From Nia Witherspoon’s Dark Girl Chronicles. Image Courtesy of Nia Witherspoon.
One of the very few true pleasures of the past year and a half has been the opportunity to meet virtually with artist-scholars as brilliant and as thoughtful as Christina Knight and Nia O. Witherspoon. In an otherwise bleak midwinter, I had the good fortune to participate in a conversation between them. For the artists, it was the latest in an ongoing dialogue on creativity, magic, diaspora, and survival that has lasted well over a decade and a half. For me, as for ASAP/J readers, the conversation offers a profound meditation on Black futurity, performance-based thinking, and alternative timescales. “It feels like we’re on track for catastrophe,” Knight observes, adding that “you almost have to break something in order to reconceive of time.” Knight’s and Witherspoon’s work as artists, scholars, and culture workers testifies to the interventionist and participatory ambitions of their efforts at once to “break something” and also to heal, to build a liveable future, and to honor Black creation. Their work draws extensively on the spiritual traditions of diasporic cosmologies; yet it is anything but hermetic. In what follows, they discuss the projects of collective healing, creativity, and the creation of free Black space in a manner that both invites and demands participation. To borrow a line from Witherspoon’s Dark Girl Chronicles, “Spectatorship is a myth. We invite you to be right here with us.”
Knight and Witherspoon are performance artists and scholars whose work engages with the historicity of ritual, diasporic religion, and Black feminist traditions. This “engagement” is a wholehearted one, comprising bodily performance as well as the myriad operations of mind and soul: in what follows Knight and Witherspoon discuss how their work channels the forms through which traditions of diasporic Black cultural survival have expanded on these operations. As Knight explains, drawing on Brazilian and Haitian spiritual practices of “interpretation as god-making,” her work and Witherspoon’s alike engages in a process of “making something else with our performance practices”—a work of translation, of sublimation, of literal god- or goddess-making.
Christina Knight performs with her sister, Jessi, as knightworks dance theatre, whose most recent production is a performance film entitled doomsday: field notes. doomsday is a fictional work documenting, as Knight puts it, “a mysterious set of ritual practices discovered by an anthropologist from the future.” In the film, this ethnographic eye frames doomsday’s fragments of dance, glimpses of community building, and invocations of black feminist writing, revealing a “doomsday church” invested in charting a Black future proleptically.
Witherspoon’s Dark Girl Chronicles: Chronicle X likewise announces itself in ritual terms as a spectacular “Black feminist church.” “My work,” Witherspoon explains in a filmed artist statement, “is my prayer testifying to the sanctity of all Black life.” In Chronicle X, the artist preaches to the assembly accompanied by a Baptist choir and a live orchestra, exhorting the congregation, “Are you really ready to get free?” What is perhaps most impressive about Witherspoon’s and Knight’s artwork and thought alike is their willingness to pose this question—and respond to it—with joy as well as polemic, with dreams as well as discomfort and even uncertainty, and, above all, with a commitment to doing so without fear.
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation that took place over Zoom on February 5, 2021.
— Jonathan P. Eburne
Jonathan Eburne: As we were getting started today, you both mentioned that you’re tired. My question, as it were, proceeds from this. Do you have ways of finding, of grasping, meaning or joy out of the day? I was watching on Youtube one of the performances of the Dark Girl Chronicles and I found it beautiful when the chorus says, “Fuck the beginning.” I feel that this might be a way for me to avoid having to start anything off today, but it also introduces many of the conceptual strands in your work: what to do at the end of the world, how to think about the importance of that which continues, that which can be removed from erasure, such as the erasure of indigenous knowledges, the erasure of Black memory, the erasure of Black political groups, insurrectional possibilities. But also, to open up possibilities for continuation, for the future, for movement, for the visionary, and especially for the holy. Could you meditate a little on this injunction to do away with the beginning, particularly with regard to what it both addresses and redresses, and then what it opens up to in your imaginations.
Nia Witherspoon: That’s a beautiful invitation; thank you for listening to that. I think it’s funny because that’s a moment [in Dark Girl Chronicles] that always tries to go away from the piece. It’s something that even remembering, doing, and watching—re-watching—and thinking about it now gives me a great deal of anxiety and discomfort. And I think it’s because we are currently still inhabiting a very tragic beginning and it feels like a never-ending tragic beginning, like the state of Blackness.
And in that sense, it feels like something that I wish I could edit out, and which I have tried repeatedly to edit out, and in fact it is the most honest thing that I can say. Understanding that inside of that really, really tumultuous chaotic beginning is an expansiveness and a possibility for what feels like a potentially indefinite agency, just in uttering it, just in knowing that it is what it is.
And so, I also want to name that: the beginning, you know, we can really go there, like: what does it mean to fuck the beginning? What beginning? Whose beginning? Because that’s also it, too. Because it’s not necessarily saying, fuck our origins as a species. It’s definitely saying, fuck the white supremacist, patriarchal, teleological beginning, right? Fuck that timeline. Fuck that way of understanding time. Fuck that way of telling stories. Fuck the “once upon a time.” All of that is what, to me, is the stirring that my work is trying to enter into, and our work more broadly. It for me creates a kind of a quantum leap or a loophole through time that is possible when we understand our ancestors’ ways of inhabiting time and space, as opposed to what we’ve inherited through the systems of knowledge that have dominated in the West and which is, you know, steering us readily to the end of the world as we know it. Which is also what we want and need. Those are some thoughts… those are some thoughts around where I begin or refuse to begin.
