The program opens one month from today. What are you working on right now?
I’m working on the sculptures right now. They are repurposed wrestling/tackling bags. I took their original coverings and turned them into costumes that my performers wear in the video. After the video was shot, I took the costumes apart to repurpose them again in recreating the coverings for these tackling dummies. I’m in my studio figuring out how they should look.
The video shows two male performers doing Tai Chi–inspired movements, in this almost dreamlike space. And it’s also slowed down, so it has a sensuous vibe. It’s shot in a way that suggests a kind of intimacy between the performers, even though they never speak. The audio that you hear is of drums and cymbals appropriated from meditation soundtracks I found online.
Then, this meditative sound is punctuated by intermittent chants and yelling of young men in Asian American fraternities that suggest some kind of violent ritual. There are also two short animations of the performers on screens in the same space. They depict arrows that move around their faces, similar to diagrams one might see associated with Chinese medicine and acupuncture. They suggest the movement of energy across the faces, which are contorted either in agony or pleasure. It’s unclear which.
I want the sculptures to suggest the kinds of violence one might associate with a tackling dummy because a lot of this commission is based on the problematic occurrence of hazing within Asian American fraternities. There was one particular incident where a young man died after being tackled to death by his fraternity mates. I’m thinking about how violence seeps into these all-male spaces, where men are seeking to create intimacy and bonds with each other, but how affection for one another can never be straightforwardly expressed. My commission is trying to reimagine how those kinds of forces are acting upon these bodies as well as the potential for a different way these forces can come together.
Ana María Agüero Jahannes:
That’s amazing to hear about. My project is as much about the process of getting to the final performance as the finished product. I’m in the midst of building and strengthening my group of performers, who are also each other’s teammates. We’ve been having rehearsals, welcoming others to the team, getting to know each other. For many, it’s their first time in a long time on a team, moving their bodies, remembering what it was like to play sports or the dreams of playing sports that they still have or might have lost. There’s a lot of storytelling and community-building that’s happening.
I worked with a coach, Kingston Farady, who came in to lead the athletic training in the beginning. And then I have choreographers who are coming in for movement exploration, and eventually to choreograph for the team. I’m facilitating that space, but I get to participate in it, as well. Essentially, we’re playing together in Prospect Park.
I’m also working on a few public conversations on sports, sex and gender, and online fitness classes that I’m going to do with different people who are all Black, queer, and trans. I want to make sure they have a space to share their respective expertise and experience.
What have you newly encountered or learned through working on this commission?
This is the first piece I’m directing but not necessarily performing in, which means that I am interacting with everyone in a new way. It’s about having many conversations and building relationships. I’m doing the work of making sure that each person feels empowered and seen in what they’re doing. This project seems abstract in some ways, but it’s actually simple. It’s about sports, it’s about teams, it’s about empowerment. And it’s really nice the way that people are connecting with each other and supporting each other.
I’m finding the really simple things are the most exciting and what I want to hold on to. This weekend we did line dancing, with simple steps that you repeat. Kadie Henderson, who’s the choreographer, talks about how the dancing brings back memories of her mother who did these line dances and would come home and teach them to her. Now she’s teaching us, so we’re thinking about the lineages of these dances that are meant to be simple and accessible. The dance is set to popular R&B music that we’ve all heard. One of the songs, we realized, is really problematic, and we began to think about what to change or how to change it. I thought that I would have to facilitate a lot, and actually I’m just trying to make sure people feel good. And then when they feel good together, they’re able to make connections or try new things.
So it’s really interesting to hear that, Ana, because my process for this project is in some ways more straightforward than how I usually work. It’s much more similar to the process you just described for yourself. My participants typically have much more agency in deciding how they want to present themselves. I call them participants because they’re coming in as themselves, and it’s always understood that they’re not trying to be someone else. There’s no script or prescribed action. Those projects are open-ended and improvisatory.
But, in this case, I needed two people to do a very specific kind of movement in the video. I had a Tai Chi instructor come in to work with my performers, to do this two-person form of Tai Chi called Push Hands. When you think of Tai Chi, you usually imagine someone working by themselves, in a group but doing movements individually. But in Push Hands two people face off against each other and respond to each other’s movements, even though the movements are choreographed and you know what the other person is going to do. There is a literal push-pull that happens between these two individuals, responding to each other’s energy, receiving it, and deflecting it back. This is the first time I’ve had someone explicitly instruct my performers. In this instance, I really needed them to look like they knew what they were doing. Having someone with this expertise was crucial.
