The tentative arrangement of keyon gaskin’s work—somewhere between performance art, black social dance, sound, and theater—examines the relationships between audience and artist, curator and gallery, land and architecture, trust and skepticism. Preferring to not qualify their work (gaskin’s artist statement reads “keyon gaskin prefers not to contextualize their art with their credentials”), what gaskin does is informed by the experience of seeing it.
gaskin and I sat down to talk about their artistic practice on a scalding hot Los Angeles evening, beginning our discussion with my experience attending gaskin’s piece, this is an interactive experience for you. / you are a community. / you are my material. / this is your prison. / leave when you want., part of the Hammer Museums’ weekend-long exhibition At night the states in January of 2017, which also including artists such as taisha paggett, Simone Forti and Erika Vogt. In the performance a black-clad gaskin moved between the stage and the audience floor, arranging and rearranging furniture and people, squeezing them ever closer together. At times reciting prose or direction, at times tossing chairs or placing people, gaskin wound, bent, and graced his body throughout the shifting space. Ending and beginning without fanfare (they simply emerged and began moving at the pieces’ start time and said it was over when they finished) gaskin spun a narrative between and with the audience, the Hammer Museum, the room, and themselves for close to an hour. These elements of revelation, use of objects, site specificity, tension, and bodies permeate gaskin’s work are the materials described throughout this interview. Our conversation begins here and explores gaskin’s work and thoughts on artistry, mastery, and defiance.
Essence: My first experience of seeing you perform was at the Hammer Museum in 2016 for At night the states. You don't qualify what you do with program text or curatorial statements, so not only did I not know what to expect, but I found myself simultaneously rolling with laughter and moved to tears. Part of it was the intensity of not knowing and part of it was how you moved around the room and engaged with the stage, moving chairs, moving the audience onto it, asking and gesturing for the audience to be closer. There was an older white couple, some kids, and a lot of folks who I would not, in general, find myself sharing such tight quarters with…it made me laugh and uncomfortable at the same time.
What is your process with this kind of work? It's not black social dance, but it is absolutely black social dance; it's not performance art, but it's absolutely performance art; it's not theater, but it absolutely is.
keyon: i like that. Initially, i go back to when i started making solo performance pieces—i say “solo” which is funny because, while I’m the initiator, instigator, and primary performing figure, it's important to recognize the active role of the audience in my work. Early on, i realized that i like to center what's happening in that room at that particular moment; we can look at it as a microcosm—if not of the world then at least of art scenes or institutions. In performance, what's happening in the room is always indicative of larger social, political, historical ways of engagement.
i try to use the information in the room to highlight how those social structures are present. i think that my role is important, but it's also important just to have the space to be in tune with, and very much listening to, the room. With that older white couple, i didn't want to move them from the front row, and i made a point not to disturb them, but there was really violent action going on around them. They were a little shook, and everybody else moved farther away from them. It was this thing of seeing that couple, seeing where they were placed, seeing that there was space around them that i could engage in an action, and how that will bring something to light. And i think we all became aware of us differently. We became aware that they were sitting in the room, that they chose to sit in the front row. We became aware of the absence of bodies around them.
In my memory they were on the stage, by virtue of the activity around them.
You know, the stage is so not tired, but also so tired in a way. i don’t think that theater doesn’t have anything to offer, but the stage is such an easy thing, it’s problematic and indicative of oppressive systems of power. It centralizes focus, as opposed to softening or opening it—what i think of as a feminist gaze. What are you choosing to look at…is it the most interesting thing in the room? Is the thing that's actually happening what's on stage or is it the person breathing heavily and making comments under their breath two rows back that you barely hear? i'm often trying to highlight these other things.
And i'm not into mastery either. i'm in this space of defiance because i have a background in theater, art, and dance. i’ve been invested in all of those things, and spent years studying them. But it's cool to invest in these things and allow these art forms to integrate into my experience and my body but not hold onto that preciousness about them.
Earlier, you mentioned your troubling of spectatorship, engagement, disentangling borders within disciplines and rupturing the seams that form them. I would love for you to talk about how you work with spectatorship.
Everything is site-specific. i don’t feel like the stage is this universal, neutral space where you can take the things that you've made elsewhere and plant them anywhere unaffected. What else happened in that place, what else was this building used for? That history informs what's happening.
