The stage is dressed in green screen colored curtains hanging floor to lofted theater ceiling. In the shockingly green corner this creates, a group of rectangular panels, also green, are set around the stage, all with their flat surfaces facing the audience. They look like redacted trees in a minimalist color block forest. Looking at this color pop of a landscape brings to mind artist Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Painting 3 panels” 1951. When I first learned about this work, I was into the rebellion of it. It’s a subtle fuck you to the prevalence of portrait and landscape painting canonized throughout art history. He presented three white canvases as a triptych on a gallery wall, elevating the minimal beauty of the “blank” primed surfaces that paintings are often built upon. But these surfaces are not blank, they are full of the color white. This had me “reading” the minimalist triptych like a series of questions: What is this work’s relationship with race and representation? Why is the color white identified with ideas of purity and absence? Why am I interested in navigating the concepts of white cis-male artists like Rauschenberg that seem unaware or avoidant of the racial implications of the use of color in their art?
I meditate on the green screen-saturated installation in front of me. In my mind it is a nod to Rauschenberg’s white triptych but multiplied and of course GREEN. Each panel is a different size. Some are set on their sides, one is taller than me, another one is suspiciously transparent. Rawls tells us during an introductory speech onstage that this IS in fact a working film set and a stop motion animation is being produced during this performance. He does not speak about the way the green screens behind him will be used. I imagine the possible edits and alterations that could happen to the footage involving these “blank green fields.” During this live performance I will not see the resulting animation but my mind is full of the possibilities. Tonight I feel the tension of the vast array of mental projections around race, gender and sexuality each audience member will play across this color saturated landscape in their imaginations.
From the printed program:
“Will Rawls invites us to consider the ways in which Black bodies are relentlessly documented, distorted and circulated in the media…The project’s title is driven by the use of “[sic]” a latin adverb which indicates correct spelling within a quotation. [sic] is often employed to contrast Black vernacular with standard English.”
Ah yes, we will be meditating on language (physical and sonic); we will be confronted with the expansion of the grammatical idea [sic] to the cool arty term [siccer], drawing connection to colonialist ideas of semantics as well as a much appreciated poetic allusion to the N-word (I appreciate this analysis of the word as well). Other racial and sexual slurs come to mind because of this update of the term [sic]. It is exciting to see the act of textual rebellion make its way into a highly conceptual performance. Like the word nigger, the words queer and tranny are originally slurs. Queer has become a fully embraced identity removed from slur status by those that have worked to reclaim the word. The slur tranny, like nigger, may be used by those of us it attempts to insult. Obviously it is completely inappropriate for non-Black or non-transgender people to use these words. These terms are a part of the hate and love I experience due to my own race, gender, and sexuality. This show had me thinking deeply about words created to do harm. Like the brackets that surround the term [sic], [siccer] creates a held space for me to consider the way words fail and succeed at capturing the complexities of identity.
Another way [siccer] holds these complexities is through cultural references. We come to understand that the world of [siccer] is referencing the somewhere-over-the-gay-rainbow movie classic, The Wizard of Oz, and its beloved Black reinterpretation The Wiz. The queer histories of both of these films create the cultural context in which this piece exists. But [siccer] doesn’t stop there. The Muppets Take Manhattan (Kermit is referenced more than once and frogs make appearances as props throughout), Friday, and The Color Purple are also movies referenced during this fever dream of performance. The atmosphere of queer gathering spaces is also at play. I notice a disco ball and a chandelier hovering above the set. At times I have the feeling I’m not just watching a conceptual dance piece, I’m also at a queer nightclub filming an episode of Pose. This feeling intensifies when dancer keyon gaskin enters the dance floor in a full split then serves a rapid fire series of sex siren like poses to the stop motion camera, a moment of QT fierceness that feels like a breath of fresh air and has the audience responding with queer claps, clicks, and snaps. In the universe of [siccer], the artists are very much aware of the rebellion they are causing for the camera and the audience that is consuming their every move.
