Almost two weeks ago, I was up in Portland for 4 days for TBA 15. I want to write about what I saw and felt, via four different artists and their work: Holcombe Waller, keyon gaskin, Alessandro Sciarroni, and Okwui Okpokwasili. Just so you know, my writing is situated in the reality that – for me – seeing work is a completely social and physical experience. Like…it happens in a time and place, with particular people around, and the experience of it depends on what I ate that day (biscuits, duh) or who I ran into or avoided, etc. What I’m wearing matters. It all matters. This is all just to say: this writing will be a wonderland of unadulterated subjectivity.
So this writing is about four artists, what each of them made, what was made in lieu or spite or relief or in the periphery of what they made (according to me), curatorial imaginings, and…also…you know…living and dying. It’s the whole sha-bang. Here we are.
*Important note: While I may invoke criticism of my own self, I will not invoke much criticism when discussing the work of my fellow artists. I already wrote heady and taking-to-task treatments of each thing I saw, and in a moment of divine intelligence, threw them the fuck in the garbage because…I DON’T KNOW SHIT. Also works like these (and artists like these) exist in ecologies that need illogical amounts of reparation and love, as they trudge along in the vapid wasteland of our hateful and “critical” cultural economy. Life’s a choice, people. And within that, so too is how we choose to prop eachother up. I love art for what it does well. Let’s talk about that.
Chronologically speaking, the first thing that I did in Portland was meet up with my friend, M, and go eat the damn good food of Portland. There were cockles in cream and tarragon and there was chewy grainy bread with some heavenly white cheese spread on it and then little edible flowers and paper thin radishes and stuff on there. That happened. Then we went to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, and we saw Holcombe Waller’s Requiem Mass: LGBT/Working Title.
The thing about entering the festival context as a fellow maker, and rubbing brains and opinions and insecurities with the brigades of other makers there, is that it can be hard to keep it light enough in your own critical body to actually feel anything. Too often, especially in New York and Berlin for some reason (this is actually no mystery at all, but I won’t go into it here…), festivals create a culture of hatred for art. Heady critique becomes the way people shake hands, “compare and despair” becomes the dominant mode for watching work, and the whole thing just gets loftier and loftier until everyone is just tired and miserable and no one can figure out why. PICA has always been particularly good at averting this crisis with their warm and accessible contextualizations of work, and their incredible community outreach efforts. That said, what Holcombe made needed no discursive xanax to keep it on the ground.
In the first 5 minutes, we experience a beautifully purposeful collision of professional and non-professional performers invocating us with outstretched arms and voices, all at varying degrees of confidence and “skill.” To immediately surround us with real fucking people who have trembling conviction about what they are doing, and to not need it to be at all clever or conceptual…I felt held and ready. And I felt like: this is important. I wasn’t watching another contemporary performance work that awed by disorientation and intrigue (like the ones I toil away at making). Instead, I was watching a proud and buzzing community meeting, set to insanely intricate music and sweetly campy visuals. There was shimmering sequined purple draped over surfaces, and a massive balloon sign reading bluntly “LBGT” hung over our heads. Sold.
There are alot of conversations about race/gender and representation that need to keep happening, as people make work about queer ancestry and elders…especially in largely white communities and audiences. But the feat of Requiem Mass: LGBT/Working Title – to me – lies in the way that it so tenderly occupied a liminal space; one that didn’t strive to be ultimately correct or really at all universal.
Holcombe, a highly accomplished and geekily rigorous musician, made super-sophisticated songs with edgy and difficult lyrics, and handed them over to a choir who wasn’t ever going to technically perfect them, but instead, would make the expression of them perfect. This teetering of high art content, mixed with an ensemble of excellently familiar and tangible bodies and voices, made Requiem… a shifty, delicate, and honest work.
In my limited understanding, the ways that queers have interacted with notions of religiosity and faith throughout history has been fraught with the worst kinds of ostracization, shame, and self-destruction. It has also produced a stamina and uniqueness in the ways that queer people have held on to their religious practices, and Requiem… literally shook with the power that has been cultivated by this determination. Ultimately, the work showed its inner mess, its inner perfection (Holcombe’s musical compositions are extraordinary), and a sprawling array of beautiful contradictions, very human misses, and also very very human catharses. I was grateful to sit inside of it all and just swish around.
