Strangers, Lovers and Revolutionary Hope: Readings with Wu Tsang
By Natasha Ginwala and Kathy-Ann Tan
“I was told before arriving that I would probably be a ‘sight’ for the village,”(1) writes James Baldwin of his entry into an Alpine Swiss Village, Leukerbad, in 1951. There is a paradox around the hyper-visibility vs. invisibility of the stranger and the daily encounters that carve into Black subjecthood. Ironically, while Baldwin sought to hide away at his lover’s chalet, working on his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain and wrestling with depression, he ended up writing an elaborate essay, “Stranger in the Village”, about the anxious labour of arriving somewhere new and the trials of alienation, while too navigating the syntax of this village as an African-American New Yorker. The stranger acknowledges and signals toward his “not knowing” when stepping into such terrain, yet in that transitory journey the emotion of curiosity could potentially be met with its counter-point, animosity. “And wherever I passed, the first summer I was here, among the native villagers or among the lame, a wind passed with me – of astonishment, curiosity, amusement and outrage,”(2) Baldwin continues in a diaristic manner, describing what it means to be treated as the stranger caught within a state of continuum, despite the fact his name and local address were known by residents.
Here lies the question of the legibility of Black subjectivity, which further ties into the readability of history as directly witnessed through the racialized body. Several years later when visiting Leukerbad, writer Teju Cole echoed, “I, too, left the church; and I call New York home even when not living there; and feel myself in all places, from New York City to rural Switzerland, the custodian of a Black body, and have to find the language for all of what that means to me and to the people who look at me.”(3)
This Baldwinian inquiry became the point of commencement for a reading group on the occasion of Wu Tsang’s 2019 exhibition There is no nonviolent way to look at somebody at the Gropius Bau.(4) As it so happened, the artist – along with her partner and close collaborator, boychild – were moving to Zurich during the time at which our readings resonated through the exhibition spaces in Berlin. We, as strangers, converged into an assembly of voices; familiarity emerged between tonalities, inflection and deliberation.
The act of collective reading within an institution such as the Gropius Bau is a corporeal exercise. The protagonists who gather to read together often also invoke the perilous and unfinished quest of writers. In the gesture of articulation and annotation as a communal practice of study, reading performs both as rebellion and as a celebration of the creative instinct that prevails despite the pressures that confront it. These include the systemic control and erasure of words – and tongues – that have recurred across history and increasingly more so with the steady escalation of authoritarianism globally. As Toni Morrison wrote in her essay, “Peril”:
"Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often, but not always, fools. But none is foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts. They know they do so at their own peril. They are not stupid enough to abandon control (overt or insidious) over media. Their methods include surveillance, censorship, arrest, even slaughter of those writers informing and disturbing the public."(5)
The sustained act of reading together transforms knowledge that is gleaned from the text into that which is stored in the body. This accruing of knowledge as flesh is something that occurs slowly, over time, activated and augmented by daily experience. As the Russian-born photographer and participant Alia Zapparova commented, for her the reading group was a timely reminder of “how reading as a practice can be shared, and how what we read and know affects our lives.”(6)
To wholly sense – and make sense of – this methodology, it is worthwhile considering the notion of study put forward by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, who collaborated to write The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013): “We were committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice […].”(7) In the work of Wu Tsang, which is equally filmic, sculptural and live, there is a reckoning with affective modes of “call and response” as she crafts movement-images that float between the personal and communal, articulating amid rhythm and silence, desire and volatility.
The idea of reading together as a sustained practice also recalls the various acts of sustenance that we perform every day: little acts to enable buoyancy; keeping afloat amid the challenges of this world. “At low water a red buoy, the western passage is the most dangerous,/ care must be taken not to be swept by the tide.”(8) Like this red buoy that marks, at low water, “the western passage” and warns seafarers not to cross to avoid being swept out by the tide, we look for familiar markers of safety. Sometimes we find these in moments of coming together and partaking in a reading exercise that requires the collective movement of breath and eyes, the making of memory. Taking place within the institution, such an exercise can open up different structural relations and encounters with the artwork on view.
