WEEKSVILLE HERITAGE CENTER | JUNE 24, 2015
Baltimore-based choreographer and dancer Rakiya A. Orange is creating a new solo, bothandor,in response to visual artist Kameelah Rasheed’s installation, FUTURE PERFECT / indices & marginalia, at Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Weeksville Heritage Center. Taking up three walls of a gallery in the museum devoted to preserving the site and history of one of the U.S.’s first free black communities in the nineteenth century, Rasheed’s work assembles fragments and materials from various institutional and internet archives, including Weeksville’s own. The ongoing exhibition, curated by Ali Rosa-Salas, includes an artist talk with Rasheed and a community dinner held in collaboration with The Free Breakfast Program, and continues through Orange’s performance on June 24th.
Orange’s solo Aziza premiered in DoublePlus, a split-bill curated by Miguel Gutierrez at Gibney Dance Center in November 2014. After having had the privilege a year ago to read extensively from Orange’s writing about the making of that work, Tara Aisha Willis took the upcoming performance at Weeksville as a chance to continue the conversation virtually during Orange’s new choreographic process.
Tara Aisha Willis (The Brooklyn Rail): So, since you’ve been asked to respond directly to Kameelah Rasheed’s installation, I’m guessing you’ve gotten to chat with her a bit about where she’s coming from with the work?
Rakiya A. Orange: Rasheed told me that the installation itself is celebrating this idea of black self-determination and re-creating a community. Because Weeksville was one of the first free black northern communities, Rasheed spoke of blacks having to create a nation within a nation during the nineteenth century and again in the late 60s with the guidance of Joan Maynard [who spearheaded the preservation of the Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 1968]. Rasheed’s larger question in assembling this work and probably all of her work is “How do I create a black utopia?” No answers or thoughts followed. I appreciate that she gave me a rather broad explanation. I feel like she left space for interpretation and choice-making on my end.
Rail: I’m curious to hear what kinds of things have come up for you either in conversation with her or in what you’ve seen of the installation so far, and how you first started thinking about this project. Where are you starting from and what has emerged for you as you engage more and more with Rasheed’s work?
Orange: I started in silence. I improvised a lot in the studio in silence, just thinking about the images that Rasheed put together. I only had her personal website, which showed me a snippet of her work, and the wall text that briefly explains the FUTURE PERFECT / indices & marginalia installation. A part of me felt lost and stressed because I hadn’t physically experienced her work before starting to make my piece, but I just continued to believe in what I was creating. If anything, this work would be an exploration of my memories of blackness—how physical reorderings of the body during critical moments in life can initiate radical changes.
Rail: When I saw the installation, which is so archival and historical but also blows a lot of that up (literally) into the space, I felt like I was seeing both how these objects and texts have been assembled through Rasheed’s filter and how history seems to be seeping up from the ground where it’s been all along—especially at Weeksville. To quote the piece’s wall text, I wonder if you’ve been thinking in specific ways about this “excavation and cataloguing” process Rasheed employs. It seems like that process—creating “layers of words and images”—is actually part of the material of her installation, not just the documents themselves. And thinking about archival process as part of the material of the piece also seems like a really powerful way of dealing with black representation, representations of blackness, and maybe even blackness itself. How do these ideas resonate with your own choreographic process, and how you’re working on this piece? Is Rasheed’s searching and assembling resonating at all with how you’re going about this project choreographically or in your physical research?
Orange: I’ve been thinking about how things are archived in a more contemporary context that involves the use of technology. Often, large files of video from rehearsals or performance are compressed to save room or make space for other material that has to be saved. The idea of compression, for me, alludes to ideas about reduction and simplification—at times decreasing the quality of the material, just so that it is kept nice and neat. Those files can be shared more easily and quickly because of its new compact form, but I question whether or not that material is at its purest. There is something about the “digital world” that lacks authenticity for me. I’m interested in hard copies of things, the “real thing,” tangible things. Things that take up space. That’s why Rasheed’s installation intrigues me. It sort of seems like blackness is taking up space in an affirming way.
Thinking about Rasheed’s archival process in creating this work instantly brings the idea of care into my mind. She seems like she was interested in reconstructing and activating a history by manipulating materials. The way in which she takes up space with paper, books, and images allows one to experience the installation in multiple ways. It also seems like she left the residue of her effort behind with her choice layering of papers/books and the torn/cut pieces of paper.
I am looking for ways to access and activate my archived material in my own body. I used Isabel Lewis’s idea of bodily imprinting as a framework to retrieve memory. Every fiber in our bodies holds onto moments—ephemeral or perpetual. I am interested in the ways information is received, recognized, and then attached to and mounted onto my body and other bodies—in bodies as cultural storage systems.
How is my body marked? What is my body marked by? These are questions that I am asking myself throughout the process of creating and performing this work. I began with text—some from my grad school thesis, and some from various poems. Then, I chose to use a more esoteric sound score of songs created by Bobby McFerrin on his Circlesongs album. The scatting in the songs lends itself to the layering in Rasheed’s work, but the melody and background vocals speaks to the cyclical nature of histories.
Rail: Your use of the word “reordering” earlier is striking to me—not just because it links clearly to the layered nature of Rasheed’s archives, but also because you link it to the experience of your body during moments in your own history. Like the idea of your body as “cultural storage system,” experiencing moments that shape it. Certain marks may survive and can be called up, others may not—but what lingers? In a way, Rasheed is reordering in the present the residue of things past, and you’re working with past reorderings of your body.
