On Observances of the Real

Deja Stowers, founder of the new dance company BLAQ, talks with Emily Gastineau about performance as "observance," and the quiet but revolutionary agency of bearing witness to unrehearsed experiences, for both the viewer and those who are on view

1Deja Stowers, founder of a new company, BLAQ, which makes its debut at Intermedia Arts in spring 2016

introductionAs part of my research into the attention economy and contemporary spectatorship, I am talking to artists who are reshaping the relationship between audience and viewer. I’ve been following the work of Deja Stowers, both her solo movement practice and her nascent company, BLAQ. In her work, I’ve observed some of the most radical departures in performance convention that I’ve seen lately—radical, not just in the addition of some unconventional elements, but in the sense that she is questioning how every element of convention serves or does not serve her vision for the work. Deja no longer calls her work “performances;” instead, she refers to the live works as “observances.” As I spoke to Deja, I caught myself in the habitual speech patterns of “performances” and “shows,” illustrating just how deeply such artistic conventions are rooted in language. Literally changing those fundamental terms, she signals to viewers that they must approach her work differently. Though some artists share a similar reluctance to determine what meaning the audience is supposed to glean from their work, Deja carries the proposal much further, letting it change her very techniques for choreography and staging. I find Deja’s methods instructive in how to integrate a theory of spectatorship thoroughly into one’s work, even though my own work with Fire Drill takes almost the opposite approach—where our collaboration gets hyper-specific about what effect we want to have on the audience, she aims to decentralize the viewing experience entirely. Deja’s work also makes me question my assumptions: where I, as a white viewer, thought she was obscuring aspects of the bodies onstage from the audience, she clarified that Black audience members actually felt more connection rather than sharing my sense of blocked access.

This brings up crucial questions for thinking about spectatorship and power: What do we feel we are owed in the act of viewing? What do we assume about who is in the audience, and whose experience is privileged? What’s the difference between “performing” and being “real”? How can we, as artists, turn convention against itself to serve a different organization of power? We spoke at the height of the #4thprecinctshutdown, and I am grateful that she took time to speak with me about her practice.

Emily GastineauI know that you are no longer calling your work performances; you’re calling them observances. Can you tell me how that came about, and what kind of change that entails for how you’re thinking about your work?

Deja StowersI’ve always thought of my work as really not caring whether somebody likes it or not, or whether they get it or not. I refuse to frame my work—to base it on the audience member. Really, it’s about me and how I feel, and what I’m trying to get. It’s not something that can be rehearsed and presented, but more of a rite of passage. I call it an observance, because it’s not framed for the audience. It’s not gifted for the audience. If you get something from that, and you feel like you received a gift, then great; if not, then you have observed me going through something. I don’t know exactly when I adopted that [language], but I’ve always had that mindset of, “Hey, this is what I’m doing. You’re just going to have to be here to see it.”

EGBut the word is really powerful, and it tells people that the rules of the game are going to be different. Given that, could you tell me a bit more about how that kind of framing changes the power dynamics between you and the audience? Are you casting the audience, in a way, as a particular force of its own in the work?

dsI think everybody holds power in the space, and they hold their own power however they want to hold it—negative, positive, whatever. I don’t want to say that we’re holding the power because we’re on the stage—as if to say, “we’re doing this, so that’s power.” No, everybody has to have the power to walk out. They have the power to bring their own chips and eat them. You have the power to do lots of stuff. I think it actually gives the artist a realization of their own power, that you can do what you want. This is for you [the artist]. Do exactly what you feel.

EGHow are you asking the audience to view you?

dsI’m not. I’m not asking them to view me. They choose, and that’s fine. I don’t know how sustainable that is, whether I really don’t care if people show or not. So for me, marketing is hard. You know, being like, “Come to this. It’s going to be great.” I don’t know if it’s going to be great for you. I have no idea. I see, when people describe works like, “That was so authentic,” I’m like, “Is it really?” You don’t want to view things that are actually authentic: they may not move you, or you may not understand, or it may not be for you. That’s authentic—where you’re like, “I don’t know what happened. I just know that that person was going through something, and I felt like I should have not been there. I felt like a fly on the wall, and this thing was happening, and this other stuff happens when I’m not in the room.” So, I’m still struggling with this: if it’s an observance, then why does it have to be on a stage? We could do this outside. I’m more like: it can it be on a stage, but we’re not calling in a stage; we’re calling it a space that we’re occupying.

