“a/wake in the water: Meditations on Disaster,” recently on display at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art (MoCADA) in Brooklyn, New York, was a small but intensely conceptualized video exhibition/installation whose inspiration lay in the intersections between traumatized diaspora bodies and contemporary environmental disasters that have defined a global generation. Featuring the work of twelve video artists in varying formats from wall screens to 12-inch TV sets, the exhibition incorporated multiple methods of storytelling ranging from disaster footage and documentary narratives to science fiction productions and choreographed performances. The subsequent videoscape created a multilayered experience whose disorienting yet somehow cohesive visual and conceptual threads “echo[ed] the sentiments of people in the midst of catastrophe,”1 in the words of curator Erin Christovale, and underscored the global reach of this exhibition in establishing linkages between black experiences of environmental disasters across numerous geographic, political, and cultural borders and contexts.
The museum itself, located in the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) arts district of Brooklyn, is a small, energetic institution whose size belies its ability to house an exhibition that carries with it such emotional baggage. Indeed, the conceptual impact of the exhibition was greatly maximized by the design of the space itself (Figs. 1–2), which used basic infrastructural components in the form of a series of theaters created by movable wall screens and heavy black curtains to promote unexpectedly potent dialogues between the individual and the narratives displayed.
One first encounters a series of wall-to-wall video projections supplemented by a few smaller television units, all placed in the forward area of the space and featuring science fiction narratives, performance pieces, or found disaster footage. Their placement around the viewer created the impression of a shifting environment of sight and sound, but my attention was nonetheless drawn to an arresting and unsettling work by New Orleans artist Tameka Norris in particular, whose film Post-Katrina Sunset (2009) was intended to reflect the futility of humanity's struggle in the face of the forces of nature (Fig. 3). Norris documented her own difficulties learning to swim as a metaphor for this larger theme, and her palpable panic as she struggled to stay afloat in the water created a “performance” piece charged by the force of her instinct to survive. Interestingly, the organization of this work in space itself seemed to implicate the viewer in this distressing narrative, allowing one's silhouette to cut through and across the video image (Fig. 4) and subsequently share space with Norris in the water.2 This perhaps related to a secondary narrative in Norris' work, namely the ways in which black communities in New Orleans were judged by the American media during their struggle to survive in the face of a lackluster federal response. This subtle implication of complicity was made all the more disquieting by the haunting avant-garde violin score that accompanied the film, whose presence highlighted the importance of sound in the exhibition more generally as voices, music, and other acoustic phenomena overlapped and competed with one another throughout.
The next viewing space was divided into a series of intimate cubicles that resembled black-curtained confessionals, fitting containers for the solitary contemplative moments experienced within (Fig. 5). In each space, a small screen was mounted on the wall, sometimes with a stool in front, sometimes not, each showing a different post-apocalyptic tale about future dystopian worlds where physiological traits have been commodified and the earth's natural resources have been depleted with distressing social and political consequences. Each film, in its own intensely thought-provoking way, presented black bodies as sites of conflict, commodification, and control, creating disturbing connotations that reverberated into the final space of the exhibition as well, which housed just one film, Ditch Plains (2013) by Loretta Fahrenholz (Fig. 6). Ditch Plains was cast as a projection on the far wall and could be seen from the exhibition entrance. This film was a fitting culmination to the exhibition, using the performative skills of Ringmasters Crew, a street dance group, to address the problematic physical, racial, social, and political environment that immediately followed the destruction of Hurricane Sandy. The film was accompanied by a pseudo-industrial soundtrack, whose beat was occasionally interrupted by a disembodied, mechanized voice spouting verbosities including “You don't know how to act, so just lie down and quit acting like you know.”
This particular film was very effective at highlighting a defining element of this exhibition as a whole: the sense of surveillance that seemed to accompany the viewer, as both the consumer of imagery and the consumed, into each section of the space. Yet even so, the palette of the exhibition itself, composed of white walls, concrete floors, and black curtains, created a highly introspective environment that, in conjunction with the films, absorbed the viewer not only through interaction but also through the suggestion that the viewer was both part and parcel of the events surrounded them. The dialogues created by the space were also reflected in the educational programming oriented around this exhibition, which included both a panel on environmental justice (October 9, 2014) and a series of book club meetings and writing workshops held at the museum. Yet perhaps the most notable aspect of the exhibition itself was its ability to create a harmonious narrative from a mixture of diverse situations and cinematic presentations, bridging numerous geographic and cultural gaps across Afro-oriented worlds to create a layered and highly charged viewing experience made all the more fraught by the continuous, unrelenting nature of the cinematic medium. In sum, much was done with this small but powerful exhibitionary niche in the heart of Brooklyn.
A catalog is available: Isisaa Komada-John, et al., a/wake in the water: Meditations on Disaster (Brooklyn, NY: Museum of African Diasporan Arts, 2015; English text, 35 pp., 15 color ill., $5.00, paper).
Erin Christovale, personal communication, December 6, 2014.
Erin Christovale comments that one of her favorite components of this exhibition is when people's silhouettes “wind up in the foreground, moving and navigating with the people on screen.” Personal communication, December 6, 2014.