how that should benefit from the nuance that you both are speaking to. What’s a “Break Time”?

ARS: I think it’s all those things. So much of the reading I’ve been doing around grief talks so much on how the process isn’t linear but it’s also this language around taking care of yourself, like “when you’re not ok, it’s ok to be foggy.” Which I’ve totally experienced; there are moments where you’re just not fully lucid or alert.

When things break, they can break in two, but things can also break in fractures and different pieces. So, for me, breaking is not necessarily a negative thing as much as it is a new state of being: this thing that was one thing is now something different. That’s not negative; it is what it is. Things are messy and nonlinear and fractured. There’s not a before and after: “I am broken” and “I am healed.”

TC: I’ve always had a constant interest in grief. I am also interested in grief penetrating all aspects of life; grief as a constant state of being or grief as everyday life. I think the idea of death being separate from life is fairly new, in the physical ways people deal with death, at least. [In recent history it was prevalent that] people die at home and it was an actual presence; you would see dead bodies. I am interested in the constance of grief and navigating that; not having it be sequestered.

ARS: Yeah! And, I see a break as an opening, an awareness. So, I was thinking about that, too. What are these moments of awareness that we have? Particularly, as they relate to grief processes.

TS: Also, what you’re speaking to are these assertions against the binaries we are forced into, in the many ways we are forced into them. That is the isolationist tendencies of our culture: to create distinctions in order to keep us apart. That’s what I am hearing and that’s what resonating with me, too. There is a denial of a linear, product-driven form of thinking.

Also, I am really struck by the ways cycles play out in this festival. A lot of the festival contents point to circularity: a round robin structure, a bicycle, a ritual, Full Moon Intentions. That, perhaps, works against this idea of a fractured breaking, or a breaking as an opening, because alongside that you have a cycle – a breaking can be a disruption or redirection of a cycle in many ways. For example, why do you need a healing bicycle ride in the context of this festival? I am interested in how you arrived at that.

YATTA, who will perform in 8 Rites, curated by Taja Cheek. Photo by Cameron Kelley.

ARS: For me, using the bike ride as an example, my thought process behind that traces back to how I was talking about neo-liberalism as this bad thing. I think everything in life is much more complicated than what we distill it to be. As much as I see the perils of individualism – what it’s done to my people and to me – and even this notion of “self-care” as being something that  when applied in a way that is only focused on the individual, one loses the critical link which is interdependence. Interdependence is something that I feel, similar to public-facing grief or sadness, has also been forced into being pathologized or taboo. I am a believer that you can’t really take care of others if you can’t take care of yourself, but I think both of them have to exist in communion.

It was important for me to provide entry points for people to be fully present with themselves but also present in community. The bike ride is a “no drop” ride. Some bike rides are super competitive, so if you need to stop, you’ll lose the group. So, there’s something about the mission of both LifeCycle Biking and bklyn boihood [the organizations collaborating for this bike ride], particularly creating community around queer people of color who are interested in cycling, there is something around linearity and progress that this bike ride is challenging: we are all moving together and no one is being left behind. So, as much as I am on my own apparatus traveling to a certain destination, I can’t get there unless you’re also here. That encapsulates a metaphor on how I process grief personally and in community.

How we emotionally process has everything to do with how we were raised and our environments. So, it felt really important to have that performance practice in the mix. Even though it’s a bike ride, I see it as a performative ritual. And, it felt important for me to have something physical in that way that also engages the environment. I am cognizant that [in New York City] we are Lenape territory and the fact that there’s an African burial ground near where we are. It felt important to be in connection with the surroundings outside of MINKA to think about the land and how it’s imbued with trauma and all of these processes, like gentrification, that play a part.

TC: There’s something about being a New Yorker, too, and walking around the physical space that is our home. I am third generation Brooklynite, so when I walk around with my dad he’ll tell me what used to exist or what exists beneath what I think I am seeing. That sort of ties into all the things we are talking about in regards to inherited trauma, displacement and gentrification, and how it is cyclical but also there’s something about being in a physical space that makes that more real. You’re reminded because you’re seeing these things or you remember what it used to be.

ARS: We could’ve had a whole gentrification grief circle [laughs].

TS: Is there anything else you want to bring up?

ARS: If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that everything is just messy. To not know something is so much a part of grief that keeps us in despair, but I think if we all settled into the fact that we won’t really know a lot about most things, including why we’re even here, then perhaps that opens up a break to experience a new way of being together.

Life is messy. And, that’s ok.

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