Kenneth, I’m interested in this question of expertise. I’ve asked that the people who are participating in my project identify as Black and/or trans. But I’m very clear that all levels are welcome, any kind of experience that they might have is welcomed, whether they are runners, or athletes, or dancers, or whether they don’t see themselves in any of these ways. Some people say they have two left feet but still like to dance. So, I’m like, great, let’s do it! Right now everyone is going through the same thing together, from dances to sprints to jumps, but eventually will move into their individual events where they can challenge or showcase what they want.
What’s been really lovely is the way the people who have come to coach and choreograph are able to hold space for all of these participants. It’s about being challenged, figuring out where your edges are, being pushed past them by someone who can see what’s beyond them for you. Kingston is holding it down. He has the ability to make all of it accessible to so many different kinds of people, and he’s so encouraging while pushing you at the same time.
I was an athlete and am very much used to being in environments that are physically and mentally challenging. As an adult, it’s hard to figure out if I’m allowed to be competitive anymore, or if I’m encouraged to go hard, especially in spaces that I’m a part of that are working on inclusivity to make sure everyone feels like they can participate. But what happens when what I need is this kind of challenge, how do I express myself? And how do I do that in community? How do we hold space for all these different kinds of people, while honoring where they are and the experiences they have, with the possibility to challenge and push people past their edges?
Competition seems to be a shared interest in your work. Kenneth, how do you see competition at work in the energies your piece explores?
My project has a slight anthropological component to it. I’m looking at these groups of individuals and their cultural practices, trying to break down and unpack their private rituals. This is subject matter I’ve been working on for a number of years now, and this is my third project that deals with these fraternities. I’ve immersed myself in quite a bit of this research. There have been a number of articles written about these hazing incidents, some quite academic, but much of what I consider primary research material are YouTube videos of different kinds of fraternities, not just Asian American ones, that show rituals they use to create identity for themselves.
In general, I think that competition does exist within fraternities, but perhaps even to a greater degree within Asian American fraternities. These organizations are founded in part as a way to construct identity, or to create new ones that are cobbled together from disparate sources. Competition is used to enforce hierarchies to help establish that identity.
In my research, I found that a lot of these fraternities in their various rituals, including but not limited to hazing, incorporate practices that are designed to limit individuality in order to create a group identity. They borrow from bootcamp and other military exercises where the aim is to diminish a sense of individuality, instead focusing on the group and creating those bonds. So competition through ritualized group activity is used as a way to indoctrinate these young men.
Part of the drive to create this identity is that these young men feel like they have no space for themselves on college campuses. There’s an irony in that in order to create these inclusive spaces for themselves these young men are required to expose each other to incredibly harsh judgments made about the individuals within that group. They all have to live up to a particular kind of expectation that hazing is used to enforce. Physical and psychological violence is used to create a sense of self-worth or value, and it’s up to these young men to prove to themselves and the larger group that they can join by eradicating any perceived weakness. Part of this project is trying to rechannel these competitive and violent energies that seem to go hand-in-hand with maintaining normative masculinity. Let’s talk about the bonds or intimacies that are at the heart of these groups—young men wanting the recognition and affection of other young men—and channel these violent impulses into something more productive.
I like what you’re saying about rechanneling energies. I’m trying to rework individual energies and team group dynamics but also the entire system of track and field and sports, taking account for competition as a whole. That’s why it’s been important to me to have a space where people can decide what the challenge is for them, what they’re competing against, or what they’re competing for. I’m not proposing a kind of unchecked competition, or just competition in the way we’ve known it.
And yes, you might say everyone is a winner in this context, but I want people to know exactly why they’re a winner. That’s why the storytelling is so important. We’re collecting that information from the start, so that even if one of the participants isn’t aware that we’re witnessing their journey, we are. And we understand exactly what they are trying to do. In a team dynamic like this, how can people rep their people and be with those who support them? One of the biggest ideas that I’m trying to challenge in this work is the gender binary. You have men’s teams and women’s teams, and that’s it. If you are a person who is non-binary or a person who’s trans, or a person who’s deeply affected by the people around you, you can see how problematic it is to just assume that separating people by gender is the only way to compete.
Caster Semenya’s case has been playing out in international court for years now. She’s an Olympic runner whose testosterone levels were deemed too high for her to compete with other women, and now she’s trying to figure out if she can participate in the Tokyo Olympics. She’s waiting to see if the court will overturn the ruling that says she has to suppress her hormones to compete. There’s such a level of scrutiny on bodies and what categories they should fit in. I’m trying to bring in trans people and ask, “Hey, what do you think is better? How do you want to be included?”
So, I’m asking, what are the parts of track and field and sports that we want to hold on to? What’s the thing that really gets us going, that gets us excited? And, then, what do we need to disrupt to make these institutions inclusive and better for everyone?