By Jess Kiel-Wornson
Over the last 10 months I have been asked, in varying degrees of sincerity and animosity, some version of “well what should I do?” I am certainly not the only one to be asked this question. Women of color, black women in particular, trans persons, trans persons of color, fat women, persons who speak English as a second language, who don’t carry class privilege, people who identify with multiple intersections of these lines of marginalization: people who experience a great deal more violent oppression than myself, have been asked this over and over again for as long as they can remember. Now, in the era of 45—that question rings dismally in their ears day in and day out. As a cis-gendered, educated, thin-privileged, conventionally agreeable white woman, I experience more privilege than not. In acknowledging my lines of power and marginalization, I ask myself, in a material sense, “what should I do?”
Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin, partners and artist duo, consider their own lines of power and marginalization in their work, Spritus, to exquisitely answer this question. These two men: white, young, attractive, and largely unmarked (which is to say, within the performance, their sexual orientation, class distinction, etc was not forgrounded), positioned themselves in the back of the theatre. They sat across from one another at an unmemorable table. A rug and table lamp referenced domestic space but didn’t necessarily date or place the scene. One man read from a binder, speaking into one red plastic bag after another. The other man turned the pages in the binder and tied off each plastic bag as it filled with breath and hung it in a bundle from the ceiling. There was an additional binder provided for viewers to flip through (the same text being recited): speeches of Mother Jones. For those, like me, who found the name familiar but shamefully couldn’t place her, Mother Jones was an enormously important union organizer and labor activist at the turn of the century. She paid special attention to child labor, spent many years imprisoned, and, as the artists noted, was particularly critical of her own movement, ideologies, and supporters. She was asking, “well what should you do?” and in so doing, saying quite clearly “you are not doing enough.” “We are not doing enough”. Spiritus provided a clear and stunning guide to answering this question, again and again: As a body traditionally aligned with great oppressive power, what should I do to help break the system of white supremacist, hyper-capitalist, hetero-ablist-patriarchy?
Sit in the back.
Past the stage, past the audience, past the hot dogs and beer, tucked in near the restrooms. Behind the noise and the praise and the audience. Get used to not being seen and consider how visible you are in every other instance. Know that your artwork will be the one seen only people either go out of their way to find it, or happen upon it while waiting to piss.
One of my favorite parts of this performance, and one of the only parts I couldn’t visualize from the text introduction of the work, was how tenderly one man listened to the other’s muffled words. He was attentive, engaged, he didn’t push or ask, he just listened and provided the physical structure (turning pages, tying off bags) for the speaker to say what he needed to.
Diversify your content.
Pick the speech that should be canon and isn’t. Mother Jones had an enormous impact on human rights and labor laws, this should have been included in middle school social studies and high school and college and bar trivia and TV shows. I should be able to picture her the way that I can picture Robert E. Lee. Consider who is familiar and who isn’t, and the power aligned with familiarity.
Speak into a bag.
Once you have listened, you perhaps have noticed all the situations in which it is assumed that you don’t need to listen. You might notice all the moments that your voice, and voices that reflect your body, are amplified, valorized, and automatically affirmed. Vaughan and Margolin chose to muffle and contain their voices in this work, subverting their given power and still refusing to remain silent. Instead of amplifying their voices, running the risk of making Mother Jones’ words theirs, they kept their breath for another purpose.
Be a buoy.
Build a raft. Use your voice that is so often amplified and spread into the ether, for something else. Use it to quietly buoy the voices that you align with, the words that you believe in, the persons whose liberation is inevitably connected to yours. Speak the words of Mother Jones and make those words material. Use the words as the air that fills the bags that makes balloons that can float and lift and carry across great distance.
What should I do?
Be a buoy. A quiet, powerful, material tool to carry another body.
Jess Kiel-Wornson is a Minneapolis based multimedia artist. Using immersive sculptural installation (often depicting familiar environments: a suburban bedroom, an old porch, a beauty shop, etc), collaged cultural artifact, and embodied action of viewers, she addresses the insidiousness of the systems of power in our surroundings. Her work speaks to the material consequence of trauma in our bodies and buildings and asks us to reframe our conversations about goodness, success, and identity away from individuals and toward the systems that allow and promote violence toward some bodies distinctly from others. She received her MFA from University of Illinois Champaign Urbana. She is an activist, educator, and shop tech and sometimes wonders how her life would be different if she had found feminist theory before anti-depressants. She is tired of being told by the dominant paradigm that her heartbreak will make her stronger.
Photo Credit: Missy Simon Photography | Ayumi Sakamoto