Saturday, April 15 at 4pm
with Claudia Rankine, Casey Llewellyn, Will Rawls, and Sable Elyse Smith.
moderated by Katy Dammers
Each of the four panelists for this convening—Casey Llewellyn, Claudia Rankine, Will Rawls, & Sable Elyse Smith—considered the parameters around the assumption of a position, and in particular the ways in which art and artistic institutions have positioned audiences. As fundamental rights are increasingly threatened in our social and political sphere, it seems all the more important to take up a position; while acknowledging that the very potential to take a position can itself be a privilege limited by the reach of power structures and our historical context. At the same time, debates around appropriate citations, the ethics of representation, and the potential for empathy have brought questions to the fore about how the parameters of a position are defined, and the potential for mobility within and between them. In the rise of what some are calling a return to identity politics, the line between a position as a fixed stance determined in relationship to others and a position as a notation within liminal space grows ever finer.
Claudia Rankine began the proceedings with a description of a letter she received following a talk where she showed one of her Situations videos. Part of a series of video essays made in collaboration with John Lucas, the work combines footage of police violence against black people with audio of Rankine reading her poems. In the letter the writer asks if Rankine considered the impact of her video on black people in the room before showing it, knowing that it might renew trauma for those whom the violence is already well known. Ultimately the author of the letter comes to the conclusion that the work was not meant for black people in the audience, and was instead directed towards others. This example of positioning served as an opening for a conversation that took up a number of examples of how the framing of an artwork through curation and public discourse can alternatively ensure and destabilize its position.
- Katy Dammers
Position: White Ignorance in the Arts
I’ve been thinking about “position” lately in relationship to the controversy surrounding the Whitney Biennial curators’ recent decision to include a white artist, Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till—a fourteen-year-old Black boy murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi—in the open casket where his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, requested his body be displayed to show the world—specifically Black people—the horrifying reality of existing while black in the United States. (1) Many artists took positions in relationship to this controversy. Each of our positions were necessarily informed by our places and experiences within society and the art world, but no matter our positions, we were all navigating the white ignorance present in the artist’s creation of the painting and the lack of thought and awareness around its curation. The artist’s ignorance was visible in her assertion that her painting was an appropriate way to show empathy with Till and his mother, and in her choice of subject through which to reckon with American racism. (2) The white ignorance of the piece’s curation, curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks who are both Asian American, lay in the seeming lack of awareness of anyone at or related to the museum—a historically and majority white and culturally white-defined institution—of the pain that the curation of this painting would cause Black people, to say nothing of the critique that many Black artists and others would have of its inclusion. So we all had, and are still having, a conversation with much rigor stemming from, at its root, ignorance and a lack of the rigor that the artist, curators, and institution are responsible for, whether or not they choose to take responsibility.
Ignorance both results from and perpetuates privilege and dominance. People with dominance or privilege in certain respects must work to understand the realities that people who are subject to that dominance and don’t have that privilege are constantly navigating. A decision either to purposefully seek out these narratives or to gloss over them is made by those in positions of dominance—white people, men, straight people, cisgendered people, able-bodied people, middle and owning-class people—each day in their lives and work. But no matter what choice we (they) make, we all must navigate this ignorance interpersonally and institutionally as we move through the world, because power and resources are consolidated around these positions.
No matter what position one occupies, the farther from straight, able-bodied, white man one is—especially in respect to whiteness given the number of white women and white gay men with power in the arts—the farther one is generally from the positions of people who control opportunities given to artists and the discourse around their work. (Though there are notable exceptions.) A 2016 study found that 62% of staff at arts organizations in New York City funded by the Department of Cultural Affairs identified as “non-hispanic white,” 17 percentage points higher than New York City’s “non-hispanic white” population. (The study found that representation in terms of gender is was pretty even, with women employed at slightly over 50%.) Eighty-two organizations in the survey of over 1000 organizations were entirely white, while 73 were entirely people of color, but it was noted that many of these have “a specific ethnic focus.” As one might expect, “a specific ethnic focus” was not a noted dynamic of the institutions that were all white. (3) Another study of staff at museums nationally found that “non-hispanic white” people make up 72% of the staff at member organizations of American Alliance of Museums and occupy 80% of higher level, administrative positions such as: exhibition designers, curators, executive leadership, conservators, publications, and registrars. (4) Artists of all races, backgrounds, and identities in the institutionalized world of arts and culture are navigating a world created and perpetuated by white ignorance. Many cultural institutions continue to actively prioritize the dominance of white and/or male ignorance in our lives, as exemplified by The New York Times recently replacing Charles Isherwood—a white man who dominated the discourse about current theater with dubious taste—with Jesse Green, continuing their tradition of staffing their full-time theatre editorial department entirely with white men. (5)
Of all the responses shared to the curation Schutz’s painting, Christina Sharpe’s words, read aloud by Claudia Rankine at a forum at The Whitney, have stuck with me. (6) Pointing out in the beginning of the essay that part of how white supremacy works is to continually draw conversations about the lives of Black people back around itself and to distract from the intellectual contributions of Black people “around questions of art and representation and looking that might actually move us to another place” with questions formed by “the legitimizing structure of white supremacy.” (7) She reminds us that a neutral position does not exist and can only be “a position of power that refuses to recognize itself as such.” She reminds us also that art can “produce and reproduce” pain. Within this context she asks, “What if we proceed as if we know that? What if we proceed as if all the knowledge that Black people and others have produced about the representations of Black bodies and Black people in Euro-America’s imagination actually mattered? What if this work [the intellectual work of Black people and others] actually shifted how one talks about that work [representations of Black bodies and Black people in Euro-America’s imagination]?” (8) Put another way, what if white institutions and white artists, especially those who profess to want racism to end, learned from the work of Black thinkers, artists and others that critique and offer insight into the circular stream of painful representations and discourse that reify white supremacy in art spaces? (9) What if the people who bear the brunt of the impacts of these representations were listened to and their knowledge was heeded in white institutions? What might be possible if, more often than not, white-led and mainstream institutions and white artists learned and changed rather than publicly doubling down on their ignorance? Then we might be in “another place.”
