In Conversation with Luke Willis Thompson

The following is an edited transcript of an e-mail interview between the artist Luke Willis Thompson and Social Text editor Tavia Nyong’o that was conducted over the spring and summer of 2015, during and after the New Museum triennial, within which Thompson’s piece, eventually they introduced me to people I immediately recognized would take me out anyway, was included.


 

Hi Luke,

I had been thinking about how best to start this dialogue about your current work, eventually they introduced me to people I immediately recognized would take me out anyway.

But then I felt that any such start would be artificial, insofar as our dialogue has been already underway, and what we are doing now is more along the lines of opening out this conversation beyond the two of us.

I had also wanted to begin by asking you to describe the work as you now see it, in relation to your other work to date, and in relation to the politics and poetics of black life in New York, the city I live in, the city you’ve made the work in, and the city where neither of us are at the moment.

But then I worried that asking you questions about the meaning of the work might imply it is not still ongoing. [Editor’s note: the New Museum show has since closed.]

So, starting “in the middle of things” (or from the vantage point Deleuze termed “any space whatever”) I want to instead ask you this possibly naïve question:

What is your relationship, as the artist, to the “I” in the title of your work? In what ways is that “I” you? In what ways might it be someone else? Does the title tell the participant anything about the genesis of the piece?

Warmly,

Tavia


Dear Tavia,

Carved into the sidewalk, the title is a kind of cruel allusion to the writing of law and legal precedent. It’s deliberately funereal and as you know runs the length of the New Museum’s exterior. The text is both an invitation to partake in the work, and the instructions to do so. It’s written from a pastiche of references, from know your rights handbooks (“did you feel free to leave?”) to Vito Acconci’s performance notes (“at the stage of exhaustion, you and performer are potentially vulnerable.”) It was designed to refer not just to this piece but extend into the museum as a whole.

I think addressing the “I” is really quite critical to what is at stake for the project. For me there are many levels of subjectivities, empathies and spectatorships. Suzanne Lacy used a diagram of concentric circles that dictated the different stages of a work’s life in public; the first circle had the origin of work itself in it and the last had its enduring myth. I adapted the method with eventually[. . .], using the diagram to picture the audience without a single flow of spectatorship. The center being the performer, wrapped in the pursuers, and surrounded finally by the general public, the passersby who are complicit with the work without knowing so.

Having said this I don’t want to dodge a personal association to the “I” in the text — for me the line, which is originally a line from Helene Cixous and Susan Sellers’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, speaks to the process of falling in love with something that you know could destroy you. It’s a line which I associated with a kind of crew or scene love, a process where joining a community is the first step to tumbling into a rabbit hole that might also form you as well as it engenders your own life-world. The word “destroy” in the sentence by Cixous, I modified with the oft-quoted line by Lesley McSpadden where she is recorded as asking how hard it is to have someone finish high school around her neighborhood when “they are going to just take me out anyway” — and the euphemism to be simply taken out, not killed or murdered but dissolved, made into an absence I felt needed translating into a performance space; a literal exiting of the field.

When I first began making this piece, I desperately didn’t want to have to be one to write to the instructions. Partially this was because I didn’t want to cohere my own voice with institutions, but also because while I knew the work could happen, I feared asking someone to be a part of it. We discussed ‘be black baby’ and other forms where an audience is reminded to acknowledge racial visibility or difference and allow it to haunt the work. I had secretly wanted you to let me off the hook and to offer to write it for me — I wonder now how you would write it differently?

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 9.38.13 AMDear Luke,

The condensation of literal and metaphorical meanings of “take me out” that converged in my experience of your piece have now been amplified by the associations you’ve provided. Thank you for that. I now understand a little differently your resistance to wanting to write your own instructions (which I initially confess to having found a little inexplicable: what exactly were you going to do, if not write your own instructions? A certain inherited romanticism of the conceptual artist as author, I think, guided my expectation here).

There is a line in The Feel Trio where Fred Moten invites his reader to “get jumped in.” I hear an echo in your response of that acoustic image: getting jumped in, with its double, maybe triple connotation of gang initiation and the games black girls play. “Can I get a jump?”

So how would I write it differently? That is an anxiogenic question for an artist to ask a critic, because it exposes my vulnerability at the precise point I would ordinarily feel myself in most assured command: the written word. Honestly, whatever I would have written (and I don’t actually know) would have been at a greater remove from the anticipatory dread of summary black death that you evoke via Lesley McSpadden, and that has been summoned with excruciating regularity over these past weeks and months. But that is all the more gratitude to you for finding a way in language to come nearer to that dread, and to have done so in a social sculpture (and scene, since it is also a scene you have left ephemeral traces in) that adopts a stance of “underperformed emotion” as Lauren Berlant might say. Sometimes, we need to take instruction.

