This year, Danspace Project celebrates its 45th anniversary. Special for the occasion is its 10th annual “Platform” series, open now through March 21. The award-winning project is one that unfolds over time, inviting a new guest artist-curator each year to help create the new edition alongside Danspace Executive Director and Chief Curator, Judy Hussie-Taylor.
For Platform 2020, multidisciplinary performance artist Okwui Okpokwasili worked alongside Hussie-Taylor to present “Utterances from the Chorus”—an experience surrounding questions like “How do we weave a collective song?” and “How can we share artistic practices—between artists and between artists and their audience?”
A part of “Utterances from the Chorus” is a collaborative piece between Okpokwasili and Peter Born entitled “Sitting on a Man’s Head,” which allows audience members and performers the chance to interact in an improvised, public song. Along with a weekly calendar of events, workshops, and conversations—with creatives like Lydia Bell, Jess Pretty, Cecilia Vicuña, Asiya Wadud, and Quori Theodor—Okpokwasili also debuted her first album, day pulls down the sky, over the weekend.
Whitewall spoke with Okpokwasili about Platform 2020, her first album, and improvised performance.
WHITEWALL: You’ve co-curated Platform 2020 alongside Judy Hussie-Taylor. What can we expect from this year’s edition, “Utterances from the Chorus”?
OKWUI OKPOKWASILI: I’m not one to set up expectations for anyone. What I can hope is that with “Utterances from the Chorus” we’ve managed to set up the conditions for a multiplicity of encounters between artists and audiences, between artists and their peers, and across a spectrum of disciplines.
WW: One of the focuses of Platform is sharing artistic practices between artists and audiences. In what capacity is the audience involved?
OO: The audience is invited to participate in a number of ways across a range of events. There will be Saturday afternoon conversations that are followed by a sharing of artist’s various practices. And then there is “Sitting On a Man’s Head,” which is a platform for the creation of an improvisational public song—with song encompassing everything from melodic threads to indeterminate cries, and from shouts to incantations. Members of the public can either sit and listen to the “song” or they can join the chorus and be instrumental in building it.
WW: What can you tell us about “Sitting on a Man’s Head”?
OO: The starting point began years ago, when I was looking at the precolonial practices of embodied protest among women in Southeastern Nigeria. One practice was “Sitting on a Man”, which was the public act of shaming an official, usually a man, who committed egregious offenses against a woman.
Women would name the offenses, call for restitution, and would not stop until their demands were met. In accounts of some of those actions, the women talked about singing and dancing for hours. It seemed to me an incredible improvisational collaboration, but it was designed for a specific audience and a specific outcome.
I wondered how to facilitate a collaboration that was not concerned with convincing someone in power to act ethically, but was concerned with restoring the frayed edges of threads that link the members of the chorus to each other. What would a space of generative restoration be like? How do we listen to each other with generosity? How do we carry and get carried by each other in this collaboration? And in hewing closely to each other in an intensive listening practice, can we be reminded of how we are linked to each other in some essential way and take care of that link?
I also really want to stress that “Sitting On A Man’s Head” is a practice not a “piece.” It is not predictable, and it is shaped every moment by the visitors who enter the space in collaboration with the incredible artists activators who have been working with us over many months to refine the principles of the practice.
WW: Tell us about working Peter Born. How did your collaboration unfold for this piece?
OO: Peter Born is a tireless wonder. He has designed the space, built sound beds that form the base of the sonic fabric of the space, and he is a participant in the practice. We’ve been working together for decades now, in work life and in life work.
WW: Tell us a bit about publicly performing an improvised piece. What do you keep control of, and what do you feel you let flow?
OO: I have no control over anything other than myself. The only control I exercise is my capacity to engage in the practice by listening with care and adding my voice and body to the song.
WW: Your first album, day pulls down the sky, debuts on the first day of Platform. Does it connect with your installation at the platform? What can you tell us about that?
OO: Yes, this album connects with the entire platform in the sense that it was Judy Hussie-Taylor who suggested making the album and subsequently produced the album along with John Kilgore. And as I was compiling the songs, I realized that a number of the songs that I wanted to include in the album were performed at Danspace.
So, in some way, the album is a reflection of the indefatigable labor of the chorus of choreographers, performers, musicians, composers, directors, designers, crew, producers, curators, presenters, allies, and audience that continue to make work and support work under increasingly precarious conditions.
WW: Tell us a bit about how you work centers around the African/African American feminine, and why this is important to you.
OO: It is important because there is still so much to do and learn. For more than half of my life I was exposed to work where the African/African American feminine was not centered and was often virtually invisible. And as a black woman, I feel that invisibility acutely. To be rendered invisible is an act of violence that silently re-inscribes the violence used to relegate the African/African American feminine to a despised human subcategory. Undoing that violence remains critical.