During New Circuits: Curating Contemporary Performance, a curatorial convening held at the Walker Art Center September 28–29, 2015, MoMA associate curator Thomas J. Lax presented an afterword to Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room: (Memory) Refraction #1, a reflection on the performance installation Scaffold Room performed one year prior. Here Lax shares a modified version his presentation.
I’m Thomas J. Lax and I’m a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Before that, I worked at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which is where I worked with Ralph Lemon on an exhibition called 1856 Cessna Road.
Here, writing this text, I’m playing a surrogate for Ralph. I’m here to let Ralph off the hook, to give him a new hook.
I agreed to do this. What did I agree to do? What is in an agreement?
An agreement is kind of like a memory—unreliable, existing only in the present, always subject to change. Ralph talks a lot about memory:
At the Walker, he performed a text from Scaffold Room, a musical-lecture-performance that happened just about a year ago. Those of you who were present then might remember Okwui Okpokwasili or April Mathis reciting some of the same lines Ralph read here tonight. His program one year later was billed as a “memory refraction” of Scaffold Room, and was organized as part of a conversation in which we’re asking: Can a performance be collected? Can an institution gather memories as a way of caring for performances once they have happened?
Those are interesting questions, but they’re illusions too. I think another interesting question—or at least Ralph’s question here tonight—is about the slipperiness of memory. What is invoked by a memory? What is the original experience one recalls? What is its origin before that?
I’m here to tell you about some other origins and some other memories, to add to Ralph’s origin story. One year after Scaffold Room premiered, he told you how it came about. Let’s go back to the attic again.
Here’s an image you saw tonight; you might recall it. It’s an installation shot from the exhibition (the efflorescence of) Walter that started here at the Walker and was re-installed at the Kitchen, in New York.
Here’s an image of the installation you didn’t see:
You’re inside the attic now, looking up at a hole in it. Inside the hole, which you can get to via a ladder, is a video that features Walter Carter, Ralph’s longtime collaborator who rolls around on the floor in a spacesuit. Here’s another image of the installation you didn’t see—another Easter Egg, to use Ralph’s word. It’s a video, edited by Mike Taylor, shown on a CRT monitor in the corner of the gallery. In the video, Ralph is dressed in a bunny suit and, as rabbits do, is running across a field. He limps. Will he make it to the other side? Do we trust him enough to follow?
Here’s an image you did see. But there’s a part of the story Ralph didn’t have time or maybe didn’t want to tell you.
This is a performance shot from a work called Come home Charley Patton; it’s the culmination of a nine-year trilogy called Geography: an end but a beginning, too. In the culmination Djedje Gervais and David Thomson fall off of ladders and dodge wooden palettes. They are in an attic—complete with crawl spaces and lights. It is a stage within a stage, then videotaped and looped back live to the audience on a large monitor. Simultaneously, in front of the monitor, Okwui describes her memory of her first sexual encounter, which as it happens, also occurred in an attic.
We are in the world of erotics, and once we are here, we’ve found ourselves in another kind of origin narrative. Psychoanalysis calls this its “primal scene,” an originally moment of trauma that will play itself out in sexual neurosis after deferred neurosis. For Freud, the primal scene was a child seeing his parents fucking. Is the attic another kind of primal scene that would continue to haunt Ralph until he made the structure we saw here?
Modernism—what Ralph called something with no oppositional identity—has staged many beginnings through the language of erotics.
Courbet painted this—Origin of the World—in 1866, a painting that would come to be owned by Jacques Lacan and then eventually be given to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. In the painting, Courbet depicts at least three kinds of origins—of course the origin of human animal life and an origin of his desire. But he also mimes the cues of porn and refuses them at the same time, like Ralph. He heralds a new sense of time: the beginning of Modernism. Modernity is announced both by what is seen as well as what is not seen. In refusing to picture the subject’s face—an off-scene, an obscene—the painter renders visible things we thought we’d already looked at.
Here’s a more recent version of an origin picture, a photograph made by the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans, which in a recent issue of the New York Times was compared to the Courbet. In its erotic implications, it’s another kind of passageway and a beginning of another expansion of temporality, perhaps best evidenced by this Instagram frame for the work at David Zwirner gallery in New York.
Here’s a third erotic beginning, perhaps closest to us tonight. It’s a quote from the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany’s 1988 memoir, The Motion of Light in Water. Ralph quoted Delany at several reprises during tonight’s lecture-performance. Consider the following description of the piers along the West Side Highway.
