Making a Voice Heard and a Body Count

By David LaGaccia

Whitney Hunter performing Body Count: Counting the Dead #101

Whitney V. Hunter performing Body Count: Counting the Dead. #101 at New York City’s Union Square Park. Photo by David LaGaccia.

UPDATE 9/23/2014:  Editor’s Note: Hyperallergic and the Body Count Collective (BCC) have issued the following joint statement:

“Based on new information, the Hyperallergic article (Would You Ignore 101 Chalk Outlines of a Black Male Body) may have misconstrued some aspects of the overall Body Count project (as a whole). This in turn caused the reaction by Body Count Collective (BCC) — calling into question the motivations behind the article. However, this will be addressed soon. As both, Hyperallergic and BCC, have agreed to a reconciliation in the form of a forthcoming interview that will address — among other pertinent topics — the issues and challenges that arise when writing about a charged political performance and its reception by the public.”

 

Editor’s Note: The following statement produced by Whitney V. Hunter and Preach R Sun refers to an article posted on August 25th, on the website, Hyperallergic.com. It expresses their views and opinions on working with their staff on the production of that article. The editorial decision to include the statement is meant to help inform previous readers of this performance by telling the whole story, as well as keeping a website honest in its reportage of sensitive events.

“BCC (Body Count Collective) strongly objects and denounces Hyperallergic’s coverage of the Body Count project. We found the article, ‘Would You Ignore 101 Outlines of a Black Male Body’ (written by Hyperallergic contributor Daniel Larkin), to be an egregiously lazy and one-sided, misrepresentation of our collaborative effort. As such, it is our belief that Hyperallergic, by choosing to publish the article and keep it posted on their site – despite our numerous complaints, has exhibited a wanton and flagrant disregard towards the project and most importantly our collective voice. Their actions have threatened to compromise and diminish the integrity of the project. Despite Mr. Larkin’s asseveration, of his (and Hyperallergic’s) devoted desire and commitment to honestly represent marginalized artistic voices, our experience has been quite the contrary. And, in light of his Larkin’s comments regarding Hyperallergic’s ability to “make artist’s careers”, it is now quite evident to us that Hyperallergic’s ultimate goal and or agenda had nothing whatsoever to do with honoring and representing our true voice – quite the opposite, in fact. We believe Hyperallergic’s sole purpose was to exploit our voice, In order to, hastily capitalize on a trending topic – the outrage, in Ferguson, Mo., over the execution of, yet another, unarmed black man (by police) as addressed by black artist. The irony here is that Mr. Larkin’s article (praised and endorsed by Hyperallergic’s Editor-in-chief Hrag Vartanian), ultimately answers its own question, regarding the value of Black life, by showing that not only, are we not worth seeing, but our voices are not worth being heard.”

At 12 P.M on Saturday, August 23rd, Whitney V. Hunter began to make his voice heard and body count. He knew he wanted it to be at New York City’s Union Square, but he didn’t anticipate the crowded farmers market. Vendors lined the park and a couple hundred New Yorkers and tourists passed through the sidewalk carrying groceries, dogs on leashes, babies in their strollers. The manager of the market said that this wasn’t the right time to do this, and threatened to call the police if he didn’t stop. But he had planned this. Michael Brown had been shot and killed by a police officer two weeks prior, and he had seen the reactions from the protesters, the police, and the media. He had something he wanted to say. This was his first performance in the public. It was the perfect time to do this.

“It was vulnerable, most of my performances are very vulnerable, but in particular this because I knew that I’m dealing with a lot of strangers and people who don’t have any idea of why I would do something like this,” said Hunter after his performance. “It’s a horribly vulnerable place to subject myself to.”

Hunter’s performance, titled Body Count: Counting the Dead. #101, was a performance in collaboration with fellow artist and close friend, Preach R Sun (who performed later that day in Ferguson, MO) as a means of activism against the shooting of Michael Brown, as well as the continued violence against African Americans and people of color: “The piece is a performance protest with the intention of drawing consciousness and drawing attention to the misuse and abuse of power, power structures, particularly as they affect men of color, black men in particular,” he said.

Starting at noon, Hunter performed for two hours outlining his body across the park using chalk much like a chalk outline of a murder scene. Each was numbered, and represented as Hunter has stated, African American men like Sean Bell (2006 in Queens, New York), and Trayvon Martin (2012 in Sandford, Florida), names that have been written in the paper and faded into dust— just like the chalk he outlined himself with as both of their deaths resulted in the acquittal of the men responsible for the shooting. He did this 101 times.

