Edgar Arceneaux: Playing in the Black Hole

Endurance Tests

Edgar Arceneaux: Playing in the Black Hole

By Anna Martine Whitehead January 30, 2018

“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.


Central to Edgar Arceneaux’s practice is a treatment of reality as diverse and time as multitudinous. Lately, he’s been making work that offers multiple and sometimes conflicting narratives about our Black heroes. Most recently, this involves making work about blackface.

In 1908, W.E.B. Du Bois acknowledged blackface minstrelsy as both an arrival and a loss, writing, "the Negro folk-song... the sole American music... [was] caricatured on the 'minstrel' stage and [its] memory died away."1 While the context and contours of blackface have been explored since the 19th century by scholars (most profoundly in Eric Lott’s Love and Theft) and more recently by artists (such as Iona Rozeal Brown), the subject remains sticky. Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled—arguably one of the most compelling creative theses on minstrelsy—was criticized by Roger Ebert as "perplexing... [Lee] doesn't find a successful way to express his feelings."2 Ebert contended that minstrelsy was unique in the panoply of social horrors in that it could not be satirized, that blackface is so highly charged "it obscures any point being made by the person wearing it."

Indeed, Arceneaux thought he would never touch the subject. “It was clear that blackface was presented in a moral framework that forced one to read it as either good or bad,” he told me, of early encounters with artists using the minstrel image. “It was a kind of black hole of meaning."

With Until, Until, Until... (2015—17), Arceneaux repurposes minstrelsy in an effort to reimagine what blackface could mean or do to a public. The work dives deep into the controversial performance that the award-winning Ben Vereen presented at Ronald Reagan's first inaugural ball, in 1981. Vereen performed as the legendary Bert Williams—one of the most famous vaudeville entertainers across racial lines—and began in blackface, as Williams would have. Vereen-as-Williams sang “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” (“It's the good ship Robert E. Lee/come to carry the cotton away”), and the Republicans ate it up. In the second half of the performance, Vereen wiped off the blackface and sang the lament “Nobody” (“Who hands to me a glowin' kiss?/Nobody”). What was intended as a caustic commentary of the pain endured by all Black Americans was sabotaged by the network ABC, which only televised the first half, and Vereen's standing among the Black cultural establishment plummeted.

In 2014, more than thirty years after Vereen’s performance, and twenty years after Arceneaux saw a television documentary with sections of the unaired segment, Arceneaux happened to attend a birthday party at the Underground Museum, and Ben Vereen was sitting at the bar.

Edgar Arceneaux. Until, Until, Until…, 2016; installation view, Edgar Arceneaux, 2017–2018. Courtesy of the Artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer.

Edgar Arceneaux: I thought the serendipity could mean something.

Anna Martine Whitehead: Because you remembered the documentary?

EA: Yes! Ben’s performance is so telling because you can’t fully reconcile it. You can’t say, “Hey, that was an awesome idea.” Nor can you say, “I wish you didn’t do it.” It happened, it exists, and it has something to say. We should try to figure that out.

AMW:  I feel anxious even discussing blackface in 2018.

EA: When history presents itself so forcefully into the present, the essential questions are: What is it doing here, now? Why is it asserting itself in this moment? The idea there is that everyone and everything in my dreams is me; they just look like everybody else. They are vessels. By telling the story from that perspective, it allows me to take the blackface out of the center of the story.

AMW:  So the blackface stops being a mirror and becomes a node; all these other elements—Reagan's inauguration, Ben Vereen in blackface, the "Just Say No" campaign, Bert Williams—can move through it or around it or away from it.

EA: I think of these events less like a line and more like a timescape. The conscious and subconscious are constantly struggling to give order to things, but serendipity and chance are evidence of how things move in trajectories through different times and spaces and can become aligned momentarily. And that alignment can give you a profound understanding.

To borrow language from Charles [Gaines]: There is a series of relays, where one thing points to other things; you start to recognize the qualities of one thing as a part of another, which appears to be radically different. My projects over the years have played around with that strategy. As you begin to look at one thing, it propels you to look at another thing.

AMW:  I’m thinking of two of your works, A Book and a Medal (2014) and The Library of Black Lies (2016).

Edgar Arceneaux, Library of Black Lies, 2016; installation view, Edgar Arceneaux, 2017–2018. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photograph by John Foster Cartwright.

EA: The Library of Black Lies is both a library and a labyrinth. Labyrinths are made to be deeply introspective. The idea of getting lost in the three-dimensional space is analogous to getting lost inside of yourself.

