Hyperallergic

Reflections on the Yams Collective ArtTalk

by Jillian Steinhauer on August 18, 2014

Hyperallergic's ArtTalk with the Yams Collective (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Hyperallergic’s ArtTalk with the Yams Collective (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

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.

*    *    *

A view of the ArtTalk panel (photo Maureen Catbagan/Yams Collective)

A view of the ArtTalk panel (photo Maureen Catbagan/Yams Collective)

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.

A view of the audience at the ArtTalk A view of the ArtTalk panel (photo Maureen Catbagan/Yams Collective)

A view of the audience at the ArtTalk A view of the ArtTalk panel (photo Maureen Catbagan/Yams Collective)

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):

(courtesy Jane Dell)

(courtesy Jane Dell)

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
even. 14.
Thank you for religion, for questions about it
for whiteness and its reflections.
the silence
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
that cultivates
the
thing I sometimes don’t like to eat
but reminds me of me,
the
Yams

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.

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  • B4U812

    I would liked to have attended this, if Scanlan and Kidwell were participants. The YAM reaction to the piece, which Hyper took at face value and promoted, was never given any critique. I had to read lots of other articles, and remarks given by both artists in the Woolford project, to get any sense of perspective. I wish that had been offered here.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      It wasn’t about the Scanlan piece, and that wasn’t really discussed.

      • B4U812

        I didn’t think it would be discussed, because the significance of the subsequent discussions, such as these, are based in not having discussed it in the first place. This recent talk, I think it’s reasonable to say, would have less significance, or maybe not have taken place at all, if something other than racism were put on the table as a talking point from the very beginning. Other media outlets provided that, and are therefor unable to functions as one-way conduits of self-reinforcing ideologies.

        There is really no going back now, for Hyper. The engine is at full tilt.

        • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

          Actually, you don’t seem to understand what they were saying in the first place. They didn’t pull out because of Scanlan’s piece, but it sounds like you’re not interested in the facts. Also, there’s nothing more cowardly than anonymous commenting.

          • B4U812

            It’s easy to call someone a coward when you’ve created an environment so hostile to alternative opinions that one would be seen as a racist in offering them.

          • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

            And through the looking glass you go …

          • B4U812

            If I don’t see things clearly, perhaps you can name one white suprematist in the art world. All you need is facts and evidence to win the libel case, and that will get you MUCH further in your fight than publishing hallucinagenic quotes like this:

            “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.”

            That’s basically what religious fundamentalists say about Satan, BTW.

            It sucks that I’d never write here under my real name, but ask yourself why you wont publish real names either.

          • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian
  • Quasimodo

    are these cats even African?

  • Quasimodo

    this academic racism is pointless and a waste of time — we need test that focus and elaborate on practical questions, things like economic empowerment, ending the “war on drugs,” overthrowing racist laws that fund white governments with fines on black citizens….

  • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

    The problem is people are not always overt about their allegiances or ideologies. The art world teaches people to mask them in theoretical constructs that can pretend to be critique.

    • B4U812

      Sure, but if you suspect something, it’s time to start building a case. I never saw that with the Yams. I saw accusations followed by bullying rhetoric. If whatever changes they wanted to make were made, it would not be because their case had been made; it would be because their bullying worked.

      That’s what I see it as, bullying, not “truth to power” or whatever.

      • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

        Have you not read the numerous articles on the topic?

  • glenn

    My yam ..soft and maluable …I push and shape , this opinion that all of life has no color…we are all reading the divine world of life her self…the vision is greater for those who seek a higher order to the quest of conciousness …there is no color here …stop ths charade of blame placed on the material world …you are not what you can buy… you are the creation, you accept in the world of creation, your thoughts allow the growth, not trinkets ….yes yes yes you must eat and find shelter find away to program your birth in the consciousness …the all will, yes love, make the world here ….gjmars yamin

  • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

    No, other critiques of Scanlan.

    • B4U812

      I’ve read reporting that critiques Scanlan (no critiques of Kidwell). Most of that is facile. Ryan Wong did a pretty direct attack, but to me didn’t offer insight; it was mostly an embellishment of a drawn conclusion.

      • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

        It was a critique, but your wording reveals your personal stance. And stop mentioning Kidwell, who is an actor. Does sound like you read Coco Fusco’s piece: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2014/05/art/one-step-forward-two-steps-back-thoughts-about-the-donelle-woolford-debate

        • B4U812

          I should hope my wording reveals my stance.

          Fusco’s piece is great, engaging, and without evidence. The cultural dynamics it maps out, past and present, may very well be a reality, but the argument itself requires an a priori belief from the reader that Scanlan is being exploitive. Without this, everything falls apart. How do keep that from happening?

          Stop mentioning Kidwell

          Stop mentioning Kidwell

          Stop mentioning Kidwell

          Why? Because she and what she says about what she does completely contradicts the story you write and now reinforce in the comment section by telling me what I can and can’t mention.

          Fusco is much more deceptive, though. For example, she might actually know that it was Kidwell, not Scanlan, who conceived of the Richard Pryor routine and the character quirks of that particular Donelle who would performs it (shy, awkward, etc). But the author dupes the reader by referring to Scanlan’s “bracketing” of the piece, which only an informed reader could notice as her saving herself from making a total lie.

          Since my wording reveals my stance, ask yourself if it’s a good thing you’ve created discourse so hostile to alternative opinions that one must write anonymously to suggest Jennifer Kidwell be listened to and taken seriously. Because that’s racist, a cover for the art world oligarch, something related to white supremacy?

          I’m not drinking that Kool Aid.

          • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

            Actually, Kidwell was only added after the controversy when Scanlan got nervous. She was not included in anything or anywhere before actually. Even the Gallerist article that interviewed Scanlan doesn’t refer to Kidwell, except as one or two actresses hired to play the role: http://galleristny.com/2014/03/theres-something-funny-about-donelle-woolford/
            You’re actually practicing a form of absurd revisionism now.

            This conversation is going nowhere. Please use your real name if you’re going to comment.

          • Yammertime

            Your triple la-la-las sound like an intellectually engaging article that I cannot wait to read….

  • Yammertime

    The lack of responsibility towards the depiction of women as human beings is blatant in this work and Scanlan’s. And yet both artists are still in denial. How about just calling a shitty idea a shitty idea?

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11015748/Indian-bus-gang-rape-fashion-shoot-is-nothing-but-criminal.html

  • Yammertime

    ad hominem’s are sooo cliche….

    • B4U812

      Hrag has requested I not make comments without using my real name, Yammertime. He can delete this if he feels it appropriate. If you would like to engage with me I can give you my email. That is all.

      • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

        I appreciate you respecting that request. Thank you.

      • Yammertime

        Is this a discussion or yet another character assassination against a black woman for speaking up after years of accumulated years of being judged and sneered at by wonderful people like yourself (whoever you are). Does she have a right to be mad? You bet the hell she does!
        Do people in Ferguson have a right to be angry that another black boy died for nothing, as the cops attempt to publicly assassinate his character after they publicly assassinate him? I guess you’re privileged enough to never know how that feels…Call it your blessing and your curse…

  • Nicholas Thayer

    is there any video of the artist talk?

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      No. All ArtTalks are not recorded and intended to be informal.

  • Yammertime

    Yep, good old Charles Krafft. Another rascist denier, who incidentally was in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. If you want to build a case, that’s strike #2 for the Whitney, who tried to gloss over that little mistake. If as an institution you’re going to support wonderful artists such as these, call a spade a spade and a racist a rascist and be proud to do so right? Or take responsibility and figure out what to do moving forward rather than pushing the problem under the carpet…

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