How to begin to create again…

Katy Warner/ September 12, 2020/ Artist Post

‘The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such. It allows the emergence of the being-in-a-medium of human beings and thus it opens the ethical dimension for them.’

Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture,” 58.

I think of myself as a landscape, and my mind can be that bird that soars high above hunting, seeking out the truth of things–all of the things that made me, my white settler and missionary ancestors, family secrets and shames, the magic and the machines, my own stories of romance and failure, the way it looked, felt, sounded when I was being made. And the violence of it all, just outside of my own frame for too long.

I ask myself: How can I respond to this moment? amidst the pandemic, anti-racist uprisings, emboldened white supremacists, healthcare crisis and economic depression. There are a number of practical and political issues to engage with in this moment and yet we are isolated as never before. As a white woman who grew up in Arcata and recently moved back, I am experiencing this moment through a feeling of dislocation. I am swimming upstream against narratives that used to define me (of my innocence and specialness, for example, attributes that I now see as mythic privileges of whiteness). I am now raising a daughter and writing a dissertation on theatrical spirit mediums and nineteenth-century racism. In my research and my life, I ask what it looks like to dismantle feminine whiteness, and there are contradictions, for my thought is a process of dis-identification and responsibility: to see glimpses of the ugly truth in all that made me and yet try to choose otherwise while maintaining a sense of self.

I am writing to you, friends of the sanctuary, in order to introduce myself and my thinking to you, and to say that now I am ready and excited for input and to pour some of this chaos in my mind into a project.

Let’s call it “The Puppet and its Half-Spirit”: seeking a vital materialism of the future against distorted visions of whiteness. A piece of theatre to be shared in distance and dislocation.

As a theatre scholar, I take inspiration from puppeteers who have always been on the frontlines of social commentary and protest by finding a truth in a piece of wood or an object and giving voice to something others may need to hear. Gesture, as I see it, is a way of sending forward a sentiment, a seed of a story into something that truly speaks beyond the limits of individual identity. Thinking with Agamben, I consider gestures to be movements in excess of and beside language, drawing attention to the ways in which we do things, not just the conscious meanings attached to them. I hope that a gestural approach to art will help me think through the ethics of this moment.

I have never been an artist who is inspired by a blank canvas, but one who takes up and assembles the materials and trash I find around me. I think that whiteness can be like that blank canvas, too frequently it looks empty, and that supposed emptiness is a powerful tool of hiding the mechanisms of oppression. However, whiteness is in fact full of specific qualities, what I might call the trash that made me. In this show, I consider myself and nineteenth-century spiritualism as two starting points to turn around and around for fresh perspectives… take, for instance, a table on its face, fragments from old journals and language from “the spirits.”

I take two figures into view: John Murray Spear and Paschal Beverly Randolph, men who advocated for the abolition of slavery and for womens suffrage in the nineteenth century by surrendering to or blending themselves with spirits. Spear famously created a “God Machine” supposedly born through the magnetic power of a living woman. Randolph, an African American sex magician, frequently spoke through the voice of “Cynthia,” a dead woman who articulated a theory of transformative love:

“I passed under the operation of higher laws of nature, and more interior ones of my
own immortal soul. One of the first, and most important of these last, is the law of Vastation—whereby the soul throws off the old loves, preparatory to entering upon new ones. Its first involuntary act, in the second, as in the first case, was to clothe itself; but no longer subject to the old law of association, and coming under a new one, it rejected the things of memory, and assumed the garb corresponding to its new-born loves,—all in conformity to a law within it- self” (Randolph, Dealings with the Dead, 56)

To empty and put the soul in relation to new loves, I take this as one possible operation in the process of making theatre. I will begin with the medium of language and find new affinities between words, and then I will let my own love of what these words conjure become propositions in space expressed through light and shadow. After personal and historical research, I am at the beginning of a process of translation–of following the thoughts wherever they may lead.

I am excited about collaboration, so if anyone is interested in making something with/alongside me from afar, I would be happy to open up my process. I thank you for your attention, and I wish you health, safety and fulfillment in these difficult times.

Hazel Rickard
PhD Candidate in Theatre Historiography
University of Minnesota
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