Ashley Stull Meyers: I want to ask you first about “Style Wars: Shades of Cool”, the short form essay you wrote in which you discuss “cool” in varying forms as a methodological approach to critique and revolution, and not just a hollow aesthetic. You made an incredible case for the ways we can trace this in the political movements of Blackness, and I wonder if we can identify a similar tactic for Queerness?
Sam Aranke: I definitely think there are similar kinds of aesthetic modes of intervention that queer subjectivities produce that are grounded in radical histories. Part of what “Shades of Cool” was trying to attempt to do was to provide a mode of approaching a history of ‘the cool’ that tracked its relationship to African diasporas. I was hoping to crack open a conversation about how this thing we call ‘cool’ now is very much indebted to Black diasporic aesthetic— and one that is grounded in resistance and survival.
I think that in the case of queer histories, we can understand that ‘queerness’ as it’s used now is a term that has roots in radical political movements. Those histories that span everything from the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Uprising to the film Criminal Queers— that’s the kind of queer resistance and aesthetic that calls into being a legacy of past social movements, non-normative desires, and the potent potential of rage. Those kinds of approaches to ‘queer’ force us into a conversation about how homophobia and transphobia are embedded within systems like white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.
ASM: To be both Black and Queer unfortunately demands the creation of its own spaces for making and publicness. Hyper-traditional or conservative arts institutions are only just now beginning to grapple with what that sort of space can look like, and not always well. What are some spaces or initiatives you think can serve as a model? Is TBA one?
SA: This isn’t necessarily a public space— in fact, its intentionally not— but Black Artists Retreat out of Chicago is a space of both gathering and discourse that I think is worth thinking about. It’s organized and initiated by Eliza Myrie and Theaster Gates and is a space where Black artists, curators, arts administrators, academics, and critics come together over a theme, set of readings/ provocations, or topics. It’s an interesting model in terms of creating spaces that are separated from the demands of mostly white spaces. Conceptually, I also think it troubles this idea of a stable “public” or “community” because just because folks come together under this umbrella of Black artists, it definitely doesn’t mean everyone agrees. It’s a real testament to a notion of a community of/in difference.
I also think spaces that are intentionally collective, DIY, and grounded in an explicit alternative to profit-based models are great. Because I tend to think historically, I think about 848 Community Space in San Francisco, which was founded in 1991, as a great model. It hosted everything from dance performances to prisoner letter-writer campaigns. Presently, Omnicommons in Oakland is trying to think more expansively about how to create a space that houses a range of collectivities, communities, and events in a shifting city landscape. We all know that the rapid intensity of gentrification in West Coast cities means that Black and queer communities are some of the first to be pushed out. In a place like the Bay Area, where I live, I am interested in those spaces that are aware of this reality and make explicit their desires to resist such pressures.
ASM: TBA this year is being held in a brand new space… large and intentionally (for the moment) unfinished. The team at PICA sees a lot of possibility and conceptual generosity in the void of what the space has yet to become. Is this ideal for time based art? In general, is this strategy less historically troublesome than a “white cube”?
SA: I love the idea of an intentionally unfinished space, but I think that’s about my own romance with the raw, exposed, and unbridled feeling of a space that is just that— uncurated, unmanicured, and filthy! Tom Finkelpearl has this great essay in the exhibition catalogue for David Hammons’ 1991 retrospective Rousing the Rubble at PS1. The essay is called “On the Ideology of Dirt” and in it, Finkelpearl contextualizes Hammons’ show in relation to Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, which was being rapidly sterilized and “cleaned” in an attempt to make it a New York City tourist hub. I love this essay especially because Finkelpearl locates the transgressive and foundational history of dirt in the history of contemporary art, and suggests that Hammons’s practice— which, in some ways, was all about the possibility of dirt— is a response to such desires to cleanse, sterilize, and package grit.
I raise this piece of writing because it really allows us to think about how “clean” spaces of display are so highly racialized and often tend to be incompatible with modes of experimentation, risk, and failure— three things that are crucial to ‘time based work’ broadly and definitely performance and body-based work specifically. I’m not done with the white cube and its potential by any means, I just think a little bit of dirt does a lot of work.
Dirty or not, there might be some interesting ways to manipulate this new space and to think its limits in relation to the works presented. As someone who is not an artist, this is the most exciting part of my job— I get to wait and see how folks will work to charge that space full of meaning and anticipate its future potential.
ASM: You’ve also written about Black bodies in the space of art making being subjected to a lasting connection between Blackness and objecthood. Can we talk a little about that and whether the genre of performance also suffers from these (even unintended) valuations? There is still a sort of “consumption” at play here, and the gaze in PDX is primarily White.
SA: Yes! I love this! I know earlier I said I’m kind of a romantic, and maybe it’s because my PhD is in Performance Studies, but I have no allusions to the romantic potential of performance. Most theorists of performance are invested in its ephemerality— that quality that suggests “you have to see it to understand.” Maybe its because I’m a historian, but I just don’t buy it. For me, performance is also about a certain kind of relationship to the object broadly and the art-object more specifically.
Helen Molesworth has done some incredible work on charting the rise of performance in the 1970s and how it coincides with the rise of the service industry in an emergent neoliberal landscape. In other words, with the “disappearance” of the art object as a primary emphasis for artists (with the emergence of Process Art and what Lucy Lippard so poignantly called the “dematerialization of the art world”) coincides with outsourcing of object-based economic production and the emergence of service-based employment as a foundation for the U.S. economy. This analysis throws into crisis something like Bonnie Ora Sherk’s 1973 performance “Short Order Cook” which is framed like a piece of performance in which she works as a wage-laborer at Andy’s Donuts in SF. This dispersion of performance into the everyday, the banal, and the quotidian makes us rethink the allure of performance as merely a highly contained piece of ‘art.’
I think you’re definitely on to the consumptive prerequisite of performance, and its uneven application to non-normative or racialized bodies. There’s a quality to performance that can veer into something like event or spectacle or even entertainment. But because I don’t believe that all is lost, there’s also a potential for performance to activate something quite unknown or at least unrealized for folks— I just don’t think it’s as different as seeing a Mark Bradford painting or a Wangechi Mutu collage.
Sampada Aranke (PhD, Performance Studies) is an Assistant Professor in the History and Theory of Contemporary Art at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her research interests include performance theories of embodiment, visual culture, and black cultural and aesthetic theory. Her work has been published in Art Journal, Equid Novi: African Journalism Studies, and Trans-Scripts: An Interdisciplinary Online Journal in the Humanities and Social Sciences at UC Irvine. She’s currently working on her book manuscript entitled Death’s Futurity: The Visual Culture of Death in Black Radical Politics.
Ashley Stull Meyers is a writer, editor and curatorial collaborator. She has curated exhibitions and programming for the Wattis Institute (San Francisco), Eli Ridgway Gallery (San Francisco), The Luggage Store (San Francisco) and the Oakland Museum of California. She writes for DailyServing, The Exhibitionist and Arts.Black, and has been in academic residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art (Omaha, NE) and the Banff Centre (Banff, Alberta). Most recently, Stull Meyers has been an adjunct professor at Wichita State University (Wichita, KS). She is currently based in Portland, OR.