wait a moment

WE REJECT at Slate Arts and Performance

by Alejandro T. Acierto

I found myself returning to the work and words of Charlotte Sáenz (a.k.a. Lozeh Luna) where she asked of her creative practice, “How do I learn to We and how [can I] (re)build a We with You in it?”[1]. In her essay, she goes on to ponder the possibilities of solidarity, of building and forging relationships among her communities. Situated within her creative practice, she asked these questions in relation to their impact on the objects that arose from these projects.

How does an object gesture towards We?
How do We manifest an object?

Finding it difficult to articulate exactly what it is that she “does”, she is sure that “doing this work requires constantly taking on different roles and identities, positions of power, and vulnerabil[ities]”. Constantly shifting, the attempts to We don’t allow for the privilege to I. To center oneself is to position oneself above or within a fixed position. To I is to fixate the I, to glue its position without the ability to change, to deny the influence of You, and to situate it apart so that I can never We.

In the attempts to We, I must step back and make space for You:
I must never overshadow You nor enable You to I.
We must always be diligent about making We.

Navigating the difficult space to We is reliant on shared responsibilities, of having done “the Work” and of ensuring that no one is overstepping their bounds. There are, of course, several Chicago artists that do this Work, who We on a regular basis and who are active in their work to We. Artists such as Aram Han Sifuentes, Laurie Jo Reynolds, Cauleen Smith, Chances Dances, and Maria Gaspar are just a few in town that make work that is diligent in the making of We. They are diligent to do the Work. They, as Sáenz articulates, ensure that “this work involves close collaboration with groups and individuals in many places” for they are invested in making the space to We. In making space for Us they then also make a space for Them. This investment of living, working, and doing the Work with others enables her/them to We, for to We is really to share the tools and resources that will continue to manifest the creation of other future We’s.

To We is to Work.
To Work is to continue to Work
for the work of Work is to continue to We.

Partway through her essay, Sáenz began to recognize that the aesthetic products that emerged from her attempts to We were really a privileged form of process. For her and her work, process was ultimately the thing that makes a We and the aestheticized objects that developed were made to support that process. There, as the objects were somewhat secondary to that process of We, they embodied the We-ness of learning to We. Though her work enabled and facilitated the process to We, for her to be with another, either in solidarity or in family, she must have done the work by herself. In that learning to We, she recognized that it “is also simultaneously often very solitary work, where the constant mobility and shifting contexts leave me with only myself as a consistent presence.”

The objects that then emerged from the process of We, which she made with or apart from those communities and families that she engaged, are also the residual marks of her own experience in that process of We. These (performance) remains were imbued with the stain of the process of We for they were a materialization of that process, time, and energy spent with and within those communities. The object then became a residual presence of the process to We: without this object, there was no evidence of their/our learning to We.

But as Sáenz alludes, the Work as a solitary act is also a process to Me. An artifact, the object remains to catalyze and sustain the memory of We as well as synthesize the process of shaping a Me. These objects and ephemera that describe the making of Me, whether they are made by Sáenz or any other artist involved in engaging communities, then offer the viewers a source or space to witnesses that particular process of We so as to enact their own processes and attempts to We.

I have invoked Sáenz’s work here really as part of a larger conversation that I’ve been having with myself.

If I’m not already engaged in the the process of We –
of learning to We –
how do I begin to We if I only know about (and don’t interact with) You?
What is a meaningful way to engage in the beginning of We?
Why do I want to We with You?

Sure, of course, You are here in my life. I am sure that I wouldn’t be here without You, You, or You. The various You’s that are not part of my regular daily life are harder to articulate, but I know for a fact that their presence will only enrich me.

You, who are unknown, possibly unknowable, are why I want to We.

At what point is my engagement with You really a way to talk about Me? In my search for a more actualized, more conscious Me, do I entangle You in a process of We to really fix the space of Me apart from the space of We? Can I use the privileged space of Me to enable others to We, with You, and make Us?

The making of political artwork is really, really difficult. To make intentionally political work is to invite others into a process of We, to encourage the viewer/listener to share in that process and to enable them to participate. History tells us that the tactics involved are vast as they traverse the spoken, sung, visual, or performative. And while there is no hard and fast rule about the mechanisms by which artists and creative practitioners make this work or how this work is made manifest, there is an underlying urgency to share, to be part of something larger: to We so that I do not feel alone.

In learning to We, I need You so that I can begin to Me.

