URGENT TOMORROWSby Tara Aisha Willis
JACK | OCTOBER 16 – 18, 2015
Performer, choreographer, and scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz and dance artist niv Acosta have co-curated a weekend of performances, screenings, discussions, a dance party, and even a brunch, around the themes of “Afrofuturism and utopian/dystopian visions of a queer Black tomorrow” at JACK in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. The series, titled “afroFUTUREqu##r”and produced by Shireen Dickson, includes performances by Grisha Coleman, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, Niall Jones, Eto Otitigbe, Brother(hood) Dance!, Christina Blue & Adam Boothman, and others—including the curators themselves.
Before the festival, Tara Aisha Willis spent some time chatting with DeFrantz and Acosta about their curatorial process, their take on queer Afrofuturism, and the potency of performance.
Tara Aisha Willis (Rail): How did you first come together to conceive this weekend around the theme of Afrofuturism and black futurity?
niv Acosta: Tommy initiated first contact a little while back. I, of course, jumped on the opportunity because I love Tommy and it gives me another excuse to be close to him. I haven’t seen Tommy in years, not since my time interning at ADF when I was enamored by his succinct and very black teaching style.
Thomas F. DeFrantz: I’ve been working in Afrofuturism since the early part of the 21st century, around 2000. I’ve been really invested in it conceptually and trying to teach through it. Alec [Duffy] at JACK said, “Do you want to do a platform? What would it be? I’m sure you know lots of artists I’ve never heard of,” and I thought, “that’s a funny way to narrate it, but I know there’s something I’m interested in pushing in Afrofuturism.” When I reached out to niv we talked about how Afrofuturism gets marked as kind of macho, hetero-male—even though it’s totally queer. That’s been my sense, and I really had that feeling when BAM did the film series last year [Space Is the Place: Afrofuturism On Film]. It felt very straight. I was drawn to Afrofuturism because of its queer potentiality, how it really made space for the non-normative—that’s what made it interesting and hip.
Also, it’s an intergenerational team. I get to say that now! Working with folx I haven’t gotten to hang out with much is important. I’m a big fan of not trying to do anything by myself. I think that’s really deathly when you’re working as an artist or in the academy, especially as a person of color, because we all get overburdened.
Rail: niv and I were speculating about why you asked him to co-curate.
DeFrantz: Well, what’d you come up with? niv, you were doing DISCOTROPIC and “the denzel series,” and I thought: that shit is hot as hell. That’s what I want to learn from and be in the presence of. I always tell my students to put themselves in the presence of something they think is great or really don’t understand. I told everyone in the series, “here’s the theme, now go, let’s put ourselves in eachother’s presences, see what we come up with together.”
Rail: Talk about your selection of artists, and how they’ve come together for you within the curatorial frame.
Acosta: I know I’ve been working in a parallel universe to a lot of black folx who, like me, are activating a future within the present. My invitations don’t feel curated in that the list of folx I’m interested in is extensive and meandering. This is what I like about the topic of Afrofuturism. There are as many threads in the fabric of space and time as there are particular focuses for black folx exploring futurity. I’m greedy and I’m interested in all of them because I value them equally as dominant conversations in dismantling structural racism.
Rail: What do you mean by a “parallel universe”?
Acosta: There are so many ways that people are engaging with this conversation, particularly black folx, and it’s interesting to discover that people have such varying ways of approaching it. Each of them is unique. Every time I’ve had a conversation with someone about Afrofuturism there’s never a sameness, just excitement over the subjects. People love Uhura [from Star Trek], are interested in Samuel R. Delany, or have differing feelings about Octavia Butler’s work. That’s what I love about the universe of Afrofuturism: it’s so vast in how people react to it, approach it, and manifest their own versions of it.