Making abstract, experimental work i can't wholly know or predict what the audience is bringing, and i don’t offer a specific narrative for folks to follow through an artist’s statement or text in the program, so i know that everyone's subjective experience is totally influencing whatever “it” is. That’s the thing with spectatorship for me; objectivity isn’t humanly possible. i know that everybody's coming to my performance as subjectively as i am. Even if i’m working in specifics, i’m not necessarily interested in folks taking note of all that went in it. That’s why i don't give a lot of language before my performances—i think that the experience that we have in that room also informs the work. As the artist who's invited people here, it’s my role to initiate, instigate, engage, and provide an offering, and that offering can look as many different ways as there are folks to receive it.
And that to me is the meat. That possibility, the potential that this thing that we're engaging with in this room right now can turn into something else through our engagement, all through having been in that room and talking about, or sleeping on or dreaming about it, or having that experience inform how you tell your little cousin something three years down the road. That’s the potential of what we're doing.
Yes! Being in the room with you, you’re the initiator, but we in attendance are also initiators because we came. There's some autonomy happening because you came.
Exactly! There’s a thing of responsibility. As though, i'm solely responsible for you and what you receive now because you made the decision to come here tonight? Whether you spent money or not, you made the decision to be here, and I’m here offering something, whether you read it as an offering or not...this isn't entertainment.
You will not be sitting here passively with your popcorn.
Try to have that popcorn, it’s going to get snatched out of someone’s hands!
And now i will be having some, and we can talk about what it means for me to take it. i'm so here for those things coming up. i also love when something happens that i didn’t expect. i work in improvisation, i set up structures—the score of that piece from the Hammer you're talking about is the title of the piece. it's called this is an artwork / this is for you | you are a community / you are my material / this is a prison / leave when you want That’s the only text that i give for the work.
I’ve noticed that your titles can have forward slash spacing between groups of words, and I'm thinking about that break, the space in between language and the multiple meanings of a word like “prison” — to be in jail, to be imprisoned in your mind. While we assume language to be particular and universal within many contexts, it’s actually your own assumptions that guide it.
Thank you! The more we can say, “okay, maybe i'm seeing it this way,” and acknowledge that we are seeing it one way and that may not be the way it is, then we are more available to engage with one another across boundaries.
Even our colonizer language.
Yep. Or maybe that’s a lot to get over, though.
Or black folks constantly signifying and re-mapping language—from “kink” to “funk,” to “nasty”—meanings get remade.
Ha, that part too! i mean i'm black, and i love it. i like a lot of the black and critical race theory that's happening now, and i love that so much of it is talking about the expansive nature of blackness. i just read Dawn Lundy Martin’s A Black Poetics: Against Mastery, and it was a trip. What i took from it was the correlation between blackness and the impossible, blackness to nothingness, and then equating that to creativity…mastery is to be bored. To know something so completely is to be bored of it. Creativity comes out of a place of not knowing, but i don't think that means being unfamiliar or wholly ignorant.
Does it also mean being uncomfortable?
Without a doubt. It means not knowing what the outcome is going to be. i may come in with a certain score, but it's important for me not to know who is going to be there and how it’s going to turn out. That thing in my work you pointed to “is it this or is it that?” and i don't even know what it totally is. i often feel like i'm pulling from all of my experience, from all of our experience, the experience of the room, in ways that i couldn't have known.
Once, i was performing in a theater that used to be a horse stable, and i swear to God so much horseshit came up that night. It's one of the pieces that i tap dance in. At the time, i was collaborating with sidony o’neal on Dead Thoroughbred, which will be at Performance Space New York this October, so there was all this wild corollary coming up between horses and blackness, being sold, tamed, and broken. It wasn’t just me holding that either—i talked to other people afterwards that didn't know the history of the space, who had experienced things around horse-ness.
My friend, the visual and sound artist Adee Roberson talks about me being the trickster or the fool, and i identify with that role. i think that coming at things from the side you can get at something without holding the full responsibility of it. You're like, “Yep, i said that, and now what happens?” There's something to that archetype that resonates with me.
You mentioned black is a color, the exhibition I curated. Your performance for the closing was beyond anything I could've ever hoped for. We had toured the gallery the day before and you touched a few things and asked if the stairwell and the desk were sturdy and that was that. I had no idea what you were going to do...only that I had faith in you. Then the night of the performance hits and everybody’s here and it’s happening and I'm like, “Oh, keyon is about to climb down the rail of this 15-foot high staircase,” and after that it was just on. It resonated for me how blackness appeared in the performance—there was the cast iron skillet you wielded, the black sweats you wore, and your black high heels.
