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Dialogue Forum: Identity and Dissent
with Patrisse Cullors and Alice Sheppard

Identity and Dissent with Patrisse Cullors and Alice Sheppard video still

In this discussion moderated by MCA Associate Curator Tara Aisha Willis, the speakers—both artists whose work interrogates and frustrates fixed boundaries—share their strategies for holding multiple viewpoints and pushing against the impulse to frame and label their practice. Together we will consider the ways we as viewers can hold multiplicity, and how as a community forged around the MCA we can embrace the complexity of individual experience in our relationships with each other.

About the Dialogue Series

The Dialogue Series is a museum-wide commitment to sustained inquiry about museum practice, access, and inclusion. Each annual series includes eminent speakers presenting innovative work happening across disciplines, panel discussions, and opportunities for open dialogue between local arts professionals and audiences.

The 2021 Dialogue Season on Dissent is organized by Curator January Parkos Arnall with Curatorial Assistant Otez Gary and the Performance and Public Practice team.

Major support is provided by Julie and Larry Bernstein, the Zell Family Foundation, and Carol Prins and John Hart/The Jessica Fund.

Generous support is provided by Lois and Steve Eisen and The Eisen Family Foundation, Caryn and King Harris, and D. Elizabeth Price.


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The livestream will begin shortly. This is Tuesday, November 9, 2021, Dialogue Forum: Identity and Dissent, with Patrisse Cullors and Alice Sheppard in conversation with MCA Associate Curator Tara Aisha Willis, with introduction by MCA Curator January Parkos Arnall. Support the future of MCA programming at mcachicago.org/give.

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Hello and welcome to the MCA Chicago virtually. I am January Parkos Arnall, curator at the MCA and organizer of the Dialogue season. I am a white woman, with light-olive skin, shoulder-length straight brown and gray hair, and I’m in my mid-forties. Today’s program is the second in our 12th year of the MCA’s Dialogue, a commitment to sustained inquiry about museum practice, access, and inclusion.

Last week, we kicked off the season with a conversation between international humanitarian Zainab Salbi and MCA Deputy Director Lisa Key. I feel it is important again today, as we are in this season about dissent, to express my gratitude to colleagues, internally, and to stakeholders, externally, who have asked for change in this, the MCA, and all museums this year, calling on us to reimagine the standard operating procedures of our industry.

At the MCA, the Dialogue is an opportunity to learn from extraordinary thinkers in a range of fields. Today’s conversation on identity and dissent, with Alice Sheppard and Patrisse Cullors, is especially poignant internally as we at the MCA have been discussing how to hold ourselves accountable to the breadth of contemporary creative practice. There is a stereotype that people in the arts don’t like math. It’s sometimes true. But museums do do a lot of counting.

One way we hold ourselves accountable is by categorizing and tracking the people we work with. That's how a museum might say, "68% of our acquisitions are works by BIPOC artists," or "70% of contributors to our programs are BIPOC," et cetera. As museums contend with Eurocentric art histories, we seek to remediate the exclusion of others, to use a term we talked about last week. This can look like culturally specific shows, gendered surveys, or geographic specificity in a curatorial position.

At the MCA, we are pursuing a transcultural approach within our curatorial departments. What that means for us is that we consider cultural narratives on their own terms and seek to create exchange and dialogue between cultural narratives. We’re working to transgress the criteria of goodness and instead ask whether an artwork delivers a new understanding of art making, of social history, and especially, whether an artwork sits within multiple social and formal conversations. This can be a very slow process, especially in collection building.

And the MCA is also working to meet artists where they are in transgressing the boundaries of media on which our structures are built. From works on paper to visual art to performance or public practice, we seek to hold multiplicities, to represent intersectionality in understanding the conditions in which we each live and the histories we inherit. I invite you to learn more about the MCA’s ongoing commitments to IDEA and to its community at mcachicago.org/about/commitments, which my colleague Otez will also add to the chat.

As we host these public discussions, if you have questions about the ways these ideas are showing up at the MCA, please reach out to us at [email protected] Now, on to today’s program, first, I want to thank members of the MCA community who generously provide major support for the Dialogue season, Julie and Larry Bernstein, the Zell Family Foundation, and Carol Prins and John Hart, The Jessica Fund. Generous support is also provided by Lois and Steve Eisen and the Eisen Family Foundation and Karen and King Harris.

A special thank you to our accessibility providers today. Maggie Ritter and Cathy Silvern are providing ASL interpretation. And Sharon Lang is providing the captioning. We also want to thank each of you for joining with us today and supporting our programming with your presence. It truly means a lot.

