Matt Shelton: One of the things I want to get your thoughts on is your invocation of the vernacular form of “covering” or “doing a cover version” in much of your performative work, and the ways in which this connects to other conscious and unconscious performative modes, both academic and vernacular, in our culture. For the purposes of our conversation, I would describe a “cover” or “covering” as a performance that interprets a pre-existing form with a particular sensitivity to the power that such an interpretation has to generate additional meaning via deviation from the original form. For example, we can analyze Jimi Hendrix’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Roseanne Barr’s performance of the same at an MLB game in 1990 as they relate to their respective historical moments, the social positions of their authors, and the audiences that consume those performances. Hendrix wasn’t seen as “just playing the wrong notes,” but rather as “commenting” on the War in Vietnam. I don’t know what Barr was doing, exactly, but the point is that iconic forms like monuments or symbols or pop songs cannot be invoked without being interpreted. What do you think?
Marisa Williamson: My favorite cover of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the one performed by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl. I do not know when I first saw the video. But, the video I have been watching was put on Youtube in 2012, the year she died. So likely, I found it in a scurry of online activity at the news of her death. Now, it seemed as though the video has always-already been on loop. Houston is my favorite performer. She had a lot of codes to switch between. She pretended to be healthy when she was sick. She alternated between pop, gospel, and R&B from verse to verse. She covered Dolly Parton. She was an actress, physically very beautiful, smooth skin, dynamic hair, successful and talented, all while treading water in a sea of real and projected ugliness. I live a few minutes away from her childhood neighborhood of Orange, New Jersey. Her mother, Cissy Houston, used to be my upstairs neighbor in downtown Newark.
I like to channel and cover Whitney Houston as I imagine her. It is an effort to draw attention to the peril, clumsiness, impossibility of living up to our ancestors. My intention is to honor that persona, make the persona more alive, use it as a vehicle to haunt and unsettle, and also leave the persona more intact than when I found it.
MS: I think this notion of covering, of interpretation, takes many different forms in your practice: there’s the persona of Sally Hemings (a cover of an historical figure); the amateur, solo performance of pop songs that calls to mind karaoke; the invocation of different modes of performance along the costuming spectrum, such as the theatrical role, but also the uniform of the historical interpreter/docent, as well as the “living statue” of street performance; there’s the queering of conventional gender stereotypes found in drag; as well as the history of satirical performance found in Carnival masking traditions in general, and in Black masking traditions like the Krewe of Zulu in New Orleans and the Jab Molassie in Trinidad and Tobago in particular. Of course, site also can be interpreted, and thus, in a sense, “covered,” so add that to the mix.
And if we read a “cover” as something that a viewer or listener sees or hears “through,” such as a filter, in the sense that they are experiencing the present performance with a memory of the original, as something translucent through which light (or other signal) passes, then we can also include in our broad scan of covers your inclusion in some installations and performances your use of overhead projectors and mylar transparencies. I mention this because I think transparency is related to “covering,” in the sense that it’s largely invisible.
For instance, you once performed as Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved mistress, on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, a UNESCO world heritage site, in what could lazily be called “colonial drag.” There’s video of you performing there with a microphone and a small amp, singing songs like The Miracles’ “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” At a performance at the University of Virginia in spring 2018, conceptualized as a “homegoing ceremony” for the Hemings persona, you sang a number of songs a cappella, including Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky.” What’s the purpose of using pop songs and the performative mode of karaoke as readymades in your work? What do you think that does for the work? For the audience? For you?
MW: I am using the songs as tools of autobiography. The karaoke performance is a confessional form. My covering of a site and song is a way to express feelings that are too painful, embarrassing, confusing, pleasurable, or complex to express directly and in my own words and with my own unaffected voice. Furthermore, I think that we repressed Americans love hearing songs we recognise. Within my performances, covering a ‘popular’ song allows me to read and speak to a room of strangers in what I hope is a shared language. I want to explore the sensation of the familiar appearing where and when it is not expected and furthermore performed by an unexpected persona. I want to find out how an injection of sentimentality can soften the impact of seeing a ghost.
My ideas about the “already made” or readymade come from learning about Marcel Duchamp and from learning about myself. I am somewhere between gentrifier and gentrified in my sense of entitlement to, on one hand, a colonizing ‘mine-ness’ in regard to my own body and, on the other, a sense of it belonging to a larger constellation of inter-temporal beings (family, ancestors, black liberation struggles). What makes it mine is agency. What makes the readymade an original is the same thing. I’m interested in the ways that this site of settlement can be used for unintended purposes. Can the readymade be transformed through ‘misuse’? What is a reverse settlement? A resurrection of the ruins of those who came before? A conjuring of the ghosts of your enemies?
In short, so much of what I see around me is ready-made; various things I did not imagine, did not create, did not consent to. My use of other people’s words, work, or likeness, is a form of possession in the ritual sense.
I hope it reads as playful, informative, sincere, and resistant. In my recent research on the various modes of day-to-day resistance within slavery, I keep returning to narratives of slaves who performed diligence, obedience, sweetness and accommodation, but were then found to be stealing, plotting escape, or conspiring to revolt against their masters. They wore everyday masks.
MS: I saw Andrea Fraser give a talk at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2013, and one of my notes from that talk has written in giant quotation-caps, “[The artist] MUST ELECT…TO INHABIT THE CONTRADICTIONS.” I thought of this in your talk last spring at UVA, when you described institutional critique, the art movement most embodied by Fraser’s work, as “the Master’s tools,” invoking Black feminist Audre Lorde’s axiom that “The Master’s tools [meaning the academy] will not dismantle the Master’s house.” I thought it was really clever and charming and an economic way of demonstrating the breadth of your inquiry, while also going “full cannonball” into the pool of contradictions you inhabit. Does that resonate for you? Is this an aim of your practice? From my vantage point, it seems to be the primary focus of a work where you as a living woman of color subject to the law perform as an undead white man1 who helped design the law on the grounds of the university he founded, ostensibly, not to be interpreted as a static historical site but to be a continually replenishing font of understanding. Would you describe any contradictions you see in your practice, or maybe just in one work? Do you have anything to say about what constitutes “the unimaginable”?
MW: I work at being at home in spaces of discomfort. What I would say about Audre Lorde’s axiom and contradiction is that it leaves me with a lot of questions about what the tools and the worker can do. Am I trying to dismantle the master’s house? Am I trying to kill the master with his own tools? Do I live in the master’s house? Am I sleeping with him? Do I enjoy it? How do I live with these contradictions? How did Sally? Here I am, a product of colonization, trying on the daily to dismantle it. The work involves some degree of self-destruction to ensure self-preservation. It is about exorcising the white supremacy festering within. It involves staging an unassuming occupation of the master’s house with the long-term goal of seeing it burn.
Nothing is unimaginable. Though I would say that it would be good to imagine limits. How can we limit our impact on the globe-shaped home? How can we limit our exploitation of other people? We must put limits on capitalism and find ways to take public transit instead of drive. I want to work closer to home and eat less meat. We have to limit violence absolutely, and our set limits on our consumption in relation to production.