afropunk interview: kevin beasley
March 8, 2019
A cotton gin motor acquired from a farmer in Maplesville, Alabama is the central object of sound artist and sculptor Kevin Beasley’s A View of a Landscape, an exhibition currently at the Whitney Museum in New York. In a historical, speculative sense, motors imply a quickening of production pace and an outrunning of a present condition; essentially granting their users “freedom” and “control.” Yet the introduction of machines also call into question the use-value of human bodies and the limits of their potential. In the context of American slavery and the transition of a nation from the “analog” labor power of Black bodies to the industrial assertion of machinery and assembly lines, motors bear the heavy weight of connotation.
Kevin Beasley hails from rural Virginia, and gained a Masters in Fine Arts at Yale University, where he first wrote about the cotton gin motor. His work is physical, both in its evocation of strong emotions, and how he churns out found-material and sound sculptures with his hands. Using physical contact to access materiality runs deep through Beasley’s works — culled from loose objects like t-shirts and durags, or through the manipulation of sound — as a means of expressing a dense history and possibility. In a performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2012, Beasley used turntables to DJ and remix acapella parts from ‘90s rap songs into a meditation on the internal language of the genre, honing in on sonic details like the Notorious B.I.G.’s breathing, separating the moment of exhaling from the delivery of a message. Whereas an exhibit at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles saw him using resin and acoustic foam to craft a scenery of bodies strewn around an alter, in reference to Bernini’s Baroque altarpiece in Saint Peter’s Basilica and an image of Black Panther Huey P. Newton.
When Beasley and I met to discuss the exhibition in mid-February, I found that we, in fact, talked about everything but the motor, charging every detail and angle around the ideation of production and value. The “it” factor of the motor and adjacent sculptural pieces in the exhibit were only a part of the multi-dimensional and non-linear thinking that Beasley has packed into A View of a Landscape. Three large sculptures made up of cotton with embedded objects like books and dresses and laptops, with names like ‘The Acquisition’ and ‘The Reunion’ implies and chronicles Beasley’s investigations into the history of the motor and the larger scope of Black migration into the Northern states of America. Beyond the sight of the motor, there is the sound of it. A low, measured and hollow hum that festers throughout the exhibition space and exists as a latent energy yet to be tapped. In a separate, adjacent space, a modular synthesizer sits against a wall, waiting to be activated and utilized to route and mold the sounds of the motor. (This happened a number of times during the exhibition’s run, a series of audio works and performances curated by Beasley and performed by both himself and guest musicians, poets and dancers.) An active engagement with the motor expresses a long, troublesome history of control and adaptation: the transformation of a specifically Black body into a labor machine.
As a concept and living artifact of 400 years of subjugation and unevenly distributed “progress,” A View of a Landscape resonated with me at core sensorial level. Like the motor, I am from Alabama. Cotton fields, their culture of endurance and historical function, hit me hard, as I’ve seen similar such fields for most of my life. In a modern cotton field there is a long, slender machine that parses the cotton from its stalk in single efficient swathes. One can imagine the number of bodies that it would take to engage with a field of cotton at the same rate as a machine, and what it must’ve looked like to see a field of bodies forced to parse and pick a piece of fluff from sharp barbs at a rate that exceeds their own bodily limits. The rhythm and momentum gathered by Black bodies in the cotton fields was in its own way a kind of machinery, designed by grief, pioneered for the sake of survival.
In the conversation that follows, Beasley and I discussed the materiality and meaning of a collective rhythm as well as consider how we, as modern Black men ought to talk about, conceive of and reconcile with our lineage and past. We ask: what can be found in and extracted from vibration and relational history?
So maybe we should start with object itself: the cotton gin motor. Where did it come from and what attracted you it?
The motor itself comes from Alabama. I found it on eBay, but I think what’s really particular about the object itself is how I came to it, and what ended up on the other side when I engaged with it and the owner and learned about the motor’s life. For me, it started with seeing a cotton field for the first time, on family property in Virginia. That was a really heavy and emotionally difficult moment for me, because I had never actually seen a cotton field before. Then to also see that on family property that we’ve had since the 1910s was really difficult. I was in graduate school at the time, so it was a really sensitive moment, and that sort of kick-started this reconciling and dealing with the physical material of cotton. I began to think about the cotton gin motor’s geographical context. Driving down from New Haven, CT, and then you’re in Virginia, with family, celebrating, and you’re now experiencing this thing that you’ve never experienced before but you know really well because it’s historically apart of your entire existence. The motor really emerged out of the looking for an actual cotton gin to process this cotton that I had just picked. I was trying to think about how I could process this experience of being on a cotton field where slaves had labored.
