Running Dialog
by Malcolm Peacock and Marisa Williamson, in conversation
volume 5

Marisa Williamson: You have been running for a long time. When we met at Rutgers in 2017, you were getting back into training for competition while digging into your MFA work. I think of Paul Robeson, another Rutgers-educated artist-athlete. In the past I have run far and with more discipline than I do now. I was raised to see practice, endurance, competitiveness, speed, agility, strength, and recovery as parts of a well-rounded skill set. When did you start running? Who taught you? What do you think about when you run? Where has it taken you?

Malcom Peacock: I love running. I can say that because love involves risk, and I have risked a lot in my relationship with running. By 5th grade, I was well-liked and favored in the problematic ways that adults in education often pin children against each other, and their behavior is then mirrored by children. That year, a boy named Michael was the fastest distance runner. He was new to our school, fast, and Black. Nearly all of our classmates were white. I began to finish in 2nd place in the races around the back stops when years prior I’d place 1st. Internally, it hurt. And I think the pain came from what I could recognize as a failure to be the highest contributor to a team in the game that was being played. But for me, it was very far from a game. Michael was bullied by other children for his speech and his race, and each time that I came in second to him, I became the lesser negro. The ways that we were treated each day were relative to the purposes that we served in the lives of white children and adults. At a very early age, I developed an understanding of exceptionalism, tokenism, and labor. At this time in my life, I would see high school students running and laughing in packs. I longed to have a healthy relationship to a team that practiced running which felt gratifying within my body. 

From 2008-2012 I ran for Dulaney High School, a distance powerhouse program with dozens of county, regional, and state championships spanning the ’80s to the present. I grew up in a relatively big family, and my extended family is huge. I’ve always been very oriented toward interdependence. My father emphasized and demonstrated sacrifice for us in my childhood. My favorite part of any team race is the moment when pain settles in my quads and I’m next to a man in the same uniform as me. There’s a “spidey sense” that kicks in. This movie plays back of memories of sweating in practice, pushing each other, knowing that that person stayed behind on a run with you when you hurt your ankle, or shared with you intimate secrets and anxieties of their day at school or at home on a long run when nobody else was around but you and the trees. All of these moments turn toward sacrifice. To say, “If you’re in trouble…so am I.” For me, running with others is a form of art and creation because it can tell a story about resilience, bonding, and relationships. Each time that you’re out on the roads or trails, you’re connecting with another person through breath and pace. Asking someone, “Will you go the distance with me?” and then you both nod yes, laugh, and run yourselves to your limits. All in the name of being present for each other. 

I made great friends while I ran at Dulaney, and experienced an inhumane amount of racism. As an artist and an athlete, I was able to hide behind accolades and external validation. I relied on masks to hide my internal turmoil with queerness that had begun as a young child. In the summer of 2015, eight months after my first marathon was a flop, I ran in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was a “warm” day there. 58 degrees. The sun was high but the sky had shades of orange beginning to settle in. And I ran halfway to the peak of a mountain. I hadn’t run very long in months due to depression from the failed marathon. But in this moment of isolation, I felt a wholeness I hadn’t felt before while running. I had spent the week alone in my hostel bedroom with little money. On walks, I was called nigger on the street. It was an awfully boring week. I had no clue why I was there in that country. But I think that run was why. I couldn’t get to the tip-top, but making it as far as I personally could make it was enough. I was able to look out at the water beneath me and far away. Saw buildings with people walking. I felt that I had reached the highest peak…for myself. I felt in that moment that all of the pain of that week was surmountable. 

Today, I still love to race. I run fast times alone on the roads and tracks. I am chasing the clock but with a healthy understanding of what is possible for my body, when I don’t and do put in great work. I am chasing euphoria. And I’m chasing moments of expansion, where I trust myself to challenge the runner that I was the day before. I’m trying to fight through pain and fatigue to create moments of pride. I think in a lot of my running, I’m fighting against hardships in order to recognize myself. To be proud of me and to know that I, alone, am enough. I’m thinking of slaves every time I run. How this action that has saved my life wasn’t afforded to them and often resulted in capture or death. 

