Underwaters (we is ready, we is ready) premiered in the lobby gallery at the Whitney Biennial on April 16th. taisha paggett, who splits her time between L.A. and Chicago, often presents her movement-based work in galleries and museums. After her proposal to create a piece featuring a large group of African-American dancers was discarded due to budget limitations, paggett endeavored to “still include their presence somehow, even abstractly, or if nothing else, to use this as a call to connect with other black dancers and movers and drive home the idea that this performance, and artmaking in general for me, is research.”
What emerged was an immersive experience in which paggett took on four different personas over a period of five days. paggett also scheduled a series of off-site interviews with subjects who self-identified as African-American and female or transgender in an effort to investigate the meaning of “black performance.” These interviews would be transmitted back into the gallery space in real time. Apart from the interviews, she resolved to take a vow of silence—except those times when she felt called to speak through a persona. In other words, she did not intend to break out of the mode of performance for the entire duration of the piece.
Over the first two days of the performance, I spend a total of six hours in the space. I am captivated not only by paggett, but also by the behavior of the other spectators, who are pushed to set their own courses for how to compose themselves. Some people remain perched in the doorway; others come right up close to inspect everything. Some talk loudly; others snap hundreds of photographs. paggett never looks directly at anyone, a choice that could either create a sense of autonomy or discomfort. I find expressions of self-consciousness, surprise, and curiosity—and then there is the embodiment of a certain stiffness that relays no reaction at all. In this space, everyone is on display. And yet it feels clear that it’s not about us; if anything, we are only getting in our own way.
Many performances that attempt to break the formality of traditional black-box productions wind up leaving me feeling unmoved or even cynical. It feels put on, too exertful: a representation of a somatic or affective state is still a representation. paggett’s work is so engaging because it appears that she herself is moving in and out of trance-like states, that she is both sure of her actions and letting them happen through her. The entire time I am present in the space, I feel aware of the inexhaustible offerings—between objects, bodies, and the ineffable presences that hover all around. These relationships are evidenced in the travelled lines she traces in the gallery, in the routes she makes in the streets that link her to other (black) bodies, in the repetitive domestic tasks of sweeping, washing, and dressing, and in the lighting of candles and the maneuvering of plates and chairs into shifting, seemingly-geologic masses. The interior of the space, with its stations for eating and dressing, at times seems designed to emphasize containment and exhibition. But these spaces also signify intimate, domestic spaces of self-care and ritual. In paggett’s work, a singular reading never satisfies.
The tone of the gallery never feels static: it transforms along with paggett, and even without her. While she is somewhere in the city conducting an interview, the room becomes an echo chamber. Voices bounce and refract from several speakers attached to the ceiling. I catch stray words and phrases, the rhythm of the conversation. It feels appropriate that paggett’s speech is audible but not accessible—that she is absenting herself from the performance and yet still present to our senses.
Back in the space, as paggett changes into loose white pants, an oversized white shirt, a suitjacket, and an afro wig, the spectators are suddenly pushed behind a divider by museum staff, “for our own protection.” paggett transforms into a persona with staggering, stiff movements, blindly reaching out with shaky fingers for plates on the ground. Eventually she straightens, stops trembling, and flings a plate against a wall as if launching a Frisbee—but with steely determination and controlled force. After rapid fire dish-breaking, she sits down on a chair, facing away from the crowd, breathing heavily. The divider is removed and the crowd surges forward with curiosity, crowding around a performer who now seems distant and vulnerable.
paggett’s exits and entrances repeatedly unsettle expectations as to the perimeters of the performance and the agency of the performer. On Thursday, I enter the Whitney only to practically walk right into paggett as she approaches the exit. She is dressed in her “normal” clothes, but her neck and face are covered with black liquid makeup and she seems to move as if she has a forcefield around her. Behind her stands a crowd of spectators who appear to be in a state of shock, paggett just having walked out of the gallery and past them. I go into the gallery, taking note of a stack of books on embodied memory, architecture, black geography, and geomancy. A few minutes later, I jump in surprise when the guard loudly announces, “She’s back!” paggett has re-entered the space and started pacing with decisive steps, walking forwards and backwards, twisting and lunging athletically, before approaching a tub of water and dunking her face in it. I feel as if I’ve been snooping in her things.
Towards the end of the second day, paggett changes into tight white pants and a long brown wig, which she finger-combs forward to cover her chest and face. She starts moving along the periphery of space, executing a simple movement that seems detached and somewhat sexual, always maintaining a steady rhythm. She then enters a corner and begins a mechanical slow dance, until picking up speed and becoming more angular, shuddering as she twists and rolls her hips. Soon she punctuates the movement with jumping, causing her hair to lift and reveal glimpses of her frontal body and face. Her breath grows loud and labored. The room is thick with concentration.
And then she stops. She walks over to the low shelf, picks up her triangle, and moves across the periphery again, ringing the triangle among the spectators. I move backwards to give her space as she changes back into her “regular” clothes. She places a piece of paper onto the floor, writes on it, props it against the wall, and walks out. It reads: “OH WONDER.”
Underwaters (we is ready, we is ready) is sacred research performed in public. Whether traveling the perimeter of the gallery or the grid of the city, paggett gestures to worlds beyond our sight.
ContributorJaime Shearn Coan
Jaime Shearn Coan (he/him/his) is a writer and editor who holds a PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of the chapbook Turn it Over (2015) and co-editor of Marking the Occasion (2020) and Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now (2016). Find him at jaimeshearncoan.net or on twitter: @jaimeshearncoan.