Okay. M and I then left the cathedral and jetted over to Bodyvox, to see what the fuck keyon gaskin was up to.
keyon is a friend of mine, and we met through collaborating on a project that is fraught with racisms, as they are linked to economy (as if any aren’t). The way that I relate to keyon was initially through high-intensity dance/physical improvisation. With him being black and me being white, there are some really concrete things that we each carry that we cannot pass back and forth/share. Luckily for us, we are dancers, and while a vocabulary of dancing doesn’t supercede any socio-political reality about racisms between keyon and i, it has at least given us an opportunity to throw off some of the totally failing language about racisms, and to instead deal with ourselves and eachother through smashing our bodies up against one another…literally…and really hard. These days, besides dancing together, we talk about hard things when and where we can. I experience keyon as having a razor-sharp and advanced intelligence, and his ability to stave off the throbbing cultural desire to MAKE.THINGS.OKAY is like….what is up. He necessarily interrogates hope, effectively rejects the commodification of the artist body (like actually manages to hurl it back at people with an often-calm “NO THANKS”), and sits squarely in a too-hot-too-cold-NEVER-OKAY ocean of contemporality. He might say that this is not a constructed strategy of his, but instead an imposed reality of living blackness. He might not.
Not A Thing basically operated – for me – as a clear and fantastically-composed manifesto. It quickly laid out the rules of engagement: We were going to do as he asked, but we were not going to get to disappear under any kind understanding of what we were doing or seeing. Within this premise, it was excruciating and utterly powerful to watch that audience FALL THE FUCK APART. keyon turned a crystalline mirror onto the voraciously deadening social contract shared by this largely white audience, and it was like looking into one of those horrendous magnifying mirrors. Our pores were dirrrrrrrty.
I was actually super distraught throughout this work, because what keyon did was so successful…and by that I mean that I was furious that I had to stay in the room with these people who just could not work to transcend their discomfort and sit with what was happening. (There’s my privileged white dissociation popping up again…yup) Instead, I was in a room where a black man was cycling through a series of impeccably constructed performative scores about racism in all its hysterically complicated permutations, and people just smiled. People laughed. Lots of people. People rejected that this was something that they had to feel too; they rejected keyon’s expression of pain and power and insanity as human, and thus worthy of deep consideration. Now…I know that alot of folks – maybe even keyon – would scold me for scolding people for their reactions. “They are just expressing their discomfort in the only way they know how!” Fine. okay. Not good enough. nope. sorry. This is MY writing, so I get to say what I want, and I call catastrophic bullshit. xoxo
So yeah…keyon. When I initially knew I was going to write about this work, I was prepared to just write in snorts and sounds and conceptual poetic blips…so as not to contextualize or inappropriately de-complicate what he is doing. But I think there’s an important opportunity here to pull this work into a larger conversation about what I thought was so crucially strong about TBA this year. keyon moves directly into a landscape of non-answers, non-images, and non-SENSE. Racisms (and phobias against LGBT folks, as in Holcombe’s work) and the ways that they recapitulate the precarity of certain bodies, are truly complete and utter non-sense, and yet they have always pervaded, and continue to. So work like keyon is making requires a certain departure from form, from thing-liness, and a certain insistence on a wide, tragic and disastrous experience of total liminality.
Not A Thing.
After Holcombe and keyon’s works, I started to feel a big and watery (but also bravely focused) thesis begin to emerge from the nooks and crannies of my TBA weekend. More on that later and as we roll along.
The next night, I saw Alessandro Sciarroni’s FOLK-S, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
To directly answer Alessandro’s question: yes, Alessandro, yes I will still love you tomorrow. In fact, I ended up loving you even more the day after we had our evening affair.
Angela Mattox, the curator of performance for TBA, and the Artistic Director of PICA, had talked up this work big-time. She almost twitched a little, when she told me – upon my arrival in Portland – how much I NEEDED to see this work. So, of course, I was dubious; not out of any questioning of Angela’s taste (which I almost always line up with quite closely), but because I felt like, in seeing it, that I was holding some key to her curatorial lens, which I have fanatic respect and curiosity for.
So…In the beginning of FOLK-S…, one of the six performers gets on a mic and tells us that the six of them are going to do Bavarian folk dances…and that they will keep doing them until they all leave or we (the audience) all leave. So, that they did.
They did Bavarian folk dances.
And then they kept doing Bavarian folk dances for really a very long time. The dances were beautiful and militaristic and formal and stabilizingly/destabilizingly repetitive. Sometimes they would pause to look around, seemingly having a brief moment of critical consciousness and negotiation about whether they were going to actually choose to keep doing this.
And then they just kept doing Bavarian folk dances.
And then things started to happen…
There was an element of the experience of being in the room that started to feel like we were sliding into some realization that we were at…a sporting event? As the dancers and the audience members started dropping out, one-by-one, the piece became a kind of a dare on both sides; a contest even. Gender dynamics started emerging (and really caught me by surprise actually), as people started cheering for the men (the one woman was the 2nd body to leave the dance) in a way that one might bolster up their favorite running back at a football game. (Wait….is running back a thing? I don’t really know….wait! QUARTERBACK! right! I mean quarterback, I think…).
The effort – having been in effect for soooo long – started to form this thick and excruciatingly humble weight over the whole thing.
These people were still doing this thing together.
The poem of it suddenly hit me, not unlike a ton of bricks. All weird european gender stuff set aside, these people were showing me – through the sheer power of time – their choice to keep reconvening, to keep saying yes to hurtling their bodies through this dance, to keep coming back together again and again and again. It was overwhelmingly romantic! It made me think about my partner, my family, my commitments to community! I was floating!
But then… I was suddenly sinking, because maybe most importantly, the work offered up absolutely NOTHING in terms of an articulated value or any sort of prize that was being won by these folks for this act of trying and trying and trying. Relationships are hard. So is family. So is community. They can actually be atrociously hard…so hard sometimes, that the idea of them being functional and feeling good is just…mythic.
Like the synapse-splintering repetition of the dancing, the sweetness of my little poetic revelations kept shifting in and out of focus. My state of being was all over the place, and every time I thought that I had settled into some way of thinking or feeling about what was happening, their duration of effort would shove me over some kind of line, and I was back in liminal space; existential blue-balls? Eh…something like that.
Finally, two were left, and in a staggeringly UN-grandiose gesture, they kinda-sorta held hands and walked off, in just the most non-descript and unremarkable way you could possibly imagine. They had made the thing happen. They had taken us down the rabbit hole of what commitment and exhaustion and doing-things-for-the-sake-of-doing-them could mean and could look like; and then they had dropped it unceremoniously, like an old shoe, and left.
When I left the work, I felt grey. I recalled being moved, but it felt like a dream that starts to slip away as soon as you leave it. I didn’t know how to talk much about what had happened for me. I even stumbled over my words when I saw Angela later (sorry, Angela!), and reverted to talking emptily about gender representation or something (ugh). But I was just doing that thing, where I talk about whatever, because my feelings are actually just so not yet rendered yet.
The next morning, when I was waking up, I had this phenomenally delayed catharsis. The sky absolutely fell and the ground got pulled out from underneath me. The poem of what FOLK-S… actually was resurfaced, came over and quietly and steadily sat down next to me and nodded, “hey. so this.” This work was about not just the choice to keep getting together, keep looking eachother in the eye and saying “yes.” It was also about how that convening and convening and convening may or may not make its importance clear at all; how most things that take time, actually take time, and how, for all of our diligently high-brow processing and gestation of art works, the good ones just will not be hurried…in their delivery or in their effect. And I felt grateful about that.
TIME BASED ART, people. right.
The last work I saw at TBA was Bronx Gothic, by Okwui Okpokwasili.
and holy fuck.
