Loud. Black. Resident Part II: In Conversation with Marcus White by Arielle Julia Brown
Arielle Julia Brown: What is your name and tell me generally how you work as an artist?
Marcus White: My name is Marcus White. I am an American movement maker and cultural w(e)rker. My work is rooted in my practice as a choreographer for stage but extends beyond the stage for screen as well. I am interested in looking at the body as subject and looking at questions of representation and storytelling. What I aim to do in my work is bring these stories that are often at the political, social and economic margins to the center to deconstruct, complicate, address, and question ideas that are rooted in our preconceptions.
AJB: Tell me more about your work with screen dance and what you see as their capacities for the presentation of Black performance as well as other non-theatrical sites.
MW: As a 21st century choreographer I have to find multiple modes to communicate a message and re-envision what is possible. It is important in my creative practice and it is important from a sustainability standpoint. I am thinking in sheer numbers - thinking about what populations come to the stage or the theatre space and which ones do not. I am also thinking about the potential of what those specific sites can do in cultivating diverse community spaces and exchanges of ideas. A large part of my work is about finding channels or mechanisms for audience access.
This desire is rooted in my background and my upbringing where there was limited access to theatrical spaces. These were spaces where you had to have the capital and the means to participate. My work has to have multiple frames of existing; it can’t only exist on the proscenium stage. So, sometimes my work exists in the club space, where we’re literally, freestyling, vibing, connecting, socializing in the space of a social dance context. Sometimes the frame is the screen dance, where I make purposeful decisions in the edit as I think about the digital body and the subject of the body on camera.
AJB: You spoke earlier about accessibility, an allusion to counter-publics and marginalized folks, queer and folks of color. Do you have a specific value system or politic around developing your work? How is that applied to your work in museum spaces?
MW: As artists, we all make decisions about the narratives we want to craft. In dance, particularly with this legacy of abstraction, particularly in this post-modernist movement, there is this distillation of the body or this attempt to distill the body, to get it to its purist form and pure movement, looking at the body in space, devoid of narrative. But for me, as a Black same gender loving contemporary artist, my life experience colors my ability to do that. Because we are working with the body, we are always constructing narratives. We are always making meaning on bodies, regardless of the choreographer’s intent. I embrace that. And so, it is an intentional choice to bring my collaborating artists into the work, whether they be a dancer, designer, projectionist or whomever. It’s important that they come from various experiences. For the past year and a half I have been doing much more work as a dance films curator which allows me to bridge my interests between dance, visual art, and film. As a curator, I think about the quality of the work but I also think about representation and inclusion. There have to be women filmmakers. There have to be people of color filmmakers. Even in the museum space, representation and inclusion is important. Being a person of color and being queer is a lens through which I can view the experience I am curating. It is a lens through which I can view the work.
AJB: Tell me more about your piece Pearls. What were some of the nuances of presenting that in a museum? What were the implications of the museum’s audience and what does that do to the work?
MW: Having performed Pearls in multiple spaces both in proscenium style and in museum spaces is quite interesting. In a museum, the intimacy is different because you are literally up close and personal with the audience. I was at University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor and it was interesting because my Black Gay body was up against these white sculptures and busts of famous European works. Someone brought it to my attention - these white marble statues that uphold a European aesthetic juxtaposed against my black body. This then brings us up to what Pearls signifies. Pearls is looking at this attempt to create class, sophistication, white southern gentility, all of these that maybe have residues of western European, cotillion and debutante culture. Performing in a museum space shifted the meaning of what pearls should and could be. What is this legacy? What am I drawing from? What is inspiring this? What is the meaning of this? What I was able to do with this experience?
AJB: I am curious about what it means to bring Black content or perhaps, a specific cultural conversation in a space like that. Can you speak to that in your work or curatorial process?