All three sessions of the reading group, which were held in 2019 from October to November, were situated in the first room of Wu Tsang’s Gropius Bau exhibition, in which the handcrafted stained-glass sculpture Sustained Glass (2019) was suspended. Radiant and fragile, this semi-legible work uses semi-opaque text that is etched using acid into several layers of hand-blown antique glass. The reading group participants shared stories from their own artistic practices, as well as their lived experiences of identity, belonging, history, racism, injury, desire and longing, which created another multi-layered script that reverberated with Wu Tsang’s inscribed narratives on her collaborative artwork. Across her practice, one observes what it means to consciously avow a legacy of cultural figures as ancestors, friends and “band mates” beyond a patriarchal genealogy, plunging together into creative techniques of survival. Indeed, several of her works emerge through conversational arrangements – like improvised compositions, they are polyphonic and steer away from irrefutable judgment.
As a way of paying homage to Toni Morrison, we chose to read a selection of writings from The Source of Self Regard (2019), a collection that includes previously unpublished speeches, meditations and essays. We focused on subjects from censorship to matters regarding women and race. As Morrison once shared in a 1977 interview with John Callaway for the Chicago-based television station WTTW, “I started to write when I was in a lonely place. And I was writing, really, for me, and not for publication, not for anybody. It was a way of talking then, so I talked to myself, a lot. And then, later, I wrote more and more and I had a larger story that looked like a novel.”(9) In journeying towards the life of characters, Morrison often premised her protagonists on vulnerable and minority women, charting musicality, myth, colour and magic to create a coherence that carries the “ability to see both sides.”(10)
Reaching beyond her own autobiography and experience, Morrison extended tributes and eulogies to artists, writers and political figures, including James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr. and Romare Bearden. In her eulogy to Baldwin, she confesses, “Jimmy, there is too much to think about you, and much too much to feel. The difficulty is your life refuses summation – it always did – and invites contemplation instead. Like many of us left here, I thought I knew you. Now I discover that, in your company, it is myself I know.”(11) In this excess of affect and a life that refuses summation, we were invited to reckon deeply with how Morrison’s memorial statement to Baldwin is a recognition of her own biography and shared struggle. This move extends both writers some reprieve from the vertical pressures of hegemonic violence – which included the labelling and expectations of how they transacted with the literary and political worlds of their time.
The question for us, then, becomes how to disentangle from similar normative binds today. To reach beyond; to the places where our truths can revel in laughter, care, rejuvenation and rebellion for what is “Hard, True and Lasting” – the title of another Morrison piece in The Source of Self Regard. This challenge to remain buoyant with acts of self-empowerment and phases of rest is a process of deliberation and constant negotiation. As Morrison writes on a biographical note, “I am keenly aware of the fact that I write in a wholly racialised society that can and does hobble the imagination. Labels about centrality, marginality, minority, gestures of appropriated and appropriating cultures and literary heritages, pressures to take a position – all these surface when I am read or critiqued and when I compose. It is both an intolerable and inevitable condition.”(12)
With self-empowerment and rest comes rejuvenation and healing – something that has been attributed to the power of crystals. The crystal recurs as a prismatic surface in Wu Tsang’s recent installations including Untitled (Incommunicado) (2019) and the video work Girl Talk (2017), which features Fred Moten. Crystals operate as a spectrum for multiple possibilities of becoming. They are a reminder of high-gloss make up, crystal balls, shimmering curtains and dazzling characters of the night. Refraction is crucial in the interplay between “bringing to light” and dancing in opacity. The optics generated by Wu Tsang embrace fluidity to counter the thickness of violence, multiple readings transmuting the body and recoding the mind. Take, for example, Girl Talk, in which Moten gently whirls in his backyard, dressed with crystals that radiate against the sunlight, set to the slowed tones of Betty Carter’s song, “Girl Talk”. With this loosening of the self into lightness – journeying into drag, letting a song’s personality morph into a greater sense of poethical(13) pleasure and bodily freedom – Wu Tsang and Fred Moten (alongside Josiah Wise and boychild) conceive a praxis of vulnerability and erotic sensibility. Lip-synching, losing and gaining voice at the same time, allows fused personas to chant within the sentient world.
In the second reading session, we actively traced our fingers over the words of Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power” (1978). We felt the words expand their way into the space, which gave us pause to reflect on what Lorde invites us to do in her essay – to deeply feel what we do in order to bring us closer to a sense of fullness and purpose, of completion and satisfaction. We talked about the ways in which women-identified women – especially Black, Latinx and women of colour – have often been berated for being too emotional, too angry, too sensual. We celebrated the way in which Lorde exults in the erotic as “an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”(14) We found joy in Lorde’s unadorned but profound encapsulation of the erotic as that “measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.”(15) The late afternoon light bathing our reading room carried with it a languor that demanded a slowness and reassessment of what, of whom we hold dear; it extended a sense of unhurried familiarity amidst our questions of intimacy, our practices of looking, of seeing of bearing witness.
