Performa 17: Afroglossia and Circulations

This interview with Performa curators Adrienne Edwards and Charles Aubin appeared online in Mousse magazine:

Agnieszka Gratza: As well as being Performa’s chief curator and director, RoseLee Goldberg is overseeing the South African pavilion this year, and you’re looking after Afroglossia while Charles Aubin is curating Circulations, Performa17’s performance and architecture program. Perhaps you could start by explaining how you divide tasks.

Adrienne Edwards: Typically what happens is that RoseLee has some instinct or inclination about what she might like to focus on in the next biennial. And so, in 2015, she said to me, “I think we should do a geographical focus on Africa,” and I thought, great, since my areas of expertise have always been the African diaspora and the Global South. There’s a profound openness at Performa; you might get a prompt, but the curators themselves actually develop programs. Each curator owns their platform in the context of the biennial, and then that platform gets assigned a set of producers who work closely with the curators and the artists to make whatever we’ve dreamed up over a two-year period happen.

AG: Besides Afroglossia and Circulations, there’s a third research theme which is Dada. Who looks after that? Or is it subsumed into the other themes?

AE: With each biennial there’s a historical research anchor that operates a little differently than the curatorial platforms. That historical anchor doesn’t always end up as a program in the biennial. In 2013 we did Surrealism, and then Russian Constructivism and Futurism. Dada came up early on as a result of the centenary of Dada. It is something we were thinking about over a two-year period leading up to the biennial. For example I did a program called “100 Degrees above Dada.” I invited Yvonne Rainer and Adam Pendleton to collaborate. I saw in both Adam’s “Black Dada” project and the way Yvonne works with language some Dada sensibilities. They developed a beautiful film together called JUST BACK FROM LOS ANGELES, which features the two of them.

AG: Let’s focus on Afroglossia, which is a term you coined, I gather. Could you explain what you mean by it?

AE: “Polyglossia” is the word I’m drawing from. The afro is replacing the poly. The “many” of this term has been used to point to the multiplicity and complexity that is Africa. Glossia is referencing the voice, the fact that there are many voices from one geographical area. All the artists in Afroglossia are born in the 1970s, except the guys in the Nest Collective. So they came of age around independence, and there’s a historical fashioning of the individual in that context and its relationship to the collective. There were some shared sensibilities, a desire to point to something opaque but working with it in a fairly abstract way, whether that be in language, the way they use imagery, or how they draw upon sound and music.

AG: Africa is vast, and yet it’s often treated as if it were a country—the United States of Africa. But it isn’t. Why should Morocco and South Africa have any more in common than, say, two countries at opposite ends of Europe?

AE: You’re right, Africa is not a country, and I remember having extensive discussions about the fact that there’s a kind of impossibility to even trying to approach Africa in such a way. And yet there’s also a historical, utopian project around pan-Africanism that’s even bigger than just the continent of Africa. It encompasses the entire diaspora. Even if pan-Africanism is a complicated, historically failed project, it’s been useful in imagining the possibility of a kind of African commons. That said, that’s not really what Afroglossia is about. These are different voices out of various countries, and I don’t think I’m trying to connect them any more closely than that.

AG: I noticed that there’s a particular focus—despite the diversity of the places where the artists come from (many of them also live in New York and other Western places)—on Nairobi and East Africa. The Kwani Trust, Wangechi Mutu, and the Nest Collective all have ties with this region.

AE: The amount of things happening in Kenya is mind-boggling. It is just so rich in terms of real experimentation that is interdisciplinary. The Nest is primarily known for their video and film work but they’re also in fashion, and they make art animations and drawings. Performance itself as a notion gets stretched a bit in the context of the biennial. With Kwani, the journalists, writers, and people who collect oral histories are looking at lived experience in a way that is politically engaged and also cultural. They have poetry and music nights, all kinds of ways in which they animate the cultural scene of Nairobi.

AG: Would you say that there’s an emphasis on literature and the spoken word in your program, as the “glossia” in the title suggests?

AE: It’s certainly evident in the work Yto Barrada is doing, something that is all about voice: her mother’s voice, correspondence, records and interviews of figures her mother was with on a tour of the United States in 1966. Teju Cole is known not only as a critic but also as a novelist and an essayist. And Tracey Rose is working with two writers: one in the United States, one in Cameroon. They’re developing a script as part of a poetic performance that, like Yto’s, is about sieving archives, narratives, and oral histories.

AG: You said that the notion of performance is stretched in the Performa biennial, which seems right to me; as a result the performative element is somewhat elusive.

AE: Each project is like a container for the various ways and artist works. So with Yto, for example, you’ll see her textile works, her photo prints, her film, you’ll hear her sing; they’re all these things that people could experience in one way or another in relation to Yto’s work, but this time it’s all sitting in one space.