Last year in the Dialogue season, we focused on the idea of inheritance: how we’re shaped by what came before. This year, we’re furthering the concept to consider what happens when the legacies you inherit are not what you would choose. We’re building a space to think about dissent and how pushing against existing structures can help strengthen our social bonds.

Today we’re delighted to have Patrisse Cullors and Alice Sheppard joining us to consider the topic of identity and dissent. Patrisse Cullors, a New York Times best-selling author, educator, artist, and abolitionist, she was cofounder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation and has been on the frontlines of abolitionist organizing for 20 years.

Patrisse has led multiple LA-based organizations, including Dignity and Power Now, JusticeLA, and Reform LA Jails and is the faculty director of Arizona’s Prescott College, a new social and environmental arts practice MFA program. Cullors coproduced the 12-part YouTube original series Resist and recently signed an overall production deal with Warner Brothers.

Alice Sheppard took her first dance class to make good on a dare, but loved moving so much that she resigned her academic professorship to begin a career in dance. As an independent artist, Alice has danced in projects with companies throughout the UK and US. As a Bessie Award—winning choreographer, Sheppard creates movements that challenge conventional understandings of disabled and dancing bodies and is intrigued by the intersections of disability, gender, and race.

In 2016, she cofounded Kinetic Light, a project-based ensemble of three disabled artists, Sheppard, Laurel Lawson, and Michael Maag. The company’s new work Wired will premiere on the MCA stage in May of 2022. Today in conversation with MCA curator Tara Aisha Willis, Cullors and Sheppard will discuss how identity functions in their art practices, how this overlaps with building community and advocacy, and the tactics they each use to forge pathways toward being and working in community.

Before we begin, one note of housekeeping, I will be back after the discussion to moderate a Q&A. So please go ahead and enter your questions in the Q&A box whenever they occur to you. And I’ll speak them into the room during the Q&A session. If you’re experiencing the event through Facebook, add your questions there. And again, my colleague Otez will transmit them here. Tonight’s conversation is focused on Alice and Patrisse. But if you have thoughts to share about the MCA related to this conversation, do reach out to us at [email protected], and we’ll definitely reply quickly.

I hope to see you again on Tuesday, November 30, for our next Dialogue event, a re-screening of the wonderful performance Primer for an Impossible Conversation by David Neumann, Marcella Murray, and Tei Blow. And now, welcome, Alice, Patrisse, and Tara.

  • Hello. Good afternoon, everyone. So great to be on this Zoom. Just waiting for Patrisse to get up. So great to be on this Zoom with the two of you. And it’s such an honor to be here. My name is Tara Aisha Willis, as January said. I’m a curator at MCA Chicago. And I am a Black interracial woman, with curls all over the top of my head and glasses, in front of a white wall today.
  • As part of our broader diversity, equity, and inclusion work at the MCA, there is a task force currently working on a land acknowledgment with our advisory partners, The American Indian Center. In the meantime, I’d like to recognize that I am Zooming to you today from the homelands of many Indigenous peoples, including the Council of the Three Fires, the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi. Members of these nations continue to live in this area, as well as all over the country.

    And this land that many of you may be familiar with as Chicago— so I’m also really excited. There’s a certain side pleasure that I have and being with the two of you. Because we each have a sort of different relationship with dance as well, which is my first and main love, and I think also with the category of dance and the complications around that category. So I’m just putting that as a footnote on this conversation if it comes up. Personally that’s been super exciting to sort of dig through the ways that we each differently have grappled with those boundaries around dance as well.

    But it’s also profoundly beautiful to be on this Zoom screen with you both, and to just see these beautiful faces for me personally. Alice, we’ve gotten to talk over and over, over the last two months since we’re working on a project together for the NCAA this spring. And Patrice, it’s been wonderful to meet you today for the first time. So thank you both for being here.

    One of the things, Alice, we’ve done often is when we speak is on Zooms to prepare, is you will interrupt what we’re talking about and discuss all logistics. And no need to hide your face, but you take a moment for us to all kind of stop and watch a video or look at photographs or share in some piece of the artwork that we’re all actually working towards. So I wanted to start today, kind of following in your example, and ask each of you to introduce yourself, self describe as well, as I just did, but also to share a little bit about a work that’s recently on your mind that you’ve been digging into, so that we can get a sense of your creative brains, but also ground the conversation in actual artwork.

