No Longer Showing.
Excerpt from Eiko & Koma, Trilogy, 1980–1981, performed at The Kitchen, 50:00 minutes
Excerpt from Eiko & Koma, Nurse’s Song, 1981, performed at The Kitchen, 15:15 minutes
WHEN THE KITCHEN presented me this opportunity to introduce unearthed Eiko & Koma works from their archive, the first thing I did was email Eiko. We have been collaborators and friends for five years now. In 2012 during my senior year at Wesleyan University, I took her class “Delicious Movements: Reflections on Nakedness.” Her son Shin is one of my close friends, someone I consider to have grown up with. I write all of this to ground the following response in the complexities of our involvement—to also lay bare an intention to be naked.
In 1981, Eiko and Koma had been living in the U.S. for almost four years, having debuted and toured a select few works, including notably White Dance (1976) and Event Fission (1980). Waiting tables in Tribeca to make their living, the two found themselves at the center of the downtown art scene, entangled by shared anti-imperialist, anti-war, and anti-nuc agendas. They found friendship and community in poets, painters, musicians, and dancers alike in the years following the Vietnam War, and those leading into the AIDS crisis. As Eiko has described this time to me, it was indeed romantic in some ways. They were engulfed by a newfound tribe of like-mindedness in protest, campaigning for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, and denouncing the Three-Mile Island nuclear event ushering into the year of these Kitchen performances. Eiko and Koma were 29 and 33 respectively at the times of these performances. I am 30 now.
In reflecting on Trilogy and Nurse’s Song, I linger on ideas of play, music, grief, and persistence in subversion. Both of these pieces—performed on the same program, yet seemingly disconnected on surface—provide for me a cohesive narrative of protest through youthful antagonism, and a call to innocence in times of violence and uncertainty. I am reminded that their work is almost always about boundaries for me: it acknowledges, surveys, and questions them. It pushes, obscures, then transcends them.
At this time, I am consumed by notions of boundaries, their fixedness, permeability, and function. I see them in youth, extending the boundaries of their own tone and performance language. I see myself and a new generation of activists in these two pieces. Friends, embarking on spaces and intersections unknown—cultivating room for the convergence of multitudes. I think of artists like Abdu Ali, Kia Labeija, Shanekia McIntosh, Richard Kennedy, NIC Kay, and Alexandra Bell. Many times over the years Eiko has asked that I “betray the choreography.” In looking back, I find this sentence to be the one that connects us at our cores.
While “dizzy with love for Bob and Allen,” to use Eiko’s words, the artists debuted Nurse’s Song as a “work-in-progress.” The original song “Nurse’s Song”—with words by William Blake and music by Allen Ginsberg, performed at The Kitchen by Bob Carroll and The Dirt Band—invokes a lively Western tune that makes for subtle irony and benevolent political jab. It is playful and joyous in ways I have never seen Eiko in performance. As I have come to know Eiko and her work, at every given moment, She carries an allegiance to innumerable dead and living people on her back. She herself will tell anyone this. I interpret Nurse’s Song as an early recognition and celebration of that allegiance to community—a reverence for friends. Regardless of any associations peripheral to underdevelopedness, it is a record of a time-in-love and community. In many ways this was new territory for Eiko & Koma.
Trilogy, composed in three parts, (“Cell,” “Fission,” and “Entropy”) is named in the program as a “study.” It moves me from the perspective of a painter and musician. Watching this composition becomes visceral. Formally speaking, it is a captivating video document, but the boundaries of formalism are immediately broken along with proscenium when Koma opens the loading door: in enters Eiko. The Andean folk music fading in and out is heartbreaking somehow, with the ghostly duo making for an eerie gesture, smiling back at the viewer every so often. These characters are recurring throughout other works, to me embodying the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. It is a recollection of a collective horror that none of us may escape. Everything about it feels timely in this moment of interconnected isolation: a lament on trauma, grief, co-dependence, history, and something unfinished. It is this discordance of grace and the embracing of the grotesqueness of life that run throughout Eiko & Koma’s work and that Trilogy so evokes. This piece makes me remember that there was a world before me, and there will be one after. In life we are destined to that in-between.
THESE DAYS, I OFTEN WONDER: Is work that resolves itself concretely misleading if not dangerous? What about those spaces between beginning, middle, end, and beginning again? Not long after the performances at The Kitchen of Trilogy and Nurse’s Song, Eiko and Koma left the city to live in Upstate New York, and, in many ways, began again. It was there in the Catskills that they would go on to further explore practice in nakedness. The 1986 piece By The River performed at The Kitchen in 1987 is exemplary of this sharp pivot and, still, just as timely. Their subsequent work is an evident departure from the 1981 Kitchen performances, or perhaps returns to prior-ity—to re-defining their own boundaries.
In recalling Trilogy and Nurse’s Song Eiko reveals that they were “for their friends and for themselves.” In this time of isolation I bask in the privilege and urgency of making work for friends, as they are my families and communities under siege. As mass incarceration and violent and discriminatory policing devastate my communities daily, I too am made aware of the video-captured slaying of Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through his own neighborhood. In the 2018 collaborative commission Bodies , Eiko and I developed a choreography premised in me running until collapse. For weeks leading up to this performed installation, I ran spirals around blocks of Columbia University’s new Harlem campus—to survey the public space, to discover new routes, and to address obstacles. The performance would commence with me entering the plaza from across 125th Street.
