Bell & Stovall
Biba Bell I’ve been looking at the Liquor Store Theatre videos on your website and there are so many things that I want to talk about, but I also want this conversation to give me a sense of the nuts and bolts or overarching structures and thoughts that have been moving you, moving with you, and emerging from this process.
To start, watching you dance in front of the liquor stores in Detroit, there are two things going on: 1) You’re performing and 2) You’re doing ethnographic research. You’re talking to people, weaving stories together, and positioning yourself within a complex terrain between theater and anthropology, performer and researcher, praxis and theory (that legendary birth place of performance studies). At the same time you’re onsite of the street, the parking lot, the community meeting space of the liquor store, a complex terrain of exposure and encounter.
Prominent to me while watching this collection of videos (Liquor Store Theatre Vol.1, No. 1-5) is the fact that you are putting yourself in the position to be seen and looked at… as an object of the gaze as it relates to a history of performance and dance. The gaze, historically seeking to stabilize relations between subjects and their (desired) objects, could instead be performatively negotiated as a kind of resistance or deferral. I’m reminded of Fred Moten’s discussion of Adrian Piper, who averts this art historical gaze and messes with the beholder. For Moten, the force of resistance is articulated by the gaze-turned-glance, where glancing includes the minutia of socialized reflex evident in the move to turn or look away. He writes that “[b]eholding is always the entrance into a scene, into the context of the other, of the object.” ((Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of a Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 235.))
You seem to be at once critiquing and deflecting this gaze as it converges within the Liquor Store Theatre (LST) both on the site of your own body and the ethnographic scene. Through performing these dances you are repositioning and shifting that focus, remobilizing and projecting it out into the world, with the folks that have collected, convene, interact, and mingle in this space in front of the liquor store. I want to talk about this. Perhaps the best way to engage that question is for you to tell me about what brought you to this project. This particular series of videos begin in 2014, what are the steps that have led you here?
Maya Stovall This idea of the gaze is critical to the project and it’s critical to what’s happening in Detroit right now. After being invisible for decades, Detroit now is the object of a global gaze in a variety of ways, and that’s the really big context. Studying and problematizing the gentrification process is what I want to do. Then, getting back to this idea of the gaze in performance and performance studies and the same idea of the gaze and ethnography and the anthropological gaze and how all of these discursive categories of the gaze intersect at LST, is the idea of telling the story of Detroit’s transformation.
Not in a way that privileges transformation or gentrification in a positive or negative light but just the factual post-bankruptcy gentrification process. Using the paradigm of performance, from the quotidian to the formal theatrical, as a frame, is the idea, with a purpose towards changing or shifting or problematizing, of challenging assumed categories of “researcher,” “performer,” “participant,” and “interviewee.” Ultimately, I want to talk to people. I want to learn the way that people… how historically marginalized people show up and make spaces. How performance is deployed in urban spaces — the classification struggles in the field of power à la [Pierre] Bourdieu;((In Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu presents the concept of symbolic power, arguing that symbolic power “make[s] people see and believe which is given by the imposition of mental structures. Systems of classification would not be such a decisive object of struggle if they did not contribute to the existence of classes by enhancing the efficacy of the objective mechanisms with the reinforcement supplied by representations structured in accordance with the classification.” Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), 482. Here, the importance of the connection between fields of power and classification struggles are underlined. In LST, classification struggles are studied on-the-ground through performance and dance ethnography in which the observation of classification tensions (i.e. race/ethnicity, economic status, ability, gender, etc.) is married to an observation of the significance of place and space in a private/public arena.)) the negotiation of the right to the city à la [Henri] Lefebvre and [David] Harvey;((The right to the city is a theory of urban social space asserted by French sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre first in 1968. In Lefebvre’s text, Le Droit à la ville, the right to the city is described as the demand for continued and transforming access to city life and city life’s various amenities. Anthropologist and geographer David Harvey expanded Lefebvre’s definition to incorporate the notion of human rights as central to the right to the city. Cf.. David Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity (New York and Oxford: Routledge, 2003). This is applicable in the post-bankruptcy Detroit context, in which gentrification is happening alongside large-scale residential water shut-offs, for instance. )) and through the lens of carnal sociology and practice theory à la [Loïc] Wacquant,((Urban sociologist and social theorist Loïc Wacquant established the terms, carnal sociology, and sociology of flesh and blood, to refer to an engaged, embodied form of research in which researchers live, work, and practice alongside their research participants. Cf. Loïc Wacquant, “Hominis