Art Seen: International

U.S. PAVILION // DIMENSIONS OF CITIZENSHIP

Presented as a part of /Dialogues

May 27, 2018
Courtyard, U.S. Pavilion (Venice, Italy)

Panelists: Shani Crowe, Andres L. Hernandez, and Amanda Williams
Moderated by Stephanie Cristello (Editor-in-Chief, THE SEEN )

U.S. Pavilion, Venice Biennale

The following transcription follows a panel organized as part of the U.S. Pavilion opening program at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, co-commissioned by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. The conversation was featured as part of Dimensions of Citizenship, co-curated by Mimi Zeiger (Los Angeles-based critic, editor, and curator; faculty member in the Media Design Practices MFA program at ArtCenter College of Design), Ann Lui (Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and co-founder of Future Firm), and Niall Atkinson (Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and the College, The University of Chicago). The panel was staged on the occasion of Andres L. Hernandez and Amanda Williams’ piece Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line) (2017) in collaboration with Shani Crowe, and was preceded by a performance, entitled BLACKWOMANSPACE: A Performative Primer (2018).

The discussion was moderated by Stephanie Cristello (SAIC Alum, 2013), Editor-in-Chief of THE SEEN, Chicago’s International Journal of Contemporary & Modern Art and Director of Programming at EXPO CHICAGO.

 


Stephanie Cristello: I wanted to begin with some context in relation to the U.S. Pavilion, and the exhibition on view, entitled Dimensions of Citizenship. Of the seven spatial parameters explored in the installation—namely Citizen, Civitas, Region, Nation, Globe, Network, and Cosmos—your collaborative contribution represents the first: Citizen, which is also included in the namesake of the exhibition as a whole.  

I wanted to start with parsing what citizenship means in relation to your work. Before we do this, I wanted to share a definition of the term as it is outlined in the catalogue, as “not an allegiance to flag and country, but as an intimate and complex relation between ourselves, and the actual and virtual spaces we inhabit.” [1] How do you define the term ‘citizen,’ in relation to your respective practices?

Amanda Williams: We have spoken a lot about the idea that African-Americans, and black women in particular, have always done their part in terms of the contribution you defined, and often—if not always—are not recognized either for that contribution, or as bodies that exist as citizens of the United States. In this work, we are pushing back and challenging that assertion as an initial prompt, and also wanting to use this contestation to segue into highlighting the many groups that have legal citizenship, but have never really fully enjoy those rights. We were interested in this idea of relating to architecture to a kind of larger theme: the idea of a body. Not necessarily as a pure interaction with other bodies, and demonstrations—we thought a lot about forums, protests, and group civic action—but instead about the body itself, and the violence that is enacted upon it, in terms of how black women, in particular, have had to navigate and move through space constantly in a state of unrest or fugitivity in order to gain a type of freedom (that would then potentially lead to ‘citizenship’).

So, there is this whole other step—we had talked a little but about it yesterday amongst ourselves, but the idea that we have yet to understand what ‘citizenship’ might mean is in part due to the fact that there has never been a moment in which that status has been uncontested. I do not know if Shani or Andres want to add, or complicate, this statement, but I think that was really the starting point [for Hernandez and I]. Along this path, Shani becoming part of our collaborative felt very organic and natural, because it was not a conversation we had to explain—instead, it was a way for us to translate some of the same understandings we had. Andres and I have both trained as architects, and now operate as artistic practitioners. Yet, there was a natural synergy where we operated in a kind of knitting circle—or what we could call ‘the braiding circle’—and the three of us were having constant conversations through the concepts identified in the work.

Andres L. Hernandez: I am still abuzz from the performance, but I guess I will say that this is exactly what democratic citizenship should look like. No one snatched up …yet. Or told us not to do something. And I think our ability to participate, to make commentary, to critique, to live up to our responsibilities as citizens, and keep pushing the idea that democracy and citizenship are a destination that have not yet been arrived at is largely the point of the work. One could disagree, but we are continuing to push this notion through our work, and accept it as well. I think this performance [BLACKWOMANSPACE: A Performative Primer by Crowe in collaboration with Hernandez] and our installation really gets to that.

