Sandstone Spines: Keith Hennessy’s de(composition) workshops

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Sandstone Spines: Keith Hennessy’s de(composition) workshops

By Leora Fridman May 1, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


I am thinking about sandstone. Before I look it up, I have a vague impression that it is porous and sponge-like. After I look it up, I see that while this is true, sandstone is often used for building structures because it is resistant to weathering. I read that it can erode quite a bit before this causes any structural issues in a building. If said buildings are drained properly, they can remain sound and stable for eons.

I am thinking about sandstone because I am looking for the right metaphor for receptive bodies. As a participant in Keith Hennessy’s recent de(composition) workshop at SFMOMA, I began to watch how a body receives. The workshop did not invite expertise, but did invite a kind of erosion. Each session of the four-part event—a mixture of activities, conversations, and movement-oriented prompts—began with a land acknowledgment, and attempted to destabilize what it means to make art “locally” in a Bay Area with historical and ongoing acts of colonization. Hennessy continually granted agency to participants, inviting us to participate (or not) in activities at will. He offered three levels at which we could take the class: the class of the actions done together; “the class below the class, a.k.a. the witch bruja class...the emotional, psychic, or energetic undercurrents of the class”; and “the class above the class, a.k.a. the anarchist activist class. The power watcher who tracks how power functions in the room.”

I stood and watched, and tried to guess which class I was taking, which class other people were taking. I don’t understand the mechanics of how dancers stand, but I tend to be in awe of them, the way posture is present while invisible, the balance between muscular control and looseness. I observed Hennessy’s posture as he invited questions or challenges to the histories he scrawled out on his trademark plastic sheets—histories of colonization and racialized oppression in the Bay Area, or of the relationships between artistic practices engaged with possibilities of art and healing. I watched how his spine functioned: head and neck curving to the side when he asked us, “How do we get to bring our politics and still work in abstraction?” Or a short series of head nods: “You decide how awake you want to be.”

Keith Hennessy preparing for the fourth session of his de(composition) workshop, presented by SFMOMA's interdisciplinary arts and culture platform Open Space in SFMOMA's White Box. 2019. Photo: Claudia La Rocco.
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I am thinking about sandstone because I’m thinking about how something gets built, and for whom. I thank Hennessy for this, for the remarkable ways he chose to break down how much he was getting paid for this teaching gig, for the ways he got me to dance with a stick as if it were a secret part of me—and then dance with the same stick as if it were the body of someone else who had their own desires and needs—and then contemplate the difference between these movements.

But I don’t just thank Hennessy: the stance he invited made the class about much beyond him. Hennessy is well-recognized and historically well-received in the Bay Area’s dance world and beyond, a status that certainly makes it easier for him to risk authorship in the way he did. Hennessy invited guest performers and writers (notes here) into each class, which encouraged a sense of continual re-settling of the room. On the final night of the series Hennessy explained that, instead of him leading that night’s land acknowledgment, we would lead it ourselves in small groups. A classic organizer’s move: after offering a few loose tools, he hands it over to us to make it our own.

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Hennessy has discussed elsewhere his struggles to participate in radicalized space while owning his privilege, saying: “I’ve recently been invited to queer dance events and queer safe spaces, presumably as an elder, and nobody really expects a white cis-gender gay man to walk in! ...It feels like, ‘I really don’t have a place here.’”

Even as Hennessy gesticulates away from ownership, his audience remains ingrained in systems of power. As Ryanaustin Dennis writes to Hennessy: “The workshop was painfully white, but not bc of you. Bc the history of this estuary that is ‘the Bay’ exceeds you in ways you can’t control.” Dennis quotes another participant on Hennessy’s discussion of racialized history in San Francisco, noting, “as one of only four Black people in the room and one of the few poc (it was a mostly white audience) I did notice that that audience didn’t necessarily reflect the diverse histories he was bringing in the room, and I sometimes questioned who the lecture was performed for.”

Hennessy remains himself, in his own body, and the failures experienced in the room dance upon this body. During a discussion about land acknowledgments on the final evening, he asked participants: “When are we as settlers re-settling ourselves through this practice, and when are or how can we instead use it to destabilize our position as settlers?” The “we” crept in here, excluding some and giving away the “we” that Hennessy is able to speak to authentically.

As Hennessy moves, the cloud of we moves with him. Sometimes a brief gap hovers between them, but the cloud surrounds him still.

The second session of Keith Hennessy's de(composition) workshop, presented by SFMOMA's interdisciplinary arts and culture platform Open Space in SFMOMA's White Box. 2019. Photo: Keith Hennessy.  
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This week my friends are all talking about Nellie Bowles’s article about how human contact has become a luxury good. She writes: “The richer you are, the more you spend to be offscreen.” Our conversations about the piece contain a kind of gloominess familiar from operating primarily in Bay Area communities not involved in tech: with little power to change the conditions, we often avoid rather than brainstorm about how to change.

In many ways, Hennessy’s workshop interrogated the power to change anything: who has it and how it is performed. When Hennessy introduced Valentina Desideri’s practice “Fake Therapy,” in which two participants attempt to “heal” another while simultaneously acknowledging that they have no healing powers and there is nothing wrong with the other, he asked: “What if there’s nothing wrong with the audience?” And smiled. “Take note social justice artists! Or high-art trained artists! What if the artist has no power to change the audience?”

This note could apply to the workshop as well. What does it mean to make a situation under conditions one cannot change? What does it mean to be present in a group in which the conditions of different bodies remain?

Hennessy’s was a workshop in reality, just as his work operates in person. It centers on bodies in person and how they work to stay alive, how they give in to the conditions of being alive. As he invited our corrections and dismissals of his directions, Hennessy invited that his words be sandstone, worn down, flushed through.

Fittingly, the final activity of (de)composition was to “practice dying” via Joan Stempel’s script, in which we visualized the series of events up to and including our own death. After this exercise, Hennessy led us through “grounding” exercises to close the night and encouraged us to return to the realities inside our own current skins. With a friend I walked out: people in person walking back to the BART, where we huddled with our screens and frowned at other people in fleece vests muttering about their Series B. Only so much can actually die while hosted in the White Box.

de(composition): a workshop with Keith Hennessy was held at SFMOMA’s Gina and Stuart Peterson White Box Theater in March 2019.

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