Whoever controls language determines the future. This is the message in George Orwell’s prophetic novel 1984. In the age of Twitter and social media, when language is abused, debased, and used to mislead, when hyperbole, slogans, and propaganda replace knowledge, and reasoned debate gives way to opinion, belief, and demonizing, we are all at risk. As language shrinks so do all the nuances of critical thinking. In such circumstances restoring integrity and meaning to language takes on a sense of urgency. It requires attention to the complexities and contradictions of our social, cultural, and political climate, and a willingness to challenge the status quo, including the rhetoric of fear, be it cultural or political, on the left and the right.
Thus we need to examine the challenges and responsibilities facing artists who employ visual, verbal, and kinetic language as a means to open eyes and ears to other ways of seeing, hearing, thinking and feeling, as well as those of us who write about the arts and culture. There is inspiration to be found in the work of those who have resisted the insidious process of erasure and contradiction that leads to a “normalized” acceptance of the oppression underlying this form of mental reprogramming. Understanding history matters!
In this new online column PERIPHERAL VISIONS: Perspectives on Culture. Media, and Performance, my essays and commentary will focus on performance and media arts within the larger cultural context and framework in an effort to shed some light on the various messages and meanings within these works. The reading of visual iconography is marked not only by the language we use to describe and interpret it, but by the experience of the viewer, the intent of the maker, and the context in which it is seen.
What I define as “performance” encompasses all forms of time-based works; likewise what comprises media arts is equally inclusive. The statue in the plaza is not simply an esthetic object, but a “performative” one. Just as communications technology is not a neutral space but a powerful interactive tool in which language and image can be used to create, illuminate, or manipulate “reality”. In addition I will be looking at work being done outside the establishment center with its commercial constraints and values, in order to represent a broader view of the condition of our cultural environment. My perspective may at times be controversial, but it is meant to encourage a lively conversation.
BEARING WITNESS & BEING PRESENT
We listen to the news, watch the images and we are appalled at each report of the senseless fatal shooting of young black men by police. We might ask ourselves how this epidemic could be happening again in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In the aftermath of each incident from Ferguson to Charlottesville we see history recycling itself. At what point do we stop feeling the impact? How long before we become numbed by the barrage of rhetoric, indignation and rage from Black Lives Matter to White Supremacists? And then we might ask how does an artist break through all the clichés to make an audience feel it in the flesh, make the experience real and present.
Choreographer, dancer and performance artist Jessica Emmanuel does it with her body. In her evocative solo Witnessing Her Emmanuel drew a gut-wrenching, slow motion portrait not simply of what it means to be black in America, but of what it feels like to be the recipient of violence. But first she put us at ease with ironic humor. She recruited two audience members to draw her outline from memory in white chalk on standing black pegboards. One female, the other male, they were ominous reminders of the police outlines of dead bodies on the street.
The lighting changed and the mood became somber as she assumed the role of the victims, her body contorting with each shot, twelve in all. The first bullet to the hip, the second to her stomach, the third to her heart, the fourth to a knee, the fifth to her neck, the sixth to a foot, the seventh to the other knee, the eighth to her head, the ninth to a shoulder, the tenth to the head again, the eleventh to her neck, the twelfth misses its mark. She drew red ribbons from those points on her body to the corresponding points on the chalk bodies as if marking the path of each bullet with a line of blood. The moment of impact was made ever more powerful by the controlled economy of her movement, the precision of each gesture causing one to involuntarily flinch, or recoil in response. We could feel her pounding heart, the breath knocked out of her, the fear, pain and defenselessness. Yet not a word was spoken. Cory Williams’ electronic score with its pulsing drone and shifting pitches created an ambience that underscored the tension.
Emmanuel seamlessly evolved from victim to grieving survivor laying five little dresses across the floor at the back of the stage. As she moved from one to another she re-enacted the gestures of being shot, reliving the moment over and over, but never overplaying it. Instead she let it slowing build to a climax. When she gathered up the girls dresses her anguish and despair was palpable, culminating in a heart-piercing sob.
For those of us old enough to remember, and for whom history is a living body of knowledge, a thousand images come to mind and form a background of references. For all of us the immediacy of theater brings it into the present. The power of live performance is in its intimacy. In making the political personal, Emmanuel was able to connect directly with her audience on a visceral and emotional level in real time and space. By enabling them to empathize, she created an opening to another way of understanding and responding to these events, and hopefully an awakening to our responsibility as citizens.
At the same time Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant film Detroit, is as timely and as relevant in its subject matter, and as powerful in the way it pulls the audience into the center of the action, claustrophobically close-up and inescapable in its intensity. Although fact-based and set in the midst of the 1967 civil unrest that ravaged a whole section of the city, director Bigelow, and writer Mark Boal’s film is neither a journalistic nor historical account. Instead it is character-driven, personal and visceral. It takes us inside a single event where we come face to face with the naked brutality and pathology of racism embodied in a young white policeman and his cronies, and how it shatters the lives of innocent young people, both black and white, all unarmed civilians trapped in its path. What happened in the Algiers Motel on that terrifying night of July 25-26, 1967 fell into the margins of history. Three African American men died at the hands of law enforcement, the others were brutalized, but the perpetrators of the murders and the unrelenting abuse that led up to them, were never convicted. It would be hard not to feel shattered by the fear and injustice we have just lived through on screen, and filled with compassion and indignation in the aftermath.
The emotional and psychological narratives that unfold inside the motel alongside the pent-up rage unleashed in the streets of Detroit are as deeply revealing of the present state of this nation as they were fifty years ago. The shock of that truth has dominated the media for more than a year, its ugly face unmasked both in the White House and in the rallies invoked in its name. But we need to know that as horrifying as what we witnessed on screen was, in the survivor’s words, it was much worse in reality.
Which leaves us with the question as to why, despite all the critical acclaim, so few people went to see this film. Why did Detroit die at the box office when it is the film everyone needs to see. Were people too fatigued by the onslaught of daily disasters, and thus preferred to escape into the digitized domain and sanitized violence of comic book fantasies? Or were they unwilling to look into the face of confrontation and experience the humiliation and pain of the victims and taste the bile of the bigots? Or was the ambivalence of those in the middle who turn away when they could do more, the source of rejection? Regardless, Detroit will live on as a cinematic artwork that speaks to us about who we are as a culture.
One of the ironies revealed in the film but not noted by reviewers was that two of the young men in the Algiers were Motown singers Larry Reed and Fred Temple (who lost his life). They had dreams and ambitions, and a belief in the power of art. Prior to being beaten, a mostly white audience had been embracing the music in a theater not far away. The fact that this music had already become a part of the soundtrack of our lives is emblematic of the schism in the American psyche.
Which brings us to the matter of public statues and the values they represent. Perhaps we should replace Robert E. Lee with Marvin Gaye. Or maybe with Larry Reed and/or Fred Temple, the two members of the group the Dramatics who were in the Algiers that fatal Detroit night.
Jessica Emmanuel – Witnessing Her
New Original Works Festival @ REDCAT
631 W. 2nd Street, Downtown Los Angeles
Photo credit: Stephen Wright
July 27-29, 2017
Detroit Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Written by Mark Boal
Featuring John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, John Krazinski,
Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell. Will Poulter
Annapurna Pictures August 2017
Jacki Apple is a Los Angeles-based visual, performance, and media artist, designer, writer, composer, curator and producer whose work has been presented internationally. Her critical writings have been featured in numerous publications including High Performance, The Drama Review, Art Journal, and Artweek since 1983. A contributing writer to Fabrik since 2011, she is Professor Emerita at Art Center College of Design.