Christina Knight: If I had to sum up my approach, it would be two things: one, it’s not just “fuck the beginning,” it’s “fuck the beginning, middle, and end.” Like, fuck the timeline. Which is what you said, but I guess I’m always trying to understand how it is that we’ve come to know ourselves through time or through theories of time, because it feels… It’s so naturalized that there’s no way out of it, and as you said, Nia, it feels like we’re on track to catastrophe. That’s the only path that we’re on, and so the scholar-me is like, okay, people actually have been trying to reconceive time for a really long time. So luckily this work isn’t entirely new. But it doesn’t make it any less impossible. You almost have to break something in order to reconceive of time. It’s so stitched into the way that we know ourselves as subjects, and so there’s something chaotic and scary about breaking time. The timeline is what makes us intelligible as subjects; the timeline is what makes collectivity make sense. If we’re not happening in time….
I’m saying all this to suggest that this is all too big of a problem, and so I’m trying to solve a smaller problem. The smaller problem for me is, how can we change the way time works in a theatrical way, in order to make our brains work slightly differently? I don’t exactly know what the relationship is between theatrical time and the bigger timeline, but I have this hunch that we can retrain ourselves—and I think a bunch of other artists, including Nia, have this hunch, too, so we’re just pricking that idea in our work. And the specific way I’ve been thinking about it most recently with doomsday: field notes is, as one of our audience members said, “it seems like you’re playing with this idea of a loop that doesn’t close.”
The way that we do it in that piece is: there’s this anthropologist from the future, but the way that you’re seeing it as an audience member is as if you’re moving backwards in time, finding these files that the anthropologist has found. But then you want this resolution to the story to tell you what it is the anthropologist has found, and to stitch together these two moments: you know, the moment in the future where the anthropologist is finding this file, and the present moment. You want that to make sense. You want a one-to-one correlation, or you want to understand. But it’s a refusal. It’s a loop that refuses to close. And so as an audience member you have to do this work, you know?
Maybe another way to think about it is that you just have to hold it. You just have to hold the fact that you want that to be resolved, and it’s not resolved. There’s something productive to me about that. In life right now, I think that there’s a lot of doing that: holding. And I think it’s the most honest thing that you can do at a moment like this. I think this is a really fucked up beginning, in the sense that I think that any time a world is ending, a new world is beginning. But the more honest thing, instead of just being like “we’re in this new era!”—which feels false, and we don’t even really know what’s ending or how you know because we’re living in it—so instead I just want that friction, where we’re actually at this meeting point of these different timelines. They’re actually collapsing into one another. And then we just have to do the best work that we can to hold that.
NW: Christina, the image that you just drew of those two timelines colliding feels like the trajectory that I am working to draw for The Hoo, where the goddesses—really the energetic beings that are these three beings of stardust, that are the creators of the world as we know it—and the way that they interact with the mundane timeline, the worldly material timeline, which is Diamond Reynolds’s and Philando Castile’s timeline. Both timelines are each moving towards each other through the entire arc. Both of their arcs are happening; both of their arcs are spirals, except one spiral is going clockwise, which is worldly time, and the other is going counterclockwise, which is in the otherworldly time. And when they collide, that is when the creation happens. And it’s exactly right that neither understands what’s happening as they’re tornadoing and swirling towards the other. And that it is always-already all happening. There is a before it happened and there is an is, as it’s happening.
I think that’s the part that feels really, really hard for our human minds—not only human, but human, rationalist minds—to unravel. As you said in an aside, Jonathan, in Indigenous knowledge structures it was not as hard for those human minds, the minds trained in those systems of knowledge, to unravel that. And yet and still there are human limitations, there are bodily limitations, and so we’re doubly and triply and quadruply limited, that’s all. As we work to unlearn that—a close friend of mine does work around unraveling the spiral of colonialism, really thinking about that: Zavé Martohardjono, a dancer-choreographer-thinker who does a lot of workshops around unraveling colonial time through somatic practices. So as we work to do that, I think it does happen in these kind of hypersensory experiences: in the theater, inside of performance, inside of ritual, and inside of spaces where we’re able to put our bodies in places and move inside of ways that are non-normative and untrained and untrainable in some way.
It is only through those kinds of practices—what Yvonne Daniels calls African Diaspora religious traditions, “performance-dependent” embodied knowledge—that we can move, meaning that for us, the primary means of connecting with spirit is performance. It is integral, in fact. It has to do with this notion of vibration that the New Age has kind of re-colonized and appropriated. But vibration is an actual thing. Think about vibration when we think of physics, more so than the New Age and whatever they’re referring to. Really understanding that it is performance practice that keeps us close to the spirit world, from a diaspora lens, and also that it keeps us inside a framework within which a metaphysical reality can coexist.
