Reflections on Megan Young's Cloud of Whiteness, Cleveland Ohio, 2017 | Katherine Cooper
1. Run Up
White fries, white chicken, whitbeer.
White bedspread. White walls. White wardrobe.
White Joni Mitchell identifies with a black man.
White supremacist talking to Charles Barkley on the internet.
White coke in a bag. (Black crack.)
White girl listening to Nina Simone radio.
Whiteness without hostile intent but nonetheless hostile.
White gallery walls.
Whiteness does not eat or sleep.
White lies. White testifies.
What does whiteness need?
On what does whiteness feed?
What can whiteness witness?
Writing whiteness is like breathing air.
What’s more intimate than your skin?
Both articles in last month’s Artforum covering the Whitney Biennial discussed Dana Schutz’s Open Casket. So did every other review of the show I’ve read so far. The mutilated face of Emmett Till rendered in paint, along with the protests against it, have become a lightning rod for the political and aesthetic issues about race facing the art world and Americans at large. Till himself has become a cultural icon over the years and his image has circulated widely, largely at the hands of television producers and artistic minds attached to white bodies. The painting, curation, and protest at the Whitney, seemed to mark one of many climaxes in the history of the end of one young man’s life.
I traveled to Cleveland with his image in the back of my mind as well as the recent news of the firing of the cop, Timothy Loehmann, who shot Tamir Rice. The headlines were quick to note that he was fired, but if you read past the large print, it became clear that this marked a symbolic victory for justice and black lives, not a legal one. He was let go on a technicality of paperwork. This was not a triumph of justice, if you still believe in those.
III. The Piece
The installation sits at the center of the gallery. A single performer sits on top of a single layer of bricks, some of which are painted white. Above her hangs a burlap sack containing white particulate matter. A cord runs from the sack to a small motor on a platform next to the bricks which, at irregular intervals, turns a crank which moves the wire which shakes the burlap which lets out small particles of white theatrical snow. The performer this evening is Leila Khoury, who wears a black t-shirt and black shorts with hiking boots. She begins to move, building herself a platform out of the red bricks which she then perches on. Her skin appears less white than the gallery walls, more white than the raw bricks, less white than mine. As she does so, whiteness rains down. She removes particles of it from her ponytail of dark hair. She begins rotating around and picking up five or six of the white bricks at a time, cradling them in her arms, never leaving her seat. I am struck by the effort she takes in picking up the bricks—the strain of the flesh of the fingertips on the hard edges of the brick. At the conclusion of the performance she faces the motor and what I now see is a small camera mounted on the wall, and places the white bricks she’d been cradling in front of her in two small piles. Casualness and contemplation imbues her movement. She seems focused on the task at hand, though the purpose of that task escapes me as a viewer. Each time she moved, it seemed as though an event was immanent, but it only sometimes arrived.
I met with Megan Young, a white artist who had just completed a work as part of a group show in the SPACES gallery entitled The First 100+ Days. The installation, Cloud of Whiteness, featured four performances on two days, and remained at the center of the gallery as a relic of that performance for the duration of the show.
Neglecting to begin with questions can get you into trouble, as in the case of Linda Martín Alcoff, whose scholarly recuperation of hope for a white future in The Future of Whiteness flirts accidentally and dangerously with certainty, simply due to its authoritative tone. So, when addressing whiteness one has to ask: What am I perpetuating? How am I contributing? How can scholarship or artistic production by a white person on whiteness be reflexive? How does one avoid complicity in letting whiteness take up more space than it already does? How do we engage it critically without letting its characteristic silence blanket discussions of art and life and be taken as naturally as, say, snow? Whiteness, after all, is a given in most gallery spaces—whether on the walls, floors, light, or in the legacy of what is considered art and the color of those people who get to make it.