Is this conversation evolving in the direction you were planning for? I notice we haven’t described the piece in any way, and perhaps I haven’t been conveying my experience of it in the way I intend to: which is to encourage people to rearrange their busyness so as to avail themselves to be taken out by one of the members of your cast. Failing that, what sort of obligation do we have here to that outer circle of Suzanne Lacy’s, the circle of “enduring myth”? Can you imagine staging the work again? Or was it necessarily site specific to the institution whose front door step you temporarily dislodged?

Also, when you say you worry about aligning your voice with the institution, do I hear a question also about how to make a detour from the temporality (specifically the calendrical punctuality) of the institution? To jump into or out of step with a temporality, or tempo, with which the piece (which starts at a regularly appointed times at a regularly appointed space, even if it ends in aleatory elsewheres and elsewhens) must in some sense comply?

Warmly,

Tav


T,

Initially, I wanted to fracture the voice through which the work might speak. This became about a process of addition; of adding my own subjectivity to those of others which enabled the work to incorporate different worlds. By suturing together my own ideas and those of collaborators — the coauthors of the piece — the work began to extend through many bodies. I saw this co-authorship as having the potential to fragment the work into something impossible to fully see or experience the limits of, thereby distorting its scale.

Placing the work in the hands of others had a perverse effect. Rather than forcing me or us to query our own rights to invoke any of the narratives the work might summon, it was as though rights themselves began to fall away. An early inspiration for me was the Floyd v. City of New York class action during which individuals used personal testimonies to describe police abuses they experienced in the moments they were made targets of generic racial codification. The collective effort of these individually performed accounts of the experience of being reduced to a synecdoche; to stand in for a group, ultimately had the impact of exposing the unconstitutional character of Giuliani’s and Bratton’s police regime. By demonstrating to the judge that their loss of individuality through bad policing was in itself generic and therefore could be applied more generally to other people of color in New York City, the plaintiffs turned their negative racialized codification into a tool of equality.

Recalling this case, the performers of eventually[. . .] allowed a similar play, inviting their images to be indexed, to stand for the representations of others. I didn’t necessarily have the rights to this project, nor did my collaborators have full rights to those narratives we reenacted, but performance as a genre allowed us to bypass permissions and temporarily occupy other moments of time and other moments of lives that weren’t our own.

I’ve been interested in a quality that runs frequently in the black art tradition, where collectivity can exist even with a single member, (or dead members, or members who don’t necessarily agree to their membership). With this in mind, eventually[. . .] became a project of movement and transmission.

This is a very circuitous way of answering your questions regarding the temporality of the piece, but necessary before asking the following question: has a quality of temporal indigeneity infected the museum? I keep coming back to a racist joke from my background of operating on “island time,” a derivation I’m sure of “colored peoples’ time,” and affixing it to an idea employed in performance that holds time as a fiction; a single perpetual duration beyond measure. The coauthors and I used past stories of people walking in the city as blueprints for the maps, for instance, we incorporated recorded paths led by James Baldwin, Gladys Bently, David Floyd, Trisha Meili, Adrian Piper and others. The thing about a violence that is ongoing is that even very fundamental activity, or timeless activity, like walking, seems to become syncopated with tragedy and every successful piece of this project is contemporaneous with the memory of those. In this way, there’s a relationship of the project with a memorial through walkabout.

Best,

L

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 12.02.31 PMIn the interregnum between when we began this conversation and now, when we are moving towards completing it, any number of events, large and small, have occurred. Not least of which, of course, is the completion of at least that iteration of eventually[. . .] that was included in the New Museum triennial this past Spring. While the long break in our correspondence gives me the opportunity to ask you a question about how the piece seems to you in retrospect, I also want to pick up on the question you asked me about “temporal indigeneity” in the museum.

I confess I didn’t know exactly how to take that question at first, although your subsequent references to “island time” and “colored people’s time” ought to have immediately clarified. (Certainly, I find myself, in relation to email and other modern obligations, painfully vulnerable to the accusation of being on CPT myself!)

I want, in the face of the racist joke of it, nevertheless to hold on to the value of something like a black, or an island, or a postcolonial time; a polytemporal time. Does that make sense to you? Part of what is so haunting and meaningful in what you said about Floyd v. City of New York is the powerful sense of outrage and harm of those who testified of their experience of being detained, of having their time imposed upon by a police action that interpellated them into the homogenous, empty time of the state (often literally rendered generic as a statistic to meet certain quotas). The police stop forces you through a set of steps notionally lawful but in fact calibrated, as Sandra Bland was only the latest to tragically discover, to dehumanize and deprive you of even your right to idle your time with a cigarette.