I’ve been doing a lot of research about near-death experiences, and really taking into account the ways that folks narrate those experiences: when they have to come back to the body and explain to other humans, who have not had that kind of experience, what it feels like. In the narration, what you hear over and over and over again is this notion of being in multiple places at once, right? So being both looking at oneself (as you’re in an operating room or as you’re stuck in the car) but also being outside of the car. And then also simultaneously being with loved ones as they’re receiving “the call,” or down the hallway consulting with the doctor. Literally this notion, Reginald Crossley calls it the hyperlocal, hyperlocal spaces, so really actually occupying more space than the physical body can, as we know it or as we have learned it (or collapsing space).
For me the juiciness is where these narrations of near-death experiences resonate with Yoruba cosmology: that the soul for the Yoruba is divided into three parts. That makes sense: oh, okay, so consciousness, the soul, one part lives with god, the divine source. One part lives in the body, but only temporarily. And then the other part lives with the family, usually kept at an ancestor altar, but with the family, with the blood family. Okay, so they understood that if you’re going through a near-death experience there’s going to be a part that’s with the people that you love, that you’re sharing consciousness with in this lifetime. The notion of “I,” of course, the Western notion of “I” is not a real thing for an indigenous knowledge. Of course the you that is also “them” is going to be there. And then the you that travels between the divine consciousness and your body is going to be hovering, and the you that is one with the divine is there always.
There’s this notion that these ancestral knowledges kind of just come with, and that are now confirmed in all of these other more “scientific” spaces, [which is] that even me saying all of that only makes sense inside of an experience like the one that Christina is talking about watching that film or coming to Dark Girl Chronicles. Even all of this talking doesn’t get us closer to the experience of it, because actually it is an embodied experience. It’s a psycho-social-somatic-cultural experience that grounds these various different ways of knowing. I think that’s the other side of “performance-dependent,” which is that it’s not only performance-dependent for the spirits, for the spirit end. It’s performance-dependent for the human end, for the consciousness shifting to occur.
CK: That’s making me think about something else, which is that it strikes me that so much of this is an act of translation. And it’s all a metaphor in some ways, and I don’t want to overstate this as a claim, but as I’ve encountered various kinds of spiritual traditions I find that I have these different access points to what feel like overlapping phenomena. For instance—and this is just a really simple example—for all the enslaved that came across the ocean there are all these overlapping deities and overlapping processes that aren’t identical but that developed separately. For instance you get this instance of Iansã in Brazil sharing the characteristics of Maman Brigitte in Haiti. Sort of. They’re separate entities, but they’re also overlapping in terms of what their function is. I’m bringing this up because some of what I’m trying to understand with my work now is that whereas these are of course ancestral traditions, I’m trying to understand the underneath—which is that there’s something about interpretation that is god-making. For instance, in the Haitian tradition, people who become loas first were just ancestors, and the veneration process elevates them. We’re likewise in the process of *making something else* with our performance practices at this particular moment. It would be foolish to not engage these ancestral practices because they’re in the blood and they’re an essential part of understanding other ways, non-western ways, of being in time. I also think that we’re making something else, because we’re living at this moment. We’re living at the bottom of the hourglass; we’re like those last grains of sand, you know? What I’m trying to say is that we have all these tools that are at our disposal, but we can’t get stuck there. We have to figure out some new language—no, not language. Some new affect. That’s what I have been thinking about both of our practices doing, because there are actually a lot of folks working in these traditions, who are just remaking the traditions. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t think that’s actually what we are doing.
JPE: Christina, when you brought this back to theatrical time, thinking about what is manageable and how to think about broad-scale time—changing time across cosmological as well as historical levels—it made me wonder about how this works on a project basis. I’m wondering if for both of you, there’s a way in which even on the process level this is part of your work, in terms of thinking about the intimacies and the collaborations through which deriving a performance happens. Christina, you’ve talked about how some of your work comes from dreams. Is that an interesting path to take for talking about what is being transformed, what is being created, what can be grasped in hand on the level of theatrical process, but which is already itself collective and predicated on friendship and intimacy?
CK: If I understand your question: one way to get at this question of what it is that we’re doing or making in this moment, is to just look at what we’re actually doing—the how of the making—and the material part of things. Because there is this real connection between the actual practices that we’re doing, and then this thing that we’re trying to make in the world. For me, recently it’s just been embracing the fact that intuition does operate outside of time. There’s a lot of chaos at the level of the intuitive, also. Sometimes dreams are very clear. For instance, a few nights ago I just woke up and said, “Jericho Brown.” I don’t really know his work that well. I’ve seen in emails that he had a collection out recently, but I was like, fine, I’ll read some of these poems. Any time something like that happens, it’s so nice. But it’s also just the very beginning to a process that’s incredibly chaotic. I don’t know who told me to read that. I don’t know why. There’s no easy way. I have to just read the thing, sit with a thing, you know, feel strange. Tell my friends about it. And together it starts to become sense-making. But at the beginning it’s just nonsense.
But I feel really safe in that process. I don’t know why, but I really feel like I have to hold on to that kind of chaos. Because as soon as you try to say, “this is what this is,” it slips out of your hand. It’s a slippery fish. You think, “this is what this is,” and then you’re like, “oh, I don’t have it anymore.” I don’t even know. I don’t know if you have any experiences like that, Nia, when you’re working and trying to begin a process….
