My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Every generation of artists faces a choice between formal rigor and social content, but the best ones remind us that this choice is false. What I admire about Steffani Jemison’s work is its combination of structural elegance and situated critique—how, for instance, her 2014 video Personal can, through deft repetition and reverse motion, make us see mundane movement as balletic while also attuning us to the tremendous violence with which the black body is policed. Her work across media challenges facile narratives of progress while rediscovering moments of possibility in the history of utopian thought. I look to Jemison as an example of an artist who is politically engaged but never merely programmatic, who sounds tremendous conceptual depths—but does so quietly.
Ben Lerner One of the things that immediately struck me about your videos was their quiet. Now I’ve come to know your sound work and musical performances in gallery spaces. Can you say something about how you imagine the relation between sound and image within and across media?
Steffani Jemison My video work grew out of thinkinga lot about early film and its formal organization. The first attempts to make something we might qualify as fiction in cinema occured at the dawn of the twentieth century, when the novel was flourishing. Literary storytelling aligns closely with what movies later came to look like. I was curious about why earlier films didn’t have novelistic narrative forms, and I became especially interested in multishot chase films, which anticipated modern continuity editing. But instead of psychologically rich characters, these films present inscrutable bodies; instead of narrative development, they trace a sequence of similar scenes; and instead of describing epiphany and growth, they are haunted by logics of recursion and repetition. My videos work within the logic of these early films, which did not have synchronized sound, so, most of them have been quiet. Why didn’t early films have recorded sound? The technology was limited, of course, but what if the culture of the period didn’t demand synchronized sound? My idea is that if audiences needed recorded sound in cinema, in 1897, the technology could have been created. Maybe moving images felt sensually overwhelming on their own, or maybe they seemed coherent and rich without recorded sound, just as they were apparently coherent and rich without color. At any rate, sound has usually played an ambient or a quiet role in my videos.
BL But sometimes a quietly important role.
SJ Personal (2014) might be the work in which sound is most important if only because it serves as a signal about what’s happening in the image. I shot Personal in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Of my recent videos, it has the loosest connection to early film. When I began, I was thinking about a chase film in which a nobleman seeking a wife places a personal ad and shenanigans ensue. But when I started working with actors to build the work, I couldn’t move past the moment in which the nobleman is waiting for the respondents to arrive. Loitering, lingering, anticipating, the time in-between—I couldn’t stop thinking about the phenomenon of waiting. That became the seed from which the piece grew.
BL I know you’re interested in Kevin Quashie’s essay “The Trouble with Publicness: Toward a Theory of Black Quiet.” Quashie talks about how blackness is associated with noise in the American imaginary and suggests that images of quiet can be an important way of suggesting black inwardness and interiority. Do you think of the quiet in your videos as having a political valency?
SJ Absolutely. Maniac Chase (2008–9), Escaped Lunatic (2010–11), and Personalcontain no dialogue and little language. The irreducibility of my figures, their resistance to explication or translation, is an important effect of this choice. As I made that work, I was thinking a lot about our desire to see characters perform identity and, more broadly, to see characters make legible a sequence of decisions that result in change or growth. I was working backward, thinking about what happens if political progress or development fails. How do we understand or make that failure legible within the conventions of storytelling? Do we understand that also as a failure of narrative forms, of modern ways of telling stories? How and where can I find another way of thinking about what it means to exist without progress? How do we explain what has happened and what it means for things to change if they’re not measured against a specific end?
BL As Quashie notes, quiet troubles the conventional association of noise and black expressivity. In Personal, there are different kinds of quiet—the signifying silence of monuments, for example, and the mute murals of famously eloquent people. But how about movement? Partly on account of how you use reverse motion, physical movement suggests something between sports and dance. In Escaped Lunatic, we have this fascinating and repetitive chase scene. To what degree are these movements choregraphed?
SJ To make Escaped Lunatic, I worked with parkour practitioners in Houston. As it turns out, parkour is really popular there, though I don’t know why—the geographic sprawl of Houston is not particularly conducive to it. From my perspective, parkour has a strong relationship to something like graffiti. It takes urban space and uses it for its own ends, and thus has an interestingly excessive or even ornamental relationship to urban space. It’s almost decorative.
BL Escaped Lunatic was also inspired by an early film?
