RASHAAD NEWSOME with Laila Pedro
For years, Rashaad Newsome has engaged with Vogue as a dance form and a community. As a participant, producer, and documenter of this complex and vitally important tradition, his work has encompassed video, collage, and dance. Newsome has also spoken frequently and eloquently about the complexities of autonomy, authority, and appropriation around voguing and other modes of cultural production by people of color. On the occasion of his solo exhibition THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO SEE, organized by Amanda Hunt at the Studio Museum in Harlem (March 24 – June 26, 2016), Laila Pedro asked Newsome about the evolution of his work, the many mediums in which he is fluent, and the evolving relationship between the body and technology. What follows is an excerpt of their correspondence.
Laila Pedro (Rail): Your current show, THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO SEE, deals with some of the concerns that have long defined your body of work. Can you talk about the inception of and intention behind the show?
Rashaad Newsome: The works in the show at the Studio Museum in Harlem were created between 2008 and 2014. The works are focused on the dance form Vogue and its community, which I have been a part of and collaborating with for more than ten years now. My friend, Assistant Curator Amanda Hunt, organized this show. Amanda has had a front-row seat in watching this work develop over the years, and she has always been particularly interested in the social practice aspect of the work. With the exhibition we wanted to draw attention to that element, as well as to the omnipresence of the gesture of collage in the work—the way I used it to transform what started out as a formal portrait of this performance practice into a much more abstract exploration of the body and architecture through multiple mediums.
Rail: Did it present a moment of looking both forward and back—at your career, your focus, the political and cultural questions you are engaging? I feel that you are wrestling with both the content and how it has transformed and evolved over time, and yourself along with it.
Newsome: It does present a moment of looking forward and back, albeit a small one, as the space was limited. It was an opportunity to show the viewer how the dance form has evolved. It was also a way to show how my own use of the dance had evolved as well. You can see how the forms within the dance become more complex, how much they influence the forms in the collage work, and how the collages go back to the dance and inform it.
Rail: I am interested in the intertextuality of your work. In a very literal way, Vogue as a vernacular dance form comes as a response to and a reabsorption of constructed, idealized reality. Bodies interpret and project their own interactions with this early form. The idea, culture, and significance of voguing have evolved tremendously and become far more complex and problematic since the early days. I’m curious as to how you see these interpretive, multimedia roots being transformed in our current internet- and video-driven moment.
Newsome: I have long been fascinated by how the creative and cultural productions of LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming black and Latino Americans who live on the margins of society traveled across national borders. The internet has played a tremendous role in that. What it did was allowing marginal folks to, in some ways, escape the spaces they were occupying and build community and support systems abroad. In other words, someone who lives in Brownsville, Brooklyn, could use their phone to film themselves performing, then post it on YouTube for millions to see. Another person in Aubervilliers, Paris sees it, is amazed, watches it again, rehearses, posts their version of it, and @’s the person who inspired them. Now you have two people in two different places connected through their fascination with this movement. The person in Aubervilliers develops a friendship with the person in Brownsville and learns more about the community, they see videos of the community on YouTube, they are inspired and start to share the dance with their friends, slowly building another Vogue community halfway across the world. This is beautiful. It is also problematic, especially when those on the other end don’t have the burden of blackness, or queerness. They can take what they’ve learned to other places and use it as a way to gain mobility in a way that is much more difficult for those who they learned it from.
So it raises an important question: How do the creators or originators of a culture retain some autonomy over something that is, at its core, meant to transform? These are the questions that keep me coming back to Vogue performance. It is a completely unique and appropriately complex way of engaging current discourses surrounding cultural circulation within global capitalism and the politics of authenticity and appropriation.
Rail: These philosophical—or ontological—concerns in your work are complemented by a complex system of techniques, strategies, and processes. Your work encompasses a tremendous range of mediums and approaches—a vast and ambitious scope of engagement and application. I am interested in the various practices that inform these.
Newsome: Most of my most formal training as an artist is in video. I have, however, studied—formally and informally—music production and computer programing. Those particular mediums are very engaging to me, so I often use them in my work. Although, I do very often experiment with other mediums as way to learn something new, usually those experiments somehow come back to video, computer programing, and music composition, and are then transformed.
