Sahar Carter, 2022-2023 Archive & Curatorial Intern
September 8, 2023
“How ever do you want it? How ever do you need it?” (1)
In February of 2009, Rashida Bumbray, during her tenure as an associate curator at the Kitchen, invited Rashaad Newsome and Kalup Linzy to collaborate on a project that would be staged in The Kitchen’s iconic black box theater. The night of their performance would mark a rare hour-and-a-half-long double feature: the first showing of Newsome’s The Shade Compositions (2009) and the only (known) staging of Linzy’s Tragedy, Comedy, Sketches of Me (2009). While the artists produced the shows individually, both used all manner of mixed-media techniques toward the execution of their pieces. Newsome’s The Shade Compositions featured over twenty live performers who acted as human instruments, composing a rhythm out of the movements and sounds culturally specific to black women. In Linzy’s Comedy, Tragedy, Sketches of Me, Linzy starred in a musical of his own making, depicting his own stream of consciousness through drag and song. He alone played upwards of 5 characters throughout the performance, all who came with memoir-esque monologues and never-before-seen videos to accompany the narrative.
Lying beneath both of these pieces, and within these artists themselves, are critiques and interactions between culture and the emergence (then) of the internet. Their performances that night spoke to visions of a future they may or may not have understood would come to pass. The future of the black feminine voice and how drag-centric socratic dialogue would materialize as a language of comedy on the internet.
When The Shade Compositions begins a chorus of Black women flood from either side of the stage, settling one by one in front of a microphone, arms akimbo, silent, and disapproving. The group leers at the audience. (bombastic side eye) They have an air that some of my city friends do —letting that look, the look, get you to gather yourself before they have to. The percussion rises, and a section of performers start to click their tongues and roll their eyes and the beat forms, these xylophone “clicks” spread like a call and response across the room. A new section of the chorus sucks their teeth, finishing the others’ rhythmic sentences. Vocalists join in to say, “Excuse!” They look the audience up and down for a beat and voice another, “... Excuse!” In past interviews, Newsome has spoken about witnessing the vernacular of Black Women on the internet become “an open source.” (2) This idea comes fiercely to mind as his “source” material—These traces of Black feminine movement and speech are on view, replaying the same defining movements and sounds in an ever vibrant, unending, unchanging loop. A video clip given flesh.
An orchestra by any other name, could be an assemblage. Throughout Newsome’s body of work, his assemblages have often been visual, perhaps easier to classify as collages. But in The Shade Compositions, what he uses as elements of his collage are small fragments of culture: Black feminine voice and mannerism dis/embodied. For the artist, “Collage acts as a conceptual and technical method to construct a new cultural framework of power that does not find the oppression of others necessary." (3) There’s a view in which what Newsome does here is something of a reparative act. Doing as the internet does best—editing, splicing, and isolating a moment of culture to then be de-contextualized for mass use, he chooses instead to gather again these clippings and re-contextualize them amongst each other. We watch the live construction (or assemblage) of a culture unfold inside of his performance at The Kitchen. I watched this and felt like this chorus is happening in life somewhere. That at some point, at some time, all the clicking tongues and sucking teeth in New York City might assemble themselves into a song for something that could manage to hear them all.
But with Newsome’s positioning as the Conductor, whose culture was then made? He plays a role as an artist in the chorus’ arranging, to be sure, but he also acts as himself. A cultural fragment of gay male-hood, uniquely built on this type of rearranging, and he knows this.
“When I started the work at The Kitchen, I started with black women because I was really interested in this particular vernacular and how it was associated with black females. …One of the things that came out of my research is that the stereotypical body language for black females is also the stereotypical body language for gay males, globally.
