Blank Map: Doing Whatever the Fuck We Want

Endurance Tests

Blank Map: Doing Whatever the Fuck We Want

By Anna Martine Whitehead May 31, 2016

“Endurance Tests” is an irregular column on current explorations of representation, the ethereal, and compulsiveness by black artists working in the field of performance. Across profiles and interviews, the column takes seriously the proposition of performance as a repeatable and assimilable text. “Endurance Tests” will examine contemporary performance-makers actively syncretizing the many implications of "blackness": illegality, contagion, maladaptivity, and a privileged relationship to cool.


Blank Map is a performance debuting at the National Queer Arts Festival this June. Depending on whom you ask, it is a performance about Blackness, or it is about White privilege in the arts, or it is about psychedelic magic. Keith Hennessy, a veteran Bay Area choreographer, serves as both director and conduit of resources for the ensemble of performers: Wizard Apprentice, Tasha Ceyan, keyon gaskin, Brontez Purnell, and Adee Roberson. The performers themselves are dancers, visual artists, queer healers, and musicians, and have spent the past six months making a piece, for which Keith has had very little input. The project purports to pose more questions than answers, but it also provides some very critical paradoxes around watching and being watched while Black. Blank Map is a piece about everything other than Blackness, made and performed in a container in which Black people cannot make work about anything other than Blackness. Which, incidentally, is a defining antinomy of Black life—the positioning of a full life within the context of an anti-Black world that refuses Black folks’ right to fullness.

I sat down with the five artists of Blank Map during their residency at MANCC to discuss the project and Keith’s involvement in it. We began by talking about the imperative of healing in a space which has been curated by an older White artist, but which is occupied only by younger Black artists.

Blank Map performers; left to right, top to bottom: Tasha Ceyan, Brontez Purnell, keyon gaskin, Adee Roberson, Wizard Apprentice. Courtesy of Blank Map performers. Photo and artwork: Adee Roberson. 

On the Privileges and Disadvantages of Not Being the Producer

Brontez Purnell: Creative practice in terms of intellectual property is crazy to me. I mean that the creative process does not just involve making the work, but making the work alongside other factors that push the work into a thing to be “witnessed.” It raises the question of whether or not the art director is the co-parent or the midwife.

keyon gaskin: Keith [Hennessy] has a history of anti-racist politics. That being said, there’s a lot of opportunity for Keith to build capital through this project. Not that I think that’s necessarily Keith’s focus, but I do think that’s a potential outcome of this work. There is social and political capital that comes with being able to say that these resources were gotten through his name to be given to an all-Black cast. There’s also hard capital—money. He’s also able to, for example, get a MAP grant. When that happens, I think about how, for example, Keith’s Facebook page blew up with folks around the world saying, “Congratulations on getting the MAP fund.” But I didn’t get any email. I didn’t get any Facebook messages. Did you, Wizard Apprentice?

Wizard Apprentice: No, I did not.

KG: Keith is really great about saying, “We got the MAP grant. You can use the MAP grant going forward on your CV.” But at the same time, the person whose name is actually recognized is Keith’s.

This woman at our MANCC showing was saying she felt deceived by Keith, because his name was plastered over everything and she thought he was going to be there. And then she got there and it’s just us. I have to walk to the MANCC office with Keith next to me just to get the resources that I need to make the work. This infrastructure is not made for me. These people don’t even necessarily want me here—but I’m here.

WA: But Keith also serves as a buffer between us and the things we don’t want to deal with. When that woman in the audience said, “I feel manipulated,” Brontez asked for clarity: “Do you feel manipulated by us [the cast] or by Keith?” She said by Keith, so we shut up! And I don’t want to write four grant proposals and not get any of them! One of the things that I feel from this is the freeing up of space by all the work that Keith has done.

Blank Map performers; left to right: Adee Roberson, keyon gaskin, Brontez Purnell, Tasha Ceyan, Wizard Apprentice. Courtesy of Blank Map performers. Photo and artwork: Adee Roberson. 

On Funding and Benefaction

Adee Roberson: We’ve been thinking about [Charlotte Osgood] “Godmother” Mason, the White woman benefactor of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, and others during the Harlem Renaissance. She was really controlling and intense, and eventually none of them had a relationship with her. As an artist in general, but especially as a Black artist, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of White people to get resources. It’s an element that’s always been there. Maybe now we have more tools and better boundaries, but it’s definitely an aspect of creating that has been there for Black people through history.

