The installation is an assemblage of fabric, posters and photography, where slogans and words crop up inconspicuously, rubbing against each other in their own conversation. ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Anti-Antifa’ appear tattooed on the same man’s body, badge and other punk insignias read ‘Ska & Rocksteady,’ ‘Corporeal Anarchy’ and ‘Rock Against Racism’ and ‘SwastikaFetish.’ Intertwined is another layer of imagined conversation through a dialogue taking place in speech bubbles.
A number of posters are plastered onto a painted green wall that move between a language of newspaper headlines and more personal notes or twitter captions, such as ‘THE OFFICIAL SHOES OF WHITE PEOPLE’ and ‘…SHE ADOPTED A BRITISH ACCENT TO LAND A SKINHEAD BOYFRIEND AND KEPT UP THE ACT FOR MONTHS.’
“Since there is no equivocal definition of life, most current definitions are descriptive,” reads Hannah Black‘s ‘Beginning, End, None’ three-channel film installation, a triptych of audio-video collage exploring what it means to be alive through the ambivalent idea of the ‘cell.’ The word can “denote both a biological and a prison cell,” points out the press release for the Berlin- and New York-based artist’s most recent Small Room solo exhibition, running at Vienna’s mumok from March 16 to June 18.
The pronouncement lends itself to the questionable tendency by many to draw parallels between biology and sociology, constructing systems of thought and creating categories with the precision of a taxonomist: “One of the major problems that has happened in the past is that people have been too quick to draw political conclusions from biological ideas,” says a disembodied voice in ‘Beginning, End, None (Beginning).’
Accompanying the show — strewn with floating latex sculptures resembling human skin and dominated by the ghostly video work — is a book called Life, written in collaboration with artist Juliana Huxtable and designed by Soraya Lutangu. In it, two risk assessment analysts and former lovers called Hannah and Juliana, write to each other about their relationship and the meaning of life against the backdrop of the end of the world: “No one is getting out of life alive, and you can’t handle it.”
The text was written via email, the two artists responding to each other between Berlin, New York and in transit as if they were the characters they represented. “I imagined a love story,” says Black via email about the approach to writing Life with Huxtable, “she pushed back on that, and then I tried to charm her. All that happened as a writing process and in the narrative too, where her character starts out a little contemptuous of me and then softens, I think, though that might be a partisan reading.” Partisanship, or at least interpreting information with a certain bias is where a book like Life, and also the themes of the Small Room exhibition, ultimately linger. Analogy as an ideological claim (in comparing the natural state of a cell to the manufactured assertion of the factory, for example) and the ambiguity of defining a thing called ‘life’ (biological cells are alive but they do not have a heartbeat) converge at a point of perplexity.
**The press release talks a little about your work “interweaving the personal into these theoretical ideas,” there’s a dialogue between yourself and Juliana from two locations, Berlin and New York, two places you are/have been based. Is that dialogue informed by those two experiences?
Hannah Black: We were both travelling a lot of the time, which is part of professional art life, but I have an idea that Juliana handles it better. For me, it makes me feel like the stricken man in Arthur Miller’s drama classroom classic The Death of a Salesman. You can see in the text that it is partly written in transit, I think, sometimes explicitly and sometimes as a matter of tone, a certain breathlessness, like someone running, and the characters are moving too: they pass through cities and airports, they move towards the edge of the end of the world. I wrote one passage, the part where my character encounters Mike Precipiz, on a plane and in the taxi home in a kind of trance. I’m so proud of it, but as if it’s something unexpectedly valuable I picked up in the street, like it’s not quite mine, which might be the reward of working with someone else, or might just be a thing about writing.
The opening part of the book, where I describe my character as kind of retired in Berlin, washed up in Berlin, does reflect something of how I feel sometimes, when I’m there. The parties and the familiar people can feel like lights glowing in fog, the fog of some kind of city-specific loneliness, and also the literal darkness and silence of the streets contributes to this feeling of everything being swallowed. My impression of the city is that it’s like a throat, and I’m writing to you now from New York, where things move up into the mouth, but I understand that when we talk about cities we’re only talking about ourselves there. I think Juliana would feel differently about these places, and I can’t speak for her. Or, on a bigger level, maybe the sense of Germany as the last remnant of an era of social democratic confidence and unity contributes to this island feeling.
**There appears some sort of discussion in Life about history + its ultimate disavowal of its existence, is that something Small Room also tackles?
