In the mildewed basement of the West Village artist housing complex Westbeth, Will Rawls ran the perimeter of the makeshift stage, mapping an open rectangular space amid paint-peeled columns and an industrial ladder. With each loop, his breath became audibly ragged, then slipped into wheeze-like grunting, somewhere between the mechanical and the monstrous.
So began Personal Effects, Rawls’s commissioned project for Performa 15 that captured the associative knowledge accompanying familiar movements made vague and permeable. A dancer, choreographer, writer and frequent downtown collaborator, Rawls was seen earlier this year in #loveyoumeanit at Danspace Project, and will be part of MoMA PS1’s Greater New York performance program in January. For most of Personal Effects, Rawls pulled the strings of a blue sweatshirt’s hood tight around his face so that only his lips remained visible. He frequently held the strings taut, causing his arms to jut outward. His body became the surface for a play of banal yet oblique motions, connoting references as disparate as gym class, voguing, breakdancing or Martha Graham’s lyricism.
Bending and stretching his lanky form at fluid angles, Rawls shuffled across the floor slowly and enacted quick turns and rotations, swiveled his hips, leaned backward and struck his curved wrists together in the air. Bolstering these shadowy motions were self-generated sounds: heavy breathing and panting that transitioned into light humming, and later an ecstatic, hysteric gibberish shouted to the sky. About halfway through the hour-long performance, the lights cut out and a spotlight revealed Rawls holding one sweatshirt string above him, his head bobbing downward, recalling a violent silhouette, one that recurs as though pre-determined in present institutional gestures toward vulnerable bodies. Towards the work’s end, Rawls emerged from a doorway in a threadbare T-shirt, head again almost entirely swathed in fabric. Squatting close to the ground, his motions were slower, redemptive; he scuffled his feet resolutely along the floor.
Rawls has often attempted to reconstruct how national histories might be embedded in everyday ways of moving through the world, archived in the body alongside familial inheritance and affiliation with architecture or physical terrain. “Personal effects” can allude to how we receive individual temperaments—a friend’s thickly laid-on charm, the stinging cold of an aloof colleague—or the mundane commodities that easily become extensions of our person. Rawls’s sparse vocabulary didn’t give us quite enough to work with, yet we already knew what he was trying to say.
If Rawls gingerly rehearsed preperceived actions, Los Angeles-based artist Edgar Arceneaux’s Until, Until, Until . . ., the Performa commission that won the biennial’s 2015 Malcolm McLaren Award, made the historical construction of blackness its explicit framework. During the piece, staged at 3LD Art & Technology Center in the Financial District, actor Frank Lawson fearlessly inhabited the persona of the performer Ben Vereen on a stage whose curtains doubled as transparent projection screens.
Vereen is an accomplished actor who won Tony awards for Pippin and Jesus Christ Superstar in the early 1970s and an Emmy nomination for his performance in Alex Haley’s 1977 miniseries Roots, but is perhaps best known for his blackface performance during the televised 1981 inaugural ball for President Ronald Reagan. Though intended to honor the great Bahamian-born, postbellum vaudeville performer Bert Williams, Vereen’s segment was cut short when the television cameras excluded the finale, in which the actor wiped off the charcoal or burnt cork in his dressing room to reveal his face. This edit altered the critical reception and erased Vereen’s critique of the American entertainment industry’s racist practices and labor conditions for black performers. Vereen was seen as reenacting blackface minstrelsy, and the network appeared to recast it as “authentic” black performance.
In Arceneaux’s first venture into live theater, Lawson recreated Vereen’s performance, his face in full make-up as TV footage of the Inaugural Ball was projected on the curtains and on a makeshift television behind him. Confronted with the swooping camerawork reserved for awards shows and events, the audience was forced to recognize itself implicated in the politely clapping onlookers. Concurrently, a kneeling cameraman filmed Lawson from the stage, layering close-ups on the scrim of the complex emotions playing across Lawson/Vereen’s face with a sensorium of pixelated, montaged images. The camera never stopped moving, overlapping images from the past and present. As in Arceneaux’s futurist-oriented cinematic and sculptural installations, evocative temporal constellations replaced linear models: here the multiculturalist discourses of the 1980s, best personified in a cabaret-kitsch duet between Lawson as a campy cowboy and Jes Dugger as a B-list Marie Osmond, doubled back into the early 20th century and the moment of viewing.
Occasionally the layers of artificiality and televisual mediation veered from productive tension to confusion: the audience was asked to move from the cabaret to seats on the other side of the stage. We saw our own images projected behind Lawson, reiterating the breakdown of the fourth wall most effectively inhabited by Arceneaux’s own presence in the work as the director of the TV special. Speculative and unfinished, the theatricality of Until, Until, Until . . . proved a valuable foil to the indeterminacy evoked by Rawls. In both works, lived and imposed gestures echo in a perpetual state of return, detecting the ways bodies slip in and out of their grasp.