American Realness

We’ve Got Spirit. How ‘bout You?

By Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste

Where are the leather jackets?
Where’s the drumset?
What’s up with that stage on the stage?
Where’s the band?

These and many other queries might emerge upon entering into the spartan landscape of Nora Chipaumire’s #PUNK. Though these questions which might seem superficial and may very well speak more to one’s values and expectations, there is a sort-of thread which weaves through them prompting the audience to ask themselves:

What are the implications of subverting a culture predicated on a performance of subversiveness?

With that question in mind, there emerges something inherently and richly transgressive in the manner in which #PUNK plays upon a social understanding of punk as a form, a set of practices, visual signifiers, and sensibilities, while embracing what pioneering Houston-based noise-rapper B_L_A_C_K_I_E would refer to as “true spirit and not giving a fuck.” That sense of transgression is only heightened and given urgency as it becomes increasingly apparent that what Chipaumire and her accomplice Shamar Watt were presenting the audience with wasn’t at all about not giving a fuck for the sake of not giving a fuck; or perhaps, more aptly, “wanting to fuck the world with a dick” for its own sake. Here, Chipaumire and Watt work with a sort of hyper-consciousness, as their performance of a performative nihilism often found throughout contemporary punk and alternative cultures eschews its most obvious pitfalls: posturing and masculine aggression. In doing so, they simultaneously challenge the assumed limitations of punk formalism, entering a place of exciting unfamiliarity while also affording the audience an opportunity to question why anyone might show up to a performance to not give a fuck as well as their relationship to not giving a fuck.

While this certainly places Chipaumire and Watt in relation to a history of punk and alternative practices which centers interpersonal relation and mindful awareness, #PUNK also enables a deeper understanding of the importance of and symbiosis between non-essentialization, errantry, fugitivity, opacity, and punk and alternative spirit to the survival of radical Black cultural practice. Here, the performers take into account a cultural gaze which presumes its own omniscience and render themselves opaque through a repetition of material to which the audience eventually becomes accustomed. As Chipaumire and Watt introduce and return to similar texts and gestures throughout the space, along not at all similar trajectories, they seem inexhaustible and impervious to the degradation often associated with such repetition. As they repetitively and frenetically oscillate between their stage, itself only a few inches off of the ground, and the actual stage upon which the audience is standing, this gesture softens and becomes a less performatively radical act and more an act which challenges the dominance of performative radicality so present in contemporary punk culture.

Time seems to expand and contract, Chipaumire and Watt continue about the space, still in cycle, fucking plenty with the present and fucking plenty with the future until the two collapse upon one another. Time, then, is no longer perceived as linear, or what Édourard Glissant theorized as “arrowlike nomadism” in his text, Poetics Of Relation. In #PUNK, Chipaumire and Watt were not moving forward or through and there was no destination or allowance for rootedness. Neither was the experience of time in this work a flatly circular one, as is often posited, nor was it an act of Glissantian “circular nomadism,” which might be understood as societies and people existing in a type of relation framed by a “giving-on-and-with” which functions through an errant, yet circular understanding of time and location which refuses the inherent singularity or rootedness associated with “arrowlike nomadism.” Still, to explain the experience of time in #PUNK as such would deny the work’s use of time as a material; one just as unseen, yet integral to human existence.

It is possible, though, that this present yet unquantifiable phenomenon of societies and people entering into relation and thriving because of said relation via temporal and spatial nomadism via a “spirit” might be better understood, not as a circle, but as something more fluid and spherical and, thus, more complex. While this is certainly important in its own right, it also, understanding the temporal experience as three-dimensional might create an opportunity to more deeply consider the intersections and divergences between fluid natural time (potentially understood as the passing of days and seasons as well as other cycles not dominated by human perception), rigidly imposed and codified time (clocks and watches and other manners and cycles founded as a primacy of human perception) and their ability to shape relations and lived experiences. It cannot go unacknowledged that such errantry and fugitive spirit are inherent to the proliferation of radical Black cultural practices flourishing as a result of its three-dimensional nature.

Chipaumire and Watt are still going, with increasing fervor. This incredible dynamism, with their sheer inexhaustibility and rich repetitiveness, begins to exhaust the audience with their own assumed familiarity. Here, the primacy of the dominant gaze has been used against itself and begins to miss small-yet-important and deliberate shifts within the repetition it believes itself to be witnessing. Errant radical moments begin to hide in plain sight, creating a sort-of Moten-Harleyesque fugitivity shared only by the few whom remain vigilant and possess an infinite literacy while knowing that any outward expression of this shared knowledge might render valuably illegible as legible. This relational fugitivity is a brilliant act of espionage and allows for the possibility of a radical and slippery, yet ever-persistent opposition to oppressive structures by avoiding capture, compartmentalization and outright commodification; frequent, if not intentional, consequences of economic and social neoliberalism’s intrusion into individuals, entire cultures, and the relation practices they might develop.

Chipaumire’s understanding of punk as a fugitive spirit sheds the traditional aesthetic signifiers associated with the form and becomes substantiated by refusing alignment their association with a culture predicate d by domination, capture, and consumption. Just as well, an understanding of punk which is unconcerned with nearly any visible or sonic signifiers, its sound and fashion and disaffected affect, frees it from existence as a form, leaving not an essence, but a spirit. In doing so, Chipaumire’s work makes explicit the timeless and spherical nature of a (sub)cultural phenomenon so potent that it might evade a domination which manifest s in the form of being rendered legible as well as the subsequent capture associated with the demise of radical cultures and their practices, while maintaining the ability to gutturally affect all those whom might catch it.

Photo By Ian Douglas