MUSIC VIDEOS ARE BACK—even the New York Times thinks so. But one of the year’s best won’t be anywhere near this weekend’s MTV Video Music Awards. The montage for “A World Alone,” the closing track of producer Airport’s cassette-tape album Lorde Playlist, released earlier this spring by label Afternoonsmodeling, marries an amateur cover by American teenager Claire Maisto of the New Zealand pop artist’s closing track to her 2013 album Pure Heroine with combat footage, tragic accident replays, and other stumblings and sheddings of sovereignty. Some clips are branded with the name “War Clashes,” possibly a YouTube channel hosting “documentary information” from wars in Syria, Ukraine, and Afghanistan.
More so than any other medium, music videos have perfected the old dance between art and commerce. They leap to sell musical product but in midair throw out a double-twist reference to “art”—the ace vault blending the beating of emotional pulse, giddy intellectual stimulation, and the quick transfer of capital. Video killed the radio star, sure, but the internet killed everything, freeing us to become the amphibious culture monsters we were always meant to be without interference from taste-making industry.
Airport, “A World Alone,” 2016.
We aesthetes thrilled to Beyoncé’s shoutouts to Pipilotti Rist, Julie Dash, Anna Gaskell, and others when she poured a two-ton pitcher of Lemonade on the culture earlier this year. A video sells the song, sure, but it also makes certain the song will never rest on mere melody, lyrics, or sound. The music video takes the song and sends it down the river to stutter other contexts. Is Drake’s “Hotline Bling” about James Turrell in any way? No, but four minutes and fifty-five seconds of video have forced the two into an arranged marriage whose bonds won’t be annulled. Whatever teenagers in suburban America thrilled to most in a given year will be your soundtrack, fifteen years on, in the supermarket as you try to find the baking soda.
Individuality is exhausting, a full-time job: Who but our nation’s youth has the time to commit? The sway of young peoples’ emotions over culture now seems eternal. In the throes of bent-double, half-formed personhood, we make our first cracks at identity through the expressions of others: We learn what we want to sing by mouthing others’ words and memorizing their chord progressions. Emotions profit from this dissonance, a fantasy is born, and dreams foment against a background of faraway explosions, regime change, and the winning of hearts and minds. Music is so easily exploited for power’s interests. But it’s a two-way street, and the other side ends in a cul de sac where the least powerful have nothing but containers called songs, usually popular ones, to fill with flinty feelings. In these circumstances, appropriation is a given.
In 2013, the best efforts to ease the burden of youth came from that cipher outta New Zealand. Lorde was a not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman who dressed like the token freak at school, had moves like she’d spent more time watching footage of Berlin nightclubs and 1990s hip-hop videos in her room rather than actually, you know, dancing, and wore sports bras with lots of concealer, singing “Let ’em talk cause we’re dancing in this world alone / We’re all alone / We’re alone,” practically, surprise, alone on expansive festival stages with simple backing tracks. The pop concert became the cafeteria lunch table for one, except there was an audience of kids screaming and begging for more. Crash a plane in time to her words and melodies, throw yourself off the roof, and the latent, apocalyptic emotional register of pop and the texts and narratives it holds start to seem complementary.
Claire sings Lorde’s words: “We’re a trainwreck waiting to happen / One day the blood won’t flow so gladly / One day we’ll all get still.” A child runs from a plume of dark smoke and a motorcyclist bites the dust. Airport’s video uses violence and pop to picture such collisions, which at their best make us feel alive, finally. Drawing a parallel between destructive forces of emotion and the explosion of global conflict, Airport’s “A World Alone” reaches for the dream that feelings could change the world—that fantasy could be a fact strong enough to slay reality. “Maybe the internet raised us / or maybe people are jerks,” she sings. Elide the “maybe” and make “or” an “and.” Over and over again, please always add and demand more.
Paige K. Bradley is an associate editor of Artforum.com.
JR installation featuring Ali Mohd Younes Idriss in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Alexandra Pechman.
ART AND THE OLYMPICS have a long, intertwined history. The ancient art created in competition to memorialize the earliest games eventually defined the vision of its modern iteration. In the early twentieth century, there were also art matches: Beginning in 1912, artists competed in fields like painting and sculpture, accompanied by exhibitions and new architecture. The tradition ended by 1948, but the 2016 Summer Olympics inaugurated the first artist-in-residency program. Combined with Rio de Janeiro’s new museums and public art competing for the city’s attention, art was an occasional tonic to controversy rather than a means to leave a legacy.
