Artist: Rashaad Newsome
The exhibition Shade Compositions shows film and video works by Rashaad Newsome in which the artist investigates the body as a bearer of socio-cultural meaning. Camera focus was the subject of media critical analysis in an earlier exhibition at the Galerie Stadtpark, denumerable infinite (2009). In Shade Compositions, the angle is widened to include the context of image, gaze and body. Within the field of tension between social class, ethnicity and gender, Rashaad Newsome addresses body language and its encoding in images. In the context of visual culture, this also automatically entails questioning the forms of visual consumerism. In this respect, the image has an ambivalent status in Newsome’s works. It is subject to critical investigation as it reproduces and confirms social codes, rendering them consumable, but at the same time, video images are the medium of negotiation in which Newsome pits performative and visual elements, body and image against each other, breaking open canonised forms of identity attribution and classification. Rashaad Newsome’s works effectively deal with image politics by reflecting on the construction of identity with and through images. Who generates and produces images of whom, whose interests are inherent in which image politics and finally, how do the (conscious and unconscious) forms of appropriation work that are implicit in the visual ‘consumption’ of images offering identity?
In Shade Compositions and Shade Compositions (screen tests), Newsome investigates the facial expressions, gestures and body language of African-American women, forms of articulation that are widely stigmatised as denoting adherence to a socially marginalised group. Newsome’s works do not just throw up questions of minority and otherness. His performances and films, which thematise the self-reproducing codes of social and ethnic groups, also prove to be complex explorations of social belonging and cultural diversity: where does this kind of body language come from, who does it ‘belong’ to, which social codes does it influence in its turn? In Shade Compositions (screen tests) the artist records the expressions of several individual women in an almost documentary manner, successively collecting a differentiated repertoire of spontaneous forms of articulation, making them observable and legible. By contrast, Shade Compositions is a combination of performance and video featuring twenty-one women who repetitively perform gestures and sounds that are deliberately decontextualised and condensed. This creates a real-time composition that is almost abstract in its effect.
The twenty-minute video Shade Compositions is introduced by a two-minute image sequence reminiscent of a music video. The viewer is presented with a well-known 1980s soul song, accompanied by perfectly stage-managed black and white images. A female singer flirts with the camera, which moves from a close-up of her face to a full shot. During the zoom out, however, the semantic harmony between the visual and audio elements becomes ever more incongruous and fragmentary. By the end of the sequence at the very latest the illusion breaks down: the supposedly female singer is revealed as a drag queen. In this deliberate staging of the indeterminacy of gender, Newsome scuppers the visual expectations of conventional sexual codes that are triggered by the music and that are in effect fed by the canonised visual rhetoric of the music industry.
Newsome‘s music video, inverted in the sense of gender role designations, initiates a multimedia performance featuring twenty-one African-American participants, with the artist at their head acting as a kind of conductor. A reprogrammed Nintendo game console serves on the one hand as a kind of conductor‘s baton, co-ordinating the entries of the diverse performing groups, on the other hand it directs the integration of pre-recorded video sequences as well as live, mixed and loop processed audio material into the performance. Over the space of twenty minutes, a performative, audio-visual composition unfurls in real time, based partly on pre-prepared material and partly on improvisation. The simultaneity and interaction of real and imagined events thereby mirrors a reality in which every perception is preceded by a multitude of medial images.
In Shade Compositions Newsome uses collage and repetition to divorce the signs and gestures of body language from their original context and conventional significance. Expressive modes and gestures, such as rolling the eyes or clicking with the tongue, observed as “typically female African-American” by the artist in various locations over a number of years and collected in Screen Tests, are revealed through deliberate decontextualisation to be both meta-lingual and supra-national modes of expression and communication.
By removing them from their original context, Newsome de-semanticises the codes of body language. He directs his performers to repeat them excessively, almost to the point of trance. In this way, the gestures are “emptied” of their communicative significance, while remaining decipherable due to their affective content. Newsome transforms them into aesthetic figures whose fragmentary nature means that they can function as universal codes. At the same time, they are transformed by the way he stages them. The result is a polyrhythmic, seemingly serial composition. The deciphering and clear designation of symbols is no longer the theme, but rather their non-verbal articulation, the polysemantic propositions they communicate and their associative contents. It is no coincidence that in many of his works Newsome repeatedly makes reference to the Baroque – he sketches the outline for a contemporary doctrine of affects, the rules of which accrue through aesthetic usage and are extrapolated as a formal language of the collective unconscious in the context of visual culture.
Newsome’s performative stagings do not enquire into the “authenticity” or “immediacy” of the forms in which cultural identity is expressed. Going beyond any idea of origin, he amalgamates varying forms of usage and appropriation of the modes of expression found in body language. Newsome’s works are directed against the unambiguous classification of cultural and sexual identity. In his videos and performances, identity is revealed to be a socio-cultural construction. Using the aesthetic strategy of collage, which he himself characterises as the “equalising force of sampling”, his performances and videos work to oppose cultural essentialisms. They lead us into a realm of uncertainty, in which the symbols presented lose significance, but are nonetheless made comprehensible by means of their affective and associative potential. Shade Compositions and Screen Tests draw attention to the poly-semate nature of cultural symbols, in order to counteract the reproduction and establishment of cultural hierarchies and essentialist notions of identity.
RASHAAD NEWSOME IN CONVERSATION WITH MARTHA KIRSZENBAUM
Martha Kirszenbaum: The piece in the show Shade Compositions is a video based on a performance that took place at The Kitchen in New York in 2009, but actually this work has existed since 2005. Could you tell us more about the context in which it came to life?
Rashaad Newsome: This piece came out of my interest in the notion of a cultural signifier. Culture is to me something that is constantly in flux, being re-appropriated and shaped by the people who come in contact with it. Culture being owned by a certain group is therefore a very complicated idea for me. Also, a constant theme in my work is dealing with so-called “high-culture” and “low-culture”, and creating a hybrid of the two. I wanted to work with a cultural signifier that was specific to my own personal history, so the first thing that came to my mind was the sassy gesticulation associated with African-American and Latino women. When I originally started, the piece consisted of one woman standing in a space and continuously repeating the gestures and, through repetition, the rhythm would happen. Shortly after that I went to Paris and decided to elaborate on the piece. I went to Barbès and found five women who were living in France but who came from Continental Africa. I found it interesting that this type of body language, that was supposed to be a cultural signifier of African-American or Latino women, was also familiar to Parisian women. This brought me back to the notion of whether or not culture is something that can be owned. Then I travelled around Europe a lot, and would set up satellite studios, where I would find women from wherever I was and put them in front of a white wall like in the Screen Test videos. I would ask the women to perform the gestures that I use in the performance and also gestures that they use in their personal lives. Over this time I created a library of gestures. At the end of my stay in Paris, I performed the piece with five women, and each woman would consequently repeat her separate gestures. When I got back to New York, I noticed in the rehearsal footage a rhythm surfacing, and I ended up editing the video to bring up the rhythm that was happening. But I wasn’t happy with the piece becoming a video quartet: I really wanted what I was doing to happen live. At this time, I was studying a programming language called Max/MSP, which is used by a lot of composers and DJs; at the same time the Nintendo Wii came out. I knew that these two devices were the tools that I needed to work post-live. Using a program, I hacked into the Nintendo Wii and made it function as a guitar effect pedal, which allowed me to choreograph a performance with the women: they would make the sounds, I would record a little, play it back, and they would go on to the next gesture. Through this series of recording, I could build up a musical composition.
MK: Here in the video, and therefore the performance, we see about fifteen young African-American and Latino women. Who are they and how did you find them?
RN: They came from various places — some from street casting, and some from friends of friends. I put out an ad in a talent magazine called Backstage in New York, which is a magazine for aspiring singers, models and actresses, also on the website Craigslist and through New York Model Management .
MK: They weren’t necessarily professional then?
RN: No, they all had very varied backgrounds. Most of them came from the street actually.
MK: How important is it for you that they are women? When we look at the opening scene of the video, we see what we think to be a woman, but ‘she’ turns out to be in drag. What is the role of this opening scene?
RN: When I was travelling abroad doing my ethnographic research on body language, I came to realise that what was considered the stereotypical body language of African-American and Latino women is also the stereotypical body language of gay males. Because this aspect came out in my research, I wanted to address this in the performance. I decided to use a friend who was the makeup artist for the piece. I wanted to film the body and play with the perception, which mirrors conceptually what I’m doing in the work. So what you think is a beautiful woman in the beginning, you see is actually a man once the camera closes up. It plays with the whole idea of perception surrounding this particular type of body language. What’s interesting to me is how it’s often viewed as something used by people from the lower class or the ghetto, but in my ethnographic research I found that many people around the world use this body language. What I’m trying to do is to separate it from the stigma that surrounds it, and to celebrate it as a form of communication. For instance, if you go to Italy or Brazil, people really use their hands and body to communicate, and I think this is very similar. I wanted to embody this in my practice, and because it’s stigmatized, to turn it into “high art”.
MK: And how does this aspect also relate to the title “Shade Compositions”?
RN: In the gay community, body language was given the name “shade”, which is a way to communicate physically without words in order to “dis” somebody, to show disdain, anger or frustration. I also wanted to play with the word “shade”: shades of colours, perceptions.
MK: So it’s a universal body language that transcends gender or race?
RN: Yes, exactly.
MK: And how about your role as conductor in this piece? We see you from the back, dressed in a black and white suit. It seems like a position of power…
RN: I definitely wanted to play with the power structures that exist within the frame of classical music. Again, a lot of my works play with the relation between high culture and low culture, to create a hybrid of the two. I thought it would be interesting to play the role of the conductor, a very white, masculine and dominating position, and to be conducting these women as instruments. But we’re both invested in the material and the work; the work becomes a performance because of the context not necessarily because of what we’re doing. So yes, playing with these roles of power is a consistent theme in my work. I worked as a DJ for a long time, and I worked with music a lot, so in many of my works I act as a composer, making collages of different visual components in order to achieve abstraction. I guess that the main aim of all my works is to use collages as a means to achieve abstraction.
MK: In the video “Shade Composition”, there seems to be a balance between conducting and improvising.
RN: Yes, it’s completely improvisational as the performing women are separated in instrumental sections, strings, percussions etc… but, in this case, each section has a choreographed piece that the women perform, creating a rhythm. As I make the recording, they move on to the next gesture, building up a sort of crescendo at the end. They know what they are going to perform, but they don’t know what I am going to do; I might record the back section first, or I might bring in the snappers or the puffing girls. Everything that I do happens on the spot. It is like I’m playing with programmes like Ableton or Logic all in real time. The girls know what they’re going to do, but they don’t know how it is going to happen. There is therefore a huge chance factor in the piece.
MK: As a conductor, your magical stick is a Wii. Could you explain us how it works technically?
RN: What is interesting to me about the Wii is that it functions visually as a conductor’s button, but it is also a Bluetooth device, which I can connect to the computer and use the programming language Right Code to re-programme it. In this way, I can make it do almost anything I want. I went through several phases of programming: the first one was simply recording and looping, the programme had a built-in metronome and the piece was choreographed based on a certain pace. The current and latest version of this programme allows me to get these recordings and bring them in, but also to bring pre-recorded audio and video to the piece using an accelerometer, which also allows me to move audio to different parts of the space or to make tracks go in reverse.
MK: Since you record and then replay, your practice can be associated to samples or collages. We can see this aspect in some other of your works, such as your big-scale collages influenced by eighteenth-century heraldry. Could you tell us more about this series?
RN: This particular work also deals with sampling and was born at the same time as Shade Compositions. I was in Paris at the time, working with the performance and the video, and really wanted to make traditional studio work. I was also very drawn to the heraldry achievements and the French ornaments that I was seeing throughout the city, and to the visual hierarchy that the material impresses on the viewer. After studying and researching heraldry, I realised it was essentially a collage of images representing social, economic and military status. So I started to make modern gay images out of that. Hip-hop culture has always had a great influence on my work, as a real touchstone, and I wanted to create modern images that function the same way but using the subsequent materials, so replacing lions and unicorns by chains, rings, video girls and cars. In the beginning, it was about recreating European heraldic images from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and extending them from the centre to the frame, to make them more elaborate portraits of desire.
MK: Beyond hip-hop culture, I have the feeling that there are numerous elements from popular culture in your work. This seems to be particularly the case in your video The Conductor, presented in last year’s Greater New York.