NW: Yeah. I think that for me, I definitely relate to the sentiment of having to be okay with not knowing what a given thing is in the time that you receive it.
I think spirit-work just takes a lot of patience and a lot of commitment to processing and to unraveling and to paying attention, and that in and of itself doesn’t necessarily always jive with production timelines. That has been an overarching kind of experience and theme in my creative work over the past five years, to the extent that I’m oftentimes negotiating with institutions for more time at the beginning of a work, saying that this is a spirit-based work and a spirit-led work. And what that means is that we need more time not only to decode but also to manage a lot of the trauma that comes up, inevitably, inside of process, and that that is valuable time. So, I think it has to do also with those two factors, which help me think about it as making the invisible visible inside of process, and making the invisible valuable and legible. So, another act of translation.
I have these sections in Chronicle X called portals, and inside of each of them are images and words that I now, maybe three and four years later, can start to explain. But at the time I wrote them in, I let the collaborators know that they were untouchable, basically. An example of that: Chronicle X is a chronicle of the story of Philando Castile and Diamond Reynolds mashed up with the creation story I had mentioned before. And in one portal there is a man, and his name is Shadow Man with a Face of Light, and he carries a sky in a golden frame. And he says certain things. All of that came to me in a dream. Again, I really didn’t understand; I learn more and more about him the more we work, actually. Had that been thrown away or not honored, then I think we would probably be missing one of the most important messages that is coming through in this piece, one of the evolutionary messages.
It’s a trust thing; a trust, a willingness to seem crazy. You know, a trust that the things will be revealed and that the world-sense will come. Almost a stubbornness or a doggedness of just saying, “no, it is this.” But also: being stubborn about the thing, but not stubborn about the meaning. Like Christina was saying about the slippery fish: I know that this has to be here, and I don’t actually know why, and I have to be okay with it, so everyone else has to be okay with it. That type of feeling.
I’ve reflected on this with you already, Christina. Having to talk with collaborators about how the gold frame in Chronicle X is not a metaphor, it’s a portal. Maybe we can’t afford a gold frame, but it can’t be silver. That is actually really important, and it’s not up for negotiation, like, “it would look really cool if it matched with…” No, it’s actually not about that at all, if you know about the cosmology. Speaking to the thing that you were saying earlier, Christina, I do think that we’re doing something that is a re-imagining, and a for-now and for-future. I think that practitioners are always doing that. That’s why there’s Anansi; that’s why there’s Dantó, and all the ways that the Loa and Orisha and all the other spirits have manifested themselves across the diaspora. Why it’s totally different now in the homeland is because we’re always having to change, and we’re always having to re-adapt for our times. I feel like I’m always reaching—very uncomfortably—backwards and forwards. I’m always thinking, “okay, but there’s so much that we still don’t even know to change.” I’m always trying to ground my change-making practices inside of the kind of organic, evolutionary development that was robbed in the Americas because of the slave trade, and robbed in Africa because of colonialism. So, what would havehappened? How would we get the chance to grow, and not feel like I always have to invent from anew and get swept up in what I see as the romance of postmodernism: to just be like, “yes, I’m gonna grab a little bit from here and from here and here.” And to some extent I am doing that. I am grabbing from here and here and here. But I would like to think that it’s coming from a place of accountability and responsiveness to the energies that I’ve inherited, that I did not ask for, that are just here with me. An acknowledgement that all of this comes from roots and contexts that precede me and my engagement, versus this sole-authorship type of feeling.
I don’t think you’re saying that at all. I’m just trying to talk about what that means, because I see that in your work as well: a responsive movement that is past-grabbing and future-grabbing, and that’s not just saying, “wheee.”
CK: Yes, and I do think it’s worth saying that some of that is making sure you’re being honest with what your gut says. Because I do think that if you’re doing something that isn’t the truth–personally I have a feeling I get that’s like: stop! That’s one thing. It’s real, and it’s very uncomfortable.
CK: I also think another way to guard against that is being so very careful about who you’re working with. Every collaborator is so important in building the thing. You have to make sure that those relationships are meaningful and that everyone understands what the substance of the work is. That’s the hardest part, I think, of the process. You can’t just have any old dancer. You can’t have just any old cinematographer. With doomsday: field notes it was this beautiful thing. When we were filming in Brooklyn, we worked with this cinematographer, Nadia Awad, whom I lived with in Sunset Park back in 2014. We were filming on the roof of this building we had lived in, and where we’d had this magical summer.
Both of us are lightly psychic and we were sharing dreams, you know? Returning to that space with her—and then this cat we had taken care of was still downstairs. It was just like we were back in that place and it was on purpose. It was so meaningful, and that was stitched into the thing that we were able to make, because it was just so trusting and so… I don’t know, it sounds silly, but these things really do matter. And they show up in the work, and it’s not accidental at all.
NW: I think that’s another tenet, actually. Because that relationship to people in place matters a whole lot in the making, content-wise. But also in the actual making. The designers I work with—among them Tuçe Yasak, You-Shin Chen, Itohan Edoloyi, and Hao Bai—are amazing, in that they go deep with me dramaturgically and would never suggest that I change my dream knowledge. But I do think that those are fascinating questions that come up in the design room: “okay, well, we want to manifest this. How do we actually honor it? How do we build on it?”