On two occasions, Columbia’s security called the police to report a suspicious unidentified man running, for which I was pulled over and made to explain that I was indeed an invited artist. I was left to question: How much of those confrontations had I incited by running? Were those boundaries I was drawing or were they pre-existing ones I was crossing, set up in projection, policing, and “public” space? It was in that practice of running for Bodies that I realized I had been running for a long time, from boundaries that felt unjust. We would take this choreography into our duet at American Dance Festival and elsewhere. The concept of “running” is all too heavy for me these days. More than ever, I can’t help but want to “betray” that choreography...
THE SUBJECT OF MUSIC has been a recurring theme between Eiko and me. When She embarked on her solo project in 2014, She told me frankly that She would no longer work with music. That said, our collaborative working relationship over the years has been deeply informed by this consideration of music, sharing between each other links to Kronos Quartet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Nina Simone, to name just a few. I too have sung a capella in several duets for Eiko, making myself the most vulnerable I’ve allowed myself to be publicly—a far cry from my own comfort.
In 2017, while collaborating with her at the Rauschenberg Residency on Captiva Island I shot the footage for what would become the visual for my song “Savings” (2018). While we performed and shot for hours together over two weeks, the footage from this twenty minutes of “play” that Eiko allowed me to compose became explicitly mine. I was unaware of its bounds then, but knew it to be deeply personal documentation. While banal interpretations of my lyrical content might have put off or surprised more purest followers of hers, in allowing me to use this footage, Eiko granted me that opportunity to cross an obvious yet unforeseeable boundary with regard to perceptions of and projections onto She and I. Never could I have imagined I would produce a rap song to a video with Eiko Otake. The “meat,” so to speak, of that recognition is questions of “Why”? Because She is an older Asian woman and I am a younger Black man? Because someone of Eiko’s caliber and aesthetics shouldn’t convolute their messaging with “urban” or “pop” sonics?
All of this deep investigation into public perception, collective psychology, and Western epistemologies, began to drive my own work. What is a “music video” if not a video with music? What is that blurred edge between art and music? Why the conversations of “high art” versus “lowbrow art”? Perhaps there are indeed some boundaries that are very hard and fixed, but in witnessing Eiko & Koma, I always come back to knowing the simple ways in which shifting one’s perception in the slightest might give way to total abandonment of pre-existing time and space. It is the ability to be more than you thought, and that for me feels like freedom.
It is important to note, Eiko to this day is not comfortable seeing herself in the video Savings, and says it is the music to which she does not connect. She remains uncredited. We are both now confronting together the implications of a hyperlink to it. In what I feel to be a critical and recent example of Eiko’s subversion at best, She cannot yet herself associate. She does not understand her own gravity in sliding down a wall for me, at a time like now. While it is about the music, it is bigger than the music. I wonder now, had I been their age in 1981, would I have been embraced as they were and by the likes of their artist community? Do the boundaries of my aesthetics in spite of my core block me from reaching back in time the way these two pieces reach forward to me? Would I have even known of The Kitchen and Allen Ginsberg?
Whether Eiko sees herself in this “music video,” my QTPOC students in New York might, should they be allowed to click. This is in part why I embrace hip-hop as medium and “free” platforms like YouTube—to address issues of accessibility. I no longer wish to see myself in Bodies, but no less believe in its pertinence to this response. It has been a muddy reckoning trying to find my own voice in life as mirrored in this essay. I scrutinize over what it means for me to respond to Eiko & Koma, for The Kitchen, amidst the ongoing genocide on Black and Indigenous bodies. COVID exacerbates pre-existing sentiment. I now find this matter of aesthetic boundaries and permissions hinging on hyperlink to be the most naked and interesting part of this all.
I CONSIDER THE ROLE OF PERFORMANCE in a COVID world and beyond. The disproportionate effects and compounding impacts of this pandemic on communities of color, essential workers, and the elderly alone are further compounding. Can making work that keeps us and our loved ones alive matter any more urgently? May acts of empathy, resistance, and radical love be regarded as outstanding performance daily. If I were to extrapolate the work of Eiko & Koma from Trilogy and beyond, it would be to that uncomfortably overwhelming idea that we ourselves are the constructors of boundaries, space, and time, in all our humanity—that we too can make and break them, and for our own sake must.
To read Eiko’s letter in response to DonChristian (A Letter to DonChristian Re: “On Boundaries”), visit the artist’s webpage.
Images and Videos: 1) Eiko Otake and DonChristian, The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable, 2019. Performance view at American Dance Festival 2019, detail. Courtesy of the artists. Photo by Ben Mckeown. 2) Excerpt from Eiko & Koma, Trilogy, 1980–1981, performed at The Kitchen, 50:00 minutes. Video recording from the collection of The Kitchen Archive, ca. 1971–1999. The Getty Research Institute. 3) Excerpt from Eiko & Koma, Nurse’s Song, 1981, performed at The Kitchen, 15:15 minutes. Song in Nurse’s Song: words by William Blake, music by Allen Ginsberg, performed by Bob Carroll and the Dirt Band. Courtesy of May King Poetry Music & Music of Virtual. Video recording from the collection of The Kitchen Archive, ca. 1971–1999. The Getty Research Institute. 4) DonChristian, movement score for Bodies, 2019. Courtesy of the artist. 5) Eiko Otake and DonChristian, The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable, 2019. Performance view at American Dance Festival 2019. Courtesy of the artists. Photo by Ben Mckeown. 6) DonChristian, still from Savings, 2018, 3:26 minutes.
Video Viewing Room: Eiko & Koma with Response by DonChristian is made possible with the support of the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund in The New York Community Trust; annual grants from Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation and Howard Gilman Foundation; and in part by public funds from New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
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