Dr. Zira (played by Coco Fusco), psychologist and chimpanzee from Planet of the Apes, takes the stage to deliver a lecture, Observations of Predation in Humans. The self-proclaimed “Friendliest Black Artist in America,” William Pope.L, instigates a 25-hour marathon reading of the John Cage’s 1961 anthology Silence: Lectures and Writings. Theaster Gates presents Holding Court, a space made of furniture salvaged from a shut-down Chicago public school created towards the end hosting transparent dialogs between the art world and its publics. The director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem receives artists, professional and amateur alike, to review and discuss their work.
These are just a smattering of the fascinating holdings available only on RadicalPresenceNY.org, a website designed and coordinated by William B. Marshall; Jamillah James, former communications coordinator at The Studio Museum in Harlem; and Monique Long, the Studio Museum’s curatorial fellow, that is dedicated to preserving the work of black performance artists as featured in Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. During its six months in New York, the exhibition displayed 100 pieces by 36 artists and hosted 38 performances and public programs staged throughout the city at Artist’s Institute, Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center, Fales Library, the Goethe-Institut, the High Line in Chelsea, Performa, Roulette, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Third Streaming, and Tisch School of the Arts.
The show originated at Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston under direction of the museum’s Senior Curator Valerie Cassell Oliver and subsequently moved to New York, where it was held in two parts. The first ran at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery from September 10 through November 7; the second from November 14 through March 9 at The Studio Museum in Harlem. On July 24, it opens a five-month run at the Walker.
Both the exhibition and the supplementary website are notable for the scope of their achievement. Radical Presence tells a new history of performance art and adds an invaluable new frame of reference for thinking about black artistic production in America. The website augments this mission to tell a history of black performance art by extending the lifespan of the endeavor and facilitating public access to these works of art and their related documents.
Among the site’s many gems is its extensive documentation of the historic performance of Senga Nengudi’s seminal (or, perhaps germinal) piece from the 1970s, R.S.V.P., wherein the artist’s long-time collaborator, Maren Hassinger, activates the work’s fleshy sand-filled pantyhose affixed to the gallery wall by moving her body through the piece—and thereby pulling, twisting and knotting it. Previously known primarily as a still object, the video shows it being activated, allowing a new reading of it as at once a dance and a sculpture that highlight the gracefully restricted movement of the dancer’s body and the materiality of feminine existence. Included in the site’s documentation of the piece are behind-the-scenes photographs of an intensive workshop in which Hassinger and Nengudi trained three younger artists to enact this groundbreaking piece. In an interview in the digital archive Nengudi explains its less-than-apparent source of inspiration: “You know, people talk about Richard Pryor and how his comedy was true stuff: whatever he was feeling, he gave to the audience with no buffer. In a sense, this was me laying my guts on the line.”
Documented discussions, presentations, and roundtables are among the scores of unique digital items that enhance the experience of the exhibition. These took place throughout New York City and feature the artists in conversation with curators, academics and one another about the legacy of this work and of the particular issues it presents to museum collections. Connected with #RadicalPresenceNY is the Fales Library and Special Collections blog “Documenting Black Performance,” a platform used by the library’s curators and interns to share historic documents relating to black radical performance in the arts scene of SoHo and the Lower East Side from the 1970s on through the ’90s.
Similarly held in the site’s video archives is footage from “Three Duets, Seven Variations,” a series co-presented by the Studio Museum’s Associate Curator Thomas Lax, and Performa Associate Curator Adrienne Edwards. This group of events brought together six intergenerational artists to demonstrate longstanding themes in black performance art. Tameka Norris was paired with Senga Nengudi to present work that explored the female body. Jamal Cyrus performed next to Benjamin Patterson allowing for a look at their conceptual (and humorous) explorations of sound and music. And Zachary Fabri was partnered with William Pope.L in an engagement that demonstrates the influence of John Cage and postwar art upon black performance artists then and now. Each of these once ephemeral performances now has a permanent home on the website.
Given the importance of this ensemble of works, the online home for Radical Presence will be a key point of access for both visitors who see the exhibition in Minneapolis and future scholars and art lovers who wish to continue to engage the history of this important movement.