I want to share words from my friend and fellow artist Mahari Chabwera that I think are relevant here.

“I think black women drive everything I do. My mom and my aunt and my grandma foremost come to my mind. I want to do some spectacular shit for them. For these women that raised me. And I want to show them that it’s possible to do it on your dream. My grandmother didn’t have the space to try to do it on her dream and I don’t think my mom and my aunt realized that they could do it on their dreams.” 

Cops are heavily present on some of my runs. It is so obvious to me. When running at night, there is a risk and danger presented. But I have to come back out. I have to do it for all of us. I have to keep showing up. 

MW: One time I came to your studio with some of my freshmen students: all young white women. The studio was dark. We came in and sat on the floor. You and a collaborator had flashlights taped into your mouths. I think we were instructed (non-verbally) to read written text aloud—first a handout, then text pinned to the walls. My heart was racing. I was terrified. I am so rarely on the audience side of performance art. I am usually the performer. As a teacher, I was worried I hadn’t given the students enough context. Looking back, I wonder how I could have, or whether it was, in fact, more a question of curating the aftermath. I am increasingly interested in the production of terror, horror, and fear in artwork. How, if at all, do you (or we as performers and/or teachers) curate the aftermath?

MP: Something that jumps out to me very immediately is a desire to care. And this begs the question: Can the work itself be a space where the performer holds and cares for the audience? I think most definitely so. How do we care for people in the wake of a work if we aren’t able to talk to them individually and don’t know them? You mentioned questioning whether or not you gave your students enough context, and it’s important to note that there would only be so much context that you could give them yourself. Even I, as the person who made the work, could only give so much context because so much of what ended up happening in the piece (or maybe I should say pieces) was subject to the choices of different audiences on different nights. Each night people made decisions about time, space, sharing, touch, and even brought guests without notice. Something else I think about is the desire to inform or preface someone who is to experience my work. I think things like trigger warnings are important for laying the ground. But I’m against summarizing and capturing the work in a few sentences to solidify a sense of certainty for the audience. My friend and fellow artist EJ Hill was the first person to point out to me the risk in that project—that I was leaving myself open to hearing and holding the emotional weight of others and also leaving myself open to the possibility of being attacked, even potentially physically harmed in my studio. I’ve spent years doing things in the aftermaths of artworks that deal with holding space for others’ experiences with my work. Sometimes, it has proven productive and has even created a sense of community amongst those who experience my work separately. I think that we, as teachers and performers, can step outside of curating the aftermath and allow our works to live lives and stay attuned to those lives. When an artwork leaves me and ripples into the world, it takes on many pulses in others’ lives. I’m interested in how these can be checked over time. Checking in with people in the immediate wake is a possibility. Offering space for anything they may want to share. Just truly being present. 

I want to share a brief story about one of the moments of aftermath in my work that has stayed with me and sits very deeply in me when I make artwork. After sharing the work that I made at Skowhegan there were a lot of different responses. I went to the library with a person who was rather to themself through the summer and was resistant at first to talking about their experience with my work. They wanted to speak about the experience of the person who sat next to them in the chapel during the work. Eventually they opened up about how the work resonated for them because the meditative cadence of my questions in the eulogy that I delivered felt similar to their meditation practice. While talking they looked away from me, toward a window to their left, and their head dropped into their hands as they began to cry. It was a harsh cry without sound. The rattling of their shoulders was felt in my stomach. I sat there. They wiped their eyes and took a long breath and stared at me and said they were sorry. And they said, “In the piece, I felt very old. And by that, I mean, I felt very wise.” Looking back, it was important that I was present at that moment. There was something that needed to be released and I think I provided some sense of safety or comfort for them in knowing they weren’t alone in the processing of something so dense. I don’t know what the something was. I wanted to touch them. And this was my gut reaction. But I knew that this was me making the situation about how I felt they could best be consoled. I decided not to touch them. Art has the ability to stir up inside of us things that lay dormant over time. I thought and still think that maybe they just needed a moment to breathe and for someone to be there once they caught their breath. 