in extremis: What fighting Scholars teach us about Habitus,” Body and Society, 20.2 (2014): 3-17, and “For a Sociology of Flesh and Blood,” Qualitative Sociology, 38.1 (2015): 1-11. This form of research and analysis is also broadly referred to as practice theory, formally introduced by Pierre Bourdieu in his 1977 text, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: CUP, 1977). In studying urban Chicago at the end of the twentieth century, Wacquant joined a Southside Chicago boxing gym and became an amateur prizefighter during his research on urban pugilists. LST builds on and extends the possibilities of practice theory/carnal sociology by adding a choreo-ethnographic dimension, creating/illuminating a theater of the street, and reversing/challenging the ethnographic gaze. ))and, I argue, [Katherine] Dunham((Anthropologist, choreographer, dancer, and humanitarian Katherine Dunham’s early form of practice theory/carnal anthropology in Haiti included Dunham’s approach of dancing, living, and working intensely with her research participants and even being initiated into the cult of Haitian Vodun. Cf. Katherine Dunham, Island Possessed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).)) in the 1930s and 40s before the term “practice theory” was coined. I guess I’m getting into the theoretical framework. This idea of practice theory and carnal sociology and ethnography…
It’s like a little theater that provides the framework to the theater of post-bankruptcy, neo-liberal Detroit. LST captures these little slices of life as they unfold in the sidewalks surrounding liquor stores. I have been focused on McDougall-Hunt for the first year of the project, am currently working in the Midtown area, and will eventually continue to explore other neighborhoods across the city in this same manner. It is street performance ethnography in a way, where whatever is happening on the street that day is captured through the visual documentation of the film, and also whoever is present in the space and wants to engage and talk about their neighborhood and their experiences of performance can do so. Moving from this micro point to the macro, I’m viewing the city as it’s constructed and built up from these very tiny little slices and pieces. I believe the post-bankruptcy gentrification process (whatever that means – it varies tremendously by neighborhood and by classification tensions of those implicated) can be explained and a story of Detroit is told through this framework of the theater.
So, that’s how the ethnographic gaze comes into play. Another element is notions of surveillance and appropriation. People have talked about the public space a lot recently. [David J.] Madden is one person who has written on it — this idea of surveillance as ending the ‘myth of the public space’ and how urban space is contested through this ongoing daily struggle.((In “Revisiting the End of Public Space: Assembling the Public in an Urban Park,” sociologist David J. Madden writes that “compared to the august monuments, bucolic pleasure domes, and utilitarian playgrounds of previous eras, public spaces in advanced capitalist cities have become increasingly complex: more intensely surveilled; more meticulously managed; more explicitly experiential, cosmopolitan, commercial, and commodified.” David J. Madden, “Revisiting the End of Public Space: Assembling the Public In an Urban Park,” City and Community, 9.2 (2010): 187. Such factors Madden highlights have contributed to the idea of public space as a category being threatened and/or eradicated at the turn of the twenty-first century. These challenges to public space strengthen the significance of the theory of the right to the city argued by Lefebvre and Harvey. LST emerges as a post-public space project in which city dwellers create their own commons due to broad disinvestment in neighborhoods deemed pathological.)) So, what I’m doing is I’m marrying different strands of theory into this intellectual underpinning, but it also becomes this crazy art project on the street, where I don’t know what’s going to happen from event to event!
Biba Yes! The flux is crucial, often articulating the particulars or performative epiphanies of the work. Can you talk about a moment that stands out — when you were surprised by how a performance, interview, or experience transpired? Or, maybe, how indeterminacy participates in the methodology of the project?
Maya A moment that stood out for me happened last year at the Gratiot and Chene store. As we were dancing and filming, a man who is known to be in front of that particular store all day was yelling out, “That’s modern dance!” “They’re doing modern dance, y’all.” He proceeded to verbally interact with the performance, punctuating our movements with his comments and exclamations. Finally, he came over to the performance area while we were dancing on camera, and joined in with our movements. His improvised movements incorporated the structure of our choreography, if not the technique. In the film he looks quite serious at this point, as if he’s sincerely improvising with us toward a goal. His joking ceased when he joined us on camera. It was an interesting moment that made me think about post-proscenium performance and its particularities and opportunities. Also about post-institutional or post-armchair ethnography and what it means to engage honestly and directly with people and places you’re researching.
Biba Is the choreographic material that you’re working with and placing consistent? Is it set? It also appears nomadic, in that you’re moving around to these different sites and you are escaping or exiting the more expected venues and situations for dance. I have the image of people hanging out in the parking lot, music blasting, spontaneous dancing, frolicking, and having fun. You are marrying this scene with a more stylized, choreographed, and rehearsed aesthetic. While performing your faces are unaffected; you are in it.