Institutions led by white people receive the vast majority of resources nationally for their work. The public and private money that funds the arts, like much of the wealth in this country, is inextricable from European colonization, genocide and enslavement of Black and Indigenous people that created opportunities for the rise of capitalism and creation of wealth for a few, wealth maintained subsequently through exploitation of unpaid domestic labor of women and underpaid labor of poor and working class people of all races and nationalities. Relationships between Indigenous people and Europeans in the Americas began necessarily as a navigation of white ignorance with life-or-death stakes for both groups in which Europeans were dependent on Native Americans to teach them how to survive in an unfamiliar land before they killed, enslaved and colonized them to amass wealth for themselves. (10) Despite being taught in a few classes about Native American history (only as it relates to U.S. history), my own ignorance of the history of Native people here endures despite the fact that my ancestors’ survival depended on Native people’s knowledge—one could argue it still does. (11) My ignorance endures in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that the land my family and ancestors call “theirs”—rendered theirs by the American legal system—would never be “theirs” without the slavery, genocide, displacement and war (despite ongoing resistance by Native people) waged by European descended people on Native people. My and many other white people’s ignorance endures despite the fact that over five million Indigenous people living in this country know this history intimately, and it continues each day to define all of our lives.
As a white artist, navigating my own ignorance during the process of making is a part of the work I do. My collaborators, friends, and colleagues, including Black and trans actors that I work with, give me feedback to help me make Black and trans characters in my plays more nuanced, full, and truthful, and re-position them, and white and cis characters, in dynamics that do not inscribe racist and transphobic portrayals. Their feedback is often sorely needed. While I have a made a decision to do the work as an artist to posit positionalities that are liberating instead of ones that reinscribe structural oppression, my ability to do this work well is often dependent on the strength of my collaborations with people who occupy different and less privileged positions in the world because of my ignorance of those positions. In my experience, this is labor that Black and trans artists do on most of the projects they work on that are led by white and cis lead artists; and this is the labor that I would most likely be confronted with, whether I choose to engage it or not, were I collaborating with straight and/or male lead artists.
In the theater world and community that I travel in—one of rehearsal rooms and shows of mostly white-led theaters and play development and producing companies in New York—I have never heard public acknowledgement of this specific labor done by Black, trans, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, other people of color, and/or queer artists, even though it is labor that by nature can only be done by artists with these life experiences. Often their labor will make or break an experience of the work for audience members who share those identities. None of the white-led theaters at which I go to see work want to be thought racist or transphobic (though these ideologies are so ingrained in our culture it would be almost impossible for them not to be reproduced in our institutions), so the labor of Black, trans, Latinx, Asian, queer and Indigenous artists factors largely into the extent with which they can maintain cultural credentials as liberal and/or relevant arts organizations. At most white-led theaters in which they are employed, Black and trans artists especially are asked to bring their knowledge, expertise, and familiarity with culture, history, dynamics, etc. into the rehearsal room on projects led by white artists. As one actor I worked with shared with me mid-process on a play, this expectation of labor is often coupled with vagueness of the characters Black actors are asked to play. A vagueness that, in my own experience, originates from ignorance, and, around the issue of race especially, is coupled with a deep fear of risk taking.
I have heard many conversations about valuing diversity in casting, and more recently valuing diversity and inclusivity in designers and lead artists. But I only hear this discussion in relation to work being made that is already “diverse”—meaning it is part of the project’s conception that the cast, crew, and possibly lead artist team be made up of people with racial, gender, sexuality identities that are not only white, cis and straight, or the work is being self-consciously aimed at an audience who is not that. This overwhelmingly means that, at white-led institutions, white and cis artists and producers are involved in creative development of work in part or entirely about or by Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, trans, and queer people, but that Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, trans, and queer people are frequently not involved behind the scenes when a work mostly deals with white and/or cis characters and is by white and/or cis artists (as the majority of the work programmed at these institutions is). In this way, our ignorance creates a bubble around how we can possibly create and see ourselves.
