SHORTLY BEFORE I SAW BLANK MAP, a work created and performed collectively by five black, queer artists, an invitation for “Blackness in Abstraction,” a show at Pace Gallery curated by Adrienne Edwards, landed in my inbox.
As I watched these five disparate individuals in Blank Map moving and not moving, together and apart, for roughly an hour, the concept of Edwards’s exhibition kept surfacing. When Brontez Purnell lay prone in front of a camera positioned on the floor, pulled down his pants and undulated his ass, the audience witnessed both the spectacle of bouncing flesh and the dark, wavelike shapes his action generated on the screen. Watching this beautiful, loaded provocation, I thought of the ways in which blackness (or abstraction?) might be engendered as much by a profusion as an absence of representation.
I first heard about Blank Map as a work about blackness “instigated” by the queer white artist Keith Hennessy, who is older and considerably more famous than the members of the collective he assembled: Adee Roberson, Brontez Purnell, keyon gaskin, Tasha Ceyan, and Wizard Apprentice. Watching it on opening weekend at the Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco, I was acutely aware of not knowing where or how to position myself, a straight white cisgender woman who knows Hennessy’s work well and only slightly knows Purnell and gaskin, and the work of Roberson, Ceyan, and Wizard Apprentice not at all (all the tired ways in which knowledge breaks along axes of gender and race). Later that week, I began, I believe accurately, to understand the piece as two pieces: a collective interdisciplinary performance by five artists sitting uneasily inside a conceptual work (about whiteness?) by a solo author. And on the show’s second and last weekend as part of the National Queer Arts Festival, the same weekend that a gunman walked into a gay club and murdered forty-nine individuals within a collective of freely dancing bodies—I could only think of the quietly defiant demand for freedom and safety uttered throughout the work: “I want space.”
A blank map indeed. Which direction(s) to follow where? Which to reject? “Refusal and pleasure” are scrawled again and again in my notes. If the performance has any aboutness to it, I think it resides in the slippery, fraught crosscurrents between what one grants access to, and what one draws strength and gratification from hiding—and how that changes with patrons, with peers, with the public. “I’ve been committed to practicing authenticity throughout this project, though I alternate between worrying that I’ve given too much away or held too much back,” to quote a program note by Wizard Apprentice, who spent almost the entire performance sitting in the back of the theater, her body attendant to the music she was making, several rows of what appeared to be large white and black eyeballs arranged in front of her, staring out at her audience. “Gaze can make it hard for me to be authentic,” her note explains.
gaskin and (especially) Purnell went the other way, playing explicitly with artifice and theatricality (something the others would at times flirt with, and meet head on at the end in a moment of “smile for the camera” artificiality that felt drawn from another, more predictable world). At one point Purnell took to a drum kit and gaskin donned a single tap shoe and the two did rhythmic battle, a host of black American entertainer histories simmering between them. Earlier, Ceyan had crawled around the stage with coiled kineticism, that same tap shoe hanging from her neck.
Who claims space, who is allowed to claim space, and how? Whether instigated by an outsider or not, collectives throw power dynamics into stark relief. In her note, Roberson (who also had good things to say on the drums) underlines “a lot of problematic things. Like the fact that a white man could write a proposal about Blackness, and get money for it at all. When perhaps any of us could write a proposal about our experience and NOT receive grants or funding… And the general lack of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color on the boards of these funding organizations.”
Hennessy, of course, is well aware of these things too, having spent his career in part inhabiting the fractious fault lines running between, through, and under activism and art. I am reminded, in thinking about Blank Map, that Hennessy describes his 2010–2012 work Turbulence (a dance about the economy), as “a collective failure.”
It’s easy to see only failure (or to see failure as only bad). Yet Hennessy’s art, even when full of darkness, always feels deeply alive to me. Blank Map isn’t Hennessy’s work—but it is in conversation with it. Roberson ended her written thoughts by hoping her actions might contribute to change—a necessary thing, and a hard thing, to locate and hold inside oneself these days.
Blank Map ran June 3 through 12 at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco.