Tavia Nyong’o: Just Out of Hand, Just Out of Reach
November 2019. Written in parallel with Lex Brown: The Inside Room
Halfway through the pages of Consciousness, 2011-2019, her remarkable book of texts and images, Lex Brown asks a staccato question — “Who’s that | What’s she?” — before immediately supplying an equally rapid answer: “Just out of hand, just out reach” (58). And, indeed, the author of these texts seems tantalizing just out of reach. The texts are officially to be understood as the lyrics to songs she has performed over the last decade, everywhere from backyards to the New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York City, but the lyrics work just as well on the page as imagistic poetry. The poetic density of Brown’s texts in Consciousness, 2011-2019 asks those of us interested in experimental black poetics to reconsider our long-held assumptions about text and performance. For many of us, the well-established protocols of slam and performance poetry demand that the spoken word “voice” align with either the first-person black poet herself or, alternatively, with well-crafted actorly selves to which the performer commits. Brown shies away from this sort of commitment, choosing instead to blur in and out of topicality in her live performances and her performances for the camera. Her songs are a way of gathering together a semblance into which she will disappear. In her recent turn to the television studio as a site of artistic production, in The Inside Room, she invites more voices and subjects into this process, dissolving and dissimulating her agency even further.
Artist Lex brown constructs a green screen and sound booth inside Recess
With The Inside Room and beyond, Brown belongs to a school of contemporary video makers that include Kalup Linzy and Ryan Trecartin, artists who absorb and process pop culture with manic determination. But Brown handles the “data trauma” of the contemporary media maelstrom in her own unique way. For starters, Brown is committed to telling less than she knows, as when she states offhand “Say there was a pain left in your brain since you was the ancestor of slaves.” This is a line which manages a glancing reference to epigenetic trauma without spelling it out as to what that pain is or how it might manifest. Or when she delivers the hip-hop accented couplet “I’m salty and I’m fresh, I like to keep it brackish | Give you that truth cus you thirsty like a cactus” (59, 38). Truth indeed is what Brown is after, but the path she takes towards it is elliptical and redacted. In “Lip Gloss Alurt,” she teases the reader with a delayed promise of interactivity that is almost de rigeur these days:
Go ahead. Say something.
What was that? I didn’t get that.
I’m sorry. I didn’t get that.
Try again. (91)
Try again. If one reigning school of critical thought equates blackness with the vulnerability of bodies to be violently apprehended and held “in the flesh,” (according to theorist Hortense Spillers) Lex Brown by contrast might be said to be working towards a poetics of the ungraspable. For her Recess residency, The Inside Room, she set up familiar apparatus of digital capture in the green screen and recording studio. But instead of emphasizing the spectacle of black suffering through the saturation of surveillance footage, Brown insists on taking recourse to the universal poetic subject. “For a while my basic performance message was ‘identity doesn’t matter,’ full stop” she notes in her preface to Consciousness. “I hoped someone would challenge me on having that vantage point […] the challenge never came […] So, I have just wrestled with this something/nothing myself” (3). Blackness is this “something/nothing” which the camera apparatus that Brown and her collaborators perform both for and against. What stops this universalizing gesture well short of a post-racial grandiosity is the specificity, and even the humor, with which Brown allows it to boomerang back upon herself. Formally trained in clowning, Brown’s poem-songs lean into the humor and slapstick of the ambivalent space of being “something/nothing,” a veritable fort-da game played the self. “Say my name” she sings out, with Destiny’s Child’s anthem of black female empowerment ringing in our ears, before asking, self-deprecatingly, “Say do you have it | Did you get it from me?”
Drop-in visitors are recorded by Lew Brown and are eventually incorporated to the final film
This is not to say that a poetics of the ungraspable is entirely outside the cultural politics of race and gender. After all, the years in which these texts were composed and performed, 2011 to 2019, saw the rise of both Black Lives Matters and Say Her Name, and the transition from the neoliberal post-racialism of the Obama administration to the revanchist white nationalism of the Trump regime. This background is inevitably reflected and refracted in Brown’s work. A direct text like “Bad Attitude” is a fierce testament to the anger, despair, and collective determination of those years (these years?), its spirit signaled by a relatively rare (for Brown) shift into a consistent lyric “I” over the body of the poem. “I love Obama but I gave up hope,” she sings before confessing, “I should get me a Rambo | with the pain and anger | I might go full commando | Sylvester I’m a Sambo” (63). This is the closest Lex Brown will ever get to Janelle Monáe. But Brown’s vision of near future dystopia is much more mundane than Monáe’s sci-fi fantasias. More often, Brown reminds us of the jury-rigged illusions of Jack Smith, the 60s-era artist who famously cut and recut his films as they were being projected to his enthralled audiences. There is no celluloid here, but Brown retains an affinity for objects and materials that Smith would probably declare “moldy” (a term of high praise in his lexicon). Brown’s videos frequently devolve into deadpan routines delivered by her with on-screen collaborators trying to perform routine tasks like purchasing a neoliberal beverage or cruising at a bar in a world flattened by A.I.-driven protocols. She doesn’t always make it obvious, but much of Brown’s work is devoted to finding patterns of movement, styles of being in the world, that might evade the sorting and division of the algorithm. Again and again, this is an aesthetics of the ungraspable. The Inside Room becomes a place to use one’s “inside voice,” understood here as a kind of sotto voce, or, alternatively, a murmur of the digitized multitudes organizing their visibility against the algorithms of oppression.
A school group visiting Lex’s work discusses storytelling in the digital age
It is against the flat, atemporal consumer utopia suggested by simulacra that Brown occasionally counterposes a collective subject pinioned between past and future:
This body has depleted its capacity
To withstand the force.
Of four hundred years
And four hundred more.
This skin is weighted like pendulum
Of time keeping the soul
In this strange body (68)
A poetics of the ungraspable here positions the contemporary black subject between, on the one hand, four hundred years of slavery and its afterlives and the uncertainty of four hundred years to come. The future need not repeat the past but how will an artist so dedicated to the arts of repetition evade that weight, especially when it is posited as that which keeps body and soul together? There are no ready answers on offer of course. But it is hard to take your eyes away from the way in which Brown is asking the questions.