Bronx Gothic is one of those things that an artist shares with an audience, and the occurrence of that sharing actually feels impossible. Like…the sheer extent to which Okwui conjured and stirred and turned herself inside-out, all feels just really not possible. But I was there. And she did. So…
As a bit of background, I have been moderately/not-at-all-moderately obsessed with Okwui since I saw her work in Ralph Lemon’s massive and maybe perfect How Can You Stay in the House…, about 4 or 5 years ago in San Francisco (thanks, Angela!). She is a physical prophet inside of a body inside of a spirit inside of a machine and most definitely inside of a heart. She sweats liquid power and emotion steams off of her at the same time. She’s my favorite kind of performer. ALL IN.
In Bronx Gothic, the audience enters a dark and small space, as Okwui dances/works her body – back to us – in a corner. This dance that she is doing is very clearly (at least to me) one of creating a channel. I have had some experience with conjure art myself (I use this term conjure art as it is put forth by the artist Amara Tabor-Smith here: http://dancersgroup.org/2015/09/speak-practice-conjure-art-making-earthbodyhome/), and what I witnessed in this opening was Okwui traveling over a spiritual line, into a territory where she was ostensibly gone, and her body was simply housing/channeling whatever Bronx Gothic needed to put across. In my opinion she stayed over that line for the entire performance, and in doing so, I just kept following her further and further inside of this impossibly personal, impossibly painful, and impossibly reverberant story.
I guess you could call Bronx Gothic a play. There was text and there was blocking. But because of what Okwui had conjured, it felt distinctly like a ritual.
The story that she told was one of alienation from her black girl’s body; one of the condemnation and pervasive socio-political hatred of her black girl’s body and then that of her black woman’s body; one of the losing and gaining of a body; the erasure and explosion and disappearance of her body; the shaky and dangerous emergence of her body. In contexts of general cultural legibility, she translated nothing, rounded no edges, offered no insight. Instead she just told and read things that had happened, things that had been written and said.
A sentence/provocation that she kept coming back to in the text (and absolutely in the physical vocabulary as well) was : “Ask yourself: Am I awake?” The compositional placement of this command-question – as it landed around various stories, physical scores, and other exorcisms/mournings – kept making me dizzy with the consideration of how presence (in its multiplicitous meanings) is somehow the crux of being in a politicized body. It is presence that the abused and raped and marginalized body cannot afford at times, and yet it is presence that makes the body wake up to itself; makes it fight back; makes it notice beauty and – contentiously – worth.
Being awake endangers certain bodies. Also, being asleep is maybe the nail on certain coffins. Neither seemed to have particularly saved Okwui. I also doubt that she invests much in something as concrete as “being saved.” She appears well travelled in the rules and realities of liminalities of all kinds.
Like the other works I saw, Bronx Gothic aggressively asserted that we are alive during a truly – I’ll say it again – impossible time; a time when negotiation is the only constant. It is 2015 and YES, our whole fucking world is decrepitly sick with racisms and sexisms and all kinds of complicated systems of greed and inequity. We’re fucking everything up, constantly. And that is not likely going to shift with any sort of even-barely recognizable flourish during any of our lifetimes. This suggests that the thing to do is not to try to solve the problem, but instead to be brave enough to just get squarely inside of it, and to listen really really closely.
I experienced the exercise offered up in the curation of things that I saw at TBA 15 as an attempt to move away from the static and the legible, and instead to move toward the unknowable, because this shit that people are making work about – queer marginalization, racism, exhaustion, presence, and the pure danger of having a body – is all shit that arches back far before any of us were here, and will continue to weave its complicated web well into the future, in ways that we necessarily cannot imagine.
In that, this curation said to me:
Try to keep recognizing one another.
Try to move past your first response.
Try not to rely so much on making sense ( trace the ways that sense will clearly kill you faster).
Try to interrogate language.
Try to imagine the body as all that there is.
Try to keep recognizing one another.
Fucking try try try try try to keep recognizing one another.
Thanks, TBA. Thanks, PICA. Hell yes, I’ll try.
- Jesse Hewit