Hyperallergic’s ArtTalk with the Yams Collective a week and a half ago was unlike any art talk I’ve attended before. For one thing, there was no stage. Nor were there any chairs (well, one, but that’s it). Rather than being a conversation between a single artist and single interviewer, six artists acted as participants in and representatives of the Yams Collective; our editor-in-chief, Hrag Vartanian, facilitated and moderated the conversation.
That conversation was not couched in artificial politeness, as is usually the case in art world settings. It was not particularly structured, and it vacillated quickly — from talking about the Yams’ artistic practice, to their withdrawal from the Whitney Biennial, to individual experiences of racism, to a meta-conversation about the remarks and behavior of specific audience members in the room. There was very little agreement — also a hallmark of more structured conversations inside white-walled spaces. There was a meditation at the outset (led by one of the members of the Yams), followed by a lot of discomfort and dissonance and honesty. It was remarkable.
That may be the one thing that most attendees seemed to agree on: the evening was unique. In light of that, we invited attendees and speakers to send us responses in whatever form they liked so we could compile them here, offering a taste of the event in the process.
* * *
Yams member Dawn Lundy Martin sent us a powerful text she had written specifically for the panel:
“White supremacy is fabulously hideously elastic and sensitive to minor insurrection; it will reinvent itself to small insurrectional transformations.” —Beth Loffreda
One of the ways white supremacy maintains its elasticity, its ability to reorganize its power rapidly, is the denial of not only its existence, but of whiteness in the first place. The authority of whiteness, how it gathers its authority, is animated by its refusal to be named, to be called whiteness. To call whiteness out as such — except perhaps in the case of Loffreda who is white — is to turn the lens toward one’s own black or brown self as an agitator in waters that otherwise supposedly remain placid and undisturbed. When we come as agitators, you are led to believe that our disruptions are purely for the sake of disruption or that we are crazy and causing trouble where none is warranted. Here is life in what poet Claudia Rankine calls the “Racial Imaginary”; even though the accumulation of evidence is clear (every day more of it in your headlines, in your social media feeds), the culture of pathological denial persists. But, why, they ask, why did you do it? We don’t understand what we did wrong. We are trying so hard.
But why I am talking to you? Listen to LAND, from our film “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor,” tell it:
“They will tell you that I was sick, that I was a drug addict.
“They will tell you I died a natural death. Sometimes young people just die, they will say, we don’t know why. They will say I was lazy, that I could not work because of disease, and just general feebleness. When a crime is committed by a white man, they will show you a photo of me instead and call me a trickster. In the photo, my jaw is slack, my hair wild. They will say that I am unkillable, that my body resists battery by tree trunks, bullets, and years in small cells. When I enter a store to buy something I will be immediately arrested and then they will apologize. I am just a child I will say. Impossible to be so greasy and a child they will say there are no children anymore. Why are you so sad, they will ask me, why is your heart so weak? We’ve given you everything, they say, why won’t you flourish?”
What I want to say is that the implicit question, the desire for a narrative, is a false desire. It wants to shore up what cannot be shored up. What are we doing in this race space — this recognition of us as radically other and whiteness as imagined?
Why toil here inside this prison — call it epistemological — where one’s being, one’s sense of self, is produced in relation to another, or so said W.E.B. DuBois over a century ago now. You know why we are here. You know why our presences are necessarily protests. Are we to play the game: no, sir, yass ma’am, in order to gain capital, to capitalize, thank you, sir, our tails between our legs walking backward toward the door, clasping our small rewards? There is a thing about radical form, a thing about illegibility, that can assist, perhaps in the imagining of something original, something from, or within, an other, until now, unknown dimension. Our radical form is outside of the sentence, unconsidering of the frame, of the screen.
But, why am I speaking to you? Listen to PERPETUUS, who is most wise, from our film “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor.”
“Image, we. We scar, they want. Is dampness under blanket. Is tear in seam of all objects. Silverwhite technological landscape before us. Blackness, desert. Whiteness, nothing. All, a brutal fantasy. My arm moves. Is it my arm? Has the I been cut out of the scene? The scene goes on, without gravity, without Mammy echo. Whole farms sacrificed, but we in holography, bigger and stronger. Uncontainered, without reference, without anchor. No longer the secure state of belonging. Hatched figures hang in stuck air, charred, and that loss. We begin long after the poultice time. Nowhere for them to find us.”
Artist Damali Abrams gave us a longer overview of the night, with these especially insightful passages:
Usually when I leave a discussion about race, I leave feeling enraged and hating the world. This time it was different. […]
This was less of a panel than a huge group discussion in the intimacy of the collective’s studio. We were “yamming” as a group. This was a term that one of the members on the panel kept using to describe the way that the conversation flowed. There was space in the room for multiple truths, for differing views to peacefully reside next to one another. The Yams are far from monolithic, each with her or his own unique vision of the systems we inhabit. Though there is always collaboration amongst the Yams, I get the feeling that there is never consensus. And that seems to be fine with all of them. Such a sophisticated level of collectivity is extremely impressive. From personal experience I can say that it can be very challenging to work with one other like-minded person, let alone 38 people with differing views and methodologies, as is the case with the Yams. […]
This artist talk was an interesting discussion examining race, mostly in academia and the mainstream art world. It was also a safe space where all views could be expressed and discussed. A white woman stood up and said that she has lived to see a lot of racial progress in this country. A member of the Yams pointed out that the U.S. is actually more segregated today (in neighborhoods and schools) than it was prior to the Civil Rights era.