So you actually went into the field and picked cotton?
Yeah, it was like a moment to do it. I went back to the property in December 2011, just after it was harvested. There was a lot of it and waste leftover. So I went out into the fields and said “I should do this.” I should do the actual act with my hands and pick the cotton.
Were your hands bloodied by the end?
No! That’s the crazy part. The act of picking cotton is actually really pleasurable. Cotton’s extremely soft. The way that it comes out of the plant is very gratifying. It has a very sensual feeling, but what I realized is that the pain that comes from that is not having leisure. It’s not having the ability to sit and do this at your own pace. The pain comes in from having to pick your weight in cotton and the potential ramifications of not producing, of not being a machine. I did not have to deal with the psychological pressure of survival. I could be very thoughtful and considerate about how I pick the cotton. I could even take time to develop a technique that avoids the barbs and such. The actual cotton itself is super soft, but it’s the barbs around the bowl that are sharp.… What I learned is that if I had to do this as a slave and my life depended on it, I wouldn’t survive. Psychologically, the pressure and the pain that I would feel would be too much.
Absolutely. An interesting thing about capitalism in America is that it’s so dependent on potency, and so dependent on satisfaction. The satisfaction for you was that moment of extraction, which is ironically similar to that of the slave owner receiving his/her product, whereas the slave would be faster and hypothetically sloppier because their life (and the lives of others) were on the line. There is a removal from the satisfaction that a slave might feel from maybe not touching the cotton.
Or knowing that afterwards I could go inside and wash my hands with soap. I can cleanse myself. I can sleep in a comfortable bed in a climate-controlled room. I can eat a healthy meal and watch a television show. There are all of these things that come along with being able to step away from picking of the cotton that provides you with a sense of rejuvenation. You can rebuild your soul, your health after engaging with work. But those things just weren’t provided for a slave. So thinking about days and days of picking cotton by hand in the heat, and how dry the hands would get without aloe vera on the other end to rejuvenate your hands from that work put into context what is being talked about when we say that picking cotton is a bloody and painful experience. We think about things in a really physical, visceral way and what I think that ultimately does is that it speaks to another layer of psychological trauma.
I suppose at that point the act of labor becomes about rhythm. The Black body in this context can be seen as an attempt at automated labor, essentially a coerced and designed robot. Maybe the rhythm and momentum of the work becomes the source of rejuvenation, which is shared collectively by the slaves and felt across the field. Does this relate to your extraction and investigation of the sounds of the cotton gin motor from the motor itself or even the very act of picking cotton?
There have definitely been parallels in conversations with people about extracting the sound out of the motor and putting it somewhere else along with the processing. There is something about this sort of separation of the seeds from the fibers that happens. I think there is a rhythm that is established when you speak about revolutions or rotations. You can find patterns in these rotations even when you think something is going to run and run and run. Rotations feel like they are endless, but speed has some correlation to rhythm. I think that rhythm becomes a conceptual layer throughout the work where is feels appropriate to play with rhythm.
The point at which vibration becomes palpable and “thingly.” When you consider the rhythm of picking cotton, the physical act seems to bear the weight of the traumas and horrors leading up to it. Think about a slave having been kidnapped in the night and put in a boat to be shipped across the ocean to a continent with a different ecosystem, and your entire body composition is adapting to that…
USA Today recently featured the research and commemoration around the 400 years since the first slave who were brought to the states. They landed in Virginia, there were 20 of them from a voyage that started with 350. The article started talking about loss, considering that there were millions of slaves that actually made it over, but those numbers were actually a fraction of the number of slaves that were actually captured. You think about how many bodies that ended up in the Atlantic ocean is far greater. The intended impact of the Atlantic slave trade was never actualized.
Right, the myth of Drexciya, from the synonymous Detroit techno project, is very material. In terms of deep-time ecology one kind of has to consider, what do you do with literal waste of bodies? When you consider a collective Black body in terms of body counts you start really getting to the core of the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade. Like yes, a million made it over, but what do you do with the estimated millions that didn’t make the full trip, that were ejected from the boat into the ocean?
