Promise Machine: At MoMA, Steffani Jemison Explores Blackness and Utopian Thought

Jun 24, 2015 2:58 pm

Brooklyn-based artist Steffani Jemison examines African-American culture in relationship to modernism and conceptual practice. Past works have taken a variety of forms, from videos referencing early 20th century film (Maniac Chase, 2008-09) to collaborations with musical performers (Same Time, 2013) to abstract prints on acetate (the “Projections” series). Increasingly the artist has turned toward collective readings of black historical literature as a strategy in her investigations. At the Museum of Modern Art, the artist debuts Promise Machine, a commission related to “One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North” (through Sept. 7). Sited in the galleries, Jemison’s project (June 25-28) includes a reading group about 19th- and 20th-century African-American experimental communities and a new musical performance based on the notion of utopia. The performances begin in the fifth floor Painting & Sculpture galleries and work their way downstairs in the form of a processional. A.i.A. spoke with Jemison about Lawrence’s aesthetic, the history of black utopian thought and the political stakes of performing in museum galleries.


JESS WILCOX  This project is conceived in conjunction with “One Way Ticket.” On the surface your work is aesthetically quite distinct from Lawrence’s. However, you both seem to negotiate the tension between abstraction and dedication to social issues. Do you identify with Lawrence’s mode of abstraction? What other elements of his work and thinking do you pick up in Promise Machine?

STEFFANI JEMISON  The friction between abstraction and figuration in Lawrence’s work is fascinating to me, and really drives my interest in his paintings, which sometimes seem to almost rebel from the task of representing and narrating history. The inky, flat quality of the paintings reminds me of the work of his immediate predecessors in Harlem, many of whom found financial support for their work through illustration (commercial gallery support for black artists was rare) and who therefore made work that functioned especially well in reproduction. I’m thinking, for example, of Aaron Douglas or even Lawrence’s mentor Charles Alston. There’s no impasto, no building up of the surface in the “Migration” series, very little mixing of colors—it’s as if the work was created to be reproducible. His everywomen and everymen were condensed, symbolic, but never really heroic. I’m really fascinated by these formal choices. Collectively, I read them as statements about painting and about the relationship between painting and its publics. I see many resonances with my own work: seriality, rejection of the heroic subject, stoicism. Refusal to cry. Density, unbearable lightness. And so on. We also share an interest in research. The more time I spend with him and his work, the more threads I see in it. The starting point for Promise Machine was definitely Lawrence’s work and activity and research as an artist, the network of informal education and mentorship that shaped him, and the intellectual environment in Harlem during this early phase in his career.

WILCOX  This isn’t the first piece you’ve produced in which a reading group figured prominently. Alpha’s Bet is Not Over Yet (2011-ongoing), in collaboration with Jamal Cyrus, stemmed from Book Club (2010) at Houston’s Project Row Houses and was presented at the New Museum, where it was manifested as a reading room of early 20th-century black publications. Why is reading collectively a critical part of your work?

JEMISON  I’m very interested in reading as a social practice. It was one of my favorite parts of church when I went to church services as a child—reading aloud from a shared book together, or listening to a leader encounter a text as if for the first time. I try to create secular spaces in which a group of readers can encounter a text together, more or less democratically. I’m interested in strategies for embedding reading in time outside of the theatrical, authenticating context of an author reading her own work. For Alpha’s Bet, the reading group functions to connect the disparate elements of a very ambitious investigation of literacy and the alphabet as weapon and code, using black American literacies as a lens. For Promise Machine, the reading group enabled me to bring together some of the disparate stakeholders in this sprawling project—activists, artists, writers, and representatives from the many community groups that participated in my research—and learn from their ideas and insights. The texts we read included accounts of real, historical black intentional communities like Nicodemus, Kansas and Soul City, North Carolina. We also read excerpts from novels that address the conflict between blackness and utopia—including texts that consider blackness as a contaminating presence or as a constituent presence; the fantasy of a black-led political revolution; the fantasy that such a revolution might already secretly be underway, etc. The conversations were helpful in shaping the direction of subsequent components of the commission, including the performances this week and the book that I’m co-authoring with scholar Rizvana Bradley.

WILCOX  What conversations did you have and which texts did the group read that particularly influenced the libretto of the musical performance in the galleries? And which excerpts might the audience recognize in the performance? 

JEMISON  The libretto for the performance draws heavily upon my conversations with community members in Harlem last winter, which helped me understand the ways that the community of Harlem came to represent an ideal society for black southerners and northerners alike. We also discussed the complicated role of nostalgia and distance in understanding how a concept like utopia can be politically useful today in ways that are different from 1911, when a group of civically minded black women decided to name their society Utopia Neighborhood Club. That club later created a community center that provided the seed of Lawrence’s art education; it was there that he studied with Charles Alston, who served as his lifelong mentor and helped him navigate the practical challenges of an artist’s life in the 1930s.