Also taking up the subject of race, one of our writers, Sarah Cowan, sent this:
There’s a great Amiri Baraka essay called “Jazz and the White Critic.” In it he writes, “Usually the critic’s commitment was first to his appreciation of the music rather than to his understanding of the attitude which produced it.” What I took away from the ArtTalk with the Yams Collective is how much they are shifting the paradigm of how we as critics, as viewers, think about art and the people who create it. There’s a huge prejudice in art history and criticism against the artist’s intent. The dominant idea is that art should be able to stand on its own. At the talk, almost everyone in the audience was asking, “How do I see your film?” Almost no one had. I have, because I wrote about it for Hyperallergic in June. When I was asked to cover it, I thought, “Me?” The only responsible way I could write about this work was to contextualize it in the Yams’ philosophies, their backgrounds, and it was only after an interview with the members that I could delve in, describe, interpret the work as a critic is “supposed to.” Lest someone think the Yams are riding the recent Whitney controversy, diverting the conversation about the art away from the object, the discussion is integral to the work. And in the current atmosphere, it’s more difficult and provocative than any work an artist could make out of clay, paint, or video.
Baraka’s lament was that the black told through instruments are too easily drowned out by white ones. His lessons extend beyond jazz, but the biggest difference is that the visual art world has historically been blinded by white reflecting white, beginning with the white walls that decontextualize artwork.
The Yams may not have found a platform for their artwork yet, but last night reassured me that until, when, and after they do, they will be committed to making their voices heard. The generosity and honesty with which they speak, and the desire of their new audience to listen is not only refreshing but crucial in changing the institutions of the art world.
While artist Dominika Ksel offered a poetic meditation:
Echoing a zeitgeist brewing in the bellies of the many, a hungry belly who is not satisfied with corn syrup placation. Yams are a mirror of the natural order of things to come because it is yearned. A dismemberment of power, toppled from vertical towers to horizontal scapes. Expanding rhizomes, roots branching, all encompassing diaspora of harmonic scales balanced in discordant present. The breathe pulls in, a window closes. The breath pushes out and wide open is the world. A space for dialogue, compassion and education, resonating within ribcages heartfelt thuds, boom boom. Nothing quiet about this nourishment, so truly bacchanal, activating a necessity as dire as is blood, rushing rivers in our veins. Body as transformer, word as conveyer, action as manifest. Connecting here, all the puzzles, a political reveal. A community, striking questions, posing potentials, wreaking solidarity that burns ugly the retinas of coated masqueraders, stripped, peeled, unveiled. In words, in sound, in sight. Until they experience they will never see, until they experience they will never understand. So come NOW imagine a possibility beyond. A new NOW, a future, NOW. No ego driven fatalism found amongst the midst, evolving consciousness corridor of simply just what is. Let’s shake that art history, that political history, that history that posits bigots on pedestals into toilets, flush, woosh ahh NOW we make room to get our bellies full, cause it’s dinner time and that stew smells awfully good.
And Andre Springer of the Yams offer his own poetic words:
When south meets west and east completes north, when the inside becomes the outside and the middle becomes nothing and everything, the future can be seen in that strange in between.
Artist Jane Dell responded with a visual work titled “Hatred Will Burn Yourself Out” (2013):
Ryan Wong, also a Hyperallergic writer, and Victoria Matsui sent a joint response:
“Don’t say I if it means so little.” —Claudia Rankine
“We lay down, we breathed, we listened, we Yammed, we asked, we thanked. Some remained separate: we asserted, we interrogated, we rejected. Some of us fought to bring us back; some of us argued to let them go.” —Ryan Wong
“Thank you for sharing the art of conversation. Thank you for the anger, the beauty, the fun, the jokes, the confrontation, the giving, the hurt, the love. It was difficult; we are all better for it.” —Victoria Matsui
Also saying “thank you,” Geraldine Leibot offered this poem:
Thank you, the space.
Thank you for allowing my mind to leave my body,
for it to return squirming back into a body that felt
Thank you for religion, for questions about it
for whiteness and its reflections.
thank you for existing
for expression, for
academics with pretty hair,
for sex being hard work, for life being hard, for riding life and …
For having my body not be the question this time
for safety actually being brave
for tokens that push no train
thank you for west africa, for asia, for south america for
having the soil
thing I sometimes don’t like to eat
but reminds me of me,
And finally, another member of the Yams sent this brief meditation on where we go from here:
How do we begin after a history of damage? There is no answer. Anyone who tells you otherwise is deceiving themselves and others. But we know what is obvious and that it will always be complicated. This is all we have to go on …
The moments that catch the heart always carry a little hurt. There is a certain bravery in vulnerability.
How do we begin?
Thanks to all who sent their responses and all who attended and participated.
From September 1–12, HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? in collaboration with A(n) Office, will occupy P! gallery for 11 days to address the current brutalization of black bodies by a newly militarized police force and ways that memes and hashtags collapse and make legible the intersection of these and other threats to personhood. For more information please visit HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN.com.