Borrowing a line from the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant, Passages, Tajh Rust’s in-process installation made of glass panels, repeats the text “I made an attempt to communicate with this absence” on its mirrored surface. The sentence could easily be in conversation with a line from playwright and musician Nazareth Hassan’s script for the choral text performance Untitled (1 – 5): “[…] being invisible takes as much strength as being the center of attention.”
In early April, with two months left until their works would debut as part of Open Call, Rust and Hassan met virtually to talk about their new works. While Rust’s installation will be on view in The Shed’s galleries, Hassan’s performance will premiere on June 11 in the open-air McCourt. As the two shared updates on the progress they were making, they compared the ways they collaborate with others to complete their works, as well as their thoughts on the value of opacity as a condition for relating to Blackness and other forms of identity, other people, and their own selves.
I’m at the halfway mark of my project. I’ve been working with steel fabricators, which is a new experience for me. There are two glass panels, one with text and one with imagery, and they’ll be facing each other. I’m using a mirroring technique, so you’ll be able to simultaneously see through it and also be reflected in it as you walk around it.
The text and imagery comes from a section of Glissant’s Poetics of Relation called “The Black Beach.” Glissant tells a dream-like story in this section about a boy who doesn’t speak to anyone, just wanders around his town spending a lot of time at the beach, appearing and disappearing, like the ebbs and flow of the waves.
One of the panels will depict these repeated bodies emerging from water, and the text on the other panel will be: “I made an attempt to communicate with this absence.” You’ll be negotiating these elements that appear and disappear as you navigate the installation.
Do you often use text in your work?
Text is important for me, but it doesn’t always appear physically in the work. I think a lot about language. I play around with titles, or I appropriate text from song lyrics. I’ve been very influenced by Glenn Ligon, of course. And I was thinking about his early works, where he’s thinking about Zora Neale Hurston and using some of her texts in his paintings, or quoting Richard Pryor.
I’ve approached my work for Open Call from the angle of this influence, but expanding on it, exploring and playing with the glass and mirroring, reflection, opacity, and transparency. How is your piece going?
My original proposal for this piece, Untitled, which includes five choral text performances, was for a six-person cast. But we ran into a problem particular to this pandemic moment where we couldn’t figure out how to be in the space together. We’ve reduced the performance to two people and have reimagined it as something more like a sound installation. [Editor’s note: As Covid guidelines continued to shift, the performance was later returned to its original plan for a six-person cast.]
The impetus for the piece came out of a desire to document sounds, feelings, and thoughts that seemed definitive of my experience with Blackness. These are all immaterial things, and I don’t have proof of their meaning, so I wanted to turn them into language material that could be manipulated, giving an experience of rhythm or as a way to find the natural rhythm of our laughter.
I was excited to write down these Black proverbs and get them all out on the page. Phrases like, “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” Stuff that my grandma be saying to me. It’s nice to have this living text to be able to really listen and hear where those sayings are coming from, and to feel how the language of the people who originated these thoughts had to shift to communicate them in this idiom. This language has filtered through so many layers and is potent because of it.
I haven’t been in a rehearsal room in a year, and it’s crazy now to have the fellowship and movement and energy of the actors coming together to make this work. I’m in awe of that feeling. We’re reveling in the fact that we even have the chance to do this. It feels like springtime.
How does collaboration shape the ways you both work?
I’ve always had a broad understanding of the word collaboration and feel that a lot of what I do is collaborative, even if not in a literal sense, because I do try to cite sources or influences. I come from a background in painting and portraiture. I’ve always wanted to incorporate the subjectivity of each person in representing them. I always try to incorporate their input because I don’t think I can assume authorship over them. Much of my work stems from conversations, whether with a text or an actual person. This commission, though, is the first time I’m actually working with other people to make something. A lot of the conversation around this work has been around logistical or material questions.
I probably wouldn’t have the expertise to figure them out on my own, and the metal fabricators know these materials inside and out. So that’s been a new thing for me that I’m excited to continue doing that going forward as these ideas evolve.
When you’re painting portraits, how do your conversations usually begin?
They all take different forms. I had a series called “In and Of” that was about environmental portraiture. I asked people, usually friends, to identify a place that held personal significance for them. And then I painted them in that space, using that space as an extension of their identity. The process gave them agency, so that it was less about me putting them in my world and instead me entering theirs. In my piece for Open Call, I’m thinking about space, but in a physical rather than representational way. You might stand on one side of this piece and look through it and see someone else sharing this experience.
