On November 22nd, a gathering of approximately twenty-five people of high school and college age came together and had a conversation about an exhibition at the Walker right now; Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. Our conversation was part of one of the performance pieces in the exhibition, the first one you see as you walk up to it, a long old table with eighteen chairs made of plastic and metal. They came from a former public elementary school in Chicago’s South Side, and now are setup in the exhibition as a classroom type setting in the gallery. The piece is called See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court (2012) by Theaster Gates. This space has been occupied by different people leading conversation open to the public, including Ralph Lemon, Coco Fusco, Theaster Gates, and Keith Ellison. This day, it was lead by students. The people seated around the table came as part of groups such as WACTAC, University of Wisconsin Lacrosse, Penumbra Theater, the African American Registry, and more. We all looked around the exhibit, and came back and wrote down questions we could possibly pose to the group for conversation. Students Hold Court was a very intense, intriguing, and real discussion addressing many subjects brought up by pieces in Radical Presence, and the following is a summary of what we talked about on that day.
To start off, we went around the table and talked about pieces that we saw that interested us. A few people mentioned the video by Zachary Fabari, High Fructose Corn Syrup Fix and White Flour Constipation, which one found puzzling, but another suggested that it could have something to do with globalization, and the effect that has on media and advertising. One person talked about another video that is computer generated, and he had to watch it five times before he was able to connect to it, and described it as “fantastical.” Another person mentioned was a series of photographs where a black man walks around in Germany in beige lederhosen, which they feel said something about trying to fit in. Once everyone shared their brief thoughts on something they saw in the exhibit, a staring question was posed to the group that was written down earlier by someone at the table.
“How is the title of this exhibit, Radical Presence, explained in the pieces? Or what does the title really mean?”
First off, one person noted that things are considered radical when black people are present. She wishes that wasn’t the case. “It’s not radical because of the control black people have in these pieces, it’s just because of their bodies being there. You don’t have control over what identity you’re presenting to people, but you can control that with art.” Another person said that black presence is not seen all the time. Someone observed that there is boldness brought with each piece, and that some things in the exhibit even have labels with mature content warnings. One person said that radical means change. It means questioning, to try to explain works that are asking tough questions. “Ideas are part of the plan, they’re not just wishes, they are something purposeful that you are moving forward with.” Another said that radical is grasping things at their roots and fixing them. “In this case, the roots are identity, performance, and thinking of oneself as black.” Someone questioned our topic, asking why is this all considered radical? What is the actual reason for black performance being considered radical, and not something you would normally see in an art museum?
One person found the performance Eating the Wall Street Journal (2000) by William Pope L to be related to the last question. In this performance, the artist sits on a toilet which itself is on top of some tall scaffolding, and he eats the Wall Street Journal, milk, and ketchup, and vomiting it up. He said this shows the absurdity of business culture. “The Wall Street Journal controls so much.” I added that in this piece, Pope L is physically sick of what that news source is saying, and what the media in general is saying. Someone built off of that saying it’s a critique of the things we ingest and consume each day. What is the media trying to tell us, and what’s really going on? One person felt that Pope L’s performance is larger than just the Wall Street Journal, “it’s all the other one-sided news sources and stories accepted as the truth. We put a lot of unquestioned faith into the news.”
An example brought up was #pointergate, a story that came from a seemingly reputable news source. How many people saw KTSP’s broadcast on it and thought it was true? How does a story like this represent Minnesota, especially when it got a bit of national attention when Jon Stewart made fun of it in all of it’s sad ridiculousness on the Daily Show. It was brought up that the man in the pointergate story, Navell Gordon was wearing loose fitting jeans, a large t-shirt, running shoes, and talks with a black dialect. Because of this, people see him as being associated with gangs. Someone questioned that if he was wearing a suit, would the story be the same? Classism contributed to pointergate as well. A person there said that stories in the news are often changed when the people involved are black. “Black artists are putting themselves on the line over and over again.”
“What do you think about using own body/bodily fluids as a medium? I think people might be grossed out, but is it disgusting? Why? Why not?”
This question was mainly directed towards a video of a woman who put a knife through a lemon, used that knife to cut her tongue, then slowly drags her tongue along a wall. Many people’s immediate reactions were being grossed out by the video of her performance, but they also said that it took dedication, and that it was powerful. “The intimacy of it was powerful. This is a piece that was common for many people to find confusing, but because of that confusion, people have a conversation about it, and having a conversation about it is what makes it powerful.” One person said that it is not the body that’s big about it, it’s the art. “The artists body is just being used to convey an idea, and she doesn’t care if she got hurt in the process. Her body is just a way to convey her ideas and her art.”
“Being the race and gender you identify as or if you choose no identification, what emotions have you experienced growing up with the internalization of the media?”
Someone said that media pushes ideas into people’s heads, generalizing a lot of things. People have unique experiences but the media displays groups as- “archetypes of a person” another added. Yes, the first speaker continued, saying everything is categorized and put into a certain idea of “normal.” People at the table shared stories of disassociating themselves from people in their communities, and feeling like they don’t belong because of being mixed race and not fitting into one category or another. “People make you pick if you’re mixed race, you can’t be both.” Someone pointed out that it’s not just the media or social groups that make you fit your identity to what they want. You have to identify yourself on college applications, which only give you the option to identify as white OR hispanic, with no option for being biracial. A person said that culturally, we want to categorize people. Someone explained that “we believe everything has a place. We’re trained to categorize things, like in a grocery store. We compulsively feel the need to categorize.” Another explained that we categorize, because otherwise, it’s overwhelming. Categorizing someone as a high school student helps you know something about them.
One person said that at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, art is categorized as “Asian”, “Native American”, or “African”, but then there’s “Modern”, grouped by time period rather than place of origin. Should we categorize like that in art? It was pointed out that we have this art because it’s unique in where it comes from. Someone said that identification is important because of representation. The person saying this said that it makes her excited to see homages to being black. “Assimilation to whiteness in America is not necessary. Categorization is good in some circumstances.” Then someone pointed out that if you say it’s just art, people will assume that it’s by a white artist, but the racial association with Radical Presence gives you a different expectation to what you will see. A person said that categorization is difficult in our culture because most things are assumed to be white. A student said that white males are the default. “The NBA isn’t the men’s NBA, but anything beyond men’s is specified. You don’t say ‘this is a white man’s perspective’ in art. That’s assumed.” Someone suggested a balance of categorization. “Showing diversity in everything would help to fix that.” Another person said to decide what category you’re in. “Own your labels and be proud, like being Transgender or Latina.”
“Self expression is cool, and I kind of wish I was more like the artists in the exhibits in the manner of being down with who I am. Do you have any suggestions of helping me get out of the phase where I can not express myself?”
The first suggestion was to experiment and find new ways of expressing yourself. “Question the venues you use to express. It doesn’t have to be planned or have any expectations. Just do it. Don’t plan.” One person said that art is something that comes from you, and you don’t have to be specific in any way. Another added that we don’t have to know ourselves to make art about yourself. Someone said that art is questioning things. “Talk with people like artists and adult mentors. Share your ideas and experiences.” The closing words to our wonderful ninety minute discussion around an old table with twenty students in a noisy gallery was “Try to follow yourself and you do you. You’re always right for you.”