Maya I wanted to bring a particular concert dance aesthetic (acknowledging the complexities of what that even means!) to this very post-concert dance art project. There are some deep, personal reasons for this. In the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood where I’ve lived and worked for three years while starting LST, the problems of poverty and abandonment and disinvestment are so blatant that they smack you and assault your eyes nearly everywhere you look. At the same time, the neighborhood is full of rich culture and cultural traditions, individuals with fascinating lives and histories and memories, and places and spaces with beauty, memory, present utility, potential, and possibilities. In talking to people about the neighborhood, some people have expressed what they think is a loss of hope experienced by some residents due to the assault that crack of the 1980s and 1990s and industrial departures, job losses, neo-liberal policies and mass incarceration dovetailing at the same time, pressed upon the neighborhood. Because many residents left during these hard times, and the city infrastructure has been neglected, jobs have disappeared, the area has been devastated in many ways. Part of what LST does, is make a statement with this obsessively precise choreography and our filming and the care and time and attention to detail, and this is that I wanted to make a statement of care for the neighborhood. A statement that this space matters at this time. Not after real estate speculation, slick PR, or quasi-private grant funding, but right now. It matters. This is beyond the ethnographic and/or anthropological but I suppose it is connected with my approach to carnal sociology/anthropology foregrounded by Wacquant. There is already some sort of party happening at many of the stores (not always). I work to participate in an authentic way. Everything that is happening at the stores is not joyous. Everything is not melancholy. So the dance performances are this neutral piece of art that can be taken and consumed by the people present however they wish. Then the people can respond with their thoughts and comments in the interviews.
Biba Can you tell me about the different places you’ve been and how it works, exactly? How is a performance installed and what kind of strategy is this for you as it relates to the precarity of the environment, which, outside and on the street, is literally out in the open? I’m thinking that it may feel vulnerable, as a woman. How do interactions with the public, the audience, and your neighbors generally occur? Then also, from a dancerly background and context, what precipitated this project? Was there a movement or trajectory you had in terms of performing in public spaces that then brought you to the site in front of the liquor store, the liquor store as backdrop, the liquor store as center, as a kind of center or square or meeting place, and its parking lot?
Maya I think dance inherently, dance in a broad sense — encompassing everything from exploration of space to codified dance technique — I think everything in the continuum, dance is a political act, a mobilization of a particular body for a purpose. Dance is inherently a political act. Over my years of studying and working with and learning from different people (Ariel Osterweis was and continues to be a major influence on me) the fusion of dance as a political act with exploration of challenging/contesting the body politic, contesting place and space through the body, and all of this came together in an obsession with putting performance and dance in public spaces to see what happens…To bring together the world of the private and the world of the public. As I did more and more dance in urban public spaces it fused with my interests in ideas of the rights to the city, ideas of fields of power, ideas of the whole story of a neighborhood, or the story of the city, and the ideas of the theater as the way of understanding quotidian life. I realized that this is the way I will study and write about gentrification in Detroit – through dance / performance / ethnography / choreography. All of this came together. And I think the choreography part is important.
Biba Yes, I think the political dimension of choreography is so important and urgently relevant to the contemporary. You are discussing a trajectory from the choreographies of the stage, of dance’s proper spaces (as a disciplinary terrain), to the social — social movements, distributions in space, and the agency of the body. Can you discuss your own personal, artistic trajectory that connects these dots? Was there an Aha!! moment? Have there been moments like this for you in the midst of LST?
Maya That is a challenge, because there have been many Aha! moments and there continue to be Aha! moments up to the present during this project! Let’s see. Biking down Gratiot one day a few years ago I was observing all of the space devoted to liquor stores and wondering what this means. McDougall-Hunt doesn’t have any city-maintained public spaces where people can gather. The neighborhood also does not have shopping that would be considered mainstream, quality shopping by American middle-class standards. And yet, in this quasi public/private space, people have done this DIY work of making the spaces their own. For instance, in some spaces, vendors offer items that are desired by residents and not offered in stores (incense, African American centered literature, non-processed foods, are some examples). In other spaces, music is played from cars to create an atmosphere of pleasure/leisure. This is not to glamorize lack of resources in neighborhoods, but to shine a light on what is going on, the creativity and ingenuity of people, the DIY aesthetic that originates from urban ghettos, to think about this critically. When the term DIY or reclaimed is used, people may not think of the urban ghetto. They may think of areas in the city that are much further along in Detroit’s recovery process. However, this just isn’t true. DIY comes from the hood in this town. The term “creative place-making” is so hot now that it needs no footnote, and it’s so well known that it is no longer even hot. However, the who of who gets to be inscribed as doing creative place-making is determined almost exclusively by classification tensions such as wealth, ethnicity/race, and gender. Are the people in the neighborhood who have no place else to go, nothing else to do (remembering high unemployment in Detroit generally and in impoverished neighborhoods in particular), not engaging in creative place-making by creating their own quotidian theater on the street? I believe they are.
