September 29, 2014

BOOM: Turfing Inspiring The World

My first two posts on Oakland turf dancing emphasized some of the sites where turfing takes place, or is subsequently shown: from the art gallery, to the Oakland Ballet, to the stages where Johnny Lopez’s TURFinc battles take place. That is, turfing is visible in a number of known venues for art. But there is another site that is critical to this work: the streets of the city. The RIP Oscar Grant video considered the Fruitvale BART station a haunted site of murder and irreparable loss, but also made it a site which hosts the tremendously joyful affects of turf dancing. On any given day in Oakland one might see turf dancing on corners, in plazas, on BART cars—all in a context relatively free from mourning.

In a new video premiering today on Open Space, TURFinc brings us Inspiring the World TURFin in Oakland. While the video is shot in the highly trafficked streets around the Fox Theater in downtown Oakland, the title reminds that for Johnny and TURFinc, this dance is best contextualized as an internationally situated artwork. “My audience is getting better and bigger,” he said in our g-chat interview this summer. “But I want to spread turfin culture to everyone in the world. Turf dancing means a lot to me and we have lots of fans around the world that wish they could be at my events. People that come and experience the events leave with smiles. The whole time they’re having fun watching, and even become part of it.”

Inspiring the World TURFin in Oakland is a fun piece. The four dancers taking up room on the street are clearly having fun. Even Johnny hangs up his promoter’s gloves and solos, with a series of dashing and grimace-provoking contortions. The only potential spoiler of all this fun, the police, are a constant, but on this night benign, presence at the edges of the scene. Unlike RIP211, where the dance was delayed until the cops vanish, this dance is done joyfully, defiantly, directly in front of them.

Some shots show an officer leaning out of the passenger window pointing out a dancer with a big smile on his face. I start to think about what Lopez wrote me, about the ineluctable smile that turfing produces—here, apparently, even on the face of the cop. The biggest surprise perhaps is the conclusion of the video, which shows one of the dancers thanking the cops in the car for permitting them to dance.   “You’re good man,” the officer says.

The irruption of turf dancing into ordinary public spaces is one of the key interventions this work makes into the city. But if the confidence of these dancers in the face of the police marks a development from the defiance of the RIP videos, it does not indicate that the police have warmed to turf dancing in general.

In late April of this year, police were called to a BART train at Lake Merritt station. Apparently passengers were complaining about dancers soliciting money on the car.  It’s hard to know whether passengers on the train actually complained–what is known is that BART police assaulted and detained a friend of the dancers, an obviously drastic, brutal, and excessive response to public art.

Public space in Oakland has not been conquered—not by the police, not by dancers, activists, artists, rappers, workers. But turfing continues, insistently, to appear in all of the sites in which it has appeared. Artist David Wilson brought turf dancing into the Berkeley Art Museum last year, encouraging the collaboration between turf dancing and other more conventional dance communities in the Bay Area. TURFinc is hosting another battle, at the New Parish on October 25th. And on Saturday, November 15th from 4:00-5:00 p.m., The Lab will host a turf dance battle as part of their 24-hour Telethon.

The day after Inspiring the World was shot, the trade show for law enforcement known as Urban Shield met in the Marriott, blocks away from the site where the video takes place. The four-day Urban Shield event brings 200 law enforcement organizations from around the country to the area.   Inside, shoppers browsed t-shirts mocking the murder of Michael Brown, while protests outside the Marriott echoed protests in Ferguson.  In other words, the extravagant pleasure of turf dancing, for dancers and the audiences that gather to watch dancers (in trains, on corners, in art galleries) exists in a world where there is frequently not much to smile about.

But on the other hand, there’s something powerful about these smiles.  Something that feels important about these stories, right now; something that feels contagious.  When protestors in Hong Kong today raise their hands in the “Don’t Shoot!” pose which now figures as a worldwide sign against police violence, we can see plainly the meaning of bodily contortion, the importance of narrative expressed through gesture.  Turf dancing exists alongside the ordinary set of gestures and poses; that is, the ordinary time, of finance capital–but it’s a little off.  A littly hyphy.  A little dumb.

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