That’s what I mean by “parallel universe”—I feel like we’re all working in tandem, in our own universes. A platform like this is somewhat of a check-in. A lot of what this is for me is about connecting with all the artists, just having the conversation in the first place, and that being enough. And that has extended into the curation. On Sunday we’re going to have a brunch panel about appropriation. And on Friday night we’re going to have a dance party. And Tommy was thinking about having an open mic moment on Saturday.
DeFrantz: There are six actual performance slots and lots of surprises in between. There are going to be film screenings, theoretical discussions. It’s going to be a place to hang out.
Rail: Afrofuturism as a label is so desirable right now. Couldn’t this have taken another direction, an attempt to define or demonstrate what it is for dance or performance, like a representative showing?
Acosta: When I’m thinking about curation these days I’m not really thinking about dance as a central requirement. I’m interested in all sorts of media that are interacting with the conversation, like Christina [Blue] and Adam [Boothman]. I saw a performance art piece they did on a rooftop in Crown Heights. They had fresh bananas on a long table, and the mostly white audience would come up and say, “Oh, I’m so glad there are bananas here,” but meanwhile there’s a performance behind a fence with masks and a sign saying, “No Petting the Zoo Animals,” or something. It was very racially charged. That’s the sort of thing that’s great, how younger people are engaging the conversation. Afrofuturism is a deeply action-oriented proposition for the future.
Rail: I’m curious to hear you riff on the differences between the artists you’ve selected: some use sci-fi and Afrofuturism in marked ways (Grisha Coleman’s and your recent work, niv, come to mind) and some less explicitly (Niall Jones or Eto Otitigbe have both dealt with ideas of loss, which I think inherently asks questions about potentiality and black futures). As niv was saying, there are a lot of different approaches to the same mode of thinking.
DeFrantz: We don’t want to use the “d” word—diversity. But everyone has a different relationship to the concept of Afrofuturism, and also to queer. That part of it, leaning towards the queer Afrofuture, is urgent to me—to not let it be an unmarked Afrofuture. The potentiality becomes urgent: imagining possibilities rather than rehearsing slights and oppressions. That said, the open Sunday brunch will be a discussion about the new black performance elite—the black “performerati”—and what it means to work with venues and structures of presenting and producing that are still very white. Even as more and more communities of color materialize that are trans, queer, gay, same-gender loving, poly, we still get stuck in structures with a small group of white people who are very happy with their power. We’ll hopefully have a charged conversation about how that’s operating and what it produces. It’s not about rehearsing what’s happening, but about imagining this Afrofuture that’s queer inflected, queer invested, and queerly engaged.
Rail: JACK is an interesting space for this series because they state a mission “to transform the relationship of arts and community.” They’ve done a lot of programming bridging political concerns and Black Lives Matter, hosted community conversations, and also drawn themselves thoroughly into the performance and art scene.
DeFrantz: The Civil Rights Movement is built upon people of color and allies. The allies matter. Power can’t be shared, but it can certainly be redirected, minimized, and maximized. There are ways to work with each other that are less about domination and control. We can all model these spaces and possibilities for each other, and let everybody else into the room. Let’s get in there; let’s have a dance party on Friday night with glitter!
Rail: It’s also such a timely curatorial frame: we’ve all been doing a lot of thinking about “Black tomorrows,” imagining futures and potentiality in black lives and black living. Thinking about “what’s to come” or “what’s not yet here and now” feels like an especially urgent project.
Acosta: I like to think exploration in futurism is one solution for effectively creating the world we want to live in. I know the white supremacist machine makes thinking about the future quite difficult for folx of color in this country because we’re worried about getting shot in the streets, or job security, or education access, or lack thereof, or, or, or, etc. So we’ve been made to only think about the present when thinking about the future could be one part of our collective salvation. Futurism is a conversation that can lead to action.
What is powerful about the technology tools we have now is that they have been a source of revolution for a lot of black folx. Thanks to the internet we have faster revolutions. All the police brutality would not be visible if someone wasn’t saying, “I have a Facebook account, and I’m going to post this on Facebook. People are going to see it and it’s going to become a conversation.” We can reproduce the conversation, reproduce the action, the protest, and the policy.