The way fees were accounted for in a project I worked on with a theatre that commissioned my work, as a white, cis, class privileged queer woman encapsulates much of this quandary. My fee along with the fees for my collaborators, most of whom were also white and cis, were in the budget for a project in which it was expected that I would write characters who were people of color and trans. Our ignorance, however, was not accounted for in the suggested budget. At my request, we ended up hiring five script consultants who were Black and Latinx trans women for fees and contracts that were much smaller and shorter lived than ours. The theater provided further compensation to some of the consultants to organize their communities to come to the shows. I appreciated the theater meeting my request to pay these consultants for the knowledge they provided the production, which I sorely needed to write the play I wanted to write. But afterward, I regretted that we did not anticipate and budget for their roles from the beginning of our work, so that they could have played a deeper role in responding to the script throughout the process and received more compensation for their contributions. (I also regret not providing metrocards and food at auditions as it later seemed a problematic assumption to think of the auditions as “opportunities” that themselves did not require some form of compensation.)
The degree to which the piece was met with positive feedback by many who saw the show was a direct result of the work of these women as well as the actors in the cast who gave me feedback on the writing. In one case, an actress told me what I needed to write to make a moment work. Though all were credited in the program and are now credited in the script I send out to theaters, I continue to feel the weight of the wrongness of this dynamic—which touches so much, including the fiction of a singular author perpetuated by our hierarchical and rampantly individualistic culture—in which I go on pursuing a career in theater seeking opportunities among institutions that are mostly led and staffed by cis white, class privileged people like myself while there are zero (that I know of) trans people of color or trans feminine people in leadership positions at theaters in the whole country. What does that reality mean for the trans and queer artists, for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and other artists of color navigating this same field? What might be possible if the artistic leadership in a majority of institutions was not ignorant of the lived realities informing these artists’ work?
Ignorance as policy
Our country’s position, now more than ever, is one of white ignorance—although this ignorance has been willfully cultivated over centuries through propaganda resulting in the present day liberal belief that the U.S. was founded on principles of equality and inclusion and not patriarchal white supremacy. The 45th U.S. President can accidentally refer to Syria as Iraq when he is talking about bombing it. He can be elected without any experience in the field, and where his ignorance of government and public service actually become a selling point of his campaign. His lies supported by ignorance about the lives of Black people, women, Mexicans, and the environment now drive national policy. He can speak of Frederick Douglass as if he is still alive and doing an “amazing job.” The time we exist on this planet may be severely decreased as a result of his ignorance and its empowerment by the U.S. political system. And as we know, people have died and will continue to die in this country and all over the world as a direct consequence of the empowerment of 45’s ignorance, while his team works hard to position his wrongness (ignorant as well as deliberate) as the corrective alternative to our shared reality: “alternate facts.” The people who voted for him (including some of my family members) did so for a variety of reasons, but their positions are upheld by ignorance. (12) White ignorance enacted and enforced by our government is something everyone in our society (and all over the world) is required to navigate to get what they need to live, thrive, and achieve.
We make culture in a time in which the U.S. President and his allies in congress are rewriting our history and institutionalizing ignorance of reality to benefit rich, white men. The President has referred to human trafficking happening now as “a problem that’s probably worse than any time in the history of this world,” effectively ignoring European and American slavery—the most defining institution in our country’s history. (13) His administration recharacterizes Historically Black Colleges and Universities as an example of school choice, intentionally omitting the legalized white supremacy that made them necessary. (14) Our President’s allies say that “nobody dies because they don’t have access to healthcare,” which the person physically closest to you right now could probably disprove in the next five minutes with a story from personal experience. (15) He asks why the civil war could “not have been worked out” and praises Andrew Jackson—a U.S. President that used genocide as a main tenant of his leadership— as someone who could have solved that problem if only he had lived a little longer.( 16)
In fact, Andrew Jackson has been having a comeback for a while. I remember a few years back being in the mostly white audience of a fictionalized satirical musical about Andrew Jackson at one of our city’s most respected theaters. American populism was the subject of the first song and included the line, “we’re gonna take this country back.” (17) I watched the exaltation of our genocides sung as power ballads by a young white male lead with a love story. Slavery was reduced to a laugh line. I read later that the play had been protested by members of the theater’s own Native Theater Initiative. One concern (of many) was that history was fictionalized in the script. An invented back-story for Andrew Jackson’s character told that his family was killed by “Indians,” when in fact they died of accidents, war and illness over the course of years. The invention of their murder by “Indians” functions dramaturgically as psychological justification for Jackson’s genocide and creates sympathy for his character while masking the real context and reality of those policies. (8,500 Native people died during the Trail of Tears and forced displacement initiated by Jackson). (18) When asked about the controversy surrounding the production, the theater’s artistic director stated, “I should have seen that, although I may completely believe the point that this production is making, that it is ultimately pro-native, there are an awful lot of ways in which it may not be perceived that way.” (19)
I wonder where our national culture would be in 2017 if, seven years ago, young white men from New York City had not been romanticizing populism driven by unexamined white supremacy, collapsing past and present with cool cowboy costumes in a show that would tour all over the country. How might things be different if the “pro-native” play I was watching at a fancy New York theater was written by Native American artists instead of a team of almost all white lead creatives? Or even if artistic directors asked people from the communities that would be impacted by representations and storylines in the work of their theaters how they felt about the work before they produced it, or during rehearsals, or ever. What would it have been like if white people were not in the far majority in that audience because the play that we were watching about American history resonated with Native and Black people and other people of color? What if a musical playing in 2010 by two white guys who went to Ivy League schools was about a racist and genocidal white man in 2010 instead of the 1800s? What if white, straight, cis male artists thought about the impact of their work on others? What if white women artists thought about that too? As artists, we literally make culture. In whose interest is it for us to create and keep a culture of ignorance?