And then, this blend of work and leisure((Henri Lefebvre wrote of the relationship between work and leisure in his analysis of the production of space in urban environments. Cf. Henri Lefevbre, Le droit à la ville (Paris: Anthropos, 1968).)) that is at the liquor store struck me.
One thing that I’ve had issues with is the role of the ethnographer as someone who is coming and taking, coming and extracting information from people, often taking from people who are historically marginalized, and coming and taking information from them and leaving. So LST is a performance ethnography (although that can be problematized in a lot of ways and there is definitely a lining of privilege in going and dancing in films in Detroit neighborhoods), but with LST I want to bring something to people rather than simply taking. That is why “carnal anthropology” (after Wacquant) makes sense to me practically and theoretically. In that I am asking them about their lives, asking them to be vulnerable and share their ideas and their experiences and I want to be vulnerable with them too. LST is a container for that.
People have thought to re-center LST as a dance activism project, which, really it’s not. That is, the project is not dance activism in a sense of bringing a prepared message and trying to spread it through movement. LST is not trying to spread a message. It’s exploratory, it’s theoretical and it’s also in the realm of telling the story of the city’s gentrification process through ethnography. But I do acknowledge that because I am a fourth generation Detroiter of African descent there’s something inherently political that the project encourages and there’s something that happened there. LST is asking big questions and it’s attempting to deploy the theater and deploy performance in a way that’s almost like a cognitive prompt.
Biba What do you mean by performance as “a cognitive prompt”? You mentioned it in terms of the audience, in terms of giving a point of reference or something to look at, something to participate in. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Maya In the first round of LST events, which happened in the summer of 2014, I was asking a lot of questions about the neighborhood and the city. I thought, I want to know more about the city and the neighborhood but really more about people’s performances of their everyday lives, and use that as a framework to tell a story of a neighborhood and the story of a city — from the micro-experiences that people share and the macro-structural forces. So, every performance is choreographed, to a certain degree. Even if it’s deliberately not choreographed, then that’s choreographed, and every ethnographic encounter is choreographed (always for anthropologists in the field, to varying degrees). So, working in this seam of performance of ethnography in urban commons, it’s playing with this idea of the choreographed ethnic encounter and the choreographed performance. It’s playing in this seam/scene and attempting, through methodological technique, to deepen the experience, deepen the connection between the performers, the researcher, and the participants through this temporality of places and bodies that’s being navigated with the choreography as tool.
Biba Can you say a little bit more about the choreography both of the dance and the ethnographic encounter? What is it? What does it look like?
Maya Yes. For the first year of the project a lot of the choreography has emerged from field notes, observations of my neighborhood. I live in this little disremembered, physically distressed neighborhood that’s about two miles east of downtown Detroit and worlds away economically. This neighborhood has been referred to by residents as little Beirut, little Afghanistan. It’s an incredibly distressed neighborhood and based on my experiences being out in the neighborhood, whether having a dance rehearsal in our parking lot or gardening in the garden across from our studio, the experience of inhabiting a space which feels physically and intellectually safe. But, you’ve read the crime rates, you’ve read the statistics, you’ve seen the news articles about your neighborhood and you’ve heard your neighborhood is the second most dangerous neighborhood in America and yet you’re dancing and gardening in it! So, a lot of the movement comes from this scene of paradoxes of the experiences of living here. I would say about 70 percent of our neighbors are people who could be seen as transient individuals or people who are in this very fringe definition as far as classification in the economic realm would go. These are the people who presumably have watched out for us and have been in the area and have helped us garden and have helped us maintain a peaceful existence.
Biba They have been neighborly.
Maya Yes, exactly. They’ve been neighborly. So, the choreography definitely taps into this set of experiences and the experience of living here.
Biba And what is a choreography for an ethnographic encounter like? What is the structure for that? Is it theoretical? Is it physical? Are there certain questions or proposals?
Maya I think the way it upholds practically is the choreography itself, which then we can call a performance as it’s embodied by the dancers. It acts as a cognitive prompt. There’s this odd impact that it has where people, after they stop watching the dance and they go in and buy their items from the store or they finish having their conversation and they come back and we’ve finished a series of two- or three-minute performances, we ask them “can we interview you?” People are like “Oh, ok. What’re you doing, some kind of art project?” and they’re open, suddenly, because they’ve seen us perform, they’ve watched us, they’ve been observing us. So, when we come out and ask them there’s this totally different feel.