It’s always important to keep in mind the rhythm that is produced is with this loss. These are bodies, yes, but these are also souls, these are people. There is brilliance and creative ingenuity in those bodies. There’s so much spirituality in a person and in each and every one of those people. When you lose and have lost so much that there is a body count or a statistic. Because the number of loss is so high, it’s the only way to account for the gravity. Society never gives time to think about those stories in-depth. Those that survived end up being the ones who have to pay for the loss. The rhythm becomes something that you establish not only for yourself…it’s beyond your body. The Black body is because of the experiences and because of the depth of trauma that’s there, the body represents something so much deeper. The term body becomes insufficient to describe what that body actually consists of and what it holds.
I consider Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran’s pessimism a lot when considering this amount of loss. In “History and Utopia” you have these two options, right? The only way to get to the utopia is to completely eradicate the history that came before. Earlier when you mentioned being able to stop picking the cotton and being able to lay in the bed and remove yourself from the situation of labor and strife, I have to consider what sort of utopia America could even be for this select group of people who couldn’t take that rest — let alone the effects of that labor on their descendants. I have had a lot people say to me that “things are better now,” but what do you do with this amount of loss and tragedy?
If there has to be a conversation on whether things are better or not, then I feel like we’re definitely not there, especially if one feels the need or the impulse to tell me that it is better. They’re mostly saying this to comfort themselves. To say that things are better is to say that you and your ancestors put in the time and energy to rectify all of the damage that has been done, but you’re also explaining it to someone who obviously in some shape or form has expressed to you that it is not alright. I feel like things have shifted and moved in a way that coincides with how technology has changed. The way that economies have changed. You look at all of these changes that have happened, and of course it’s not gonna look the same. Of course slavery is not going to continue and be a prevailing way in the form that it existed in because technology changes. Capitalism is only concerned with its own structure, right? Whether it’s coercion or sweet manipulation. It doesn’t matter. It just has its own trajectory, and its own goal. Using slave labor to produce capital now is just not economically viable, but it shifts into another economically viable way like the Prison Industrial Complex.
That’s the beauty of “freedom,” right? We’re free because someone else can do the labor. With the motor, there is a clear evolution from the hand as being the primary tool…and then Black people are free. Like, are we “free,” or are you just like “done”? Being alive then becomes a gross severance package.
Right. I mean, you let all of these Black people enter into society in a way that White people have said, “We can do this. We can allow this to happen.”
The Freedom becomes satisfactory for them at this point. The need for extraction in this particular way is done, and then we fast forward to 2019, and you’re doing an exhibition that extracts this history using the very tool that replaced us. I read somewhere that there is some relation between the inventor of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney and the founders of the Whitney Museum itself.
Yeah, there’s one descendant and there are two families that came from that descendent; and the Whitney family is one, and Eli Whitney is the other. It’s not a direct relationship to Eli Whitney, but there IS a relationship there. So I think what the exhibition does is it talks more about ancestry and familial relationships, and how those resonate. The fact that you could have one descendent — and two families that break off — and they both attain major capital and success, right? Eli Whitney is a world famous inventor who is basically the father of the Industrial Revolution. And then, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founds a museum and is apart of the Vanderbilt family. Any way you slice it you’re talking about the upper echelon. But I think that it’s important to recognize and survey all of these relationships. For me and the work in the exhibition, it operates on an institutional level, but it functions and plays a role on a personal, familial one. There is an impact in these connections and we’re all a part of it in some way. How does that then materialize and how are we reconciling and thinking about it? I still don’t fully know how to think about it. It’s ever evolving, and something where you learn something new, and then you’re like, “Whoa, that just changes my perspective on what I thought I knew about my family, or what I thought I knew about this institution that I attended.”
I guess A View of a Landscape becomes a kind of nexus point between all of these conversations, whether you want it to or not.
Well, I definitely want it to, because I think that that’s the experience that I and most of us are living. I’m living in a place where I’m meeting so many people from so many different parts of the world, or have their own personal narratives, and we’re all working with a particular structure. For me, I have an interest in proliferating the soulful. How do you do that? How do you recognize a personal history and also a much larger, global history?
