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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

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NOV 2020 Issue
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Essayons

Will Rawls, <em>Uncle Rebus</em>, 2018. High Line, New York. Pictured from left: Trinity Bobo, Jasmine Hearn, Stanley Gambucci. Photo: Liz Ligon. Courtesy the artist.
Will Rawls, Uncle Rebus, 2018. High Line, New York. Pictured from left: Trinity Bobo, Jasmine Hearn, Stanley Gambucci. Photo: Liz Ligon. Courtesy the artist.

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What did we miss in the first months of quarantine? What do we miss now? Still don’t miss the art world. Especially not the willful exclusions that those words enact together. The rehearsing of long-defunded intentions to care more and differently, while disfiguring artists’ curiosity into gaffes and apology. The art world is so sorry. Again. Yet it remains, more often than not, choreography with no dance; interiors thirsty for interiority. Whatever life survives the art world, whether at its edges or at its center, usually survives in spite of its ill geo-metrics. Survives because of people who go within and go without it. We can say that the people in this virtual writing group have helped us render ourself as more tangible, entangled people in the world world. As black people in the world world. We’ve found little enthusiasm to speak publicly this year—at least to and about the art world. For a long while, it was time to stay home, get out of the way and let what life saving that could happen, happen. And whatever surviving could happen, happened. It is still that time, but here, we venture out before another lockdown follows the first lockdown, which was already redundant in its tense mix of enclosure, experiment, and lack.

The implosion of exhibition and performance space was an opportunity to surrender things where they lay; to consider abundance otherwise; to pause this constant careening through whatever the fuck the contemporary is. But cannot be yet. We organized ourselves for the black lives that were becoming, once again, gruesome indicators of how vastly differently we live and die in the same time. We laid ourself down into our practices, or invented rigorous, if manic-depressive, new ones. We called on the phone again. We grieved the canceled shows of friends. Then we re-scaled our despair into grim wonder as the world world unmasked itself again. Some of us got our time back. We plot our futures like contact tracers.

March: Breonna Taylor is murdered and will never be your nurse. We sorted viral panics on the radio, sang and scrubbed our hands into scabs, swayed in food lines in the drizzle, sewed masks, opened the parenthesis of mourning. April: time as thick as raw cotton and cyberspace. We kept vigil over the Armory across the street—home to two hundred houseless men—where the virus rampaged. Nearly every hour, someone was escorted into an ambulance, escorted by police, down Marcus Garvey Boulevard. We discovered that the Armory is managed by Black Veterans for Social Justice and could be a crisis evacuation point, should it come to that. We disinfected ourselves deeper into what remains of our lives. Tallied our difficulties and ambiguous joys. Ordered contactless groceries for dad. Scoured sex apps for clues on fucking in pandemics. Hollered into the spring air for essential workers. Became the Zoom generation. May: we left our house more than once a week, remembered the election, believed the world was cooling down, stalked the spider that settled in our window. She is an Orb Weaver, her spinning, tearing and repairing inseparable from life’s other incessant webs. A quiet fell over the Armory after its residents were evacuated to another site—we hoped it was somewhere safer, but it was likely the Upper West Side. June: time as thick as George Floyd’s final 8:46min, uprisings in 50 states, 30 days of fireworks like a thousand noise concerts, 1000 bucks for bail funds, 14,000 for Black Trans Lives, 15 hours of daylight, episode 1 of I May Destroy You, dozens of candles melting under Breonna’s portrait at City Hall. SoHo gets tagged and bombed. Dance party in a barricade. Mic drops in the street. This was also art’s future. July: The NYPD gets paid $6 billion again.

Eventually a job opportunity came up. The interviewers asked for a definition of media. The question invited generative and broad conversation. But as the esteemed panelists, all but one of whom was white, peered back in Zoomy silence, our eyes reached for the sky and our mind went blank. We were too busy refusing to perform a visionary redress of the whiteness that could not not have precipitated this hire, and that would inevitably stage any answer offered as a measure of redemptive blackness. This non-performance stumbled after our wisdom into a void that abruptly swallowed them, along with our research interests. “Media are the distortions that connect us in our search for immediacy,” is what we didn’t say, until later, and only to ourself. Quiet as it’s not kept next time. To them we think we said, “Media are the body.”

In 3rd grade, we played a game during recess. Thirty of us would hold the edges of a giant multi-colored parachute, hoist it skywards in symbolic unison, and then, in an ambiguous communal gesture, yank it forcefully back to earth. As it came down, a kid would be called to sprint beneath the supple dome, across its center, and emerge before being pinned under it. Once, we chose to stop running and, for a moment, twirled, obscured by the descending canopy. Pretty swiftly though, gravity dragged the ripstop fabric into folds upon us, pressing away the oxygen and light. Yet another design meant to save but instead snuffs out. It made for a dramatic exit, staggering out of the darkness, shedding pools of nylon, dragging them to a breathless and collapsible point: we can stand the terror of suffocation in exchange for some dancing solitude. But when is the solitude worth it?