At times to step between the waist-high tires…was to invade a space at a libidinal saturation impossible to describe to someone who has not known it…[such an encounter] with thirty-five, fifty, a hundred all-but-strangers is hugely ordered, highly social, attentive, silent and grounded in a certain care, if not community. At those times…cock passed from mouth to mouth to hand to ass to mouth without ever breaking contact with other flesh for more than seconds; mouth, hand, ass passed over whatever you held out to them sans interstice; when one cock left, finding a replacement—mouth, rectum, another cock—required moving only the head, the hip, the hand no more than an inch, three inches. (1988, 226)
Does the sound of black dick in mouth, ass, hand do something different for you than the images we previously saw? What happens in the hold between people—what Delany here calls a hugely ordered, highly social community—that is different than the images of individual body parts we saw before? Does it open up an old-new beginning?
The hole in Ralph and Okwui and Walter Carter’s attic is certainly at the start of tonight’s story. But where does it lead?
In her essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” the psychoanalytic theorist Hortense J. Spillers describes the origin of black genders in the New World. Describing slavery in the United States as “one of the richest displays of the psychoanalytic dimensions of culture before the science of European psychoanalysis takes hold,” she argues that captivity precludes sexual differentiation. Slaves were “ungendered” as external acts of torture and prostration were inflicted upon women just as they were upon men, and neither mothers nor fathers were given the right to establish formal kinship relations with their children.
How does this primal scene precede what might be called “drag” and even a “trans” political? Fred Moten, a student of Spillers and of also of his mother B. Jenkins, writes about the space between the sound of a wail and a photograph, between people and things. He calls this “interanimation” which sounds like Hal Foster’s “zombie time,” a generalized critique of dance in museums in his in his recent writing, “In Praise of Dead Art.” But Fred’s interanimation reaches back further, is more capable of coming back. How do categories of “male” and “female” internanimate one other in a symbolic order that begins on the slave plantation? What does it mean for those living in the aftermath of slavery, for us? In other words, how does Spillers’ mama’s baby, papa’s maybe shape the stakes of genealogies—creative, and otherwise—across the gender and color line that black artists might claim?
Consider the following examples:
In William Villalongo’s The Thirsty Worker from 2012, the artist psychologically projects the image of himself dealing with the burden of the history of abstraction onto a black female painter who at once invents another proxy-surrogate of herself as she takes a saw to a fake rendering of a Brice Marden abstraction.
Rodney McMillian’s Untitled (for B. Traylor) from 2008 is a painting rendered on a bedsheet, eighty-four by forty-eight inches wide. In a way, it makes an homage to the Alabama draftsman Bill Traylor, for whom it is named, by rendering one of his subjects falling into the inner thighs and genitals of a black female figure. Traylor, an iconic, self-taught artist born into slavery, started making work on the streets of Montgomery at age 82, leaving his family behind and making works on cardboard near a blacksmith’s shop. He wasn’t known to make overtly sexual images but McMillian took some creative leaps, painting the image of Traylor’s black figures over and over, abstracting his subjects and referencing them through their feeling rather than their look. Ultimately, Rodney made a painting that I read as a picture of himself falling into the open legs of Traylor, his mentor.
In Lorna Simpson’s She (1992), the artist crops her figures’ distinguishing features out of the composition, linking the medical and legal classification “female” to four incommensurable poses each coding their own distinct gender comportments.
In her three-channel video Chess from 2013, she pairs images of herself dressed as a mid-century man with images of herself dressed as a mid-century woman in the same studio in which Marcel Duchamp made his five-way mirror self-portrait of himself playing chess in 1917. On a third screen, the jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran plays an original composition in the same studio. Simpson not only inserts herself and her collaborator into the genealogy of Duchamp’s game through her various costumes, but multiplies the image of the artist from a solo to a duet—to collective action.
In Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being, we see the artist’s self-transformation into what she described as her “seeming opposite: a third-world, working-class, overtly hostile male.” Yet rather than acquiescing to the codes of this masculinity, she repeats the following mantra, associated perhaps as cliche with being a young woman: “No matter how much I ask my mother to stop buying me crackers, cookies, and things, she does so anyway and says it’s for her, even if I always eat it. So I’ve decided to fast.”
I particularly like Mythic Being because Piper is mad. It’s her anger that allows her action to be readable. Black rage is its own kind of creative force.