    There’s so many big ideas that we’re going to grapple with in this conversation. So I’d love to start there. Either of you could go first. It’s up to you.

    PATRISSE CULLORS: Sure, yes, hi. Patrisse Cullors, here. I’m really grateful and honored to be a part of this conversation. I am dark-skinned chocolate, between milk chocolate and dark chocolate, with little tiny twists on top of my hair, about 15 of them. And I have a white shawl on, dark brown eyes, full nose, full lips. And I have a really beautiful brightly colored bookcase behind me with plants to the right and books to the left.

    And I am currently on Tongva and Chumash land here in Southern California, specifically in the Los Angeles area. We could actually pull up the second slide of mine. It says Respite, Reprieve, and Healing— An Evening of Cleansing— yeah, the one after that. And this is a work that I did at the summer of 2019 or spring of 2019. The right part of the slide says Respite, Reprieve, and Healing— An Evening of Cleansing. And on the right of a slide is an image of dark-skinned Black woman with a white robe, dipping a bowl into what looks like a milky substance, actually coconut milk.

    And you could actually go to the next slide after this. This slide, this is the continuation of this performance piece. This slide is about a dozen dark-skinned people of all various shades with white robes on. Most of them are either sitting on chairs, sitting on the floor. Some of them are standing. And they all have a rope tied around their heads, their crowns.

    This piece is actually a piece that I did for my thesis project in my MFA program, where I was literally looking at Black hair and using our hair as a point of study, but also as— something that is so specific. Our hair, Black hair, is so specific. And yet, we are some of the folks who really invigorate the hair process, the hair product process. And so in this piece, they were folks washing each other’s hair in public.

    And then I really wanted to see an image of Black folks with a rope that wasn’t connected to lynching. And so this rope is really wrapping around the hair of these folks. And they are adorned with different oils, lavender and tea tree oil, coconut milk, and honey and salt, all these very sacred items. I feel like Black hair is really sacred. And our hair is like a very important part of our identity. So really wanted to sort of care for it publicly and then wrap it.

    This is a common practice for our hair. We wrap it in a bonnet, or we wrap it in a protective style. So this is really looking at the use of the rope in a different way, around protecting our crowns, our heads, our auris. And I wanted to show this piece in particular, because it’s lived on for about six months to a year. And it was a really important transition for me and my work, where I was talking a lot about Black death.

    And it felt really important in my own personal journey to transition that— the consistent sort of grief I was processing around Black death, to transition it into Black life. And as someone who grew up in a lot of 12-step spaces, fake it till you make it, and while I wasn’t necessarily feeling so embodied with life and thriving, I felt like I needed to develop work, for my own mental health, that was looking at Black people alive and thriving and in fullness. So this work was an invitation into that, and I’m really grateful that I listened to myself. Thank you.

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: Alice, it’s all you.

    ALICE SHEPPARD: Hello. Hello. And thank you. I want to describe myself first. I am a multiracial Black woman with coffee-colored skin, a dark lipstick, black eyeliner, gray-brown-blonde curly hair, pandemic-style, completely wild. I’m wearing a black sweater.

    Behind me is the head of my armchair, and sort of a bright white screen on my left, and a darker white wall on my right. And joining you today, from the land of the Muwekma Ohlone, whose fights for justice I will support, and I— otherwise known as California, northern California. I am on the top of a hill in the middle of one of our first rains in over 212 days.

    And for the blessing of water, I am truly grateful. It is just wonderful to see it rain. Wildfire season has officially ended, and the way the water is transforming our land and our world right now is incredible. It is like nothing else.

    I want to talk a little bit, if I may, about how I came into what is going to be the MCA project. I began— and if you could, please, Sam, bring up slide 19. This is— actually, I believe that should be— my bad— 17.

    I want to talk a little bit about-- [SIGHS] the way to actually get into this is to recognize that sometimes, sometimes, you have to listen to your stomach. Sometimes you have to go to places that are uncomfortable, that are difficult, and places that you are scared of. This was how I started.

    On screen is an image. Text reads "Wired." Against a black background, Jaron, a Black man wearing a gold costume stands wrapped in black and barbed wire. Behind Jaron are Laurel and Alice in their wheelchair, suspended upside-down. Laurel's arms wraps Alice, Alice's head dangles. Around us on the ground is a blue circle in the shape of an eye, an iris, a dark black hole at the middle.

    Sometimes— I finally wanted to test my own limits. I finally wanted to understand, could I make the work that opened and spoke to the pain, the difficulty, the history, the power, the struggle? But could I make it in a way that was different?

