PRINT October 2018



Will Rawls, Cursor 2: Ditties, 2018. Performance view, Issue Project Room, New York, June 30, 2018. Photo: Cameron Kelly.

AT THE START of each of his “Cursor” performances, Will Rawls introduces the working concept for the series: “Cursor, from the Latin root meaning ‘run’ or ‘runner,’ is a movable, usually black, and blinking figure that indicates the position on a screen where the next character will appear, or where user action is needed.” He then proceeds to the rear of the audience, where, taking a seat, he begins typing into a document that is projected at the front for all to see. Sometimes enunciating each letter and symbol as an individual sound, some-times pronouncing whole words or syllables, Rawls’s voice loops, fragments, melds, and stutters through borrowed and invented vocabularies. In this vocal-textual dance, he is both sound wave and blinking bar, alternately stilted and rhythmic, steady and destabilized. Halfway through Cursor 2: Ditties, 2018, the audience is asked to pivot their chairs to face a wall of letters, each printed onto a sheet of thick paper to form a kind of enlarged classroom alphabet, which Rawls then rearranges and uses as a keyboard to compose phrases and sentences, as if with typed letters on a screen.

Since the start of this year, Rawls has been in residence at the Brooklyn venue Issue Project Room, where the “Cursor”performances debuted. In July, in tandem with his residency, Rawls choreographed Uncle Rebus for High Line Art in New York. A similar board of movable letters was installed in the High Line’s window box overlooking Tenth Avenue. Three dancers independently or collaboratively moved the letters from the right side of the board to the left, from “alphabet” to “page,” to compose brief narratives adapted from the Brer Rabbit tales, trickster stories thought to have been brought to the American South by enslaved Africans.

In all of these recent performances, Rawls employs the cursor as a black figure, a black body more visible in the cursors used in early word-processing programs, where the text indicator would be square and solid rather than linear and breath-like. A series of prints of this form—made during Rawls’s recent residency at Robert Rauschenberg’s former home on Captiva Island in Florida—examine its potential as an abstraction that is also a proxy for identity.

—Mira Dayal

Will Rawls, Cursor 1: Word Lists, 2018. Performance view, Issue Project Room, New York, March 29, 2018. Photo: Jason Isolini.

ALL LANGUAGE, on some level, produces reality. Dance is a communicative vehicle, so it, too, produces reality, on a different kind of time. In researching cursors, I’ve become interested in the formulations of language and the form of the body, the shape of my voice and the shape of sounds. How does my position in space, my breath, the concavity of my stomach, the twist of my spine, or the swing of my limbs shape my enunciation? How do my movements affect the ways language becomes further felt? How can we go deeper into the feeling of language in a body, in my body? The cursor has a performative dimension, a written dimension, and a visual dimension—it’s a body, a thing, a multifaceted self.

Will Rawls, Cursor, 2017, silk-screen print, 15 × 11".

In “Cursor,” there’s a lot of speed-reading and speed-speaking. My body is both leader and follower—my reading voice or my typing fingers might run a little bit faster and leave the other faculties behind. What is a collection of letters that you can’t pronounce but that have nonetheless come from you? I’m also thinking about punctuation. Quotation marks do a lot to the image of a word, force it to come forward from the surface of a page or a wall. Or think about parentheses and asterisks: These are ways to cognitively move language around. For Uncle Rebus, the choreography involves substituting punctuation symbols for letters, rendering a kind of visual shorthand that expands the elusive and poetic qualities of the text—hence the “Rebus” in the title. Text becomes pictographic, which interests me because narrative itself is such a tricky thing; narrative can undo or short-circuit a lot of other meanings in the work.

Will Rawls, Cursor 2: Ditties, 2018. Performance view,  Issue Project Room, New York, June 30, 2018. Will Rawls.  Photo: Cameron Kelly.

I would love to stage a “Cursor” piece in which no words appear. Even if you remove words, there’s still so much syntactic scaffolding in the visual realm to affect pacing, continuity, discontinuity. In the print series, I’m starting with an enlarged, pixelated square cursor. That cursor is considered whole, but I’m blurring its edges or teasing it apart by adding my own gestures, removing layers of ink, and causing the surface of the cursor to cave in to suggest depth and dimensionality. To take this further, I’ll be working in larger formats and other materials.

The risk of a staging without words is that if the cursor functions as an incarnation of blackness, and if narrative falls away entirely,then the fully abstracted body could feel ahistorical. A source text can provide a political framework. When I performed “Cursor” in July at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, I structured the piece around words from Sonia Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion on Trump’s recent travel ban targeting predominantly Muslim countries, while at Issue Project Room I used lyrics from the Supremes, gesturing toward the Supreme Court. All the wailing and the emergent articulations of my voice were linked to the government’s stranglehold on our bodies.

The cursor has a performative dimension, a written dimension, and a visual dimension—it’s a body, a thing, a multifaceted self.

Will Rawls, Cursor, 2018. Performance view, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, July 27, 2018. Will Rawls. Photo: Erin Schaff.

With the High Line performance, Uncle Rebus, I worked with portions of the Brer Rabbit tales. There’s a whole book written about one of those stories, “Tar Baby,” and where it may have originated—the author, Bryan Wagner, suggests that the same story may have been passed down through oral tradition in places as disparate as India and Brazil. Each version is, at this point, tied up with racist representation. What I think is beautiful about “Tar Baby” is that it involves this black figure that is sculpted by one of the characters. It’s unstable, sticky, silently melting, menacing, unfathomable. I find that ambiguity powerful. As a sculpture it possesses an agency that is relational. This dynamic blackness becomes a glue and sinew among all the figures in the various versions of the “Tar Baby” story.

In a parallel way, I’m interested in further stretching the body of the cursor. I had to transpose the values, techniques, and affects I’d developed in “Cursor” onto other bodies for Uncle Rebus, but the questions of how, when, and under what conditions to ask these three live performers to spell out something like “Tar Baby” grew challenging, because the language immediately became a framework for their bodies. The performers were spelling out something that has been historically categorized as a dialectical, minor English. The public also sees three black people laboring in the sun. To try to control that perspective, you have to race against a long history of the risks of representation. I think of Kara Walker’s silhouettes—there’s no language, but those bodies speak! She’s really mapping all of those complexities, and not answering for them entirely.

Will Rawls, Uncle Rebus, 2018. Performance view, High Line, New York, July 11, 2018. Jasmine Hearn and Trinity Bobo. Photo: Liz Ligon.

In Uncle Rebus, you really begin to see how bodies in motion construct syntax and language. The audience was sounding out the words as they came together. It was like dance as a form of reading comprehension. You see how dancers think in real time—manipulating cognitive space as they move through actual space. They produce visual sounds, nonsense, and all the things in between—language as a landscape.

Will Rawls, Uncle Rebus, 2018. Performance view, High Line, New York, July 11, 2018. Stanley Gabucci. Photo: Liz Ligon.

I’m still thinking about the potential of using abstraction to speak to identity: How can these two things fit together when identity is so much about announcing, concretizing, and naming, and abstraction is about undoing? Of course, abstraction has roots in something real. We could talk about the history of this particular square cursor, or of the color black, or of black bodies being moved through space by another’s hand. So what does it mean to break apart language, and its history, and to work with it pictographically? Dance has this process built into it already; its visual and affective impact scrambles language. It produces and speaks other languages of and about the body.

Will Rawls will present a third “Cursor” performance at ||Issue Project Room| in New York on Saturday, November 10.