MW: I have been mulling over a James Baldwin quote often featured in summary, but here, featured in full:

“The role of the artist is exactly the same role, I think, as the role of the lover. If you love somebody, you honor at least two necessities at once. One of them is to recognize something very dangerous, or very difficult. Many people cannot recognize it at all, that you may also be loved; love is like a mirror. In any case, if you do love somebody, you honor the necessity endlessly, and being at the mercy of that love, you try to correct the person whom you love. Now, that’s a two-way street. You’ve also got to be corrected. As I said, the people produce the artist, and it’s true. The artist also produces the people. And that’s a very violent and terrifying act of love. The role of the artist and the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see. Insofar as that is true, in that effort, I become conscious of the things that I don’t see. And I will not see without you, and vice versa, you will not see without me. No one wants to see more than he sees. You have to be driven to see what you see. The only way you can get through it is to accept that two-way street which I call love. You can call it a poem, you can call it whatever you like. That’s how people grow up. An artist is here not to give you answers but to ask you questions.”

MW: Your work deals with haunting spaces, traumas, the queerness that underlies personal and popular histories, and often involves inviting audiences to share the tight, intimate, or uncomfortable space of your practice with you. I know that it is sometimes met with critique if not outright resistance. In your creative life right now, personal life even, is there anything about this lover-artist comparison Baldwin makes that rings true? How are you negotiating danger, difficulty, resistance? Are you aware of any growth, conscious of things unseen, finding new and nourishing ways to love and be loved?

MP: Yay the creative process! A favorite. My first time encountering it was through watching a panel where LaToya Ruby Frazier reads part of it. Here is one of my favorite lines from the essay: “We are frightened, all of us, of these forces within us that perpetually menace our precarious security.”

I want to say thank you for your accurate, but more importantly, thoughtful interpretation of my work. I like to think of art as a way to extend love, an offering if you will. In love’s inherent nature there is the risk of pain and/or loss. Of course, there is a difference between hardship and abuse. In making art, I think that it’s very possible to unintentionally cause pain through exposing others to unsettled matters in their own lives. But I think the risks presented when we choose to love or actively choose to be present with an artwork are similar. Both can yield such im-mense possibility for growth, healing, or new ways of seeing something or someone. In 2013, I witnessed the last hour of my father’s life. I was pretty young and this changed the course of my life. I’m trying to have my work carry not the same heaviness of that moment but the same clearing. The same cut and opening if you will. Death erases physicality and then leaves us with a space to move through. To feel through. Within each of us, I think there are hard questions we can ask ourselves if we want to become our most full selves. When my father died, one question that I really had to ask myself was, “Am I a liar?” My father didn’t know me as a queer person.

As a sexual being. And years of trauma followed due to a refusal to answer this question. In the “current moment” of the world, there is a lot of outward thinking about social injustices. Something we should consider is that the world’s problems manifest inside of us as well. Currently, I’m making a timeline of events that deal with my understandings of sexuality, engagements with queerness in digital spaces, sexual health, drawing as sex, and the impacts of grief all in order to write this book. I am trying to dig into myself further and get to some core underlying questions…questions that I don’t even yet have…in hopes of growing and understanding myself more. I think this challenge could give others a sense of community in their own processes of unveiling necessary truths. I find hard truths to be ripe places of origin for possibility and potential. The stakes feel high. I hope that the book will be there for someone whenever they may need it. I’m a firm believer that I need not know someone in order to show them love.

Photographer: Vijay Masharani. Still from Something Else by Malcolm Peacock, 2017. Richmond, VA. Courtesy of the artist.
Malcolm Peacock earned a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, in 2016, and an MFA from Rutgers University, New Jersey, in 2019. He is a multidisciplinary artist whose participatory and experiential practice examines issues of race, queer identity, sex, and history through his experiences with death and his family narratives. His work explores social dynamics between black people, with a particular interest in intimacy, power, heartbreak, and loss. His artist-led walks are part performance, part time travel as he leads participants through historical, spatial, and temporal narratives of places of personal and cultural import. Peacock’s work has been shown at the Cindy Rucker Gallery, New York, and Terrault Contemporary, Baltimore, among other venues.