    Could I make it from the inside, that allowed the culture, the humanity to speak, and not from the deficit base of, this is how we are seen from the outside? Could I make it in a way where the beauty emerged more than the pain? But could I be in and speak to the struggle from the inside in a way that honored who we are?

    And could you look back at slide 16, please? "Wired," text reads. On the left of the screen is Jaron, ensconced in red light, circles of white and red beneath him. Jaron flies, arms back, legs bent. On the right, upside-down, Alice and Laurel, the same ring of blue, hair flying, with Laurel's arms akimbo, one body, two wheelchairs in flight.

    How do we engage? How do we have the courage? How can we resist categorization but tell the necessary stories beneath that? And so "Wired" is one of my questions about how to engage the world, about how to be in these spaces to take the risks, to go beyond my comfort zone, to go beyond our comfort zone, and to be able to honor each other and share work with the audience and our community. Thank you.

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: In summary, I love the combination— this is Tara speaking— of those two works. I feel grounded, like I was hoping, but also, they’re clearly such different works from each other. You both have really different practices.

    And at the same time, I was hearing these are both projects that kind of create a ritual for grappling with a lived experience in some form, whether that be through dance performance, actual ritual activity, and sort of live, embodied processes. I’m so curious to hear— at the risk of enacting the boundaries we’re trying to explode as we have this conversation, I’m so curious if these particular works or similar projects— if you’ve been— how have you been grappling with the ways they end up being framed?

    How have you been choosing to frame them or to refuse to frame them? I think especially because of that sort of bodily aspect of it, in a way. Please, go ahead, Patrisse.

    PATRISSE CULLORS: You know, it’s interesting, because for me, part of the agency of being an artist is being able to define how I want to be viewed, how I want to be seen. And for example, in the slide— at slide 4, if we can pull that slide up, this is the same iteration— same piece, same evening. This is 100— the slide has a 100-year-old claw-foot tub on a back porch in South Central, with me laying in it, full of about 300 pounds of Epsom salt, white Epsom salt.

    And I’m wearing— you can’t really see the dress, but it’s important to describe it— wearing a yellow dress that’s Kente cloth, that goes all the way down to my ankles. And then, my hair is braided in six braids that are about five feet long, that are bejeweled in sort of gold accessories. This piece is really important, because for this same evening— respite, reprieve, and healing, an evening of cleansing— I was thinking a lot about preservation during this time, and self-preservation as a Black woman, but as a very visible Black woman who’s been a target of the Right and target white supremacists, and a target of governments and nations.

    And what that has meant for my own understanding of preservation, and how things are preserved, and how I want to be seen and viewed, and what kind of agency I have. Because so much of my life, just being born in the body I was born in is about a lack of agency. And then, being forced— I don’t think anybody chooses to be a freedom fighter. I think you’re forced into it, based on your conditions.

    And so being forced to fight for my life and the life of others, and being an extra target— there’s something very powerful for me around performance’s ability to allow me to have agency over what I do, and how I am seen, and how I’m viewed. And it’s an act of transformation for me to be in my practice, and it’s a— I think what I transform, others are then— see the possibility of transformation as well. So I don’t know if that fully answers your question, but those are the kinds of thoughts that came up as you were asking it.

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: Yes, I just want to acknowledge aloud the vigorous nodding and smiling but Alice and I have both been doing as you spoke. [LAUGHS] And, like, moving around in our seats along with what you were saying. So I mean, I think part of the point of this conversation is that, actually, your answer is exactly the answer, right? That the transformational processes that happen in art practice are the way that we kind of grapple with these categories that exist.

    And I think, in my experience as a curator in a museum context, those categories can be very literal. They can be like, there is a theater over here, there is community partner whose space is all the way in another neighborhood and is very distant from us, and there is a gallery over here, you know. And there’s this public space where a lot of the artistic work actually happens, because people are having lunch there.

    You know, so I think the categories can be language. They can also be physical spaces. They can be mental ways that we think about things. And so that transformation— I mean, I’m partial to performance, for obvious reasons. So of course, I think the performance has a special power.

    But I think, yeah, that’s exactly the answer. That is an answer. There’s many answers. Alice, I’m curious if you have anything to add.

    ALICE SHEPPARD: I most certainly do. [LAUGHS] Oh, my gosh. I mean, first of all, just to acknowledge the things that you have said, and the weights and the implications of them, for one person to be in those spaces, and a community, and then secondarily, a community of people, those who surround you and are with you to be in those spaces. So first of all, to acknowledge that.

