Multimedia artist Carrie Mae Weems will present a full-day gathering of artists, musicians, poets, activists, and intellectuals on Sunday, December 17, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, where she is currently an artist in residence. The project, called “The Shape of Things” and billed as a “convening of creative minds,” will look at different histories of violence, a recurrent theme in Weems’s work as of late, and how they have impacted contemporary American society.
The participants in “The Shape of Things,” who have worked at the intersection of art and social engagement for years, will offer presentations, talks, concerts, poetry readings, a sound room, art installations, and a screening room for videos and films around this central topic. They include artists Tania Bruguera, Arthur Jafa, Malik Gaines, Theaster Gates, and Hank Willis Thomas, playwright Lynn Nottage, poet Elizabeth Alexander, curator and writer Kimberly Drew, composer Marvin Sewell, actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, juvenile justice reformer Adam Foss, and urban revitalization strategist Majora Carter, among many others.
“The Shape of Things” is an outgrowth of Weems’s most recent multimedia performance, Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, which she staged at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last month, as well as her 2012 video installation Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me, which was most recently on view in New York at Jack Shainman Gallery in 2016.
“The work that I’ve been doing for a really long time in one way or another intersects with questions of power,” Weems told ARTnews. “I decided I wanted to explore that subject of the histories of violence more, and I really wanted to have a sense of what other artists, public thinkers, and other creative folk were thinking about as we negotiate this history, in general, and this present moment, in particular.”
Discussing impetuses for staging “The Shape of Things,” Weems cited the daily inundation with news of violence across the country and the globe, specifically, recent mass shootings in the United States, like the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the continuing violence against women and black bodies, as well as the moments of resistance, like the Women’s March last January.
“It can be overwhelming, and so you have to process this violence,” Weems said. “As artists, we process to figure out ways to alleviate it, to continue living in the face of the onslaught of violence. You can’t wallow in that, so how do you make your way though it: describe it, note it, mark it, but continue to live with some sense of dignity, grace, and your larger humanity.”
Through her own practice, Weems has used her work as a method to confront this violence, and with Grace Notes she looked to dissect the meaning of grace itself, which, she said, has to do with an everyday practice of holding onto the core of one’s own humanity in the face of hardship and not becoming bitter or broken during that experience, but offering it as a gift to others.
“It’s the practice of always understanding that there are real lives at stake here,” Weems said. “They’re not digital images, it’s not video footage, but it’s attached to real lives. How you respond to that, by never giving up on yourself, you don’t give up on the humanity of others.”
For “The Shape of Things” Weems has invited these participants so she can learn from them about how they themselves process the ongoing violence that has become seemingly normalized in contemporary society.
“I really wanted to use this a time for listening to what other artists are doing and making, and how they’re thinking about their process,” Weems said. “It’s allowing people to witness how artists negotiate and deal with these substantial questions in a way that allows us in.”
Weems said she hopes that after spending the day at the Armory, people “will walk out and say, ‘Wow, I learned something today,’ ‘I know something that I didn’t know yesterday,’ or ‘Something was confirmed for me that I needed to have confirmed.’ ”
“The most important thing is that we offer up the possibility of engagement, of asking complicated questions, and maybe not having them answered but having them posed,” she said. “How do we get close to the bone on this?”