BP: White patronage in the Black arts has been a “thing” from the jump, and there are few who exist outside of it. In the half of my life that I’ve been playing in bands, writing books, making dance performances and films, my work [when funded] is usually by a counter-culturally informed White dude. A lot of radical Black artists have this narrative. Somewhere in the 90th percentile of the art world gets its paycheck signed by a White man, so what the fuck do I look like being shook about it?

AR: With this project Keith is providing a resource that we might not have gotten. If all five of us applied to a grant, we probably wouldn’t have fucking gotten it. It’s about access.

Tasha Ceyan: Still, there’s definitely a bitterness around funding. I’m Bay Area born and raised, and can’t afford an apartment in the town that I’ve lived in for over two decades. My grandma and I lived in her mother’s Section 8 apartment for years, even when we both had full-time jobs, and it wasn’t until she was able to secure a job as a manager of that same building that I’ve been able to afford the place where I live. I’ve woken up mornings in the city without enough money to eat, let alone get anywhere to sleep.

And here Keith is writing grants and people are giving him money and his privilege is apparent as fuck. And sometimes I’d rather not hear about that. I appreciate this thing that a lot of folks like Keith do where they say, “I’m just going to talk about this whack shit that’s in relation to this privilege that I have.” But sometimes I just feel like, “You know what, I don’t want to hear it, because my grandmother’s got to clean piss out of elevators to make sure that she and I have a place to live.”

On Homegirlism, Collaboration, and the Freedom of Being Black Together

TC: Blackness is a thing we talk about, but it’s not necessarily a thing we’re creating around. It’s certainly a part of our conversations in the studio. For example, someone will say, “Hey, when you were a kid, did you…” and that will start a really awesome, sometimes painful conversation about our experiences with Blackness, among other things. But the actual performance that we’re working toward? It has that element—Blackness is a facet—but it’s far more complex, far more complicated than that.

KG: The joy of being with these people has been the crux of the experience for me. This feels like a really generative space. I was really wary at the beginning regarding Keith’s role and this idea of Keith choreographing a piece about Blackness with Black bodies. But at the first meeting we all showed up and said to Keith, “So, we need to talk about you leaving.” That was the first meeting, and I was like, “Okay, yes!” He’s been game in a lot of ways to step out of the space.

TC: For the most part Keith is in the space only when we invite him into it. Like, “Speak, friend, and you may enter.” I’ve had White-man tourists before, along the lines of, if you give them an inch, they will take a mile. When you confront them about it, they don’t always handle it so graciously. So I said, “Nope, you have to stand outside the room and we have to figure this out for ourselves.” He does have an urge to be a part of it, but also really knows it’s important to step back. As far as the directing, that’s all us.

BP: This piece does test some patience in me, though. Race is always on the table to be discussed, but I did feel some anxiety about how this was the question on the table before we even made the work. How many all-White performances have I had to suffer through in the Bay and beyond without ever hearing this same critique? Or people will say, "Oh, that performance was really White," but no one is ever held accountable for it, because I guess Whiteness "just is."  But I’ve definitely had a couple of people come up to me and ask, “Why are you doing this?!” I’m in my head thinking, “I feel safe in this piece.” But, as the saying goes, your only safety lies in danger…

Blank Map performers; left to right: Wizard Apprentice, Tasha Ceyan, Adee Roberson, Brontez Purnell, keyon gaskin. Courtesy of Blank Map performers. Photo and artwork: Adee Roberson. 

On Being Able to Do Whatever the Fuck We Want

KG: In these past two residencies we’ve had unlimited space and time so there hasn’t been pressure to show up on time, leave on time, and et cetera—which has felt amazingly generative. And we’re all coming at it from very different places. But just being together with a bunch of queer Black folks has been really exciting. It’s all been really nice, and it softens the impact of the gaze, like we got pillows on.

BP: Sometimes I could write a whole dissertation on why I made whatever choice where, and then other times, just saying, “I did it cause I mothafuckin’ felt like it" can be justification enough.

AR: This collective—Tasha, keyon, Brontez, Wizard Apprentice—are all really powerful theorists, artists, musicians, managers, and producers on our own. A lot of focus has been on Keith with this piece, and I am grateful that he has set many initial and sustaining things in motion for us to create the work. [But] I don’t think that he deserves a pat on the back for that. The kind of support Keith gives is essential to supporting Black life and liberation. 

I never went to school. I don’t have a bachelors, I don’t have a masters. I’m self-taught with everything that I do. Through my art practice, it’s been liberating for me as a Black woman who comes from that background to have access to things through my own imagination. Everything that I do is toward Black liberation. Giving Black people that freedom and space to be whatever we want—whether that be something that’s about Blackness or not—it’s all connected to our liberation. To have the freedom to do whatever the fuck we want, no matter what.

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