Monday, November 15, 2010

Sitting with Amazing People...

This weekend, I went to a national women's studies conference. It was my first time going to such a conference, as both artist and scholar whose life is currently mostly (not entirely) unfolding inside the academic superstructure. The first thing that struck me was that most of the familiar faces and folks I knew were friends from so many of my lifetimes, but mostly from my world as a community-based artist and activist. And then, there were new folks to meet.

Throughout this weekend, there was one key moment that has touched me deeply. On Friday afternoon, Chandra Mohanty and M Jacqui Alexander performed a conversation. I was sitting in a row of amazing people, conscious of other friends sprinkled throughout the room, and conscious of the fact that I had just met most of the folks with whom I was sitting. In meeting them, I was aware of the energy they brought to the space. These were mostly women of color, many queer, who had known each other for years. They vibrated with that particular level of familiarity that renders connection palpable. We took up an entire row, and in that entire row, we were powerful.

The conversation began, first, always first, with a calling in of the ancestors, and a recognition of the labor that had generated the possibility of our collective presence. CM and MJA then proceeded to delineate the anatomy of their emotional, intellectual and political work together. I was particularly struck by MJA's assertion that what they were talking about was how intellectual work is political work, and life sustaining work - that it is a [remaking] of the self down to the level of DNA (that's not how they put it, but when you speak of transformation and life and DNA in the same breath - what you are talking about is creation in its deepest incarnations). As they progressed, the space of the hotel conference room transformed for me. I was elevated to a profoundly erotic level, in which I saw all of the potentialities of connection manifesting in time: I couldn't help but imagine what it will be like to witness the people I know now - ten years from now. To watch the connections foment collective shifts, to feel the pressing weight of all that water inside and between people foment new life.

Life...water is essential to life. The water cycle is something I always imagine as a cartoon from my elementary school science textbook. In that cartoon, there is always a river, an ocean, clouds and rain. Usually, there is also a mountain. I've learned about that cycle for so much of my life that it's almost become an assumed, total truth. In fact, I take it as fact.

Because water is so big and simultaneously tangible and intangible. Because water moves through the world whether or not I am aware of it. Because I have been lucky to have so much water in my life. I take water to be part of life. Living in Texas during a drought made me question whether or not we are entering a period of new cycles. Whether water will choose new paths to becoming. Whether it will continue to issue forth from the earth with the generosity it has always shown us, or whether the earth will transform its mechanisms in order to sustain itself - with or without us. We, a part of the earth, our bodies made of water, are no less affected than the earth by drought or floods, hurricanes or blizzards.

So, we entered deeper waters. I sat, listening to CM and MJA articulate a call to action, specifying the need to identify the `cartographies of location' and the `geographies of power' across multiple sites of knowledge production. I listened to CM state, "we have never worked out of despair...[but] out of a sense of real possibility and real vision." As I listened to them, I thought about all the queer of color artists I have been lucky enough to work with all these years, the ways in which our waters speak to each other, the ways in which our work has re-shaped intellectual, emotional and spiritual geographies and locations. The ways, in fact, in which we have tapped into real (im)possibilities and real vision to imagine worlds not yet imagined, and to make them material. These imaginings are ways to ask questions not yet asked; they are ways of theorizing about our lives as we construct worlds as well as the rules inside those worlds.

As we create, we enact our own disappearance so that art can take shape. We make new life appear on the page, on the stage, on the canvas, out of stone, through light, across water...And through our absence, the presence of new life is felt. And in turn, we are made visible again.

"What do we have to do at this moment aside from looking and engaging with each other?" MJA asked.

I looked at the folks sitting next to me. At IRS, CRR, DM, HB, DMS, DR and I wanted to just look and engage, to feel the current of life that had seeped into the air around us. As MJA and CM rushed through their presentation muttering, "we can't get to this now" - telling us that there was more, always more to think about and say - I turned to search for people, and for connection. The plenary ended and without a question and answer period, folks stood up to move into the next mode of interaction. I sat, dumbfounded in my seat, sensing the profound vacuum that was created by the departure of all the folks who had been sitting with me. It was literally a vacuum, and my heart hurt to feel it.

I stood up, somewhat aimless, and gathered my belongings. I was trying to act as though somehow, after being submerged for almost two hours, I could walk on land again. But it wasn't true. That question of looking and engaging had stayed with me, and I felt my heart and mind longing for the currents in which I had just been swimming. Not just emanating from the brilliant women at the podium, but also from the people with whom I had just been sitting. So, I wandered into the hallway, and ran into JM - an incredible friend, amazing playwright and mom to my very cute four month old niece. She could see from my face that I was sad, and when I cried, rubbing my heart as Sonia Sanchez told me to do, I told her, "I was just sitting with these amazing women and then they were gone, and and..."