Young comments on whiteness in the gallery space, where it so often disappears. The whiteness she negotiates isn’t Rauschenberg’s, nor does it seems to reference the contemplative whiteness of Agnes Martin, though I recall them both almost immediately. This whiteness performs, moves, activates an already white space and exists only in relation to black bodies. Young, a Michigan native who got her master's degree at Columbia College in Ohio and now teaches at Kent State, cites as her inspiration contemporaries like Alana Clarke, Angela Davis Fegan, Krista Franklin and Barak Adé Soleil, along with her own personal experience and phenomenologists studying human sociality like Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Young explained the mechanism behind the piece. The image from the single camera on the wall, viewing the brick platform and the bodies on top of it, comes in from the camera as data. Young turns that image into a black-and-white image and created an algorithm which is constantly averaging the frame for luminosity or, in this case, what she is calling “whiteness.” The algorithm compares the current frame to one frame from 30 seconds prior and, if the average amount of whiteness is dropping, it activates the motor and spits out more white into the space. Young uses the term “historic levels” of whiteness in referring to the history of the installation itself, but I can’t help but consider this programming language in relation to the lived history of whiteness. The spitting out of white snow seems all too familiar in the defensive blurts of white people who feel attacked for their whiteness.
Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine describe these blurts of whiteness in their introduction to The Racial Imaginary. In discussing the fury of white writers when racial elements of their work are brought to their attention they note, “this is how the race card trope works to disqualify the reader bold enough to call up race where it might not be wanted: the trope enacts its dismissiveness by characterizing any mention of race as irresponsible, an injection of race ‘where it doesn’t belong…’” I can see the face of the indignant white artist writer contorting in denial and eschewing criticisms as irrelevant. I can hear the fluffy words coming out of her mouth about her “intentions.” I can feel her fragility as her white skin blushes at her own ignorance. Her blurts and blunders are mine and they are the marks of the white subject which must appear as harmless as theatrical snow in order to maintain its own innocence and power. The whirring motor, in its constancy and clumsiness, too embodies the automatic work of whiteness, reminds me of the rhythms of white people dancing.
It should be noted that artists of a variety of backgrounds, cultures and colors were featured in the show. Young’s work might have a different impression if it were not surrounded by artists of color, such as Michelangelo Lovelace, Darice Polo, and Nanette Yannuzzi. Young’s is one voice among many contributing to the question curator Christina Vassallo proposed regarding the first 100 days of the current administration’s policies on immigration.
The danger in writing an article like this is stating that a white artist has “gotten it right” this time when it comes to reflecting on her own whiteness. I wouldn’t venture such a broad claim. Still at issue here are the use of bodies of color by a white artist and the politics of that process. Young shared that one of her collaborators, Gregory King, was particularly concerned about being an agent of creation in the piece but not being credited as such. This conversation points to the historic appropriation of black ideas, aesthetics, and bodies by white people while also activating some of the issues of agency presented in the work itself. The piece begs the question: Must bodies of color be included, or hailed, in a conversation on whiteness? And if in fact they must (as whiteness in this country has been constructed on a variety of other-colored backs), then how does a white artist ensure the labor of explanation does not fall to the people of color she calls her collaborators?
All this being said, the piece does not seem to take for granted a right to circulate images of blackness or violence against black bodies and rather turns its gaze to whiteness, which remains so difficult (for some of us) to see.
V. It's not over
Am I trying to get off the hook through Megan Young?
Am I trying to get a gold star for my wokeness?
Am I missing something here?
Am I avoiding the uncomfortable truth of white people using black bodies?
Did Young pay her performers?
Should black performers EVER be asked to work for free?
Am I mistakenly recuperating white female empathy?
Why am I so excited about whiteness falling apart?
What’s whiter aesthetically and culturally than theatrical snow?
Will I be called out?
What part of my own white fragility am I blind to?
If it’s true as Rankine and Loffreda say that the writer, “must also be in skeptical tension with her own inclinations,” what have I overlooked?
Fear is white bread’s favorite condiment.
Fragile snowflake melts in the June heat.
Whiteness sees what it wants.