Where did the inspiration for your Open Call projects come from? And where are you in the process right now?
Daddy Issues is my solo performance work that essentially takes on the AIDS crisis, beginning in the 1980s and ’90s, when my father was diagnosed with HIV. He passed away when I was six. He was from Brooklyn but was living in Maine at the time. So, the work looks at the AIDS crisis through the lens of my father’s experience and my family’s experience. My family is from Brooklyn and Albany, New York, but I was born in Maine. So, the performance also looks at my experience as a Black queer person and uses that as the lens to examine this larger issue around public health, poverty, class, race, and sexuality. It also examines our relationship with animals, the environment, and nature. That’s where some of the intersections come in.
I found a bunch of old family archives that I digitized, so I’ve been able to employ this video. I also pulled from media archives about public health and the body and relationships spanning about 100 years. So there’s a media studies layer in there, as well.
I’ve always wanted to write a piece about my love life and my sexuality, and my coming of age. I had always imagined that it would exist as a book. When I actually started to write it, it ended up taking the form of a monologue because that was a form I was exploring at the time.
I can definitely see where there’s some points of overlap in our work, Eleanor. For a long time I’ve been working with my family, in ways that have deepened my own personal interests as an artist and my pursuits. It all came about pretty naturally, so it was a while before I really recognized that approach as a tool outside of being something instinctual. Working with personal narrative, collaborating with family and friends, is something I’ve been doing for a while. With this project, instead of working with family, I’m working with the material of familiarity and friendship, both as a performance material and as a fun way to present some of the ideas I’m dealing with. Originally, I thought I wanted to deal with how Black people relate to nature. Black men especially.
My first attempt to do any sort of field research was in a residency in Tivoli where I did some hiking. I brought a writer friend who I thought might give me some pointers in terms of the writing because I really wanted to dig into the text. So we’d go do these hikes, a similar one every day. But after a while I wondered, what is the material I’m actually collecting? There were all these issues about being Black in the wilderness that came into play. How can you be reliable to someone, especially in a situation where both you don’t know where you are? How to heal in nature and how to check in with somebody. And what it means to be on a parallel path with somebody.
I’m holding these ideas in a collection of photographs, remnants, postcards, things I’ve picked up along the way on a hike with a friend. It’s actually pretty simple and I think there’s a sweetness to it, too.
Eleanor, there’s moments where you include your father’s voice, your mother’s voice, which connects to that familial relational material Justin just talked about, but would you tell us more about the animals that make an appearance in your work?
I grew up riding, owning, and showing horses in Maine. I think a lot about the similarities and differences between urban and rural environments. The more you spend time in either, the more you realize and recognize how similar their textures are. And a lot of that is at the intersection of really violent histories, of Colonialism with a capital C and the destruction of land, and that cycle continuing again and again—and then specifically thinking about the way the Black body survives in it and takes up space in it, in this really beautiful and kind of heartbreaking way. This yearning always for home.
I’ve always recognized my relationship to the environment and the dangers of the environment. I started learning how to ride when I was about three. Then when I was in high school, college, I got a show horse. Up until recently, owning horses was a huge part of my identity and financial life. Horses are so smart and emotionally intelligent. They taught me to be much kinder, and generous, and patient, and communicative, and helped me learn how my body communicates. When you’re riding you have a relationship with the horse. Your head is the heaviest part of your body, so small movements like turning your head become important. All those tiny, relational things you might not otherwise consider.
The work for Open Call takes this entry point into this conversation about viruses and diseases by examining the way that horses are used to make an antidote for scorpion bites and stings. I’m really examining our violent relationship with our own bodies and our understanding of disease through looking at our relationship to animals and the way that we use their bodies and their fluids to create things to our benefit. I also look at other studies about fly mating and genetic inheritance, which brings up conversations on trauma. So I approach animals as a way to think about intergenerational trauma and disease and inheritance. I started writing this before Covid happened but then it became suddenly relevant in a new way.
Eleanor, you mentioned Covid and it’s interesting how that became a turning point. A year into the pandemic was when I really felt like I needed to be outside. The deeper reason why I decided to bring a friend along was because I didn’t want to be alone. I knew I needed to go on these hikes and be outdoors but I thought I couldn’t do it alone, that it would be dangerous.
There’s a way to tap into nature, even just in a small way that is actually quite a gesture, if you make a little bit of effort or if you try to figure it out. Then actually returning from those trips, I could more deeply imagine that I do have access when I need it. A little bit of sky goes a long way, if you can get to that place.
And I love that you mentioned this colonial impulse to go into a territory or a space. I did a project with the HawtPlates, the musical group that includes my sister and my wife, about gentrification. I’ve been in this apartment for 15 years and the talk has only been, “Oh, this neighborhood’s going to change.” That was the mode New York was operating in as soon as I got here. I began to wonder how it sits in me to feel like, you know what, this is my land too.