From these conversations, I derived descriptions of utopian places and social sites—real and imagined—from the upstate New York community Chautauqua to Guyana to a jazz club in San Francisco. Figures of speech also play an important role, and big chunks of the libretto are composed of long chains of similes (“like summer,” “like a sigh,” “like clean,” etc.) Biblical language and gospel citations appear in the libretto and performance-“milk and honey land” is one textual reference. The libretto also refers to MoMA’s object files and includes quotations from writings and speeches by artists, especially Piet Mondrian and Sam Gilliam.

WILCOX  You’ve dislocated and relocated historical texts before. In Same Time (2013) you created a sound installation in which the Sidetrack Boyz, an R&B group, used vocal improvisation to revise, translate and rejuvenate a 1970 speech by Huey P. Newton at Boston College. You Completes Me (2013), a live performance, pairs a poem composed of language excerpted from popular urban fiction with a screening of the 1927 race film [a genre of movies with all-black casts for black audiences] The Scar of Shame. When untethered from their origins, what is the effect of these words—aesthetically, socially and politically?

JEMISON  I’ve been using “Same Time” as a title for other works recently because the idea that historical texts can be re-inflected, repeated and mined for meaning continues to be important to me. The process of provisionally placing an historical utterance in proximity to the present continues to be useful. The word “redundant” is very helpful to me: to rise in waves, again. To rise in waves, again. In the same speech, Newton quotes Nietzsche—the revolutionary is, he says, an “arrow of longing for another shore.” Such an elegant little phrase condenses orientation, distance, untapped energy (in other words, potential) and desire. Newton is fundamentally concerned in this essay with allowing the present to be inflected, but not controlled, by the past. I share these questions.

WILCOX  Why perform in the galleries rather than in one of the Museum’s theaters?

JEMISON  For some time, I’ve wanted to create a performance in a museum gallery that narrated an exhibition or permanent collection outside the traditional framework of the tour. For one thing, such a performance emphasizes the ways in which our encounters with even singular, “static” artworks—a history painting, a sculpture—are always time-based, at least insofar as the idea of an “encounter” implies the viewer’s experience, which is rooted in time. I’ve thought a lot about how the piece and its reverberations will linger for viewers—many of whom, I think, will be surprised by this breaking into song. Performance in the context of museum spaces is often relegated to ticketed events, whose audiences are self-selecting. But what’s especially interesting to me about working with an institution like MoMA is access to a large and diverse group of interlocutors. I wanted to take advantage of that. I also like playing with insiders and outsiders—some listeners will definitely recognize a Luther Vandross lick or an Al Green groove, whereas others might notice a quotation from Piet Mondrian or Sam Gilliam. The performance is mildly but meaningfully disruptive of the institutional space of the museum, not least because it draws upon vernacular musical forms.

WILCOX  The Utopia Neighborhood Club, a women’s social service group in Harlem, provided social, intellectual and financial support to Lawrence. This formative but behind-the-scenes work is often done by women in the art world who go unrecognized. Is there a feminist or revisionist impulse at play here?

JEMISON  I am absolutely interested in the fact that at the same time groups composed mostly of men were assembling the first national civil rights organizations, like the NAACP (which dates from 1909), a group of Harlem women were concerned with the lofty and the practical all at once: who was going to feed, care for and serve black children and their mothers? The Utopia Neighborhood Club built powerful partnerships in order to serve tens of thousands of children—performing important public health and educational work in the complete absence of such support from the government or private foundations. The Club was an important model of self-determination and a source of inspiration for similar groups nationally.

WILCOX  Can you discuss your choice of the title Promise Machine? Promise implies a social contract, which has a utopian connotation. I associate machine, on the other hand, with automation and the technology of the industrial age.

JEMISON The title was inspired by an essay by Ian Buchanan, in which he points out that a promise is a commitment that, by definition, may or may not be fulfilled. If a promise is realized, it is no longer a promise—it is happening, it is the real. The idea of utopia is a type of promise and as such, functions as a cord that continually connects the present and the future. And because utopia points continuously in a single direction, it also works as a metric of desire and as an engine that incentivizes political action in the present, stimulating and directing the political imaginary. In my conversations with young people in particular, we talked about the many ways that utopia has served and can continue to serve a very practical political purpose, reminding us that our political imagination is not only responsive and reactive, but can and must also be visionary, surreal—beyond-real.