At the times the crowd swelled around Hunter as he performed at Union Square. Photo by David LaGaccia.

At the times the crowd swelled around Hunter as he performed at Union Square. Photo by David LaGaccia.

The outlines were drawn in the middle of a crowded market where people would invariably walk over them, either by not noticing them or unavoidably stepping on them. His use of chalk emphasized the ephemerality of the performance, considering how easily it could be washed away; this ensured the physical erasure of the performance, as well as the symbolic “erasure” of the outlined bodies, speaking on how the controversial shootings have passed in the public conscience.

“We [with Preach R Sun] want to bring awareness to these issues and hope that there won’t be more to come, but are not ignorant to the fact that there will probably more to come,” said Hunter.

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Hunter during the performance lied down in the form of a “body” representing many African American’s and men of color who have been killed. Photo by David LaGaccia

Hunter occasionally wrote a phrase such as “My body counts” above an outline, while also talking to the crowd saying “I’m getting my PH.D, why am I doing this?” Many people stopped to take pictures with their camera phones, and still more passed through the market to continue shopping. Comments ranged from ‘It must be performance art’, ‘Why is he doing this?’ ‘What does it mean?’, and from stonewalled silence to fervent discussions over the recent shooting in Ferguson. The performance ended with Hunter crawling back over the train of his outlined bodies, from 101 to 1, resting, and embracing a woman, Lisa Lewis, who was considered by Hunter and Sun as “a key element” in the collaboration, an was present throughout the performance.

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Hunter embracing friend Lisa Lewis at the end of his performance. Lewis helped organize the the performances that day. Hunter has been performing since 2009. This was his first performance in the public. Photo by David LaGaccia.

Whitney V. Hunter’s segments were shot by David Ian Griess, and Preach R Sun’s segments were provided by Brandon Paul. The video was edited by Griess.

Halfway across the country, where the St. Louis Arch marks the gateway to the west, Preach R Sun began his part of the collaboration in his performance protest called Counting the Dead at 4 P.M. Central Time. The landscape of the skyscrapers of New York City changed into the memorial of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO; however, the message and issues were the same. In a video provided by Brandon Paul, a bystander at the performance, Sun is shown dressed in a orange prison jumpsuit, with an American flag handkerchief used as a blindfold and wearing a mock bullet target on his chest. Sun, walked up to the memorial, and began chanting the dead: “One dead, two dead, three dead, four dead, five dead, six dead…they’re not stopping till we’re all in the ground. In 2012 alone, 313 black men were shot down by police.”

The crowd began shouting names of other men who have been killed. “They want us to be peaceful,” yelled Sun. “They want us to go to sleep, they want us to be quiet…they don’t want us to be angry.” Sun ended the performance by taking off his blindfold and prison suit, and offering solidarity to those protesting at Ferguson, as well as to other parts of the world.

Preach R Sun, Counting the Dead

The beginning of Preach R Sun’s performance, Counting the Dead. He shouted: “One dead, two dead, three dead, four dead, five dead, six dead…they’re not stopping till we’re all in the ground.” Photo by Abdul Aziz.

Sun said he knew he had wanted to go to Ferguson to make a performance, and the idea of a collaboration with Hunter came about after the two shared a conversation. Lisa Lewis, a close friend of two artists, also had a significant hand in the organization of the project by helping coordinate and fund the collaboration. “I was very nervous about the fragility of the situation on what was going on,” said Sun, his voice still hoarse from his performance. “I didn’t know the environment, the terrain. I knew I wanted to do something.” He said he chose to perform at the Michael Brown memorial for its symbolic significance, and that he wanted himself to be seen as apart from the protesters.

“I wasn’t just trying to be a protester in that moment, I wanted to create something significant,” said Sun.” “ It’s [his performance] activism, but I know I’m performing. I revisited an action I’ve done at a Harlem police station a couple of summers ago because of the death of Trayvon Martin.”

Sun, who has lived in Missouri, has stated that the shooting of Michael Brown is a familiar occurrence, and speaking from personal experience, saying that the relations between law enforcement and minorities in Missouri have always been confrontational:

“This is not new,” he said. “I remember as kids we were playing with toy guns, and police pulled guns on us and told us to lay [sic] down on the street. They’re either killing you or putting you in prison—something’s wrong.”