For instance, we’ve experimented and came to a store and tried to get b-roll,((B-roll refers to footage of the neighborhood and the store itself, capturing the scene and the atmosphere.)) and I was like, “Let me just see if people will talk to me before they’ve seen us dance.” The reaction is striking. The responses are “Oh, are you a journalist?” or “My cousin works for the city, I have no comment.” But when the role of performance is introduced, it’s like they’re participating in a dialogue almost, as opposed to being put on the spot. I guess I’m lucky because the project…it just works. And it wasn’t like it set out with “Oh, people won’t talk to me unless I dance.” It was just, “We’re going to go and dance because we want to experience and convene with this environment in an organic way, this little space, and talk to people.” It just so happens that somehow the performance or the choreography becomes this way to have this dialogue with people in a very different way.
Biba Absolutely. You talked a little bit about the politics and relationship to this mode of dance activism, and I think about the politics of movement in a space. I still want to go back to this question of what is a typical Liquor Store performance from the beginning, just didactically. But I also want address this question of movement and its taking place, which has everything to do with the identity of the body and the politics of occupying these spaces. I’m thinking now of the pre-assigned conditions for movement in and in front of the liquor store, in the parking lot, and out onto the sidewalk and street — the spaces you are dancing in. You’re occupying this outdoor space, you’re on the sidewalk, you’re in the parking lot, you’re on the street corner and I think about it in a couple different ways. These actions — these modes of dancing on the street — entail a bevy of contingencies and shifts depending on the body who does it, its locale, the people surrounding, the time of day, and the choreographic quality of the actions, what it means to get from point A to point B.
These are transient spaces, in a sense. They are the places we pass through, drive passed; we’re in and out. And then there is the surveillance and policing of these spaces, and the impact of those actions/actors that choose not to pass through, but dwell, linger, or dance for an extended period of time. They test the importance of passing through, and highlight the ways that spaces determine which movements can take place — we are reminded of the prominence of social utterances like “no loitering,” “no hanging around,” “no gathering” — and here enters the question of policing. André Lepecki theorizes choreopolicing through Jacques Rancière’s writing on dissensus. For him, choreography begins to lack imagination, it becomes impoverished, “a policed dance of quotidian consensus.” Politics, on the other hand, become visible through resistance to simply “moving along,” and transforming and reclaiming these spaces, thus allowing for the appearance of a newly political subject.((André Lepecki, “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: or, the task of the dancer,” TDR: The Drama Review, 57.4 (Winter 2013): 13-27.)) Your dancerly actions promote the liquor store in its identification as a commons or meeting place and the question of the civic comes up. We’re really in this moment now of engaging this issue specifically, again facing the police violence directed toward people of color, males on the street, and what it means to be occupying that space.
Then on the flipside, there’s this beautiful text by bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place, where she discusses the porch and its relationship to the home, but also its presence and proximity to the street.((bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place (New York: Routledge, 2009). )) The porch offers an architectural transposition of zones between the street and the home and she discusses how the everyday gesture of sitting on the porch acts against the institutionalized racism in the public arena. The street is a risky zone, fraught with exposure and vulnerability, especially for female bodies. She writes about what it means to be placing oneself on the urban street, on the street corner, a “patriarchal territory,” and the ethos of this territory which is about being looked at, observed, and making oneself available for a range of possible propositions to be negotiated or endured. Again, there is the imperative of “move along, no loitering,” a similar scenario but from a different point of view.
For dance the challenge is to shift these conditions from that choreographic scene as a kind of social habitus, to shift the movements that reproduce these conditions, to counter or critique or reinvent the repertory of pre-determined movements. I’m especially interested in the possibility of dance to be a way to shift and derail it a little. You’re there, you’re standing there, you’re staying there, how much time do you spend there? Enough time so that these encounters can start to accumulate, so that they can happen multiple times. They can repeat; participate in a performative chain of events. This possibility of occupying space, mobilizing space, dancing throughout — I’m coming at it from three different angles, but dance, whether the discrete performances in front of the liquor store or its potential as a mode of activism within a broader sense, becomes an agent by which to work through these issues.
Maya The writer and scholar, bell hooks’, writing is important to my work as well. I’m glad you mentioned her text, Belonging: A Culture of Place. The liminality of spaces that hooks presents with respect to the porch oscillates within LST. The porch is a public/private space that allows reversal and contestation of notions of surveillance. LST happens in spaces (city street sidewalks) that are totally different from porches but also somehow related – these in-between spaces on the margins where unique contestations may occur.