SJ Edwin S. Porter’s Maniac Chase and A. E. Weed’s The Escaped Lunatic were two turn-of-the-century chase films that both begin with a long, static shot of a man dressed as Napoleon set against a painted backdrop. The intertitles tell us that he is in an insane asylum. Early on, we see him beaten by guards, and then, through a series of clever tricks and Méliès-like special effects, he escapes through a window in his cell. The second shot after his escape, which shows him dropping from the window and running across a field, might be the only one that follows directly from the one before. The rest are visually disconnected—they could be reorganized in pretty much any order and the story would make the same sense.
BL I see, the characters all just run.
SJ Yes—and mostly diagonally along the z-axis to lengthen the time they’re on screen. They also encounter these totally arbitrary obstacles. This type of chase film was super common in early cinema. The genre was a bridge between films that documented real life, like workers leaving a factory, and more complex narrative films that used shot-reverse-shot editing and matched action to produce the illusion of continuity.
BL I really like what you said about graffiti in relation to parkour and landscape. But it’s hard to watch your video without thinking about incarceration. Against the bleakness of the landscape they’re running through, it’s only the style of their escape, the dance—this ornamental act—that gives it any life at all.
SJ That’s very true. In Escaped Lunatic, you see weird juxtapositions: empty lots in front of busy highways, or suburban-style construction next to shotgun shacks. The urban contradictions on display are important. On another level, I also think that much of the genealogy of contemporary video art can be traced directly through early cinema—artists like Bruce Nauman and Joan Jonas. That was on my mind when I was making this work; specifically, I was thinking a lot about the political and racial blind spots of the first generation of conceptual artists. It’s not that I have some ax to grind, but I’m really interested in the questions that work opens up. A big part of their work lies in the performance of neutrality through the use of what I once thought was the “artist’s body,” but later realized is specifically the white cisgender body. I’ve been really influenced by José Muñoz’s discussion of the normativity of white middle-class subjectivity. As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load. Understanding how video and dematerialized practices from the late 1950s and early 1960s (and beyond) are tied to a fantasy of the uninflected white body seems essential to me. The role, for example, of whiteness in Bruce Nauman’s work is rarely discussed. I would argue that the project of conceptual art is, at least in part, a racialized fantasy.
BL One thing I value in your work is the mixture of critical and political engagement and stillness, moments that can’t be instrumentalized. There’s space or time enough to look at the texture of a wall or care about the wind through the leaves. There’s still contingency and weather, a real balance between subject matter and what escapes it.
SJ The basic gestures are scripted or choreographed, but they leave room for the accidental. There’s not much to distract the viewer, or, rather, everything is distraction.
BL That’s a really useful way to think about it. The simplicity of the plot device—if plot is even the right word for it—frees the viewer up to look around.
SJ It does.
BL On another note, there are more men in the videos than women.
SJ Yes, there are.
BL Why is that?
SJ A few reasons. Maybe in part because the work that was most visible to me when I was a student depicted white men in the problematic ways I just described. Obviously, black men are very visible as athletes and entertainers, and I’ve always created work that interacts with those specific images. Chance has also played a role—I’ve often worked with a group of three young male singers whom I happened to connect with ten years ago. And maybe in part because I have a younger brother, Philip, and I think a lot about him. As a graduate student, I once presented a performance in class in which I had a live conversation with him, and I now see that piece as being special. Philip isn’t particularly ambitious, at least not in the way I am. He’s not trying to be special. He’s trying to be happy and survive in a way that’s almost invisible in my academic and professional world since I moved to New York. He works for the Cincinnati public school system. He has chosen an almost anonymous path that’s really different from mine, my mother’s, or my father’s.
BL What does your father do?
SJ He’s a retired lawyer. Now he helps run a nonprofit, the Law and Leadership Institute in Ohio, which prepares urban youth for college by helping them see themselves as citizens and agents within the framework of the justice system rather than merely victims and pawns of that system. It’s worth remembering that most black Americans have family members who are incarcerated. Others are ensnared in generational patterns of violence and insecurity that are impossible to escape. I was a graduate student in Chicago when my cousin, Gregory Robinson, was murdered 150 blocks south. He was fourteen years old. That kind of precarity and vulnerability is hard to imagine if you or your family haven’t experienced it. Black households in the US possess shockingly little capital, even if they earn a middle-class income. There isn’t the same expectation that I’ve observed among my white friends that your children will, at a minimum, inherit your social class. This profound vulnerability affects black men differently than black women. When I started making videos, I was also thinking about the visibility of black men as athletes and entertainers, and how the work could interact with those images. In my performances, unlike my videos, I have often worked with women. Maybe these women serve as avatars for myself, since I don’t always appear in the work.