Orange: Yes! Residue—that’s what I’m gathering from the images. I am working with past reorderings and how they directly affect me in the present. I’ve been rehearsing in an empty studio for the most part, but just recently I decided to put some of Rasheed’s images on the walls. It instantly shifted the way in which I was moving through my material because I found myself stopping and staring at the images. Mind you, the images are rather small in size so I’m expecting that the scale of Rasheed’s installation will have a larger impact once I’m in the space. Perhaps these things past that Rasheed has reordered in the present will shift and potentially transform my cultural storage system, creating new memories that become connected with my past.
Rail: Being in the room with the installation felt like being present with a lot of knowns and unknowns: we get recognizable snippets, we search for meaning in them, and then there are lots of truncated, partially obscured bits, or pieces whose significance we can only guess at. I’m thinking especially of how so many objects are cut into parts or blown up large: meaning is being built up like a residue on the walls by discombobulating these documents. Or maybe this is how they’ve always been configured all along without us knowing, and the real potency of these documents is revealed.
Orange: Right! There’s something about not knowing, and then knowing. But how did you finally know? Did someone tell you? Did you experience something? Did you read it in a book?
Rail: Exactly. And I know in your recent solo, Aziza, you dealt with different ways of being visible and invisible to your audience. The piece complicated the ways your body is comprehended as black, as a woman, as a mover. There’s something about how making sense of race often involves a whole lot of what we might call “non-sense,” or logic that doesn’t hold up. But of course, that “illogic” is such a huge, undeniably real part of how we function. How does the failure of attempts to make simple sense of race and gender function in your process?
Orange: I consider Aziza my body of work—as in the only work that I’ve created that is part of my repertoire, the only work that I would happily perform again. Because that piece is still so fresh in my mind, similar ideas have surfaced in making this new project that I am titling bothandor. After the recent Rachel Dolezal “scandal,” several #askrachel hash tags appeared with quizzes that Rachel should take to confirm her blackness. I believe those quizzes speak to the non-sense that you are alluding to when thinking about race and gender. But, those quizzes, nonsensical in nature, comment on the life or death nature of how we function. Personally, I felt like I was asserting my blackness by knowing the answers to those questions. And when I didn’t know an answer, I felt that perhaps I’m not “fully black” or “black enough.” The fact that we can’t make simple sense of race and gender is active in bothandor. I do believe that I am struggling to define these terms through movement. But I also don’t necessarily have a desire to make simple sense of race and gender.
I am inspired by the intellectual suffixes that Rasheed lists: black-s, black-ed, black-t, black-en, black-er, black-est, black-ize, black-fy, black-less, black-ism, black-ology.
Rail: Like I said before, there’s almost a feeling that the pieces and parts in the installation are surfacing and gathering to form a very particular whole that Rasheed’s process makes visible by filtering certain things into the room.
Orange: Perhaps getting towards that black utopia that Rasheed speaks of –
Rail: – in an almost linear shape around three walls.
Orange: Past, present, and future?
Rail: Right, but without having the logic of a timeline. Utopia is a great way to put it! The “future perfect,” the future as perfect. The grammatical tense is like talking about the future as if it were already here, completed, achieved. Like a declaration of certainty about how the future will be, but before it’s possible to know. So the future perfect is totally full of potential and impossible all at once: utopia. Faith in utopia, maybe?
And again, Rasheed accesses that by way of the past’s residues surfacing on the walls in new arrangements. So working with movement rather than archival materials, how do you determine which things appear and in what way? What are you interested in bringing into the room, so to speak?
Orange: I’m thinking of my body as another layer, more material to take in. I think perhaps my body moving in conjunction with the dormant text and images in the room (the way in which Rasheed has organized these materials suggests activism, but not literal movement) will advocate for other histories and stories. Perhaps a: pseudo-BLACK, super-BLACK, non-BLACK, dis-BLACK, intra-BLACK, anti-BLACK, sub-BLACK—a list that also comes from Rasheed’s material. I’ll determine how I arrange and assemble my movement response in conjunction with the way Rasheed chose to construct the space.
I constantly represent that I’m from Baltimore and I know I definitely plan to bring that into the room—this particular room at Weeksville and the dance/performer/art “room” at large. Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I committed to living in New York, but then I walk around Baltimore, realizing that this city fuels and inspires the work that I make. Baltimore gives me my unique perspective.
Rail: Rosa-Salas’s curation of the whole series of events this month seems to question linear ideas about the past, present, and future, and about history as it’s recorded, experienced, and created. Or better put, it seems to express the need for time and history to be considered as more interconnected and assembled. Are you thinking about this piece in terms of literal passages of time, or how the trajectory of a performance might be experienced?
Orange: I do believe that there is something important about acknowledging linear ideas of past, present, and future first, but then being able to take that timeline and kind of blow it up to see what happens. I’m interested in the way that multiple stories and histories can exist alongside Rasheed’s work and my bothandor. I’ve focused on creating something that speaks to various points in time, but all references may not be legible. I imagine the performance happening long before people arrive and continuing long after they’ve gone. Although I won’t actually be dancing hours before viewers arrive or after they leave, I want the ideas that surface for viewers to carry them home.
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.