Performance Musings

Ariel Osterweis

Month: February, 2014


Hi John,

A quickie…

I’m thinking about the different registers, stakes, and impacts of the symbolic and of appropriation in your current work. Early on, you said you were interested in the symbolic. And then in the NYLA showing, a lot of what I saw I was framing through appropriation. There’s an aspect of snatching or stealing to appropriation. A reductive example is Madonna “taking” voguing in the 90s from underground ballroom culture into the mainstream. Lots of people would agree that this is some kind of appropriation. But then, what I was loosely referring to as “appropriation” in your current piece didn’t contain the kind of violence (of ripping off from minoritarian culture) you find in Madonna’s voguing antics. The question of money and circulation adds a certain dual celebratory and violent patina to Madonna’s practices. Within the context of experimental concert dance, however, appropriation operates as a kind of meta-appropriation in the sense that the blackbox theater provides a reflexive space for you to comment on appropriation by engaging in small acts of appropriation…without disseminating these acts through mass media, music videos, and other such widely available commodity platforms. What I find in your stepping and cheerleading section is dependent on the symbolic: appropriation is only really possible in the symbolic realm of signifiers. I am reading the stepping/cheerleading section not as a lived-with habit of appropriation, but as a transitory glimpse of appropriation that functions through the logic of the symbolic. It stands in for something–black fraternities? College cheerleaders? African American “collective effervescence?” If we posit that appropriation is only possible in the symbolic realm, the “glimpses” I mention are moments of appropriation (in and of the symbolic order). If appropriation seems less apparent in other sections or movement passages, is this because you were purposely being less explicit or because appropriation is often inherently latent, hidden? Who hides it and how does it get hidden? I don’t want to get bogged down with Lacan right now, but he distinguishes the “symbolic order” from the “imaginary” and the “real”; the signifier and the Other are important aspects of the symbolic. The Other is, of course, at the crux of questions of subjectivity, identity, and belonging. The way we have toyed with titles such as “u   s” and “we” speak to this. (Later I think we should delve into Lacanian psychoanalysis even if we find it unhelpful in the end. I also want to bring in the writing of an art historian who reads the symbolic in relation to the museological production of death and decay.)

The “something” above is not insignificant, as we must ask, why stepping? Why the MLK speech excerpts (in Singer’s solo)? What I find symbolized in these sections—and I must specify that this is especially and only within the context of the 35+ minutes of other movement material we have been privy to while watching the piece—is a generic “America” (which is itself a symbolic way of actually referring to the U.S.). And the way I see these symbolic glimpses into “America” functioning is through an acceptance of the view that America is inherently Africanist, that black performance is already an aspect of America’s whitenesses, blacknesses, Asiannesses, hispanicnesses (I pluralize here to make a point about racial and ethnic plurality…of felt experience). Moreover, these symbolic moments that call upon collegiate marching band-derived dances and performances stage questions more than they provide definitive answers. After all, answering is not a Jasperse-ian gesture. We should also examine the components that contribute to the symbolic in this work: music, image, language, even (perhaps especially) movement. The more time I spend in rehearsal with you and the dancers, the less I feel that we can demarcate a true shift between a “Jasperse style” and a “post-Jasperse style.” Trying things on seems to be how you’ve arrived at your idiosyncratic and highly explored movement style, and no matter how “foreign” a trope might be–whether a collegiate dance form like stepping or a theoretical concept like perception—I’m inclined to say it functions as a symbolic instance along an otherwise self-knowing choreographic landscape. If we consider Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “minor literature” (which refers to Kafka’s writing), we might ask ourselves if these symbolic moments in your new piece generate a minoritarian choreography…or, if they point to minoritarian culture within a choreography that is already (differently) minoritarian in its queerness, its careful embrace of a rigorous vulnerability. Would it be too crude to ask, how does choreography that emanates from a white gay masculine consciousness inform and ingest black performance (oration, music, dance)? Alternatively, the collective effervescence of university sports arenas (the occasion for marching bands and their accompanying cheers and dances) are hardly a comfortable context for the queer kid, the experimental choreographer, or the contemporary dancer. While I think it would be overwrought to claim a “post-Jasperse style,” I want to leave a question out in space (a queer space?): how is Jasperse’s new choreography racializing and gendering its “America?” Does a generic America exist? Or is the US only ever a personal, particular amalgamation of disparate cultural, historical, and symbolic images, experiences, and commodities?



I contributed this short essay to Dirty Looks NYC (Creative Director Bradford Nordeen), a monthly platform for queer experimental film and video. It is on Narcissister and Josef Kraska’s video, The Basket. Here is a link to the site:


It takes a person about four minutes to read aloud one single-spaced page of text. That is one minute less than Narcissister and Josef Kraska’s video, The Basket. Skimming here and there, you should get through this particular text in a time frame that corresponds with the video. While The Basket is based on Narcissister’s performance piece of the same title, it is not merely a documentation of that performance. It is an archive of another sort, a simultaneous weaving and unweaving. During the course of this five-minute journey, The Basket crisscrosses temporalities such that an Eastern European woman morphs into an African American mammy figure who, in turn, finds herself stripping down to a shiny red Louis Vuitton bra, exploring the impossibility of nakedness in commodity-driven culture. Bound to the moving image, cinematic time weaves multiple temporalities—historiographic, imaginative, textual, musical, and choreographic. By stripping off layers and layers of clothing in real time against various painted backdrops of lost times, Narcissister juxtaposes the disparate temporalities and visualities available to her through her combination of performance art and visual arts. Welcome to the melancholic mash-up of Narcissister’s post-Soul, mixed-race feminism. Drawing from her family heritage, Narcissister’s scavenging of imagery takes us on a trip from pre-war Eastern European folk dance to the blinged-out sexuality of Lil Kim’s millennial hip-hop America. Because her timeline seems to terminate with the year 2000 (the year “How Many Licks” debuts), Narcissister is afro-futurist not in her choices of source material, but in her mutability. Her stylistic quick-changes and her insistence on wearing a mask and merkin engage a kind of magic, one in which we are impelled to believe in a utopic fluidity of identity.