So, dealing with this idea of space and the meaning of space and how space is worked on in this project, what I’m doing in a sense… Wacquant has a theory called territorial stigma. It’s really a theory that combines [Erving] Goffman’s theory of stigma and the idea of a spoiled identity with Bourdieu’s idea of classification struggle in the fields of power.((Wacquant’s territorial stigma theory argues that certain places and spaces become read as pathological and are therefore disremembered and disinvested by city officials and residents alike (this happens through neo-liberal policies and through the actions of people in daily life). Territorial stigma is formulated through French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic power (cf. Bourdieu, Distinction) as the location of class struggle, and sociologist Erving Goffman’s theory of stigma as spoiled identity. Cf. Erving Goffman, “Behavior in Public Spaces,” Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (New York: The Free Press, 1963).)) So, territorial stigma from Wacquant is this machining of stigmatization, marginalization, toxification, taint of a particular neighborhood. And it’s a theory that’s not limited to urban contexts; it’s not bounded by ideas based on the social and political construct of race as a binary. It’s really these ideas of pathologization of difference, and inscription of symbolic power or symbolic meaninglessness of certain spaces. And so, this project is studying the impacts of both gentrification and territorial stigma. I started this project in my neighborhood where I live and work. This neighborhood that has been rendered invisible by city practices. There are decaying structures, debris from all kinds of different forgotten buildings, schools, businesses. This area definitely is subject to the idea of spatial taint that Wacquant proposes. This area is under the patriarchal gaze that bell hooks proposes in that it is considered a crime-infested area to be surveilled and perhaps, at some point, invested in through speculative real estate markets. I see the ideas of hooks and Wacquant converging in these ideas of territory.
LST is directly contesting the taint that I see as being imposed upon this neighborhood. So with LST I unfold the visual anthropology of particular neighborhoods and ultimately tell a broad visual anthropology of Detroit in its post-bankruptcy neo-liberal gentrification process… where you walk two miles from Dan Gilbert’s urban distressed font of “Opportunity Detroit” adorning all of these buildings purchased at rock-bottom prices (pun acknowledged). We have this neighborhood that’s largely forgotten by city officials, foundations, and corporations, but, yet, there is a neighborhood, there are people here. It exists. It’s contesting this territorial stigma by its very existence and LST has very deliberately captured this. This summer  LST has continued in Midtown.((Some people would argue that in Detroit, the name “Midtown” is a corporatized term that is used to refer to the Cass Corridor and a constellation of other, smaller neighborhoods which orbit the Cass Corridor. For simplicity, LST uses the term Midtown, but acknowledges the problematics of the term and the complexities of the neighborhoods that the term incorporates.)) Midtown is a neighborhood where the right to the city is very much being contested between working-class and poor people and speculative real estate investors at present moment. There’s more capital investment that’s happening which is forcing some residents in rent-controlled buildings out of their areas. There’s relatively more investment from capitalist-type enterprises happening so looking at territorial stigma in its mirror image, which I argue is this idea of symbolic ownership being asserted through a false narrative of whiteness, showing both flipsides of this through the project, or investigating both sides.
Biba I’m very curious how the experience will shift, who you’ll encounter, the modes of address…
Maya Mack & Bewick (shot in May 2015) was the first video of the summer of this year of the project and it happened at the liquor store that is a really interesting theater, it’s already a theater in its own right. You go by there and you’ll see vendors, people gathering sitting on crates, holding court, everyday once the weather gets decent.
Biba This is a good moment to tell me what that entails. What is a day in the life while you’re doing a shoot? How does it work? What is the general time frame and the course of events?
Maya We meet up at my studio space [Finite Studios]. This includes the videographer Eric Johnston and his wife Martha Johnston who is also a painter and photographer, the dancers who are participating, and my husband Todd [“Quaint”] Stovall. He is a sculptor and an electronic music producer and makes much of the music for the LST. We get to the day’s store in the early afternoon and we, the dancers along with the videographer, pick out where the best shot will be with the ability for people milling around to observe but without obstructing anybody’s walkway. We start marking; we start exploring the space. It has some kind of a ceremonial feel, when we start to do this, and then we start to talk to people and answer people’s questions.
The general feeling when the camera appears, before we’re dancing, seems to be one of ambivalence. People are concerned about surveillance and about intentions. Somehow, when we start dancing, this shifts (at least in degree). People seem to be more comfortable that we are subjecting ourselves to their surveillance. Although we’ve brought a big camera with a big lens, we’re fixing that camera on ourselves before we attempt to turn it around. I think this is important. The ceremonial feel I mention (definitely ceremonial with a little “c,” not evoking religion or ritual in the literal sense) involves a blessing (again not in a religious sense but in a spiritual or ontological sense) of the space in a way that says, we’re here to do something (dance) because this space matters (because you’re already here).
So back to the logistics of the thing. Our videographer is capturing our performance, and then, you know, people are generally gathering and observing and wondering what’s going on.
Biba How long does the dance performance generally last?