The impact of ignorance
When people who have been experiencing racism all their and their ancestors’ lives say that something is harming them, and in response people who have not experienced racism—cannot possibly, and yet feel comfortable speaking about it, curating, and making work about it—say they believe it does no harm, what else can that be called but ignorance? If we did not know it before, we should know by now that that ignorance is deadly. To defend it is to defend an absence in ourselves. I go to theater to get full—bottom to a new experience, open wide and let embodiment, ritual and speaking fill me up.
Our ignorance leads to frequently occurring dynamics in many white-led arts institutions in which Black, queer, trans, Latinx, Asian and/or Native artists who are commissioned, cast or otherwise employed experience racism, transphobia and micro-aggressions. When and if they bring these experiences to the attention of the white and/or cis and/or straight leadership of the organization, they are not believed or are asked to justify or prove their experience to people who have the power to hire and fire and potentially speak about them to powerful industry colleagues. When someone brings this damage to our attention, instead of admitting and redressing our glaring ignorance—ignorance so familiar that we defend it as if it is us—we allow the power of white dominance that has been used to hurt and separate us from ourselves and people we care about to flow through us. If we acknowledge the clear, lived reality of white and cis ignorance that we all experience (whichever side of it we may find ourselves on), it becomes clear how the disbelief and devaluing of the lived experiences of our colleagues is not only a hurtful and destructive result of this ignorance, but that it also maintains this ignorance at the expense of Black, queer, trans, Latinx, Asian and/or Native colleagues.
Speaking truth to ignorance
Given these realities, and assuming that we want to be part of creating a future in which our field is not defined and dominated by ignorance, it is our mandate to prioritize the artistry, viewpoints, expertise and ideas of people with knowledge of realities that are consistently deprioritized in white defined art spaces because they are far less visible to people with privilege. If my knowledge of the lived experience of racial inequity and injustice as a white person depends on learning from Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian people, and other people of color (as it has and does) then deprioritizing their viewpoints empties me as a person and artist. Listening to people of color and supporting their leadership in tangible ways is the only way out of ignorance for myself and for white institutions. Our ignorance is also clearly harmful to Black, trans, Asian, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color. We have known this for a long time because it has been expressed repeatedly, and still we have not successfully addressed the hold that white supremacy, transphobia, homophobia, imperialism, ableism, misogyny, capitalism, classism, and xenophobia have on our fields. Perhaps this is because we have not yet understood or articulated to ourselves why, for us too, it is imperative to address these harmful ideologies in our practices and institutions. And it is clear that much will be required of us. (20) As a result, our ignorance thrives in culture and is deployed, with or without our knowledge or consent, against all of humanity and the earth.
NOW IS THE TIME! Remaining the same will kill us all
To fight the white supremacist, xenophobic, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, patriarchal, world-killing fascism that is taking hold of our country, we must become less ignorant, so we can understand how the systems being deployed against us to separate and oppress also work through us.
The stakes are too high to abandon each other for our own ignorance. I fear for our future if we continue to prioritize and privilege the voices of white ignorance, excusing them as we have with the curation of white artist’s painting of Emmett Till. If we addressed her decision and the decisions of the curators and others at the museum as ignorance created by a strategically-engendered lack of understanding of the reality of American history, then her ignorance would have been addressed before it was curated into a prestigious show. Instead, less ignorant voices would be prioritized, to all of our benefit.
Until we prioritize the decolonization of our art spaces from white ignorance, our institutions will be neither liberatory or sanctuaries, and will solely continue to be traumatizing and harmful to Black, Native American, and trans artists (among many others).21 Failure to talk about race in our art and our institutions keeps us ignorant. This failure also feels profoundly hollow in these times, as the drama that we play out is a story of deadly racism, deadly transphobia (if we are paying attention), and the rise of white supremacist, xenophobic, patriarchal, transmisogynst, earth killing, homophobic power. Work that fails to meaningfully address these conditions can only ring empty. Protecting our ignorance from rupture cannot will not save our humanity, change our country, or allow for the survival of our species. If our work and our arts institutions are not helping us do what we most need for our own survival and the survival of our communities, they will quickly be irrelevant in a time in which survival is becoming an art. We are nothing without each other.
(1) A story about the lynching ran in the September 15, 1955 issue of JET, which included a photograph of Till’s body bloated, mutilated and unrecognizable in the casket.
(2) Gibson, Caitlin. “A white artist responds to outcry over her controversial Emmett Till painting,” The Washington Post 23 March 2017.
(3) Voon, Claire. “Staff at NYC Arts Organizations Is 62% White, City Report Shows,” hyperallergic.com. January 29, 2016.