When I started my collage works they were more flat. As a way to push the material further, I started to scan the images and bring them into postproduction software and animate them. This allowed me to create the illusion of depth in a way that had been more difficult previously. I then brought what I did in post-production back to the analog process, putting everything on different planes and making the images much more three-dimensional. In the first room of the exhibition you can see a collage piece called Ballroom Floor (2014), an elaborate photocollage tapestry, based on a synthesis of the preliminary drawings for the Pantheon, the Gloucester Cathedral, and images of St. Mary’s Church in Gdańsk, rendered in Cuban link chain, pearls, and diamonds. In the next room you see the same piece in the video ICON (2014) collapse into a 3D landscape for the dancers to engage with.
Rail: When did you first begin working with collage? Do you see a relationship between collage, mash-ups, Vines, and so forth?
Newsome: I think the gesture is the same. I also see that gesture as being central to the process of video editing or filmmaking or music composition. This gesture of collage is the glue that binds all the work.
Rail: The interactions between technology and the human body are also strongly foregrounded. As you said, you have a very intense expressive connection with video. How has that evolved? How is it used in this particular show? Do you see the camera as being responsive to the body? Is there a dialogue there, or a purely specular or functional relationship? In ICON you are engaging and transforming power dynamics through technology, dance, and beauty—playing with the optical dynamics of power, in a way.
Newsome: Video is used in several ways in the show. In Untitled (2008) and Untitled (New Way) (2009) the camera was used not only as a way to capture the image but also as a way to choreograph. The videos were created by filming the dancers’ improvisations, editing the footage, and then having each dancer re-perform my video-based choreography. The camera is very responsive to the figure. Voguing requires a lot of skill in a very short amount of time so the camera has to always be ready. My cinematic approach in those videos was to have the viewers see the dancers through my eyes.
Rail: Have you undertaken formal physical studies of dance or athletic forms?
Newsome: I’ve taken classes from some of my friends who Vogue exceptionally well and some African dance classes. Informally I just go off when I hear a beat I like, and when I see movement I like I try to do it. Overall I just try to be in my body.
Rail: Do you follow a set physical training regimen?
Newsome: Yes. I try to work out five days a week, stretch and meditate.
Rail: You’ve been vocal for a long time about themes of diaspora and appropriation or recuperation. Years ago, you talked in Artforum about the co-option of Vogue culture from the Black/Latin@ diasporas. Can you talk about having the show at the Studio Museum? In a way, this is a logical place to end up. It is an institution that in some ways is itself an act of institutional critique. Formally or structurally, is the way of taking the dance back into your own body and then projecting it back outward into this museum space a way of effectively refuting this co-option via your own physical agency? To you, does it mean something significantly different to be at the Studio Museum rather than the Whitney?
Newsome: Absolutely! And let’s remember that voguing started in Harlem and the Bronx. But when I think critically about that I have to also remember that, as much as I am projecting it back outward into this museum space, I have a responsibility to do it in the community as well.
Rail: You’re originally from New Orleans. Do you read co-option of New Orleans artists and artistic production in our current cultural moment? I’m thinking specifically of Bounce artists becoming very trendy in problematic ways. While the optics are great, things like Major Lazer performing in Havana are incredibly freighted with historical baggage. Havana and New Orleans have a long history of cultural exchange, both were slave-trade hubs, both are political flash points. Does this tie into your historical and political concerns? Is there a New Orleans diaspora?
Newsome: I read co-option of black cultural production in general and have read it for as long as I can remember. Jazz, rock and roll, hip-hop, street wear, black vernacular. The list is endless. In a lot of ways the show at Studio Museum speaks to that. It is titled THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO SEE for a reason.
It is, as you mentioned, absorption of black and Latino LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming cultural production projected outward into this museum space. Not just any museum space but a museum deeply rooted in the community and birthplace of the culture. It is an exhibition made top to bottom for us and about us, which is not to say that others are not welcome. In a space where things are so quickly co-opted, moments like these are precious. It is very important that WE SEE THEM.
LAILA PEDRO is a former Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. She is a scholar and translator, and holds a PhD in French from the Graduate Center, CUNY.