Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.
– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
This is an artwork
Like the paradoxes built into this is an artwork’s full title/poem, keyon gaskin’s choreographic score invites interpretive permutations. Gaskin doesn’t present a performance of fixed significance, but offers the raw material—bodies, props, prompts, sounds, smells, and movements—for audience members to construct their own through-lines. The work subtly points to power and to the moments when we flow with it, rail against it, or negotiate with it. Yet power’s loci are multiple and shifting. One audience member might read a gendered battle in the incommensurate pieces of gaskin’s dress. Another might hear the keywords “community” and “prison,” and determine that the piece is about the rewards and entrapments of relation. Gaskin’s willingness to cede a degree of procedural and interpretive agency to the viewer is central to the work, and the artist’s subordination of their intention to the audience’s interpretation is itself a performance of power. Though gaskin’ score stages their control at moments within the piece, audience members ultimately determine its meaning, leaving both when they want and with what they want. To honor gaskin’s work and method, I attempt to offer readers the same latitude.1
This is for you
Upstage, gaskin enters in a dark t-shirt, white basketball shorts, a dark winter parka, black tights, and red satin stiletto heels—masculine hegemony, feminine weaponry, and elemental protection in one. They carry a large coffee can in one hand. This is an artwork, they yell over the din, and the audience falls silent. They repeat the title of the performance as a litany or invocation as they pull a bottle of Pine-Sol from their parka pocket, pour it onto a rag, and clean spots along the concrete. They gesture audience members out of the way. They continue to recite until they place a single chair upstage center.
You are a community
Gaskin silently leads a woman by the hand to the seat. From then on, they simply point audience members into the chairs they place. Sometimes the wrong person responds, and gaskin refuses their relocation. The mood is good natured and expectant until one woman—a Black artist herself—refuses to move. Suddenly pedestrian, gaskin explains that, in the event an audience member refuses their direction, gaskin stops the piece until that person moves or leaves. They won’t continue until the woman makes her move. I feel the weight of collective expectation. When the woman departs in a huff, there is a palpable shift in atmosphere, and I will later hear speculation that the artist was a plant.2 Gaskin acknowledges her decision with a gathering pause. They resume inviting people to move until we irregularly line all four sides of the room. We are looking at one other.
Opening the coffee can, gaskin begins sprinkling coffee around selected audience members. The smell of the coffee mingles with that of the Pine-Sol, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but strong. Next gaskin performs gestures of failed communication. They stomp and point to the throat from which no sound emerges. They trace indiscernible shapes on the black wall before leaning into it with such force their six-inch heels pop with the pressure.
You are my material
Reassuming the center of the room, gaskin silently calls a small group of audience members into a huddle. Inaudibly, gaskin instructs the group to manipulate their body as they wish. The scrum lifts and carries gaskin around the room. At first all we see of gaskin is a limp arm or the red stilettos. But gaskin strikes poses within the hands that hold them. It occurs to me that no Black people are among those asked to labor on in support of this black body.3 When gaskin goes limp and heavy, the group rushes and struggles to keep their body from falling to the floor. Gaskin sits up and flips over, and again the holders rush to adjust. Finally, gaskin touches the floor and the scrum lays them down. One woman delicately adjusts gaskin’s supine pose with a gesture reminiscent of a pietà.
Gaskin sits up and quietly dismisses their helpers. A soulful piano plays through a speaker, and gaskin begins to move in a modern dance vocabulary. They break for a moment to hand an audience member—in this performance, me—the phone. Gaskin instructs me to forward the song after some random amount of time—20 or 30 seconds, or whatever feels right. They return to their dance, which corresponds to the musical cues. An alternative ballad elicits tense but lyrical floorwork. Thrashing guitars beget stiff-armed spasms. Slow hip-hop invites a mix of styles. There’s a half roll and split, the sort of narrative posturing of music video performativity, then a kneeling booty-pop to a “power to the people” chant.
This is a prison
With Celine Dion’s “I’m Your Lady,” there is another shift. They remove their parka and heels, and collect the rag used to clean. They gesture to the audience with broad arms; they place hand on heart and then extend it, thanking the audience with the overwrought gestures of a diva. Gaskin touches someone’s knee in feigned humility, takes another’s hand in an acknowledgement of the audience’s gaze. Gaskin makes their way back to the door from which they entered, then looks back at us, chest heaving slightly. With one hand on the doorframe and another at the neck of their tee-shirt, they begin to weep. Tears stream down their face. One woman reaches toward them, others nod and smile. Gaskin exits. The audience members look after the door for a while, then begin looking again at one another. They bop their heads to the inescapably familiar tune, turn toward their neighbors, scan the room. People begin to chat, to move, to be together as an artwork in community.
This is one of four essays from the twelfth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.
Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.
- For a video of a November 2019 performance in Toronto, see https://vimeo.com/387785839
- She was not. During a subsequent conversation between gaskin and the artist, we learned that the artist had arrived a few minutes late to the performance, and so had missed the opening invocation and its instructional cues. She did not know she was captured as the artwork’s material unless she released herself.
- Because this performance is part of a symposium on blackness, the room is diverse, and this selection feels intentional.