    And secondly, if I may join you in the water— Sam, can you bring up slide number 20, please? On screen is an image of me. I couldn’t— I did actually get in the water at this point, but the image is in this project, but the image is not quite of me in the water yet. I’m at the beach in my wheelchair.

    I am literally— wheels anchored in the mud and the sand, arms spread wide over a pale pastel-blue, gray, pink, streaked sky with frothy water waves rushing at my body. This project— this project, for me, was deep in the middle of the pandemic. It was June of 2020.

    And it was happening. It was going down hard. It was going down hard. And I wanted to be able to-- this was a moment of missing a connection. The text reads, "I miss us." I missed, I missed, I missed.

    I went to the beach to recover, to bring back connection, to feel, to resist, to be all the things that you can be at the edge of land. And what I got back interpretably was this split analysis that would read this-- as an example, how does a, quote-unquote, "wheelchair-bound person" get to the beach. With disability being this kind of lens that was imposed upon the interpretation, to be able to limit this of, what does it mean to be wheelchair-bound?

    And I’m like, this is not even appropriate to say. How are you so constricted in your own interpretive analysis? How do you not see the other things going on in this project? So I realized in this moment, again, that the desire for agency would always rub up against the constrictive and limiting analysis and analytic lenses that those people bring, no matter what agency I desired. That if you were already caught up in a narrow interpretive frame, there was going to be no way I could change this.

    And so I began— and if you could switch us over to slide 18. I began to wrestle again with the gulf between external interpretive frames and the internal work, and recognizing that those who were in community, in the world that I live in, who could participate in this kind of internal resonance, would get the work. And those who are constricted by these kind of external frames would never get the work.

    How do we move between them? On screen right now is an image of me in my wheelchair. I am dangling, arms spread, eyes down, from a tree branch. Text reads, "three mermaids." Sunlight shafts across golden grass, and in the back of the tree, beyond the branches, is a collapsing shack, the roof falling, walls open.

    This project was really about, for me, that moment. This is also 2020. It is now August 2020, and I am in a space of trying to understand Blackness in the world, and resistance, and also trying to understand ways forward to move into a different space.

    This project, for me, was really about a questioning about the intersections of disability and race in our movements, and also about grappling with our pasts. And so I went, and I investigated how there is motion in the air, and I reinvestigated, like, what does it mean to be airborne, suspended, rigged to a tree, with the deep resonance of what fruit trees bear, and when, and how, and why?

    Interpretively, what the internet got was, oh my god, look at her spinning and turning in the wheelchair! Have you ever seen a wheelchair fly? [LAUGHS] We don't have agency, precisely because of the categorizations, the institutions, curators, and presenters bring to the work.

    If you are on the inside, if you have the kind of community learning and expertise, maybe this reads differently. If you are on the outside, yeah, I struggle.

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: Yeah. Yeah. One of the things that, I think, in my work, the way that categorizations come up, especially in terms of language, it’s most often in moments of trying to communicate, right? It’s like that moment— it’s not just with audiences and marketing and those kinds of things.

    It’s actually also just amongst colleagues, trying to talk to each other about things, and one person knows the artist or knows the work or knows the thing we’re talking about, and someone else doesn’t, right? And so it’s this constant conundrum of language, of how do you share something, and with someone who needs to figure out how to articulate it themselves, without having the same level of contact necessarily?

    So that’s sort of— I mean, there’s also all of these histories of how this language has developed over time and shaped our thinking, and profoundly limited the way that we can talk about artwork. But I think that practical piece has been so fascinating to me, because one of my primary— I see one of my primary tasks as a curator as finding more language for things, finding language that doesn’t have to only operate within those sort of historic terms that exist, and the different lineages of them.

    But it’s such a tricky, constant negotiation, and the only thing I can think about when I think about this is, there’s the— it’s a practice, just like art practice, right? It’s like this is the work that needs to be done, and it’s about the doing, rather than, necessarily, taking for granted the way that we think, and sort of following that as the sort of path of least resistance. So considering— and I’ve been thinking it ruminating on this, especially knowing I was going to talk to you two today— about this.

    Like, what does that doing look like? It looks sometimes like mistakes, right? It looks sometimes like attempts that lead to new information, or different ways of languaging things than you expected, or it may be challenging, like you were saying about tackling the fear, the place, the point of fear, Alice. But I think— I guess I’m sort of curious, also, to add into this the question of intersectionality and multiplicity.