Indeed, to go off on a bit of a tangent, the circulation of cigarettes and cigarillos — sold, stolen, or smoked — in several of the narratives of police abuse that have recently circulated seems a small testament to the powerful disturbance introduced into the grid of white supremacist visibility and control by just the smallest gesture of distracted black self-dispossession.

If I can segue back to a final question, I’d like to ask not about retrospection, then, but about recursion. Picking up on your remark about ordinary time being “syncopated with tragedy” — an experience that the poet Claudia Rankine has recently testified to with great eloquence — how do you think about repeating this or related performances in a historical context where, at any time, and with pitiless certainty, another outrage against black or indigenous humanity is likely to be brewing? What I remember of eventually[. . .] as a participant was the beautiful silence of it: a dance-like duet between myself and Chris Blue,, and it was so dreamlike I had to force myself to recall the nature of the occasion, the direction of our wanderings. I was most jarred when we walked through some sort of police incident — or perhaps these police were simply regularly stationed at that corner — and I began involuntarily running through my mind the most plausible explanation I could give — that I could bear to give — should what we were doing (her walking, I visibly following at a discreet dozen yards of so) be peremptorily viewed as suspicious. Only the dark comedy that the prospects of having to explain to an officer that we were merely participating in an art work about racial profiling and stop and frisk saved me.

So, given that the tragedy will, tragically, be repeating, what is the relationship between art and politics as you see it? In offering participants a steady and extended opportunity to silently reflect-in-motion upon the anxiogenic and anger-inducing specter of police surveillance and violence, your work has struck me as a real aesthetic reflection on, and even a contribution to, the moment of #BlackLivesMatter, both in, and perhaps, beyond, the political. It makes me wonder if decolonizing the tempo of the museum might have at least something to do with making room for the flourishing of alternative times and temporality. That art might be a way to give us time.

Am I exaggerating? Do you see things differently? What does the afterlife of the piece give you?

Warmly,

Tav


 

Dear Tav,

In the very early days of the performance, Tobi Haslet, one of the cast members, described the effect of performing the work as the experience of being, for another, a camera and a dolly. This idea haunts me, because I think it contains within it a very careful critique of the work itself (or at least hints at the gravity of the cast’s decision to perform the piece). To perform the black figure, is to know that same picture will have an extra layer of visuality applied to it, and that vision can involve looking through rather than at you. Fred Moten observed in Adrian Piper’s early performances that, rather than avoiding a racist gaze as other artists sought, she would extort this gaze. Now, in the contemporary moment, racialized vision desires to use both; to perform the subjugating gaze, the policing vision and at the same time to normalize it, to avoid it. Tobi found a way to make that “visual pathology” as Piper termed it, conform to a structure everyone already found familiar: you talk of the work as dreamlike, but another way of describing it might be filmic. To decide to become an image is, in a sense, to find parity with the tragic.

The afterlife of this work is constituted for me then, not just by the kinds of disruptions to it that police or the city provided, nor by the ongoing crises to which it refers, but by the fact that the experience couldn’t be corroborated or confirmed with others. I’m sure almost no one saw the same work, in the same time, as anyone else. It was this decision to make a work that stays in the dark, in the kind of occult space of street life, and intimately, between a single performer and a winnowed audience, that I hoped would bring the performance into a unique condition in which questions of its status as an artwork or not, and variables in terms of its level of visibility, would have no bearing on its potential for power. This attempt at political re-orientation was motivated in part by a will to find an application for your own concept of the “uchromatic dark”. In the aesthetic regime this concept proposes, which I hope is closer to ordinary life and therefore also the reoccurring violence of it than the current mediated state and time of the art museum, artworks like eventually[. . .] can reach back to the museum but only in communiqués and testimonies.

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Tavia Nyong'o

Tavia Nyong’o is a cultural critic and an Associate Professor in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. He writes on art, music, politics, culture, and theory. His first book, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (Minnesota, 2009), won the Errol Hill Award for best book in African American theatre and performance studies. He is completing a study of fabulation in black aesthetics and embarking on another on queer wildness. Nyong’o has published in venues such as Radical History Review, Criticism, GLQ, TDR, Women & Performance, WSQ, The Nation, Triple Canopy, The New Inquiry, and n+1. He is co-editor of the journal Social Text and the Sexual Cultures book series at New York University press. He regularly blogs at Bully Bloggers.