Basements are zones of deep storage. Sometimes we forget what we’ve got down there. Papers revert to their vegetal state in moldy corners; old clothes hang around like ghosts. It is no wonder that Freud likened these subterranean quarters to the architecture of the unconscious. The basement holds the overflow of the home and the self—the excesses of our present lives we seek to save but also to lose there.
When Will Rawls performed in the basement of Westbeth as part of Performa 15, he awakened both the spatial possibilities and psychical reverberations of the underground location. The cavernous brick room became both catacomb and theater as Rawls danced Personal Effects, a new piece drawn from a bodily archive of the assorted choreographies—ordinary, technical, popular, disciplinary, experimental—that have shaped his identity. Rawls crisscrossed preconceived borders between these genres of movement as he pursued various lines of muscle memory. When he entered the space jogging, skirting the perimeter of the “stage” and turning a loose board into a rhythmic instrument, it was impossible to tell childhood reminiscence from quotations of dances by Yvonne Rainer or Tino Sehgal.
Rawls’s accumulated dance was noisy—the inchoate frequencies of gasps, howls, and moans winning out over fully-formed language—but it laconically addresses at least two concerns central to the field of performance. First is the notion that we perform our identities: that identity does not stem from an interior essence but is constituted through the repeated performance of social codes and stylized acts. Rawls appears to both speed up and slow down this process, condensing the diverse lines of motion that have formed him into a repertoire that can be watched in real time. The shared codes that come to articulate and define certain identities become fluid and ambiguous—as when Rawls stretched and scrunched his hoodie in and out of its recognizable form, merging a charged symbol of black masculinity with the creaturely shape shifting of Xavier Le Roy.
Through his use of dance to explore identity as a continuous and additive process, Rawls also questions the idea that dance is constituted through its essential tendency to disappear—what André Lepecki once termed “dance’s somewhat embarrassing predicament of always losing itself as it performs itself.” As Rawls lost himself in moments of remembrance, as phrases of his personal history breached into visibility, it became apparent that dance’s quality of disappearance is matched by its enduring and constitutive force. If dance makes sense alongside the shadowy apparitions and organic transformations found in basements, it also shares their staying power.
Gillian Young is a PhD Candidate in Art History at Columbia University, where she is at work on her dissertation, "Electric Theater: Joan Jonas and the Emergence of Performance Art in the 1970s." Her writing has appeared in Art in America, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, and TDR/The Drama Review.
For Performa 15, Will Rawls’ solo performance, Personal Effects was presented at West Beth and curated by Adrienne Edwards.
PERFORMA 15: WRITING LIVE involves an international group of curators, critics, artists and scholars, bringing together a unique mix of different voices in a network of critical writing and debate around Performa 15. Throughout the biennial the participants contribute to an ongoing conversation through a wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary understanding of themes, concepts, and issues of live art and performance with substantial academic and historical consideration. WRITING LIVE is directed by Marc Arthur, and includes PERFORMA15 Writing Live Fellows Nicholas Croggon, Ayanna Dozier, Shelton Lindsay, Andrew Ragni, Macushla Robinson, Leah Werier, and Gillian Young.