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Essay
Introduction to Gravitational Feel

Over two years, Fred Moten and Wu Tsang have developed the sculptural-performance Gravitational Feel as part of If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution’s Performance in Residence programme within Edition VI—Event and Duration (2015–2016).1

If I Can’t Dance started the Performance in Residence programme in 2010, as we wanted to commit to the long-term research of performance works from the past, in collaboration with guest curators and artists. While reenactment and its methods were central to the inauguration of the Performance in Residence series, as befits such vital programmes, we have since opened up its boundaries allowing for an extended interpretation of what performance ‘research’ might be.

It is within this vein that Moten and Tsang have collaborated to produce the sculptural performance Gravitational Feel and its companion book Who touched me?. Within the Performance in Residence programme their project was marked by a meaningful particularity—at the time of the publication’s submission to print, the performance it related to had yet to be realized. The text and images that unfold across its pages trace the work in process, introducing the reader to it in its virtuality. This is in keeping with Moten and Tsang’s movement across the commission, working carefully not to foreclose it, but continually maintaining a space that is open to chance events and speculation, and for others to enter and inhabit. As Moten and Tsang write in the book, “The research will be held by the ones who enact it, then dispersed as they disperse. [...] The research/experiment is in how to sense entanglement.”

In Gravitational Feel this awareness takes shape in a multi-channel soundtrack and numerous strands of fabric rope, which draw inspiration from “quipu” or talking knots—a sophisticated form of Incan data and record collection using knotted string—and brings attention to the unique language of fabric.2 Alternatively, one could see the sculpture’s form as a cat o’ nine tails changed from an instrument of domination and punishment to one of tactile touch and pleasure. It could otherwise be considered a node through which to make contact and bring what it finds into relation with a larger network. Suspended from moveable heads, these strands of fabric hang shower-like, and move via contact with the bodies that come to brush between and beneath them. The accompanying multi-channel soundtrack, recorded by Moten and Tsang, intensify the haptic environment with its directional sound waves. Within the work audiences are invited to move through it at their own pace and according to their own interest, while at punctuated moments Moten and Tsang are present, bringing together a greater density of audience and improvisational action. As its published companion, Who touched me? takes the form of a missal—a liturgical book that contains all instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of mass throughout a year. The resulting text includes fragments of e-mail communications, notes, poetry, transcriptions of previous works, and essays—including, notably, parts of an essay by philosopher and artist Denise Ferreira da Silva with whom Moten and Tsang also frequently collaborate, in, for instance, their establishing of the Art Institute for Physical Sociology (a proposed interdisciplinary group of scholars and art practitioners interested in the sociological potential of quantum physics). In the book these elements are lined up so they can be traced together—or as they say “to feel and hear the thickness of the line”—moving from the earliest communication between Moten and Tsang, to the more recent bodies of text and talk that have congregated around the project, exemplifying the project’s movement from, and thinking towards, a lived experience of collaboration.

Living Collaboratively
Moten and Tsang cohabit the roles of performance artist and poet, bringing together their respective practices: Moten is a poet and scholar who explores black studies, performance studies, poetry, and critical theory; and Tsang is an artist known for using performance, film, and installation to examine constructions of gender, sexuality, race, and class, and the impact of these constructions on communities. Given the many sympathies and cross-connections between their work, they have described their collaboration as something that seemed to commence long before they knew each other.

Moten and Tsang began collaborating in 2014 through a long-distance experiment in communication, which saw them leave voicemail messages to each other every day over a two-week period. And while they never connected lines, the messages they left each other often riff on the ones just heard, textured by the different intonations of each of their voices and their particular uses of language. Despite the distance from one another, their messages are also characterized by moments of unexpected synchronicity—ghostly near misses of shared thoughts. The result of this is Miss Communication and Mr:Re (2014); their first collaborative work in which their voicemail messages form the soundtrack of a two-channel video featuring images of Moten and Tsang on facing screens. A transcript of this early work runs down the edges of the pages throughout this publication.

In a second collaborative work, Girl Talk (2015)3 Moten appears in a sun-drenched backyard. Lightly costumed in a maroon-coloured cape decorated with crystal lapels, he moves in front of Tsang’s iPhone camera, spinning slightly, dancing, and raising his hands as if he is mid-song. Accompanying the footage is experimental musician JosiahWise’s rendition of the jazz standard from which the work gets its name. The soundtrack plays throughout the performance on screen and elevates the humbleness of the scene, which is played back in slow motion, to something bordering on rapture. Within these earlier collaborative works, what intrigued us most was how the known disciplines of Moten and Tsang respectively took alternating precedence within the collaboration. Both had moments of vulnerability and of confidence, but mutually they were participating in an exchange and play enabling what may come.

In a meeting about their project for If I Can’t Dance, the conversation arrived at the idea of virtuosity, and the reference within the book’s title to the scripture of Luke 8:45 that tells the story of a miracle in which a woman is healed by touching Jesus’s coat, to which Jesus, who feels the virtue move from within him, responds “Who touched me?” This was followed by talk of the figure of the jazz virtuoso, and the question of how to become an instrument for the dispersal of virtue, which the collaboration of Moten and Tsang, and the works Gravitational Feel and Who touched me? reach out for.

Frédérique Bergholtz and Susan Gibb

From the publication: ‘Who Touched Me?’ by Fred Moten and Wu Tsang / With contributions by Denise Ferreira da Silva / Series editors: Frédérique Bergholtz and Susan Gibb / Editor: Janine Armin / Design: Will Holder / Publisher: If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution, 2016 / ISBN: 978-94-92139-06-1 / Order from If I Can’t Dance through its webshop / Price: €15



Notes:

  1. If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution is dedicated to exploring the evolution and typology of performance and performativity in contemporary art, and does so through the production of artworks and thematic programmes across two-year editions. Since 2005, it has operated without a fixed presentation space, taking the model of collaborative working from the theatre to invest in elaborated programmes that develop through their enactment at each event and location over time. The title of the Performance in Residence programme is a pun that points to our ‘nomadic’ institution and the elusive nature of performance. The ‘in residence’ also echoes our desire to have a work in our midst, and a researcher in our company: to care, play, exchange, learn, and sometimes struggle—all the things you do when living together. It also refers to our intention to let time be a medium instead of a commodity, allowing both the object of study and the researcher to breathe, grow, and move.
  2. One needs only to look at the word “text” to see its intimate and etymological relationship to “texture” and to “textile,” and to think of the texture of a voice, and the weave of a story, for example.
  3. ‘Girl Talk’ was presented as the preface to Moten and Tsang’s Performance in Residence research project as part of the If I Can’t Dance Introductory Event at Cygnus Gymnasium on 24 January 2016. The programme was presented in an operational high school in Amsterdam, where ‘Girl Talk’ was installed in the music room. Throughout the day the sound of Josiah Wise’s voice could be heard and felt during the audience’s movement through the school’s corridors.