And I thought about what it means when people are gone and what it means to be connected with others, and what it means to be human beings crossing through waters and trying to affect the course of rivers. What must we remember to see, and what do we intentionally forget to make that crossing possible?

We walked down the hallway together, getting ready to find a spot to hang out and talk through what we had just witnessed, when TJC introduced me to Chela Sandoval, who had just missed the plenary. My friends walked away as I stood sharing my notes with CS. I went over my notes, and summaries of different interludes, we combed through the conversation, asking each other what was missing. Seeing that in fact, CS herself had been missing. I asked her why she thought her work is not set into conversation with theirs...her answer was "Geography."

There was a lot to think about. But as I walked away, I felt how moved I was by this little bit of magic, and stunned that a visionary elder had stumbled into my path at that moment: a moment when in fact, I really needed to speak to an elder - somebody who could ask the questions that come with time. And I was cognizant of the fact that this had happened as I was walking across the room with friends who I deeply love and who deeply love me, and because of them, too. I laughed a little at the graceful shift that had occurred, and remembered that the body (the human body, the collective body, the earth's body) always restores itself to balance.

Now, a few days later and at home, I think about the entirety of what transpired. The fact of speaking with CS did not diminish what I had experienced as loss (a vacuum). I went up to the room where my friends were staying, and we all laughed together at the magic. I decided then and there that I would tell the folks I had been sitting with about what happened. This I would do out of a desire to let them know that they - their collective power - had affected me - a relative stranger in their midst. To let them know that I look forward to witnessing them in ten years, changing the course of rivers, to watching the collective power of their connections manifest in the creation of hence forth unimagined worlds. I would tell them so as to remind myself of the great gifts I have been given in sitting with amazing people.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I've been writing and reading and writing and reading and writing. It's been awesome. My time in Austin is drawing to a close, and I am unwrapping and wrapping words, texts, time.

In the midst of this, I have published Water Marks and Tree Rings (for a limited time), a short novela available online for your reading pleasure.

Please enjoy.
note: It takes acrobat.com a minute to load. Thank you for your patience.

Monday, July 05, 2010

And this is where I tell you that I had an incredible month in the Dominican Republic, after finding my feet in the shifting sands and the salty Caribbean waters. I am an island baby, and terra firma is a fictional state for me. Though, I've learned to live with it.

The conference was a fantastic experience, and I met so many incredible people. I got to hang out with a bad ass crew of folks, and to learn about the intricacies of their work. There is so much exciting scholarship and artistic production going on in the world. It makes me smile. I think some of my favorite presentations dared to be bold in their form (conversations between old friends, for example), and in their content (the notion of "ocular penetration" in film as presented by C.U. Decena).

Soon after, I met an incredible group of artists and activists. For example, I got to see Isabel Spencer, one of the Dominican Republic's foremost theatre artists, present her piece "Derechos Henanos" as part of the Festival de Teatro Nacional. This play was an awesome experience in which I got to witness hip hop, reggaeton and evangelist aesthetics folded into one. We could argue that...well, I'll just leave that to you.

I think one of the most amazing highlights was attending the Pride (Orgullo) activities on June 26 and June 27. June 16 was a "Besaton" - a kiss in in front of the national cathedral, which is actually the first cathedral in the Americas, which makes it just pregnant with history. How awesome to see queers kiss and hold hands, and to see brown and black people walking freely over the bones of our martyred ancestors.

And then, watching a line of cars stream up the street as part of the caravan on Sunday June 27th - being in that line of cars - winding its way around the city. I will note that our route began on Avenida George Washington, went up Avenida Abraham Lincoln, across Avenida 27 de febrero and down Avenida Duarte...the metaphoric and symbolic analysis we can carry out on the names alone!!! Anyways, it was an honor and a privilege to be present to and to share time with so many bad ass Dominican activists and artists. And, it was incredible to see how many people came out on the spot (including the four hotel workers who danced as we passed by; and the restaurant worker who pointed to his colleague standing next to him; or the woman on the bus who reached down to slap some high fives); and to see how many people were in support of their LGBT compatriotas. I was really, really excited and proud. I even posted photos on facebook.