You start to question, ‘is this a performance or is this this persons’ identity?’” (4)
I think growing into any sort of selfhood on the internet these days involves the algorithm offering you entry into the communities you crave in exchange for your consumption of its curriculum. The algorithmic classroom of gay male-hood offers you thousands upon thousands of images, references, faces, bodies—the breath and breadth of Black women. And Newsome, like any good Father (Father of House Gucci) was considering the children. (5) Back in 2009, at the time of his performance at The Kitchen, he was watching, live, what fragments of himself and his community the internet would decide to pass on to those who would next inherit it. Black feminine vernacular had already been a language through which Black queer people commune, and from which Queer culture is also shaped. The internet, like AI, is only a reflection (an acceleration, maybe) of what already exists. We arrive now at a global community that fundamentally may never know itself without it. A culture forever changed by an assemblage of ones and zeros.
When I consider the Conductor here, I consider Newsome’s selfhood too. As someone who’s queerness will also be made by his relationships to these highlighted voices. This is a performance that in the very same breath, is a vision of a person, browsing through the presets he should use to make him whole. Whiteness’ access to these things feels clear, and fraught. But the cloudy question he intentionally finds himself within, is in what his interaction with these voices is.
One of the final elements to join the chorus was the Conductor. Newsome stands on a platform just beyond the performers. His baton; a hacked Wii Remote. From this point forward each individual performance becomes a live remix. Newsome presses the A button and a clip of black femmes, in drag and/or varying in gender, plays on a screen above with the (presumably) cis-performers still vocalizing below. The performers in the clip offer a rolling “giiirl”. The B button offers a new black femme idiosyncrasy, and a third button, another. You start to hear new lilts to the same phrases, all no less familiar than before. The media flashes in and out of rhythm with the chorus, at Newsome’s will. When the performance comes to a close, the lights darken. The videos slow in reappearance, and only the live vocalists can be heard. One final, “Excuse!” is given before the stage goes silent.
For Kalup Linzy, the internet is only a new kind of TV.
Linzy begins his portion of the night delving deeper into the type of drag and femme performance Newsome had teased earlier. When The Shade Compositions fades to black, a new video is projected onto the hanging screen. It shows Linzy, dressed in earth tones and a headwrap, lip syncing to Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know” in a homemade music video. It cuts to Linzy again, a black T-shirt and a durag, walking through a hallway filtered in cold blue and white hues. Linzy narrates; “Let me tell y’all about a friend of mine. Born into a situation he/she hasn’t figured out. My friend, is looking for the heaven he/she left nine months before he/she was born.” (6)
The video cuts to black. The stage lighting points us to Linzy, live, below the screen. He’s dressed in a similar black outfit and a red ombre wig, standing in front of a makeshift bed and a bedside table. The latter is full of wigs. A beat begins and he breaks out into song, lamenting “Fucked up memories…they keep haunting me.” A disembodied voice responds: “Chile, you know you have not made all the right choices. Sucking psychotic dicks. Eating mentally unstable asses. Turning the wrong damn people out…. Recreating pain based on negative ass thinking. Chile, get unstuck.”
“My grandma died, I cried and cried. I sucked a dick, tongue kissed the dick, and we didn’t click. Comedy, Tragedy, Sketches of Me” (7)
Chile, get unstuck. Linzy has been perfecting this voice—caring and crass—since the early aughts. The performance at The Kitchen comes four years into his debut on YouTube, having garnered upwards of a million views for his repertoire of characters in his trademark drag-soap operatic style. Each character makes an appearance this night represented by either a wig, a song, or a video. All feel seemingly present in Comedy, Tragedy, Sketches of Me to discuss Linzy. Throughout the performance there's a call and response between the video work and the “living” work, existing in dialogue with a masculinized Linzy on video as a new character below. A new singer, a new facet of Linzy’s psyche is represented in red or pink, a bob or a bang. The lighting cues on stage continue to remain very dark throughout. The performance’s set design staging suggests that the audience members are sitting on the floor of his bedroom, creating the feeling that there isn’t a world beyond that space—that we’re really sitting in the confines of his mind.
