American Realness

A Predictable Vacuum

A Predicatable Vacuum

by Dean Moss
Published: August 31, 2015 as a part of READING 2015
Originally published in Movement Research Performance Journal #46


Buck Wanner wrote the other day. He said “…we have an idea for an article that we’d like to invite you to address.” He went on to say, “The basic idea would be an article on race…”
Then Buck quoted Ben Pryor, who said:

I think the program has done a pretty bad job of addressing race and I am wondering if there is may- be a way to call attention to this with some sense of sensitivity.

Buck wasn’t sure about Ben’s perception, but was interested in “hearing someone consider it.”

They were looking for a longer article — two to five thousand words — due in February, and offered two hundred dollars.

I felt intrigued, but feigned modesty, accused them of ulterior motives, and suggested they ask someone else.

Dutifully, patiently, and at length Buck reasoned, ending with: “I don’t know what you would say, and I’m curious.”

I don’t know either. Susceptible to flattery or deluded by conscience I agree, and see the work of Tere O’Connor, Jack Ferver, Cynthia Hopkins, Miguel Gutierrez, luciana achugar, Neal Medlyn, My Barbarian, and Jeremy Wade. They all leave varying degrees of good impressions, but these are my colleagues, and this is not a critique of works or artists, but rather an elementary inquiry on realness, race and me.

The festival is… white. Buck and Ben are both white. They’re sincere, honest people, concerned with diversity. So is that why the article they’ve commissioned is being published during Black History Month? I don’t know, coincidence perhaps?


South of the Sahara Africans sometimes speak of not knowing they were “black” until they arrived in Europe or America or elsewhere. Sometimes true and always a good line, it’s often met with predictable response from well groomed, inexperienced audiences, titillated by the exotic. I was impressed, though the naming was never an issue. I was black well before I realized I was not white, and was quick to discover the social usefulness of cultivating a being that was also somewhere “not-black”. Because of this, when presented with the choice, I chose to study dance rather than theater. The dance offers a transcendence of identity, whereas theater turns on its recognition.(1) Glib much? Yep, but I really hated performing identity.

Whatever. Trying to be honest, sincere, self-protective. Addressing you, the reader, with the obligatory disclaimer: you know you’re seeing through these eyes, with this gender, this skin, having that experience, paid this much, which leads to predictable conclusions? Maybe. I curated “Black Dance” a couple of years ago. It featured two women and a man: one asian, one white, and one hispanic, no blacks. The white woman appeared in black-face, the asian woman was repeatedly slapped by a white male hand, and the hispanic man ran circles naked, his tongue waggling with a flag of revolution. I thought I was making an obvious statement on perception, until somebody mumbled that what they perceived was a black heart… Funny.

Perhaps it was the not-black heart they perceived. The heart that attempted to escape through cracks in racial convention. The one forced to be adept at immolation and transmutation. My sweet black heart’s much too delicate for that kind of work. The not-black one is battle worn and bulletproof. It’s good to have the two. They make for a tempting blended identity, easily generating a malleable chastened outlook surrounded by the resistive armor of arrogance, like a crusty creme filled brioche. An accident of birth is how they described it at Restaurant Florent, confronting the mystery of why this pensive hetero busboy so well participated in its affluent gay activist life. An accident of birth goes for festivals too, considering the distinction attributed their founders and the necessary nepotism of their beginnings. I thought of those things while trudging repeatedly through Chinese and Jewish neighborhoods and arriving to be guided by Abron’s black and hispanic staff, joining vastly white audiences for vastly white shows, knowing I too (black, not-black, not white, not gay) had been invited to share that stage.


Eric Torres introduces an interview:(2)

To many LGBT-identifying people, the word ‘realness’ evokes a very specific image in queer history. It’s the sequence in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, in which several late 80’s NYC queens display what ‘realness’ truly means: to blend seamlessly into heterosexual culture despite your queerness….

Then asks:

How do you define ‘realness’ in relation to the arts?