CK: I also think it’s worth saying that it’s not as though you just always agree with everybody in the room, just because those are the people you’re working with. That’s the process; the process is this thing where you can say, “I have to tell you that this doesn’t work for me, and I’ll tell you why, because I trust and want to honor this relationship.” It’s not like everyone shares a dream. It’s process.
NW: Yes, absolutely.
JPE: On your websites, you both document your involvement with collectives. For you, Nia, there’s the Jean Moye Dark Fund, which you founded to “support the creation of a collectively-imagined residency space that centers Black Women (Cis and Trans), Non-Binary Folks, and other Transfolks to be artists, world-makers, healers, and visionaries.” And Christina, you and your sister have The Tribe, an “artist collective and intentional community.” There’s something about actually giving voice and form and articulation to what these ideas about process and relationship look like. It’s not to say that you’re building new institutions, exactly, but there’s something about what it means not only to instrumentalize these relationships for the process of producing work, but actually what needs to be working in the world. That’s another kind of translation that I think is really fascinating, and very moving to me, but also very hard. The work doesn’t stop. Could you talk a little bit about that aspect of your work, too? Moving from the actual process of deriving to the idea of creating spaces, creating something like alternative, decolonial institutions. I don’t want to overuse that word…
CK: I want you to go first, Nia, because you’re actually building a thing. I think what I’m trying to build is maybe a little different. Similar, but… you actually have real estate in mind.
NW: I go back and forth a lot, but I do feel really obsessed with the vision of creating free Black space. And I think that it is simply necessary to have free Black space that feels as sovereign as possible, knowing the world that we live in—so I say, “as possible.” And in order to actually heal and in order to actually dream the worlds that we imagine, that we want to live in. In other words, I feel like the most radical work that I could potentially imagine from this particular building that I live in now is not even half of what I could get to inside of that “we” of this free Black space, where I am in constant communication with other Black folks investing and imagining and healing inside the present, and imagining the future; where we are in constant communication with the night sky and with water, with ritual, and with really, really investing and nurturing the little tiny star inside of all of us that is our creative spirit. I don’t think that I could get there without that space. I don’t think that the “we” that I imagine is a “we” can get there without those kinds of spaces. And I know for sure I’m not alone in that vision. I’m in a group of other folks who are also trying to create similar spaces, spaces with similar visions around Black sovereignty, Black creativity, Black imagination, and Blackness in relationship to nature, at the core. This is a vision that is already shared. It is already coming through. I see it as an ancestral vision. I see it as something also that Black folks have been trying to create ever since we got here. It’s not a new dream, by any stretch. I think it’s the same dream, in fact, that my great-grandmother had when she came to Philadelphia, and I just think that in every generation we are working with whatever magic we hold to make it manifest. For me, endemic to that vision is a place where Black queer and trans folks and Black femmes are flourishing, because when those folks are flourishing we are more free as a community, and as a world. It really has to do with tapping into the “we” and claiming full access to our humanity.
CK: I’m interested in something similar, but I think just through slightly different means. One of the many things that came out of reading Jericho Brown on my ancestors’ insistence was that there’s this one poem, “After Avery R. Young,”where he says that “all land owned is land once stolen,” and therefore Black people walk on water. And then at the end of the poem he says, “blk ice is ice you can’t see”. He’s playing with this idea that Fred Moten talks about, too: this idea of the consent not to be a single being, this idea, as Nia said, of the “we.” But the reason I think that’s been so important for me to think about is that personally I’m trying to get to a place in my own relationship to capitalism where I just own less, you know? I have a car. That’s really the only thing I own besides clothing and things like that. But I’m not trying to own a home. I feel like the freest that I can imagine [myself to be] right now is—There’s this great line in M Archive by Alexis Pauline Gumbs where she’s riffing on the idea that at the end of the world, the people that are most free are the people who have never held currency. People who have been enslaved in a sense have a different relationship to freedom, because they have nothing. Black people know something about being dispossessed and so do Indigenous people and colonized people. We might have some different kind of insight into what comes after capitalism.
Another way into this is by thinking about the Tribe as a kind of floating signifier. The Tribe is not meant to be in one place and it’s not meant to last. What it is a series of opportunities for these pop-up communities where people come together under similar ideologies. We don’t try to convince the Ford Foundation that this matters, because the point at which you’re asking the Ford Foundation, you’ve already lost. I’m writing this book, and in one of the chapters I talk about the visual traditions that come out of the abolitionist movement, or actually visual traditions that come out of enslavement. And the two strains that I see are the denigrative and the supplicative. The denigrative we’re really used to. But the supplicative is like: “Am I not a man and a brother?” I was a fellow at APAP (Association of Performing Arts Professionals) in 2017 and we had this panel where we were sitting with all these funders, and it was supposed to be this great opportunity for artists. “Talk to these funders about how to pitch your shit to them!” And ooh I snapped. Because this guy that I used to work for when I worked at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Ken Foster is his name, he was like, “Well, Christina, tell me how you would pitch knightworks to me.” And I started by saying: we’re telling this story about people of color. We’re telling the story about the end of the world, and we’re finding that we’re having a difficult time. He stopped me in the middle and he was like, “don’t tell me what the problems are! Tell me why I should care.” And I was like, “you know what? No.” I’m tired of telling people in power, in a nice suit, why you should care. I would rather just find people who already care and just work with that. I would rather make stuff on no budget at all. Everything I’ve made in the last five years has been made with less than two grand. What can you make when you have that much money? You can gather. You can get space donated in kind. You can get food. You always need food. But if you make stuff that costs only two grand to make, then no one can take that shit away from you! This was a very long-winded answer.
