James Allister Sprang at Baryshnikov Arts: Seeking Active “Rest Within the Wake”

Photo: Maria Baranova

Waiting outside the Howard Gilman Performance Space for the Baryshnikov Arts-commissioned Rest Within The Wake, a multi-medium soundscape piece, I scarfed down an apple. I had been especially conscious to not be late to the performance, aware it was partially interactive. Meandering in late would mean losing something of the experience. While I consumed my fruit, a man, who appeared to be James Sprang, dressed beautifully but casually in a suit, walked past me to speak to a group of people also waiting to go in. A childhood instinct to marvel kicked in and my breath lowered as I looked in his direction: within eyesight was the person responsible for an evening of performance, art, and thought. I remembered a moment in my childhood when after seeing New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, I saw a young girl wearing a dress resembling the Tea costumes walking out of the theater. I nearly passed out with excitement: only minutes ago she had been on stage creating beauty and now she was next to me! It was also too much to understand that she was also a person. 

This introduction to Sprang would prove significant in my experience of Rest Within The Wake, a 50-minute meditative audio-visual experience where Sprang has his viewers rest on yoga mats. I finished my apple and went inside, removing my shoes and putting my backpack under a table, walking barefoot on the Marley floor to a mat. The room was filled with dancers and performers who casually stretched their legs over their heads and popped their hips while waiting for the show to commence. Those not actively stretching, extended their legs – their hips rotating completely outwards – in front of them as their arches hung and their toes pointed to the ground.

Sprang came to the front of the room, before the blank wall he would use for his projections, and explained what was going to happen. He would, in a few minutes, to accommodate the late stragglers (Ah, lateness was allowed! Maybe I didn’t need to eat my apple so quickly – I did feel heartburn settling in), lead us through a breathing exercise. First, we should lie down and make ourselves comfortable. Though we could assume multiple positions (lying on our back, fetal position, knees bent), we should recline for the duration of the piece. The breathing practice consisted of five breaths filling up the lungs to the greatest extent possible before exhaling in a series of five exhales culminating in an audible release. We repeated this exercise multiple times, becoming more and more comfortable being loud and embodied in the moment. We were allowed, maybe even supposed, to make noise.

The purpose of this Rest is to acquire 48 minutes of rest, but, contrary to our association of rest with respite, this rest was supposed to be active. We should take in the ephemera around us (though there were projections involved in the piece, we were meant to have our eyes closed) while staying still. Active reflection and associations should comprise our meditative state. If there were moments during the piece that disturbed us, we should return to the breathing exercise to find calm. 

Sprang assumed his place at a table behind the sea of mats to start the projections and score. The piece, which recounts Sprang’s experience scuba diving 60 feet into the Caribbean Sea, seems to exist in a liminal space of literal and theoretical. Because I wanted to make sure I grasped what Sprang sought to do, I kept my eyes open for the majority of the time. The projections started looking like hazy blue blobs submerged in deep oceanic expanse. Sprang’s voice, which was both soothing and smooth, narrated the experience of diving, the clothing, and the technical tools, including a mouth guard called a “second stage,” that he clenched viciously while submerging, independent breathing becoming less and less of a possibility. Sprang punctuated a particular motif of B(b)lack skin, encompassing both a black-colored wetsuit and his own Black skin grazing the surface of the water’s edge as he descended into the water’s depths. 

As the projections progressed, the images came into focus. What appeared to be within the body of the water started to look attached to land. The edges of what looked like metal objects started to appear. Was I looking at a fence? But blue remained. Tarps? Sails? Was Sprang filming on a boardwalk? Suddenly woven patterns emerged and a large-scale piece started to present itself. A woven tapestry that reminded me of the art of El Anatsui. Pieces of paper (or was it oilcloth?), white and various shades of blue, in strips connected in lattices. The piece, seemingly endless as the camera spanned it, acquired a curve in contrast to its primarily linear core. The projections and the art piece itself (also made by Sprang, who has a BFA from Cooper Union) comprised the entirety of the piece’s content – weren’t we missing out if the ability to observe the projections was optional? Would viewing not add to the activity of our reflection, or does rest only happen with closed eyes? Maybe it was merely the light of the projection pulsing on our eyelids that would jolt our rest into an active state?

Sprang – the child of Caribbean immigrants, which he spoke of briefly when introducing a call-and-response exercise prior to our breathing – works to challenge the narratives and perception of the origin of Blackness in America beyond Africa. Sprang introduces his own biography as an alternative diasporic route to the United States. This seemed to be the basis of Rest’s meaning.

During Rest, when he discussed breathing, Black skin, a mouthpiece in some way preventing breath, and the presence of a body in water was he evoking The Middle Passage? Did the images Sprang conjured have both presence and connotation? The sea as a source of diaspora, but also the loss of breath. The Second Stage was the iron bit forced into the mouth of captured Black bodies forced onto Western shores? Because Sprang reflects on the experience of the Black body, and his Black body in the world, as he “traverses through space,” to borrow his own words in this video of his 2018 Baryshnikov Arts residency, it couldn’t be the case that the presence of his body in water was neutral, especially in water used to facilitate the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He had warned us that we may be disturbed. Was he highlighting the assumptive connection between his skin color and ethnic origin only to thwart it? The narration described an autonomous act of exploration and adventure, but when viewed within the context of American racial politics, he could be drowning.

Considering we were warned of the intensity of the piece, I expected the narration to last longer. But, while I had no conception of how much time passed, a foundational part of the piece, Sprang’s voice stopped at some point and only the musical score filled with notes and sounds remained. The score had a billowy nature that sounded like sails against the sky, which reinforced my association with the slave trade. But what if I’m wrong and these thoughts never crossed Sprang’s mind? Had I not kept my eyes on the projections, most of my experience of Rest would have been my own thoughts and the images they conjured on my closed lids. Sprang gave so much leeway in perception that the piece didn’t become so much about the composite of its vastness, but about how you experience any part of it at all. The ambiguity of what the many components were meant to indicate left me uneasy. I wanted more guidance from Sprang and less of my own thoughts, which kept creeping in taking up the space to analyze the performance unfolding before me.

In the video mentioned above, Sprang discusses how his work is about process: he tries out ideas in order to see them unfold. Not everything presented must be finished, yet. Baryshnikov Arts’ commission highlights the importance of spaces where artists can see their ideas experienced. Undeniably, it seems this piece has the space, heart, and heft to mature and come into itself.

The piece ended with Sprang back at the front of the room. It seemed almost impossible that 48 minutes went by that quickly. He coached us through sitting up and settling into ourselves. He had us clap for ourselves for our participation and then for him. When he asked us to clap for him it was with well-earned satisfaction. I enthusiastically clapped for him, for his work, but also out of hope that Sprang would allow himself permission to have more of a role in the comprehension of his work in the future – even in spaces that allow for quick bites to be eaten before “curtain.”

Photo: Maria Baranova

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