These questions surfaced in another text on which we dwelled, namely Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (2018), a languid work that meditates upon the act of writing and artistic creation. We discussed the idea of writing as an act of non-linearity; a moving in and out of sync and sequence, a collapsing, reversal and repetition akin to the movement of bodies depicted in Wu Tsang’s two-channel video We hold where study (2017). Conceived as a series of duets choreographed by Ligia Lewis with Jonathan Gonzalez, and boychild with Josh Johnson, the piece makes manifest what it is “to verse, to turn, to bend, to plough, a furrow, a row, to turn around, toward, to traverse.”(16) Alluding to the fleetingness and incompleteness, the fluidity and instability, of moments of communication between self and other, We hold where study registers the tender moments in which we strive to touch and hold that space of emergence with unapologetic presence for ourselves and others.
Holding space for the articulation and sharing of experiences that are too often elided or excluded; for the gathering and dispersal of voices and stories; for the emergence of points of connection in/through the undertaking of reading and discussion: these desires materialized over the course of the reading group. As artist, researcher and participant Shelley Calhoun-Scullion commented, she felt deeply “a sense of being touched by artworks and the vibration of shared encounters.”(17) Reading together – aloud and silently – enabled us to appreciate that quality of opacity and materiality – of words on a page, of stories that are archived in our bodies and in our flesh, of wet histories – that only too often gets lost as we go about our daily lives. The exercise reminded us, as Fred Moten writes in All That Beauty (2019), to take the time to dwell in the fragments, the in-between spaces of the unwritten, the withheld, the unexpressed. It opened up an opportunity for dialogue about difficult issues of racism, homophobia and white supremacy, but it was also a rare and joyous occasion of communion, intimacy and empathy among a group of participants who understood the power of images and narratives to make us think harder about (non-violent) ways of looking and their accompanying structures of feeling.
Moten writes on black life as a kind of wetland, as mnemonic substance and fluid grace across registers of inhabitation and fugitivity that refuses singularity:
Black life is wet,
like when Nate tends to certain fluidities of
in the brutal clearing
of land, unforgetting the river’s
As Morrison writes, “You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and liable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, that valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory – what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our “flooding.”(19) With this tremendous statement, we become enmeshed in the riverine terrains where landscape and memory are inseparable – motioning away from alienated places to become interlocked in a recognition of language that is formative and form-giving. The task of the writer as memory keeper is rekindled, as is the quest to spend time with the “flooding” of collective consciousness around messy origins, the desiring cartographies of diasporic belonging, and the fugitive sheltering of Black and brown lives.
There is no non-violent way to look at somebody, Wu Tsang’s Gropius Bau exhibition title, is drawn from her text “Sudden Rise at a Given Tune” (2018), co-authored with Fred Moten. It is a collaborative pursuit in re-inscribing the act of looking – the embodied eye and camera eye – conflated in asynchronous circuits of opacity and transparency. They write, “Maybe the distinction is between sympathy and empathy – one emerging from a point of view, the other occurring in shatter and embrace. There is no nonviolent way to look at somebody.”(20) Eventually, the play between gaze and counter-gaze operates along lines of power that can shrink the distance between disaffection and kinship. One is prompted to return here to Teju Cole, who simply states, “To be a stranger is to be looked at, but to be Black is to be looked at especially.”(21) In finding ways not only to plainly look at the world beyond but, rather, to acknowledge its multi-scalar realities and fractal conditions, a coeval-ness is vital. Only then can the wear and tear of figuration vs. disfiguration – who is and isn’t allowed agency and subjecthood – be overcome as the dominant dialectic acting on vibrant bodies.
In The Fire Next Time (1963), Baldwin reflects, “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”(22) This act of sensually being and seeing is to anchor the self in place, finding in one another refuge in various ways of commoning. Against one’s capacity to “rejoice in the force of life” lie the failed crossings, capsized boats, burning forests, and border security infrastructures that produce globally subjugated “no-bodies”.(23) The failed promises of cosmopolitanism remain stark in the unfolding cycle of racial violence and the break from hospitality that fortress Europe deals as rational terror meted toward new arrivals at her patrolled shores.