And that’s that piece too. It’s also a rumination on the color black. When you invited me to black is a color, i was like, “i have the perfect piece!”
I would love for you to talk specifically about it in the context of the Charlie James Gallery?
That piece is called It's not a thing. Pieces develop through performance—i do a lot of performing of a thing; i think about a thing. It actually started with doing things that i didn't want to do in performance or that i have contention with in performance.
Like drag, dancing to music, using race or personal trauma as a specific material for making. Not to say that they’re tools that i won’t ever use, but they’re things that i have contention with in contemporary art and performance. i didn't want to work with race explicitly as a material, and that landed me with thinking about blackness and using lived experiences. That's the thing—everybody is making identity work. Damien Hirst is making very white male-informed work, you know? i just don’t want to be pigeonholed.
Which tends to happen to black folks making work. When you say (or don't say) anything about black people or being black—you'll only be put into conversation with blackness as a ceiling or an unfixed homogeneous experience.
Yeah. And so, i was on this trip on, and about, blackness. i started thinking about what we do culturally with the color black—black magic, black snow, black space, black holes. i like minimal things, minimal aesthetics. i prefer to walk into a performance with just my body, if i use objects, they all need to hold weight and have multiple layers of access. The cast iron skillet i used in this is a thing is a literal black hole. It’s also a feminist weapon: my grandmother threatening folks with hot grease out of the cast iron, or it being the first weapon she’d pick up if somebody came into the house, and yet nourishment comes from it.
The objects i bring in need to have a life or experience that can be witnessed—i could just walk in and put the cast iron down and be like, “let's consider this skillet.” We could go hard on it, you know?
Especially a cast iron for some reason, right? It feels like slavery and present life...it’s past and present with this multiplicity of use-value. I’m thinking of earlier in our conversation when you spoke about moving chairs around the older white couple and the sense of discomfort that's built in a room around brash movement. When you hit the window at Charlie James Gallery with the cast iron, I assumed it wasn't going to break. But, after i thought about it, I questioned myself like, “why do I think keyon thinks this won’t break?”
i love messing with that relationship. We immediately give our trust and respect to spaces by virtue of their existence, without asking why. Years ago, i used to talk about the rules of engagement in art. What are these rules that we're all agreeing to? Especially when we're coming from a radical, queer, black perspective, and we know that we don't trust it…why don’t we challenge these rules?
i take a role in challenging and questioning those norms. Did i know the window would not break? People trusted me, no one grabbed the skillet out of my hand.
I love how much you mess with our sensibilities, and how you work with discomfort. It's a real opportunity for engagement.
I wanted to ask what, for you, is the purpose of an exhibition title, artist biography, or artist's statement? I've been thinking about an earlier conversation we had where you described using an image of a black square in lieu of an artist statement when responding to a gallery’s request.
My sister recently told me that she's been coming into her own more, speaking up rather than staying quiet. She’s seen my work, and she knows that i’m a contrarian and have no problem saying, “nope,” and she's like, “it does feel good and empowering to use my voice and not to be so hurt when people are offended.” But then she asked, “how do you do it, and keep holding that space?” i know it feels hard because it is truly an uncomfortable feeling. It's hard for people to disagree. i realized that part of my training means that i can be the person who makes it difficult, it doesn't throw me. i think it can be generative, and since i have the inclination to, i do. I’m not here for someone saying, “this is the way it is because I said so.”
So, your artist bio or your curatorial statement is a way of pushing back?
Partly. People need to know that we don't have to take what they give us on their terms. For example, in the sample bios that institutions give you sometimes, they flat out tell you how they want you to present yourself. And people rarely question it? That’s wild.
This new piece I’ve been working on is a self-portrait, but the title is the color lavender. Literally. i want it to be a block or swatch of the color lavender, or the title of the pieces is [a swatch of lavender]. That was the title at Participant Inc and American Realness last year. Everybody gets a book when they come in with a little bit of lavender painted on the cover, and that’s the title. It's been difficult to make that happen with institutions, who say, “well, we use words,” but in the age that we're in, do you really? And even if someone has to put “a swatch of lavender” in brackets, or my having to fight with institutions, that’s doing some work.