HB: My friend Tiona McClodden recently curated a retrospective of Julius Eastman’s work in Philadelphia, and she told me about how hard it was to assemble all the material. Some of his scores have just gone missing completely. For one composition, the only extant copy of the score was found in a magazine that happened to use it as a kind of textural design thing superimposed on an image. I think what this story made me think about is that history is an accident as much as life is, an accident shaped by both malign and loving intentions.
**I say this, particularly in relation to the book, which takes its title from the Wikipedia entry. On reading its crowdsourced description on what constitutes ‘life,’ it becomes harder to grasp, like some kind of blackboxing effect. Is this something that drew you to this title in the first place?
HB: Yes! I find in a concept like ‘life’ a really attractive combination of abstraction and concretion. The theorist Yve Lomax, who taught on my MFA at Goldsmiths, was really interested in the idea of the example: she writes that the example “stretches the distinction between the universal and the particular, the general and the individual; it is, characteristically, neither one nor the other.” A living person, you, or me, or anyone, is an example of what life can be, but our exemplary being is mostly irrelevant to the question of what life is.
Black box is an interesting term that you used here, because a black box is something that records a disaster, and I guess that was the impulse of the book, which is part of a kind of feeling, both grandiose and sad, that we all might be in the process of recording the end of a world.
I want to also say that I love Wikipedia, or at least I did until someone made me a Wikipedia entry and I experienced with terrible directness the many problems of common knowledge, for example that it’s often untrue.
**InDark Pool Party(and maybeNot You), there’s this idea of the “abolition of the analogy.” As a writer that’s a difficult mandate to uphold. Maybe this doesn’t relate so much to this exhibition but I’m curious to know what you mean by analogy, and how you either do or don’t enforce it in your own work…
HB: This was an idea I got from what some people call ‘Twitter university,’ i.e. the ongoing political education happening online in the form of arguments and discussion and so on, and also from black theorists such as Frank Wilderson, who I started reading very fervently towards the end of my MFA in 2013. I was staying at my friend Anna Zett’s magical place near Leipzig with a bunch of people and we were stoned and lying on the grass in the sunshine and joking about “reparations for childhood.” As the only person with phone signal, I was detailed to tweet this thought, which seemed important under the hazy conditions, but I stopped myself halfway through, and someone said, kind of mockingly, something about me having momentarily forgotten my audience. And I was stung, because I often get it twisted and think that performativity is a form of lying, and I said something like, ‘It’s not that, it’s just that in the countryside you forget the war on analogy!’
This needs context: the thing is, reparations are presently primarily attached to the question of the working-through of transatlantic slavery and its aftermath, this is very well known, so the concept can’t be lifted away from this question and reapplied to another category, that of children, without considering what this does. This often comes up in relation to slavery, which gets used as an analogy a lot. This occurs often in critiques of white feminism: people notice that white feminists were somehow able to conceive of wives as in the situation of slaves, without thinking about the factual existence of enslaved women. If you begin with an incoherent or thoughtless position like this, of course you have trouble further along the line, or you’re confused when people that you see as an example of your category, as women just like you, kind of reject or escape the category. Antipathy to careless political uses of analogy often gets interpreted kind of his-terically within a white bourgeois or white masculinist perspective as a ban on thought, but it’s a prompt to thought, an offer to thought.
Of course, completely avoiding analogy is impossible, but it’s interesting to see what happens when you expose political comparison to a kind of mathematical rigour. I think that’s also what Wilderson is trying to do with his work on solidarity, which insists that you can’t start by assuming class cohesion between different race/gender positions, especially if cohesion is part of what you’re fighting for.
**…I’m also interested in how that translates, if at all, to Small Room and Life because both seem laden with analogy, correct me if I’m wrong…
HB: The show continues my attempt to think critically about analogy. It was originally inspired by an analogy that is common in high school biology teaching, or popular science: the biological cell as a factory. I wanted to look at this skeptically, as it compares a historical and social entity — the factory — with a transhistorical, natural one — the cell. In doing so, it makes an ideological claim: naturalises the factory, commodifies the cell. The word cell gives the exhibition its title; of course it’s the same word as the prison cell. In the end I couldn’t do much with the analogy apart from notice it. The video kind of hovers in between factory, prison and highly technologically mediated images of cells. Maybe it’s true that the violence of capitalism is echoed even at the structural level of our cells, and certainly it now reaches into the cellular structure of the world through pollution, but I prefer to believe in something else: perhaps that the cells are closer to how they seem in the unannotated lab images, spectral entities, uninterpretable without the right insight. This is the material we are all working with.