S.Cristello: I wanted to talk about some of the navigations of space that you are both mentioning, and give a little bit of context for this piece as well, which is entitled Thrival Geographies, and is of course a play on words of the term ‘Rival Geographies.’ As a background to the origin of this phenomenon, in and how it affects the navigation of space, art historian Stephanie M. H. Camp outlines the term in her book, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in Plantation South as “alternative ways of using space that conflicted with plantation owner’s demands and ideals.”[2] This sentiment, which both of you have touched upon, is still very much a part of the everyday African-American experience. It has been more recently marked by protests, movements, and demonstrations, certainly amidst the entry of the current administration, but the ownership of property and the enjoyment of public space for African-Americans has been something that has long been aggressively oppressive. So, I would love for each of you to speak about how this installation, Thrival Geographies, challenges the term it was derived from, but also how each of your different perspectives and personal experiences had brought you to want to make this work.

AL.H: I think you know, as kind of a follow-up, that the term ‘Rival Geographies’ thinks more about the potential mobility within confinement. It articulates the position of plantation landscapes, and how enslaved Africans were constricted, but there was a difference in even that, right? Men could potentially hire themselves out for work, or go other places; they had a different mobility than women did. Women were not allowed to go beyond their “home” for various reasons, which we can all consider, but if they did move, it was always with the owner or the owner’s family. They were not allowed to have their own mobility, but they sought ways to create that. It is interesting, thinking about black women’s bodies historically—this is something Amanda has addressed in her own work as well—not only as being “out-of-place” and “out-of-line,” but as black bodies in general—bodies of color, bodies of the estranged ‘other,’ bodies that are obviously foreign.

For us, it was important that we create a structure—an installation, an intervention—within the courtyard [of the U.S. Pavilion] that actually speaks to that. It is strange; it does not look like it should be here, but we worked hard to get it here, and in the right positioning within the courtyard. There is a wonderment to it, like “What is that over there?” I am not a black woman, but I think the work speaks to that experience. I think even being here for about three weeks—in Venice, or here at the Giardini—people are having second, third, or fourth looks at us. We are interrogating belonging in this place within the profession [of architecture], having studied it, but being without a license (which a lot of people do not have, by the way). This installation tries to proposition something that physically speaks to that experience.

Shani Crowe: To develop more towards what Andres is saying, this piece is sitting very prominently in the right of this courtyard to the building. Everything about it is in total contrast to who designed this building, and it also is interesting because marginalized people are often overlooked or ignored. I have been in many situations where people would not see me or acknowledge me in any way, but this piece is totally un-ignorable. You cannot look at the U.S. Pavilion without seeing this piece. It begs you to come close to it, it begs you to inquire, to learn more about what is inside, or how it was made. I guess the same way you approach that, I would challenge everyone here—especially when you go back to the United States, in Chicago. Chicago has a serious issue with segregation, both financially and racially. When we are in certain spaces, people do not assume we belong. We simultaneously become invisible and a problem, no matter what we are doing. Many stories are now coming out, since people have cell phones and you can document things more easily, and we are hearing a lot more tales. It seems like there is an influx of microaggressions or unnecessary policing of black people in spaces where they should belong. A perfect example of this is the young woman at Yale. She was a student in her dorm taking a nap, and another student called a police officer. She was sleeping in a dorm that she pays for, just like everybody else—but that is a problem because you, yourself just being there is a signal that something is wrong. Your presence is a problem. If this presence is something that one finds to be a problem, that is an opinion one is entitled to, but you still have to see it. You have to walk around it and acknowledge that it is there.