The conversations I heard around the city focused on the reality versus the fiction, particularly regarding the Olympics’ reputation for unruliness—a reputation settled before games even started. Impeached president Dilma Rousseff’s trial would begin just days after the Olympics ended. “Imagine that you are going to throw a party, you have worked towards it for several years,” she told the media. “And on the day of the party, someone arrives and takes your place and takes over the party.” At the opening ceremony, Brazilians booed Michel Temer, considered by many the illegitimate president brought on by a coup.
The residency injected some positive energy by turning artists loose on Rio, the flashiest of whom was JR. The French street artist erected his signature black-and-white prints on scaffolding around the city, depicting young Olympic athletes from around the world, mainly those who didn’t qualify, blown up to mega-size. (One piece measures nearly one hundred feet wide.) The works appeared to salute Rio’s spirit of grandeur and disruptiveness, with the giant athletes jumping precariously over the top of buildings or diving into the bay.
The project continued onto the Olympic Boulevard during the first week of the games, with the Inside Out photo truck producing portraits to be plastered over parts of the port zone, whose recent revitalization displaced thousands of people. The boulevard converged with the Praça Mauá, stocked with a stage, jumbo TVs, and lots of police, abutted by the city’s two newest major museums. The Museum of Art of Rio mounted crowd-pleasing exhibitions like “Body discourses [the vertigo of Rio],” a show of photography focusing on bodies in motion, and “The Color of Brazil,” a survey of the use of color in Brazilian art from the seventeenth century on. The Museum of Tomorrow, the $55 million dollar Calatrava creation, sits approximately where it is said that the greatest number of slaves arrived in the country: Inside are exhibitions like “The Evolution of Television in Brazil.”
Art institutions (the finished ones) played host to hospitality houses all over the city, often in an accentuation of their vulnerabilities. Japan was housed at Cidade das Artes, the Barra de Tijuca arts complex that opened in 2013—ten years late and at six times its budget, at nearly $300 million dollars. The Modern Art Museum (MAM), located on the Gloria Marina, had half its property cordoned off for parties thrown by SKOL, the watery beer that ends up the official sponsor of everything. And at Parque Lage, home of the School of Visual Arts, the British Hospitality House paid a reported $2 million reals (about $625,000) for the use of the nineteenth-century property. The money will be used to pay off the school’s debts, after the city slashed the staff nearly in half a few months ago. During the final week of the games, the story of four US Olympic swimmers who were robbed at gunpoint was proven false, which an expert told the New York Times “tapped into one of Brazilians’ biggest pet peeves—gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination.” The same day the incident was reported, the British House at Parque Lage threw a scheduled rave-style party with British DJs.
People routinely criticized the city government for prioritizing ostentation over improving the lives of its people. Spearheaded by the International Olympic Committee, the JR installations came with messages of hope and perseverance, with exposed scaffolding that referenced a city still under construction and young athletes still fighting to compete. A half-moon installation soared up from a rooftop in Morra da Providência, the favela where JR’s Casa Amarela cultural center was inaugurated in 2009, after his Women Are Heroes installations took Rio’s streets. While the artist has brought attention to Rio’s favelas, the only impulse he shares with the city government on the treatment of favelas is to aestheticize them—the question is for whom.
An aggressive favela-removal campaign will be an enduring legacy of the mayor, Eduardo Paes. Graphic murals appeared along the highway from the airport to hide underserved communities from the eyes of tourists. The new subway line that routed to the Olympic Village bore the names of genteel neighborhoods like São Conrado, a stop that also services the more than seventy-thousand-person population of Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela. To embrace a position like JR’s as Rio’s own is an athletic leap of imagination about how this city oriented itself vis-a-vis its disenfranchised. Still, JR’s trompe l’oeils are thematically sound: The image of these Olympics, for most people, was not unlike a mirage propped over the real thing.
Marc Ohrem-Leclef, Mike, Pavão Pavãozinho, Rio de Janeiro, 2013, color photograph, 20 x 22".
