Identity as Installation
justification by Robert Eric Shoemaker
of his performance/installation script
“I’m not really here
I’m only the shape
of the emptiness
that holds me
the inner space
of those dancing
only in music”
– Cecilia Vicuña
A dark alcove. Two standing lamps, tall silhouettes like thin men. Faces hung between— faces in rows, connecting, missing one another, in the shadow of the lamps. Black and white string hung from lamp through face printed on paper to blackboard…to whiteboard…flanking either side of the performance space.
It must be a performance space, you think. You aren’t sure if you want to transgress by stepping into the space. The images aren’t inviting— a man in blackface, hundreds of white crosses— but you can see, because of the light cast from the lamps, words coming through the opposite side of those pages. So you investigate. You enter the space, and turn over a page.
“The girl without a name in the paper.”
The blackboard and whiteboard, objects in space, textures set against the stark lighting, with these nets of faces between, create a forbidding and simultaneously intriguing visual. What is happening here, what could happen in this liminal space between BLACKboard and WHITEboard?
“I’m not really here, I’m only the shape of the emptiness that holds me.” Yes, somehow that’s right. And the emptiness, that is defining. Angular. “I am the space where I am” – Bachelard— and that space defines me in ways I can’t begin to know. I am a whiteboard.
How do we write about race without talking about color? How do we talk about color without comparison? White in terms of white is not. Opposition becomes the only way to talk about color. Opposition as the space where we are, America today, defining ourselves— as in, “I am not that.”
I want to destroy the meaning of colors. I want to do it in performance. I want you to come up to this installation and become angered by the images you see. I want you to notice that there is a performance later in the day, and come back. I don’t care if you’re angry; I’m going to speak. And I hope you talk back.
This is the premise of “Blackboard/Whiteboard”: to reference Toni Morrison’s “unspeakable things spoken”, to reference Gabrielle Civil’s translation of the body “into words on the page that were written to be unheard” (Civil 169).
Why is color often taken for granted? Words invented for the sake of defining “otherness”, those people who “are not we”. Why do we “whitewash” everything, become “colorless”, unapparent? I want to challenge our definitions of race and color by breaking down the barriers between words, “white” and “black” being my primary focus. Why is one “visible” and the other “invisible”, and why is that backwards when we change political contexts?
I know I’m a white man, and that is at issue here. I was born this way, just as anyone of another race was born that way. As a white man who also identifies as a homosexual, I will continue to voice issues I see and problematize our stereotypical notions of groups: white or black, gay or straight, male or female.
I know I come with a high degree of privilege because of my gender and race. I like to think that also indicates a degree of responsibility.
What is the “unseen under” of coloration? Who is defined, redefined, undefined, as “THEY” in America today?
Let me break it down. I am creating a rebellion against structure as well as a celebration of difference in America. “Blackboard/Whiteboard” is an attempt to complicate, intensely, our relations to one another, but also to inspire us to be better. I took some inspiration from Taylor Mac’s “24-Decade History of Popular Music”, which is a marathon performance taking up a day. Taylor Mac (who prefers the pronoun “Judy”) is crafting a rebellion against pop culture as well as a celebration of it. So why not me?
“‘We’re making a community event,’ said Mac’s co-director, Niegel Smith. ‘This community is anyone who is interested and engaged with the question of America’” (Ditmar 4).
What the hell is America? Let’s redefine that too, while we’re redefining things. Let me say the words “white” and “black” enough times for you to forget their “meaning”. Let’s challenge notions of America, things we grew up with, things our parents told us. We are America, so let’s redefine it.
“Maybe the social dynamic of the gallery, of the art world, of the United States overall, featured a predetermined set of assumptions about the bodies who would be there: able bodies, bodies with working eyes and/or ears, bodies marked by class and education, bodies who would understand social codes and restraint. What was it that made me feel as if my body didn’t matter in the space?” (Civil 158-9).
Make bodies visible. Make the person, visible. Not their color. Color is a word some people agreed upon. We cannot strip people of their race, of their heritage, of their pride, their identity, and that is not the goal; the goal is to deconstruct what we mean when we define other people based on their race.
Civil transfigures the performance artist Carollee Schneemann into “[a fat black woman]” to showcase the invisibility of the black woman performance artist (Civil 128):
Slide 3 (1975)
[A fat black woman] stands naked.
Her posture is a semi-squat. Presumably,
it is red paint painted in a circle on her
face and splattered around her crotch.
But who can be sure? She pulls a long
scroll from her vagina, reading from it
a searing litany of male criticism of her
Black and white bodies in the same space, watching the same show, don’t always feel at ease in the same way. Does “white” belong more than “black”? What is it that we expect?
“In Aymara, ‘allqa,’ the union of black and white, is the transformation of the world— the moment in which one begins to become the other” (Vicuña 97).
Transform the body, the me, the color. The word.
