Scaffold Room installation with Okwui Okpokwasili, scenic designer R. Eric Stone, and Ralph Lemon, Burnet Gallery, Walker Art Center, September 2014 Photo: Gene Pittman
Artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room is many things: a performance, a musical, a lecture, and an exhibition. In development by Lemon over several years, it also emerges out of a curatorial collaboration between the Walker’s visual arts and performing arts departments. It is in many ways a response to the way in which contemporary art has started to engage choreographers, drawing dance into the gallery and often asking it to behave more like an object: observing a basic structure that is repeatable and digestible throughout the run of an exhibition.
Lemon has sought to question these conditions, including the very idea that performance, or the performing body for that matter, can be objectified.
Scaffold Room features ticketed performances, an ongoing installation, and also a series of refractions: performative vignettes that explode various gestures and scenes from the ticketed performance, and take place spontaneously throughout the exhibition. Prominent in the space is a confined environment made of scaffolding that serves as both theater and installation object. Here, live performances by Okwui Okpokwasili and April Matthis are featured alongside video of a rural Mississippi Delta community embodied by 86-year-old Edna Carter and her extended family, with whom the artist shares a long history. The performance weaves popular culture, nature, and science fiction through personal narrative, memory, found texts, and uncanny scenes created by the artist. Lemon’s project includes language and sources from some of the most transgressive American writers of the past decades, among them punk poet and experimental novelist Kathy Acker, whose prose examines power dynamics through a lens of explicit, sometimes violent, sexuality, and science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, whose work embraces futuristic and pornographic themes.
At the time of this writing the artists are in the gallery going through the work, and the institution is preparing for an intense week. What is obvious about this project is that it is going to be brilliant, entertaining, and difficult, and it’s going to ask questions of the Walker, its visitors, and the field more generally. Back in June I met with Lemon, Okpokwasili, and Matthis for lunch in New York. They had recently returned from a residency at EMPAC, where they had been developing the piece. Ralph has long collaborated with Okpokwasili, and their artistic relationship had developed out of dance. Meanwhile, it was his first time working with Matthis, and her background as an actress meant they were developing a different vocabulary. Reading that conversation now in light of how Scaffold Room has developed, I am struck by the many insights it presents on the work in process at a time of creative transition for all involved.
Bartholomew Ryan: Okwui, you’ve worked with Ralph in the past and most recently on How Can You Stay In the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? How does this project feel different in terms of process?
Okwui Okpokwasili: It feels like a continuation. It seems there are a number of experiences from all the past projects now coexisting at once. There’s a cosmology to this universe and we are receiving signals from it. For me, it begins with Come Home Charley Patton. That’s one way Scaffold Room is different. In the other pieces there was also a collective community of people negotiating a dangerous proximity of our bodies and figuring out what that language was together, and now I’m alone. But I carry the memory of their proximity.
Ralph Lemon: It’s really a collapse of time. There’s the past. There’s the present. And there’s this future sense of real time in what we’re working on.
Ryan: In How Can You Stay in the House All Day there’s a really famous moment of you on stage where there’s this incredibly embodied and dedicated and emotional…
Okpokwasili: Just say it! The crying!
Ryan: Can you talk about that piece, because I think the degree of emotional connection is exemplary of what is not normally brought into performance art. Don’t get me wrong, I realize performance art is also about certain forms of extreme endurance or extreme portrayals of self.
Okpokwasili: But even the crying seemed wrong in a theatrical sense. It was just wrong.
Lemon: Very wrong. People were walking out like crazy.
Okpokwasili: In Washington someone stood up and said, “Will somebody do something! You’re in a theater! Will somebody help her?” It was wrong on every level. It didn’t work theatrically, and it wasn’t supposed to work, because there was nothing preparing you for it, and then it began, and nothing preparing you for it to end. We had to work on that. I had to work on how to get there every night; we had a space for me to prepare in.
We developed a crying book, and I would look at it for preparation. It was filled with images and stories of people, in pain, in joy, in ecstasy. I would go to it and find a person or an event to meditate on and then cry for, and I would open and I would be engulfed. I would think of it as a cry for the world. It was an opening up, like heart shock, or a swollen stomach, with everything heaving up like a gusher or geyser.
Lemon: That whole Deleuzian element, another source. His essay, Fiction, from Pure Immanence. What fascinates me is that Okwui’s crying was real and not real. She was really crying, but it was also fiction.