In Narcissister’s performances, things are also scavenged. Embracing a DIY craft aesthetic, she appropriates both material and image, constructing her own sets and costumes out of found fabrics. Narcissister recontextualizes tropes typically associated with the objectifying gaze and commodity fetishism of capitalism by placing them in reflexive performance settings that lie on the fringes of capitalist modes of commodity circulation. Her disavowal of theatrical virtuosity—and its fetishization of the cult of individual persona—asks us why and if we want to know what lies under the mask and what we expect of racialized performance. Denying us a consistent character, Narcissister’s dance performs ruptures along a continuity of striptease. For her, surface is supplemented by material thing; even when a piece of clothing is removed, it leaves a trace. Her mask and merkin are things that haunt even in their presence. Robin Bernstein tells us in her book Racial Innocence that “performance is what distinguishes an object from a thing” (74), an idea that gestures toward Jane Bennett’s vital materialist theory of “thing-power.” For Bennett, Kafka’s Odradek functions as a kind of remnant of culture—neither subject nor object, animate or inanimate.

In “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance,” Tavia Nyong’o expands Clement Greenberg’s proposition that kitsch is failed seriousness to include the idea that racist kitsch, from historical ceramic figurines of black children to the self-conscious curating of such imagery in the Spike Lee film Bamboozled, generates in the African American and anti-racist viewer shame and oppositional spectatorship. Nyong’o’s hope is to locate a way to transform the shame of feeling less than human that comes with racist kitsch’s oppositional spectatorship into an experience of racial kitsch that escapes scapegoating and instead engenders self-recognition. He wonders if there is a way for the African American spectator to regain innocence without the bloodletting of—and identification with—the scapegoat in black performance. Narcissister calls upon the objecthood of racist kitsch, then complicates it with the performance of the moving body. By donning hard masks and placing doll-like heads in various orifices, Narcissister places the brittle surface of the racist kitsch object (such as that of Nyong’o’s figurine) onto—and into—the mutable, muscular surface of a live fleshy body. Her performances are costumed (and un-costumed) in a way that questions the fluctuating status of objecthood and subjectivity in performances that cite racialized and gendered figures such as Josephine Baker, Marie-Antoinette, and Whitney Houston. While auto-, object-, or thing-based penetration can perform self-care, Narcissister’s appropriations of culturally rehearsed images such as the Topsy doll can also evoke masochism and rape. As Bernstein writes, “The scripts of black dolls often merged servitude with violence (206)….A scriptive thing [is] an item of material culture that prompts meaningful bodily behaviors…a script for a performance. The script is itself a historical artifact” (72). Bernstein provides the example of “rape imagery…of the skirt-flipping topsy-turvy doll” (206) and asserts that, “All dolls in play…trouble the boundary between person and thing—the terror at the ontological core of slavery” (222).


Ever one to try to take down the insistence of Marxist theorists that society is defined by economic relations, structural anthropologist Pierre Clastres reduced the division between men and women in primitive Guayaki (Aché) Indian society to bows and baskets: men handled bows for hunting and women handled baskets for gathering. Queer theory doesn’t love this limited view since it fails to acknowledge the possibility of queer or trans* gender roles in primitive society (Clastres said that men who carried baskets metaphorically became women). There is a certain uncomfortable tinge to the stereotype of women as basket holders (and weavers); at the same time, we find evidence of the feminization of baskets in almost any culture. Narcissiter’s entire oeuvre depends on the recognition of stereotypes—both our belief in them and our desire to dismantle their hold. Moreover, she situates us as viewers within that shameful space of perceiving the degree of truth inherent to any stereotype. In The Basket, Narcissister is the basket holder: she does laundry and folk dances in a white mask which gives way to a mammy in a black mask doing chores to Nina Simone’s pained rendition of “Wild is the Wind.” Regardless of race, Narcissister’s women-selves are subjected to basket holding, even once stripped down to a merkin and a shiny red bra with metallic Louis Vuitton logos.


Throughout The Basket, Narcissister’s flow is interrupted by calls—a call to change, a call from home, a call from the unconscious, a call from the future? She answers old school phones buried in laundry baskets. Evoking a decaying filmstrip, the edges of the frame are blurred; every time the phone rings, Narcissister answers her own call, and her present and future selves are indicated by a split screen. Curly phone cords eerily conjure umbilical cords which she does away with upon answering a first generation cellphone. Finally, Lil Kim’s confident cunnilingual anthem, asking, “how many licks does it take till you get to the center of the?” is interrupted by another ring, the sound of a more recent cellphone. No licker in sight, Narcissister points to the way popular culture withholds images of black women being taken care of. Her hand (one presumably practiced in acts of self-care) reaches down to remove a cellphone from her pussy. Narcissister brings the phone to her ear, pivots around with a basket overflowing with dangling phone cords atop her head, and inaudibly answers this final call. At once deliberate and unhurried, she saunters upstage in beat-up yellow pumps, her bare ass shifting from left to right, all while balancing her precarious load. Here we consider the abject, the penetrability of the feminine in the face of the impenetrability of Narcissister’s gaze, ever-hidden by the neutrality of the mask. As her subject consumes and ejects its object, we are left to wonder when and how the object will speak, when it will become thing-y, even person-y.