On an unusually cold Spring evening in Detroit, I parked my car in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art. I walked into the warehouse-like space after greeting a few friends and I took a seat in one of the black chairs that were situated in the space. There were a series of two rows of black chairs that surround the impromptu stage on all sides of the multipurpose area of the museum. The square-shaped stage was viewable in the round. As I sat, I noticed that several large bottles of Hennessy, a notable French Cognac, were being passed around to audience members, along with a stack of plastic clear cups for us to pour the liquor into. As I looked up, I saw a gaze from a small balcony area, a person was looking down as people entered and settled into the space. The person did not announce her presence or the fact that she was indeed spectating. I then realized that the onlooker is the choreographer responsible for this event, Jennifer Harge.
While me and the rest of the audience members zealously partook in the complementary libations, four Black women in white colored leotards and sheer calf-length skirts created a barrier around the stage between the audience members (feet) and the presumed stage. They did this by placing empty cigarillo Swisher Sweets wrappers, empty bottles of Hennessy, tobacco, candles and white barrettes in a neat fashion around the stage’s perimeter. Shortly after the simulated alter had been set, the ritual commenced.
The performance, entitled FEDS WATCHING is a movement work by Harge Dance Stories, with choreography imagined by Detroit-based artist Jennifer Harge — founder of the dance company. The series of movements that followed were intended to subvert the surveillance of Blackness “by remapping and manipulating the somatic impulses learned as a result of surveilled Black embodiment.” The production was the first installment of a larger evening-length work, entitled Fly| Drown.
At a particular juncture in the performance, two of the four women included in the ritualistic dance displayed a pronounced tension between the desire to fly and the need to collapse. One dancer imitated an organism in flight; she danced around the stage gracefully in her liturgical dress, while another surveilled her movement, looking onward with a penetrating gaze. She directed to the dancer, who is strategically stumbling about; “DO NOT DROWN.” This mantra was repeated and emboldened for several minutes as the woman continued to dance, seemingly battling her own desire to collapse, but also want to sustain. “Do NOT drown!” the spectator continued as she circled the perimeter of the stage continuing to gaze at the dancer in the center.
This gesture in the performance takes up dancer and scholar Anna Martine Whitehead’s assertions on collapse and freedom. “Freedom,” Whitehead proclaims, “is the moment you might have fallen but have everyone convinced otherwise. We do not stop collapsing. Freedom is at once the fall, the performance of not falling and the awareness of all that comes after.” The ‘we’ in this case is a queer, Black femme performer. This sequence in FEDS WATCHING was a performance of accessing self-possession in a Black embodiment, as well as the finesse and trickery that emerges during this tension – even in light of collapse, loss, and strain.
Throughout her practice, the artist, Jennifer Harge has dedicated her work to defining and performing a “being real Black” choreography “A flying to keep from drowning” choreography. In a text that accompanied the show the artist wrote:
This choreography listens to the lessons learned from those who leapt into the Atlantic, who ran north (and mailed themselves north). It listens to those whose deaths we witnessed on our screens, and whose deaths we will experience in the future.
This choreography was created because we have grown up being watched, and as a result, have inherited a docile body. But this choreography is about re-negotiating those edges, renaming ourselves, and forging a black authority in a world shaped by them watching us. This choreography doesn’t give a fuck about being watched. And if you end up sitting next to them while you watch this, don’t worry about it. They not gone get the codes anyway. We made this choreography for you. A choreography to consider how we might move before or beyond slippery eyes.
We have gotten familiar with losing collapsing and dying. But begin to think about your freedom choreography. Your flying to keep from drowning choreography. Being real black choreography.
If we consider Richard Bauman’s definition of performance as a “mode of communicative behavior and a type of communicative event,” Jennifer Harge’s work does this and then some. Particularly targeting her communication to the group of Black folks who are a part of her mixed audiences. Her use of “codes” shows up in the performance through a range of tactics, vernacular movements, and uses of ephemera that are specific to Black ontological subjectivity. She works to make certain that specific commutative codes are legible for some and illegible for others. Harge specifically distinguishes these groups through her use of ‘we’ and ‘they,’ — intentionally refusing to define who the ‘they’ or ‘we’ are for the sake of this intersubjective communication. The lack of didactics suggests that if you know, you know, if you don’t, then you’re not supposed to. Harge does this in an effort to not only include or exclude but to make the work impossible to commodify by people who are not a part of the subjectivity the performance works to celebrate.