(4) Voon, Claire. “The Diversity Problem at American Museums Gets a Report,” Hyperallergic.com. August 3, 2015.
(5) A recent example of the The New York Times’s prioritization of white ignorant voices is co-chief theater critic Ben Brantley’s review of Suzan-Lori Parks’s brilliant Venus produced by The Signature Theatre in May 2017. That a review of a breathtaking and devastating piece by one of the best U.S. playwrights of the 20th and 21st centuries (if not all time)—about an African woman, Saartjie Baartman, who existed and was subject to racist and sexist exploitation, hyper-sexualized and objectifying to the extreme, by a slew of European supporting characters—should begin by further objectifying the character and comparing the actress in her costume’s body to Kim Kardashian’s without a whiff of sense of the piece or context should make The New York Times laughable as a reader of culture and a source of intelligent cultural discourse. This review was published after The New York Times’s Culture Editor Danielle Mattoon claimed in her memo sent to staff announcing the hiring of Jesse Green that he and Ben Brantley in “powerful partnership” would “deliver the most authoritative, thoughtful and pointed insights about Broadway, Off Broadway, and theater around the country and the globe,” a claim which in itself illustrates white supremacy’s circular logic in which the sole origin of its authority is its own authorization. We might be laughing if this was not our real lives, our income, our health, our world and writing like this was not so ubiquitous and typical of the way white institutions throw the weight of their ignorance around to all of our detriment.
(6) The forum was “Perspectives on Race and Representation: An Evening with the Racial Imaginary Institute” co-organized by The Whitney and The Racial Imaginary Institute at The Whitney Museum of American Art. April 9, 2017.
(7) Transcribed from video of Rankine reading from Sharpe’s essay at The Whitney. April 9, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/whitneymuseum/videos/10154262121821433/?hc_location=ufiat The Whitney Museum of American Art. April 9, 2017.
(9) Writing this, it’s strikes me that I have not heard very many mainstream or white-led arts institutions outwardly talk about wanting to end racism or white supremacy. Rather, it is implied, usually through the language of diversity and equality, that there have been efforts to lessen their hold on some institutional practices. Is it any wonder then that there is mistrust of mainstream and white led institutions in communities whose freedom and survival depends on the end of white supremacy? Given, as Sharpe writes, that “anti-Blackness is the weather” it seems to me that expressing the desire for white supremacy to end and working toward that as a goal might be an important first step to actually ending its hold on our practices.
(10) Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), 1.
(11) Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013).
(12) Perhaps most telling, one family member made clear to me in a conversation that he thinks that race is real biological difference rather than what it has been proven to be, an anti-science concept developed by Europeans to consolidate power and excuse genocide and theft to their benefit.
(13) Lemire, Jonathan. “Trump: Why Couldn’t the Civil War Have Been Avoided?” nbcwashington.com. May 1, 2017.
(14) Douglas-Gabriel, Danielle. “DeVos called HBCUs ‘pioneers’ in ‘school choice.’ It didn’t go over well.” The Washington Post. February 28, 2017.
(15) Phillips, Kristine. “‘Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care,’ GOP lawmaker says. He got booed.” The Washington Post. May 7, 2017.
(16) Lemire, Jonathan. “Trump: Why Couldn’t the Civil War Have Been Avoided?” nbcwashington.com. May 1, 2017.
(17) Friedman, Michael. “Populism Yea Yea,” Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Directed by Alex Timbers. Produced at The Public Theater. March-June, 2010.
(18) “Trail of Tears,” History.com.
(19) Levine, D.M. “Native Americans protest ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.’” Politico.com. June 24, 2010.
(20) These ideologies cut deep, all the way down to our senses of ourselves and our understanding of what our institutions can and should offer.
(21) For another recent example of the impact of white ignorance on Native Americans, see the May 28th, 2017 article, “After outcry and protests, Walker Art Center will remove ‘Scaffold’ sculpture” in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
ROUND TABLE DISCUSSION
Katy Dammers: To begin our conversation, I’d like to talk about the role of collaboration, which is something you mentioned Casey. Will and Claudia are also currently collaborating on a piece at Bard that will be presented in two weeks. And Sable, I know also in your practice—particularly at Assembly at Recess—that collaboration is something that you engage. I’d love to hear from you all how collaboration opens up possibilities to consider, or to reconsider, the idea of positions.
Claudia Rankine: I’ll start, partly because it’s a step out from what I just read. In a way, I feel that letter to me is a kind of collaboration. Will and I are collaborating on a piece called What Remains, and it is in the space of the „already dead,“ which is a space that I’m really interested in. What does it mean to know that you could end up like any of those people in that video if you have a body that is dispensible in our society? So I wanted to include body bags in our piece, but I’m not dancing in that piece, and Will, well, you can pick up here.
Will Rawls: We had a lot of conversations around this question of the already dead space, and what is a void? What is a void when you describe it in language, versus a void when it happens on stage? Is stillness a void or is stillness an action that interrupts the action? And how do you contour a void—do you take something away? Claudia landed on the body bag as a symbol, which is like unfortunately all too familiar and yet something that no one sees up close unless one is moving one or really, really up close to death.