MW: Absolutely. In generally, that makes me think of these questions of: “What do you want the work to do?” and “How do your people and your audiences perceive or take the work?” “What does it mean to think about making work that is for your people?” We are largely thinking about how not to be an object of something else with these questions. We are thinking about the pro-blackness and pro-femininity or feminism and pro-queerness as opposed to anti-(fill in the blank). I worked with international artist Nick Cave last summer in residence at the Contemporary Art Museum in Detroit. We had these illustrious long billowy sound suits. They were pretty extravagant, multicolored and there were some that were like 9-10 feet tall and then there were some short. There was a lot of meaning that Nick Cave had with that that I really appreciated. The covering up of the body so that you could just see the movement for pure movement sake without the superimposition of sexuality, gender performance and race. It became this universal idea. But I was drawing on wacking and vogue movement. That celebration of Black queerness or Queer Blackness was important to me because I’m thinking about the spaces we we’re in. The first performance was in the Ruth Ellis center which is an LGBT youth center in Detroit dedicated to being a space for homeless or runaway LGBT youth. Part of that work is thinking about the celebration of identity - the raw happiness and the celebration of life at the intersection of Blackness and Queerness even while it is hard being Black, and yes it is hard being Queer, same gender-loving. But we can still be able to push forward and celebrate that identity. Yet, there’s so much in there. There is loneliness that can be in there. There is displacement. I’m thinking about how it’s not all celebration, celebration, celebration but that the celebration comes out of the ability to withstand the struggle.
AJB: Tell me about your current project Resilience: The Tidal Wave?
MW: It is a two-year project where there are several modules or iterations within the work. One of those components is a live performance work, Seiche. It incorporates movement and dance as well as digital projections that are projected onto shipping pallets and the questions we are looking at are in conversation with Detroit’s water shut off. We are asking: who has access to clean affordable water? The dancers and I are digging deep into this question and we have all been free writing about this; we’ve been gathering stories from our community. We have also sourced media coverage to think about how this narrative is told inside and outside of Detroit. I continue to think about how this story is so centered around African American and brown people who are of a particular socio-economic status. But there is this power for art to transform, create dialogue, and mobilize. That’s really the point of my work.
At the University of Montana, we developed a module called Upstream Transactions where again we we’re asking the same question: Who has access to clean affordable water? It incorporated 35 gallon water bottles. The dancers are literally diving and dodging these water bottles. There is an ogre like being who comes to take and own these water bottles. The city of Missoula, Montana, is a pretty well to do city that doesn’t even own their own water. A private company owns the water. Again, there is this undercurrent of race, and economics that comes into play when you are thinking about power and privilege here. I didn’t want to initiate with that I just wanted to initiate with the question of access to clean water.
And then there is Submerge, a dance film I created with Ana Maria Alverez of Contra Tiempo. It was filmed onsite in Los Angeles on Wilshire Blvd, which has its own set of social inequities.
AJB: Could you briefly shout out some artists or cultural organizations that you see doing interesting work?
MW: Artists: Andre Zachary – Renegade Performance Company, Grisha Coleman, Malcolm Low, Kehinde Wiley
Marcus White is an American movement maker, educator, community engagement advocate and cultural WERKer. His work has been described as “ingenious” and “vulnerable” by the Chicago Tribune and according to Dance Panorama is “bold and it is clear he is not afraid to push the audience out of its’ comfort zone to encourage contemplation.” As Founder and Director of performance production company Marcus White/White Werx (MWWW), he creates performance work for the stage and screen. Marcus is an Assistant Professor of Dance within the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts. White’s teaching and creative practice centralizes embodied performance as transformational within the collaborative process. His movement and pedagogical approaches are informed by his experiences and embodied investigations of QueerBlack* and postmodern contemporary movement vocabularies. White has taught at University of Michigan, Wayne State University and has served as a guest artist at various prestigious pre-professional dance programs such as the Penn State University, University of Montana, Oakland University, Fayetteville State University, and the American College Dance Association. Learn more about Marcus' work here.
(*in this instance QueerBlack movement is defined as movement developed and sourced by African-American and Latinx/Chicano/a LGBT communities within underground dance cultures in the United States (i.e. wacking, vogue,etc) - a perspective that informs Marcus White’s creative and teaching practice.)