Ben rejoins:

With the festival, I consider Realness in relationship to the performativity of personhood and identity and how these ideas are played with in the performance of life, highlighted here for us on stage…

He goes on to say:

There is also a level of “realness” that relates to the underfunded nature of American work (dance/theater/ performance) in relationship to international work. It is about acknowledging that there is more frequently a DIY, raw aesthetic employed in this American work versus its international counterparts…

And finishes with with a flourish:

There is also the level of marketplace… So American Realness is also about selling your goods. In the traditional American entrepreneurial spirit, we have set up shop and we are for sale.

So let’s tease this out. Performativity of personhood, DIY aesthetic, and the entrepreneurial spirit, American Realness indeed. Exciting stuff, but what the interview really made me want to do is see the film again. I sensed a void. Surely something else was part of the realness of the documentary, something that seems completely missing from the interview. Of course it doesn’t take firing up Netflix and watching for seventy-eight minutes to know the answer to that: race. Race in America. Race as exotic other. Race as proxy for Marxist class critique. How can they not mention it? The concept of realness itself comes from the specificity of that late century urban circumstance and the people who lived it. The film takes place in Harlem, the lives depicted are black and hispanic, the aspirations are of the poor and disenfranchised, their overwhelming desire to hold for however fleeting a moment the image of the financial security and social mobility found exclusively in the glamorized majority population: to model the trappings of whiteness. What’s amazing and heartbreaking in the film, is a minority community’s transmutation of hegemonic paradigms of control, into an exercise in support of its own identity. This was made all the clearer in the film, because that community was of a different color than the near invisible ruling class, and the act of “passing” was in a singular direction: from marked to unmarked. Realness here, is a qualitative assessment of how well one passes into invisibility: into an imagined, all-inclusive, fiscally affluent reality.

My college anthropology course reminds me: The capacity for a culture to become dominant resides in its superior ability to assimilate or marginalize the other. Meaning, in more brutal terms: whites victoriously absorbed what they could and destroyed the rest, but because their dominance was considered the norm, they were culturally near invisible (even to themselves) while doing it.

But not for George Yancy’s prying eyes, who asks:(3)

Do you also see whiteness as ‘a stylized repetition of acts’ that solidifies and privileges white bodies…?

Judith Butler counters:

Yes, we can certainly talk about ‘doing whiteness’ as a way of putting racial categories into action, since whiteness is part of what we call ‘race,’ and is often implicitly or explicitly part of a race project that seeks to achieve and maintain dominance for white people. One way this happens is by establishing whiteness as the norm for the human…one that is built up over time, through daily practices, modes of address, through the organization of schools, work, prison, law and media… all ways that the conceit of white superiority is constructed.

I’ll be eleven years from my one hundredth birthday or dead when white demographic superiority finally disappears in the United States. Long before that, the projection of them as normality will have passed. Already their status as default human beings and the attending invisibility are gone. Whites are white. Economically a more powerful racial niche than all the rest, but a stylistically recognizable niche none the less. And yet in some corners the concept of an invisible white norm lingers, particularly in contemporary arts. Is this why Eric and Ben didn’t mention race in their descriptions? I don’t know, coincidence perhaps?


AR 2015 was hugely successful! Twenty-six artists featured in seventy-seven events over fourteen days, and it sold out from beginning to end. If the goal was to attract international presenters, local arts professionals, queer and contemporary artist communities, along with a smattering of the general public, they’ve more than effectively mobilized their target audiences. As for entrepreneurial spirit, over the last five years American Realness has grown from niche player to become arguably the most dominate force in the contemporary dance scene of the Association of Performing Arts Presenter’s yearly New York City conference. I literally heard a choreographer complain AR had sucked the air out of all other contemporary dance showcases. An exaggeration to be sure, but by all accounts they’re killing it, and perhaps therein lies the crux.