Unsurprisingly, art that engaged the myriad problems caused by the Olympics focused on conversations inside beleaguered communities. In March, Studio-X Rio showed Marc Ohrem-Leclef’s photo series Olympic Favela, portraits of denizens of fourteen communities set to be removed to make way for the Olympic Park and village. (Works from the project are on view at Baxter St in New York through September 3.) Residents hold up emergency flares like an Olympic torch, the symbolic gesture of progress toward the games reversed into an act of protest against the progress of a bulldozer. In his video work v.a. 4598, shown at Casa França-Brasil a few months back, and now circulating online, the Rio-based artist Igor Vidal performs Olympic weightlifting movements amid abandoned houses and ruins of Vila Autódromo favela, which since 2013 has suffered removals and demolitions resulting from the construction of the Olympic Park. Inside the Olympic Park, Adriana Varejão’s design for the aquatic stadium stood out for what it did not say. Among the antiseptically contemporary buildings I passed in the park, the boxy aquatic stadium is draped in a scrim featuring the work Celacanto Provoca Maremoto, a swirling and violent tsunami. One had to acknowledge the chaos in order to enter the normalized atmosphere of an Olympic stadium, and decide which one was the fiction.
At one point I tried to track down the JR installations. I had only seen them in photographs. The only clues to their whereabouts were the landmarks in the official imagery, reprinted in hundreds of news outlets. Based on the location tags of a few Instagrams, I set out to walk along the waterfront of the Guanabara Bay. I somehow ended up almost completely alone, a feat in Rio, on a Botafogo beach clear of tourists. (Guess, those news reports worked.) There I found the best vantage point to see the image of Ali Mohd Younes Idriss, a Sudanese high jumper who did not qualify for this year’s games. He appears outstretched over a building, a likely expensive address; at some angles Rio’s Christ the Redeemer is visible in the background. It was a perfect place to take a picture. It was empty.
Two British tourists stopped to ogle, and turned their attention toward the building, asking a Brazilian man about the installation, since there was no signage. He said that because of the terrible political situation in Brazil, people were putting things up everywhere: beyond the official Olympics signage, he might have meant the numerous Fora Temer graffiti, shirts, and banners that popped up in response on Copacabana Beach, walls of the Centro, or even during the Olympics broadcast. Of the high jumper he deemed: “It’s probably propaganda.”
Alexandra Pechman is a writer based in New York.
Keith Arnatt, Self-Burial (Television Interference Project), 1969.
Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979
Tate Britain, London
April 12–August 29, 2016
IN AUGUST 1966, the British artist John Latham, then a tutor at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, borrowed Clement Greenberg’s Art & Culture (1961) from the college library. He invited colleagues and students to his home, where they tore pages from the book, chewed them, and spat them into a flask. The resulting mulch was dissolved in acid solution, then distilled, and a phial of liquid returned to the library. Latham’s teaching contract was not renewed.
A scurrilous piece animating the Tate exhibition’s otherwise largely sober take, Latham’s Art and Culture, 1966–69, was not the earliest work in this sprawling survey, but it encapsulated a central narrative that curator Andrew Wilson sought to highlight. That is: Conceptualism was a turn against traditional modernist formalism, with its veneration of the aesthetic work’s unity and transcendence, most famously championed by Greenberg—whose writings loomed large throughout the show as a bogeyman of sorts, even while receiving little direct mention. Throughout, exhibition didactics juxtaposing British Conceptualism’s milestones with concurrent regional developments (like the rise of Harold Wilson’s Labour Party and the Marxist art histories of scholar Charles Harrison) pointed to a commendable curatorial impulse to coax forth new connections between neo-avant-gardes in the UK and an array of wider sociopolitical developments, but those connections remained frustratingly obscure in a doggedly archival exhibition devoted mainly to tracing a movement’s repudiation of high-modernist ideals.
The work of Art & Language—and its watershed shift of emphasis from things to words, objects to institutions—dominated the first rooms of the show. Pieces such as Painting/Sculpture, 1966–67, with its twin gray canvas panels and laconic inscriptions, served as bridges between the objects initially deployed by the collective to critique abstract painting and the profusion of text that characterized their later work. Indeed, the group’s indexes, analyses, and theoretical bulletins, all on view, seemed to determine the texture and argument of the rest of the exhibition, in which typewritten pages were in bureaucratic abundance and no archival document—whether personal letter, logistical memo, or private-view invitation—was too lowly to be labeled and displayed in a vitrine.
View of “Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979,” 2016. Front: Roelof Louw, Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), 1967. Rear: Keith Arnatt, Invisible Hole Revealed by the Shadow of the Artist, 1968; Bob Law, No. 62 (Black/Blue/Violet/Blue), 1967; Art & Language, Untitled Painting, 1965.
The exhibition’s approach underscored what Benjamin H. D. Buchloh memorably called Conceptual art’s “aesthetic of administration,” and as Wilson points out in his catalogue essay, the works themselves were typically dispersed across exhibitions, publications, conversations, and ephemera. But an emphasis on analytic impersonality and the bureaucratic language of institutions often made it hard to spot the satiric, ludic, and romantic aspects of certain practices: the poetry and politics of landscape in Richard Long and Hamish Fulton’s treks into the countryside, for instance, or the trickster personae assumed by Bruce McLean in his antic sculptural poses and by Keith Arnatt during deadpan photographic disappearing acts.
To be fair, the show was not entirely heedless of Sol LeWitt’s famous point that “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists.” Once the antimodernist tale had been told, a final gallery was given over to the mid-1970s turn toward more overt social, political, and vexedly personal content. Certain works survived in this cramped space, which had an air of afterthought. Burgin’s pointed detournement of advertising in Possession, 1976 (which famously juxtaposes a statistic about wealth inequality with text and image out of recycled advertising imagery) still looked furiously effective. But Mary Kelly’s diaristic, psychoanalytic Post-Partum Document. Analysed Markings and Diary Perspective Schema (Experimentum Mentis III: Weaning from the Dyad), 1975—a portion of that expansive work, at least—felt especially bracketed. The final work in this room was Susan Hiller’s Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, 1972–76, with its gridded presentation of postcards showing rough seas around the country’s coast. It was arguably the most obvious precursor, in the show, to post-Conceptual British art in the decades following, as a piece that summons popular (seaside) culture, Romanticism and landscape, and a certain native impulse toward amateur collecting.
The show’s rigorous archival impulse was welcome at a time when the phrase Conceptual art is so often flung about with abandon and little historical purchase. But in its almost total insistence on a rebuttal of modernist strictures—not to mention the comparative neglect of film and video, which were relegated to a series of one-off screenings—“Conceptual Art in Britain” produced an impression of hermeticism that one had to work hard to counter, recalling (because the exhibition did not) that no movement in art is reducible to its stated aims. A more generous curatorial take on Conceptual art during the period in question would have admitted a good deal else in the way of context: connections with literary and cinematic avant-gardes, a quickening encounter between analytic and continental philosophy, the full extent to which Conceptualism in Britain was marked by humor and political activism alike. Such an exhibition might have returned the library book with unruly marginalia, not with pages ripped out.
Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art, London. His latest book is The Great Explosion (Penguin, 2015).
Werner Herzog in his Master Class on filmmaking.
THIS YEAR I WENT TO SUMMER SCHOOL. For an hour or so each day I escaped the business of life to indulge in the gleeful asceticism of online education. I let waves of learned, prerecorded prose wash over me. I lurked; I listened. My professor was Werner Herzog and this was his Master Class on filmmaking, and I along with several hundred fellow students––his “soldiers of cinema”––followed twenty-six lessons that taught us that nothing is what it seems.
Herzog offered wisdom as if reading from a manifesto only half finished in his mind. His style was confessional and earnest. He was pragmatic (“Don’t accumulate like a squirrel.” “We are filmmakers not garbage collectors.”) and subdued (“Filmmaking is mostly banality.” “Make sure people turn off their cell phones on set.”). His lessons were a heavy pendulum that swung between tedium and mad inspiration.
Here are my crib notes:
Film school is the seat of nearly all cinematic mediocrity and brainlessness. There, no one reads. If we are wise, we should stop everything and pick up J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1962) for no other reason than its ability to morph author and world. Three-act structure is criminally predictable and trite. Also, stop being so longwinded. If you want to know how to narrate a film, listen to Unsolved Mysteries. Read some poetry to get pumped up. Stop brooding. Do you think handwringing will make your story interesting or cohesive? Write and think with urgency. Be frugal. Money people always slow things down. They are cowardly. Lawyers are pariahs. They are poison to creativity. You will surely fail. Let failure be your teacher. Make a decision. Dailies are misleading. Stop being mild-mannered.
Nestled within the litany of platitudes were striking reflections on film. Herzog speaks of the physical attitude of the camera, using Jean Rouch’s Les maîtres fous (1955) as a prime example––the momentum and magic of the image so often murdered by stylization. A film should allow an audience to trust their eyes again (even in the case of the Hauka of Rouch’s film, violently possessed by their colonial masters). Herzog confesses that he does not know how “aesthetics seep in” to his films Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and he doesn’t care. There is a lot of near-death that surrounds his films, for example the dueling murder plots hatched by Herzog and his muse and nemesis (“the absolute pestilence”) Klaus Kinski. In Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), it was not the physical undertaking of moving a steamship over a mountain or the challenge of wrangling hundreds of local extras in the deep jungle that made the making of these films so fraught, but the slow erosion of will in the face of one’s own exposed nature. Herzog insists, however, that these were not exercises in proving oneself. Inner growth, pushing boundaries, testing limits––these are fundamentally “stupid” motivations and New Age malarkey. And yet, as Herzog describes it, filmmaking wakes something inside, a dormant brother brought forth by film, and along with the promise of kinship comes terror.
Cinema is not feral. There are rules about engaging with humans. There seems to be no line between his professional actors and the subjects of his documentary films. In both cases, people are made to feel safe but kept off balance. Nicolas Cage is told to rage with the “bliss of evil” in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). Christian Bale is lovingly coaxed into consuming fetid meat in Rescue Dawn (2007). Herzog reveals the influences that guide his characters, for instance the mimetic quality of Marlon Brando’s heavy-lidded portrayal of Emiliano Zapata in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952) and the somnambulist performances in his Herz aus Glas (1976). Subjects who are already weird are made weirder by Herzog’s intervention, and as a result, we are drawn even closer to them: the death row inmate in Into the Abyss (2011), the coroner in Grizzly Man (2005)––these are figures offered as a rejection of “vanilla ice cream” emotionality. Herzog is a master conversationalist, lingering uncomfortably on silences long enough for his subjects to plumb their own interiority. Like Baker’s The Peregrine, Herzog wants to show the wholeness of the worlds in which his subjects inhabit and enfold.
Class reaches its end, but before we are dismissed, Professor Herzog leaves us with a quote from the late-medieval poet Thomas à Kempis, which he previously used in his short film Pilgrimage (2001):
It is only the pilgrims who in their earthly voyage do not lose their way, whether our planet be frozen or scorched: They are guided by the same prayers, in suffering, in fervor, and woe.
When he finishes reading the passage, Herzog eagerly tells us that it was not Kempis but he who wrote this text for his film. And finally we wonder whether this entire undertaking has been some kind of terrible, inspired fiction, one that paradoxically draws us closer to him.
“Ecstatic Truths: Documentaries by Herzog,” a twenty-two-film program of nonfiction films, runs August 12 through 18 at the IFC Center in New York.
CARRIE MAE WEEMS sat upright at a typewriter, her back to the audience. A footlight cast her long, crisp shadow against a blank white screen, like a sigil on a blank white page. To the sound of a five-piece jazz band, rising from the orchestra pit, Weems was soon joined on stage by spoken-word artist Aja Monet and playwright Carl Hancock Rux, poets and her guides of sorts, and eventually by three Graces—Eisa Davis, Alicia Hall Moran, and Imani Uzuri. The trio formed a Greek chorus, repeating in unison, “Always convicted, always charged, always stopped.”
In the wake of recent carnage across America, one might wonder where grace is hiding, or, more pointedly, what grace could possibly yield. Last month, at the 2016 Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, Weems took on this subject with Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, a work produced by the festival and dedicated to commemorating victims of the shootings at the Mother Emanuel African Episcopal Church in June of last year and the many black and brown people who have lost their lives to police brutality.
Grace Notes called for reflection on these tragedies and raised questions, whose timing could hardly have been more significant, about how we go on surviving them. Only days after the second and final performance at the College of Charleston Theater, Pulse Nightclub would be attacked by a lone gunman, principally targeting queer people of color—a massacre that resulted in forty-nine dead, not including the gunman himself. Only three weeks later, news would break of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, cast across our sundry, constant media streams.
“There are only a handful of stories in the world: the difference often lies in the telling,” Weems writes in the director’s notes.
After working on Grace Notes for months it occurred to me I was telling the story of Antigone, wherein an innocent man dies by unjustified means and his sister fights for the right to bury him honorably. But the wider community refuses her; her right to justice, and to peace, is denied. Likewise, Grace Notes examines the wider social implications of tensions at work in communities across America. These tensions are marked by… the killings of young black men, and the tragic events of the Emanuel Nine.
The pathos of the contemporary African American experience was foregrounded in Grace Notes—a multimedia odyssey of stark tableaus, at once vivid, realistic, and dreamlike—through beautiful abstract imagery, music, and choreography. In an early scene, a black man appears on a treadmill, running. From whom? To where? It wasn’t clear, but something was gaining on him, it seemed, given the Graces’ urgent refrain. The man evoked countless images replayed on news and Facebook feeds everywhere, of black men fleeing, shot, like game, in the back, and at once the viewer was brought into the exhaustion of the man’s experience, treading water, running in place. In a later sequence, another black man floated in a transparent plastic bubble, rolling around the stage, kicking and tormented like a baby struggling to be born. As he drifted about, defenseless, one of the Graces joined him, rocking the ball to and fro like a fretful mother who knows what awaits her child, the slim odds, her guiding hand the only thing standing between him and rolling off of the edge of the stage. Throughout, the Graces stood witness to these symbolic struggles, repeating mournful laments and singing with apparent heartbreak at the men’s fates. And another refrain emerged, cast and recast: “How do you measure a life?”
Grace Notes seemed to end on a hopeful note: In the midst of an uplifting dance sequence, a balloon was released into the crowd and batted from one patron to another like a shared thought or idea to be paid forward. In the face of injustice, Weems was perhaps suggesting, the path forward is human connection.
But what can grace teach us about fostering those connections, and how is it embodied?
At a talk at the Charleston Library Society the afternoon before the second performance, Weems described grace as “holding on to your humanity and integrity, your core, in the face of all question and all forces.” If, as she suggests, grace is inherent to survivors of oppression and violence, the African American experience becomes a perfect metaphor for grace. Each new day a mercy for unprotected black and brown bodies.
Yet as I left the theater, though moved by the stunning visuals and the music—Moran delivered a barn-burning rendition of “Amazing Grace”—I felt a tug of dissatisfaction with the conclusion. More specifically, I felt like I knew this story, which seemed all too familiar in the telling. I, like many, had been weaned on images of imperiled black people (mostly men, of course) who, in the face of tragedy, joined together in song and struggle. Songs like “We Shall Overcome”—anthems of the civil rights movement—were a requisite of my education as a young black man. Conveniently, for white supremacist systems of power peddling violence, that popular education builds on a simplified narrative, one whose moral is that peaceful resistance is the most enlightened form, looming large as an emblem of grace. Weems’s show beautifully honors the dead and nods at this legacy of resilience, but, exhausted with mourning and amid a new struggle over the lives of black and brown people, I wondered: What now?
After the names of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and so many others were recited during the performance, was the “embrace” of the “magnitude of a moment” (to quote from Rux’s enigmatic lines) the most we could do? Wasn’t now the time to upend the notion that black people ought to be patient and participatory—to continually exhibit restraint and above all graceful bearing in the fight for black lives?
I knew my discontent had little to do with the beauty and imagination of Weems’s work. Nor do I mean to diminish Weems’s larger exploration of the meaning of grace or the broad scope of her goals, one of which was to imagine a parting gift to President Obama, a man who has already delivered addresses on the occasion of at least fourteen mass shootings.
It had more to do with the needs of the moment, and the extent to which languor and beauty can lose track of the urgency of those needs. Instead of a song of mourning, I longed for a scream, like those conveyed by the phantasmagoric hellscapes of Kara Walker’s most grotesque visions of racism and slavery, which manage to contain all of the confusion, ugliness, and subterfuge involved in the work of smuggling one’s humanity out of a system of terror, mass-violence, and death. Meanwhile, Beyoncé and others continue to mine the legacy of black folks making lemonade from life’s lemons. (Even the controversial “Formation,” which ends her Lemonade, reminds us to “always stay gracious.”) As the murders continue, that’s hard to do, and as a response to tragedy, grace begins to feel anachronistic. Still more complicated: If the concept of divine grace that animates songs like “Amazing Grace” (written by a slaveholding white clergyman) stems from the doctrines of the colonizer’s church, to borrow from Frantz Fanon, then how do we repurpose it as a tool for decolonization?
Vigil in Charleston, South Carolina on June 13, 2016. Photo: Chase Quinn.
Bereft after Grace Notes and the news of Pulse, which ominously occurred on the heels of the Emanuel Nine anniversary, I attended a vigil in downtown Charleston. The Mayor spoke. So did the head of Charleston’s chapter of the NAACP. A well-known Imam from a local mosque. It was like many vigils: a respectful memorial—maybe the kind Antigone would have wanted. But then two young people of color approached the mic. Representatives of the LGBTQ organization Southerners on New Ground, they asked the crowd to part for the queer people of color in their midst. They told us to come forward, to join them at the foot of the stage.
Planned or not, this action was not at all a natural one, to hold space in a crowd of predominantly white people, to awkwardly proclaim my body and identity in front of an audience at such a time, at any time. It was decidedly not graceful—it felt awkward, and disruptive. It reminded me of Zora Neale Hurston’s words, “I feel most colored when I am thrown up against a sharp white background,” or more relevantly here, of the messy, jumbled, and jammed typeface of those words as they appear in a 1990 painting by Glenn Ligon.
As we made our way to the stage, the duo explained that they wanted us to know that they saw us, and that the targets of the Orlando shooting were not incidental. They wanted to recognize that the everyday lived experience of LGBTQ people of color was a radical act, not just a graceful one. This was deeply moving and, more significantly, totally unexpected. It shifted the focus of the room and the dialogue from the dead to the living, and no doubt made many squirm.
Dread Scott, A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015, nylon, 84 x 52 1/2". Hanging outside Jack Shainman Gallery on West Twentieth Street in New York.
Perhaps what I was resisting in Grace Notes, and the concept of grace I gleaned, was this lack of surprise. The grace I longed for in the grip of loss was a call to action, and not a harmonious experience. It sprang on you, an undisputed fact, like the artist Dread Scott’s recent response to police killings: an 84 by 52 1/2” flag hung in the heart of Manhattan that read, A MAN WAS LYNCHED BY POLICE YESTERDAY. It was disorderly. Like the Black Lives Matter protesters who halted Toronto Pride. It exposed you.
All I know for sure is that if grace is to be an instrument of change, or even just an adequate lens through which to reflect on our times, it must have more to do with audacity—crucial in small moments too, like the fleeting interchange on board a plane stuck on the tarmac for two hours, when I meekly tried to get the attention of a passing stewardess and my request was only heard when the white passenger next to me commanded, “I think he needs your assistance!” Grace, if it is to have any utility at all, must be about knowing and proclaiming your value, even at the risk of being perceived by some as difficult or uncompromising. Unafraid to be called disgraceful—maybe this is a grace that can matter.
“I do not at all understand the mystery of Grace,” writes Anne Lamott. “Only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.” And as I hear word in the writing of this piece of the murder of trans activist Deeniqua Dodds, the fourteenth trans woman of color to be killed in 2016 alone, abutting news of policemen shot in Dallas and targeted in Baton-Rouge and the acquittal of those responsible for the death of Freddie Gray I continue to wonder: Where has our grace left us?
Chase Quinn is a writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.
Cover of Anohni’s Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian, 2016).
Feelings aren’t facts in Anohni’s debut solo album Hopelessness (2016)—but that doesn’t mean they’re useless. Her eleven new songs speak frankly from the heart and lay a rhythm for direct action. Creating friction with upbeat electronic tempos and chilling lyrics about downbeat issues, Hopelessness has been called a protest album. Artforum.com managing editor Lauren O’Neill-Butler asks the singer for her take.
Hopelessness seems to suggest that violence shouldn’t be understood or theorized as an abstraction but rather as something increasingly commonplace, a lived reality with an extensive history. How were you trying to frame violence in this work?
I collaborated with a group of women in New York City a couple of years ago and we developed this system of tenets that we called “Future Feminism” because we were all concerned about the future, basically. The first tenet was “The subjugation of women and the earth is one and the same.” The time-honored enslavement of the feminine now climaxes in the virulent decimation of the biosphere. Our propensity for warfare, violence, and hierarchy—born innocently enough out of some survival—now ushers us along the path to ecocide. Judeo-Christian religious texts have been rooting for an apocalypse for thousands of years. But these patriarchal death cults had to wait until the twentieth century to find the technology and capitalism that could finally make their dreams come true.
While acknowledging histories of violence, the album offers what might seem like love songs, flirting with the NSA or a drone bomb. Could you describe some of your processes for writing lyrics?
When I was a kid, one of my means of self-defense was to disarm perpetrators with a confounding display of vulnerability. I guess some of these songs come out of that impulse. They used to recommend that if you were being raped you should act like a wild animal and scream and gnash their teeth, hopefully jolting the aggressor out of his stupor and giving him a fresh moment of perspective, or at least giving him a moment’s pause in which you could escape.
The lyrics for this album were an attempt on my part to be more vigorous in the ways that I used my influence. Honestly, I was sick of writing pastoral songs. It felt too passive in the face of what is happening. I wanted to try to model another approach and see how far I could push it in terms of content. Once I dove into the idea of singing harder lyrics against euphoric dance tracks and got past the phase of self-censorship, the first draft of the work came pretty quickly. It was easy to write lyrics about these subjects, which have preoccupied me for such a long time. In that respect it is actually a very personal record.
Anohni with her “Future Feminism” collaborators (Kembra Pfahler, Johanna Constantine, Bianca Casady, Sierra Casady).
Did you feel like pop songs might speak more powerfully about drones, for instance, than news reports or even protests?
Music is a different way of communicating, using our voices expansively to communicate a depth of feeling, or an impassioned belief. It reaches a different part of the psyche, and so it can be useful.
Listening to the album I was reminded of Eugene Thacker’s writings about our increasing indifference to the planet (which he calls “the world for us”) and the planet’s increasing indifference to us (“the world in itself”), as well as the “world without us,” a horrific endgame. Do you think at this point the world would be better off without us?
I don’t imagine the earth as indifferent to us. She suffers inexorably for us. Only a mother who loves her children would offer them the fat from her body, the water from her eyes, the clothes off her back, at the cost now of her own life. So I do not think the earth would celebrate being rid of us, which would also necessarily require the eradication of biodiversity itself, of forest systems, of ocean systems, of so many complex and interdependent aspects of life on earth. We will be among the last to go, if it comes to that. Suggesting that the earth would be “better off without us” is not a useful fantasy. It denies the extent of the disfiguring damage to the earth’s life systems that we would need to inflict in order to make the planet uninhabitable.
Is there any hope in Hopelessness? Do you think the album urges a fundamental reorganization of society, perhaps from the ground up?
I experience hope and hopelessness both as feelings rather than facts. It’s important to be honest about how I feel. But it will be our immediate actions and not our feelings that determine the future of the life on earth. The case for the necessity for hope or the need to deny feelings of hopelessness sometimes feels like a red herring. Plenty of destructive people feel bountiful hope. And a lot of really effective organizers and activists feel at times a terrible sense of hopelessness. But that doesn’t stop them from continuing to take action.
Music video for Anohni's “Drone Bomb Me,” 2016.
The album gives us a dark image of our era; it also has mystical moments (lyrics about wanting to be born into the past, seemingly directed to a higher power, for example). Is there room for mysticism these days given our grave, real, and non-abstract problems?
I don’t think of spirituality as something abstract. I see it as inseparable from the world/universe in all its most tangible aspects. I think the separation of our ideas about spirituality from the practical face of nature and life is one of the ways we have been hoodwinked into behaving virulently, believing that true spiritual value lies elsewhere, on another far away plane, perhaps in heavens.
Our current issue is themed “Art + Identity.” Do you think identity politics is back (or if it ever left)? What might this term mean now?
I tend to feel that many of us have been manipulated in the US into thinking that identity politics is the endgame and that beyond it lies the utopia of social justice. In the ’80s, I remember watching as half of America voted for Reagan out of fear that gay men would otherwise be tainting the water supply with AIDS. But Reagan’s actual legacy was neoliberal capitalism and the dismantling of legislation that had long protected the working class. Now we have a vastly poorer general population, with significantly diminished access to education, advocacy, financial security, healthcare, or truth in media. Here comes Trump, a billionaire, still harnessing working-class people across the country who fantasize that he shares their often-bigoted points of view, when really he is just another mogul trying to pull the wool over their eyes. It will take stoicism to root out the carcinogenic individuals and institutions that manipulate us into compliance with easy-to-digest morsels of fear and pedestrian bigotry. My teacher Vito Russo used to say the three phases of a plague were denial, blame, and then finally, fear.