Okpokwasili: No. It was real.
Lemon: But you were on a clock.
Okpokwasili: I totally disagree with you.
Lemon: The delirium of it.
Okpokwasili: The delirium is real. Fact and fiction were bleeding into each other. To delineate one from the other is so complicated, why do it? It is real. It’s all real. It’s all not real.
Lemon: I meant in a theatrical mindset.
Okpokwasili: But it wasn’t theatrical. I mean, yes, Ralph framed it. He’s talking about my experience of it, not your design of it.
Ryan: This tension is interesting.
Okpokwasili: I think it’s an interesting place for an actor to be, for a performer to be: that place where you’re really slipping though and away; you’re completely yourself and transformed. When the audience is present, there is no fourth wall. When I look into the audience looking at you. I’m looking at you. I see you. And you see me see you. There’s no place where any of us are invisible. Perhaps that’s where it can be interesting, to think of the constructing a self in relation to the presence of strangers. It’s an inevitable layer of performance, the subtle shifts that occur when an audience is invited in.
Ryan: In Scaffold Room, my understanding is that there’s a video that shows you preparing for the work.
Lemon: Which is controversial, because it’s private; I shouldn’t have made that public and I did without asking her.
Okpokwasili: I’m over it—but I hated that. I knew it was going to happen, because someone was videotaping it. I was like: OK, it’s inevitable that this may emerge out of the private archives into the very public playing space. Let’s just say I believe that Ralph makes sacred spaces even when they are public, even though I’m not saying “sacred” in the sense that we all bow down and pray. What I mean to say is his process has integrity. And his work is densely layered with exposure. In the actual performance, my back is to the audience the entire time; in the video, I’m finally facing the audience. It was inevitable that he would find it necessary to reveal it. And I trust him to honor the work.
Lemon: And they are painful because they shouldn’t be made public. There seems to be a demand that they become public. It’s like the Giraffe Boys, too. When I watch those, I’m continually very disturbed. But it feels like it has to be made public.
Can I ask, because we never talk about this really: Is there consciousness in what you guys are working on, that includes acknowledgment that you are a black female body?
April Matthis: I feel like you talk to me a lot about that. And you talk too about how Okwui is like your avatar, physically, and how for you I look like a black woman, a black woman’s body in a way that is not like you.
Lemon: I don’t think I said any of that, but it’s great.
April Matthis in rehearsal, Scaffold Room installation, Burnet Gallery, Walker Art Center, September 2014 Photo: Bartholomew Ryan
Matthis: Oh, you totally said it! You said exactly that. (all laugh) Because I thought about it a lot! What is secret in this process? I bring it up because I feel I am very aware of that and the questions I have around that. They have been talked about with the costume and me being associated with the red-goat girl and it being necessary that what I wear is body-conscious. I do feel I’m in conversation with that and how we talk about Beyoncé, or how we talk, or don’t talk, about Adele or Amy Winehouse, or how we see your body, Okwui, when you take off your pants, or when we see you in the video and you’re also wearing body-conscious clothing.
I feel like there’s a question that’s being asked where we have to look at our bodies and draw from that whatever kind of associations you have or don’t have. That’s on the table. We’re reading Kathy Acker, and we’re talking about the body and explicit sexual material; all of that is in the container to be considered. I don’t know how guided it is or how open it is, but it’s definitely there and it’s something that I’m aware of in how we exist in that space together and not together. And then, there are images of Edna Carter and these other women, these nameless, sometimes almost faceless women, undulating in slow motion while we’re talking about Beyoncé or whatever. The black woman body is on display. Men, too! And there are images of innocuous little boys in crazy, giraffe heads against text about—
Matthis: Children raping children and tiny cocks getting slapped. That’s there. That’s there for the taking. That’s what makes you get uncomfortable, and it’s a tension you keep because it’s interesting. All of that is awful. And then there’s what the Scaffold Room is and whatever white space is.
Okpokwasili: As a brown body, our bodies are not neutral bodies. Not in this society that we’re in. If I’m Ralph’s avatar, I’m also masculinized. Sojourner Truth said, “Ain’t I a woman”? The whippings, the mutilations, the hangings of black women with children barely off the breast, they do not occupy the space of the feminine.
