Standing in front of an outdoor stage at the Miami Art Museum last December, I watched a trio of svelte black performers in dark lycra onesies, iridescent colored wigs and matching stick-on lips strut onto the platform to the tense, haunting sounds produced by, among others, a beatboxer, flutist, and saxophonist—and combined with a few sober baritone notes delivered repeatedly by the opera singer Stefanos Koroneos.
These fierce vogue dancers performed dips, spins, duckwalking, hand movements, and death drops—in accordance with the tenets of vogue femme—all the while shaking and flicking their glimmering blue, pink and orange bobs like mesmerizing fembots. This was Rashaad Newsome’s Hair Affair & Five (2011).
Much has been said of Newsome’s fusion of high and low art; he takes cultural practices and expressions that have traditionally been marginalized and stigmatized (vogueing, hip hop, African-American vernacular) and combines them with elements of high art and culture (opera, chamber music, historical English heraldry). These cultural collages—which come in the form of object-based works and video, as well as performance—are not forced marriages of different samples and disciplines, but seamless unions in which something alluring and new is created.
Through his own appropriation of cultures, Newsome presents the prismatic nature of cultural identity—its malleability, its performativity, its ability to transcend borders, race, and gender. He often notes that over the course of his career he has found gestures and body languages typically considered black in Latino and white communities—and beyond the United States. Newsome’s performances are site-specific; musicians and performers are, for the most part, sourced locally, so that each performance iteration communicates something of the local idiom.
Like a modern-day Henry Higgins (and a self-described ethnographic researcher), Newsome started collecting a library of African-American vernacular in 2005, recording screen tests of individuals performing gestures and expressions. These studies evolved to become Shade Compositions, a performance in which Newsome conducts an orchestra of black women (in more recent iterations he has included black gay men, who Newsome claims share the vernacular of the women) whose instruments are their voices and bodies.
Newsome takes his cue from classical music structures to form the components of his orchestra. Performers, who bring a repertoire of abstracted gestures, vocal expressions and attitude to the stage, are waved in by Newsome in his role as conductor. Sounds are pared down and repeated rhythmically, constituting a sort of minimalism of form that contrasts with the opulence and bling that Newsome’s images are known for. Watching Shade Compositions unfold, viewers may find themselves lulled into a trance-like state—one that recalls Newsome’s interest in ritual and ceremony. (His film Pursuivant documents the artist’s exploration of heraldry at the Royal College of Arms in London and ends in a ceremonial process in which he is knighted in a Harlem church)
One paradox at the heart of his performances is that Newsome veils and seduces (what, after all, are vogueing and black vernacular about if not play-acting, aspiration, and self-preservation?), while also revealing these cultural forms and capturing their nuances. But it is to this, I think, that his performances owe their success—he accentuates and reduces down the languages he plays with, while also complicating and bringing depth to them.
I sat down with Newsome on October 3, 2012, during rehearsals for his performance of Shade Compositions at SFMOMA the following day.
Tess Thackara: You began collecting a library of African-American vernacular years ago. How did that become an ensemble piece with multiple different musical parts, rather than individual studies?
Rashaad Newsome: The first time I performed it was actually in Paris at a space called Glassbox Gallery and I was in Europe at the time doing a residency and doing my own ethnographic research of this vernacular. I would go to a place, find local women, and a white wall would become my satellite studio. They would lean against a wall and perform the staple gestures. From that library I pieced together a choreographed work which was then performed at Glassbox by women from continental Africa but who had grown up in France. What was interesting for me was how those women from continental Africa performed these gestures that were very similar to those of African-American women— but it’s perceived to be something owned by African-American women.
In the beginning each woman would do the gesture consecutively. Then when I got back to New York there was sort of a loose rhythm happening in the rehearsal footage, so I edited [the footage] into a music composition. But I wasn’t really happy with the video quartet strategy; I really liked the idea of it being a live performance art piece. There’s something really powerful about them on the stage, you know?
At the time I was studying a programming language called Max MSP Jitter and then the Wii came out. And, in a lot of ways, I was functioning as a composer or conductor in the performance, if you will, but I wasn’t really seen. I was seen in the live performance but in the video documentation you didn’t really see me. So, using the Wii, which is aesthetically sort of like a conductor’s baton and it’s also a Bluetooth device, I could connect it to the computer via Bluetooth and then use the programming language to reprogram it to work sort of like a guitar effects pedal. This allowed me to do what I was doing in post-production, but live. From that change, I started to expand my ideas around classical music structures like string and brass with wind and percussion sections. It allowed me to manipulate the audio in ways that I couldn’t before because it was all acoustic. The Jitter component of the program allowed me to go into the material that I was shooting as research and attach that to audio that could then be manipulated in the performance again.
