The stage light casts an urgent yellow over the crowd...
From the subs, self-effacing bass from sound-artist Rowdy SS emanates. A select few audience members are given torches, the beams of which begin to stutter, falter, strobe. One hands their torch back to me - "I think this one is broken!" they say in regret, so I fiddle with it for a while before the beam re-illuminates the person in front of me, and then doesn't again, and then does. All of a sudden - like a jolt to the nervous system - a figure to my right seeps into my most intimate field of perception, almost brushing against my skin in the process.
They are doubled over, arms recoiling backwards, fingers taut, their torso wrapped in reflective black. An audience member next to me also notices, and so does their neighbour, and then theirs, then theirs, then theirs... and ever so delicately, the fabric of time and perception folds over itself into a singularity as this being becomes the most fragile centrepiece of the immediate universe.
This is Last Yearz Interesting Negro, the performance project of dancer and artist Jamila Johnson-Small who crafts shows that work through deep-felt issues surrounding presence, visibility, overwhelm and other particularities of sensory perception. VIRTUALLYREALITY's artistic director Michael Brailey spoke to them about privacy in performance, the perception of time, collaboration and care within their practice.
photo by Chris Bishop.
"Time is not linear - this is a reality
we are working with."
- Last Yearz Interesting Negro
[MB] I read in a previous interview that people used to liken your performances to bedroom dancing. If that notion of privacy is something you empathise with, what about it do you enjoy navigating in front of an audience?
[LYIN] Ha, everytime I hear ‘bedroom dancing’ I think of that Le Tigre track... Yeah it's something that other people have said and I do think of my dancing as an intimate practice, but it’s also something that I deliberately do in public (/ trying to think about whether the dancing I do in my bedroom looks similar!?). As public as that dancing is though, as exposed as a/my body might be, there will always be an inaccessible interior (world) and I enjoy this tension; the effort to bring things to the surface, into form, and that something remains hidden, evades capture, stays unformed, illegible or is received/related to in different ways by each person... a secret. I was looking at a reading of my chart the other day, and it said that I find my strength in secrets, interiority...
[MB] How does it feel to find strength in insularity? Or maybe, how does it feel to be a part of - or the catalyst, maybe - of these secretive transferrals of energy?
[LYIN] I’m not sure that interiority and insularity are the same thing? I am interested in the movements between inner and outer worlds, how each forms and acts upon the other, in the things that can be discovered (and affirmed and transformed) when we are listening, or being attentive, to our bodies - how the systems function, how we dream, where we hold tension, how we walk... I try to allow myself to be open to feeling supported by this resource and this can definitely relate to dancing for me.
Something I find interesting is how this is not exactly secretive. It is incredibly visible, sense-able and constant, but precisely what is going on cannot be fully articulated in words. It's the stuff of being in relation - almost mundane but also spectacular. It's really not about 'me', even though the performances I construct want to draw attention to these exchanges.
[MB] In the blurb for Fury1, the show you performed at VIRTUALLYREALITY with Rowdy SS, I’m particularly entranced by the way you talk about collapsing time and working simultaneously in the past-future-now. It seems like there is something to be gained in this performance once linearity is denounced from the equation?
[LYIN] I don’t know what there is to be gained for an audience because I/we exist within the work, delivering it. Time is not linear - this is a reality that we are working with. Some of the many reasons that dancing is interesting to me is because bodies (and spaces) hold, inherit and absorb experience, emotion, knowledge, trauma... and the dance supports / encourages a surfacing of these things. I guess there is also something about working to acknowledge - or allow - the fact that the time we live by here is a capitalist construct, not necessarily established to support our living. Slowly I want/need (not sure how to distinguish) to consider the colonial history of the clock time that I live/work by and how that oppresses my hybrid diasporic black Being.
"I've been thinking a lot about ... what care might mean or look like once you've been uprooted or displaced, if you are a hybrid creature and there is no developed formula for your survival."
- Last Yearz Interesting Negro
[MB] I wonder how this notion of collapsing time extends through your creative process. For you, is a work finished once it leaves the rehearsal room, or does that moment of finalisation occur after its first showing, or after its final showing, or maybe the work is always in a state of unfurling even after it is put to rest?
[LYIN] ‘Collapsing time’ is also thinking about what those moments when I/you/we/one might feel fully present - after sex, dancing, out in the elements/‘nature’, the feel of the steam from a just boiled kettle hitting your chin, when menstrual blood drips from between your legs and runs down your thigh…
I think that about all ‘works’ as part of a cumulative process of my artistic practice. I enter into performances as research spaces, constellations of people-time-place-performance that become crystallised. Some of the performances reach a place of completion where they become themselves, but not all. Most of the work happens outside of a rehearsal room, a continual hum of a thought process - on walks, at night, when I am having a conversation about other things, in dreams... Audience, the people who receive the thing I am making/imagining/imaging, are part of it and its forming, its augmentation, so it’s never finished before this encounter which shifts and transforms whatever I/we might have thought we were doing or planned to do. It’s an interesting kind of surrender, and when you’re lucky, the thing reveals itself.
[MB] I wonder where this leaves you as a creator/performer. As someone who frequently collaborates, particularly with sound artists and composers but also creatives from other disciplines, do you consider yourself the master of your work, or a vessel for the work to speak through, or both?
[LYIN] I am really against the myth of the solo artist and the fantasy of complete independence. I think/feel/move in relation and I guess the constant collaborations speak to this. I don’t think about myself as either, and definitely don’t want to be either! Master nor vessel. We have to shapeshift (or maybe it’s about long term processes of clarification?). The different angles/lights shining make different things visible. I am interested in being wide and collaboration feels expansive, building something as the simultaneous articulation of multiple desires, lines flying out in many directions. I enjoy working on projects with different people who see different things in the ideas I propose and teach me about what I am trying to do or find or unearth. I think my collaborators are some of the most incredible artists - getting to work with them can be humbling and is always an honour.
[MB] Considering this event was curated around the notion of ‘care’, where do you consider that term to be situated within your practice, either in care for others or in moments of self-care?
[LYIN] In the making of this performance, which is part of a trilogy, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is to grow in a hostile context, what care might mean or look like once you’ve been uprooted or displaced, if you are a hybrid creature and there is no developed formula for your survival… I’m also wary of this word right now, as it becomes jargon, something thrown around often, and embodied less so. The whole self-care thing has been totally co-opted by a consumerist agenda and a Wellness industry (conspiracy?) that wants me to go for a mani pedi, pay for expensive yoga classes, go to mindfulness sessions so that I can be a better more subdued worker, a more well-groomed Woman, rather than someone who knows how to direct my rage towards the dismantling of oppressive internalised ideologies. Then Audre Lorde being endlessly quoted out of context saying that self-care is an act of political warfare and this being mobilised to make consumption good and worthy, instead of critical thought around structures, positionality, orientation and relation to self. Or bad art.
In truth, I am trying to understand what those words mean and how to always be living care - for all things and non-things - and love.
Last Yearz Interesting Negro performing 'Fury1' at VIRTUALLYREALITY presents: Care, 13/5/19.
Photography by Annie Feng.