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Juliana Huxtable's Performance at MoMA Was a Powerful Interrogation of White-Washed World History

Here's what went down when the underground nightlife icon and multi-media artist made her debut at the Museum of Modern Art this past weekend.

by James McMaster
Nov 18 2015, 12:35am

All photos courtesy of Julieta Cervantes/MoMA

This past Saturday night, I was at the Spectrum, a DIY artist space in Brooklyn where messy, liberating, and totally unforgettable queer dance parties frequently spill into the dawn. Two femmes behind me were making out too hard to realize that they were inching into my elbow room, so I headed to the makeshift bar. That's when I saw her: a glowing Juliana Huxtable floating her way through the crowd, receiving congratulations and adoration for her latest performance, which had taken place earlier that day at the Museum of Modern Art. It wasn't until she left my sight to return to the DJ booth, where she presided over her afterparty with fellow DJ Anthony Dicapua, that I came back to my senses, ordered a drink, and danced into the nearest crowd of queerdos I was trying to cruise.

Artist Juliana Huxtable's Bold, Defiant Vision

Huxtable, a transgender DJ, multi-media artist, and nightlife "it" girl, has recently become one of the brightest rising stars in New York's art scene. Her breakout moment happened at this year's New Museum Triennial, where artist Frank Benson's 3D-printed sculpture of her naked, reclining body became the show's de-facto centerpiece, and was displayed next to Huxtable's own artwork and poems.

This time around, Huxtable was co-commissioned by both MoMA and Performa, a leading organization in New York City's performance art scene, to produce a work for the ongoing Performa 15 festival (November 1-22). The result was a three-vignette performance piece titled There Are Certain Facts That Cannot Be Disputed, which took place over two sold-out dates on November 13 and 14. If the New Museum show marked Huxtable as an artist to watch, her debut at MoMA confirmed she was a force of techno-nature who would have no problem holding on to the attention.

Let's start at the beginning. In the first vignette, the theatre at MoMA was illuminated in blacklight and an unsettling soundtrack by forward-thinking Virginia producer Elysia Crampton welcomed the audience with samples of guns being loaded and distant yelling. Images of Huxtable and her collaborators hung on the wall, scattered among oversized fragments of what appear to be anthropological and historical writings on race and colonialism.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Huxtable explained that this initial scene is about locating yourself in alternative versions of history. As the lights dimmed, a video by New York director Mitch Moore (who has also worked with Mykki Blanco) hinted at what was to come with a scrolling selection of scenes from Titanic, Roots, and Marie Antoinette, among others—a review of our white-washed cinematic past.

Enter Juliana Huxtable: calm and explosive. She walked from the rear of the theatre and took her place at center stage where she stood—daintily with her legs crossed at the ankles and her hands folded in her lap—for most of the performance. A holographic light, after scanning the full length of her body, seemed to import her into the digital world of the video screen behind her. Under a track that sounded like it could belong to the next Star Wars epic, Huxtable spoke into a voice distorting microphone, musing on topics as wide ranging and abstruse as the whiteness of apes, the ubiquity of PC monitors (a wordplay that references both personal computers and political correctness), and EncyclopediaAfricana.com, a project dreamed up by WEB Dubois to counter the Eurocentrism of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Such one-off references flowed quickly by in Huxtable's speech, making the performance at times difficult to follow and the citations easy to lose. Still, that seems part of the point: to overload what Huxtable called in the same Guardian interview "the older, whiter versions of 'the man' past" with fast and feminist fiction.

New York artist Joseph Heffernan

The second vignette, titled "Mourning," moved this questioning of history into the digital age. It began with two of Huxtable's collaborators, New York-based artists Joseph Heffernan and Sadaf H Nava, on the drums and electric violin/vocals respectively, playing without harmony or synchronicity. When Huxtable reentered the scene, her digitally modulated voice expressed her anxieties about the internet as "a place of knowing and not having the receipts"—an ephemeral storage space.

My favorite part of Huxtable's performance followed. A throwback to adolescence for both Huxtable and myself, the artist wondered aloud about the disappearance of GeoCities—an early web-hosting service where users built our own websites for free and each page belonged to a 'city' of our choice. In 2009, parent company Yahoo! shut down the service, wiping these pages from the web.

What does it mean that entire "cities" have simply bounced from the scene of the internet? To stage this question, Huxtable ironically casted herself as a spurned ex-lover to the long-lost "Geo," a stand-in for GeoCities, thanking him for storing her things for so long but asking for him to return her texts. Silly as it may seem, the moment was too melancholic to garner many laughs; adolescent angst never felt so much like archive fever.

The last vignette, "Avatars," began with some comic relief via a video that imagined role-play as a method for reinserting people of color into the historical record. A playful voiceover from Huxtable guided the actors through their historical embodiments: "You're Toussaint after the revolution." "You're Daria at the medieval nights-themed school dance." "You're Frederick Douglas." "You're community college queens."

At the video's conclusion, Huxtable took the stage to let loose another rush of floating signifiers, uttering phrases like "porn dictates folklore, more than Kant's racism" and "bound in body, gagged by the present." As Huxtable's speech quickened, Heffernan and Nava crescendoed. The intensity rose. Drums, piano, violin. Screeching vocalizations. A smoke machine. And just as Huxtable's poetics became inaudible, four actors started sword fighting on each side of the theatre. Were we bearing witness to a clash between new and old doctrines? An afro-futurist Assassin's Creed? As Huxtable put it at the end of her performance: "it's all very grey."

Of all the facts that cannot be disputed about Juliana Huxtable, perhaps the most salient one is that she refuses categorization. She's like a cyborg, defying distinctions between nature and technology, the organic and the inorganic. The alien-looking microphone and obelisk speakers on stage produced her voice as much as her vocal chords did, and we experienced her body both in the flesh and on the screen.

Huxtable is a poetic (re)visionary, mixing historical fact and political fiction when she attempts to remember "the vanishing evidence of African civilizations." Her lyricism enables black folks to imagine themselves as Toussaint sword fighting in the aisles of MoMA, or Frederick Douglas as the black woman sitting next to us in the theatre. If nothing else, Huxtable hails the dancing queers of the Spectrum and the Museum of Modern Art aficionados into shared space—a space where their histories bump and grind, gathered together under rhythm and rhyme.

James McMaster is a writer/editor based in New York, and a PhD student in Performance Studies at NYU. Follow him on Twitter.

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