American Realness

Performance and Language: On Trajal Harrell’s “Twenty Looks, or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church”

By Maya Harakawa

Frantz Fanon begins his 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks by discussing language. “There is an extraordinary power,” he writes, “in the possession of a language.”[1] Power is the operative word here. Black Skin, White Masks is a study of the effects of colonialism on the black psyche and as such is thoroughly concerned with the fundamental power differential that distinguishes the colonizer from the colonized. The primacy language assumes in Fanon’s formulation of this dynamic is worth highlighting. By devoting the first chapter of his book to the question of language, Fanon treats it as more than just a means of communication. While it is often analyzed at the level of syntax or content, Fanon’s interest in language lies somewhere else entirely. Language for Fanon is a matter of ontology, of being. Fanon argues that “to speak is to exist absolutely for the other.”[2]

When the colonized Antillean (the primary subject of Fanon’s book) masters the French language, and demonstrates this mastery via speech, she does more than simply learn a new vocabulary and grammar. She adapts to a set of values encoded in the language itself. According to Fanon, “a man [sic] who possesses a language possesses as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language.”[3] And what world is expressed in the language of the French colonizer? It is one predicated on the inferiority of the colonized subject, an inferiority that becomes internalized and entrenched every time the French language is externalized in speech. Language, then, is an agent of power, a tool of self-objectification that, in the colonial context, results in self-alienation rather than self-affirmation.

I find Fanon’s approach to language extremely compelling. We know from J. L. Austin that words are performative, that you can do things with them and that they have material consequences. But Fanon’s theory of language, while it can be extrapolated to performative ends, is distinct because it is predicated on difference. Language organizes the psyche of the locutor when it is operating in uneven terrain, when there is directionality behind its exchange, moving hierarchically rather than laterally. The question behind Fanon’s understanding of language might then be posed as: How does language operate at the point where two worlds meet?

Trajal Harrell’s Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (S) asks a similar question: “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ballroom scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” This conceit crafts a fiction predicated on difference; difference in geography, in gender, in race. Forcing an encounter between two milieus that, in 1963, were distinct and physically separated, Harrell employs a variety of languages to visually interface between the two. Fashion is one of these languages. Movement, the morpheme of performance, is another. In each case, a set of conventions—rules that dictate the intelligibility of a given visual language—are reworked rather than accepted or enforced. Like Fanon, who understood that language was more than just the meaning of words, Harrell performs the exchange of language itself. It is the communication of both form and content.

Take style for instance, as another language of performance. Just like spoken language, style is a complex system of disclosure. It is connotative, it conveys meaning, and it follows a set of rules that must be mutually recognized to ensure intelligibility. The voguing of the Harlem Ballroom scene and the postmodernism associated with Judson are two distinct styles of dance, meaning that their practitioners adhere to different coherent qualities. Voguing draws inspiration from the poses of fashion magazines. The lines are hard, the movement is exuberant. The Judson variety of postmodern dance emphasizes continuity. The movement is deskilled and factual; non-mimetic and anti-expressionistic. If the walk of voguing is native to the catwalk, then walk of postmodern dance is far more pedestrian.

Walking occupies a prominent position in both the balls of Harlem and postmodern dance,  and Harrell exploits this formal similarity. A gait—its pace, its rhythm—is highly coded, the product of cultural meaning ascribed to bodies based on race, gender, and class. Bringing two highly charged styles to bear on a single movement, Harrell reframes its communicative function, creating a space for the viewer to rethink their meanings.

Harrell’s walk in Twenty Looks speaks multiple languages. Slowed down to a glacial pace, the walk is one seamless expenditure of energy. It is, in other words, “good” postmodern dance; it follows the rules of that aesthetic tradition. And yet, the purposeful placement of the feet, the upward thrust of the knees, and the elliptical motion of the hips are unmistakably mined from high fashion, a reference to the movement vocabulary of voguing. The walk is a slow motion strut exaggerated for artistic rather than comedic effect. In this one movement, we see a dialogue of styles. The languages of multiple traditions speak to each other, communicating tensions and convergences rather than domination and submission.

How do we communicate across difference? It is not my intention to suggest that Harrell’s performance is a utopian resolution of meaningful conflict. There is antagonism and incoherence throughout the work. Binaries (uptown/downtown; male/female; popular/avant-garde) are just as frequently collapsed as they are left suspended. But, by thinking through these differences through the lense of language, by emphasizing communication and exchange, I wonder if it is possible to at least imagine a way of being through language that, in contra distinction to Fanon, does not inflict alienation or subjugation. If Harrell’s performance is a world in and of itself–an imagined space–then its simultaneously hybridized and conflicting languages transmit, indeed create, their own worldview rather than reify that of another.

Maya Harakawa is a PhD student in the Art History department at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

[1] Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1952), 2.

[2] ibid., 1.

[3] ibid., 2.

photo by Ian Douglas