AW: Obviously, we were following Mark Bradford,[3] and his amazing commentary of democracy, which is slightly larger than the scope of citizenship we are discussing. At one point, the curators had given us the option of either being in the inside or the outside of the pavilion, so to choose the courtyard sort of complicated the conversation. The first day somebody pulled me to the side, and was like “Why do black people gotta be outside?” To which I responded, “Because we wanted you to have that reaction.” We chose to be outside so that we could bring in that conversation, right? I cannot thank the curators enough for their insight and vision, and also for really pushing us to foreground these conversations that we have all the time, and not necessarily always joke about.

So, the rival geographies addressed in this work were about bringing to the fore that special understanding. For us, in Thrival Geographies, the point was that the conversation could not just remain there. It had to push beyond that. So, formally and gesturally we really wanted to think about the words of one of the essays in Bradford’s catalogue that talked about superimposition of another architecture over this one. Short of being able to erase this structure, and what it means to black bodies—not as formidable democracies of neoclassicism, but of slavery. What does it mean to touch it lightly and look beyond it, to think about what else might exist? At one point we begged to be in the back, because that is the unknown space, even for frequenters of the biennale.

For this installation, I think it was important to have it operate both as a metaphorical object, and to be literal at times. It is an homage to Harriet Tubman and Harriet Jacobs, while simultaneously bringing in the spatial practices of self-care (which are not an indulgence). Space and architecture are not always just performed—we know how to do that and love to do that. We can have a million conversations about this facet of the work, but then there are also these psychic spaces with which Thrival Geographies engages: the space of the hair, the space of caring for one’s hair, the space of getting your hair done. My daughter is over there, in dread of the hair-braiding day. That is a shared kinship, and a space in and of itself that also needs to be foregrounded when talking about architecture and dimensions of citizenship.

S.Cristello: I am glad that you mentioned Harriet Tubman and Harriet Jacobs, or as we are calling them now, the “Two Harriets.” I want to open a space for us to talk about the inception of this piece and these two women’s role, as sorts of muses, and how they served as inspirations for you as you were creating the work. We all know Harriet Tubman for founding the Underground Railroad, yet Harriet Jacobs did not escape slavery in the same way—it was a specific type of retreat, but a freedom of a sort in its own right. As a writer, she chronicled her narrative in the book, Instances in The Life of a Slave Girl, which she is most known for. So, I wanted to give you all the chance to talk about how it impacted the inception of Thrival Geographies and then, Shani, I would love to hear about your muse for the performative aspect of the work we just saw as well.

AL.H: Yes, Stephanie described our two muses, the “Two Harriets.” We were thinking a lot about fugitivity—being on the move, on the run, never really being settled, and having to find the not-fun spaces to survive within. I am speaking about folks who were escaping from the shackles of slavery and their movement towards the north. I think that was a huge part of our work. Also, [during the inception of this work] I was reading Harriet Jacobs’ Instances in The Life of a Slave Girl, which I encourage you all to read—it is interesting because she constantly writes “I know this is not believable, but this is exactly what happened.” So, this idea that this experience is one that none of us can imagine, as a reader or student of history, can never imagine what really, really happened—even the things that were untold. We were also thinking about the potential of trying to imagine an unknown future. So Amanda and I were talking about this, and she would embody it in our studio. She would say “What is that moment when you cross this invisible line and let go? Could you ever let go? Did you have a deep breath, and what did that breath look like? How long did you have it?” I think that was interesting for us, thinking about that moment of rest and retreat, and at the same time being constantly on the move to find that space. And also understand that this retreat and rest were fugitive feelings in themselves, living in a country where no slave was protected.

I think for us, the Harriets came through in the form [of the sculpture] itself—there are many nooks and crannies in the body. There is an open space, where people can enter and be a part of the installation, but within the work, there are all these other ‘not-quite’ spaces that people can tuck themselves into.