In my collaboration with the performers in my piece, because the text is so open and there aren’t really characters, the actors are having to discover where each of the moments in the text lives within them. How do you laugh for 10 minutes straight if that’s in the text? Where does that come from in the body? How do you get into that mind-space to be able to enter and exit it, and move on into the next section?
The work of trying to lead the actors through the text seems similar to what you describe in your portraiture practice. The actors also have to invest themselves and figure out how the text is shaping them and what part of themselves they’re going to present.
Do you have a group of actors that you collaborate with regularly?
Yeah, these are my girls. I stay working with them. A large part of it is trust. After being in quarantine for so long, I realized how this was my work, but it was also my life, my friends. Theater is very social. I realized how much of doing the work was in service to that friendship. So, a large part of who I work with is the ability to assemble this family together. To be able to see each other after this year and how we’ve changed and what our bodies are capable of at this moment, I really wanted to stick with them and see what they have to offer me.
A lot of my other choices have been determined by The Shed, for Covid protocols. We can’t seat people closer than six feet, so that’s like already shaping the way the performance will feel. We’re invested in creating an experience between collectivity and individuality in this piece.
We’re positioning the speakers around the audience to have directional moments of sound where voices hit certain parts of the audience. The effect is that there are these personal pieces of texts that only you really get to hear with clarity in a given section of the room. But there are also larger rhythmic sections that slam into those personal moments to rock you awake.
I guess performance is uniquely sensitive to space and these kinds of health restrictions. Creating that play of performer and audience sounds like an interesting set of problems to navigate.
It feels like a search for the ritual or the fellowship we can afford to have with each other at this moment.
It’s interesting. I talked a bit about how I expect people to interact with my piece in space, but I’ve never really actually made anything at this scale. At the moment, though, the most interesting quality or aspect of the glass for me isn’t the spatial relationship of its size but its clarity. These are big pieces of glass, but they also disappear in the space of the installation. I’m trying to think through the borders of this idea of visibility.
You both seem to be engaged with ideas of opacity, which is an important conceptual figure in Glissant’s writing. What does opacity mean for you and your work?
I was just rereading the Poetics of Relation. The most perplexing thing to me after I finished writing Untitled was how it just was what it was. It didn’t have any further meaning. That frustrated me for a long time. The text begins and ends completely as itself. But I think this notion is at the center of Glissant’s opacity. Language sits and takes up the space on the page and as an entity that affects the body. The sound of a word, the speed at which it’s spoken, its repetition, that all gives it a substance. I took from reading Glissant the idea that there are ways we communicate our identities that just are, that have no actual context, or that exist within multiple contexts at once.
Untitled takes a look at an opaque version of Blackness. I wanted to create a document of my definition of Blackness, outside of the context of violence or whiteness, or struggle, or pain, or trauma. That kind of definition will be inherently opaque.
I love that and think it sums up his idea of opacity as an acceptance of something for what it is rather than an attempt at relating to what it is. I’m drawn to the idea of the right to opacity, of not having to explain or define yourself in traditional terms. But what I’m trying to do in my work is imagine a different type of opacity, maybe a literal one, but my own idea of it. The mirror is opaque to me. I’m thinking about the reflection as opacity, which feeds into my ideas of representation, of blackness, and painting, with the figure in particular. There is a tendency for non-Black viewers to create an otherness and not truly relate to the subjects of paintings, but to see this Blackness first as a differentiator or a contrast. I’m trying to break that down with the use of the mirror. You really have to look at yourself, you have to see yourself in these bodies, in these silhouettes and in this space. I want to flip representation back on the viewer.
There’s a section of his book in which Glissant discusses how the self defines the other by its own composition. It sounds to me like you’re working along that same line. How violent it is that we can only define the other through our own understanding, but how inevitable it is.
I’m finding it harder and harder to really consider identity something that is writeable. As I make more work, I find I’m losing the thread of where I can find an identity that can be written, whether Blackness or queerness or bisexuality.
I can only really make a composite of little shapes or knickknacks, pieces of experience that record I was once ascribed a certain identity. It feels like a virtual vortex that I can pull little puzzle pieces out of, relics of this or that identity. But I do feel there’s an infinite space inside of Blackness, in particular, that I want to honor.
Nazareth, what you just said about this infinite space of Blackness… I’m also interested in this idea of the infinite. I began using the mirror as a medium with the hope—because I’m not sure it’s actually going to work—that these two panels, because they both have reflective surfaces and are in close proximity to one another, will multiply and create that kind of vortex you described.
The mirror images remind me of the echoes in my choral texts, echoes as infinite versions of a sound or word. I believe José Esteban Muñoz said that having your experience disregarded or othered is actually a freedom. Because you have all the options that are not the norm. All the versions of yourself are now welcome.