Sun who has done public performances since 2010, calls himself a performance activist, and has done many performances in both exhibitions and media such as his ongoing ONE MAN project, as well as public interventions in the Museum of Modern Art, and in front the New York Stock Exchange. His work often deals with the exploration the social responsibility of art by interrogating issues including race, economic systems and political structures.

“For me it’s about this sort of experience that I’m very clear on creating something from, and for me I create from the black experience, because that’s what I know,” he said. “The black experience has its own perspective, its own inside way of seeing the world. I will put it out there that this is my experience, I’m speaking from a black perspective, because whether you say that or not, it’s already there, I look at that in performance art in general. You are making work about you for you.”

‘You can build up things, you can do certain things that cause people to inevitably to get, even if they don’t understand exactly what they’re seeing. It might have an impact that they don’t really realize that might invoke something inside of them that is there— that they might not even be aware of, something that’s ancient. So that’s even with me in creating some of the work. There’s a lot of times I’m like— let’s just go here, because maybe I am tapping into when I’m open like that, that’s ancient.’

The ending of Sun's performance had him asking for solidarity, not just in Ferguson, but worldwide. Photo by Abdul Aziz.

The ending of Sun’s performance had him asking for solidarity, not just in Ferguson, but worldwide. Photo by Abdul Aziz.

Hunter and Sun have known each other since meeting in 1993 through friends in the dance program at Howard University in Washington D.C. Since then the two have shared countless social and artistic ideas, influencing each others’ work, and becoming more like family than friends, more like brothers than collaborating artists.

“He is a true inspiration to me, and from the last week or so, we’ve been talking back and forth about what the artist’s responsibly is in terms of speaking out any social injustices,” said Hunter. “We’ve decided that the artist has a responsibility, the artists has a voice, and perhaps instead of looking to the political activists, that sometimes we can possibly look towards the artist activist that are actively making statements through their art about injustices, and about any range of societal problems.”

“I do believe that art does have a function other than aesthetics. The value in the art is in the function in it. How can that stimulate social change to dismantle the structures and attack the institutions that support these structures?”, said Sun.

The two distinguish between being a protester standing in a picket line and being an artist, who could create work, using aesthetics and symbolism that speaks on social issues, but nonetheless could come together and form something new.

“We are saying that the two are clearly synonymous. We’re challenging people to say that there are possibilities here,” said Sun.

“I have in the last few years – in saying I’m not just creating art for art’s sake,” said Hunter. “My work stands for something, I stand for something. All of my performance art work directly addresses that.”

Performance in the nature of the form demands a degree of involvement by viewers to create the art, and the actions or inaction of others can bring context or influence the work. By using performance as a form of activism, or a form of protest, than the engagement of the viewer could go beyond the involvement of the “performance” and become cognizant and engaged with the social issues that the performance addresses. It’s a way of seeing or understanding these issues through action, imagery and metaphor to spur a greater action or involvement with the world around them.

A particular issue brought up by both artists was the idea of the issues facing African Americans, or black Americans is the idea of being ignored or becoming “invisible” to the public. Making an argument against the idea of trying to be “color-blind”, they argued people need to see how they look in order to see the real issues of poverty, incarceration, and police brutality facing many Americans of color.

“I think in America there is a particular state of apathy at the moment. To think we’re in this ‘safe zone’ this false zone of safety in a way that as long that it doesn’t impact our immediate space, then it doesn’t matter. I have to be in the space to see what people do, to see if people care. There is a passivity—and I’m not pointing fingers. Part of the reason I’m doing this is to point the finger at myself and say, ‘Am I passive, am I apathetic? Do I care?’ I have to ask myself as an artist that says do they make work that is dealing with social injustices or identity politics? I have look myself in the mirror and say, ‘How much do you care what’s happening outside your own circle of interests, or circle of friends?”

“It feels like we always have to prove our right to exist,” said Sun. “We are struggling with this idea of invisibility.” Sun referred to the shooting in Ferguson, and said, “This is us, we could have already been dead.”

Officer Darren Wilson has yet to be formally charged for the death of Michael Brown, and if he does stand trial, the verdict will be announced and the events thereafter will unfold and pass, but issues of racism will persist unless addressed by people of social role or color. Performance as both an artistic medium and discipline that through interaction and intervention can bring awareness to the greater social issues that we face. It is neither a medium circumscribed for politicians, or activists, or artists, rather a medium that lets our voice be heard. Now is the perfect time to do this.

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