The other day, I saw some children playing hide-and-seek; they discovered the spaces that adults at a different scale would never see. There are hiding places, and that speaks to Harriet Jacobs’ experience of actually citing herself within the crawlspace of her owner’s home for seven years. She lived in a space that was three by seven by nine feet—cramped like this—for seven years. She bore holes through the walls in the house to look at her children for those years. There was the potential for her to have escaped slavery, but when that opportunity presented itself, she had instead come back to confine herself to be even more free. We thought that was a really powerful statement, and there are tons of people who have written about it in different forms of literature—theorists, artists, architects, and other folks who have addressed the idea that we are picking up: of the loophole Jacobs inhabited, and continuing to push that to the scale of the biennale.

S.Crowe: One thing that these women have in common, which is super powerful to me, is that they had grown up enslaved and their ancestors had been enslaved. There was no freedom in sight, beyond one that they could imagine. The spirit that was driven within them that forced them to seek something better, when everything else said otherwise, is really important to me. I mean, that is a serious thing. When everything around you is grim, how do you cultivate and maintain a drive to live? Not only just to live—you can live enslaved—but to live and experience true freedom and life is something that all citizens of the world strive for. Not everyone is allowed that privilege. It is something that everyone is looking for: somewhere they belong and are free to be themselves. Somewhere that they do not have to put on an act. Somewhere they do not have to do a shuffle for people to tolerate them. That is represented in the formal elements of this piece. For example, within the interior, the brightness and light you carry inside of you, hence the yellow. And then also the view from the recliner shows you the top, which has been referred to as ‘a ladder to nowhere.’ You do not know what is ahead of you on your path—you are just moving along a path. You have to have faith that there is something better, or just die, eh? There is no point in living.

AW: How do I follow that? I was just going to also add some of the conversations when we first brought Shani into the project. A few months ago, Mable Wilson—who is our like, fifth Harriet, we have a lot of Harriets in the world of professional architecture—was saying “why are there so many black architectural graduates who find other ways to practice?” Hers is called Studio Am, because she was often found saying, “I am like this, I am like that.” We have to carry so many mantles. It is interesting for Shani to bring that into the conversation. We were initially looking at braiding as a structural system that brought in material, that had a DNA or residence. We were really pushed by meaning and in particular, to really think about materiality in a way that Andres and I already use in our practices. We can elevate everyday material to a level of beauty and importance. Shani pointed out that natural hairstyles, and especially braided hairstyles, are still contested in professional spaces. It is only in the last decade or so that it is even acceptable—within the rules of working in these spaces—to have your hair any way you want it to be. You still see it in classrooms, mostly in the American South, where kids cannot have their hair braided. On the one hand, it seems like this may be something innocuous or banal, but it is this reinforcement of the lack of freedom and control that defines how African-Americans can exist. I think I had totally forgotten about that, or overlooked that, as a key element to talk about this tie—between not only the content of the piece itself, but also its relationship symbolically to this courtyard and the conversations around architecture that it typically has—until that moment.

S.Cristello: In addition to the structure, I also wanted to touch upon the aesthetics of the work. Being in Venice, my mind initially went to mythology when I saw the piece—actually Greek mythology, not Roman! Outside of their use in races, chariots or carriages—a form to which this piece carries a strong resemblance—were used in everyday life only to carry a burden. Which as a rule, meant women.

There are few significant aspects of the work that I think differ from the mythological role of the carriage—namely that it is still and immobile. Yet, most importantly, instead of positioning women as a burden, it privileges the role of the female as both a power and authority. In the catalogue, the text accompanying the work articulates in all caps, BLACK WOMEN SPACE MATTERS. I want to talk about how this work either goes against this mythology, or forges one of its own.

AW: Wow. That is so interesting because we were so fixated on looking at it this way, that it was not until we actually got here that this similarity became apparent. We were so fixated on the idea of moving over the piece, or looking up from it, that we did not really think about the outer image of the work. As soon as we got here, of course this is a thing that everyone loves. There is a curiosity and excitement when people get inside, then they turn this way and they pose. “Oh, you just need horses!” is what one visitor said on the first day. I thought, what is he talking about? But now when you say it, looking at it from this view, all of a sudden I do get it. I mean, your allusion is beautiful—I do not have an immediate reaction to it, though it excites me that there could be so many readings of the work. Part of our goal was for people to say, “What is that?” We achieve that when people debate the meaning of its form.