Matthis: There’s another world, too, of the dancer’s body and what we read as a dancer’s body versus what we read as not-a-dancer’s-body. There’s a certain phenotype of long, lean, this-is-what-we-enjoy-looking-at versus this-is-something-we-have-to-look-at-a-different-way that is also there too. In a way it does neutralize our skin when all things being equal are black. I always wonder, what does this mean here and now?
Ryan: What is the “here” here?
Matthis: Here is the Walker. Here is New York City, Minneapolis, the dance world, and the names of people…. The vocabulary of people who know this world, and how honestly it’s not people in this restaurant that we are in who are going to be seeing this piece. And not the people who are going walking around on the High Line, they’re not coming to see this piece.
Scaffold Room work-in-progress, EMPAC residency, June 2014. Photo: Ryan Jenkins
Okpokwasili: Many of these small, sophisticated audiences are largely white audiences, and they may not understand, or feel implicated by, the readings that have been compiled over centuries to land on our bodies. But even a black body, like my body, that may be in the phenotype of that long, lean, dancer body, it’s still a brown body. And it’s still in a space where it normally wouldn’t exist outside of a fetishized discourse. It’s a staged incursion from the outside.
Ryan: Given this idea of what is inevitably on display, how are you anticipating this happening in a white cube gallery at the Walker with probably a largely white audience? Is there any worry about how it might come to feel, like you’re under a microscope?
Matthis: I feel there’s no alternative Utopian space where I wish it were. I feel like it’s designed to be exactly that: to be exactly in a white box space at the Walker with a predominately white, Minnesotan audience, and not whatever the opposite would be, like at the bandshell in Harlem in Marcus Garvey Park. I guess that would be the opposite. I feel this is not for one audience or another. I guess, it might be for an audience that is interested in visual art or performance art and is used to that. For me, coming from mostly a theater background, what I appreciated most were the rules and expectations were not the same at all. I hardly ever got the notes that would be the type of notes I would get if this were a solo show in a regional theater. There are so many different decisions to make about arc, and character building, and emotional response that I’m so glad to be free of. Now if these things overlap or intersect coincidentally or intentionally you do get some of that.
What it’s about for me is shifting relationships with the audience, or with my relationship with the text, or just being inside the piece. It changes a thousand ways all the time as we go through it. It doesn’t feel finished, like a little nugget of a piece to sit and watch. It does feel more slippery than that. It feels like dance to me, and it feels durational. I don’t have any expectations of oh, because it’s here it’s going to be objectifying. People can read it that way, and I can have different moments where I feel exposed or vulnerable, but there’s different clockwork going on inside and outside.
Ryan: Can you talk about why it feels more like dance?
Matthis: It’s highly choreographed. It’s specific. It’s about space. It’s about my body in space at a particular time. There’s rhythm. It’s really about expression and movement in a way that you’re meant to look at. Every gesture that I make, or sigh, or whatever, to a certain extent is something I’m conscious of.
Ryan: As you’re improvising?
Matthis: The notes I get are more technical. Or they’ll be like, “that part was good!” or “how you said that was good.” But it’s not like theater where it would be “I’m not really sure what you’re thinking in this moment” or “I don’t believe that you’re really upset by that” or “this should make you angrier.” I never get anything like that. Something I have gotten “this should move you” or “this should move someone else.” It feels like a physical action either with my voice or with a gaze. Not to make it seem technical, but even just a way of thinking, and a mode of performing; sometimes I feel you’re my audience and that’s all this is: a musical concert. And then sometimes I feel like it is a lecture, and sometimes I feel like it’s anecdotal, and sometimes it feels like I’m going off script.
Ryan: Are you going off script at that moment, technically?
Matthis: No. (laughs). Sometimes things I said off script become a part of the script, because Ralph was like, “Oh, that’s great! Keep that in there.”
Ryan: Ralph’s identity as an artist and choreographer is very mutable, but the cliché of the choreographer is that they are totalitarian. April, what is your sense of your own autonomy as a creator within the project?