I feel like the exhibition provided a space to point to the collectivity of things that I’m working through, and that collectivity is rooted in an invitation. The motor and its function is a real thing in the world. It has a very deep impact on the lives that come into contact with it. The motor is pulsating and it’s breathing and it’s still. If someone comes to the exhibition and they look at a beautiful color palette, I appreciate that because they are responding in a way. But for that to be the only thing that they extract from it, to not recognize the significance of some of these objects, the sheer materiality?… The exhibition isn’t a focus on the aesthetics of cotton because you can get it at Michael’s Craft Store, right? Why bring this directly from the soil in the South? This is something that holds a really deep history, and everyone has to reconcile it.
I think that we have the capability to value something in all of its difficulty, rather than how it provides us with a comfort zone. The premise behind the exhibition is recognizing a history with the cotton gin motor, but this motor is running right now. It’s driving something else: a space where you can contemplate and listen, and hopefully understand the motor and its history and function in our lives. There are a lot of possibilities in what the motor represents, but maybe you’re going to be uncomfortable. Maybe when you’re experiencing the work it doesn’t entertain you. Maybe you go away feeling a little more weighted. That you could stand in front of it and ask, “What is this? Why is this here?”
So, the exhibition could potentially be seen as more of a moratorium on capitalism as well as culture and value. If the motor is not iconic, or immediately recognized, then I suppose it is also not desired by the gaze of your average White art consumer. It’s potent meaning is maybe about not wanting to be bought and sold… I’m really curious about Ralph Lemon’s involvement, because his presence felt so opaque despite the heavy emotions being dealt with in his performance with you. What was his particular engagement with the motor?
Ralph is asking a lot of important questions…for much longer than I’ve been. He’s thinking about geography, he’s thinking about ancestry and a particular kind of Blackness within institutional spaces. Ralph is notorious for penetrating these spaces and doing the wildest shit, and no one knowing that they’re going to experience what they’re going to experience. There is always a sense of elation. Like fire afterwards…minds are blown. And yet, they still don’t know what they bore witness to. I think Ralph’s invitation was rooted in a long-term collaboration with him, and feeling like this is a thing that I would love for him to develop something for. It felt fitting, and that I had grown up enough to invite Ralph to, and that he would feel comfortable showing up for it. I didn’t know what to expect beyond that it would be really unexpected. There were several parts. Ralph wrote a text on freedom that he screamed. We’ve been working together since 2012, and it was the first time that I ever heard him scream. That kind of performance for me was the epitome of what I wanted to see happening. I knew that the platform, the motor running its history is an instigator. And as an instigator…how are people processing it?
I definitely felt a collective heat during that performance. It was interesting to see the motor interact with Black bodies, seeing what sort of emotions would come out of them after having made contact with it on such a sensory level. I even thought about you working with a modular synth, modulating and sonically processing the literal dynamics of the room, but also you being positioned as a curator…
There’s a lot packed in. We really felt the necessity to do what we did in that space. There’s this thing when you have multiple people in the room performing, you don’t have to take on this feeling that you must produce everything. You can actually get perspective through other Black bodies that you love, and you love them so much. Even though you’re putting out so much, you’re able to take in and receive that from these other bodies. It’s kinda getting back to that sense of rhythm. We were at the edge, we were pushing the whole thing so much that there moments where the sound just cut out completely. And yet there were these bodies still moving. I’m still moving, lost in this thing. It felt like we pushed that performance to the absolute limit.
There’s plenty of performative constructions that can be related to what you were doing there. Parliament Funkadelic, or a Pharoah Sanders, a lot of iterations of this hot, vibrational heat. It’s always interesting when you see this heat instrumentalized in an art-space, when it happens naturally by proxy of bodies coming together.
That’s interesting for me, because I think that being in a church or within a family reunion that can happen. But what happens when you’re in an institutional space that was generated and developed to leave all of Black history out completely. And yet those spaces obviously have had an impact on Black communities. In a way, this motor built the platform for art institutions and the way that Black people have been able to assemble. To bring these concerns or these conversations to that type of institution is to insist on certain things rising to the surface. It could be something as simple as saying, “I just want all of my brothers and sisters to be in the room at the same time.” I just want to invite these people to be in this room at the Whitney to generate this energy.
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