When I was in graduate school, one of the ideas favored by feminist and queer scholars and students of continental philosophy was the notion of “becoming,” as conveyed by Gilles Deleuze. My crude understanding of this concept is that two organisms might be brought together to create a new hybrid, and this ability to join with another provides the basis for seeing the self not as a particular, essential being, but a possible space for a multiplicity of being. Back then, I struggled with the idea, eventually giving up on it to think about other things, and then, a couple of weeks ago, BRIC presented an evening of performance art that made the idea of hybridity more graspable. The presentation was part of Look up here, I’m in heaven, a group exhibition of imaginative portraiture. The performances connected to the show (for the most part) in their attempts to stretch the audience’s understanding of the potential of being and the intricacies of being embodied.
In his piece “Chimera,” the first performer, David Thomson, made the physical, biological state of hybridity a metaphor for other types of heterogeneity. Thomson has a resonant voice and is a riveting dancer, very smart about using timing to hold tension. He seemed to fill the stage alone, though he was framed by two large projection screens on either side of it. During his performance, the soundtrack — a score put together by Peter Born which consisted of bits of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” — consistently started and cut off after a few bars; each time, as the music faded out, Thomson would move, rhythmically swaying his shoulders or hips, sometimes folding in on himself, other times collapsing to the floor. As he did this, he spoke in a calm and soothing voice, as though telling a story to a room full of restless children, until the music started up again and stopped him.
He told of the genesis of the Chimera, a beast from Greek mythology, connecting it to the biological circumstances of human chimeras, who contain an extra copy of genetic material. From there he found his way to the Kodak company’s development of the “Shirley card,” which photographers used to match the tones in prints so that colors would be uniform across projects — and from there to the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who eschewed the Shirley card and Kodak’s film altogether when he was faced with the task of filming black people. Thomson found a subtle way of revealing how a piece of technology meant to represent us in our varied individuality actually essentialized all subjects by making them white. Moving through stories of complexity expressed mythologically, biologically, technologically, and psychically, he suggested that inherent contradiction is our constant state of being.
The second performer, Jaamil Kosoko, went less for nuance, more for humor, but still with a focus on identity. Initially dressed in sunglasses, jeans, and a dashiki, and carrying a large boa of shiny, ribboned, gold plastic, he offered an extended interior monologue about coming into knowledge of himself as a gay man. Kosoko also chanted and ululated along with background music developed by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, like some new kind of call to prayer. He then stripped down to gold tights, a dangling codpiece, and a headdress of hanging chains and a small, plastic serpent. He seemed to make the space around him both consecrated and profane as he performed his text and the soundtrack switched to a conversation between two men about coming out of the closet. The spoken parts of the performance focused on black, gay, male identity politics in that way that’s become almost standardized in the last few decades: part confessional, part declarative self-identification. The piece, titled “Dialectic of Light and Dark,” became more engaging when Kosoko began to walk and run around the stage area, shedding gold ribbons everywhere, marking it as his own, creating his own religious practice. But then he gave into cliché sentimentality when a screen dropped down and the names of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting scrolled on it.
The last performance, “How to Order a Chocolate Cake,” was the most sensuous. It began with a musician in heels and sparkly tights — Daniel de Jesús — taking the back center stage to play the cello and sing. Three performers entered after him, with creator David Antonio Cruz in the center. As they slowly undressed to simple black unitards, they sang a neoclassical song composed by de Jesús and, in a ritual fashion, opened large jars of sweet, liquid chocolate. They began lathering themselves with the confection, the whole room filling with the smell as they covered and poured and writhed on the ground, all the while still singing. It was like some ancient ceremony performed by a tribe that used chocolate to work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy — a moment of wonderfully irrational celebration of being. Following on thoughts of hybridity, this carnal, sticky bacchanal made me reflect on our practice of putting on fragrances, oils, and lotions — not as drastic as covering oneself with chocolate, but still a subtle morphing of our bodies into other bodies, ones that we desire or hope will be desired.
“An Evening of Performance Art” took place on July 6 at BRIC House (647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) in conjunction with the exhibition Look up here, I’m in heaven, on view at BRIC through August 14.