I was trying to draw some analogy between the idea of the labyrinth having a center as well as a dead end, and how I believe we actually learn. Often when I’m reading, I’ll come across a word or a phrase, and my mind just wanders off. The mind works like that. It moves in counterintuitive ways. When you walk into The Library of Black Lies, you see these bound books, and if you’re courageous enough to open them, you realize that they are made of newspaper. When you get to the center of the labyrinth, you discover old encyclopedias of Christianity, and buried in there are Bill Cosby books.

AMW:  Why Cosby?

EA: I was thinking about the way history is taught. Americans like our history to be triumphant. In the trajectory of Black accomplishment, what do we do with Bill Cosby? What do we do with The Cosby Show, when so much of it influenced our art and ideas of what family looks like in the 20th century?

There is one worldview that assumes that the art that we make and the lives that we live are so entangled that there are no fictions, that the art just expresses everyday life. I think that there’s always an overlapping yet distinct relationship between identity, the environment, and the self. This is how I locate a space of freedom within the equation of race and identity.

AMW:  Is this worldview informed by a spiritual practice? It sounds connected to something much bigger than yourself.

EA: Talking about serendipity is a way for me to try to come to terms with both visible and invisible forces that affect us and shape our experiences—big bangs that happened decades earlier. That was one of my profound understandings while working in Watts. [From 2007 to 2013, Arceneaux initiated and ran the Watts House Project, an artist-housing collaborative.] The problem is immense. What created it in the first place? Looking back fifty years, it was the snipping away of the social safety net: Redlining practices have had this ripple effect down generations, regarding who gets to go to college and who has access to credit and who gets to own a home.

The Watts project didn’t work out the way I had intended it to. What began as a façade-improvement project grew into an 85-person operation with hundreds of thousands of dollars of fundraising. It took on a life of its own. I was shamed in the press and had this sense of failure, and I wasn’t certain I would ever get over it. Before that time, in 2006, my daughter was born, and I saw analogies between the life of an organization and the life of an organism. They both need to learn how to live and breathe and eat. They get sick. They need attention.

AMW:  That year, you started working on themes addressing the ultimate charismatic community leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., which would be manifested as A Book and a Medal and A Time to Break Silence (2014), your meditation on MLK in the sci-fi dystopia of late capitalism.3 It's interesting that, with Ben Vereen and Bert Williams, you have returned to troubling the charismatic-leader narrative. Obama would have also made sense as a subject. What does it mean for you to do Until, Until, Until… in this political climate?

EA: My desire for this show is to be able to travel to as many Red and battleground cities, counties, and states as we can afford to. Part of the reason Trump got elected is because we weren’t talking to each other, and maybe this is an opportunity for that.

Ben discussed his motivation for playing Bert Williams, telling Frank Lawson [who plays Vereen, Vereen-as-Williams, and Donny Osmond in Arceneaux’s work], “You need to tap into that inner pain: that bartender is calling you a nigger.” We were trying to get Ben to understand that Frank’s not playing Bert Williams; he’s playing Ben playing Bert Williams. But Frank does not have to become Ben becoming Bert to perform the impacts of racism.

Edgar Arceneaux, Blue Bert (2017), Green Ben (2017), and Red Ronnie (2017); installation view, Edgar Arceneaux, 2017–2018. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photograph by John Foster Cartwright.

AMW:  Midway through the show, the audience must watch a video of themselves watching a blackface performance.

EA: Ben showed me the video of the full 1981 performance, which he hadn’t seen in a couple of decades. He sat down cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, which was close to the floor, and I sat behind him cross-legged in a chair. I was watching him watching himself perform somebody from a hundred years ago. It conveyed this great expanse of time. And I wondered: When did this performance begin? When does it end? Does it end with me? So I wrote that scene into the play.

Edgar Arceneaux is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco through March 25, 2018. Until, Until, Until… will be performed live on February 22–24, 2018.

Notes

  1.  W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Souls of Black Folk," Du Bois: Writings (Library of America, 1986), 537. Original publication date 1903.
  2. Roger Ebert, "Bamboozled," October 6, 2000, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/bamboozled-2000
  3. An excerpt of A Time to Break Silence can be viewed at: Zing Tsjeng, “What Links Martin Luther King, Detroit techno, and Kubrick?” Dazed, October 7, 2013, http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/17476/1/what-links-martin-luther-king-detroit-techno-and-kubrick

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