niv Acosta‘s CLAPBACK transforms the top floor of Berlin’s KW, from a barren industrial sized exhibition space into a humid cockpit heaving with bodies. Generating a backdrop of club vibes, a mix soundtrack by TYGAPAW of house, club, dance-hall and dubstep saturates the March 3 performance as accompaniment to Secret Surface, a group exhibition running February 13 to May 1, responding to surface as production of meaning.
Large signs labelled ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ sit on either side of a large projection screen. Strolling from one side of the room to the other, the audience weave between the two options; our bodies answer in rhythm with the identity-based questions, posed by the New York-based artist and appearing one after the next. They begin slightly elementary and trivial; an institutional game to get ourselves moving: “Kissed any of your Facebook friends? Slept in until 17hr? Been fired from a job? Do you feel normal?” As the ‘game’ progresses, the structure begins to slightly morph, and the language dances between aspirational individualism/romantic universalism and tangible limitations rooted in class, race and gender struggle.
“Caught a snowflake on your tongue? Fled from your country of origin? Think about the future? Imitate a culture that wasn’t your own? Been present at a human birth? Visited more than five countries?” Bodies continue to obey and respond, colliding past one another. “Do you feel trusted? Does racism upset you? Climbed a mountain? Do you have any black friends?” The tension quietly mounts, reaching its heaviest point at “Ever been a victim of racism?” Split in two, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ become signifiers of binary opposition and the room’s division is steeped in structural violence. Disturbing the unspoken energies that lurk in a fallaciously ‘post-racist’ landscape, our positions are placed in transparent display. The final slide reads, “Will you be my volunteers?” Acosta chooses ten people and takes them aside to speak to them privately.
Without announcement, a twerk performance casually erupts in a corner of the room. Naturally, our bodies create an audience around the area and Acosta is in the spotlight of our gaze. The volunteers are responsible for judging the amount of twerks the artist must complete, matching what the press release identifies as the 1,134 “police killings of black folks in America in 2015”. The room remains tense for the first half, silently watching Acosta sweat through hip-thrusting, low-squatting choreography. It is brave. A remix of Missy Elliott lyrics boom throughout the gallery: Work it/ Let me work it continues on loop. Before long, the spectacle takes over and the crowd erupts in cheers of awe and support for Acosta’s skill and stamina. Power relations between judge, performer and audience are splayed open and unresolved. Paying homage to the victims of fatal police violence, the twerk occupies a space of empowerment and determination. However, the idea of ‘hard work’ is complicated by the black body’s objectification throughout history and pop culture. After reaching the target, the music stops and Acosta staggers with exhaustion into the crowd, sweat dripping from every pore. The words “don’t let me through” come up on the projection screen, while he pushes slowly and theatrically into the barricade of bodies. At the same time, audience members begin probing people, and asking “what are you looking at” and “is this what you expected?”. At the beginning we can’t tell if they are actors or not, and the energy of the room feels damp and aggressive.
Acosta finally makes his way to the front of the room and sits cross-legged in meditation pose on a plinth; the atmosphere lightens as we enter into the ‘cool down’ phase of the workout. Looping on the screen behind, a video of galaxies and stars fill the contours of Acosta’s behind, abstracting the sexualised focal point of his body. A soundtrack of gravitational ripples between two black holes fills the space with spiritual ambience and Acosta begins to sing over the top. With an incredible voice, the words pour out: “I wanna be free/ Lay down the beat/ When you look at me what do you think you see/ You got me twerking 1000 times/ On the dance floor”. The familiar sound of calmness is remixed into a chilling medley of transcendence and suffering. Acosta walks slowly through the crowd; the singing note “Ahh-ahh-ahh” organically mutates into “Oww-ow-ow.” Eventually, his voice trails off and the gradual fade feels like a loss of strength. Proportionate to the impact of the performance, the applause is overwhelming and powerful. We can’t seem to stop clapping and the strength of support feels as though it’s picking up Acosta’s exhausted body. The sound of gravitational pulls, as a backdrop for the performance, embodies a strong metaphor for solidarity, as well as the desire to elevate from the weight of post-colonial oppression and prescribed expectation. **