Attending a few of the previous talks from the “What Is Contemporary?” series at MOCA Los Angeles, I was particularly interested in the last iteration: What is Contemporary? Black Lives Matter: Patrisse Cullors and Tanya Lucia Bernard in Conversation on Thursday, July 7. Given the last week’s police shootings and killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I was not expecting the event to proceed according to its original description on MOCA’s website. The conversation was originally introduced as a discussion considering “the centrality of artists to the founding and growth of Black Lives Matter and the fecund, radical relationship between art and activism.” I was not sure, however what to expect until I entered MOCA on that evening.
Standing under Do-Ho Suh’s suspended, translucent canopy as part of the Don’t Look Back: The 1990’s exhibition, Patrisse Cullors and Tanya Lucia Bernard were standing in the middle of the main exhibition space, facing one another and surrounded by a large circle of audience that extended onto the second floor at MOCA (The Geffen Contemporary), a full house of familiar and unfamiliar faces to me.
To the voice of Tanya Lucia Bernard gracefully singing Ella’s Song, Patrisse Cullors conjured the names of black individuals recently killed by the state. She introduced each name with a hashtag, followed by age, place of killing and the names of the officers who killed them. The use of the word “hashtag” by Cullors introduced the contemporary historicization of the event of killing, loss and mourning. The victims are the recent past: Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and many more… Uttering the word hashtag sharpened the circulation methodology in which historical and present day police and state brutality against black people have been recorded: to pronounce each black life that has been taken.
After this first chapter, Bernard and Cullors asked the audience to name other black people who had been killed by police and state violence: Brother Africa, Eric Garner, Rodney King were among the many names pronounced by the audience. Next, the organizers instructed us to write a love letter to a person or those who have passed away. The letters were passed on to the left and collected by the organizers. Cullors and Bernard then took turns to ask one another what black felt/looked/smelled like. To the question of “What is black freedom?” I scribbled down Cullors’s response: “I think about every single incident I’ve seen since a child rewound a different way, whole new conversations being possible about black life, how much we lost our imagination to think about black death instead of black life… Us showing up as our true selves, unapologetically, without regret or fear, with generosity and love.” In the end, they referred the audience to the Black Lives Matter LA Facebook page for a list of upcoming events and meetings they could participate in.
While Bernard’s first word of the evening was “we”–who believe in freedom cannot rest–Cullors began her recalling of the names with the word “hashtag”. The echoing of these words, “we” and “hashtag” with centuries of difference between the first time each word was used, connected the collective, contemporary “we” that had come together at MOCA with other possible referents for us. Is we Tanya Lucia Bernard and Patrisse Cullors? Is it them and the rest of #BlackLivesMatter members? Is it them and the audience, all of us at MOCA? Is it the larger #BlackLivesMatter supporters and allies? Is it all the U.S. residents and citizens or the entirety of human beings? How do all or any of these “we”s relate to one another?
Thinking about the multiplicity of “we”s I recalled Katherine McKittrick’s words on Sylvia Wynter’s work as outlining “the potential retrieval of the human (us, all of us, the “human species”) from the bowels of the oversized figure of the human subject produced by modern philosophical and scientific projects, namely, Man.” To me, the conjunctions of art, activism, the experience of sitting in the middle of the exhibition at MOCA with the crowd during the hour and a half of the program was a short, collective experience to contemplate (with emotion: vulnerability, rage, grief and love) about “us” as contemporary beings; how we arrived at where we are as a species today where the most unbearable events of terror, killing and hatred are everyday occurrences historicized as hashtags; how our contemporary subjectivity is formed alongside and contributes to the conditions of our contemporaneity–in Cullors’s words, “a beautiful and tragic time to live”. And what does the human, situated in a euro-white understanding of the world have to do with our contemporary grief? Or as Eunsong Kim responds to my debriefing of the event “In this light, and Black Studies scholars have written on this, is the “human” that we have come to understand fundamentally rooted in anti-blackness? is that part of the grief here, that there are those who are murdered because they are not legible as human–and in this way, the category of the human is fraught because it does not consider Black Life to be LIFE? And if so, how to destroy and remake the human.”
In regards with the initial prompt of the event, instead of asking how art and activism can work together or how art can create change, I want to think (many have been thinking and have extensively written about this) about how we might revolutionize contemporary arts as a system of knowledge complicit in the production of western subjects’ formation, and therefore, active perpetrators of the current conditions of the world. This is particularly important of cultural practitioners specifically in the United States. What kinds of conversations have been missing for decades, if not centuries, whose voices have been marginalized and eliminated through the years that could have potentially contributed to a different arts landscape: contributing to a world unlike the one we currently occupy? What did we decide not to include in our exhibitions, art historical researches and papers? Which conversations not to have, which comments not to make, what kinds of art/artist not to include, and what can we, right now do differently? Fully confessing that contrary to desires, art has not prompted revolutions, is it possible to dream of a future for our field (of contemporary arts) as one that pushes against, instead of aligned with the neoliberal order of the world we live in?