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Conversation piece

Leon Johnson explains his trans-historical-post-colonial-dinner-wait-what?!
By IAN PAIGE  |  April 29, 2009


Leon Johnson, 50, teaches at the University of Southern Maine and the Transart Institute in Berlin. He and the Creative Material Group will present "Blue Hammer," an intermedia performance of relational inventories and reckonings, this weekend at Whitney Art Works. From Megan O'Connell printing propaganda pieces during the day to chef Barak Olins providing dinner to audience members after a 45-minute evening performance, the project links a multitude of collaborators in forged creative space. Johnson tried to explain; read the full interview at

YOU DESCRIBE "BLUE HAMMER" AS A FORM OF "TRANS-HISTORICAL-POST-COLONIAL-DINNER-THEATER-BURLESQUE"... I was thinking about a construction that makes an ore, an amalgam of reference points. I thought about this line that the main character has — she says, "I'll tell you this is how we learn now. Our lessons grow each time we have the courage to confront an absence, any vacant space, any of the missing, pockets of unbearable silence." This beautiful idea that if there's an absence, somebody's not at the dinner table, there's an opportunity to address the absence. It's an idea I developed in response to being a post-colonial punk — I spent the first 20 years of my life in Cape Town, South Africa. Was very intimate with what silence could get you if you're white. Complicity. You get a big enough set of blinders and it's all just other white people and lobster. The job at hand is to address the unbearable gaps. Wading through decades of post colonial theory, the job at hand is to address the unbearable gaps. All the silences that are missing. If that address wasn't a theory, what arena would it be? Not just theater, but dinner theater. There was pleasure in thinking of those together. WHAT DO YOU MEAN SPECIFICALLY WHEN YOU SAY "ADDRESS THE GAPS"? The Belgian Congo. Conrad is writing Heart of Darkness. "The Unfortunate Occupation." With a little research and digging you realize it's 8 million dead in the Congo. How do you give that a scale? If you weren't there? This idea of trans-historical might be a useful device, creating beings that don't have to account for witnessing by not being alive at the time. Is that empathetic history?

ACCOUNT FOR BEING A WITNESS? DO YOU MEAN TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR OR TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE ABSENCE? That's it right? On the scale of being a witness, where do you consider an appropriate cutoff point? This piece is part of the agony of trying to answer your question. You can say, "I was in South Africa the year Steve Biko was murdered." That's witness to a small sample of the great and agonized trajectory of apartheid.We can be witness to certain aspects of history but then history aggressively fluffs it out and articulates it in images and soundbites. When I got to America, every year witnessing the delivery of Martin Luther King on the major networks: "I have a dream..." and cut... "In other news, the Green Bay Packers..."

So we mark it on our calendars, remember the day, and then move on to paying the electric bills. Is there a way to expand witnessing? This great Israeli painter and theorist, Bracha Ettinger, calls it "with-nessing." She says, let's stay away from sympathy and empathy and call it besidedness. Can you walk in proximity to a horror, a great wound, and not foreclose it, not just "I feel your pain"? You stay with it longer. You don't pass judgment, but you keep pace with it in some sort of parallel way. So the answer to your question is Blue Hammer is an attempt to answer this question of witnessing.

AND, DESPITE THE GRAVITY OF THIS QUESTION, YOU ARE LOOKING TO THIS EXPLORATIONIN PLEASURE. Yes, in a lot of instances, we self-police and say that's perverse. Your grieving and pleasure have no part together. The idea is with this unholy car crash of a performance piece, where we're witnessing the passing of a storyteller called Vin Pays that works very hard to fabricate a certain kind of witnessing. He says, "I'm talking about Art and Love" as an explanation and the other character says "I'm talking about the sharp limits to both." In the guise of dinner theater, as we're witnessing these playful jovial references to appalling things, we're smelling our dinner being cooked. The piece concludes with the leading lady, Tabla Rasa, singing Joy Division's "Disorder" a capella as the dinner is being brought to the table. It's that kind of fabulous frisson. Joy Division? Leading Lady? Lamb stew?

That uncomfortable amalgam, it's the way we live our lives. We do it a little more effortlesslessy or elegantly. We can go from proclaiming our love for somebody, to receiving a call saying the electric bill is being cut off, to preparing for class in the morning. That as a model for a creative act, where we bring elements of our history and what we might suspect might be disparate arenas to a center point and say this is where we're going to conduct this investigation. And it's all being cooked with conscientious attention to detail.

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