Walker Art Center

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On Roots and Reckoning
Catherine Damman on the Cross-Generational Dialogues in Radical Presence

By Catherine Damman

Xaviera Simmons is presenting what—by all appearances—is an art history lecture. She stands at a podium and reads a text, accompanied by digital slides and an attentive audience. That this is a work of art, a performance entitled This Black Woman (2012), suggests both the capacious nature of “performance” as a category and the potent engagement with history that marks Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. Simmons enacted this particular work at a reception celebrating the exhibition’s conclusion at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The first comprehensive survey of performance art by black artists, Radical Presence also traveled to the NYU Grey Art Gallery and the Studio Museum in Harlem before coming to the Walker Art Center, where it’ll be on view from July 24 through January 4, 2015. The exhibition boasts work by three generations of artists; the dialogue between them demonstrates both the exigency and the complexity of reckoning with the past.

In Simmons’s even, clear voice, the persistent phrase “this black woman” is meditative and hypnotic. “This black woman’s story started in the ghettos of North Philadelphia … Despite coming from desperate poverty, this black woman had music lessons and nice clothing …” The story being told is that of Elaine Brown: activist, Black Panther Party leader, professor, and one-time presidential candidate; in its concision and economy, the text mirrors the biography featured on Brown’s Wikipedia page. Certainly, much about Brown’s work and life is elided in this truncated, easily digestible version. Simmons’s rehearsal amplifies the refractions of narrative that result from adherence to particular formats of presentation: how we tell our histories matters just as much as what we say.

We hear of Brown’s impoverished childhood and early failures as a songwriter, of her uneasy relations with others and her lack of black friends. “This black woman did not have many contacts.” “This black woman got a job as a cocktail waitress at a strip club, the Pink Pussycat.” Most piercing is the description of Brown’s affair with Jay Richard Kennedy, unnamed in Simmons’s telling: “This white married male fiction writer taught this black woman to appreciate her blackness, and his love caused this black woman to join the movement.” Attributing Brown’s radicalism and activist inclinations to that relationship points to the ways that agency is too frequently stripped from particular subjects, their accomplishments dampened. Alternatively, it accentuates the ways that our biographies—as they are lived—rarely conform to the politics of respectability or to neatly aggrandizing narratives of autonomy and self-invention.

That repeated refrain—“this black woman”—is also a deliberately indexical construction. “This,” as a deictic, demands presence. Of course, Brown is in fact not here at all; we only have images of her, surrogates, fragmented details of her life. Working within and against the exhibition’s title, Simmons reminds us of the ways that presence is given from the outside, always a product of representation. Like Simmons, the artists included in Radical Presence share a fiercely devoted and yet deeply interrogative relation to history.

Simmons’s works of 2012 are the most recent included in the exhibition; half a century of art-making is bookended at the other end by Benjamin Patterson, a founding member of Fluxus. He mobilizes the participatory and open-ended framework of the score to create his work. Contra understandings of performance as singular and ephemeral, the score is iterative, made possible through repetition. For his 2011 exhibition at PS1, Anthology, Clifford Owens followed Patterson’s legacy, transforming the traditional solo exhibition into a de facto group show, soliciting scores from other African American artists and interpreting them with great artistic license, occasionally to much controversy (one such score, from William Pope.L reads: “Be African American. Be Very African American.”) An opprobrium to the patent lack of black artists in the canon of performance art, the architecture of Anthology was that of a living archive. As such, Owens’s project exceeds the regulatory practices of conventional models of acquisition, collection, and display.

These arbitrary logics were the target of David Hammons’s now-canonic 1983 performance, Bliz-aard Ball Sale. Alongside other New York street vendors, Hammons peddled snowballs in varying sizes—with prices scaled to match. Purchase a snowball (choose from XS to XL), only to have it disappear in your hands: a pointed critique of the art market and a poetic meditation on the ephemerality of performance. Twenty years later, for While Supplies Last (2003), Dave McKenzie exchanged snowballs for plastic bobblehead toys in his own likeness. While Hammons hawked his wares in a public space, McKenzie’s reanimation was placed more squarely in the institutional confines of the art world—at the gallery opening—and was structured as a gift rather than an economic transaction. Slight deviations between the gestures of Hammons and McKenzie signal the shifting demands of capitalism (such as the importance of the individual as “brand”).

Here I am reminded of Fred Moten, for whom Marx’s proposition of the impossible “speaking commodity”—that famous phantasmagoric table—is necessarily countered by the “historical reality of commodities who spoke.” Performing bodies are also bodies with a price; their labor is bought and sold. Attention to the blighted history of slavery and postbellum practices of blackface minstrelsy throws the notion of “black performance” as a category into high relief. As Saidiya Hartman has observed, choreographing black bodies was not only a disciplinary technique, but also a site where entertainment and subjection became entangled in coerced spectacles on the auction block, the plantation, and the minstrel stage.

These issues converge in Coco Fusco’s video work a/k/a George Gilbert (2004) a parafictional documentary about the FBI hunt for Angela Davis. Contra This Black Woman, which identifies and hones in on the specificities of a single figure, Fusco presents Davis as a cipher, examining the multitudes of other women mistaken for Davis, many of whom were arrested. Miming the aesthetics of surveillance footage, a desultory voiceover reads: “Some women began to fear that an Afro became a one-way ticket for a holding cell. Other women put on wigs to pass for Black Panthers. They would pose for pictures holding guns, ghostly incarnations of what they said she wasn’t, but what they themselves wanted to be.” Fusco’s video mines the vagaries of identity, the fierceness of self-presentation, and the search for a past: “radical,” after all, “simply means grasping things at the root.” This quotation—widely attributed to Davis—is perhaps the exhibition’s most compelling declaration. Roots, like histories, present a tangled and sometimes partial infrastructure. We reach for them anyway.

Catherine Damman is an art historian and writer. She is a cofounder of Unscripted, an interdisciplinary working group on the study of performance at Columbia University, where she is also a PhD candidate in the department of Art History and Archaeology.

“Working within and against the exhibition’s title, [Xaviera] Simmons reminds us of the ways that presence is given from the outside, always a product of representation.”

Clifford Owens, Anthology (Nsenga Knight), 2011 (detail)

Clifford Owens, Anthology (Kara Walker), 2011 (detail)

Dave McKenzie, While Supplies Last, 2003

Photo courtesy the artist, Susanne Vielmetter Gallery, Los Angeles, and Wien Lukatsch Gallery, Berlin

Coco Fusco, Sightings 2, 2004

Photo courtesy the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York