Monday, February 25, 2013

What Is My Calling: Interrogating the Vantage Point of Practice As Criticism and Its Efficacy

The lights come up on four Black women whose complexions range from dark brown to brown to fair, they are arranged in space standing vertically along a single file line stretched horizontally from stage right to left. There is a bare black block positioned down stage right parallel to a pillar that supports the structure of the performance space. The women are motionless except for the rise and fall of their sternum’s being manipulated by their breathing. Eventually each of the four women one by one find themselves positioned on top of The Block slowly revolving around their own axis to offer their spectators a grand tour of their bodies. The three remaining subjects serve as the illustrators for the main subject’s (on top of the block) back-story. 

A man’s voice rings out, “I can’t stop” echoing in intensity coupled with various cinematic frames rapidly transitioning from one to the next hastily revealing the premise of the piece; three women and one man wearing numbered tags standing in place at attention anticipating their moment to be objectified in hopes of the most favorable outcome of this audition process. “This is something like the Holocaust, millions of our people lost… who gone stop me…” The song lyrics inspire the dancers to propel their bodies through the space moving with a deliberate pace maintaining defiant expressions on their face determined to be unforgettable. Then in the most unexpected turn of events they remove their numbered tags possibly deciding to reject their objectification and potential exploitation.

Both performances political in nature illustrate the selection process for the finest human specimen for exploitation using dance as the vehicle for their messages. The Block choreographed by La Teesa Joy Walker, re-presents the convention of American history and Not A Number choreographed by Wendi Baity represents the habitus of American history. From the conditions of slavery to the conditioning of slavery, both works invite their spectators to reflect on the process by which our American civilization was cultivated and established. While it may seem extreme to compare an auction to an audition, I maintain that dehumanization, subjugation and exploitation are all inherent in the depictions of both practices criticisms.
The Block states the following in its message, there is no undoing of the dehumanization of slave auctioning, yet there is also no denying its doing. This performance simply requires of its audience that they acknowledge the past and honor its legacy by accepting its ugly truths. This is not protest art or relational aesthetics and there is no call to do but rather to remember. I believe we risk perpetuating the dehumanization of this doing that we cannot undo when we seek to dismiss the effects of its trauma in an effort to numb our sensitivities to it. The efficacy of this practice is legitimized via its historical value and signification of a “nameless” people. 

Not A Number states the following, “only 1% of all dancers make their first audition,” then it asks the following questions, “what happens to the 99% remaining? Are you the 1% or 99%? Or do you choose to not be a number?” I venture to discover the efficacy of this message with my own inquires that follow: What if I am in the 1% and not the 99% or vice versa? If I choose to not be a number, am I better off? By virtue of my choice am I protesting for or against the audition process? Or am I protesting for or against marginalization in general? What does my choice signify and what does it require me to do? 

I identify with being a dancer as one of my various positionalities, and choose to be recognized as such. Thus to some extent I conform to the requirements for achieving and maintaining this identity. I can remember my first dance audition like it was yesterday, I was a freshman in high school confident as could be about securing a spot in the Dance Production program. With no formal dance training whatsoever I achieved the “1%.” I have always been proud of this accomplishment and why shouldn’t I be, for all the insufferable marginalization I’ve had to endure, this one was justified. So then is my pride indicative of my choice to be a number and does this mean I therefore chose to be subjugated and consequently represent an advocate for marginalization?
Completely attune to the personal subjugation of the auditioning process I remain unscathed by due to my positionality, I am not compelled to resist this “number” system or even condemn it but instead, I choose to not be defined by it. I accept that the nature of this business cannot be required to change to give anyone the self-perspective they need to define them as worthy. If we are to be down with personal subjugation we must then also be down with the general hiring process along with commerce and the system of our civilization. And while we might be, what else are we to do after we have rejected the American way? What exactly is our call to action? As one begins to realize that being and becoming conscious doesn’t free them from the negative realities that persist nor does it always offer change, they must then realize their calling and pursue it.
In the quiet aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street Movement I am reminded of its vigilant protest against marginalization and how the images of the slogan “we are the 99%” are now immortalized in the minds eye of our nations people. We fought a good fight but did we win? What has since changed? Perhaps this message of resistance and political protest like the performance practices discussed in this reflection were not endeavoring to invoke an immediate resolve but rather a shifting of perspectives that inspire an eventual change that all audiences may benefit from.

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