Matthis: There’s a lot a freedom and a lot of room, and that’s by design. Maybe in contrast to what Okwui’s piece is. There’s specificity in the coordination with the video, for example: timing of certain things, and accidents that must be repeated in the same way. It’s been drawn on my own execution in the room. It doesn’t feel foreign or imposed as much as it feels organic. Maybe that’s because Ralph knows I don’t have the dance vocabulary that most dancers you work with would have, and so it’s been kind of ad hoc or accidental. For instance, Ralph notes that on a break I’m skipping around because we’re in this big, giant space that we have all to ourselves. Then Ralph says, “I like that. Now do that in the piece.” (laughs).
Ryan: I love this idea of you as this ongoing magpie of gesture.
Lemon: It’s also interesting because she sees it as a dance piece, and I so don’t!
Matthis: Maybe because that’s my perception of you.
Scaffold Room installation, Walker Art Center, September 2014. Photo: Bartholomew Ryan
Lemon: No, it’s great! It’s like this whole is constantly being reconstituted.
Ryan: I approach this from a visual arts frame. It seems to me that this piece is holding up a certain inability to belong and a lack of desire to perform a structure that would be legible and comfortable from any one of those frames.
Lemon: Yeah. For me that’s the guiding principle behind making work, or my particular practice. You create these questions, or these problems, and out of them there are certain moments that I call accidents, which are not solutions to the problems but just enrich them. I wouldn’t define it as not belonging. For me, it’s closer to Fred Moten’s idea of the Fugitive. That there is a fleeting towards or away from something.That feels like an inherent quality to this work.
Matthis: And more empowered than asking to belong and falling short.
Lemon: I’m going to this white cube, and that’s thanks to the Walker, because you approached me with something that would be so perverse from the initial mind limitation, no museum space, no theater space. But then you were like, but what if it were an anti-museum space? How about if we had the biggest, whitest space we could find? And, I thought that’s so perverse. Yes. Let’s do it because it’s so problematic. That keeps the tension of it, and I’m not interested in it failing, but I am interested in having a really fraught conversation with the politics of both these worlds. I feel we are doing it in this work.
Ryan: That is bringing up a lot of problems for you in what way?
Lemon: In the not knowing, which is also a part of the fugitive work you don’t know. There’s the element of moving. I don’t know! It doesn’t fit in this. I don’t yet know how to make a work for the Burnet gallery space. I do know how to make a work for a theater and I’m trying not to make that work, and that feels counter-intuitive. But all this feels absolutely right. I don’t know how to direct, and I’m working with an actor—a really good one. What I told April early on, what I like about working with her is that I don’t really know her. I really know Okwui, but I like that contrast. There’s no hierarchy here. They’re both embodying the same space differently.
Matthis: Maybe my experimental theater background lends itself to less strict rules of what a relationship to an audience is or what a piece needs to be. So I’m comfortable with wherever and however we do it. If none of it is heard or if only part of it is observed, it still has its own logic. Your question: do I try to be true to it, or do I try to connect emotionally or connect to a character? What Ralph has written, whether or not that’s technical, I feel like this piece is a thing, and an object. and its own weird shape. As long as I’m making that shape, it doesn’t matter where that shape exists. It’s an object; it doesn’t matter if it’s hanging or if it’s on the floor or if it’s on the pedestal or if you happen upon it on a field, it’s still the object that it is. That’s all I’m working at.
Ryan: An object can be transported here or there.
Matthis: It can be looked at. It can be not looked at.
Ryan: But it changes from place to place too, right?
Matthis: It changes depending on who’s looking at it, when they’re looking at it, how they’re looking at it, how much of it they’re looking at. But, it is itself.
Lemon: And how the environment defines it. I find that very encouraging and comforting. Because April and Okwui are not the problem.
Ryan: (laughing) Right, right.
Lemon: And it’s not like I’m the problem either.
Ryan: What is the problem? Is there a problem?
Lemon: Yeah, the problem is how we inherently frame something in these particular worlds. We are going into a very defined, white, gallery space with which comes a social politic about how something is viewed and looked at. I do feel I am obliged to make sure that I am articulating as best I can that this can be looked at in a different way. It doesn’t have to be that binary argument we keep having of “Why is there a theater space in a white gallery space?”
That would be unfortunate if that’s as far as we got with this. (laughs) Or, on the other end, this is a bad performance art piece, right? (all laugh) I do feel the job, or my part of my work, in parallel is to define this thing for myself, and for April, and Okwui performatively and visually. It’s to make sure I’m creating a space where these questions are forefronted and generative. And yes, for some it’s going to shut them down. It’s going to be this or it’s going to be that. But, I do think that we can help that conversation by making it not so certain.
