Articles

The Yams Collective’s Collage of Black Experience

by Sarah Cowan on June 3, 2014

The entrance to Freecandy for the Yams Colletive event (all photos and screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

The entrance to Freecandy for the HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? event (all photos and screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

There was no mention of the Whitney Museum or the Biennial, of Joe Scanlan, Donelle Woolford, or Michelle Grabner on the microphone at alternative arts space Freecandy last Thursday night. After entering through a car-wash plastic curtain, a remnant of the venue’s past as a garage, attendees walked up the ramp to the tune of Parliament Funkadelic, past a performance in which a man pantomimed showering coquettishly, and then by a video art piece in which androgynous women hustle on street corners, projected above an open bar. The crowd was young and largely people of color. In the main room, a table displayed an array of healing crystals. A large screen and folding chairs made for a makeshift movie theater.

Ashley Brockington introducing the event (click to enlarge)

Ashley Brockington giving an introduction (click to enlarge)

This was the setting in which HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, the group of predominantly black and queer artists known colloquially as the Yams Collective, was screening the film they withdrew from the 2014 Whitney Biennial. “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera,” though removed only 11 days before the exhibition closed, had only been shown a few times in March, so it was likely that only a handful of people had ever seen it in full.

Just under an hour in length, the film defies categorization: theater, dance, electronic music, poetry, performance art, and political manifesto converge to create what one Yams member, Christa Bell, called “a visual collage” and “a modern spiritual” in conversation with Hyperallergic. Shot almost entirely in extreme close-up, the film features black bodies and faces that fill the screen as they dance, pray, swim, love, think, cry, struggle, breathe. Made up of countless short sequences with sharp transitions, no narrative arc, a large ensemble cast, and many costume changes, it’s a dizzying compilation that’s constantly one-upping itself for your attention.

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?'s "Good Stock on the Dimensional Floor: An Opera"

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?’s “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera”

In a phone interview with several of the Yams, Sienna Shields, the member who spearheaded the collective’s participation in the Whitney Biennial, explained that the project started with a poem written by Dawn Lundy Martin, which became the “libretto” for the film. “We answered a poem with more poetry,” said Shields. “The visuals are a reflection — they’re the second poem, and the feeling is informed by the music. Text is two-dimensional, and word is multidimensional. We wanted to take poetry back to its roots, oral tradition, something that’s said and communicated.”

Throughout “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor,” the text of the poem is sung, rapped, and spoken word for word, and its stanzas define the scenes. The music, created by members of the collective, is just as difficult to categorize as the visuals. Dissonance fights a steady groove, and the instrumentation relies heavily on drum machines and synthesizers. Through the fog of distortion or syncopation, you might hear the ghost of a noise band, a blues song, a freestyle rap, or a club banger, but just as the urge to define materializes, the song cuts out and introduces something new.

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?'s "Good Stock on the Dimensional Floor: An Opera" (click to enlarge)

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?’s “Good Stock on the Dimensional Floor: An Opera”

If this fits into a genre at all, it could be that of Afrofuturism. Portraying an imagined future, a surreal present, or a painful, unshakeable memory, the world of the film could be a utopia — a planet inhabited and made by black people expressing themselves freely; it could also be a dystopia, in which the words and physical convulsions of grief, trauma, and anger are sublimated by a danceable soundtrack.

“Good Stock on the Dimension Floor” can be seen as charting what W.E.B. Du Bois termed the “double consciousness” of African Americans: an inner knowledge of themselves and a simultaneous awareness of how they’re perceived in a white world. Though collectively made, most scenes in “Good Stock” are monologues. With the camera in close, we get an intimate portrayal of each individual’s emotional reality — disorienting, visceral, and subjective — but we’re kept at a distance. The words don’t come from the mouths on the screen, affording the characters protection while conveying a sense of honesty. In the rare moments when the camera widens, we see lone figures wandering in front of icy cliffs, on street corners and in parking lots, against the ominous mirages of the National Mall or desert sands. Indoors, individuality needs no explanation; outdoors it enters a dangerous and alienating zone that makes black bodies vulnerable to questions of definition: Why are you here? What are you doing? Who are you?