Maya The longest single piece that I’ve set at a LST event is about seven minutes. Typically we do at least four stagings of a full piece or pieces depending upon the repertoire being presented that day. In total I’d say we end up performing for about 30-40 minutes, as far as performing with music through the PA, with the videographer shooting. We’ll repeat. We’ll do several shots — he might shoot us over the shoulder, etc. The goal of this is to get as many people to see us as we can, so that we can have a dialogue with those individuals who may be interested in talking with us. The way that it will work is, say, we’re doing a three minute piece and then we’ve got people standing around, then people say, “What’re you doing?” and we say, “Oh we’re doing a dance project in Detroit. Would you talk to us?” At that point we shift the gaze the videographer is filming while I’m off camera interviewing individuals. That’s the format. Sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes we’ve had in the past a line of people who want to be interviewed and then at other times just one person will come and then other people will decline. There’s no set format that it takes… it’s based on the store and how the shoot unfolds, and everything, but overall the choreography is effective at starting a dialogue.
Biba What types of questions do you ask? What stories are you looking for?
Maya I ask about the neighborhoods, the city, and people’s experience of performance. I have my list of questions but it really varies what we discuss based on the particular person and what their goals and ideas are with respect to the conversation. The conversations I’ve had in McDougall-Hunt and Midtown seem to be on different points of a time-space continuum. In McDougall-Hunt, many people talk about the future and potential changes. In Midtown, many people talk about the imprint of gentrification and how it is consolidating, replicating, and expanding structural racism and structural violence. I try to talk with people about performance in the quotidian sense and in the abstract sense. I’m looking to have conversations with people about what they want to talk about. That sounds obvious, but it is about listening and letting the conversation happen.
Biba There is one video — I think it’s the one at Gratiot and Chene — where a man that you’ve spoken with begins to dance with you. It’s an incredible moment to watch. Perhaps this is the man who you mentioned earlier. This moment was very singular in the LST footage I’ve seen. He is a bit in the background, standing close to the doorframe of the store entrance and it looks as if he moves through a range reactions, watching, incredulous, interested, inspired, and then, all at once, he becomes one of the dancers, moving with and alongside your performance, gleefully. Perhaps this is the man you mentioned earlier, shouting about modern dance. I didn’t see it happen during other video documentation — this kind of participation. It really shifted things. Does this happen with frequency? How do you think about these improvised moments?
Maya That actually happens quite a bit, and it’s something that, for the first year Eric and I, we were not so attuned to capturing those moments on film. We had this idea that those were personal moments of interaction between the dancers and the people onsite, and that we didn’t need to lift up those moments because they were special moments that happened behind the scenes. But then, this year, digesting all that happened in the first year of the project I’m like, “Wait a minute. We have to capture and share these moments…” This is so important, this is at the center of the project visually as well. Of course, we asked people, “Hey is it okay if we include this part where you started free-styling or you know mimicking the dancers movements?” And those requirements of doing research, even when it is this crazy art project. So, yes, that happens more than is visible in the first five films and it’s something that we look forward to showing as it happens. It’s interesting on so many levels — through a theoretical lens, performance, site of urban commons as a negotiation and a becoming and a state of the city in flux. It’s just important on so many levels and bears more investigation.
Biba It blurs your roles even more and your working methodologies, maybe less your role as a figure but the kind of methodologies that you’re using and activating. I think about that transition for you between performing and… I’ve just performed, I turn around and I start asking questions and interviewing… that shift, that transition, that moment is so strange. It’s weird enough just finishing a performance and then facing the audience and being like “Hey, nice to see you.” That shift of focus in the midst of being together. But it really is different senses of being together, through interactions and the level of participation in the dancing itself.
Maya One thing too is ideas of consumption and who gets to consume dance. When you look for instance at hip hop studies and why hip hop studies is suddenly considered this exciting site for all kinds of pedagogical and scholarly interventions, when you look at it it’s hard, I mean, hip hop is a consumption and commodification of blackness and black bodies and for the most part, the remuneration is spread amongst an elite group of record executives and owners of related concerns. We wonder why black studies, referring to the project that emerged in the sixties through civil rights movements, isn’t held up as this site of intervention in pedagogical and scholarly realms and why black studies being sort of usurped by hip hop studies. I think it gets back to this idea of consumption and consumption of elements of black culture that are being appropriated by the mainstream and used for their own devices and then homogenized as this sort of colorblind multicultural thing that really is ahistorical and apolitical and a-critical. Part of the goal of the project is: “Who gets to consume dance” and “Who gets to consume this material?” It’s re-appropriating, and it’s this challenging of who should be consuming contemporary or experimental performances. We’re putting these performances on the street for whoever’s there in whatever neighborhood to consume them, to challenge these modes of consumption that privilege upper class, economic elite.