NW: I love it. I want to riff off of you, though. There was this essay in African American Performance and Theatre History, edited by Harry Elam and David Krasner. And in this essay by Mike Sell, he talks about a play from the Black Arts Movement called “The Theme is Blackness.” You walk in and they turn out the lights and you sit in the dark for 30 minutes as a way to reimagine your relationship to Blackness. It’s such a profound intervention to me. Anyway, Sell uses that play in the context of discussing these two strains of the Black Arts Movement—one strain which leads to real estate, and you create a structure, and you invest in this system to the extent that you can have things. And then the other strain, which is like, “no, we’re going to be pop-up everywhere; we’re anti-property; we’re not going to own anything. We’re going to be totally free.” Just like this conversation that we’re having right now: “no, this is totally free!” “No, this is totally free.” Not that we’re doing that part, because we’re women [laughs].
I would say that to me, the answer is always and/both. And I see folks like Intelligent Mischief supporting us with understanding the and/both-ness of it. Maybe you follow them too, Christina.
CK: I don’t, but I know who that is.
NW: Art collective, Black thinkers, free thinkers. They are really invested in Black futures and free Black space and they post a lot about Black utopias on their page. So one day they posted something that resonated deeply with me and that I now cite in my pitches and statements for the Dark Fund, which I’ve been saying for a long time but I like how they said it better. “We envision a global archipelago of Black utopias.” I don’t dream of one space; I dream of a network of spaces, of interrelated sovereign spaces. Because actually we do need them. We do need to have governance over spaces. Otherwise anyone can come in at any time and shoot us. Or bomb us. They can still do that, even if we do have those spaces. However, let’s just try to do what we can!
I’m very invested in Black self-defense. I’m not like, “let’s just make a space for art.” It’s way beyond that. That might be in the pitch, but the reality—I’m always invested in double-speak, and also, even knowing we were here, I don’t actually know how much I’m going to say about this. But the reality is that we can’t actually talk about free Black space without talking about protection. We’ve seen it over the course of 500 years. We just saw it a couple of weeks ago at the Capitol. You know, a lot of people want us dead. That is the reality. Half of this country literally wants us dead and probably another 25 percent is indifferent. Here we are with the rest of us. To me, it’s critical that we actually have these spaces for our protection. We can’t imagine anything if we’re not protected, right? Being in a traumatized space, it’s very, very hard. Being in the traumatized space: you know, you hear the stories of the mom who lifted the car because her adrenaline was so high, whatever. But then after, she’s drained for the next five years of her life. The dream that I’m really invested in is trying to create spaces for Black folks to not be under duress—to not have to be superwoman or supermom or super artist—to not have to create with two thousand dollars unless you want to. And to create spaces of ease and spaciousness and expansiveness that we simply have not known, ever, and to allow us, in this lifetime, to make those kinds of choices. So that some of us can say: “no, actually, it’s a part of my practice to be very low-resource.” Perfect. Wonderful, beautiful, amazing. And then for my works—
CK: You kind of need a budget! Also I want to clarify, to say that it’s not that I want to work at a small scale forever. But I want to always hold both things together, which means I don’t ever want to forget what it was like to make something for two thousand dollars, because I’ll always have that. If you get too used to needing fifty thousand dollars to put anything on, and then the art world stops feeling bad about Black Lives Matter or whatever, then where are you? I think that’s just a metaphor for something bigger, which is that you absolutely have to create as much safe space as you possibly can. And it’s never protected us forever. It’s never lasted forever, like in Tulsa—all these instances where Black people built something really beautiful and lasting and it was taken away. I’m not saying that that’s going to happen the same way every single time, but that is what Tavia Nyong’o calls “the eternal recurrence of antiblackness.” How many times do we have to go around this track? And we’re always surprised. I don’t want to just be in that loop. I think there’s another way, so that we can build these things, and we can keep this kind of radical imagination which doesn’t attach our safety necessarily to these spaces. We have to be able to do both because dark peoples have to travel light, at least while white supremacy is the order of the day.
NW: For sure, for sure, for sure. That’s why I love the idea of this collective of archipelagos. Because, yes, we do need to be able to travel between those places, which means we have to be able to travel, which means we have to be able to drop everything. But also which means that we need various places that are safe to go to, and that contains survival networks inside of it. I actually think that without both of those logics we won’t get very far. And I think it’s a really critical reminder to not invest too much in capitalist structures or in property or in ownership or in things at all. Whatever foundations, whatever structures exist. Even businesses, which require people to have excess spending for your own survival. All of it, right? Like, all of it, all of it, all of it. I appreciate it and it is at the forefront of my mind, too.