    There are a million and one different ways to language what both of you do, and who both of you are, and also all of the people that you collaborate with, because you both work very collaboratively as well. I’m curious— this is kind of a twofold question. I’m curious to hear about some of the ways you’ve come up against, maybe, language, or physical theater versus gallery, versus public space, et cetera, and what that has meant, also, in terms of working with a group, gathering community, when there are many different identities and perspectives and politics happening in the space. So yeah, I’ll leave it at that.

    ALICE SHEPPARD: Yeah. This is Alice. I think I want to make a large case, as part of a consistent conversation, to break down the single-person narrative. I mean, Kinetic Light work creates— is you know, maybe conceived— thus far conceived and directed and sort of framed by me, but it’s created in deep collaboration, you know.

    And the collaboration of the artists represents all of our identities, and all of the questions we bring, and all of the work that happens— what happens when you are actually in conversation with four artists, four core artists, two composers, one set designer, a bunch of— like, five to six different access artists? That is not like— how does— disability— I say disability is collective and community.

    And I think that’s how we are interdependent on the political side— what that means in an artistic practice is— there is just no space to recognize that in the curatorial world. Despite what I say, there’s a gap between— you know, I will say something. I will present something. I will give a piece of writing.

    And the institution says, well, that doesn’t actually match. We’re going to do this in our way. And then, it goes out, and it’s wrong. It’s like, really? So it is it’s not that the language is missing. It is the institutional refusal to recognize the language in the name of its own life and its own culture.

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: Yeah, these are habits, you know, the [INAUDIBLE] collective-- speaking of group, collective practice, collectively over time. Yeah, and I think that effort that so often happens in institutions to streamline or shorthand or find ways to create consistency over many works or many artists, right, is precisely in opposition to how artists are actually thinking and making and living.

    So yeah, it’s like the institution as funnel to an audience is like in the other direction from what— yeah, I think that’s what you’re gesturing, Alice— in the other direction from what artists are actually— so many artists are actually doing. Patrisse, if you have something to add?

    PATRISSE CULLORS: Oh, so many things.

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: Yeah. [LAUGHS]

    PATRISSE CULLORS: Oh, man. I’m still back at the slide with you rigged to the tree and such. It was so interesting for you to speak about that out loud, Alice, and how different people’s interpretation is a deep projection of their racism and ableism and sexism.

    And so I’m kind of still sitting in that, and that sharing, and I’m feeling really grateful about that. But there’s two things I want to share here. One is the last slide, which is slide 37, because I just have to— serendipitousness of this is— oh, no, not that one. Is that the last one on yours?

    Maybe if you refresh it. I just added one. Sorry, I cheated. It’s not that one. If you see one that is not that one, that’s slide 37, let me know. You could take that one off. But I— I want to talk about abolition.

    Because I really think, in this conversation, as we’re talking about how do we do the thing, there’s a practice here for me that is really rooted and grounded in abolition. And if I’m thinking about my art practice and my political practice as expressions of my abolitionist values, that’s how I’m actually thinking about my art and political practice. They are extensions and expressions of my values, and my values are rooted inside of abolition.

    And when I say, abolition, I mean the abolition of oppressive system, specifically the prison and police state— those systems in which we have inherited and often enact in our daily lives and our processes and our art practice. And so I’m really thinking about abolition as a way to practice something different, a way to practice things that are valued, things that are grounded in care and dignity, and the ability to see one another and to be with one another. And I think that practice is actually almost closer to a belief system for me, a system that helps me identify how to be in the world, how to raise my children, how to be in relationship with people.

    Because the current system we have, which is a carceral culture that’s what we live in, a culture that is indebted to punishment and revenge and vengeance, that culture is a culture that I want to abolish. I want to abolish it inside myself, and I want to abolish it in the world. Yes, that image.

    And I want to ensure that the world that I’m dreaming up is a world that is rooted in an abolitionist culture. And in the words of Ruthie Gilmore, abolition is not just what you’re getting rid of. It’s also what you are imagining.

    And so I just wanted to close my point off in this image, because I just had to bring this image up. It’s an image of me at the ocean, a piece that I developed alongside my artist collective at the Crenshaw Dairy Mart, called Pray for LA at the height of COVID here, the surge in LA. And this is an image of me walking on the beach with my head down.

    I have a dress on, and there’s two birds flying over my head, and there’s the gorgeous, vast ocean with beautiful hues— orange and red and pastel blue. And I just had to share that, because you have the same image. It’s like we were having similar conversations, both visually and actually verbally. So thank you.