Two weeks ago, I was asked to write about a closing event housed at Slate Arts + Performance for their show WE REJECT. Nestled in a small artist-run space at the northwest corner of Humboldt Park, the works in the show responded “to the current political climate of the United States of America”. Mostly filled with smaller sized objects and photographs so as to include a diverse roster of artists, the works on the walls ranged in media, process, and impact. As a collection of works, the show reflected the ways these artists deal with political content, with protest, and catalyzed a sensibility of shared dread, action, and collective grief. In many ways, the works on display relied on populist affirmations and common understandings of the power of protest – of the celebrated, historically tried depictions of political movements, and even gestured to the comical, if not depressingly comical. For example, one of the works in the show featured a cartoon-esque illustration of Donald Trump drowning in a flood of menstrual blood emanating from women’s vaginas that were drawn as if part of the mountainside. Screaming “AHH!” Trump’s compromising posture with tears flowing from his eyes points to the political power of women while also gesturing to his inability to keep afloat with women’s issues. But while work like this, among others, used shock-value as a way to reaffirm the necessity for social justice, what seemed to lack from this body of work was a sense of impact, or, to connect to Sáenz, a sensitivity that could enable a more complex, serious invitation to We.

This isn’t to say that all of the work on display was closed to me or without impact. On the contrary, many of the works were images that I could relate to, that I had a history with, or that reaffirmed my sensibilities. But did I want to We with the artists? Did their work invite me in and enable me to reconsider my relationship to the signifiers imaged within the work? Their casual matter-of-fact-ness merely offered a simplistic reduction of the matters at stake, a missed opportunity to recalibrate our sensibilities of relation. In my subjective experience, in the ways that I’ve begun to shape the trajectory of my own work and thought, effective (which is really to say, impactful) political work is work that invites me into the sharing of that experience, into a space that invites a continual return to questioning, sustaining, and enabling how we speak (and visualize) truth to power. As a viewer, as a person who has made a conscious decision to be with this type of work, I want to We with the artist, I want to be invited to We.

To clarify, I did get the sense that the space that hosted the work was invested in doing their own Work. As a small artist-run space, the work to We is always a struggle, particularly when there are bills to pay, mouths to feed, and careers on the line. But in this space, as well as other spaces like it that uphold and sustain the artists who share their work, I was able to register the commitment to We—it is legible in the type of work that they have been able to produce even in the short amount of time that they’ve occupied that space. To ensure and sustain a space even as small as Slate is to commit to an uncertainty, to take risks to continue to We. In these small sacred spaces, there is a desire to continue to Work even when the work that they share might not always further that same commitment.

To celebrate the show’s closing, the gallery organized a performance of musical works that were grouped with the theme of the show, making space for electroacoustic works performed by composer/performers Monisola Gbadebo and Ralph Lewis in their own respective sets. Using their laptops and other digital media, they shaped and sculpted sounds that reflected the current political climate. Timely work, they drew on recent historical events as source material from which to reflect. For what is political work if it doesn’t reflect our collective moment?

Does political work become outdated?
Can the work of learning to We be temporally displaced?

 Photo by Benjamin Kernes

Lewis’s first work offered us a reflection of the border migrant experience through the analogy of a radio broadcast signal. With text written and performed by Ileana Merary and accompanied by the Rogue Trio (with additional processing by Lewis), Fearless reception was an attempt to highlight and broadcast the feelings of an immigrant who is stuck between signals, stuck within the liminal space of identification that places them under extreme duress as they attempt to navigate the opinions and utterances of those around them. For Lewis, the (im)migrant is bombarded with a slew of emotions that they must navigate and reflect upon. But while they are faced with often conflicting sentiments that muster fear and trepidation, “love, even amid the imperfect and distorted negative reception, blooms through community members recognizing their shared humanity.” In this ideal, fear among both sides (because there can only be two sides) is equalized only when love is embraced and employed.

Structured into three parts, Fearless reception began with a hazy soundscape that evoked a mysterious and unknown uncertainty. Utterances of Merary’s voice emanated softly from the speakers as other samples and a live stream of the Rogue Trio in Phoenix played through the system. Lewis, careful with each incoming signal, controlled the sounds that were played into the space, listening and adjusting levels with accurate precision. A sense of caution was present and unfolding and I was intrigued to see how the work would develop. Quickly moving into a fast, arpeggiated interlude for instruments, the middle section dragged on, almost aimlessly. Sadly, the overarching framework of transmission was lost in this part despite the live stream from Phoenix. Repetitive cells of layered material continued throughout the interlude, and while Rogue Trio’s performance was exquisite, the material handed to them lacked the urgency to which the conceptual content demanded. Finally, in the last section, Lewis transformed the transmitted signal of the performers while Merary performed spoken word poetry above an instrumental accompaniment. Her poem told stories of the police, of the prison industrial complex, and of injustice that immigrants face throughout Arizona, portions which were sung though much was spoken. Throughout these passages, I was struck by the jarring content while simultaneously disappointed by the musical material that surrounded it. Holding sound in his hand, Lewis had the opportunity to transform the material so as to make his metaphor materialize with clarity, but unfortunately, the sounds of transmission, the audition of two simultaneous stations, did not come through well at all.