It’s still the performance of survival that gets the biggest applause. It seems to say, see, you called us into the center and by this you could have killed us but we didn’t all die and this is cause for celebration, even dancing. But what do we miss when it’s gone? Ralph, your prompt quickens us like a race in a nylon downpour, but even if un-alone here, blackness is again the foil and embodied critique of a hastily, restructured fabric.

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Within days of a director of a major New York City museum being the subject of a Times article accusing her of toxic abuses of power, the same museum announced an exhibition on grief and grievance organized by the late impresario, Okwui Enwezor. The exhibition was brought to its finish line by Naomi Beckwith, Glenn Ligon, and Mark Nash—Okwui’s trusted friends and denizens of the international black art braintrust in which we are part.

A big New York City commercial gallery announced that it will open an annex space run by a black Canadian gallerist that will employ black dealers and show the work of black artists. Some celebrated the “autonomy” of a space for us, by us. Others denounced the effort as “colonial expansionism,” a way for the powerful white gallery director to extend his reach. Most wished the black Canadian gallerist good luck. A few days later, the white gallery director announced that it would begin representing a white woman artist who was cancelled several years ago for her use of the infamous photograph of Emmett Till in one of her paintings. Some rolled their eyes; others just turned away. Since the incident, the auction prices of her work on the secondary market skyrocketed.

The paradoxes abound. And we kind of don’t care insofar as the paradoxes are the problems of a specific art world: wealthy and tied to capital, visibility, and official Negrodom. But we also kind of do care, care too much, because we are a part of this specific art world, sanctioned by its experts and a customer of its marketplaces. Plus, it is paradigmatic—the exception, and the rule. We’re in a microclimate, but the weather pattern is everywhere.

But there’s nothing new about this, as Cameron Rowland unintentionally signalled in a lecture they recently gave at Cooper Union’s IDS. Cameron described their recent project Encumbrance, a part of their project which looks to the ways that reparations already exist in forms of refusal outside of government-mandated programs. Cameron cited Stephanie Camp’s book on enslaved women’s resistance, Closer to Freedom (2004), and her argument that the dichotomy between consent and opposition is a false one. About enslaved women, she writes, “...they were both agents and subjects, persons and property, people who resisted and who accommodated—sometimes in one and the same act.”1 Certainly the time and context she writes about are different in scale and intensity than ours; but the sense of paradox and simultaneity is continuous, connecting the plantation economy to the territories in which we find ourselves.

Over the weekend, I was listening to a Q&A with the poet Lorna Goodison. Someone from the audience asked her about her take on Audre Lorde’s position that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, or Kamau Brathwaite’s poetic claim that the hurricane does not howl in iambic pentameter. Considering her relationship to British poetic tradition, Goodison responded, “I think it belongs to me too. I really spend a lot of time thinking about how they operated on the plantation…[When a] woman was brought before the court for stealing some sugar on an estate during slavery and her defense was simple: ‘me no thief from master, me take.’”

Ralph, the frame for your question feels slightly off. Off in that the artworld has always defined itself in relationship to blackness: art’s boundaries exist because of its exclusion of black culture. The artworld continues to believe in the myths of forward-moving progress and aesthetic autonomy. (Even the refusals of these values—chance, randomness—reproduce notions of expressive freedom and individual will.) The artworld wouldn’t have these values had black folks not been practicing something different. White-modern art’s values guard against black culture. What we mean to say is that we have never been on the outskirts, but rather quietly (and sometimes forcefully) stealing away from the existing boundaries of power. What’s new now is that they’ll use the word “Black” even if what they are talking about has nothing to do with this other thing we do together.

But your frame is right, too. For giving us this occasion to stay on the outskirts. In this vulnerable place where we are surveilled, where we live in proximity to the woods and swamps. But also in some relationship to the plantation and its other forms of enclosure: the museum, the university, the stage.

We’re not suggesting that we accept our conditions or stay put. But want to ask: For whom is the thing you’ve asked us to do—be black and roll deep—for? We believe deeply in what the huddle you’ve asked for provides, but does part of your invocation implicitly re-center whiteness and the boundaries it imposes? We want to stay with us, whomever we are.

In describing her feminist itinerary through various political formations, Adrienne Rich said that “The problem was that we did not know whom we meant when we said ‘we’.” We think we know. But we gotta say it anyhow. We’re beside ourselves—like actually beside ourselves—that our we is Adrienne and Fred and Diane and Kevin and Pope.L and you. Hi Adrienne, Fred, Diane, Kevin, Pope.L, and Ralph!

If anything, this chance to be together is an occasion for us to continue to ask: What forms does our work take that already refuse the value terms that whiteness has set out for black culture, black spaces, and black people? We see each of you doing it. Your head turns, your eyebrow raises, we laugh. In remembering the places you’ve looked to in your gestures, we know that we are already at the forest edge.

End Notes

  1. Stephanie M.H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

Contributors

Will Rawls

Will Rawls is a choreographer and writer working in performance, video, and print.

Thomas Lax

Thomas Lax is a Curator of Media and Performance at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. They are currently co-organizing the exhibition Just Above Midtown: 1974 to the Present with Linda Goode Bryant.

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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

All Issues