Anna Martine Whitehead’s work Notes On Territory appears as part of Pivot Arts’ upcoming site-specific show, Charged Spaces/Changing Bodies. Below Martine discusses her artistic process with Pivot Arts’ Director, Julieanne Ehre.
JE: You describe yourself as a “transdisciplinary artist.” What does that mean in terms of your individual practice?
AMW: I began using this term after a conversation with performance artist NIC Kay, who was using it at the time to describe their movement-based practice that includes book and zine-making, found objects, and a range of improvisational dance forms. It speaks to a practice that spans a multitude of modalities. For me, that includes text and language work, dance, somatics practices, 2D work, and a range of other expressions. I also like including the prefix “trans” as much as possible in my vernacular — it’s a very queer word that inches towards the actual complexity of real life.
JE: Your piece “Notes On Territory” was developed partially in the Pivot Arts incubator program. Can you tell us about the impetus for the piece and how it has evolved over time?
AMW: Through my Link Up Residency at Links Hall, I was generously offered free time between semesters in the UIUC Dance Department. I hung out in the arts library quite a bit, where I picked up a book with a chapter by Algerian-born Cornell professor Samia Henni. Henni’s work links the architecture and planning of colonial Algeria with the development of the notion of “modern warfare,” which has been taken up by the United States in almost all aspects of public and private life. I was interested in what other transtemporal and global connections could we track toward modern U.S. prison culture.
That was the summer of 2017 and it has been a long road that continues to extend. As the project began in historical research, that remains fundamental to it — but it has definitely taken on an aspect of play, fantasy, and internalization of the idea of space and freedom over time.
JE: I’m intrigued by your use of the phrase “containment architecture” — that’s a potent image. How would you describe the impact on our bodies of structures like prisons, schools that are meant to contain us, especially on bodies of color?
AMW: I teach a class at Stateville Prison and it’s amazing how much of the buildings there look like public housing, hospitals, community and state colleges, and the public schools I used to teach at in Philadelphia. There are real physical impacts in terms of the degradation of the structure, mold, asbestos and so on, that have extremely detrimental health impacts (especially in communities without access to quality healthcare). Further, the very idea of the body having an expansive relationship to space becomes tenuous — that spaces could be where the body explores instead of is directed. This is a fundamental dichotomy that informs how the body registers its own power, freedom, and purpose.
JE: You’ve expressed that you create work that addresses a Black, queer relationship to time. Could you talk a bit about how duration, absence and ancestry figures into your work?
AMW: I try to continually come back to the circle as a method… things overlapping on one another, things cycling. The way the center of the circle spins quicker than the outside of the circle, because time moves faster when there are more rotations. When you’re standing on one side of a circle, you can see all the other points in the circle, and this is important, too: A circle is necessarily multitudinous, not singular. Blackness and queerness don’t operate discreetly for me, and the circle feels like a very Black and queer thing. Queer folks, Black folks: we’re always thinking about the dead, about the future, about no future or about speculative futures. The sense of a cyclic existence that grows and changes and shrinks all feels very relevant.
JE: “Notes On Territory” is a site-specific piece. How do you think about your relationship to the audience when you’re creating the piece?
AMW: With each new work, I try to push myself more to really bring the audience in. I guess to “implicate” the audience, but that always sounds so negative! More like… I would like the audience to feel what it feels like to, for example, sit in a solitary unity: the disorienting boredom of that. Territory is imagined as an installation — a “reading room” — that is activated by the performance, and this is because I would like folks to have multiple points of entry. For some, learning this stuff works better by reading or looking at pictures. For others, it might be a lecture. I’m trying to make this have meaning, even if there are abstract elements. This is not meant to be opaque work.
JE: Finally, the dinner question. If you could have dinner with anyone — living or dead — who would you choose?
AMW: My friend Ki’tay Davidson, who passed in 2014. He has a great laugh, and I’d really love to hear it again.
Thank you for sharing your work with us, Martine. Notes On Territory can be experienced as part of Charged Spaces/Changing Bodies October 11-14. For more information and reservations, please visit pivotarts.org/events.
Anna Martine Whitehead is a transdisciplinary artist interested in the body as material, signal, archive. She’s been presented by Velocity Dance Center; Watts Towers Art Center; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; and the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics. Her work Notes On Territory was developed and then presented as a work-in-progress as part of the Pivot Arts Incubator program. She has contributed to projects by Onye Ozuzu, Jefferson Pinder, taisha paggett, Every house has a door, Keith Hennessy, BodyCartography Project, Julien Prévieux, and the Prison + Neighborhood Art Project. Martine has been published in Art21, C Magazine, Art Practical, frieze; contributed to Meanings and Makings of Queer Dance; and is the author of TREASURE | My Black Rupture. She is a 2018 Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist.