by Ashley Stull Meyers

Photo by Leah Kiczula.

Photo by Leah Kiczula

What if TBA were a space for rage? Dead Thoroughbred (Portland artists sidony o’neal and keyon gaskin) propose the question through a beautifully gestural performance in PICA’s newly minted annex.

The performance begins with silence and dark—the audience steeped in a coded anticipation that is never quite alleviated through the entire hour of the work. o’neal and gaskin, stacked, form a towering figure that enters the room with an otherworldy air of grace and superiority. They saunter, methodically but improvisationally, appearing barely to notice the packed house of onlookers underfoot. o’neal cautiously dismounts gaskin’s shoulders, transforming from a queered, stilted, androdgyne to the posture of a horse—a thoroughbred. The two continue their mazed movements, o’neal leading a blinded gaskin, until they separate—o’neal becoming language and gaskin becoming form. The two halves of a whole use the environmental self-consciousness they’ve created through the dark to work in tandem, giving body and word individual utility within the shadows.

As Gaskin dances, o’neal recites verse that proposes (among other things) that PICA’s annual Time Based Arts Festival could fulfill its critical and experimental mandate should it also allow space for rage. The language, movement, and deafening sound require an unquestionable endurance from both artist and audience, as the majority of the work takes place in near pitch Blackness. Many audience members shifted in their sets, covered their ears, and squinted—attempting to force their eyes to better see something they were being denied. The subtlety of Black bodies moving in collaboration with the darkness is beautiful in both aesthetic and refusal. The crowd’s necks craned in frustration—mine included. But, this bodily anxiety is what Dead Thoroughbred produces best. The innate refusal in their work is a physical admonition that not every gesture of Black creativity, Black labor, Black physicality or Black publicness should be accessible for the price of a pass. What we received instead is the rhythmic whisper of o’neal’s voice, obscured by warbling static and ear plugs distributed at the annex door. We get gaskin’s elegant frame, floating and crawling through negative space with only the faint scent of lingering smoke as proof of where they’d been.

The duo exit, unceremoniously, and take the darkness with them. Their audience is left in a stupor—blinded by the harshness of yellow lights and ongoing noise that’s lost its substance. Rage within Black performance work manifests most radically as defiance; or in Dead Thoroughbred’s words, “evasion”. Dead Thoroughbred is “post-ratchet”; and post-ratchet is what is left when the institution is only given the ephemera of the turn-up.