I was also just going to add really quickly that as I’m dreaming this up, two friends of mine are dreaming up these travel buses—
NW: Yeah, yeah, travel buses that are doing the same kind of work. Again, I just want to emphasize how much this conversation is active among those of us who are coming of age right now, whether it’s through this Tribe idea of moving, sovereign space; whether it’s my idea around land or multiple spaces of land and networks, or whether it’s these friends’ ideas around buses. To me these are all remapping free Black spaces. These are all remappings. I don’t think that other generations have been able to arrive at that “and/both” in the way that I see even in my own circles. And so that’s something that feels exciting.
JPE: I’m just going to nod out loud to that “and/both.” Because as I’m listening to this conversation, I’m really thinking about the complementarity of your models of free Black space, and, in fact, how fundamental the complementarity of models is within your thinking more broadly. This occurred to me even as you were talking about the ways that you both take up ideas about the holy, like in The Messiah Complex, for example. Thinking about holiness as both the continuation of memory but also as a counterdiscourse to denigration and erasure and demonization. And analogously, let’s say: imagine if the history of religions, of patriarchal monotheisms, didn’t involve sectarian differences between who was in the wilderness and who had sanctified space, but rather to approach those positions as complementary. I feel like this conversation follows in some ways the ways in which you each talk about the holy.
CK: Well, we have a fifteen-year friendship, and this conversation is literally fifteen years old. You know, it’s where you can arrive when you’ve just been talking for so long. Also, when I’ve seen you, Nia, develop these ideas into real stuff. Because when we met, we were about to go into grad school and we really hadn’t done anything yet. It’s so nice to finally see that these ideas that we’ve had for a long time—we’re actually trying to make things in the world.
NW: Yeah, it’s true. It feels like there’s an intensification to coming of age in this moment, especially, that is really forcing a lot out. It doesn’t feel like an easy process. Not that it ever has, but there’s something about this particular two to three years, anyway, for me, that just feels very exacting, in terms of what emerges. I don’t know if you feel that way, too, with your book right now, and with all the creative work—all the work that’s just, like, on your back. But there’s something about this period, and I think it has also to do with coming of age in another way: I’m in the latter half of my 30s; there’s something there as well that has to do, I think, with a certain level of availability, readiness, fecundity, capacity, that I haven’t really—I don’t want to use the word mastery because I don’t think it’s that—but there’s something that has to do with sitting and steeping inside of a conversation, or a relationship. A lot of thoughts and ideas that you’ve been friends with and in relationship with for quite some time. And it feels like this moment with us is also related to that.
CK: I think it’s a very uncomfortable time. I am not entirely enjoying it. Because there’s something about the process of grad school that does validate you in a certain way. You know: you finish, you get the PhD, you get a job, or whatever. And I think the early 30s is like, “I did that.” And for whatever reason, this moment—I don’t know if this is a universal experience or if it is just about trying to come into our own as artists and thinkers at this moment, when the world is so tumultuous and everything feels so chaotic—I’m having this moment where I’m realizing that what I have to say is exactly right for this particular moment, but that I still have to level up somehow. You know what I mean? If you don’t just want to be someone who’s applying Christina Sharpe’s ideas or applying Saidiya Hartman’s ideas or applying Fred Moten’s ideas, but if you want to be Saidiya Hartman or Christina Sharpe or Fred Moten, which is to say, if you want to make the field take another leap. It’s not a small task! [Laughs].
You know what I mean? Especially if you want to do that in concert with performance work, too. Nia knows this: I had this awful job interview for an art history job a while back and it was a very important moment because, on the one hand, it was a good reminder that art history is antiblack and that’s a historical fact. It’s been super racist for a long time. It’s changing, but it’s still actually really behind a lot of other fields, in terms of recognizing the work of people of color and changing its canon, and it’s doing it in the most slow-pokey way that you could ever imagine. But that aside, I realized that I wasn’t doing enough. And it wouldn’t have made the difference for that job, but I wasn’t doing enough to explain why it is that the thing that I’m saying is essential for every single person. There’s a way that a lot of different disciplines think about Blackness, or any kind of identitarian or minoritarian perspective: people are just like, “we need it.” It’s like a vitamin; you just take it alongside the meal that is your actual discipline and then, you know, you can digest better. I don’t know. I want that logic to be turned on its head, because I actually think that the things that we’re trying to develop and think about right now are essential to every single person and should be at the center of the plate. It maybe is the most important thing and I’m still in that defensive position—or I’m still in that supplicative position—where I’m just like, “but art historians should know about black objects because…” It’s just so boring. I don’t even want to hear myself say that. I think we’re missing some language, or I’m missing some language—I can’t speak for you, Nia—but I don’t know how to change that conversation, but I feel like I’m in the middle of trying to figure out how to reframe, so that I’m not constantly trying to get at a table that’s never had me in mind.
JPE: Nia said something earlier that I was hoping to follow up on, and which comes back again now: Nia, when you were talking about ritual and the work of embodiment, it made me think that both you and Christina, in your performance-based and critical processes alike, are working to define a kind of universalism. A universalism that is of course not a white supremacist, heteronormative universalism—which is to say, the colonial domination of all things—but rather that which is of the universe, and that is for everyone. I feel this is what you’re describing just now, Christina: not just who you want to be, or be like, or a supplement to. But that there is another kind of universalism altogether, that matters—in the bones. It is the universe, it is the cosmos, it is spirit; is all of these things.