Biba It seems to me also that you’re challenging the centrality of consumption as a necessary response. Of course, performance is consumed and that element is always there, but also that in those shifts and moments of consumption, that mode of engagement might in a sense recede. There is a participatory element—people are joining in, in some ways. It’s interesting because you’re surprising people, there’s a guerrilla element to it. I wonder how discomfort or awkwardness also complicates the way we are discussing consumption, for there may also be the desire to look the other way. I didn’t see that in the videos, but I’m thinking back on Moten and Piper as well as my own experience.
The question of consumption brings us back to our earlier discussion of the gaze and resistance, where the gaze necessarily entails a scene of consumption. In many ways it gets to the very heart of the dancer’s political challenge as it relates to the collapsing of these categories of subject and object, blurring and destabilizing their positions and famously articulated by William Butler Yeats: “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?”
Maya Yeah, that is interesting. I think that’s part of the state of flux in a city that Andrew D. Newman, my advisor at Wayne State University, writes about in Landscape of Discontent. It’s the state of becoming, this ongoing state of transition, and I think that is part of it. It’s part of why this project is a window to tell a broader story of Detroit neighborhoods and the city. I think, yeah, people will look the other way and people will be disturbed or uninterested in it and that’s fine too. It’s a process of flux, and that happens with anything that’s happening on the street.
Biba And how has LST, how has going out into the city in this capacity — performing, interacting, talking, interviewing, having these exchanges — how has it changed your relationship to dance? Has it affected your dancing?
Maya Wow, yeah, I think in a way it’s work at a de-centering of “performer” as this heroic individual or this Artist with a big, privileged capital “A” and a re-centering of it insofar as in its context. It has made the meaning and the temporality, the frailty of the moment, the precarity, so much more important than the particular performer. The conceptualist and performer Ralph Lemon, whose work I adore and obsess about, has said that where dance is landing now is the exploration of space, and so LST is like mating Ralph Lemon and Wacquant and taking this exploration of space through a dance/performance lens. It really doesn’t matter, so much, what the dancers do as long it’s from a place of genuine interaction and conversation with the audience. I say that, although I do put tremendous care and preparation into the performances that we present at LST events. I’m guilty: I love technique, I love ballet, I love contemporary, I love modern, codified techniques, but I also think that this place where dance can land is so much more broad and powerful and experimental than the assertion of the importance of a particular artist with a capital “A” or even any particular dance technique. What can I do to explore this, this place that we’re in from an existential lens and from a critical lens and all of these different ways? I think it changed my… well not changed, I come from a critical perspective, so I haven’t had a diametrical shift, but I’ve had a very concrete, on-the-ground experience of using a particular art form as a way to explore deep existential, theoretical phenomenon.
Biba When you talk about the fragility and the precarity of that moment of it unfolding… that is so real. And then I also think so much about dance, the act of dancing as it takes place, lands in a place…how were you articulating it? Landing in a place, yea
Maya Yeah. Ralph Lemon was talking about “Where can dance land?” and “Where can it land for you?” and “Where can it land as an art form?” From a big perspective and where can it land for you. So, answering Ralph Lemon’s question, LST is currently where it lands for me. This theme of exploring the very existential philosophical but still sociologically — and anthropologically — based question of how is performance deployed in a struggle for the right to the city. How is dance deployed in classification struggles, identification tensions, and urban marginality? And how is performance deployed in post-bankruptcy, gentrifying Detroit? The story of the city will unfold through this lens, I believe.
Biba Yes, where it lands. You say it doesn’t really matter what the dancers actually do and somehow this sentiment strikes me as so radical. For, of course, the dancers are spinning the moment of the event, honing the focus and creating the interactive, relational openings for conversation and exchange. Yet, at the same time your statement is not about foreclosure but of redirecting the frame, opening it up, to include the larger scene or field. We move from a dance to dance (capital “D” without capitalizing “d”), which can then be redistributed within the frame of the choreographic and produce an important political movement. This is the work that I’m interested in, as a dancer, as an advocate for dance. I’m so curious about that moment, when “It really doesn’t even matter, so much, what the dancers do,” because it opens up to the where of the dance taking place, and the where is both what it produces and inflects. This is what is happening. I think that the political potential of dancing and, thus, choreography is very much about this opening up of the where, the actual site it occupies but, also, how this action of landing opens up the where. Especially in light of Detroit, in light of these questions of the city, an internally unstable signifier, the where inspires a question that both mobilizes (as in it makes it dance) and can itself be mobilized (redistributing spatial politics). The peripheral threshold of the liquor store, tainted but rich, circumspect but necessary, engages this question of mobility. It seems to me that this is what your theater, LST, is asking us to consider, look at, and participate in.