BL It’s interesting to think about a black woman making videos about or around the images of black men. It adds a different dimension to the gender relation. But let me ask: If the women are avatars for you, do you think of the men as avatars for a specific person—for your brother, for instance?
SJ I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that. But they reflect my engagement with my brother and other men in my family. Insofar as the videos document performances by specific actors, I’ve found it especially productive to think about the complex demands of the performance of masculinity for black men. In 2008, I made a short video called Broken Fall that encapsulates those demands. The video presents an actor I hired, who struggles slightly, then falls out of the frame. I’d seen Bas Jan Ader’s beautiful retrospective at Camden Arts Centre in 2006. I couldn’t stop thinking about the politics of a man hanging from a tree, and the tension between labor, play, and the laws of physics.
BL Broken Fall was shot in Chicago?
SJ Yes, in Oak Park. When we met, he was maybe nineteen years old and thinking about going to Columbia College in Chicago to study acting. He wanted to work with me to gain experience. Not too long after we made this video, his family called me. He had disappeared, and they were working their way through each number in his phone to see if anyone had heard from him. I’m not sure if he ever was found.
SJ I almost always work with actors in my videos. I find aspiring and early-career actors an especially generous group to work with. I pay hourly, and we work together over a period of time to make a bunch of things, some of which end up becoming work and some of which doesn’t.
BL One thing I find compelling about your videos is how they mark minimal differences through reduction and repetition. Their formal abstraction and selection of detail does not imply an emptying out of political content.
SJ I think more productively about abstraction as a verb and, maybe, as a kind of desire, like the desire to retain a space beyond description. I presented a multipart project at MoMA last year called Promise Machine (2015), in which I used the notion of utopia as a way to think about politics, but also as a way into some facets of Jacob Lawrence’s work. I was thinking about how one could conceivably describe his work as having a relationship to abstraction. Some of that has to do with the way that he used unmixed color almost like a found material. He also condenses complex experiences into iconographic images. In a vaguely analogous way, the concept of “utopia” describes a desire, or a need to desire, political alternatives, and thus preserves a space for imagining a different kind of political future. It doesn’t describe or represent that future, but serves as a kind of placeholder preserving a space for us to imagine otherwise.
BL You’ve also been experimenting with musical systems. What do you call that “do-re-mi” scale again?
BL What attracted you to working with solfège and what do you do with it?
SJ Weirdly, right now I’m developing two very different bodies of work that both have a very specific relationship to solfège. One is a long-term research project that will take the form of a sound installation at Mass MoCA this spring (2017) as part of a larger solo exhibition. I created a lyrical title for the piece, but now I’m thinking about stepping back and calling it something like, What if we need new words? It began with my interest in the work of a nineteenth-century composer named François Sudre who developed Solresol, an artificial universal language designed at a time when individual nation-states were consolidating in Europe. Sudre envisioned “speaking” through the seven pitches of the diatonic scale, or the syllables assigned to those pitches in the solfège singing system, or really any system with seven units.
BL That sounds like a musical Esperanto.
SJ Exactly. A pre-Esperanto musical Esperanto. Every word is a combination of pitches. So a word might be (sings) do-re, which means “you.” Or it might be (sings) “do-mi-sol-re, which means “power.” Each melody indicates a different word. The symmetrical reversal of the melody has the opposite meaning. So re-sol-mi-domeans “the opposite of power,” however one might understand that. Of course, artificial languages don’t work, but I’m interested in why they recur at two extremes: first, in utopian visions of logical, frictionless communication (like Solresol); second, in completely opaque private languages like the kind I invented to write in my diary when I was a kid. Black Americans have a long history of creating and sustaining private and culturally specific languages and codes. For obvious political reasons, it has been necessary from slavery to the present day to communicate secretly. In literature, black Americans often allude to esoteric codes of writing that transcribe messages directly from God. There’s also the religious phenomenon of spirit writing and speaking in tongues that exists across many cultures. I’m interested in all of these.
BL There’s something you’re honoring in the utopian fantasy artificial languages represent, but you’re also putting them back in contact with a racial history that troubles their pretense to universality. For instance, in Mikrokosmos, you set passages from Nat Turner’s journal along the abstract musical scale.