CK: I’ve been reading Joshua Chambers-Letson’s book, After the Party: A Queer Manifesto, and there’s this moment—and I’m just paraphrasing and not well—where he gestures to that universalism but says that it’s necessarily collectivist, which is to say that we got something wrong in the Enlightenment when we conceived of genius as being a singular enterprise. How do you come up with a universal that somehow can account for all these different ways of being? It’s like this idea that comes out of Muñoz: belonging-in-difference. Reframing it. I’m trying to do this in my teaching, too, because I’ve realized that I’ve just been perpetuating the way that I’ve been trained to my students, and trying to get them to be little geniuses, too. It’s just so tiring, you know? And somehow it makes you dumber, because you’re just always trying to get the right answer; you’re not supporting the other people in the classroom. And for the very first time with my course on Black Speculative Futures in the Center for Experimental Ethnography at Penn last semester, it wasn’t like that. There was this ongoing, energized conversation that everyone was having with one another, and everyone was encouraging one another. I know that that’s magical and just happens sometimes when you have the right group.
But I want to lean towards that in every single aspect of my life. I want it all to feel like it’s a conversation and that we’re getting somewhere, but we don’t know where that is yet, and thank god, because the ideas that we have right now aren’t good enough. That’s another Muñoz line: “the present is not enough”; it’s fucking toxic, you know? But when you get in these conversations it feels—what I said in class is that it feels like that spaceship is just lifting up. Everyone’s in it. You just got lucky and you’re in it somehow.
NW: Beautiful. I want to show this piece of art. This is a photograph by Imani Dennison, an amazing visual artist.
JPE: It’s gorgeous. It’s been catching my eye the whole time we’ve been talking. Thank you.
NW: It’s part of a series called Irreversible Entanglements, shot in South Africa with space masks. This photograph reminds me that we are space travelers currently on land, and that even though it is hard, we are together, and we will fly again.
CK: I’m so thankful for this conversation. I’ve gotten so used to saying “no” to everything. Like, “oh, you want me to moderate that panel? No.” But every once in a while, I remember, oh right: if it’s got the right people, it’s magic, and it’s nourishment.
NW: It’s a working conversation, and I’m deeply grateful for it as well. We have a lot of work. I think Christina and I have always known that we have work to do together, that our creative works are already together in a certain way, but also that there is other work that we have before us. It feels nice to formalize it again in this way, together, and initiate. To have a document of what some of those originating conversations were and what some of our big questions are. Not that I feel, on my end, that I’ve really fully articulated those yet. But I think I have articulated a lot of what I’m working with, a lot of the idea-trains that are consuming me, or some of them. A few of them.
There’s this healer, her name is Gogo Thule, and she talks about being at this conference in Washington, DC, where African traditional religious practitioners gather from all the different traditions, from Voudou and Candomblé, right, all across the diaspora. It’s a yearly thing; I guess it didn’t happen this year, but I really want to go one day. Anyway, she was talking about being there a couple of years ago, when you could be somewhere, that there was this man who spoke out. He sounded like the crazy person in the room, and all he kept saying was, “I mean, we’re just talking about ancestors, and we’re just talking about the nuts and bolts of these traditions, but there’s something missing! There’s something missing! There’s something missing!” And in this room of people who are totally invested in the metaphysical, he was still saying that there was really something missing. What he ended up getting to was that what was missing was the work, the question, that I think we’re both pushing towards. And the way that she was phrasing it had to do with time and the galaxy and the stars and the universe. So when you said “universe,” a new universalism, it reminded me of that comment she was making on his crazy-sounding comment inside this context of all of the really the most well-respected practitioners across countries, across the diaspora, and really noting this big chunk that was missing, which is that these traditions are actually a portal themselves. These traditions are a doorway to our own stardust-being selves, which is why I’m so obsessed with that creation story where they’re made of stardust. If we re-center Indigenous knowledge, if we re-center Black knowledge, that’s ultimately what it gets us to: as Cherrie Moraga says, the big “we,” the larger “we,” which is part of the problem because when colonialism happened it broke our contract with creation as humans. Unfortunately, it doesn’t only affect some of us; it just affects some of us more. That’s what we’re actually trying to get back through all of these various doorways and pathways and portals. It’s important that those doorways and pathways and portals are honored, and are cleaned, and are updated, and all the things maintained. All of it. All of the work with those portals is critical, and I think inside of a cultural lens is where those portals to the divine, into the sacred-slash-the universe, live the most freely. In other words, it won’t be through Western science. That portal of Western science is not necessarily the best holding place for this relationship to the universe, at least not in isolation. But also, like the man said, we can’t actually get lost there in that doorway and forget what we are moving to, which is death and outer space.
JPE: Thank you. That was beautiful. I’m really grateful for this conversation.
NW: It’s good to be in conversation. I also want to echo my gratitude for making the space for us to have this conversation. It feels like the culmination of many, but also, in other ways, a new beginning for us. The first of many.
JPE: So, like, fifty years from now you can say, “okay we’re going to do another one.”
NW: I like that. I like believing that there are fifty years from now.