While Linzy’s work here does not deal as directly with the internet as Newsome’s Shade Compositions, I believe Linzy’s style and cadence have much to contribute to the conversation. He was an early member of the internet “art world” at large, coming of age as an artist alongside his exploration of the content platform Youtube. Even with his live performance work here at The Kitchen, it is difficult to divorce his practice from its cyber roots. So much of the aesthetic choices within the piece bring us back to it. One critic helps affirm this after watching the performance live:
“Although Internet videos would seem to be the antithesis of live performance [...] they mimic visual art performance in the sense that they cannot ever really be owned by anyone but the performer him/herself. Mirroring the stripped-down production quality of his videos, Linzy uses a bare-bones version of drag to re-examine gender identity.” (8)
What we see in Comedy, Tragedy, Sketches of Me is an early, and earnest, use of this “bare bones drag” as a means of the artist exploring himself and the characters that make up his life. Linzy has spoken often and openly about the core of these performances stemming from his intergenerational love of soap operas and the relatives that dotted the small town of his upbringing. Linzy says: “I’m not mocking them, but playing those characters, I do sound like some of my cousins. It’s the intonation. If you raise the pitch, I sound like some of my female cousins; we have the same speech patterns. Families do.” What he offers with this performance, and with his work on the internet at large, is the lost art of context. He explores gender expression and interpersonal dynamics not through an abstracted representation of femininity (the wig and wig alone) but through what of his feminine relatives live within him—and how they interact with a femininity of his own. The elements he uses to weave a story are grounded in reality; in the dramatics, corny-ness, and stereotypes of Black working class life. The soap opera dramatics of Black life.
It’s something sketch comedy on the internet was missing at the time when it took on a format eerily similar to Linzy’s, though, a far, far fall from his style. Rising Youtube sensations like that of Smosh, Bart Baker, and Shane Dawson used a similar schema. “Bare bones” drag to differentiate between characters played by the same performer, who then explore the scene with themselves. It’s hard to identify who was truly the chicken or the egg for this but one thing is abundantly clear: almost all themes we explore here today appear here. Appropriation, mass consumption, decontextualization. While stripped-down drag became a hugely popular narrative tool on the internet, it was predominantly used to introduce “representations” of Black feminine characters into a scene. It became an opportunity for Black face, non-Black use of African American Vernacular, and degrading caricature. The joke in these scenarios being the existence of Black femininity itself, often emphasizing how “off” and boisterous they perceived working class Black people to be. There was something about the Black and feminine, especially when not existing on a cis woman’s body, that captured the attention of the algorithm. Facsimiles of Black women appear across the web more than actual Black women. Drag and comedy became another avenue for these ideas to arise.
Whether answered or not, what’s explored with both Newsome and Linzy is the Black feminine affect and what it means for it to have become a tool in the hands of, well, everyone. What are the bounds of ourselves in a future where we are the material that one paves the road with, the carbon in the electronic atmosphere. When a friend of mine read this piece for me, they left me with an open ended question—who gets to conduct Black femininity, and why do we keep attending their concertos? I’m not sure. All I can really say is that I appreciate that far before I would find the words I have today to reflect on the digital culture that now makes up my life, Rashad Newsome and Kalup Linzy may have already been considering me.
CREDITS & FOOTNOTES
(1) Soul, Soul II. 1989. Back to Life (However Do You Want Me) Music. Virgin Records. (2) Balzer, David. 2015. “Interview: Rashaad Newsome on Voguing, Heraldry, and FKA Twigs.” Momus. June 11, 2015. https://momus.ca/interview-rashaad-newsome-on-voguing-heraldry-and-fka-twigs. (3) “ABOUT – Rashaad Newsome.” n.d. https://rashaadnewsome.com/about/. (4) Balzer, David. 2015. “Interview: Rashaad Newsome on Voguing, Heraldry, and FKA Twigs.” Momus. June 11, 2015. https://momus.ca/interview-rashaad-newsome-on-voguing-heraldry-and-fka-twigs. (5) Ibid. (6) Linzy, Kalup. 2009. Comedy, Tragedy, Sketches of MPerformance Art/Video. 512 W 19th St, New York, NY 10011. The Kitchen. (7) Ibid. (8) Milder, Patricia. 2009. “Staging the Image: Video in Contemporary Performance.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 31 (3): 108–19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20627948.