I’m still trying to figure it out. We can face the back wall. You don’t have to be in windows. You don’t have to be presentational. In my last work with BLAQ, we had a piece that was all in silhouette. I’m like, “We have to be able to see your frame, right?” But then I’m like, “Do we have to be able to see your frame?” I don’t want [the performers] to be out of body. I just wanted them to be. Just be yourself as big as you can. And what happened was, we were being ourselves so much is that we really felt it. It was great. In the theater, it was great, but then you look at the video, and things just don’t transfer—which is exactly what it should be. You really do have to be there. [It’s a kind of work that] touches your skin. It’s not something that you watch, like, “That was good or bad.” It’s more than just a viewing. You have to use all your senses. You have to use your heart, most of all.

EGI did see the piece you did at Queertopia that had the silhouette. I wanted to ask you about it, because from my experience in the audience, it really changed the way I was looking. I couldn’t see any faces, and I couldn’t identify with what was going on in the artist’s body, or how they were relating to the material. Is there an element of obscuring, or telling the viewer what they are able to see or not able to see, what they can access or not access, what they should or shouldn’t be looking at?

dsWell, silhouette is also a safety thing. It’s very hard for Black people to be themselves in front of white audiences or in white spaces. So, to shine the light—we can see the audience in full view. We could see everything that you guys did [in the audience], but you couldn’t see us. That’s where BLAQ came about. Don’t make an exception like, “That’s my friend Kenna, or that’s my friend.” It depends. There were a lot of Black audience members who came up and were like, “My God, I felt that. I know.” Just to have hip hop be played at Intermedia, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, that’s me.” So, it’s interesting who identifies and who’s able to see.

EGTotally. If the silhouette is a technique, one other technique that I noticed at the piece you did at the Walker, in an event related to the Jack Whitten exhibition, was that you came in, and you were looking at the audience members like we were the art objects. I thought: “Okay, I see what’s going on.” You’re reframing that relationship in another way, about who’s to be observed. You know, as a viewer, you’re not invisible—especially in a gallery, because you’re literally there; you’re not in the dark. Could you talk about that technique a little bit, and how you were thinking about that?

dsPeople [who’ve watched us work] always seem think they [are entitled to] have access to us. [Based on the questions we get there’s this sense of]: “I deserve to know your personal life. I deserve to come see you after a show and be like, ‘Are you single?’” It’s something you don’t do. You know, just don’t. And we’re always up for review: “I’ve seen the show. It was so bad.” Or, “This person, her belly was hanging out.” But when you turn that around and then you’re looking at the audience member, it’s like: “How do you feel? I’m seeing you now.” There were so many people that were shifting their weight, clearly wanting to walk away, or who didn’t exactly know what to do. In that work, it was really just about flipping that [dynamic] around: How does it feel to be viewed? You’re left wondering what I’m thinking about what I’m looking at.

“I am a Black woman, and this is me. I can do a presentation. I can perform. But I don’t want to present anything. I want to be, and I want you to see me for who I am. And then you can say that that’s beautiful. That’s what the art is. You are the art.”

EGI see that you’re reframing the viewing relationship right off the bat, but then once that is set up, is that your personal exploration that they’re just allowed to see? Is that exploration the meat of the piece: i.e. just your personal practice? Or are you framing that for them, in a way, beyond that? Are there things that are your personal practice that you wouldn’t do for an audience?

DSMy personal practice is very intimate, and so for one: doing it in front of audience—in front of people, I want to say—doing it in front of people, that makes me who I am. It makes people see that I am a Black woman, and this is me. I can do a presentation. I can perform. But I don’t want to present anything. I want to be, and I want you to see me for who I am. And then you can say that that’s beautiful. You know, that’s what the art is. You are the art. You are that. My process is very intimate. It’s why we don’t really do dress rehearsals. I’m not going to exasperate myself to keep doing the same thing over and over. We don’t need to rehearse it like that, because once you rehearse emotion, it’s not real emotion anymore; it’s just something that you practice. You practice to raise your eyebrows. You practice to fake-cry. You practice to fall to your knees. It’s just dramatic. It’s sustainable that way, but it’s not real, and I’d rather do something that is real, or have someone view something or observe something that is real rather than just the theatrics.

EGIf that’s the case, then what do you actually get from doing it in front of people?