SJ What you heard filters the Nat Turner text, but it is actually a different, yet related investigation. The umbrella for that work is called Mikrokosmos, a collaboration with musician and artist Justin Hicks in which we propose a set of revisions to solfège that use contemporary pop songs as texts from which the syllables can be derived. In the eleventh century, solfège syllables were matched to pitches on the basis of a Latin hymn dating to the eighth century. We are proposing a set of music pedagogy tools that can open up new ways of thinking about what can be uttered, learned, and taught. So Mikrokosmos is a kind of collection of self-contained musical vocabularies. The first performance in the project derived its musical vocabulary from Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and it was commissioned by the Neue Galerie in Graz, Austria last September. Each of the seven pitches of the diatonic scale appears in “What a Wonderful World” and is assigned a syllable. Armstrong also sings a flatted third—a “blue note”—which is also assigned a syllable. There are many moments of melisma, every time he slides from one note to another, and each melismatic gesture is also assigned a syllable.
BL Why did you choose a Louis Armstrong song?
SJ That song is such a complicated, ambivalent cultural object. Armstrong himself is an incredibly specific racial figure who is also seen as a postracial symbol. I once read that when asked if he was literate in traditional Western musical notation, he replied that he wasn’t literate enough to interfere with it. It seemed fun to create a new system of teaching and learning music that started with a song of his and worked backward, and that experimented with what kinds of sound combination this musical universe makes possible. We were also interested in the weird and complicated lyrics of the song.
BL It’s funny how many songs that are fixtures of the popular imagination are truly odd or reveal a deep nihilism when you look at their lyrics. But it’s almost as if that were—
SJ —a secret. Totally. It was fun, too, because the song is so well-known. We have a bank of dozens of songs from which we’re deriving distinct musical vocabularies. We chose the Armstrong song in part because the piece was presented in Graz, and the song is very well-known in Europe. We knew how much potential there could be to subvert it through the project.
BL Does it raise the question for you of being black artists performing for a white audience?
SJ Of course. Any black artist participating in the global art market and participating in the discourse of contemporary art is a black artist performing for a white audience, period. The art world is a white world. Contemporary art is a predicate of Western art history. It is, by definition, a conservative discourse. There are black participants, but no one’s fooling themselves that the art world models some kind of utopian, integrated democratic community.
BL Some white people might be fooling themselves.
SJ They might be. The art world—and when I say art world in the singular, I mean all of it, not only the market—is inextricably linked conceptually, economically, and politically to a compromised political system. Artists of color have always known this. The discourse of contemporary art relies upon the fantasy of a free and open exchange of ideas among equal, liberal subjects. Contemporary art connoisseurship is predicated upon the idea that spectators are neutral figures who have unmitigated access to the work, its ideas, and its economy. My work seeks to demonstrate in one among many ways that nonwhite artists are restricted from fully participating in this world. I would argue that the very existence of black artists challenges its fantasy of transparency, which is why the discourse is most comfortable with black artists who are oppressed and expressive.
BL Can you expand on that?
SJ Blackness is critically positioned in one of two ways: as excessive to “the work” or as a stain on it. Either can be profoundly destabilizing. Justin Hicks and I thought about this quite a bit as we developed the version of Mikrokosmos for the almost entirely white European audience in Graz. Ultimately, we decided to let the performance unfold through an electric connection between Justin, myself, and the vocalists Starr Busby and Jonathan Hoard. The audience in the room was allowed to listen in. But the thing itself—the work—happened between us, the performers. Maintaining that communication and that heightened attention during the space of the performance was really difficult and really rewarding.
BL Can you say a little about how that performance happens in an institutional space?
SJ Mikrokosmos presented four vocalists who moved from room to room in the Neue Galerie. The permanent collection of the Neue Galerie is organized chronologically. We allowed the architecture of the museum to lend structure to the performance itself. The performance in each room is divided into two parts. First, performers learned a new bit of Armstrong’s singing vocabulary from “What a Wonderful World.” Then they applied the vocabulary by using it to sing a libretto, which situated the paintings within broader historical themes, including colonialism and slavery.
BL Your work is narrative, but it doesn’t have a conventional approach to storytelling.
SJ I’m interested in the political potential of non-narrative, of antiheroic ways of thinking about history, and of approaches that reject the march of “progress” and development that has dominated modern storytelling. “Progress,” as a metaphor, is contaminated by the logic of colonialism, a logic according to which alterity is always understood as belated. It took a long time for me to find ways to test and explore my ideas. There’s a book by Catherine Russell called Experimental Ethnography about different approaches to documentary film that draw on conventions of both anthropological film and experimental cinema. When I applied to graduate school for film, I thought that’s what I was going to be doing. For a variety of reasons, it wasn’t satisfying. I once received a rejection by a faculty member, who basically said, “This work is identity politics, period. I know you’re smarter than that.” At the time, he represented to me the values of the experimental film community I thought I wanted to enter, so I kind of turned away from it.