But, I wouldn't be me if I didn't speak out about how the police really tried to put a damper on things by physically attacking one of my hermanas, Mirla Hernandez, as I drove the car away from the festivities. We were heading out when he started harassing us. Someone in the car suggested I use my U.S. privilege to navigate the situation, but in that moment, not a lick of English was coming to me. As the officer's aggression increased, he started with homophobic epithets. Mirla had the courage to respond to his abuse of authority, and he did what so many police officers in the Dominican Republic feel empowered to do: he hit her, "porque el es la autoridad".

It has taken me a week to be able to write about this, as I step back to respect Mirla's decisions about how to handle the situation. But once I saw that her official statement has been published (along with the video that shows it all going down), I am now at liberty to bring your attention to this incident.

Police brutality, state violence in the Dominican Republic is at an all time high (outside of the Trujillo regime's notorious record). The same night that this incident occurred, two other officers killed a university student - with a gunshot to the head - because he refused to stop on a darkened street.

All I could think about, besides doing my best to be an accountable (U.S. citizen) ally to Mirla, was on ensuring the safety of my two friends who were there with me, visiting from the U.S. and having a great time. We did have an amazing time, and we had a Dominican time - replete with all the complexities of navigating the realities of the "New World" as D. calls it :) LOL - the New World, yes, not the Third World, but "The New World". The complexities of poverty, corruption, and oppression that exist alongside the joys of a bad ass LGBT movement, beautiful beaches and really good hedonistic aids.

It is often the conditions of our oppression that catalyze the most profound and necessary movements. The Dominican LGBT movement is poised to be at the forefront of putting pressure on the Dominican government to stop state violence against everyday (and queer) citizens. My prayer and my hope is that 1) there will be no more casualties; 2) if there are, that the casualties will remain within the ranks of the state in the form of response and not further violence and 3) that the violence against those on the streets be stopped. There have already been too many casualties on the street.

Power to the people. And love.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

I'm back in the Dominican Republic for a month. It's been four years since I was last here. I was in Haiti in December for the Ghetto Biennale; I was here in 2006 at Altos de Chavon, writing. I'm here now to present a paper at the Transnational Hispaniola conference, and to connect with folks for my on-going dissertation research (I'm at the very beginning of this work). I haven't been by myself in the Dominican Republic since 1995. The many times I was here between 1998 and 2006, I was always with other people. I'm feeling challenged.

It's a different journey by myself. This is a journey that requires the greatest strength, greatest faith in myself, greatest love for myself. I come home to a quiet apartment - an apartment I keep wanting to fill with people. I think I might have to have a party there before I'm gone. But an apartment in which I am by myself. So many people do this all their lives: live alone, walk alone. I like my time alone to write, and I'm an introvert, but I also love my friends. I love laughter and life in my surroundings. Nonetheless, these few days here already have me thinking on deeper levels of what it means to be "alone".

I imagine that I am always alone on this road called life, surrounded by people on their roads, and that we call each other closer and share our walks from time to time as we continue down our parallel roads. But, this journey is mine alone. And it is what I make of it. And I have a beautiful life. I've been able to reconnect with some old friends, and to meet some new ones. We do the cellphone dance of calling each other for our numbers. We sit out by the Parque Duarte, Parque Colon and watch the thunderstorms roll in over the city. I am lucky: I've had the opportunity to make friends in many, many places. And even though I'm not so good at staying in touch, I love them and am always so happy to see them when I do.

It's incredible to be here again. I tried to pay for a mango with a 20 peso bill, not knowing that 20 peso bills are out of circulation. Last night I went with a crew of folks down to the Malecon; the area where all the chimichurri trucks used to circle up is now a `park' with formalized seating areas. There's one restaurant that rents out toy monster trucks for children. It's something to see groups of 4 and 5 year olds driving toy trucks around as the adults sit in the night air enjoying their beers. There's a karaoke bar, which is currently all the rage. Then late at night I went with E. down to a sonero's bar where we listened to son and watched videos on the big screen and enjoyed each others' company.

I'v spent the past few days in El Conde, in my "office" from where I am currently writing. It's a restaurant with wifi. I come here, order my coffee, and then lunch, and go online and work on stuff. I stare out the glass windows at the passerby. Mostly tourists and working Dominicans. School children. Some hustlers, but they generally wait for twilight. I'm enjoying people watching. My apartment is here in the center of the city. It's actually downhill from the old city cemetery, where some of the first graves from the island are located (some as old as 400 something years old). I try not to think about that too much. For those who know me, you know why. But just one block down from my apartment is the Malecon - the ocean front stroll. I try to go there once a day. Just like I try to eat mangoes as often as possible.