Deja Stowers. Photo courtesy of the artist

DSI get to be me, myself. It’s just taking back space; I’m taking back space where I feel like I don’t have space, or that we don’t have space. I also think, inside our own emotion, genuine emotion, there is a message. There’s always a message. But I’m not the holder of all messages. I’m not. I’m not the only one who deserves to feel that, but I do feel like there are people in my community, specifically Black people, who are struggling, who are going through some of the same stuff that I am, or that we are—and in BLAQ, we need to see that. Yes, this is your reflection. Yes, you are human. You are this. You are that. It’s an affirmation, and it gives us room to think. It gives us room to relax, to say, “This is that,” or “This is not that,” or, “This is what I thought about that.” It just gives us room for expressing those things. I feel like [that process] should be viewed in order to make change. However you take it [as someone observing], how it’s going to change the world or change you after viewing it, that’s up to you. I would like to plant a seed, and you can grow what you want, right? Whatever comes out of the dirt is what you want.

EGYou mentioned a little earlier that you wondered why you even need to do this in a theater. Do you think that pursuing this line of inquiry is going to lead you to doing your work in a different context? What else will need to change?

DSI’m still in transition, and still thinking about how far I want to go. What kind of performance environments do I want to keep and what pieces I want to drop? But the pieces I have dropped were pretty radical already, so I’m like: how far? I grew up performing, so I’m used to thinking of a stage as the place where people who are interested come to sit down and think. So, I’m not sure. I’m on the journey. I’m not calling it a stage; I’m calling it a space. In fact, you can sit on the stage if you want. Come sit on it, if that’s what you want to do. But then you also have to be aware of what that does to the space: so, when BLAQ is in the space, and a white man comes to sit in the middle, we have to be receptive to that, because if we don’t, we’re performing. You know, in that case, we might move off. The thing is you don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, we as a company, are continuously working on being ourselves at all times, whatever that means, in all cases.

EGThe place that my own artistic practice is connecting to this, or one of the ways that I’m thinking about spectatorship and viewing is in terms of attention—different qualities of attention and ways of paying attention while viewing. I’m just wanting to find more specific ways of describing attention beyond saying, “I was bored,” or, “I was really interested.” I know you’re working on a lot of stuff beyond those questions, but I’m curious: do you think about how the viewer pays attention to your work? Do you want it to wash over them? Do you want them to be watching really closely?

DSNo, that’s the thing. That’s the same way it is in school, where they want people to sit, feet on the ground, back straight. But not everybody learns like that. I don’t have control over the audience. If you want to sit with your back to us, fine, do that. If you just want to hear it, okay. That’s fine, but I can’t say I want you to look the whole time. If somebody opened a bag of chips, I wouldn’t mind. I’m like, hey, you need to nourish yourself and be engaged. I just don’t need that kind of control, and I just don’t care enough, because however you observe, you observe.

EGI’m curious to hear more about what you’re working on with your company. What can you tell me about your process?

DSWe are starting to talk about the viewers, the people who are coming to events. My company, BLAQ, they are required to learn sign language. There’s one Deaf member of BLAQ, so we all have to adjust. Now that’s a part of the company. Every other Sunday, we have ASL brunches that are all in sign language. We sign as much as we can in sessions. (We don’t call them rehearsals; “sessions,” because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the session.) We’re all required to sign, because we feel like what we do is revolutionary, and revolution should be accessible. And why not be bilingual? Why not? So, when we talk about power and accessibility, I don’t think we hearing people think about, physically or mentally, how accessible our work is. We have writing, discussion sessions, movement sessions. It’s very Afrocentric. Time is not rigid. It’s living space. It’s not a competition. It’s not like somebody’s the lead dancer, or that somebody gets it, somebody does it. Most of the group is composed of people who would claim to be non-dancers. But how I describe it, we come to prepare our bodies, to align our bodies to receive and to give messages. We practice to be a holder and keeper of messages or secrets. We’re not just dancers—we’re working vessels. We’re vital organs. That’s BLAQ. And so right now, we’re in a trial period. January 1 is when BLAQ becomes an official company. We’re nine Black women: nine beautiful Black women who are along for this trial period. BLAQ becomes a real thing in 2016, and our debut will be at Underbelly at Intermedia May 6 and 7.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Emily Gastineau

Emily Gastineau is a choreographer, writer, performer, and editor based in Minneapolis. Her recent research focuses on the generic: the objects and ideas that are so pervasive we become unable to see their specificity. Recurring themes in her body of work include neoliberalism and endurance, spectatorship and revulsion, desire and language, and how to wade through the mess of existing culture. She is committed to collaboration, collective structures, and reorganizing the structures of making …   read more