The spectacular green screen-inspired design is in service to the eye of a sinister looking stop-motion camera standing on a tripod downstage. It’s lit so dramatically for a moment I wondered if the camera was about to dance for us as well. The camera is as much a star as the gregarious and witty Will Rawls welcoming us during the opening of the piece from a spotlit perch. He reads to us from a script in hand. This monologue includes the scene descriptions and stage direction normally not shared during a performance as well as asides about the development of the piece and the influence of the pandemic on his creative process. Like “White Painting 3 panels” 1951, Rawls doesn’t hesitate to describe the processes and materials that make [siccer]. He reveals himself as the wizard of this Oz. Before the dancers enter the space, he introduces us to the role of the camera, describing its technical dance: “When the camera’s shutter closes momentarily between photographs, a gap in surveillance occurs.”
The stop motion camera stays relentlessly focused down the diagonal into the heart of the green screen forest. Its eye targets the space the dancers are about to activate like a predatory animal in a BBC documentary unaware it is being filmed. It waits for its prey to emerge in absolute stillness. Will Rawls exits and goes behind the green curtain…the CLICK of the camera begins. It brings to mind the cocking of a gun, the locking of a cell door, the ticking of a bomb.
The camera is a relentless consuming animal, staring at the performers as they begin to enter the green space and dance with the forest of portrait-sized panels. They use them to block the camera’s eye and avoid the moments of capture announced by the camera’s CLICK. A slow and shuffling cannon of “seen” and “unseen” begins. Driven by the five performers like minimalistic sci-fi box cars, these dancing canvases create an awkward predator/prey shuffle, a bizarre moving portrait gallery of bodies changing formation and orientation all focused on the camera’s eye. The dancers allow glimpses of limbs and faces in the silence between clicks.
Behind the camera is what looks like a typical behind-the-scenes area of a film set where the director and tech operators would be…there is music gear and other theater-like equipment at the ready. (We find out later that two of the dancers are also musicians and will activate this station, sampling their own voices and making other sound magic). There are no curtains here. The bare walls and support beams of the theater are exposed. Throughout the entire piece this area feels vulnerable. The artists retreat to this space to rest, grab props and speak amongst themselves. It feels like this is their backstage…but we in the audience are still watching. They are always exposed.
The dancers engage in an array of tactics as they dance through the space using the panels as shields. This dance is mostly small slides and shifts, jumps and hops. The timing restriction of a few seconds of release between each CLICK of the camera makes these attempts to elude capture funny and curious. That which is living, hiding from that which is not. The relationship with visual art and portraiture has me thinking they are resisting being titled and classified. These canvases in motion are evading being hung on gallery walls to sit and gather dust. The oppressive force of the camera appears exhausting. The monotonous click and long duration of this section brings to mind a clock ticking away the hours until someone pulls the fire alarm and we can leave. The lighting becomes a dancer itself, the once green space becomes surprisingly purple, then pink. This landscape is ever changing. Unlike Rauschenberg’s White Triptych I mentioned earlier, these artworks are NOT objects but very real people engaging with the objects of this highly designed material reality.
And as the dance continues, abstract characters begin to emerge but they can’t be named (Are you Dorothy? Or Judy Garland? Or Diana Ross? Is that Toto? Who’s the Tin Man?) Nothing in this landscape can be trusted. The playful nature of the dancers has me thinking they are having fun with melodrama, caricatures, stereotypes…because that’s all this world allows.The time they have in the space between clicks to edge past their frames …a smile, a screaming face, a quick swinging hand, a writhing foot…that is all we can see. Sometimes a body completely disappears behind a panel like a ghost. I hear laughing, crying, screaming sounds but I can’t tell where or who they’re coming from.
If the click sound of the camera implies capture, the laughs and screams of the dancers imply the search for release. There is freedom in the transitional moments between clicks but not enough to escape the containment of the theater and the definition of performance itself.