TT: Have you studied conducting as a formal practice or do you improvise?
RN: Yea, just improvised, not formally. I hope to connect with some conductors. I’ve reached out to some people that I know about potentially collaborating. But I’ve never studied it formally.
TT: How do you find a common language between you and a large cohort of performers? How does that evolve in practice?
RN: It evolves because the gestures that I’m using are those that all of the performers use and a lot of people use, specifically in America. What’s particularly interesting for me is when I’m able to go abroad and do it and it somehow mirrors the one here—then it reveals this truth that this vernacular is globalized and being appropriated. For instance I did it in Moscow and it was eerily similar to the New York performance. And they were all Russian girls. One would think that there would be a disconnect, but there was really no disconnect. Also, it’s a site-specific piece, so I have the staple gestures that I use, but the screen test process is a way for me to see how they’ll be on stage and one of the questions I ask is to give me gestures that they do, that their family members do, etcetera. That process allows me to mine the gestural language of where I’m at and then incorporate that into the piece. So this performance [at SFMOMA] will have some gestures particular to San Francisco.
TT: What has your experience of working with San Francisco performers been like?
RN: I have found that a lot of people have come from other parts of the Bay Area. Maybe it has something to do with how expensive it is to live in San Francisco. But a lot of people have come from Oakland. I’ve been really happy; they took to the choreography really quickly. Also it’s the most diverse cast I’ve worked with.
TT: Right, and you’re including drag performers in this performance?
RN: Not necessarily drag—I mean, in the world that I create in my work, there’s no gender. Everybody is how they are, and I like it that way because it opens up a larger conversation. There are people in the performance who perform drag but I don’t know if they would say they’re drag queens. They’re performance artists.
TT: Have you found any particular differences in the San Francisco vernacular, compared with other places that you’ve performed the piece?
RN: There are new words or phrases that I haven’t used before that are specific to here. So I decided to make a sixth movement for the piece.
TT: You’ve said in the past that you invite an element of chance into the performances. How choreographed are the performances when you’re up on stage?
RN: There are six movements and four sections. Each section has a collective part in each movement. So they know that part, but as to how I’m going to conduct them—that happens on the spot. So that’s where the rehearsal comes in; it’s a very process-driven piece. A lot of the work happens when I touch down and we start working and then the performance is a product of that but, for me personally, it’s not just a live performance, it’s what happens up until that point. It’s like studio practice—someone will make a mistake or do something out of turn and then that will become part of the piece. That’s the most exciting part.
But to get back to your question—they know they’re parts, and there are all these solos that happen. I know there will be solos, but it depends on how I feel and how the beat is going because it’s all being built live. It’s sort of like being at a station with Logic and you’re making a beat—like I’m in the studio myself but the audience gets to witness it. And all the performers are essentially my samples.
TT: So there is a lot of room for experimentation and improvisation..
RN: I don’t tell the performers they have to perform it a specific way. It’s sort of like they’re repeating it over and over so they have this small window around a gesture to create a narrative. So what I tell them to do is to try to create as many narratives as they can. So they have a lot of freedom in terms of how they’re going to bring the sound to life.
TT: Thinking about the length, pace and rhythm of your performances, these elements seem to resonate with your explorations into ceremony and ritual in other branches of your work. Do you think of a performance like Shade Compositions in terms of ritual and ceremony?
RN: Well, performing is like a ceremony so I think that’s something that is subconsciously in the work. I’m honestly not setting out for that [effect], but it’s not the first time that someone has said that. So it’s definitely something that I’m starting to think about and ask myself questions about. Now that I’m conscious of it, it’s making me want to play with that. I think the process of making music can be quite boring for someone who doesn’t make music—it’s a lot like boom boom, boom boom.. you’ll be playing with something for hours to get it right. And it can be very meditative so I think that is inherently part of the process.
TT: Where do you see this research going next?
RN: I want to perform it in as many places as possible, because one of the most interesting things for me is taking it to other places. The Moscow experience was really great because it introduced new words in another language. Being here has been really great too because you have a large Filipino community and a Korean community, so some of those languages have been brought into the piece. Depending on where I’m at, the culture of that place will change the composition sonically and I’m excited about what will result from somewhere like China or Tokyo or Germany, Italy, England… My hopes are that when I quit the piece it will function as an archive of this gestural language and how it was appropriated and how it evolved. It’s almost like an anthropological study of this vernacular and I look at it as something that anthropologists could study later.