I also really love that idea of power—that is definitely what it was about. Andres was the one who pushed the BLACK WOMEN SPACE. I had tears, and I cried, and he told me to get over it, and I cried again. You know, this whole consternation of Black Lives Matter, and then as soon as that became a mantra, I was joking like, “Well, black space matters.” That is what we have been talking about for twenty-five years. Then, black woman space matters? The invisibility really just went down on that. It is something you are ready to fight for! You know it is going to be questioned, like “Doesn’t such and such space matter?” Well, yes. So why is there always that dialectic? We wanted to bring that into the conversation.

AL.H: We did a bunch of reading and a bunch of writing. I am sure Ann, Iker, Mimi, and Niall were like “We are never going to have a project, we are just going to have a book in the courtyard.” One of the early quotes we worked from was from Anna Julia Cooper, which she says in 1892—“only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage. Then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” I thought it was really interesting—this idea that the real freedom that everyone is seeking actually happens to the black woman. This idea of agency and power is really critical. One of the things we thought about are the folks that are the least thought of, the least respected. We are using African-American woman as our prompt, but we are actually thinking about all types of folks that are outside. That through speaking of the ‘less-than,’ the most unfortunate, the most precarious of identities, that we all will actually be delivered and free.

We had learned that back at Cornell with Dr. Turner, in the African studies department, and something that continues to resonate with us. I want to say one another thing, and it is going to be quick! I have tripped over this thing about four times since install, and I have also seen other people trip over it, which I really like!

AW: I told you!

AL.H: You really cannot avoid it. You think you can clear it, then you do not clear it, then you trip, and you fall. I think about that presence, right? That enduring presence. There is a power in that, though it seems very subtle, like you could handle it. There is intense power. I have been really fascinated watching how people navigate the structure, which I also like to do because nobody expects me to be here, or that that is my project. I am totally anonymous—I can be in the courtyard watching, and no one would ever know I was involved in it.

S.Crowe: Actually, when I was preparing to come here, I was listening to WBEZ, which is an NPR-affiliate in Chicago—and one of the media was talking about Zora Neale Hurston’s new book, Berracoon: The Story of the Last Slave. They gave a little background around the book, which she apparently wrote before Their Eyes Were Watching God, though she could not get it printed, because her peers and publishers did not like the fact that it was written in dialect. The text is an interview of a man who came over on the last slave ship, which was illegal at the time; they burned the ship after. But because they came over so late, he was able to preserve more of his African heritage, and still had memories of being an African. So, she documents his experiences. Her peers were saying, “Oh, but it is written in this dialect.” He basically speaks a pigeon-English basically. The text had not been published until now. As a part of the segment, they were talking to a linguist, and she was stating why it was so important that the text was written this way, because it shows his worldview. The interviewer requests, “How so?” To which the linguist replies “Well, in his language there is no ‘am.’” You do not say, “I am Shani.” He says “I” and then his name, because there is no “am.” It is inherent in his language that every person is a human being. That was super important to me, because English does not function this way. The system of slavery was supported by all of these loopholes in language to build false, biased, pseudo-research. They said black people were not human beings, and one thing Andres shared with me—which is part of the inspiration for my performance—was a study that said black people were incapable of self-care, so they should never become citizens. They cannot take care of themselves. I want everyone to consider: how do you take care of yourself in chains, when everything you do is policed and restricted?

Transcribed by Gabrielle Welsh and edited by Stephanie Cristello.



 

[1] Catalogue. “On Dimensions of Citizenship.” Atkinson, Lui, and Zeiger, 2018.
[2] Camp, Stephanie M. H. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2006.
[3] U.S. Pavilion, Biennale Arte 2017. http://www.markbradfordvenice2017.org/

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