Feeling It Out: What We Do When We Get Together
Camille Bacon, Rikki Byrd, Doriana Diaz, and Carla Forbes
In collaboration across time-space with bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley, Toni Morrison, Legacy Russell, Taylor Renee Aldridge, Jessica Lynne, Wu Tsang, Fred Moten, Gwendolyn Brooks, Akwaeke Emezi, Saidiya Hartman, An Duplan, Tina Campt, and more.
Artist Wu Tsang says, “Making art is an excuse to collaborate,” which brings to mind what we do when we get together—how we’re learning to till each other’s soil.1
In the spirit of Tsang and through a suite of epistolary offerings by myself, Rikki Byrd, Doriana Diaz, and Carla Forbes, a photographic collage by Amari Arindell (below), and a guided meditation by Kanyinsola Anifowoshe, we reflect on the difficulties and triumphs that collaboration entails. Here, we venture toward a condition in which an ethic of collaboration is our de facto mode of engaging in museum work.
I begin by naming several collective understandings forged during our gatherings:
We have inherited a largely unnamed fidelity to individualism, a pressure to do it on our own, a hesitancy to share. These forces are trained toward our isolation and must be dissolved to give way to the unpredictable, glorious, messy throes of sincere collaboration.
Conditions where collaboration can thrive are those in which empire (and its afterlife) shrivels up and perishes.
Learning loving collaboration, as we have for the past few weeks, is an unquantifiable piece of our sustenance.
With these truths in mind, we wonder what would it mean to extend Tsang’s assertion beyond the domain of “making” and into the realm of museum work, to claim that collaboration is a requisite piece of our capacity to cultivate nourishing and sustainable careers as artists and art administrators.
Dearest co-conspirators, I offer you this:
Our fellow arts worker An Duplan writes: “In order to locate liberation, one has to locate a third space. This alter-space is not ‘outside of,’ ‘away from,’ or ‘other than’ our present world. Instead, it is an intensification, or deepening, of mundane reality.”2
In the spirit of Duplan’s generous incantation, I feel certain this “third space,” this “deepening of mundane reality,” can be achieved by learning loving collaboration: When we choose loving collaboration, we move against isolation, fear, and that which hollows us out. When we dedicate ourselves to the nurturance of a collaborative ethos, we “intensify” our collective spin toward a future sprawling with possibility. From this space, we may move against forces that conspire against our conspiring.
This collaboration is not easy, logistically or conceptually. The six of us are taking on the challenge of writing this essay that can only be a little over one thousand words, which we’ve been told might be a difficult task. Yet here we are committing to figuring it out.
I am thinking now of an audio clip of Fred Moten, in which he says, “What we’ve been trying to figure out how to get to is how we are when we get together to try to figure it out ... Now the question is: How do we extend that? How do we protect it? … These institutions are most violent against us when we are trying to figure it out. They don’t seem to like it much when we get together.”3
For centuries institutions have not liked it much when we gather to figure out our escapes from them. When we organize to insist that we matter. That means figuring it out is a radical act. I might even go so far as to alter Moten’s words to say feeling it out. By which I (we) mean, how does it feel when we do our work in the arts? We understand so well the feelings of exclusion. So, what about the feelings that bring us joy, fulfillment, excitement? How does it feel to arrive at work and have space for meditation and grounding before performing labor? How does it feel when residents in our neighborhoods fill the museum daily, using its spaces for organizing and meals? These are only a couple examples of many, so I’m reaching out to hold your hand now, Doriana, in hopes that we can work together to continue to feel things out.
Sending y’all light and love,
Amen and Asè, Thank you for alchemizing the page with your words and wisdom.
I wonder deeply about the possibilities that can be brought into fruition when we explore sanctuaries built for sensation to blossom. What lies at the center when we take our shoes off and build a home together? I come back to Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic consistently. She proclaims, “Beyond the superficial, the considered phrase ‘it feels right to me’ acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding.”4 In responding to what my sweet sister Rikki mentioned, I aspire for us to uphold Audre Lorde’s notion of the erotic, to attune ourselves with our sensational channels, and give way for them to lead, harness, and rejuvenate us.