I come with a certain perspective. You may not want to listen to me. Maybe it makes you angry to see a white man talking about race. But if I don’t do it, and you don’t do it, and nobody does it, or nobody listens to each other, who do we leave to do the talking?
America is in trouble. In literal, four-horseman, Antichrist trouble, and I’m not religious. We need to undefined in order to redefine. What is America without each and every person who is willing to stand up for what is right?
Question: Am I the right person to do this?
Would a black woman director approach Civil’s piece, “Auction”, a wordless play which, in Civil’s mind, invokes slavery and the appropriation of the black woman’s body, in a way “closer to” Civil’s idea of the piece? (Civil 170).
Am I wrong, or presumptious, to think I can tackle race?
Let me defend myself through Taylor Mac: again, this is both appropriation and celebration (Ditmar 9).
I get it, you don’t feel comfortable with what I’m putting before you. That’s fine, that’s fair. But I have my share of identity issues, as do we all. I was born in Kentucky, moved away, came out to my parents, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and am now a practicing artist living in constant fear of talking to my extended family. I have a lot of privilege, even still. And I’m uncomfortable with it.
I am, on the outside, a projection of “white male”. Inside, I’m a poet in a flurry of emotions. I paper this installation with an off-putting landscape of imagery; on the inside, I include a personal poem or selection, to represent the true inside and core of identity, or as close as I can get.
I want to express that I know what others see me as, but what do I see me as? Or what am I actually?
“For me, equally material and immaterial in the space, embodied and hyper-embodied, invisible yet mythologized, the piece angered, challenged and provoked. Who was performing what and why?” (Civil 158).
I identify with Civil because of her questioning of the established norms while remaining grounded and open to people. I identify with Taylor Mac because Judy includes people like unto his opposite, like jocks (if they come to a performance), when selecting people to come onstage. I want to be inclusive and to allow everyone in. To allow for real change in the words we use to describe one another.
“Before I left the gallery that night, I stole three pairs of different colored glasses. I wanted to do my best to filter pure white light, scrim, protect and see different colors in the city. I gave two pairs away as gifts” (Civil 160).
“[Mac] is Lear’s fool…the smartest man in the room” (Ditmar 6).
Can I make a confession?
I hate poetry readings. Deeply. I think that’s something to redefine, too. So while I’m thinking about race and solidarity and color and America, I’ll screw with the “reading” as well.
Poets are in a unique. state. of. privilege. Ninety percent of the time. We are overeducated, underpaid, often white, people. We have to acknowledge these privileges, but this isn’t a shaming party. You’re white? Straight? Come on, speak up. Do it in community with those who are making a good point, who speak from the heart, who encourage kindness and oneness. Let’s collectively uncover our hidden assumption, the ones that normalize certain kinds of thinking. Let’s question the establishment, and those who don’t read the news.
“Blackboard/Whiteboard” breaks down words and meanings and speech patterns. It complicates the legibility of racial identity, unerases the minority individual.
We take charcoal to white paper, and ink, and then burn the paper, and the ashes are dark, in between, liminal.
Let’s name the ideology so we can subvert it; name the definition to screw with it.
This is a performance, not a reading. An installation, not an exhibit. Touch it. Touch me. In a poetry reading, “the audience wants to witness a kind of authenticity, the poem read by the person who wrote it” (Vicuña 12, foreword by Alcalá). “The place the audience expects to inhabit— at best a ‘transcendent’ space where poems open up in an exchange between audience and poet— is always-already encoded and predetermined” (Vicuña 12).
I’ll break it down for you.
I co-wrote part of this performance with a friend in college. Yes, she was Black. But I’ll be reading what she wrote, because we are in the process of breaking down walls, not building them. We are engaging in a unique kind of poetry reading as protest. I’m drawing on the energies of Alice Oswald and Anna Deavere Smith, I’m channeling Gabrielle Civil and Taylor Mac (Judy, help me). “It’s all about inspiring you to revolt against a government, or an institution, or your obstinate sense of self,” Mac said (Ditmar 4).
My plan is to mess with definitions until you leave feeling pleasantly confused. I’ll express my questions, and you’ll go home with them, and hold them like an egg, crack them open. All I ask is that you attend, angry or not.
Taylor Mac: “‘Look, I spent all this time in your environment. Spend a little time in mine’” (Ditmar 10).
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. 1994. Beacon Press: Boston.
Civil, Gabrielle. Swallow the Fish: black feminist performance art practice. Forthcoming from #RECURRENT. Quotes selected from advance reader’s copy with the artist’s permission.
Ditmar, Jesse. “The Gaudy, Glittery, Gorgeously Subversive World of Taylor Mac.” The New York Times. Pub. September 13, 2016.
Vicuña, Cecilia. Spit Temple. Edited and Translated by Rosa Alcalá. 2014. Ugly Duckling Presse: New York.