My friends started sharing their stories of the earthquake. I saw a t-shirt: "Haiti, tu dolor es mi dolor." That's how I feel. One friend is going to Haiti next week. I'm trying to decide whether to go with him. I want to see people. To hold them and hug them and see them in the flesh and know they are alive. All it takes is courage on my part. I'm trying to find the courage and selflessness to go. The earthquake's fault line went down to Pedernales, to the Lago Enriquillo; the waves rose up. The villages emptied as they watched the ocean retreat. I'm hearing stories, listening, witnessing, holding.

I'm present to my own road, to the greater road, right now. Knowing that even alone, my life is anything but that. Knowing that happiness is simple. Knowing that we breathe together, even as we breathe apart.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Tour Guide in Ramble-Ations

The weather's been amazing. Well, I've been in San Francisco this past week for D'Lo's show Ramble-Ations. It was amazing. He especially killed it on Friday night when the audience's energy was SUPER high. If you're in the Bay Area for the next couple of weeks, you should definitely stop by Brava Theatre and check it out. And I'm not just saying that because I think D'Lo is fucking incredible, but because the piece is fucking incredible.

Ramble-ations characters include: Amma - the Sri Lankan mother who's up to date not just on the latest lesbians, but also the latest beats; Vanathee - the superficial, self-absorbed diva who mourns her "best friend's" death (hint: they weren't really best friends); grandfather Ghandi-G who waxes on the nature of violence while drinking himself under the table; and Nic - the sensitive butch who makes sure that not only she neat, but so is the theatre. Then there are the video clips narrating the Tour Guide D'Lo's life and chillin with Amma at the house. D'Lo's particular brilliances lie in the ways he mixes the deep honesty of profound pain of loss and trauma with the humour of recognition. All in a body that holds an amazing physicality and control. I never thought I'd be laughing at watching a character stumble across the stage as he ingratiates himself to history and the "nature" of colonization.

The end of my spring break (I'm supposed to be finishing a paper as I speak, eh-hem, blog) was only topped by the two art shows bracketing my trip to San Francisco. I went to see El Anatsui's (Ghana, 1944) work at the Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. His work is so beautiful, not only in its textured layers, but in his exquisite choice of colors,the way he makes fabric out of cans and bottle caps, and how he transforms walls (lands?/scapes?) through his interior visions.

detail

I've known of his work for a few years, but had never had a chance to see it in person. So, when I saw it listed, I ran down to the gallery and allowed myself to be surrounded by the shimmering gold and silver "fabrics" of his work.

Then today, on my way back to New Haven, I stopped by the MOMA to see the Marina Abramovic retrospective. Again - GO. If you can, go and give yourself several hours. Marina Abramovic (Yugoslavia, b. 1945) has been at the forefront of performance art for the past several decades. She is famously known for her collaborations with Ulay, and the nature of her work: they are pieces that test the very limits of human endurance. She's lost consciousness with several of her performances from such factors as smoke inhalation, or from exchanging breath with Ulay for 14 minutes without cessation (Breathing In/Breathing Out). I was struck by the profound trust that the two artists had with each other, and I cried as I watched them meet for the last time on the Great Wall of China - to bid each other goodbye.

film still from Light/Dark in which the artists slap each other for 8 minutes

It was amazing to see the videos of her work, and also to be present to the "re-performances" of her work, in particular, Luminosity; Relation in Time; Nude with Skeleton; and Imponderabilia. Luminosity struck a particular chord with me. The accompanying text quotes Abramovic stating that the piece is about connection with the audience (a woman is standing over a bicycle seat in mid air, her arms poised at opposite ends of the clock); for her, "The spirit does not burn in any condition." The young woman performing that piece had huge eyes, and she seemed almost joyful, despite what I could only imagine as incredible pain. She was glowing, a glow bigger than the light fixed on her.

And then, there was the special moment of watching Abramovic in the flesh. She's performing a piece, "The Artist is Present" in which she sits in a chair during the entire exhibit. Viewers/visitors are invited to sit opposite her. There is a live web cam trained on the table for the entire duration of the sit. It's a re-performance of the piece when performed with Ulay in various locations around the world. Only, in his place are the museum visitors. I didn't have time to sit in line - a visitor can sit for as long as they feel is appropriate, but I appreciated seeing everyone else do so. I especially appreciated seeing her. She's so incredibly beautiful, and her level of concentration is awe-inspiring.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

I'm reading about performance and remains for a class. How to engage performance given its proclivity for disappearance. There is a supposition that time and space continue forward in a linear trajectory. How about the ever present palimpsest of overlapping spaces/times/material beings as a possibility?