RN: This particular work was also developed at the same time, but somehow between composing imagery and playing with language. I’ve always been a big fan of Carl Orff’s amazing piece Carmina Burana, and I became very interested in its lyrics, which mirror those of popular hip-hop music. Carmina Burana’s lyrics are indeed based on medieval poems dealing with partying and drinking, and the piece itself is considered as one of the most epic tunes ever composed. I wanted to bring together classical arena music and hip-hop music, more connected to the street. I have this constant interest in communication, and MCing is very gestural, it has a lot to do with the hands and the body. I wanted to mix these two elements together while putting them on the same level. Because of Carmina Burana being such an epic piece, I contacted the local hip-hop radio stations in New York, Hot 97 and 105.1. Working with the DJs there and with public requests, I was able to conduct a survey that helped me understand what the public considers to be the most epic DJs and producers in hip-hop. From this material, I took artists’ videos and motion tracked the hand movements frame by frame. Using the library of gestures I had put together, I edited it to the original music. But I wanted to synthesize the hand movements and the classical art even more, so I remixed the original Carmina Burana with big machine sounds from the survey’s music. I currently have the two first movements remixed and I’m working on the last ones.
MK: The aesthetics of the video relates very much to that of music videos and TV culture from the 1990s. This is what you grew up with, right?
RN: Yes, I grew up in this era of music videos and I was very plugged into hip-hop culture, so the pacing of these videos very much influenced the pacing of The Conductor.
MK: Coming back to Shade Compositions, I would like you to tell us what the Screen Tests stand for.
RN: These are screen tests that I have filmed since 2005, where we see women from all different places, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Louisiana, Zurich, Paris etc… This is the library of gestures I’ve been putting together, and I use it to create the choreography that the women perform live. This is the research that inspires the final performance.
MK: Does this prove that it is actually a work in progress, and that we can see what’s behind the scenes?
RN: Yes, always. And it is constantly growing, because the way the performance happens is that I go to a place, I cast locally and mime the local gestures to incorporate into the performance not only gestures that are staples to it, but also gestures from where I am. I recently went to Moscow and the girls there had a specific gesture, an equivalent of “whatever” in Russian. That really changed the composition because it was a different sound and move. The piece is always unique in the sense that it reflects the place where it takes place.
MK: How was performing in Moscow?
RN: You know, I talked before about culture as a flux and not being owned, so the most interesting thing to me was that you would think there would be a huge cultural disconnection between the type of body language you see here, and that of the girls in Moscow. But when I asked them to perform the gestures without seeing the previous performances, they immediately performed them the way the girls in this video do. And to me it didn’t feel like a performance, but something they were really in tune with culturally. So it brought me back to the whole notion of cultural exchanges.
MK: And maybe even to the notion of generation: from New York to Paris through Moscow, these girls grew up with the same images.
RN: Yes, though TV, the Internet, movies and music videos that are broadcasted all over the world and are part of a contemporary popular culture in general. So it becomes more a question of authenticity.
David Komary: This video is done like a perfect music video with all these beautiful women, but you discover that one of them is a man in drag. And you mentioned that you integrated drag queens and that they even started a competition as to who was the strongest performer.
RN: In the beginning the performance starred only women but, as I said, there is a very strong connection between the stereotypical body language of African-American and Latino females and that of gay males. So I started to bring males into the piece, and I really wanted to play with the perception since sometimes you don’t know if it’s actually a male or a female. I recently performed the piece at PS1-MoMA and I realised that when the men come in, they change the dynamic: it becomes competitive within the group, which I found interesting. So the piece constantly develops and reveals aspects that I wasn’t expecting, which is exciting for me and for the viewer.
MK: Do you plan to create a new Shade Compositions sometimes soon?
RN: It’s soon going to be performed in China, London, San Francisco with only drag queens, Australia, South Africa.
MK: China will probably be very interesting because of the language barrier, and you will see again the strength of body language.
RN: The cultural body language will change the piece. I make a lot of assumptions because the body language might be different in China, so maybe the piece will be very minimal. The exciting thing is that you never know how the piece will develop based on the material that you have, its limitations, and pushing it beyond these limitations.