Through a series of code-switches of both text and body movement, Harge’s work takes up the form of the ‘Hidden Tradition,’ a term that poet Kevin Young presents in The Grey Album: The Blackness of Blackness. He reminds us that the secretive nature of Black performance, whether quotidian or in the arena of fine art, is a manner taken up not only for survival but also for perseverance and preservation.
“this notion of ‘hiding tradition’ in both senses – that in African American culture, there is a tradition of hiding one’s self, life, loves. And more, often in plain sight; and that there is also a sense of the Black imaginative tradition being overlooked. The two are related, if not in the way it may seem at first. The tradition of hiding (versus the hidden tradition) emerged as a defense long before it was lost: an underground railroad meaning to survive, a second sight to redress freedom in a culture designed to destroy any remnants of Africa or inherent humanity of an African being.”
In regard to Harge’s work, I am interested in Young’s statement of redressing “freedom in a culture designed to destroy.” In our present day, the dynamic between Blackness and efforts of White supremacy is not only that of the oppressed and oppressor, but that of culture creator and appropriator; the exploited and exploiter. Specifically, in the realm of the contemporary fine art industry — while there is an active widening of the canon to include more artists and discourses of color — spectators, patrons, collectors and bastions of this culture making (those with the most power) are still predominantly white.
Harge’s choreography anticipates and considers the fact that much of her audiences may not reflect the subjects she seeks to reference and honor in her work. And so, she moves to converse exclusively with an audience within an audience. In doing so she creates an intersubjective and interior dialogue within a public white space, and seeks to make it ‘real Black.’ The ‘real Blackness’ is only identifiable to those audience members who have had real Black experiences. The real blackness choreography can be performed through the sharing of a dark cognac, a collective or individual twerking session, or the employment of the white plastic barrette — commonly used to secure the loose ends of a Black girls’ hair. She asserts through this work, that aspects of a collective identity can be performed as a formal aesthetic quality. Harge’s intersubjective communication and refusal to explain the use or origins of such vernacular materials is rooted in a certain reclamation of power that Audre Lorde has termed, the erotic.
In Uses of the Erotic, Audre explains that “the erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.” Lorde’s manifesto on the erotic, her instructive account on how to locate it within ourselves, is a call to action for Black queer self-identified women who are assets in a system that is not reciprocal.
This system is defined by its prioritization of patriarchy, whiteness, capitalism, heteronormativity, and hegemony. In this system women, Black, and queer people have the least amount of power, and specifically, a person embodying all the aforementioned identities is arguably the most powerless and most injured within this framework. With this in mind, Harge subtly poses the questions; what if Black queer bodies were the default in a non-patriarchal, decentered whiteness narrative? What does the performance of this narrative look like? It begins with imagination – a deep rumination on overcoming grief, accessing freedom and experiencing pleasure.
Jennifer Harge’s practice is invested in the use of the erotic as power as a means of performing what feminist scholar Jennifer C. Nash has named interior pleasure. FEDS WATCHING and the rest of Harge’s work acknowledges the reality of corporal embodiment that is so inextricably wrapped up in the lineage of Black interior communication codes, and she charts new territories for her audiences, specifically those who are Black, to imagine what it would be like to commit to their own respective vitality and pleasure. This pleasure deeply depends on the ‘hiding tradition’ and the act of hiding in plain sight to subvert gazes and disjoint traditional manners of an audience looking during performance.
Harge’s path toward performing and embodying pleasure is an act of recovery work as well. Nash tells us that Black women’s bodies in visual culture are often “symbolically used as exposé’s that are deployed to reveal a certain kind of pain, injury, and unfreedom.” In her book, Black Bodies in Ecstasy: Reading Race and Pornography, Nash argues that in particular the black feminist theoretical archive is an archive of pain, that traces a set of harms and injuries, exposes a set of violences and champions strategies of redress.”
The performance work of Jennifer Harge, I argue, is a manner of redressing and recovering, but also a reimagining of the capability of Black female vitality – specifically focusing on those in a queer embodiment. Utilizing Lorde’s essay on the erotic as a guiding methodology, Harge personifies and makes space for the opacity of pleasure, while making visible how certain bodies may collapse in pain provided by collective and individual lived experiences in a Black embodiment.
This act is most present in her 2016 work entitled the (her)stor(ies) project, performed by Harge and several Black women dancers– the same women who were included in the FEDS WATCHING performance. The fragmented title gives way to the breadth of glitches that work encompasses. It is not at all linear, tracking the myriad of experiences a Black queer woman has encountered in both grief and resilience. It begins with Harge and the other performers running in place while reading names of hundreds of people who died unjustly by American police officers.
For almost twenty minutes the dancers ran in place. As time passed their breaths became shallow, perspiration on their respective lobes became more and more visible. Their fatigue was palpable. The title of this sequence, I learned later, is mourn never tire. What was made clear was the literal metaphor for the endurance that is required for loving and living in a Black body.
After mourn and never tire, and a liturgical, praise sweeping accompanied by Aretha Franklin’s Precious Lord, Harge commanded the entire stage on her own and carried out a series of movements over the song The Mobb by the rapper Lil Wayne. Her movement in this sequence became more improvisational and layered. She appeared to try on the persona of Lil Wayne, giving off the mystic of a drag king performance. Moving about the stage in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, her arms and hands mimicked the flow of Lil Wayne’s cadence. Her hand was sometimes formed in the shape of a gun that she projected and shot toward the audience. Then suddenly she adopted a more effeminate gesture and moved into a series of twerking sessions. Her back and buttocks faced the audience. As she turned her head around to place her wide-eyed gaze onto an audience member, she continued to twerk. The act became another effort of endurance and perhaps pleasure – I am not actually sure. However, I am most interested in this oscillation because of Jennifer’s seamless transition of adopting both masculine and feminine forms.
The lineage of Hip Hop performance is mostly involved with gestures of confidence and aggression to accompany the bravado of a rappers’ lyricism. This is often performed through a certain type of dominating movements; directive hands, stern gaze, and a reserved and protective demeanor. The machismo in Hip Hop though is more than just performative – it is a gesture that is wrapped up in a prosthetic memory and trauma tied to Black existence in America. In her book When the Chickenheads come home to roost: a hip-hop feminist breaks it down, Joan Morgan writes: “The seemingly impenetrable wall of sexism in rap music is really the complex mask of African Americans often wear both to hide and express pain. At the close of this millennium, hip-hop is still one of the few forums in which young black men, even surreptitiously, are allowed to express pain.” Harge‘s decision to perform this machismo after recalling the names of Black people who have been killed unjustly by the police becomes an embodiment of grief – a way of hiding or getting through pain, as Morgan has asserted.
As Jennifer Harge committed to the evocation of this masculinity in the (her)stor(ies) performance, she suddenly transitioned to twerking and gazing. In doing so she challenges hegemonic understandings that hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity cannot exist together. Through her performance, Harge asserts that a spectrum of both performative aspects can be carried out in one body. In this vastness of expression, of what is perceived to be Harge’s authentic inner self, it becomes a certain performance pleasure that is not bounded by the limitations of heteronormative expectation.
The performance continued on, oscillating between several distinct movements. From a body in distress — flailing about — to recovery; a rhythmic vernacular movement that invokes a visual language of improvisation and pure jouissance. Accompanying this movement is a set-list that is seemingly random but one that may be specific to a Black interior space. Including songs by Aretha Franklin, Rick Ross, and Lil Wayne that exhibit the breadth of all music contributions created by people of the Black diaspora.