Martin’s poem identifies three personas — “Land (the black embodied body),” “Perpetuus (reflection of Land),” and “Nave (Plural)” — but  the film splinters those three into the story of many. In one scene, Kyp Malone’s voice repeats a refrain: “What is a body but a leaking form?” The film, in which wetness reigns — whether pools of water, beads of sweat, or trails of blood — promotes a world where identity is fluid, hybrid, uncontainable.

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?'s "Good Stock on the Dimensional Floor: An Opera"

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?’s “Good Stock on the Dimensional Floor: An Opera”

“The film is more a multiple made by multiples,” Yams member Maureen Catbagan explained. It’s not a punchline, like some artists’ work, where you’re like, ‘It’s about this.’ Each of us has a different experience, expertise, and way of seeing the world.”

When Michelle Grabner, one of the Biennial curators, visited Shields’s studio in preparation for the exhibition, Shields showed her the very early stages of “Good Stock.” When Grabner then invited her to participate, Shields became excited by the prospect of showing something collaborative. In an art world that increasingly commodifies artworks and the people who make them, collectives can be subversive. “Usually when you think about collectives you think, ‘Where are they coming from? Where do they stand? What are they bringing to the table?’ It’s not just the cult of personality,” Catbagan said. As Shields sees it, “The decision to be part of the Biennial was the first act of protest.”

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?'s "Good Stock on the Dimensional Floor: An Opera" (click to enlarge)

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?’s “Good Stock on the Dimensional Floor: An Opera” (click to enlarge)

Crista Bell added, “The whole idea of collective work is so outside of the mythology of how things get done in this country. American culture is the cult of individualism, that everyone who makes it makes it on their own. There’s this whole bullshit idea of meritocracy, and you know, you earn it to get into the Whitney.”

Even the name HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? is tinged with ironic self-awareness regarding outmoded forms of essentialism. But this doesn’t mean the Yams Collective aligns itself with the noncommittal universalism of postmodernism, a philosophy that protects people like Joe Scanlan, for whom authorship and identity are things of the past. Scanlan’s claim to the multiplicity of interpretation allows him to skirt the emotional and political damage his work has committed, playing out the power structures of privilege and easily finding the support of institutions that don’t want to comment.

By taking a stand against Scanlan’s work and the Whitney Museum’s refusal to self-interrogate and see curatorial choices as political ones, the Yams Collective has carved out an alternative space in which identity is fully formed, subjective, and personal. For them, multiplicity is about increased visibility for the ignored and misunderstood, not hiding behind a mask. The film contains this line: “What will we find in heart-cave, pull back sea-rot, the already multiple, the metropolis? Look what I am holding! Not desire, but infinite multiplicity, the mouth of existence.” Buried in that evocative poetry is a sense of searching for an origin and for history, as well as the frustration that whatever wisdom they have is not being heard.

“We didn’t cause a revolution in the institution of the Whitney, but we do consider ourselves as contributing to an environment of intolerance for institutional white supremacy. And by contributing to that environment, we’re contributing to its dismantling,” said Christa Bell.

Chuck Close entering Freecandy

Chuck Close entering Freecandy

After the screening, as attendees refilled their drinks, I looked around to see that despite all the controversy, the only person I recognized from the so-called “art world” there was artist Chuck Close, who’s married to Shields. Members of Yams performed a series of songs, raps, and performance pieces. Pozsi Kolor recited a section of Martin’s poem.. One line stood out: “To mutate is to live.” I left as they were about to screen a new version of the film, which the projectionist told me “felt better than the original,” which had been “all made by feeling.” Just before I went, Tish Hyman took the stage, rapping about heartbreak. She shouted into the microphone defiantly, “I’m livin’ life and I’m lovin’ it.” The entire crowd was on their feet, dancing and singing along, ecstatic.

The bar at Freecandy, with Maureen Catbagan's video projected above

The bar at Freecandy, with Maureen Catbagan’s video projected above

HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?’s screening and performance events took place on May 29–30, 8pm, at Freecandy (905 Atlantic Avenue, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn).

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