Ryan: Why is it called Scaffold Room?
Lemon: Because it is a scaffold! It is literal. It’s a frame. But to me, conceptually, frames are there and they’re not. If there is nothing they are framing, what are they framing? At the Walker I’ll have a frame that gets framed again by the white space, which is interesting to me. At EMPAC, where we developed the piece, we were framed in a theater. We tried to put fake white walls in the theater, but it still stayed dark.
Ryan: I like this mise en abyme. Is it theater being put on display, or is the gallery being put on display?
Ryan: There’s a show opening at MHKA in Belgium in a few weeks called Don’t You Know Who I AM: Art After Identity Politics. Would you relate this work to projects in the 1990s that would have historically been identified with identity politics?
Lemon: No, and it’s a disturbing question, because I don’t want this piece to be that, but it is, in essence, part of that. I think it is a contemporary take on it. What I’m trying to do is go back to Moten’s idea of blackness: the idea of it not being post-racial, because it’s definitely racial. He’s talking about a space of blackness that he calls capacious, a place and time much more generous because lots of people can be inside that space. That’s what I’m trying to do in this work. Yes, I’m using two black, female bodies and not a white, male body and an Asian body. There’s Kathy Acker, and there’s Amy Winehouse, and there’s Adele and, of course, Beyoncé.
Ryan: And there are also other people floating around. You could throw in Amiri Baraka and Genet; you could create a kind of cultural genotype.
Lemon: There’s Henry Miller.
Ryan: Moms Mabley.
Lemon: We are bringing out the fact that Henry Miller was up in Harlem studying and fucking around, I imagine. We’re talking black and beyond black. I feel what we are talking about is an acting-out culture.
Matthis: Black contains all of that. Black is not exclusionary. It’s everything. There’s a part in the text where we say, “White Brits are so white. Whiter than white Americans, so they can hold any color. That’s why they’re black.” (All laugh). But, the same could be said for blackness; it holds all the colors.
Lemon: Which is ridiculous.
Matthis: We’re all black.
Matthis: It’s so much more interesting, but it doesn’t take away anything at all. It doesn’t reduce or try to neutralize. It’s vivid and powerful, everything and nothing. I always wonder, what’s the alternative? What would be less ’90s racial politics? What could possibly be less?
Ryan: I just did an exhibition 9 Artists, which was trying to think about this as well. The artists in the show embody and traverse certain identity codes including nationality, ethnicity, etc., they don’t ever truly align themselves with them. They use them when they’re convenient, or will inhabit them when they need collectivity for organization, but they also step away and reject them and create new forms of intimacy and community. Particularly in the context of contemporary art, (which has so blandly historicized this earlier period that we call “identity politics” as if you could historicize it), how does one now engage these questions without bogging oneself down in the inevitable dead ends within which these discourses have been mediated? I don’t know if bringing up that question automatically puts it into a certain kind of space?
Ralph Lemon and Okwui Okpokwasili, Scaffold Room installation, Walker Art Center, September 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman
Matthis: We talk about black and white, and there are times when we’ve talked about taking out some of that language. I don’t feel this piece is bogging itself down. Now, how it gets talked about and how it gets framed fields a question like that, or starting it off with these questions, leads us down that path. But I don’t think the piece itself is doing that. A big part of that are the projections and the Carter family. They’re so removed for me. My expectation for whatever I’m worrying about, not being or hoping will get translated, will just go out the window. It’s a goat head on a woman with a red dress on and she’s fumbling with her clothes. Its not like: Here we go again, another black woman in a red dress wearing a goat head. It’s just not a recognizable enough image to be something that—
Lemon: Well, they are the future. They are so present and so historical. But here’s the problem, Bart, we are still in the ’90s. We have to keep talking about this as it’s changing. It’s different from twenty years ago. There is still something nagging at being black, or gay, or a woman. We’re still living in a society.
Ryan: It’s still a structurally racist society.
Matthis: How successful can those pieces you describe say they were?
Lemon: We are not at a place and time where we can stop talking about it. It’s just, how do we talk about it now?
Ryan: Yes, but how do you talk about it within the art world that has successfully neutralized the last way it was talked about?
Lemon: Think of all the volumes. That’s the question: who has the megaphone at the moment?