These are all stories of artistic surrogacy, what Paul B. Preciado might call gender hijacking. I guess there’s a reason that we often talk about artists as fathers or mothers or brothers or sisters or even spores of one another when they imitate or are affected by one another. Authorship, like sex and kinship, involves taking on somebody else’s voice to have your own. It is about getting inside of someone else, which is always sexual, even if no one has sex, as it involves the temporary violation of bodily integrity. But being inside someone else certainly does not mean they are yours; in fact, it might likely mean you are theirs, even if only for twenty minutes.
But let’s return to our Scaffold Room. What’s in an attic? Located at the most remote part of a home, an attic is a space whose identity lies at the limits of belonging, identification, place. The home, of course, has been a longtime cipher of debates around the possibilities of feminist spaces, and a site of contest between white and Third World feminists. Alternately a refuge, a site of bondage, a place of work, a location for reproduction, a zone of exclusion, and an irrelevant sphere of everyday life. For Okwui, who we see bouncing on her bed here, in pain perhaps, on top of her room, the home is a space that is at once intimate, yet public, protective and transparent.
Within the history of the black Atlantic world, the attic has been a site of both captivity and flight.In the 1861 antebellum slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, as Written by Herself, Harriet A. Jacobs narrates the seven years she spent hidden in a small attic in Edenton, North Carolina before she escaped to freedom. In her narrative, Jacobs describes how she bored three holes through the wall with a gimlet to both survey her master—the father of her child—while also watching over her children, all of whom believed her to be already in New York. At once captive and hidden, she could look freely despite the tightness of the physical space that allowed what she called her loophole of retreat. She writes:
I bored three rows of holes, one above another; then I bored out the interstices between. I thus succeeded in making one hole about an inch long and an inch broad. I sat by it till late into the night, to enjoy the little whiff of air that floated in. In the morning I watched for my children. The first person I saw in the street was Dr. Flint. I had a shuddering, superstitious feeling that it was a bad omen. Several familiar faces passed by. At last I heard the merry laugh of children, and presently two sweet little faces were looking up at me, as though they knew I was there, and were conscious of the joy they imparted. How I longed to tell them I was there!
Jacobs published the story under the pseudonym Linda Brent and, as was customary in the mid-nineteenth century, geared the genre of her story to the sentimental sensibilities of her readership of mostly white, Northern women. The image you see here bears the same bind of deploying a preexisting genre of feeling to express one’s true experience.
As Ralph was finishing the process of making Scaffold Room, made possible only through the inimitable support of his two-decade-long supporter, enabler, contextualizer, and friend, Philip Bither, Ralph received the following e-mail from his collaborator, Randy deCelle, who, with R. Eric Stone, had helped him build this structure.
As I was plundering about the web grabbing publicized things (reviews/press releases/etc.) regarding the piece, I came across something interesting.
Now Ralph, I know you play your cards close to the chest for many of your ideas, but if this is one of your inspirations, you hid it well. As I never experienced the full piece, there may be something that hints to it that I never saw.
While googling about, I came across this image:
It is the interior of the “scaffold room” at Newgate Prison.
I never made the association that “scaffold” is another term for “gallows”.
In looking at this image, it has a distinct semblance to our unit, especially the verticals with the pulleys/ropes.
And the leap is quickly made to similarities between the gallows’ form and our unit, except we have no center point.
So, if this was not part of the inspiration, it’s an interesting coincidence, at least visually. Any-who, hopefully this doesn’t start your day off a bit off kilter, just something I thought I’d share. Hope all is well, all the best.
Can the scaffold, like the attic, or the gallows be at once a space of death and a location for regeneration, for continuing a genealogy, for making a family?
Take a look at this photo series titled Mohawk Correctional Facility: Jasmine & Family from 2013, made by the artist Deana Lawson. You see approximately thirty Polaroid images, which Lawson borrowed and scanned from her cousin, Jasmine. Shot over the several years that Jasmine’s partner and the father of her child was incarcerated at the Mohawk correctional facility in upstate New York, the images show what is a terrible contradiction: against the penitentiary’s black and gold painted background and potted plant, and the surveilling eye of a Polaroid camera, you see the construction of a family unit—mother, father and daughter—over time.
Remember the image of Okwui we were never supposed to see? Or of April singing Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love” captured inside her bespoke metal home:
Feeling like an animal with these cameras all in my grill
Flashing lights, flashing lights
You got me faded, faded, faded
Baby, I want you, na na
Can’t keep your eyes off my fatty
Daddy, I want you, na na
Camera, truss. Ralph and Okwui. Surrogate after surrogate, we look, unable to avoid surveillance but nevertheless making a place for ourselves.