AG: But that one space doesn’t appear to be very distinctly about performance.

AE: It depends on what your expectations of performance are. For me, performance is interdisciplinarity. There’s a live component, but it’s not the only one. These kinds of commissions have always had various visual art elements in the experience.

AG: Would you say that there are any overlaps between Afroglossia and the South African pavilion?

AE: All the other pavilions, since we started the Pavilions Without Walls in 2013, have been with European countries. There’s an infrastructure and an apparatus in place to support the presentation of European artists around the world. Such a thing does not exist for a country like South Africa, so it was very important for us and RoseLee in particular, who is from South Africa, to do a deep dive into that country. There are some overlaps with Afroglossia and shared sensibilities, certainly an interest in the ethical, social, political dimensions of art making.

AG (to Charles Aubin): The Glass House, where you are working today, is one of the iconic architectural venues your program will occupy. How did this particular project within your program come about?

Charles Aubin: A year and a half ago, I mentioned in passing to Jimmy Robert that the Glass House is a strange extension of the New York architectural landscape, with all the different pavilions that Philip Johnson built here on the site. Jimmy told me about Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel, a book he’d read by Jeff Wall on Graham’s work. In Jeff Wall’s text there’s a whole section discussing how at dusk the artificial light inside and the darkness outside create a choreography of reflections of the self in which the transparent walls become mirrors. And this is where Jimmy started bringing in questions of identity and representation.

AG: And in particular black representation, I gather.

CA: Exactly. And the more research we did, the more interesting this site became because of either repressed histories or some elements of Philip Johnson’s biography, in particular his romantic relationship with the Harlem Renaissance cabaret figure Jimmie Daniels.

AG: Which seems fitting given the overall emphasis on Africa and its diaspora in Afroglossia especially.

CA: Adrienne and I have conceived of the two programs Afroglossia and Circulations on their own, but we have sometimes posed similar questions that can be addressed through performance. With the Glass House but also Marching On—a project with Mabel Wilson and Bryony Roberts commissioned by Storefront for Art and Architecture—political questions of identity were very much our concern. Bryony has been researching the political role of marching bands in African American communities and parades coming from military US tradition at a time when African Americans had participated in world wars, but were not granted the same civil rights.

AG: You’re also editing a publication with Carlos Mínguez Carrasco from Storefront for Art and Architecture.

CA: The way that I conceived of Circulations was as a curatorial platform with a discursive aspect in the shape of a symposium on November 11 and a book that Carlos and I are coediting. One of the impulses for the book and the program is the renewal of interest in ephemeral, event-based actions from architects since the 2008 financial crisis. That’s something you can see in The Other Architect show that Giovanna Borasi, who will be speaking at the symposium, curated at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

AG: I was struck by the variety of “performative” disciplines in Circulations, from poetry to singing to choreography and marching bands. Did you opt to give as wide a spread of possible fields that architecture can have an impact on, and vice versa?

CA: For me, performance is not so much a discipline as a tool. It allows visual artists to expand on their work in space, and it’s this kind of nexus where an artist can actually borrow from different disciplines. It’s more of a strategy, if that makes sense.

AG: Could you comment on the title Circulations?

CA: I was interested in this idea that architecture is a space where bodies are allowed or not allowed to circulate in different ways, and that there’s a kind of implicit choreography that is somehow directed. Politically, it’s a complicated moment and I wanted to open up this notion of circulation toward more political concerns: Who gets to circulate and how does that happen? This question is embedded in François Dallegret’s Bubble circulating in different parts of the city, trying to create this kind of movement.

AG: Dallegret’s Bubble, which embodies the degree zero of architecture, has never been realized until now. Was it easy to construct?

CA: The Los Angeles–based architect François Perrin, who had curated a show of Dallegret’s work, came up with this idea that we should build the Bubble for the first time. To be honest, the most simple and minimal forms are somehow the most complicated ones to make. The Bubble, as Dallegret conceives of it, is a place for reprogramming interactions between inhabitants. That’s why the choreographer Dimitri Chamblas was brought in as a dance workshop leader. For us, dance was going to be a tool to activate the Bubble.

Image result for performa circulations

Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley, The Newcomers, Performa17, 2017

AG: This kind of reprogramming is also at the heart of Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley’s practice. Their biennial offering, The Newcomers, was originally going to be a nomadic architectural installation. What came of that?

CA: The very initial idea, which proved impossible to realize for security reasons, was a suspended structure that would be assembled and disassembled and moved every day over a period of ten days. We were looking at various sights. Among the different options we had 28 Liberty downtown, an iconic International-style skyscraper, which contrasted with what Ward and Alex were planning in terms of a more nimble, ephemeral mode of thinking about architecture. An architecture that mutates or produces its own constant reshaping.