As an idea, I feel like it concretized a lot of the questions we were having. And at the same time I felt and still feel a lot of resistance around putting black dancers in body bags on stage, and we’ve gone back and forth trying to figure out why I’m so resistant to it. For me, if the question of violence is ever present in our culture, both in terms of representation and reality, what happens in a performance when you represent violence? Are you representing it and therefore providing some kind of reflective distance from the thing or are you reenacting it? At least in terms of the body bag as a real thing in the world it didn’t yet feel like it could become a metaphor on stage.
CR: For me the interest in embodying the body bag had to do with the fact that the white imagination is not actually talking about real black people. It’s a projection, and to move in real time and real bodies is to allow the white imagination to believe that that’s what it’s dealing with. And to encase that body in the destination that whiteness feels in its sort of unconscious „booga-boo,“ criminalized, anxiety ridden, dominant, identity-making sensibility is to reflect back the true destination of that imagination. But the question is then is it only for that imagination? That’s where the writer of this letter problematizes that position for me, because then who is the work for?
WR: I think the body bag also is a form of abstraction. I’vebeen trying to figure out how my body takes a position in relationship to abstraction. Who can afford to be abstract in dance?. I don’t think a dancing body can ever be fully abstracted from the dance that it’s doing since they are as mediums grafted onto each other. This collaboration has definitely caused me to take a lot of different positions.
Sable Elyse Smith: I’m wrestling with a similar kind of conundrum in a collaboration that I have with Shaun Leonardo and Melanie Crean. We are collaborating with various groups of people who have varying levels of proximity to the criminal justice system—people who are formerly incarcerated, people who have open cases, specifically youth—or people who are navigating parole.
In one aspect of this project, we have reenacted instances of police murder, including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and a number of other individuals. We’ve done this in two separate contexts and spaces. One, for a video work that is performed by these groups of people who we are working with various levels of proximity to the justice system in decommissioned institutional spaces—specifically prisons and courthouses. A second time we have performed for a live audience where they were also sort of implicated to participate. This was performed at Skowhegaw, their New York space, which is sort of an institution, but it’s different from a gallery or museum context.
And so there were a number of conversations that came up, right? Asking people to participate in these reenactments—is there a level of consent in it, and does it re-traumatize? What became interesting to us in a number of the conversations that we’re constantly having is not only the question of the purpose of that, but also, of whether it gets to the conversation or type of discourse that we feel should be in inherent in the performative space—while being conscious to not situate or allow an institution to co-opt that type of work? So, there have been people who have asked for us to present these reenactment performances, but it has never happened outside of these two different spaces.
KD: When crafting your work, how do you position the audience? Are there moments of contention when you’re working with an institution, where you are positioning yourself as an artist within a given set of parameters?
Casey Llewellyn: Theater audiences are mostly white and privileged, they have the money to pay and go to theater. And so as a playwright I am presented with this question of how to convince them of humanity in different ways—in relationship to otherness. This discourse is defined by ignorance at its base and then you have to be your own advocate as an artist, trying to talk to people who might not be listening to the same things that are informing your work or having similar life experiences.
KD: Claudia, could you talk about that in relationship to the Racial Imaginary Institute and its proximity to art institutions, particularly in this neighborhood?
CR: I think that for many white-staffed institutions their relationship to people of color is often one of checking off a box and satisfying a kind of political correctness around either showing the work of people of color or opening the audience. What they don’t do is look at their own constructions—who they are, what their expectations are, why whiteness is not a named position.
One of the things we would like to do is to mirror back to the culture the assumptions around race. Part of that is to pull whiteness back into its constructions because our long history has been about normalizing whiteness to the place where it owns all the correctness, all the humanness, all the generosity, and much of the violence. So, it’s not about any kind of answer, actually. It’s about really reflecting back.
Casey, when you talked about looking at the audience and trying to convince them of one’s humanness, you know, that’s a false fight we've been thrown into. That’s not something anybody should have to convince anybody of, and the fact that whiteness, especially white dominance has put that out there as something we can spend our time on is incredibly astonishing. And astonishing that we would spend our time on that, instead of mirroring back the falseness of that assumption in the first place.
The culture is built by these institutions like this one and the ones in the neighborhood. We are all here because the culture is presenting itself, and so somebody should be around to say this is what the culture has presented. We are then forming as our identity—or pushing up against—in relation to it.
WR: I've been thinking about this question of institution. Misty Copeland in American Ballet Theatre danced the lead role in the Swan Lake, and that show was scheduled for a Wednesday afternoon. The audience was full of black members of the art community there to support this moment. It was also an astonishing slight, as well, to not have kind of primetime spot.
CR: And it’s not unusual though.
WR: A lot of what I've been trying to do in my work is to think about how I can make an intervention into some of these institutions of whiteness and how they're built into the architecture performance. I often get close and fail, but I'm interested in it.
One of things I showed happened at MoMA PS1 in a room where this giant Louise Lawler photograph had been hung, and so when I’m running I’m facing it. Oftentimes dance is put in visual art spaces as a kind of way to animate the dead art objects that are everywhere. And so I thought, okay, I have to deal with this. And Louise Lawler is an artist who practices institutional critique. She photographs museums and re-represents them, which makes the viewer do a double take on the frame of art itself.
