When I arrive, I’m not sure where to look. Then there is a young man with braided hair throwing a deflated and stained basketball into the air and catching it. It’s a simple and inconsequential gesture he does again and again, and then he wanders down the street, away from the four-way intersection at Rivington and Orchard in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is where I was told Kevin Beasley’s performance would happen. I see art people around, so figure I am in the right place. But I’m still not sure what I should be paying attention to because the actions taken by the performers happen piecemeal. I ask the person next to me whether the performance has started. It has, she says. In a few minutes I see a man in black jeans, worn boots, a green hoodie over his shirt and a baseball cap on his head drag an unmoored bike rack across the intersection, hanging a bit of wire close to the ground as he pulls it. The sound is as I would expect: steel scrapping concrete and asphalt.
Then I notice that the intersection itself is wired, with large speakers set up at the corners. The sound coming through them is a mixture of the sounds made by the various performers who are all, from what I can tell, Black people: a man with hair in cornrows dismantles a black metal gate, then drags and deposits the constituent parts in a pile in the middle of Rivington Street. A male and female pair walk together closely, rhythmically dragging a plastic bottle under their feet as a third person holding something on a string hunches over them. One tall person with baggy jeans, a hoodie cropped above their midriff, and a curly afro drags a piece of wood attached to plastic, step by step watching the piece fend itself against the road. For the next hour and a half, I dutifully witness each action occur.
It takes me about the first 40 minutes to realize that the black strings I see held by some of the actors are mikes and that the sound melange I hear from the speaker array is mix of the noises created by the performers moving objects over the ground — clanging, banging and scraping — and some other musical, industrial sounds that don’t seem to come from this place. It takes a conversation with a friend I encounter in the audience to realize that the sound is being shaped and produced at a wood stand near the main actions.
The mood here makes me cringe. It’s hyper-voyeuristic, starfucker crowd curiosity. We are waiting for spectacle and when the quotidian, yet incongruous actions occur, I wonder whether there is any real payoff coming.
Then I notice a seemingly older Latina woman, pushing a shopping cart full of groceries and negotiating her way through the crowd of aesthetic flâneurs. I realize that she must be making some noise with the wheels of her cart, though now that sound is imperceptible to me with everything else that is happening. She makes noise, we make noise as a necessary byproduct of moving via friction through our world. Action being done means that sound is left in its wake. Small actions, like this woman returning home to feed her family, are lost in the larger ones of trucks, trains, and contrived artistic experiences. I realize this and think this is one of the things that performance at its best does: sensitize viewers to aspects of the available world that are forgotten or ignored.
But the problem with Beasley’s work is that it inconveniences that woman who is trying to make her way through that intersection. I see a few people being blocked from driving through, and two people on a motor scooter being told they need to detour around the performance. (However, the streets were already closed off to car traffic by the City of New York, not by Beasley and the Performa production crew.) It’s an inconsiderate move to tell the peasantry that while we contemplate heady ideas, they have to delay or find another way home or to their responsibilities. And for what? This is some clanging action that does not stir my heart or move the compass needle of my ethics. The various actions, spendthrift and casual, end at 6:30 pm with a reappearance of that half-inflated basketball, this time with the whole troupe of performers kicking it to each other in a vaguely organized circle.
Kevin Beasley, who is mostly known for his resin-infused sculpture and paintings, may be making a good-faith effort to intervene in some meaningful way in the civic space by drawing attention to, according to the press materials, “streets demarcated for closure in NYC’s Open Spaces Initiative.” But this work is insufficient to that task. It’s as if he were given a microphone and asked to sing a song he didn’t quite know the words to.
Editor’s Note: After publication we were informed that “The performance did not prevent cars from driving through the intersection [since] this is already the case through the NYC Open Streets initiative that was started during the pandemic.” The piece has been updated to reflect this information.
Kevin Beasley’s “The Sound of Morning” (2021) is part of the Performa festival, and takes place on from October 14 – October 16 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the intersection of Rivington Street and Orchard Street.