Steffani Jemison

Steffani Jemison discusses her MoMA commission, Promise Machine

Steffani Jemison, Promise Machine, 2015. Rehearsal view, June 7, 2015.

Responding to the Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works,” Steffani Jemison’s recent commission for the museum, Promise Machine, includes multiple parts: a research phase, a reading group, and a semi-improvised composition that will be performed by several musicians traversing the institution’s galleries. The performances will run at MoMA on June 25, 27, and 28, 2015.

JACOB LAWRENCE studied art at a community center called Utopia Neighborhood House in Harlem, which provided a range of services for kids and their mothers—everything from dental care to summer camp. The proximity of the words utopia and neighborhood seemed like a really interesting point of departure from which to think through the political possibilities of Lawrence’s work. The alliance between utopia and abstraction, in particular, is critical to this project. In order to develop this work, I had to shift my focus from the historical content of the “Migration of the Negro” series panels to Lawrence’s formation as an artist, including the complicated system of patronage and support that enabled and restricted his work.

The Promise Machine commission for MoMA is rooted in research, writing, and dialogue, and the project’s many parts span the course of a year. I began by visiting Harlem-based organizations, facilitating a series of conversations around utopia, nostalgia, and the future. I used these discussions to develop a vocabulary that served as a foundation for the rest of my research. As a conceptual tool, utopia really incisively connects politics, distance, and desire. I learned so much from the rhetorical choices people make when they talk about the ideal and the possible. Some devices—simile, analogy—recurred constantly and were very clarifying for me as I tried to understand what political work “utopia” has done and can do, in Harlem especially. Another part of the project is a reading group at MoMA focused on historical accounts, advertisements, and descriptions of black intentional communities in the US and Canada, including real places such as Nicodemus, Kansas, and Soul City, North Carolina, as well as fictional accounts by authors such as George Schuyler.

The most publicly visible piece of the commission is a series of performances taking place in late June. I worked with the museum to create a temporary walking trajectory through the permanent collection. The path places a diverse group of paintings in conversation with Lawrence’s paintings, linking him to artists whose careers coincided with his, especially those who were considering issues of abstraction or undertaking utopian projects. The performances, which feature two vocalists and a saxophonist, process from the fifth-floor galleries—where there’s a large Basquiat painting—down to the fourth floor, passing works by Mondrian, Sam Gilliam, Jo Baer, and Barnett Newman, and conclude on the third floor, where Lawrence’s work is featured in “One-Way Ticket.”

The performers—Jade Hicks, Russell Taylor, and Darius Jones—draw from a vocabulary of musical tropes derived primarily from R&B vocal traditions. As I considered how to work with composer Courtney Bryan on the composition, I was interested in thinking about the tension in any form of vocalizing (including speech, but more dramatically singing) between language and excess. We fantasize about the possibility that “text” can present itself as information, when in fact language is only ever encountered in particular visual, narrative, performative contexts. Timbre, pitch, melody, even font all represent processes of abstraction, in the sense that “to abstract” means to pull away or divert. There’s a tension there, that abstraction can be an activity of reduction—in Lawrence’s process, turning figures into geometry, color, gesture, and symbols—and at the same time it can be an activity of inflection or ornamentation of the real, an activity of diversion.

I decided to focus on two specifically excessive strategies in R&B, melisma and falsetto. I was listening to songs by Al Green, Deniece Williams, Minnie Ripperton, Maxwell, and so on, that offered really beautiful instances of these. Bryan took these moments (and added some of her own), identifying the shape of each musical gesture to assemble a lexicon, the building blocks for the composition. Courtney also mapped this vocabulary onto my libretto in carefully considered sequences. Arranger and musical director Justin Hicks interpreted these sequences for our specific group of performers. Through a combination of composition and improvisation, these individual components yielded new melodies.

The vocalists interact with each other, drawing upon their own deep knowledge and intuition of the material. The saxophone provides both a harmonic framework and a structure for the vocalists, while also serving as an analogue for the voice. And because the music unfolds in a continuous iteration, drawing primarily from a vernacular musical heritage, it connects to a tradition of task-based performance that compiles “found” gestures. I’m thinking of Yvonne Rainer. And Lawrence’s work, too: He worked with mostly unmixed colors, almost as if they were found material, and he would make, say, sixty panels at once, laying down one color at a time on multiple canvases. So, even though his paintings are so often positioned in conversation with portraiture or picture, his process was extremely systematic.