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: Yes. I must admit, I’ve done some listening and reading of both of you beyond the usual, of course. And so I was really struck in doing that, and I think this is— you’ve both kind of started to bring this to the fore already in what you’ve said. I think that you’re both really concerned with creating a culture, whether that’s understood in terms of abolition, in terms of disability. Right? I mean, and of course, these things are not separate, which is sort of the point, but in terms of our languaging it, perhaps, as the primary language.

    But I think I’ve heard you both say this is about creating a culture. It’s not about a category or a genre or even— I mean, yes, it is about intersectionality, but it’s not about identifying each of the intersections. It’s about creating a culture. And so I think that what we’ve been getting at with artistic practice, with doing, all of these— that sort of being in it, being in the sauce— is the creation of that culture that maybe you’re getting at.

    I just wanted to— I was sort of struck by that. Like, Patrisse, you were saying, like, abolition is— it’s a culture. It’s not like some endpoint or clear thing that happens, and then it’s done. It’s about being in that sauce.

    PATRISSE CULLORS: Yes.

    ALICE SHEPPARD: Yes.

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: We’re going to go to Q&A soon. So if you have not put your burning question in the chat, audience, please do it, and January will send questions our way. She’ll be stepping in in a minute. But yes, Alice, you look like you really want to say something.

    ALICE SHEPPARD: I do. I would love to invite you, Patrisse, to walk on the beach with me.

    PATRISSE CULLORS: I'm going to-- I'm going to cry. [LAUGHS] Yes, please.

    ALICE SHEPPARD: It looks like we are at the same ocean.

    [LAUGHTER]

    At the edge of the land, in the beginning of the water, you know. [SIGHS]

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: Yes, it’s beautiful.

    ALICE SHEPPARD: I recognize your ocean. I recognize your ocean. Yeah. Beyond that, yeah. And we're all making gestures of connection. [LAUGHS]

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: Before we go to Q&A, I am trying to— I have about 20 questions that I want to ask you all, of course, but there’s not time. I can’t decide whether to ask, so maybe you can pick which question. I’m curious for you to just share an actual strategy, tactic that you’ve figured out or thought of— that’s one question— to kind of deal with the complexity, like holding space for the complexity of your work.

    The other question I have is more conceptual, maybe, of just, if you were to sort of imagine the structure of how these categories play out and operate as some kind of image or mind map or metaphor, what would it look like, and how would you like it to look? So I don’t know if either of those is useful to you. Either of those, you could answer, or both.

    PATRISSE CULLORS: Oh. When you say, systems, do you mean the systems that we are trying to imagine?

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: Yeah, I’m curious, like, what does it— what does it kind of— how would you describe it in a metaphor or map the way it is now, the way it sort of currently operates? What should it look like? What would be the sort of dream version?

    PATRISSE CULLORS: Yes. I think the visual I get for where we are currently in is crumbling towers, literal crumbling infrastructure. And the visual that I sort of see for where we’re going is a network of trees, roots, a root system that’s deeply connected, that thrives and is interdependent, is in deep connection and understands its legacy. A tree doesn’t question its legacy, it just is its legacy. And so that’s what I see.

    ALICE SHEPPARD: This is Alice. I am re-feeling some of the work that’s just happening in my daily life, to connect, connect what happens in a studio theater space, what happens in language and writing, and what happens when I am at home alone. Sometimes it’s around finding words. Sometimes that’s literally around recognizing how the words separate us.

    Sometimes we say, you know, how to understand the disability in its presentness, how to understand the intersection of disability and race not being one of the other, but also understanding how they build and inform each other, not in the negative narratives, but in their cultural creativity, and their power, and their aesthetic, and their internal quality. So what I’m struggling with is a word, a word for this.

    A word that— I’m looking for a word. I’m looking for language. I’m looking for a way to invite people into the home that I— not my literal home, but maybe— like, the intellectual community home that I’m finding. And from that, so yeah, that’s my next thing. It’s about crafting an invitation, for me, an invitation to what is already known and present. Yeah.

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: Beautiful, beautiful place to land. I’m going to invite January Parkos Arnall back onto the screen to bring us some of these questions as they come in.

    JANUARY PARKOS ARNALL: Thank you all for this incredible conversation. I forgot that I had to come back on and actually ask questions, because I just got so caught up in taking copious notes as I was listening to you all. Our first question is from an attendee named Corbly, a current MA student at SAIC’s Art Therapy and Counseling program. Thanks for being here. Their question is, what do you think about the intersection of contemporary art and mental health in your own practices or otherwise?

