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Ahead of Whitney Biennial, Ligia Lewis Conjures a ‘With-ness’ for “study now steady”

Ahead of Whitney Biennial, Ligia Lewis Conjures a ‘With-ness’ for “study now steady”

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Ligia Lewis
Ligia Lewis
Performance view from Ligia Lewis, “study now steady” (2023) at the Center for Art, Research and Alliances. Photograph by Helena Goñi. All images courtesy of the artist. 

Before the anticipated opening of the Whitney Biennial 2024: Even Better Than the Real Thing (her work A Scandal, A Plot will be on view) and in the wake of her first solo exhibition study now steady at the Center for Arts, Research and Alliances, I spoke with the Berlin-based artist, dancer, and choreographer, Ligia Lewis about contemplating the perverse fantasies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; the enduring legacies of anti-blackness, and the insistence on avoiding authenticity, in favor of sitting with how the Western world has conditioned our desires.

Brittnay Proctor (BP): I find that the works presented in study now steady are interrogating the relationship between labor and study; your formulation of this relationship seems to be at odds with our society’s felt sense of time produced by racial capitalism. I am curious about your use of “steady” in this context.

Ligia Lewis (LL): With “steady” I was pointing to a kind of consistency: how do you continue to attend to questions that haunt you? How do we allow this haunting to permeate our creations so that we put into space what we materialize? It is a study process. I am also pointing to these long historical processes that have maybe temporary moments of rupture; those also seem to permeate the present still, even as they become amorphous, or are less legible to us, or potentially less explicit or transparent. Nevertheless, they are felt. This study is both the haunting that stays with us and the consistency in attending to it.

BP: I had the great fortune of sitting in for one of the performances of the live commissions, study now steady, after which your exhibition is named. Can you say more about how this durational performance is conjuring your ancestor’s relationship to Dominican Palo and might be working through the critique presented in A Plot A Scandal? (Here I think about your assertion: “ghosts don’t die so easily.”)

LL: It is an articulation of scores that are realized for 45 minutes that happened on loop. I do not use the term “durational performance” as it connotes something with exhaustion, which is not what I am working with, or towards as I do not come from a performance art trajectory. I come out of the tradition of dance and choreography predominantly within the theater context. Rather, I am playing with time through a choreographic loop that extends over three hours.

study now steady is the name of the entire exhibition because what I am trying to point to is a way in which I work critically from the body to develop expressive concepts. Those are what I call “choreographic studies.” They are my form of study. They are what I continue to interrogate and stay with to develop almost all of my work. This is present within deader than dead, a work that was realized in 2020. I am not explicitly talking about Pal. I am so glad you asked this question because that would potentially be a dangerous presumption.

What I am trying to suggest within the film, A Plot A Scandal is that the tradition of Palo, and Afro-Caribbean epistemologies, were cut off to me by way of violent, anti-black governance, particularly during the time of Trujillo. But even more than that it is about the long, enduring anti-black legacies that haunt that part of the island. That information was not shared with me for several reasons. The story of Lolón was ghosted, in part, because of the anti-blackness that exists within my family, which is a condition of that part of the island.

For me—very plainly—the Dominican Republic is a black island. We are black people.

Ligia Lewis
Still from Ligia Lewis, “A Plot A Scandal” (2023).

But there has not been a clear affirmation of this understanding yet across the island, though a number of scholars who are working through the archives to help share the historical legacies of black Dominican culture or society. Dr. Saudi Garcia, who is at The New School. Dr. Dixa Ramirez-D’Oleo is doing incredible work as well. What is fundamental to the work is this critique of that legacy being cut off to me. That is the revenge, the anger, the rage; how much is lost and melancholy in relationship to how much is destroyed.

Rather than trying to recuperate something that was not entirely made accessible to me, I tried to point to it in these different ways. I often work through critique, which is why John Locke is one of the figures that emerge…to describe how horrific this relationship to land, property, and flesh—black flesh specifically—is. These coordinates are mapped onto this region and to this island. We cannot necessarily recuperate these things.

I am very conscious of where I present my work and who is watching. The witnessing that is not guaranteed, that is to say, a with-ness. There’s this tension between who’s present in the room and the space. When I was working on the live work for study now steady, these are more based on hauntings; these macabre images that I am conjuring speak to the ghosts of history and the continued ghosting of history, as well. I never tried to authenticate Palo, instead, Palo sits as something to think with but not to re-present.

BP: Your point gets me to a question about your work deader than dead, which amalgamates sounds from vastly different contexts: 14th-century choral music; black music idioms like techno, breath work, and Hamlet soliloquies. How do you imagine this work uses embodied sound to contend with the pervasiveness of anti-black violence and terror in our world?