Rail: What does this kind of performance series, or performance itself, do in that picture?
DeFrantz: I’m really high on performance: I think it’s the most amazing thing we can do in relationship to each other, but it can only ever make manifest what already is. This idea of a Black tomorrow, a “could be,” is still pretty provocative, unfortunately. We’re just beginning to understand how to reckon with that truism, if it is one. And if blackness is a grand, master trope (if we even want masters at all) of performance, then what does a performative Black tomorrow look like? It’s going to be funky and odd, rhythmic and sensual, super smart and non-literate—a production of sensation. It’s not going to be nostalgic, but concerned with memory. I want to separate those two: every memory isn’t about nostalgia. There are some remembrances that are propulsive. That’s how all of the Ferguson events operate. We’re not nostalgic for sometime before, or sometime when civil rights activism was better. We’re using the memory of what’s happened and continues to happen to propel us towards more profound social engagement. What will be is always unknown, but if we can’t imagine it we can’t realize it. If you don’t ask, you can’t get. If you’re not in the presence of something that makes you curious, you probably won’t figure out how to be curious, to expand and free your mind.
Rail: Speaking of memory versus nostalgia, someone recently raised the point to me that Afrofuturism has an internal contradiction: it can be so concerned with the past, strangely nostalgic, constantly trying to identify a lineage for itself in expressive culture that actually wouldn’t have defined itself as Afrofuturism at the time it was made. But that also strikes me as a very black way of working: hungrily hunting down the sources needed to imagine forward, finding a genealogy for yourself where one is hard to come by, innovating or improvising in relation to past traditions.
Acosta: I agree.
DeFrantz: I think that our group is imagining forward in unusual ways, but not necessarily creating genealogies. I don’t think there’s always a looking back to imagine forward for Afrofuturists, but that’s true for black expressive culture and I don’t know how Afrofuturism gets out of that. It’s very hot for dance artists right now to align with Afrofuturism. It seems to do something that calling your work contemporary just doesn’t do. It’s too white. So Afrofuturism gives us a way to claim a black-inflected contemporary, black-inflected experimental performance, outside of saying it’s experimental performance that “happens to be” black. This is experimental performance that begins by being black, that recognizes its blackness first.
Rail: It seems like the kind of imaginative, speculative thinking that Afrofuturism offers—the fact of thinking about the future at all—may be the point or the reason in the first place. Sci-fi gives us a chance to see what options are possible, what they might cause to happen, but it’s most potent in that it gets us to think differently in the present.
Acosta: I think speculation is a mode of thinking that most black American folx practice regularly. It’s survival. Science is the same way. Creativity is the same way. Does this mean we’re more resourceful? Yes.
DeFrantz: Afrofuturism is an activity, a verb, a thing that needs to be done. It give us propulsion. And to tie it to dance and performance: it does something different when it’s connected to breath. We love our literature, the Octavia Butler, the Nalo Hopkinson, the Samuel R. Delany. That stuff is urgent. But when it’s tied to actual performance and breath it takes all different shapes—it’s not always a funky costume and a cyborg. In the “afroFUTUREqu##r” platform we’ll see sculpture that gets animated, a performance using technology in an unusual way that tells a story about someone’s life. There’ll be some poetry. There’ll be CHEEKY LaSHAE (Kenya Robinson’s avatar).
There are a lot of different approaches; they’re not singular or unified. Another thing that happens with Afrofuturism is people think it’s one thing, and we want to open that up, explode that open. It’s lots of different things but they’re all propulsive, energetic, and undoubtedly enlivened. We are enlivened.
ContributorTara Aisha Willis
Tara Aisha Willis is a dance artist and PhD candidate in Performance Studies at NYU. She is an editor for The Drama Review (TDR) and Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory. Her writing has recently appeared in the Movement Research Performance Journal.