I remember raulsalinas and Oloye speaking of how space requires witness. How engaging with other human beings is about transforming space by the fact of occupying it, moving its energy, filling it, giving it meaning. That once the space has contained the actions of its inhabitants, traces linger in the air, become part of the materia prima for the past and the future. In other words: that space will always contain what was in it, and so the past is reconstructed. And so is the future.

So, anxieties about disappearances are far from where I stand. In fact, I'm watching those anxieties from over here, wondering why they're visiting the minds of others. And then I think: well, genocide is a good reason to be anxious about disappearance. So is death in general. Then I think about transformation - the notion of transformation - the understanding of energy and matter as inherently in flux that requires a reframing of space, time and perception. So when M Nourbese Phillips (she is actually only the ship that carries the story) undoes time and space in Zong! and takes us all down into the refracted light of water, we understand that words are not just signifiers of matter itself, but actually generate it [Incantations].

All this aside, for this class we've had to consider the work of Sophie Calle within this conversation about performances and their remains. I first came across her work when I was constructing the conceptual framework for The Landlines Project. How she photographed eruvim in the Jewish settlements of the West Bank. Then I went on to discover her other projects/pieces/performances (project = bound; pieces = fractured; performances = audience + time + ...), The Sleepers, The Address Book, The Hotel, Sweet Venitienne... Sophie Calle is, essentially, a stalker of remains, traces, of moving bodies in space and time. Today, I am in conversation with her work in another way. Let me explain.

For some reason, I attract stalkers, people who obsess over whoever/whatever they think I am to them. I am not who they imagine, but that is besides the point. I don't think this is an arrogant claim. I've had over five stalkers in my life. I've had restraining orders issued to two of them. The others were just unstable. One of them I met before I made a six-month trip overseas. We were "dating" right before I left, but let's just say it was not that...eh hem...serious. I leave, I come back. She calls, asks to get together for brunch. That she has something for me. Perhaps I should have said no. After all, I wasn't looking to continue what had been started. But I didn't. I agreed to brunch.

And when I arrived, there it was innocently wrapped up in natural tissue paper. There were three silver rings along one edge. And the cover had a world map on it. How cheesy, I thought. But, I merely smiled and said, "You shouldn't have." I was going to leave it at that, thinking the pages were empty. And feeling more tender about the cover considering how unexpectedly thoughtful she was being: this was an album for me to fill with photos from my journey. But just as I went to put it away, she insisted, "Open it. Look inside."

And I did.

The contemporary me would get up from the table at this point and run out as fast as possible. But the 20 year old me was concerned about other peoples' feelings. Even when those feelings were so completely distorted that there was no semblance of sanity within them. So, I looked through the "album".

"Wow. What is this?"

"I took photos of myself for every day you were gone. On your birthday, I tried to commit suicide, and so I took a photo of my arm."

And indeed she had. There was the proof: a 2x2 inch polaroid image of a long red splice down the neat, pale skin of her inner forearm. I couldn't handle anymore.

"I have to go. Thank you so much for this book."

I kept my face free of expression, not wanting to incite any psychotic responses. I paid for my brunch and excused myself with a white lie about having to be somewhere else (umm, my best friend's house). I took the album with me. I left and did not look back.

I have often wondered why I did that. Why I accepted this album, those photos. Why I held onto it for two years. Maybe part of it was a fascination of the performance this woman had engaged in over a period of six months. Or maybe, I wanted material for jokes a la Cruela. Maybe part of it was wanting to understand how or why someone would use me as a vehicle for their obsessions (by using themselves as a vehicle to obsess about my absence). But, for reasons beyond my comprehension, I kept it. For two whole years.

Finally, one day on a late summer afternoon two years post-brunch, when I had tired of having the object in my possession, I tore out all the pages and threw them into the sink. I felt nauseous as the photographs of her filled the space in front of me, no longer bound by two covers (which I also threw in). I poured lighter fluid over them and lit everything on fire. The kitchen filled with blue and green smoke from all the burning Polaroids. I thought, "That was dumb. I should have burned them in a trash can outside." But it was too late. The remains lined the kitchen sink. The cabinets were black with smoke. The photographs, every last one of them, were gone.

Perhaps this was my own sort of performance. A marking of the unmarked. A reclaiming of myself by eliminating that which marked my absence. I wondered for a moment if I had done the right thing by burning those photographs. I would never be able to look at them again. And yet, the fact of their departure meant that the traces of their existence had somehow been embedded in my memory - as fractures, as colors, as charred remains. I walked away from the kitchen and sat down in the living room to think about what I had done.

When my roommate came home, she asked me what happened. All I could say was,

"I was cleaning."