LL: For a long time, I tried to interrogate where these racist conceptions emerged. What weird fantasies are you creating ahead of the Transatlantic slave trade? What are the myths? What is the language?

I stumbled across a book that was interrogating medieval conceptions of race. The process of conceptualizing race in relationship to blackness was already present in medieval times. Then, I stumbled across this image of a seventh-century Black Madonna, who arrives on the shores of Italy. Italian historians are like there’s no way that she can be black. It is a black stone, but ethnically, she’s not black. This denial; this complete process of ghosting exists as early as the medieval period. At this point—in a very pessimistic manner—I pointed to the pervasiveness of this logic, and how absurd it is. There’s no way not to speak back to it. There is no way to see outside of it even.

I started with this idea of a long mourning, a long lament and I came across this musical piece by Guillaume de Machaut about unrequited love, which is not particularly interesting, but I repurposed it because when I discovered that it was described as a musical complaint, which is this long lament that goes on loop, I was like, okay. [laughs]

I understood through the musical form that that was something dramaturgic I would do within the piece. It started with trying to play with [the idea of] how you materialize this kind of rage. I started to work on the absurd and on nonsense. I have done this before with minor matter (2016), where I started with a Baroque piece of music, and then, you came across Carl Craig’s remix of [Maurice] Ravel’s “Bolero.” It is working these hybrid forms, but also pointing to a cyclical time; figuring out how to signify time through sound.

I wanted to make a medieval macabre. And this emerges, but of course, it is a hybrid work. This was a recommendation from one of my collaborators, Jasper Marsalis, who suggested the techno track, which is a hook, from one of the most iconic techno DJs, Robert Hood.

Then, because I wanted to work on this kind of ridiculous country line dance, but to techno. Sound has always been a way for me to signify time and give us this feeling of the long durée in which we struggle and resist domination. But critique is embedded in the forms I develop.

Installation view of Ligia Lewis, “deader than dead” (2020) at the Center for Art, Research and Alliances. Photograph by Liz Ligon.

BP: I find it interesting that you use the genre of the complaint because it is a form that became popularized as “crime and execution ballads” all across Europe [in the nineteenth century].

LL: Which ballad specifically? This, Guillaume de Machaut piece?

BP: The genre of the complainte or the genre of the lament. In 14th-century choral music, it emerges as this form, but then it evolves into the crime and execution ballad in 19th-century Europe. It’s sick.

LL: This is so dark. I must have felt this. There is something so constant. It is chilling.

BP: Your work has been staged in various settings/mediums: theaters, museums, for the screen, and in gallery spaces. I wanted to know how the concept of scale shapes your work, particularly your approaches to choreographing and staging your work.

LL: Obviously, so much work is also a product of circumstances and resources. Whatever is made possible. For deader than dead, I knew it was going to be within a gallery space. That work went through several iterations. It started in an exhibition format, then arrived at a live performance, which was turned into a video.

I usually develop work in relationship to a particular site or concept. I knew I wanted to make a larger stage work called Still Not Still (2021) that was based on deader than dead (2020). They’re dealing with similar themes. Still Not Still would be a dance theater work made for a proscenium stage with the big scenographic elements, versus deader than dead, which was set to happen within a gallery context. That just determines what is possible within these spaces, and the kinds of resources you have. Live performance within a museum or gallery is still very precarious, in the sense that there have not been the resources to fully support what a full creation would mean. Whereas the theater, obviously, historically, has been more dedicated to longer creations.

The economic conditions provide different models, such as state funding. But I love the possibility of jumping between contexts and formats. For me, that keeps me alive, at least keeps my creative process alive. What I love about study now steady (2023) is the intimacy and what that provides. At times, there are more performers than there are spectators, and that is very interesting, that relationship. I am no longer dealing with the limited perspective, which is the frontal perspective which is a harsher form of representation. The theater is so intense. What a body means in the theater versus how it means or creates meaning within a gallery is different. It is much softer in a gallery space which permits an in-between-ness, a softer relationship to signification, and an opportunity to work even more explicitly on relationality.

These are precious to me as studies. I take what I have learned from the experience and it helps me go further in terms of thinking about stage work, or, as of late, I got interested in making video and film because of the fiction of the genre. Already how much further one can go in terms of fiction making.

BP: I asked this question because when I went to the study, I was the only one there with the performers and I could see the ways that you are thinking about scale; how your work is shaping the kind of interactions “spectators” may be having. Or disrupting this notion of the spectator “sitting” and “watching.” What does it mean when a performance ends up behind you, or that your line of sight is not one-to-one, or that it’s not fixated on the “screen”? Especially considering the ways that our line of vision is vested in screens at this moment. I found that to be a very compelling node in the work.