Natasha Ginwala is Associate Curator at Gropius Bau and Artistic Director of Gwangju Biennale 2020 with Defne Ayas. Ginwala has curated Contour Biennale 8, Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium and was part of the curatorial team of documenta 14, 2017. Other recent projects include Arrival, Incision. Indian Modernism as Peripatetic Itinerary in the framework of Hello World. Revising a Collection at Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, 2018; Riots: Slow Cancellation of the Future at ifa Gallery Berlin and Stuttgart, 2018; My East is Your West at the 56th Venice Biennale, 2015; and Corruption: Everybody Knows with e-flux, New York, 2015. Ginwala writes on contemporary art and visual culture in various periodicals and has contributed to numerous publications.
Kathy-Ann Tan is a Berlin-based curator, writer and independent scholar of the visual arts and performance, postcolonial and decolonial theory, critical diversity and gender/queer studies. She is interested in alternative models of art dissemination, exhibition-making and institution-building that are attuned to issues of social justice in the contemporary moment. Her ongoing project on decolonial aesthetics aims to collaboratively build a forum for artists and curators to develop ways of interrogating colonial narratives and countering neo-colonial forms of domination and control. Tan also teaches at the Node Center for Curatorial Studies, Berlin, and is currently pursuing an MA in Curatorial Practice at University of Bergen, Norway (2019–2021).
1. James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” in Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). Accessible at: https://www.janvaneyck.nl/site/assets/files/2312/baldwin.pdf, 1.
3. Teju Cole, “Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village”, The New Yorker, last modified August 19, 2014: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/black-body-re-reading-james-baldwins-stranger-village (accessed October 8, 2020).
4. The reading group at the Gropius Bau in conjunction with Wu Tsang’s solo exhibition, There is no non-violent way to look at somebody (September 4, 2019–January 12, 2020) was part of a larger discursive programme that included a talk between the artist Wu Tsang and the curator of the exhibition, Stephanie Rosenthal, Director of the Gropius Bau on September 15, 2019, as well as an artist talk with Wu Tsang and Fred Moten on November 17, 2019, in which they discussed collaborative artistic processes and shared points of inspiration and reference.
5. Toni Morrison, “Peril” in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (New York: Random House, 2019), vii.
6. As quoted by Alia Zapparova to Natasha Ginwala and Kathy-Ann Tan.
7. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe, New York, Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013), 117.
8. Dione Brand, “Verso 10.3” in The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2018), 66.
9. Daniel Hautzinger, From the Archive: Toni Morrison, uploaded by WTTW on March 13, 2018 at https://interactive.wttw.com/playlist/2018/03/13/archive-toni-morrison (accessed October 8, 2020).
11. Toni Morrison, “James Baldwin Eulogy”, 229. Op. cit.
12. Toni Morrison, “Rememory”, 322. Op. cit.
13. “Poethics”, as conceived by American poet and writer Joan Retallack, is a theory and practice of turbulence, of nomadic forms that never settle into place but rather consist of breaking patterns.
14. Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (New York: Ten Speed Press, 1984; 2007), 55.
15. Ibid., 88.
16. Dione Brand, “Verso 4” in The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2018), 34.
17. As quoted by Shelley Calhoun-Scullion to Natasha Ginwala and Kathy-Ann Tan.
18. Fred Moten, All that Beauty (Tucson, AZ: Letter Machine Editions, 2019), 8. Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory” in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, 2nd ed., edited by William Zinsser (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 83-102, 99.
19. Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory” in The Source of Self-Regard, 243. See Note 5.
20. The text “Sudden Rise At A Given Tune” (2017-onwards) was originally published as a poster in 2018 by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, with choreographic annotations by boychild. The text remains a working document and for the Gropius Bau’s 2019 exhibition, it was extended with further writing by Lorenzo Moten and additions in Greek by Hypatia Vourloumis.
21. Teju Cole, “Black Body”. Op. cit.
22. As quoted in Teju Cole. Ibid.
23. Denise Ferreira da Silva, “The Crises of European Imagination”, Cosmopolis #1: Collective Intelligence, Lecture at the Center Pompidou, Paris, November 15, 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6szzeZqG7_c (accessed October 8, 2020).