Formally, the installation is structured around an analogy between surfaces. There is a mirroring effect across the space of the gallery, with the three latex works called ‘Membrane 1, 2, and 3’ facing the three screens of the video installation. The phrase that the latex pieces take up from the video is from a biology textbook: “No life without a membrane of some kind is known.” Then on the floor towards the ad display at the back of the room there’s a work called ‘Temporary,’ which is a scratched-up mess of temporary tattoos stuck on the floor, so that the floor is also proposed as a kind of membrane or skin. As part of the process of making the show, I talked to people with scientific expertise to help me understand the material I was working with — Adriel Arsenault and Shay Akil McLean — and I learned some extremely basic facts that I had never grasped at school and was kind of amazed by, for example the structure of the cell membrane, this very thin layer between life and nothing. I have in my notes something helpful that Adriel said: “It seems very magical and designed and like that it ‘knows’ how to be a skin, but it’s just this very basic automatic response.”
I wanted to maybe complicate the simplicity of a question of difference that stays on the surface of what Fanon calls epidermalization, that stays in a biological concept of difference, and think about how difference and universality co-constitute each other. In a way, the animalized or biologized other, whether that’s an idea of blackness or femininity or whatever, is seen as belonging more to the abstract category ‘Life’ than to the singularity that could exemplify life. We can be life, but we can’t be an example of it: this is just from one perhaps too-abstract point of view. But I don’t know how to do anything; the work is just this very basic automatic response. I made the exhibition in a kind of frenzied period of my life, a lot of falling and getting over, a lot of happy and unhappy accidents, a time when I understood some uncomfortable things about myself. A series of titles in the video say, “I did so much wrong / And can’t forgive myself / But.” Living is its own imperative, no matter how I feel about that. A membrane reveals and shields, limits and makes possible. The presence of the ad display work, with its very clumsy title — ‘Movement trajectories of kinesin-cargo complexes can be seen as white paths’ — was also meant to indicate how all this is being worked out and through under conditions of commodification, which produces all sorts of difficult universalities, difficult differences. I guess this is all an analogy but after all this time I’m still not really sure how an artwork relates to analogy. I think an artwork’s saving grace, if it has one, is that it’s also just dumbly and materially itself, and kind of resists becoming either an analogy or an example of anything.**
The show and accompanying publication is curated and edited by Marianne Dobner and published via Cologne’s Buchhandlung Walther König. The book presents Black’s ideas in collaboration with artist and musician Huxtable and is designed by artist and DJ Soraya Lutangu (aka Bonaventure). The science-fiction narrative is described as a “scenario of impending apocalypse [about] two risk analysts returning from retirement to attempt to avert the end of the world” and the title refers to a Wikipedia entry on Life/Leben.
Black’s exhibition revolves around the question of “collective being, ‘life’ as an abstraction, and the uses of ancestry and lineage.” The opening night will be host to an apocalyptic performance by Hannah Black and Bonaventure.
The DJ and performer associated with House of LaDosha is founder of New York party night #ShockvalueNYC and will bring that hosting experience to the Finnish club venue, along with performances by local producers TWWTH and KHID.
Also a poet and artist, Huxtable has recently taken part in New York group exhibition, Bring Your Own Body at The Cooper Union, and performed alongside Emily Sundblad at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery for Dichterliebe/Divine Bitches Part Two reviewed by aqnbhere.
The enactment of Emily Sundblad and Juliana Huxtable’s ongoing collaboration, Dichterliebe/Divine Bitches Part Two at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery on April 18 is a contemporary song-cycle. In the sequel to their Dichterliebe and all that jazz performance-work-in-progress presented at New York’s The Kitchen last year, Sundblad and Huxtable perform an operetta composed of gathered materials, ranging from 17th century German composer Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe (‘Songs of Love’), extracts from porn sites, contemporary pop songs, original anecdotes of the everyday.
Presented as part of the Serpentine Galleries’ The Magazine Sessions performance programme, the Zaha Hadid-designed extension of the Serpentine Sackler space is saturated in an eerie green light and an array of floral bouquets. A grand piano stands in the middle of the stage-floor awaiting its moment among the murmurs of a heterogeneous audience that fades and gives way to the solemn entrance of a cast composed of Sundblad, Huxtable, pianist Ken Okiishi and London amateur choir Musarc.