Institutions also ask, “well how are we going to get people here?” Those are rules you've made imagining how and why people attend shows! People come to things for a lot of different reasons. There are so many ways to get people to a thing. i'm not super invested in capitalism, i'm not invested in your organization making whatever amount of money tonight. I’m going to get paid the same amount, which sometimes is nothing and sometimes is the amount that you've agreed to pay me, which you already wrote that grant to get, baby. i don't necessarily care if this house is packed, but I’m very invested in what's happening in the room. i care about who comes to the room that night.
I’m sure there are people who see a strip of the color lavender in the space of the exhibition title and say, “I want to go to this.”
Exactly. The black box thing, i've had several people who were not in the arts—a couple from Switzerland, quite a few people from Berlin and New York—who came up to me after that and said, “i didn't know you, i didn't know your work, but when i saw a program description that was a black box and no words, i knew i had to come to this.” And that's what i'm talking about.
Right, who do you engage with? And how do you also respect your audience? I think so much of what you're talking about goes back to the idea that you will not get better or different things if you keep accepting what you've been given and imagining it’s permanent.
Exactly. You helped me a little moment ago with a piece that i've been working on. It started with ALF actually, the tv show about the alien.
I always thought ALF was black.
Exactly. i have a whole thing around ALF being black. i was thinking about him in terms of people who are so much and are subjugated and objectified. This conversation is helping me dig through that more. There’s something Fred Moten said in reference to Fannie Lou Hamer, that her practice was a statement he was using, and that statement was “refuse that which has been refused to you.” i think about that in relation to my bios.
i haven't always normative access to this world, being in my body, being how i am. It has everything to do with being queer, punk, anti-professional, anti-capitalist. i've been refused access the whole time, and now you want to access me? You can get it how i decide to give it to you, but you can't get it like you want it. Now what?
But i'm also not invested in my success, and this is also a big part of my practice that i hold onto. Look, i can die poor and nobody can know my work. i love my family and friends, eating, being by the water, enjoying existence. i am a very resourceful person and i'll be fine. i don't need your institution to validate me.
Absolutely. People say that they don't care, but the reality is that 90% percent of us do care, and I'll put myself in there.
I think that we’re in a moment where the term “radical,”is in a particular type of vogue. However, there are no guarantees that one’s mere existence as a black or queer person is somehow a project towards or of liberation. I’m much more interested in what is practiced, challenged, and active in our existence. Not in Fannie Lou Hammer as a mere symbol, but in her actual radical practice. I think the desired recklessness in your work, the way you engage with what it looks like to “not care” is such a profound move.
It’s risky and uncomfortable, but the risk is necessary. And punishments vary for deciding to not belong, or to pretend to belong, or to desire to belong, but there is a type of worth in it. It’s encouraging to my spirit to really ask, what does success look like? keyon, what is your measures of success?
i'm glad you asked that. i've been grappling with the art world and theory’s investment in ideas of “failure.” It makes me wrestle with what we mean when we talk about success…if “failure” exists in a binary relationship with “success,” then it means that there are measures of success, which i don't know if i believe.
But is that then successful?
i don't judge this thing—this thing happened. That's all i know, that it happened, and i feel all sorts of ways about it all of the time—whether it was well-attended or made money or black people were there or not. We can talk about things i desire out of a performance, but i am about what happened and what is happening right now.
If one’s life, one’s work, is measured on a scale of success, then i'm hopeless. This is a big part of what i'm doing; i don't have hope—i don't think “success” is ever possible. The world we live in is violent and heinous all of the time, and everything that we do and have is born of it. We are sitting here with our phones and Apple computers to make this conversation happen, which I’m joyful about us having, but it’s contingent upon abusive labor practices, and exploitation of resources in Africa. How can that be a success? If you're performing anywhere in the United States, guess what? You can never have a successful event because it's happening because of the genocide of Indigenous Americans. Whether we acknowledge it or not in our daily lives, and i know it’s impossible to do that every moment, but it is there. It just is. We get these boxed in ways of looking at the world, and we make up ideas of success. That's false to me.
keyon gaskin prefers not to contextualize their art with their credentials
Essence Harden is an independent curator, writer, and Ph.D. Candidate in African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley. Essence has curated exhibitions at Charlie James Gallery, California African American Museum (CAAM), Antenna Gallery (New Orleans), Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), The Los Angeles LGBT Center's Advocate and Gochis Galleries, and Residency Art Gallery (2019). Their writing has appeared in Leste Magazine, SFAQ: International Arts and Culture, Everyday Feminism, Palmss Magazine, and Acres. Essence resides in Los Angeles, CA.