BP: I have one last question. You have toyed with the ideas of the familiar and unfamiliar in your previous works, what ways do you see this new work building upon works like Water Will (in Melody), 2018 (which is part of the trilogy that included minor matter [red], 2016, and Sorrow Swag [blue], 2014)? Are there points of rupture between these works and your current work that you find helpful for how you are thinking through embodied memory?

LL: Absolutely. They are just points of departure. I have been working with the plasticity of the body since probably since Water Will (in Melody). There was a certain way in which … well, there’s always been this interrogation of who’s watching in every work, but it was made more explicit the effect of being seen within Water Will (in Melody) and the process of disfiguration that emerges through that piece as I interrogate the feminine, darkness, blackness in the 19th century Victorian Gothic. This process of disfiguration already emerges in Water Will (in Melody) and is further explored in deader than dead with these kinds of dance macabre later, and Still Not Still dance macabre meets a Western. I work a lot with slapstick, but also dark humor. I would say in Water Will (in Melody) I build affect through the use of facial expressions; I work a lot with the entire body as a space to develop expressive forms, and it is not as visible in deader than dead because we are wearing masks, but the entire surface of the body becomes a space to explore.

Particularly this horror or fear of being made two-dimensional, which is in part what the process of racialization does, it flattens us. It’s this this terror of that horrible moment of being seen; captured, and this thing of trying to evade that. This two-dimensionality is also present earlier, in Water Will (in Melody), but further explored, in different ways, in deader than dead.

BP: Do you think the works think about embodied memory differently?

LL: Maybe I do not explicitly talk about embodied memory, I guess that is not a term that I have used. I am definitely thinking very imagistically when I’m developing work. Without a doubt, there’s embodied memory, something that’s maybe I would say, made more explicit in a piece like A Plot A Scandal, which is, for me a point of departure from the other work because I was working more abstractly, in previous works. A Plot A Scandal was indirectly trying to make something challenging autobiography, but still more personal. To locate myself, to position myself, but more explicitly.

BP: I think that is helpful to hear as someone who gets to view and engage the work. I find that your work is trying to trouble this obsession with the representational especially as it relates to what black folk are making and creating. So, I find it helpful for you to say: “This work is not autobiographical, even though those points of my life are my anchors that are trying to map the long durée of these antagonisms of anti-blackness.”

LL: I am always questioning how much I can know. How much of my knowing was already determined by somebody else? That’s why I do not privilege authenticity anymore. I departed from a minor matter (red), where I suddenly felt how that was getting instrumentalized by a public that was engaged empathically with the work in ways that I found deeply troubling. I had not to be seduced entirely by authenticity but instead,d point to its dangers or trouble it slightly. Or, let’s say, unsettle it a bit more.

BP: I think our desires might be conditioned by this, because there are so many things that are tied to being able to represent a work as authentic, like funding and opportunities. I appreciate the work that you do because it’s contending with all of this. At least in my mind, very explicitly, no. Refusal. That shows up in the work and I appreciate that.

LL: I appreciate that, thank you. At a certain point, I had to contend with exactly what you said. All the structural things that permit me to create, not create, or abstain from sharing. I have very little control over who comes to see my work, who consumes it, and how they consume it. I am also creating predominantly in Europe, which is really… it is a mindfuck to be there. I do not know why I torture myself. [laughs] But I have learned a lot in the process of being there.

I have come to learn that there are certain legacies that I have inherited unknowingly. This script is not necessarily mine. As long as the Caribbean, or most of the modern world, was mapped in Europe’s image, I have stakes in what Europe wants and creates. In a way, I have to participate and contend with who I am in relationship to this place.

BP: I guess this will be my last point. As a black person on this globe, it is easy to see ourselves at the periphery of Western modernity, at the peripheries of Europe, and castigated to the outside. Another compelling point of the work is that it is pretty insistent on the fact that we are central-

LL: -to the European project.

BP: 1,000 percent.

LL: I think we are central. It is not about our absence. We are everywhere.

BP: That gets lost in the sauce.

LL: Fortunately, I am well aware that representation is absolutely not enough, and it often works against us. Zakiyyah I. Jackson’s Becoming Human is an incredible articulation of something similar to what I am trying to do. It is not necessarily about us not being there. It is how we are everywhere behind everything-

BP: -how we are instrumentalized.

LL: Absolutely. To be at the service of what Europe needs when it needs it.

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