Artist, performer and Reena Spaulings gallerist Sundblad’s teary eyes stare, bewildered, her fingers weave in delicate gestures as she opens with Schumann’s ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’. A German vocal solo sings about love’s bloom in ‘the wonderfully fair month of May’ taken from the Dichterliebe song cycle, which in turn was inspired by writer Heinrich Heine’s 1840 Lyrisches Intermezzo (‘Cycle of Poems’). Sundblad sings of love’s bloom while wearing green earrings and orange nails that contrast with a long, black velvet dress with a plunging neckline that tumbles to the floor.
This short and brittle yet stunning performance is followed by Huxtable’s poems. The DJ, artist and activist is contrastingly dressed-down in a denim outfit, as she delivers her words —reading from a tablet —in a rich, hypnotic timbre illustrative of a more informal, even charmingly coarse tone. Filtered through a microphone, the House of Ladosha member also known for founding “nightlife gender project” #ShockvalueNYC speaks of Beijing, meetings at Walmart and body piercings. Like-minded amphibians come by tongues and fingers, images circulate and young love blossoms in the “courtyard of affective labour”, followed by mantras of licking “each others necks on ecstasy under UV” —sometimes repeated until losing its meaning.
The breathtaking songs by Sundblad alternate between solo renditions of Schumann’s compositions —the opening tears of joy are soon replaced with those of sadness in ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ —Wystan Hugh Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’, and choral renditions of pop songs like Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ and Rihanna’s ‘Needed Me’. A surreal passage, read from Sunblad’s phone, follows: a dead doctor and a husband, a grief shared on Facebook and other stories in precede a fearless feminism in the canyons of West Texas. It claims “everyone is in a hurry in hospitals, and their colors and textures stay the same, whether life or death is produced”. The dramatic fragility free falls into a more abject mode, turning lyrics about love and loss in dreams into drunkenness and despair; still candid, though alcoholic and hopeless.
Sundblad’s performance leads again to Huxtable’s reverberating voice, in some ways reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, in which its miked mutations enhance the machinic side of her vocal, slowly stripping it of its humanity and making it sound Cyborgian. Huxtable’s voice becomes more and more distorted throughout the performance, as its fed through a filter, becoming an abstraction: a vibrant, powerful wave, piercing the public’s brains with its blurred deep sound, going back-and-forth between its original state and an absolute alteration.
Both Sundblad and Huxtable appear divine like the performance title, reciting an updated version of Schumann’s cycle of songs and romance, often performed by men. In rigorous turns they enact the lyrics and poems, respectively performing the roles of composer Schumann and poet Heine, through a set of copy-pasted writings, erotic material, popular songs, and former’s original ‘Lieder’. The pompous bouquets, perhaps a gesture towards the Romantic era from which Dichterliebe/Divine Bitches Part Two was born. By the end of the evening, stems droop and petals drop as the flowers are already dying, fragmented and falling apart as they come to the end of their course.**
The show explores the relationship between transgender artists, archives and identity. As one of the participating artists, Juliana Huxtable will bring her mixture of self-portraiture, text, performance, nightlife, music and poetry to the reading.
The Bring Your Own Body group exhibition is on at New York’s The Cooper Union, running from October 13 to November 14.
Organised by Jeanne Vaccaro and Stamatina Gregory, the show presents a range of work across paint, sculpture, textiles, film, digital collage and performance exploring “new historical genealogies” among transgender artists and archives.
As the press release states, Bring Your Own Body takes its title from an unpublished manuscript by intersex pioneer Lynn Harris and proposes “transgender as a set of aesthetics made manifest through multiple forms.”
The NYC-based media platform focuses on women working in what they call FAT —fashion, art and technology —featuring works and projects by women in these fields.
For the 2nd edition of its annual Annual Architecture and Design Series entitled PAVILLON DE L’ESPRIT NOUVEAU: A 21st Century Show Home, curated by Felix Burrichter, the exhibitionchannels the influence of Le Corbusier and his particular take on domesticity with readings by writer and actress Corrigan, artist and poet Huxtable, and the one and only Eileen Myles.
The poetry/art criticism/memoir takes up the subject of disingenuity in the Information Age, examining through various media, voicing what exactly constitutes personal experience nowadays – both online and off – and uncovering the “fading specters of meaning” beneath art and the art market.