One of the panels stands out because this “canvas” aka “screen” is transparent and we get to witness the full figure of the dancer behind it. Their initial position inside of the frame has them laying on their side one knee bent resting on their forearm staring directly out towards the audience.They slowly shift from an initial lounging position reminiscent of a nude in classical oil painting but they are fully clothed. I thought of Olympia by Manet because that “masterpiece” of a painting features a nude white femme with a “confrontational gaze” being attended to by a Black servant…in the frame of [siccer] I see the echo of this painting but this time the main character is a living Black Olympia. No servant in sight, they will not be frozen in time, they will not be painted by anyone else. They shape-shift, subtly changing their facial expression, their head tilts. I see their mouth open slowly as if to scream. Their dance begins to bleed past the rectangles edge even though they appear to not have moved much at all. They are framed but also uncontained.
This dance of visibility and invisibility will result in an animation that contains magic tricks made possible by the weirdness of stop motion animation. Stop motion is not often used to animate things that are already ALIVE. Usually it is inanimate objects (claymation is a fave of mine, Wallace and Gromit anyone?) being made to look lifelike through joining together a sequence of still images that have been manipulated to create incremental change between each still image captured. A dancer gesticulates wildly between CLICKS, those moments are not captured. Another moves toward the downstage camera between clicks; I imagine this will look like a floating canvas teleporting with no human in sight. Characters develop, posturing, emotional faces, limbs appearing at strange angles. I question my complicitness as I stare at this dance of hunched backs, uncomfortable grasping of panel edges, the struggle to remain still when the camera bites. What will my mind remember? What am I trying to capture?
Like a sadistic game of freeze tag with multiple rebellions happening between each captured image, this dance eventually takes them all downstage on the diagonal until one of the dancers has completely blocked the camera’s gaze. And suddenly something like liberation happens. The group appears free to talk and move as they like, without scrutiny. But wait…the camera wasn’t the only beast in the room. I look at the very full theater seats around me and feel the multitude of eyes facing the stage.
Watching [siccer] led me to research the history of the green screen. I found out green screen is just another way to describe a chroma key screen.
“Chroma key screens –commonly called green screens— have been used in film since the 1930’s for compositing (layering) two (or more) images or videos”.
This is interesting to me because the definition of CHROMA is “purity or intensity of color”.
Just like the chroma screen can be any color (most commonly blue or green) in [siccer] Blackness becomes THE COLOR everything is about but it is never mentioned explicitly. The failure of history in general, art history included in regards to Blackness (and queerness and transgender-ness), is the hesitancy to understand that these identities are not a monolith. That part of power of the diversity of identity markers is the deep understanding that conformity is not the goal, that words attempt to describe unique embodiments and experiences, that there are multitudes of expressions and embodiments of Blackness happening at the intersections of gender, sexuality and other identity markers. In [siccer] the way that a simple shift of light changes a green world into a purple one is Blackness. How the costumes are abstractions of chroma screens and intentionally weirdly proportioned with strange openings and camouflaging elements is Blackness. How Will Rawls returns at the end and reveals himself as the man behind the curtain while handing scripts out to the dancers, performing as the belligerent “director” in a green suit that when he turns his back to us we see the coat tails look like cicada wings–is Blackness. The awareness that this is all a show, that you will not understand everything that is happening but you can still engage with the experience…that is Blackness. We understand that the intention of [siccer] is to make a stop motion film that we may never see in totality; that the images created will be manipulated, edited, out of context, and very different from the living, breathing human beings we are seeing in the real time dance of it…to understand the failure of representation and language…this is Blackness.
“For some people, when they say “Black art,” the art must be figurative, it must be angry. But for Black people, we know that being Black is not equal to having a limited understanding of the world. Blackness is everything. It is everywhere, right? We are the foundations of modernism. The world is organized around our labor and our natural resources—human resources included. So we see Blackness everywhere and the whole structure of the world is in negotiation with our existence.”
-Bridget Cooks, art historian