By A.M. Rosales
NIC Kay’s PUSHIT! [exercise 1 in getting well soon] is a mobile performance, an endurance ballet, an hour and a half demonstration of resistance and struggle presented thru the streets of N. Williams Ave, as a reclamation and re-occupation of spaces that were once the hub of Black life in Portland.
NIC’s performance begins in the residential area near the intersection of N. Rosa Parks Way, where moss grows silent on stone-fenced yards and Pacific madrone and poplar trees still line the throughway. Along its three-mile journey down to the PICA space, we will encounter uneven sidewalks, narrow cross-streets, and red-shingled hints of the Spanish Revival colliding with the invasion of New Urbanism, mixed-use buildings, and designated bike-lanes. It’s the end of summer. The breeze offers a nice contrast to the warmth of the sun with an occasional patch of shade. NIC’s performance is moving theatre. The audience that amasses and huddles itself to follow along is amorphous as a whole, but takes on the role of a curtain, or a stage prop, as the performance advances. NIC’s most distinct prop is a set of helium balloons, one of which looks like disco ball, all tied to a string, which remains securely tied to their neck. Secure, like a choker necklace or a noose. The crowd, too, follows in step, enjoying the safety of numbers. Safe, like a religious procession or a lynch mob.
As the performance continues, NIC’s body expresses through a series of movements and contortions. Sometimes they walk. Sometimes they strut. Occasionally, they float as if the balloons tied to their neck were being carried away by the breeze. Volition or happenstance. These are soft, lilting movements that become abruptly disrupted by running. Along the way, NIC stops at specific intersections and sets each of these moments in the performance against the various urban landscapes of North Portland.
Past the intersection near N. Ainsworth, we find ourselves walking past yards where the corners of the lawns have been yellowed by the summer sun. Leaves are strewn about. Fall is inevitable. From the driveways, all-wheel-drive wagons and pickup trucks are witness to the performance as much as they are a background. Along the Craftsman and Foursquare style houses we also see the occasional Tudor or Dutch Colonial home. NIC’s movements are intentional, precise. They squat in place to drink a bottle of water. Hydration. It’s not posing, their movements are restrained, but calculated. Motorists and residents out on their porches look bewildered. “What’s going on?” They ask.
“It’s a performance.” I answer with the same voice that I would use at the library.
By the time we cross N. Skidmore, the backdrop has changed dramatically. NIC’s performance, for all its variety in movement, hasn’t changed, but the five-story mixed-use complex with a modern brick facade shines in contrast as if the building had been recently unwrapped by its owners. Luxury cars beep their doors locked or unlocked, their engines start quietly and efficiently, as the performance party joins the weekend foot traffic with expensive bicycles cruising along its passage. ”What’s going on－did something happen?” A shopkeeper shouts. He demands to know.
“It’s a performance.” I answer, a little annoyed this time. Worried perhaps, that a crowd of mostly white people following a black performer along a busy street, could trigger a police call.
One of the last “stops” before arriving at PICA is the empty lot near the intersection at N Russell St, a reminder that not long ago, Albina Park was nothing, but a dirt lot. One can project pain and suffering on NIC’s facial expressions, but I am not sure if that’s what they are. Maybe they are simply tired. The length of this performance is the average length of a ballet, but the word ballet feels inertly less serious than this. Even if I fail to find the right words to describe each step. Each movement. Each contortion. Every time NIC inches or lunges forward. They creep. They tumble. They fall. They struggle to get up. Their work is labored at this point. By the time we enter PICA, there’s music, a stage, and all the impossibilities of an art festival. Here, while I am sitting down, I begin to recognize their movements as something akin to modern hip-hop. Here the expectation is to watch NIC dance to the music. So the crowd does. Finding their seats. Arranging themselves into the shape of the last prop. A sitting audience. But all performances must come to an end and so this does, too. Instead of a curtain it is the mechanical warehouse door that drops down after NIC Kay has exited the stage. The performer is seen no more.
Paramount to witnessing this performance is that we ask: how are black bodies allowed to exist in public in America? When, how, and how come have black bodies become suspect? Are we complicit in normalizing or enticing that suspicion? And what specific meaning is one to glean from following NIC Kay along the length of N. Williams Ave, to watch them hold the space between the curbing and the wall of a gentrified neighborhood? Perhaps the same that we are to glean from any street, or neighborhood, where black bodies have become suspect amid new luxury apartments and the threat of police that looms with boutique employees and restaurateurs. Perhaps we ought to consider that murals and electronic kiosks do not replace a living culture. Perhaps we ought to ask when exactly will America stop prioritizing the boutique wants of wealthy whites against the basic well-being of black folks.
A.M. Rosales is multidisciplinary artist from Cochabamba, Bolivia presently based out of Portland, Oregon. They hold a Literature degree from George Mason University and their favorite rodent is the capybara. A Pride Foundation Scholar, a Teacher Apprentice at Writers-In-The-Schools, and an MFA Fiction candidate at Portland State University, they draw on the liminality of their immigrant and transgender experiences to create visual, written, and performed works of art.