These notions can be harvested between us in quiet and glorious manifestations within the museum arena. For some, we might have never believed this communal collaboration to be possible because we may have never fully seen or felt it before. In incorporating this way of being/becoming into the spaces we carve out for ourselves, deep care, profound emotion, sensitivity, and love will begin to soften the foundation within the museum arena. When we choose love we are inherently choosing to move against fear, isolation, and firmly defined commitments to “normality.”
Upon accepting my current position within the museum space, I was walking through waves of uncertainty. A fellow coworker and co-conspirator said to me, “Sis, don’t be afraid to throw your weight around.” She opened up room for me to reimagine what it could look like to be an unapologetic beam of radiancy, to diligently seek out others with whom to collectively throw our weight around, and to remember that my spirit extends beyond the white walls. This poses a question for meditation: how can we come together in a flourishing way?
For you, reader, loved one, a gentle prayer:
We are, and we always will be profoundly and inextricably bound. Let us be the site of one another’s solace. Let us plaster signs on our doors an invitation to come sit awhile. We are not alone. We are inherently and deeply loved.
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
— June Jordan, “Poem for South African Women”
In trust and in spirit,
To my co-collaborators,
Thank you for demonstrating an honesty that, if invited through common practice, the museum field could be better for. Doriana, I agree awareness is pivotal for an ethic of collaboration (EoC) and yet, know too personally that awareness alone is anemic. How do we conjure an ethic led by loving collaboration, full in its commitment to empower those who have been historically neglected within the museum field? This ethic, if to be vital rather than pacifying or performative, requires a reckoning—a reckoning of fear, of who is loved and unloved within the walls inherited, of the maladies BIPOC museum contributors are left to tread5, of who is kept safe6 and secure,7 and a reckoning of systemic oppressions. For an EoC to grow, a radically conceptualized ecosystem designed to let breathe the visionary interventions and imaginations of BIPOC museum communities must be collectively demanded, desired, and actualized.
To echo my collaborators, I encourage museum leaders to realize the abundance of who they share space and time with. Imagine a reality in which staff from all levels have shared responsibility, investment, and opportunity to input their intellectual gifts into multiple facets of museum work, their abilities and potential no longer limited by titles. Envision the cultural shift if those in proximity to power were to adopt a communal, collaborative approach to its distribution, moving with a queered approach to power that appreciates diverse forms of peer knowledge. An EoC invites museum practitioners to be fuller together in service of their work by retreating from operations of hierarchies.
Rikki, Camille, and Doriana have highlighted glints of ontological and strategic insight on how we might collaborate toward healthier museumscapes left by our BIPOC and queer ancestors. As we journey, let us consider deeply where we arrive if we renounce suffocating praxes that have been “traditionally'' employed. I tempt those who wield power to relinquish comfort with open minds and hearts as we are called to start again at the roots to make possible a decolonized, antiracist, anti-oppressive museum prototype. I’ll depart sharing the words of beacon Audre Lorde, with hopes they ignite further inspiration:
Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.
Carla Saadiya Forbes (she/they)
Alex Greenberger, “Take Me Apart: Wu Tsang's Art Questions Everything We Think We Know about Identity.” ARTnews.com. ARTnews.com, May 26, 2021. https://www.artnews.com/art-news/artists/wu-tsang-12224/.
Anaïs Duplan, “Making Use of the Mundane: Black Performance & Becoming.” Hyperallergic, November 12, 2020. https://hyperallergic.com/601308/blackspace-on-the-poetics-of-an-afrofuture-anais-duplan/.
Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic,” https://uk.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/11881_Chapter_5.pdf
Wages that stunt economic justice, unreasonable education barriers and expectations, nearly non-existent vertical or lateral movement, scarce opportunity for internal skill share, professional development and learning, disproportionate whiteness in proximity to intellectual power and decision making while BIPOC staff is relegated to frontline and security roles, etc.
Psychologically, culturally, socially, spiritually, and physically.
Economically, professionally, intellectually, etc.