BL That’s a fucked up thing to say in a million different ways. But it makes me think that one of the really interesting things about your work is that it—and I thought about this in relation to the title of your video Personal—has a kind of impersonality. It’s interested in identity and in politics, but it’s not reducible to identity politics. What else is there going to be in the MASS MoCA show? Will drawing be the main object form?
SJ Yes, I’ve been making these drawings. They’re acrylic on clear film. I’ve been working with clear film as a support for a while, but the drawings are relatively new. I’ve been doing them for a couple of years.
BL What are you drawing with?
SJ I’m drawing with paint. I call them drawings because they’re not really paintings.
BL Why not?
SJ They don’t engage with the discourses of painting. They don’t really participate in its stakes or genealogies, even though I apply paint to a support. There are aspects of them that resemble painting, but they’re more involved with drawing problems that have to do with the relationship between a mark and a glyph, or the ways that we make meaning out of individual marks or strokes.
BL What other media will the show include?
SJ The sound work is the core of the show. There are also some photographs and a new text work I’m still working on.
BL Something you’ve written or something that uses text?
SJ A selection of things I’ve written called Plant You Now, Dig You Later, which is the name of the show and of a longer text I’m writing. Do you know the phrase? It’s a slang term meaning “see you soon,” and I like it because it has a funny relationship to the archive, to what it means to return.
BL What is the text about?
SJ It refers to slave narratives that present really fascinating visual and performative accounts of what it means to move from illiteracy or partial literacy to literacy, and about literacy as a kind of enchantment. The work will be presented mostly as vinyl text on the wall and on a plinth. In the past, when I’ve worked with writing in the gallery, it has involved transcription. For example, I made a work called Truth and Greatness (2011) that I describe as a documentary novella, and for which I invited two slam poets to write around a set of subjects that I gave them.
BL You also have a collective, or a community of people, with whom you make books.
SJ I have a publishing project, called Future Plan and Program. I started it in Houston in 2010, when I was an artist-in-residence at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Project Row Houses. As part of the Project Row Houses residency, I was invited to develop a project that could connect with the residents of the community. Inspired by the 100th anniversary of the NAACP magazine The Crisis in 2010, the project centered on a reading group that met every other Sunday cofacilitated by Jamal Cyrus. We started after Jamal came across a copy of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than The Sun. We were thinking a lot about how hard it is for experimental texts by black writers to find their ideal audience, and committed to assembling a group that would read texts that searched for their readers. The group emphasized reading as an activity and as a way of being together. The amazing artists and writers who participated in that project included Egie Ighile, Regina Agu, Ayanna Jolivet McCloud, Robert Pruitt, and Autumn Knight. I also commissioned books by visual artists of color, including Martine Syms, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Harold Mendez, and Jina Valentine. I wrote one, too, in collaboration with the Truth and Greatness poets I was working with at the time. It turns out that it’s expensive and complicated to keep a press running. It’s still alive, and, actually the final element of my MoMA commission from 2015, Promise Machine, is a book that I’ve been working on for a while with Rizvana Bradley.
BL And what’s that?
SJ It’s called Imperium in Imperio (2016), and it uses an 1899 novel of the same name by Sutton Griggs as an intertext that describes two black men, one light-skinned and one dark-skinned, whose lives diverge.
BL I’ve only read passages of it; it seems fascinating and strange. It’s science fiction, right?
SJ It’s an alternate history. In the novel, experienced black politicians, frustrated with national party politics after the era of Reconstruction, are led by a charismatic autocratic leader resolved to overthrow the federal government. Dissent is illegal within their system. A speech—really, a nonfiction essay—within the novel diagnoses the state of black American culture and American culture in general and describes an alternative future.
BL More and more, it feels like alternative futures are the only future we have.
SJ The question is how do we get there? The black leaders in the Imperium debate the mechanics of revolution: some advocate war, as a kind of revolutionary suicide, and others focus on the ballot. The protagonist suggests a third path: the pen. The answer might be all three.
Ben Lerner’s most recent books are The Hatred of Poetry (FSG Originals, 2016) andBlossom (MACK, 2015), a collaboration with Thomas Demand.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.