Last Friday, at There Are Certain Facts That Cannot Be Disputed, Juliana Huxtable’s performance at the Museum of Modern Art commissioned for the Performa 15 biennial, the pre-show soundtrack included an ominous minor-key southern rap instrumental by Three 6 Mafia member DJ Paul. It sounded like a John Carpenter score with a lot of bass, and was spliced with bell drones and horror-movie-like screams. On the walls were oversize and backlit pages torn from anthropological history books, some passages highlighted to accentuate the text.
All of this set the stage for a performance from Huxtable that stylishly examined—among other concerns—the disconnect between the Euro or Anglocentric institutional narratives the artist was fed growing up and the alternate histories she found, often fleetingly, through Web 1.0 channels, many of which now only exist in the bowels of the Internet.
Using spoken word, music (both live and pre-recorded), video, projections, and costuming, the piece weaves together a string of reference paths as varied as historical cosplay, club aesthetics, and Internet archeology. The end result is a furiously intertextural performance interested in finding and creating new streams of representation within deeply subjective histories.
Frank Benson’s 3-D-printed sculpture of Huxtable’s body was included in the most recent New Museum triennial alongside Huxtable’s own work, which has included poetry, visual art, and dj-ing. There Are Certain Facts That Cannot Be Disputed comes out of a performance of the same name staged by Huxtable in 2014 at the Whitney, part of a program inspired by the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz. The performance Friday was structured as a trilogy of vignettes, each starting with a spoken word passage from Huxtable before moving into collaborative video and music.
Huxtable wore a costume that, according to an article in Vogue, she conceptualized with her designer Patric DiCaprio as “Etsy Goth” and “POC at The Ren Faire.” She spent a good amount of the performance standing in the center of the stage and speaking through a voice modulator, her body at times scrolled by a laser projection care of the artist Michael Potvin. “This year I’ve never been more aware of myself and how I’m presented and how I’m received and digested and processed by other people,” Huxtable told me in an interview after the performance, referring in part to the attention bestowed upon her in the wake of the triennial. At one point, she considered taking a break from performance and focusing on visual work.
“The triennial was a really important moment for me, but at the same time I think it gave people this desire to access my body,” Huxtable said. The vocal effect, she stated later, “was about being present but abstracting my presence. How can I give you my voice, but distort my voice?”
The first act, TRANSITION, is anchored around video (made with the artist and director Mitch Moore), spoken word, and pre-recorded music from collaborator Elysia Crampton, who in the past has made music as E+E and was also responsible for the pre-show soundtrack. Video of Huxtable’s own abstracted body shares space with clips from Marie Antoinette and Titanic. She paints a picture of a deeply skewed history, both in academic and pop-culture realms.
“It’s sort of just like finding the signifiers,” Huxtable told me. “In the film 10,000 B.C., why are cavemen speaking in British accents?” she wondered. “It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s a manifestation of these weird, super-loaded ideas that we have of history that have been carefully—maybe not consciously—crafted, but have been crafted.”
The second act—titled MOURNING—introduces the musicians Sadaf H Nava and Joseph Heffernan into the mix. It is at once a celebration and lamentation of the alternative historical texts Huxtable found in early cyberspace, which she says served as a counter to the “monolithic, super-regulated ideas of history that were given to you through encyclopedias.” Websites like the now-defunct Geocities and the Internet hub of the influential Encyclopedia Africana (no longer updated) are name checked; Huxtable first became aware of their obsolescence while doing research for the first incarnation of There Are Certain Facts That Cannot Be Disputed a year and a half ago. She tried to go back to the websites that were so important to her as a kid, but they were all gone.
During the performance, Huxtable played the vocal modulation box like an instrument while Nava’s processed violin did battle with drummer Joseph Heffernan’s head-banging drumming. It felt sonically indebted to genres like No Wave and avant-metal, its dissonance extrapolating Huxtable’s feelings of loss and frustration. Later, Huxtable read aloud voice messages to a theoretical ex-lover named, aptly enough, Geo, drawing a direct connection between the inaccessibility of information and the termination of a relationship.
Out of the loss of that second section comes the final act, AVATARS, which focuses on the switch from text to visual culture on the Internet. In our interview, Huxtable referred not just the image-sharing website Tumblr, but also video gaming and cosplay culture as examples of a new visual economy that has, for many, replaced text as the primary way of transmitting information. “I think there’s a certain power in the playfulness and the freedom that comes in an image,” Huxtable said. “It’s shallow on the one hand but it’s more powerful because it’s more accessible, it’s more fun, but it also from the jump acknowledges history as something that should be played with, and it’s always a question of fantasy.”
On that note, AVATARS includes video of the artist and her collaborators inserting themselves into art-historical-like paintings, green-screen style, and climaxes with the entire cast engaging in some sword fighting. It reads like a real-life representation of a video game (Assassin’s Creed III) that is based on the American Revolution. These signifier trails show up everywhere in a performance so rich with information that I feel like I’m just skimming the surface. “Once I get going, it can get endless,” Huxtable said. “The references will just keep coming, and so I really like the idea of organizing acts because it’s sort of a way for me to thematize and create three separate ways of approaching these things.”