And so, there were these diagonal lines in the photograph, and I made a diagonal line and put the audience on this weird skewed angle and tried to copy the photograph out in space. I was trying to deal with this institutional kind of mandate to perform alongside this photograph. It was an intense limitation and imperative relationship, but it was useful to meditate on the idea of the copy in both her practice and in my own. Being a performer who has labored for lots of other choreographers in the 17 years that I’ve been dancing in New York that question about labor and play and the arduousness of performance, is something I was exploring in the section that I showed—and how these questions of labor and work cannot be fully separated from centuries of racial capital in the United States.
I was curious about how to position myself in relationship to the photograph, and to find images that feel both related to my childhood and my life as well as, double dutch and whips—these things that are entangled inside of a history of blackness. I was curious about how to produce an image that could be identifiable as black inside of this very white space surrounding my body.
KD: We talked a little bit before the panel about the liminal space between positions. What is this the space between how you might be positioned by an institution and how you see you're own position? In what ways by occupying that liminal space can you push those boundaries? Sable, your reading was talking a little bit about that.
SES: As I was thinking about this, I would say the sort of ways that I'm making and producing things in the world is an active tussle with refusal. And I want to say that’s because of how my subject position in many categories is read and labeled in any space I interact with. My work is about violence and trauma, and there is a fraction of it that is about a personal narrative or history. I’m making images specifically, and so I’m hyper aware of the way that people consume images and I’m interested in that line between one who bears witness and one who watches to consume. I think that is one reason why I'm towing this line of abstraction. Especially in the video work there are a number of disruptions, which could be consumed as a refusal. There's black space, there's silence and there's moments where you think the narrative or the tension between the narrative and nonnarrative will come to this point of sort of catharsis, but I never let it go there. I'm always trying to position the audience in this space of frustration, and that's because I know I'm putting forth this narrative that I’m specifically interested in and I think needs to be named. And I need to have my voice in the articulation of the subject, but since I am actively participating in the art world I know what it means when I put a certain image out.
That’s the way that I’m sort of thinking about or trying to positions my space, position my cultural production, and position the audience—even if I’m butting up against an institution that isn’t necessarily gonna frame it in the way that I'm interested in. There is an inherent kind of trigger.
Lumi Tan: People often ask me how The Kitchen as an institution allows for trust in working with artists, and often I consider whether an institution could ever make itself invisible in such relationships. Is it possible for an institution that is presenting an artist’s work to be invisible, or for artists truly to be able to trust in how an institution positions their work?
CL: I think it would be harder for me to trust an institution that is trying to be invisible, because that cuts off accountability. Not like it comes down to that in the beginning, but I think that when you see what something stands for and you align with that—that for me is what creates trust.
SES: I definitely don't think an institution can be invisible. I think there is sometimes a relationship between the specific curator you're working with and you as artist that can have more synergy. But the sort of exhibition history, the history of the institution? That is always going to come into play and that’s always going to be a frame around your participation and involvement with the institution—and then around your work regardless of how much you push up against it.
The idea of trust though is very interesting and hard, right? Because once your conversations are had with the institution—the work is on display or the piece is performed—no one in the public knows what the conversations are between the institution and the curatorial team, or more specifically how it’s presented to a funding entity in order to get grants. How was your work and your positionality used by the institution for another end? And that we can speculate on sometimes, but ultimately we never know.
CL: Maybe transparency would be an alternative to invisibility.
CR: I agree with that. That word trust to me is an interesting one, because usually when you say you trust so and so, it means that in your absence you trust them. Not that you wouldn't have trusted them if you were going to be present. There are investments; everybody has investments, and they're different. And some of the investments institutions have they have to have. That's why they are institutions and we need them if we want a space, if we want the space to have lights on, all of that kind of stuff.
So, I think you’re always negotiating pragmatic considerations up against your own relation to that institution. Edouard Glissant said that, "The minute you forget any difference between you and the other, you fall out of relation." And what you want is to keep the differences in play so that you are always considering what it is—what are Claudia's investments versus your investments, you know? Then you’re not afraid of difference: you’re not fearing it, you're not hiding from it, you're not pretending we are the same—because we're not—by virtue of institution versus artists, we are not.
I think my most fruitful collaborations with institutions come with people who are like, this is what we want, Claudia. This is what you want. Let’s see if we can make it happen.
WR: There's that piece in the Whitney Biennial of Frances Stark paintings of the Censorship Now!! book, which is a call for a return to censorship, a baiting of further censorship in order to draw the oppressive powers that be more fully into the open field of discourse. And I think an institution could be a form of productive censorship in that it is a form of framing: there are going to be parts of me that are no longer visible based on what's foregrounded in marketing and advertising. But I think that in a similar way knowing that you have something to work against gives your own work a certain kind of value and grit.
There are also the institutions of thinking that happen inside of an institution—in dealing with real people, and curators, you develop conversations with the hope that somehow this conversation has expanded and hasn't just met the structural purpose of this one-off performance event.