This work ultimately pivots from endurance and recovery and nestles with pleasure. It did not seek to satisfy the expectations of the audience, as much as it did implicate and disrupt the dynamic between viewer and performer. Throughout her performances Harge may stare firmly into the eyes of an audience member while twerking robustly, back to the audience, face turned so that you may only see her side profile and her body in tandem with the rhythms provided. To which audiences who are familiar with this gesture, may engage and encourage in the vernacular celebratory movement of fellowship, whereas outsiders are often unsure of how to engage and sometimes made uncomfortable. To embolden the practice of this movement and its clandestine protocol (often executed in the mundane), Harge and the other dancers in the performance carried out scenes of joy. They prepared to go to the club; they drank libations, played music and twerked about as they got dressed and put on makeup.
Twerking, a Black vernacular movement that Harge utilizes often in her work is an act of bodily pleasure and a site of endurance. For Harge, twerking is a form that she interweaves with traditional postmodern dance and gestures of mundane acts. This movement form can be likened to what Anna Martine Whitehead terms the ‘freak technique.’ Whitehead reminds us that the word ‘freak’ was derived from white Europeans in the sixteenth century from the Old English meaning frican “to dance.” The term freak from the European perspective connotes ‘capricious notion,” “a sudden turn of mind” or “gluttonous disposition.” Whitehead reclaims the term and uses it to “suggest both a devastating lack of hegemonic protection and legacy of sensuous and spirited cultural attentiveness.”
The freak technique then at its purest form is a queer, glitching movement that takes up the divine nature of ancestral and prosthetic memory – or what Toni Morrison terms rememory – and an investment in the imagination of the future that Elizabeth Alexander has described as the Black interiority – the most intersubjective Blackness of Blackness. What this means for both Whitehead and Harge is that commitment to the freak technique or (queer movement) is “to exist outside the laws of capital – to be bold and creative and at-risk. This is an act that is “simultaneously life-affirming and indicative of potential social as well as corporal death.”1 This often looks like an improvisational glitching of the body, a self-possession, and somatic jerking and twerking in Jennifer’s work.
In the passage for FEDS WATCHING Harge acknowledges a history of the Black escapism throughout the Americas and the Black Atlantic. And through her evocation of this history, she encourages her Black audience members to employ the performance of escape, a sort of faking it til’ you make it, to achieve a certain transcendence from the fugitivity out of the familiarity of loss, collapse, and corporal mortality.
In Embodied Avatars, Uri McMillian reminds us that the lineage of escapism and resistance within Black American life has always been rooted in a gesture of performativity “the ‘embodied acts of resistance’ were not just dissident tactics – these furtive moves, I believe were a kind of performance,’” they write. McMillian specifically recalls the story of William and Ellen Craft, who literally performed roles of Slave Master (Ellen Craft) and his slave (William Craft) to travel North and escape slavery in the nineteenth century.
Similarly, in Harge’s performance, she invokes the history of Henry “Box” Brown in the line: “this choreography listens to the lessons learned from those who… mailed themselves to freedom.” Brown, who was born enslaved in Louisa County, Virginia in 1815, worked on a plantation in Richmond, Virginia work much of his early life. After watching his wife and three children get sold off to another plantation, he developed the courage to strategize his way out of slavery by asking a White abolitionist to mail himself to freedom. In 1849, this White abolitionist mailed Brown via Adams Express Company in a box that was three long, two feet, eight inches deep and two feet wide. Traveling for nearly twenty-seven hours, Box escaped fugitivity through an enduring performance. The “performance” although less cosmetic and theatrical than the Crafts, required endurance but also an investment in imaginations of a future freedom.
This endurance and imagination to transcend oppression is at the crux of what motivates Harge’s choreography. Yet, this escapist performativity is more so concerned with how Black queer women find escape through the quotidian. The mundane day-to-day less glamorous, sans black girl magic ideology. In this regard, Harge’s choreography is an essential embodiment of Lucille Clifton’s going on women who:
“got used to make it through murdered sons
who kept on pushing
who fried chicken
stepped off the back steps
who grief kept…”
Taylor Renee Aldridge is a Detroit based writer and curator. Taylor is the 2016 recipient of The Andy Warhol Foundation Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant for Short-Form Writing. She has written for Art21, ARTNews, ContemporaryAnd, Detroit MetroTimes, SFMoMA’s Open Space, and Hyperallergic.