In this project, I was very aware of feeling this sense of danger on the human level and being a Black dude in the wilderness. I thought there was a lot missing from accounts of Black men in nature. But I realized there’s a lot of beautiful work about the Black body and nature, from true nature poetry and nature writing, to scholarly writing. It exists. I was working with my friend Aisha on a project and we mentioned wilderness therapy and that became like a thread for me. When I started this project, I started therapy.
I needed a therapist for this work, too.
When your art is going to collide with your life for a moment on some level…
And when you do it with friends, it’s really interesting too. My friends are going to be in the performance and you have to figure out a way for that to remain a fun offering for them and not stressful.
It’s a lot of care, a lot of care. That’s what I’m thinking about with my project because I’m pulling from a well of violent, traumatic, painful history around death and trauma and neglect, as well.
How do you negotiate these relationships you have with the people who appear in your art?
I don’t think there’s one formula because everybody has a different set of needs and proximity to me and the work. I definitely approach it with no expectations, but also a lot of honesty and transparency about what will happen with the material. There’s sort of two camps: I promised all the people that I interviewed—my maternal grandmother, my mother, the closest people to him—that the primary materials wouldn’t end up in the work. And so if that changes, I need to negotiate that.
Then on the other end, the first 15 minutes of the show is me explicitly giving away all of my sexual and romantic encounters. I didn’t ask any of those people for permission, I just went for it. Names are changed and stories are hyperbolic so there’s certainly still techniques I’ve applied to give some distance.
I think in terms of how the work has worked for me, I learned more about my dad than I ever had. And it’s funny because when you have a narrative told to you as a child, you forget to ask certain questions. When you begin to unravel that, it’s exciting because you realize that you have your own perspective and you learn to find new vocabularies for it. And then of course, when I started interviewing more people, I learned things about my dad I had no idea about. In a cool way I’m preserving a portrait of him that would not have existed if I didn’t do this work. And then there’s the outer community—the wider HIV/AIDS community and the Black community. It’s like concentric circles.
There’s a lot missing in terms of records and documents and pictures from my family’s history. Specifically working with my sister and my wife, I was acting as a window onto their histories, giving their stories some eyes that wouldn’t otherwise be there. With a work I made for my mom, I was offering back to her some memories that were poetically packaged and in a color that she likes, so that she at least can hear them—and maybe they’re useful to her. I want the work to function in their lives in a way that creates pleasure and fond memories.
How do you think about the audience when the work is intensely personal and specific to your experience? How are you opening up to them or what kind of connection do you hope for?
This is the most explicitly personal work I’ve ever done, but that isn’t to say that my other performances or spoken word work aren’t. But the way this kind of work usually starts for me is by taking a really personal experience and then diving into a massive amount of research about the topic of that experience, for example a racialized experience, and removing myself from it and then examining it from a social, political, religious, mythological, spiritual, artistic, familial perspective. Pulling it apart and putting it back together again.
This work does that while also maintaining the explicitly personal. It does both at the same time, which is the first time I’ve ever done that. It’s the more objectified perspective that I think allows the entry point. A person can then think about what happened to me or my family while also thinking about what happened to them without having to identify in the same way as me. So whether there’s only one intersection or many, I try to offer those up.
This is a hard piece too because I didn’t design for an audience. As a mixed person and as a person who developed my practice in an all-white state while being the only Black person in my undergraduate and in my graduate programs, I’ve learned to create a lot in isolation. There was always this fine balance of understanding how the work would be perceived but not making it for that audience. Thinking a lot about code switching and really subtle word play and subjectivity, objectivity. And in this work, I also have to think a lot about care because I’m digging up a lot of old bones that are not old for everybody. People are still living in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis and in a new generation where we are moving forward with it. And so, I care about not causing harm.
I was always afraid that I didn’t have a right to take up space in this community because I was not physically living with HIV. Over time I’ve learned that I’m part of a generation that has survived this crisis and all of our stories are real and our lives have been directly impacted by the crisis.
I’ve learned that it’s okay for me to take up space and share that story because that perspective is important. How do we share with care? And how do we intersect with HIV and queer communities without causing harm? I’m learning and stepping into that.
Justin, how do you think about the audience?
There’s an invitation in just the notion or the offering of a song, I think. There’s something that already gets people there. My mom was always using songs to do something else, to make a political statement, using music to highlight and uplift political or humanitarian issues.
Once I get people into a space, I am in charge of managing the time and proposing that I know what to do. For me, right now especially, I think about how I am allowed to do what I need to do for myself, having a project that allows me to heal and that offers opportunities for me to do self work and self care. But then also offers, as its byproduct, something super simple and sweet like songs that also invite people to peek into their own kind of pursuit of self care.
I think I’ve taken a little bit of that pressure off of myself and now honor that I’m pursuing just being in these spaces. I’m going to keep making these things to do in rooms when people invite me to be there.
I love that.
I’m like the baker. That’s what I have to imagine. I’m the baker and I have some bread. I can sell it at the store or people can come to me for it. Some of the varieties they are going to really love and some they’re not. But I’ll always try to make a good loaf.
About the artists
Edited with an introduction by Elizabeth Lothian