CR: The difficulty sometimes is that institutions don’t feel unstable. They don't feel like they have give. They don't feel like they can move with you. And I think that's when you feel most encumbered by our collaborations within the institution.
WR: MoMA curator Thomas Lax did a talk in the fall in which he was saying something very poetic about how not taking a position as an artist presumes that anyone has entry to this positionlessness. In a way, that presumes I am of so many positions that anyone who comes in contact with me could find a way in, and I think that that's just patently not true. It stayed with me.
KD: It makes me think about both the contention with the history of an institution, and more broadly with the contention with history as it's written and how that changes through your practice. Will, I'm thinking of the piece you showed from the 2012 Platform that looked back to a Platform at Dancespace that Ishmael Houston-Jones curated in 1982 that looked at artist of color—particularly choreographers and dances.
WR: The German shepherd piece was in a Danspace Project Platform that was an echo of something that happened 30 years before that reframed the question of “What is black dance?” through the work of Bebe Miller, Ralph Lemon, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Blondell Cummings, Gus Solomons Jr., Fred Holland, Rrata Christine Jones, and Harry Sheppard.
This was dance that was saying “We're not making work that looks like Alvin Ailey, and we're not doing African dance. We're doing modern dance, but not modern dance like Martha ... You know, who are we?“
Thirty years later, in 2012, the question remained, What is black dance? I was like, well, what is dance? And if we're really locating a question around the black body, for me it really starts in relationship to violence. So the German shepherd as a symbol of Jim Crow felt like a place to start with questions of violence, training, submission, poetics, resistance, and the institutionalized abstraction of bodies of all types, both human and animal. In that piece, Frontispieces, I was working out how to move these questions around bodies into abstraction.
I think a lot of people watched and were like, "Oh, my gosh that's right. German shepherds were police dogs." And I was like, Yeah, and lucky you that you can forget that, you know?
I think oftentimes the history of dance training, and how it's passed from person to person, is a very beautiful thing, but also can be written down in terms of vocabulary, language, and syntax, which I think is only part of the story. I think something dance does really well is to produce a lot of ambiguity. How do you preserve that truth as a practice? Through the animal of the dog I was also trying to think about how to foreground dance as behavior, or how to make a piece in which I could behave instead of dance—to shuttle back and forth between those things instead of dance as technique or physical technology. Because I think mastering a technique has a a beautiful and impossible history to it.
KD: Sable I saw you nodding a lot to Will's statement about technique.
SES: I just agree—what is to gain in trying to master a technique or speak in someone else’s language or syntax? Why not create something that actually articulates or gets closer to the thing that you're trying to show? At least that is how I work.
Audience Member: I have question for Claudia in regard to the letter you read from your friend and how they ended with, well, it's not for us. I was just curious if you agreed with that final statement and if not, how do you answer that question? When I saw that work I feel like I had similar feelings that your friend described, but I had a totally different like conclusion.
CR: First, what is your conclusion?
Audience Member: My conclusion was that I understand my work needs to be made. To me I feel there is something to always remember the things that happened, even if they're negative, even if they make you feel angry, or even if they make you question society in general. If I was in that room, yes I would be angry, but I wouldn't necessarily question the artist's reason for creating that work because I do think that such work needs to be made. But I wouldn't say it's not for us. it's for us to remember the past.
CR: I agree with you that I always feel like I'm in the room. So, I think that it is for me if it is in the room. The frame from which I often am working is from the position of investigating the ramifications of trauma, and what does repetition of trauma mean? How does it push against amnesia? How does the repression of the knowledge of violence create a kind of dissassociated body? Those questions to me are real questions for people of color. What does it mean to say, I cannot bear this, I cannot look at it, when it's happening all the time? So, how then are you negotiating the spaces that you're living in? What then are you tolerating or not tolerating? What are you willing to put up with in service of not seeing the trauma?
Shoshana Felman did a lot of work on the Holocaust. Claude Lanzmann did Shoah, and Shoah was all about bringing forward the memories of the worst thing that you have ever seen in your life and not allowing the life to continue without the presence of that. So that's the frame that I work out of. This idea that I am only making work to make white people uncomfortable to me seems so not the point. I am making work for myself and that investigation is an investigation for me. What is there? Why is it there? None of those interactions on the video happened without white people. They couldn't happen without white people. And the white people are in the video. And why aren't you looking at that? Why aren't you calling that to account?
If we were to take out the dying black people for those videos then you would have violence without victims, and that would be a very different thing. That would turn it into performance and those are archival documents. That's not performance, it's reality. So, as much as I respect and want to be in relation with people, I don't want to re-traumatize anyone, what a letter like that does for me is that it makes me think about how can I do this differently. But, until I can think about how I can do it differently I'm gonna do it. But, you know it's not as if I don't hear that. I've been hearing it a lot now when she says, "The only reason we didn't leave the room is because you're a black woman and we don't want to add to the disrespect of black woman."
It's a very profound negotiation of refusal and propriety and respect and that equation is what is interesting to me in that letter. So, how do you engage that inside the art piece? How do you bring that forward? That's certainly something I'm gonna be thinking about.