How MCA Chicago's ‘Frictions' Performance Series Challenges The Dynamic of Movement: Interview
Photos by Will Rawls. Files beginning DSC were taken at EMPAC
When you think of the word “friction”, what definition comes to mind? The word takes on various meanings but for artists Will Rawls, Shamel Pitts | TRIBE and Barak adé Soleil, it becomes a powerful phrase that captures their relationship between movement, dance, pacing and rhythm.
This self-expression is being brought to life at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago’s aptly titled FRICTIONS, a performance series that “points to the transformative potential of the frictions or tensions created by Black movement within a society that reinforces racial divisions.”
Organized by Tara Aisha Willis, Ph.D., Curator in Performance and Laura Paige Kyber, Curatorial Assistant in Performance, the series kicks off with Shamel Pitts, the founding artistic director of Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary arts collective TRIBE. From April 6-8, his Touch of RED performance showcases two men performing with intensity and vigor inside a voyeuristic boxing ring.
Following is Will Rawls’ [siccer]. The performance is curated by the Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist, whose practices include choreography, dance, video, sculpture, works on paper and installation. Running from April 27-30, it reflects a film shoot complete with stop-motion cameras that takes photographs of the performers every few seconds as they reenact iconic American films.
Wrapping up the series is Barak adé Soleil, whose SHIFT performance will actually take place inside MCA on May 6. The Chicago-born Soleil (now based in London) and their works stem from the perspective that Blackness, disability and neurodiversity, and queerness are “inextricable from and mutually constitutive of each other.” SHIFT will amplify the presence of disabled Black and Brown bodies with both a digital installation and a live event throughout the MCA’s promenade.
“SHIFT signifies liveness. It shifts the perception. It shifts the notion that only certain bodies can be in spaces. Perhaps shifts attitude, or at least my attitude, around who can be centered. Shifts who is centered,” Soleil explains. “I expect audiences, museum folk, to come in community and being in conversation with the work, to be as witnesses to the work, to be in solidarity with the community they may feel they have this connection to or difference from. To expect to be still when we are still, and to take that in as movement. And to move when we move. To continue and be with us as part of that journey.”
They continue: “I’m inviting and hopefully we’ll draw multiple Black and Brown and intersectionally-identified folks, disabled folks to promenade with me around the MCA. And we will ascend up, down and around that space, taking up space in ways that I believe, again, Black and Brown disabled bodies, disabled folks and communities have not.”
Image from presentation “a series of movements”: Claremont, California photographed by Marcus Polk. image description: brown-skinned large-bodied black person with shaved head & beard, wearing glasses, black shirt and grey jeans, with one hand on a rail and the other holding a wheelchair, seemingly floating above a set of stairs.
Like with the standard dictionary definition, the artists have varying and intriguing ways they interpret the word “friction.”
“What was interesting to me about the word friction is also that the action of friction creates heat. Part of what I was dealing with Touch of Red, was proximity of touch and what happens when two black bodies get into a ring of sorts with each other,” Pitts shares with EDITION. “There's a closeness and there's heat, and there's electricity and intensity. That creates a sort of friction, even without touch actually.”
He continues: “But what happens when those qualities are also met with tenderness? How can the combination of all of these textures lend itself towards a multiplicity of self? I'm really interested in the complexity of touch, which happens when two people are physically in contact with each other. How that match can be met, not out of aggression, but out of a sort of enhanced electrifying effeminacy, that actually creates a “letting go”. A smoothing out a warmth actually, and even when the two performers—who are myself and South African-born New York-based performer Tushrik Fredricks—are not touching, there's a sense of touch that creates sort of electricity and friction of negative space between our bodies, and the bodies of the audience who are seated on all four sides of the performance room, which is centered.
“When we think of friction, we’re also thinking of it as prickly and rough in a way sometimes. But it’s tender and subtle too. It’s a rub against something. But I would say that the friction could be considered a state by which Black and Brown disabled bodies are in,” Soleil explains. “Wherever they are, there’s some level of friction. And sometimes it’s actually to the bone. Being in a state of friction consistently will wear you out over time.”
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Rawls’ interpretation leans into the body as well, where he believes our bodies are constantly within a space of friction, especially as Black people. “I think in performance, that heightened sense of all these ways in which our bodies are navigating the five senses, objects, projections, histories, there's no neutrality. Those things feel really important for me to keep present in my process,” he explains. “So I literally experiment with bodies: working with objects, rubbing up against them, whacking them around, tumbling over things, stretching, fabric, moving things or hiding. In this particular project, I am thinking about the eye of the camera and how it touches Black performance and shifts and changes. How the Black performer—what they do, how they're seen and how the labor of becoming an image—is built into Black life in general. So I’m navigating and deconstructing that.”
So how did the idea for this series initially come about? Tara Aisha Willis, MCA’s curator of performance, began doing virtual research in 2021. She previously worked with Rawls and saw Pitts’ work through a documentary during his residency at Jacob's Pillow in Massachusetts.
“My lens is often thinking about race, and Blackness, and how artists grapple with what it means to be a body in front of an audience. Shamel’s work between the two dancers have also become a question for me about how does an audience encounter a performer? How does an audience see a Black body in the first place?” Willis shares.
She continues: “I think Shamel’s work is also asking that question in terms of how the set design frames the dancers. Will's work is asking that question conceptually in terms of both how the dancers are seen and not seen, blocked by objects on stage. Barak de Soleil, his work is really asking this question in relation to the building of a museum space as well as the theater. How are black disabled bodies seen or not seen by visitors? How can their presence be blown up and expanded literally. So these pieces are so different. But slowly, over time, it really came into focus. The word ‘frictions’ really felt like this texture almost, that was running through all three works in really different ways.”
Shamel Pitts and Tushrick Fredericks, Touch of RED. Performed at MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA. Oct. 22, 2022 Photos: The Adeboye Brothers
When asked about their interpretation of movement and dancing being a form of resistance, Pitts stated: “I love that its narrative to something that could potentially be not negative, but compelling and transformative and positive. I dance a lot at night, Tushrik as well. One of the things I love about dancing at night is being in proximity to other bodies, that you may not ever feel the sort of comfort or being outside of that arena environment. And there's this closeness: you get hit, you get knocked over, or someone's dancing up on you. There's a sense of agreeing to be amongst others. I think that resistance and that space, also allow for a newness of experience through movement where joy is present, where mourning is present. A lot of times I feel grief on the dance floor, which is beautiful. There's space for a huge array of human emotions that can be next to other people's bodies.”
Rawls also shares his thoughts: “I think you can't dance unless you have a mix of muscle tension and softness. So there's always softness built into even the hardest dancing. I think it’s what Shamel said about grief. You process grief through community and grief isn't only sadness—grief is compassion. It's love. It's surrender. [The reason] why I liked dance so much, is because it's an unresolvable form. It's constantly unfolding and falling apart and making a second guess of our first impression of what a dancer is saying with their body that happens in time. You have to become a witness in this way that requires a certain kind of generosity and suspension of disbelief, and, and then identification—or a lack of identification. All these really beautiful things, like portraits of a person. That's what I think about when I think about resistance and why I make dance: it’s to insist on complexity and not simplicity.