It seems damning when the neighborhood, the theater staff, and even the vastly white audiences, are more racially diverse than the artists and performers on stage. It seems damning when that same disparity is reflected in the technical staff, the festival marketing, the theater’s upper management, and of course ubiquitously among funders and presenters. It seems damning even if realistically unaddressable, because to challenge normality is the festival’s raison d’étre. This amazingly successful festival, through its name, draws and profits from a legacy. That legacy in turn places upon the festival a responsibility. That responsibility is to be within its specificity inclusive: somewhere there’s a place for us… this is that place.

That it should appear to break so drastically along color lines points to the past, to the historical effects of a segregated society, and to a resonance with the purveyors of control, as opposed to those who subvert it. The practicalities of curating inclusively for such a distinct circumstance are not trivial, and I enthusiastically applaud Ben for his brilliance, his foresight, his ongoing accomplishment, still I have to agree with his own assessment of the program in regards to non-white racial involvement. It seems, as the festival has grown, it has not brought a deeper investment in diversity. This year was particularly bleak with not a single visibly non- white choreographer’s work presented.(4) Though I know first hand some were asked, still the impact of programming is determined by what’s delivered. Does this mean the festival’s curatorial peculiarity was an anomaly? Perhaps, but looking at the lineup over the last several years, I would suggest that the curation was too reliant for diversity on the same few artists, and when they weren’t available, there became a predictable vacuum.

Last year it was striking to see the appearance of someone new tackling a rigorous, intricately layered, character driven, exploration of black racial experience. Her performance spoke to me through its surprising and careful articulation of very specific tropes. Not everyone appreciated the work as I did. But everyone must want to share the possibility of that kind of deep experience. An experience based not in race, but in recognition. Finding the self in an unknown other through art is subversive and contradictory. It involves passing one thing off as another. It involves a lot of moving parts bound together so tightly that if one goes missing, there’s a vacuum. American Realness is my place to escape the vacuum. When it doesn’t deliver, I feel that much less.


So what are the requirements for realness now, when the leader of the free world is a mixed race black, and the CEO of its richest publicly traded corporation is openly gay? (Unimaginable thirty years ago in Harlem, or anywhere else.) How can today’s minority queer community transmute the infinitely more subtle paradigms of control into an exercise in support of its own identity? How does that exercise manifest visibly in the festival when the outward characteristics of the community, and those of the ruling class are essentially the same? What now is the role of passing, what are its directions, its goals? How do we keep American Realness from becoming quaint, nostalgic, irrelevant and passing into invisibility?

Seems natural, given these and like questions swirling around in more than my own mind, that the artists’ works I saw this year all dealt very specifically with duality. Whether it was the self literally split into on-stage characters, or the auto- biographical rant to an audience also perceptually the self, or the self dissolved into participatory environments, it was a fascinating parade of artists looking into the the looking glass. Their meta-mirroring reminded me of the Ancients’ two-faced Janus. The god of beginnings and transitions, who looked simultaneously to the future and the past, over exchanges both internal and external. It made me think that the artist’s strategy of self-fragmentation, combined with the act of moving between the various selves, was an effective means of evoking, and thereby marking, the myriad invisibles that divide and bind us.

However to assure a similar efficacy, for a festival at the curatorial level, it would need to consistently explore the broadest possible sense of self, articulated by the widest possible diversity of participants in the deepest possible manner. The survival of the festival would depend on it. At the end of the film Paris Is Burning, a golden elder queen speaks to the mellowing of ambition over time, appreciating the accomplishments of survival, but also says: “…everyone wants to leave something behind them, an impression, a mark upon the world…”. For American Realness I can imagine nothing less.

This article originally submitted February 4, 2015.

(1) Anonymous

(2) Gayletter: Ben Pryor On American Realness By Eric Torres, published January 2014

(3) New York Times: What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter’? By George Yancy and Judith Butler, published January 12, 2015

(4) By “visibly non-white” I mean obviously ethnic; that racial diversity need be obvious to my eye, which by dint of experience is finely calibrated. Conceivably two works were presented in the festival by ethnically “other” makers, however those makers “read” visually within the broad range of white.

READING is made possible with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
image: Ian Douglas