After its performance, I was left with unease – with a lingering sense that what I had come to witness was a situation that meant to We, but instead, tumbled into an I. 
He used You, but never quite made it into a process to We.

But to cast a shadow that implies his lack of agency because he is not a woman of color is also to miss the point. While the aestheticization and abstraction of a traumatic experience is not necessarily new, particularly in the realm of political art, the impact of this conflation is one that trivializes and minimizes the enormity of that experience.To reduce the experience of an idealized emotional dysphoria to the audition of being stuck within radio signals is to appropriate the historically marginalized body and equate it to a banal situational occurrence. The kumbaya-esque tendency of this work disorients the work from critical engagement, disguising what are actually harmful realities of privilege and power shrouded in charity with sentiments of peace, love, and equality. For me, what was disappointing in this particular piece was the sensibility that he hadn’t done the Work. For me, the residual object of his composition did not offer me a trace of his work to We. Despite his inclusion of Merary and her story, despite his intentions, despite the conceptual frame, I had no way to read that he had done or was part of doing the Work. For if he had done the Work, I feel that this composition would have materialized in a totally different way: his work would have Worked and invited me to We.

Reflecting on the material imprint of historically significant recordings, Monisola Gbadebo shaped sounds with her fingertips. She employed current technologies to manipulate recorded media and held history in her hands that enabled them to recur, repeat, and sustain. Her insistence to revisit these samples again and again without a particular regularity brought me back in each time to stay with her. Somehow, she invited me to We. A participant dealing with the residuum of her Black diasporic experience, I was compelled to know more. The restlessness of the material and its incessant irregularity that was simultaneously normalized became a broader metaphor for the content that she was navigating.

Was this the You that I needed to We?
Or were You always there,
waiting for me to accept your invitation so that I could learn to We?

 Photo by Benjamin Kernes

Drawing on two drastically different eras, though culturally significant within the Black diasporic experience, she questioned the impact of recorded media in its incessant repetition. In this work she asks, “when you hear a word 50 times does it retain any meaning?” For her, the constant recurrence of the historic diminishes its impact and normalizes its existence within a fabric of our collective cultural index. But in reclaiming recurrence, she highlights the boy who cried wolf while critically shifting her position from the auditory consumer to a producer of sonic culture. Gbadebo’s management of recorded content drove me to recognize the enormous task of handling media and pointed to the ethics of appropriated content. For me, the audition of her materialization of this media enabled the possibility to We.

Though her pieces effectively took me to consider the space of historical trauma and how artists and creative practitioners formulate strategies of endurance so as not to fall into exhaustion, I was compelled to think more about that trauma. Maybe I began to relate to her work as its conceptual and material content began to be parallel that of my own. Or maybe I was compelled because in it I was able to sense that I could begin to Me – that through the audition of her work, I was invited to We through the Work that she had begun. In this listening, I felt the invitation to join in her process so that I can begin to realize Me. There was a sense that at least the possibility to We was there – that if I were compelled enough to We, I would also be trusted to do the Work.

Not seen as a light invitation, this trust was a sharing, an extended hand, a beginning to We.

Had she learned to We?
Or did I sense that she was compelled into the process to We?

For those invested in the Work of social justice, we are constantly reminded that the Work is never intended to actualize an I. A shared space built on the trust of those invested in the Work, we recognize that to trust each other we must trust in the process to We. To commit to this process, I must never come before You. To commit to this process, we must always remain beside, behind, or with but never in front. In order to effectively begin the process to We, I must allow myself to recognize all the ways that I am inhibiting that process to begin. I must cleanse myself of the desire to use You to further the making of I. In making Me, You must trust that We will continue to Work, to persist and thrive in the ways that are sustainable.

Our lives depend on each other. Our bodies, forever entangled with each other, are reliant on a series of relationships that are actualized in our process to We. To continually stay present, to endure beyond exhaustion, even to desire to Me, You are needed to We. As a commitment to You, I trust in You to We. As a commitment to You, I will forever be committed to doing the Work, to (re)building a future together like Sáenz writes. Once we think that the Work is done, when we think that the future is fixed, we cement ourselves into the bodies and structures that we longed to be different from. The impermanence of these structures forces us to continue the Work and to commit to always including You.

[1] Charlotte Sáenz, “Learning to We”, Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, issue 6 (2008). Also accessible at http://www.joaap.org/6/lovetowe/lozehluna.html

Monisola Gbadebo and Ralph Lewis performed January 21, 2017 as part of a closing event program for WE REJECT, an exhibition at Slate Arts + Performance in Chicago. The performance featured works by composer/performers Gbadebo and Lewis, with performances by the Rogue Trio, Annie Lyle Mason, and Ileana Merary.

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