    ALICE SHEPPARD: Oh, bring it. [LAUGHS] Mm, I would love-- the US is the US, in many different ways. I would love to-- I would love to change language and culture, such that we are able to recognize madness as a generative and creative force on its own terms, and not the culturally-- the cultural limitations of crazy.

    Like, if I could change one thing, it would be to erase, to shut off forever the cultural casualness in which the way we say, crazy, and to create space for madness and crazy as lived and experienced as creative forces to be able to have the freedom to express. That would be the one intervention I could make.

    PATRISSE CULLORS: Yeah. This question is actually a really big question in my practice. It’s a conversation I’m constantly having, and it’s also something that I’ve lived in real time. And so I think when I’m thinking about this question, I’m really thinking about the necessary paradigm shift that is, like, so desperately needed.

    Many people know my family’s story, because I share it very publicly, but my brother is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. And my conversation in the world has always been about the system that has created the dysfunction, not his diagnosis. And the idea, especially living in this country as Black people, and being impacted by a system that was truly meant to use us first, and then make little use of us, secondly.

    And there’s nothing more terrifying than witnessing the state’s response to a large Black man with a diagnosis, and there’s nothing, honestly, more disturbing. Because that response is truly and only repression, suppression, and oppression. And I think we have a very long way in our work to reimagine what it means to have people in our society who are neurodivergent, and what it means to live inside a society where— what I truly believe is, my brother is a seer.

    And he sees things that I’m unable to see, and many other people, and that should have been nurtured. And if we lived in a different context, as we spoke earlier, and reminded the community here that we’re on indigenous land— if we were in a different context, different communities, different people relate to these questions in a completely different way, which is, oh, you’re a healer, OK. Oh, you’re a messenger, and this is how we’re going to help you hone those messages and that healing medicine.

    I believe my brother has medicine. And I think that the system that we live in has turned it into poison. So it’s our job, as we work towards building new cultures, that we’re able to assess the current culture we live in and recreate a new one so that someone like my brother and so many of us can live in a place that truly honors our gifts.

    JANUARY PARKOS ARNALL: Really beautiful. I love the way you both are speaking about that. And it takes me to another question here, which is, are there times when you are impacted by the ways and the rigidities and the categorization that we all sort of take on just living in the world we live in?

    When imagining your own work, does that rigidity ever enter into your imagination as you’re thinking about your work? And how— are there tactics that you can share to move beyond that sort of enculturated rigidity? If that’s clear.

    ALICE SHEPPARD: How could we not be impacted? I mean, I think part of what I want to say here is that these systems, these expectations— before we get to the moment of impact, meaning, ow, these systems are— these systems form us from our very birth. These systems shape us from our very birth.

    These systems shape the spaces that we live, create, move, and talk in. The system— we are impacted as we are formed. Before we get to the moment of, ow, that is an impact, and I need to recover from it.

    The impact is information. It is in the shaping of the air we breathe. We are completely impacted. And I want to be able to surface the ways that that— those formations, which are so invisible, create the moment of impact, ow.

    Before we get to the ow— and yes, there are ows. But these are ows that are built into the system from the very beginning. There are ows that are inherited.

    They are ows that come with family stories, family— they’re ows before the specific incident. And it’s about getting to that mess that we don’t necessarily see, so that the incidence of an ow, an impact, doesn’t happen.

    JANUARY PARKOS ARNALL: I think I just— we only have time for one more question, and I’m just going to take it for ourselves, for the MCA, which— you heard a little bit in my introduction about the many things that we’re grappling with at the MCA. You each have worked with us at least on this program. Alice, you’re working with us on many more projects, as we’re presenting Wired with Kinetic Light in May.

    I’m wondering if there are any final thoughts. I think there are so many things about the conversation you three have had, that I can’t wait to share more, and there’s quite a few MCA colleagues on this Zoom. And I can’t wait to share this conversation with even more colleagues.

    But are there any things that you would like to leave us with, in terms of speaking to institutions like the MCA and to the MCA, that we can learn how to better interpret the work that you do. Each of you does work that really fits in a lot of different categories, not only in terms of your own identity, but in terms of the work itself. The MCA is an institution that has a really strong performance program.

    We also have a really strong exhibition program, and those are difficult to transgress. So I’m wondering, are there things that you’d like to leave us with, knowing that there are a lot of museum folks on this call, and museum workers who will be viewing this later on as well? If you can share a couple of thoughts that are practical things for museums to think about, in working with artists and making that a better experience in terms of the work that we do, as Tara said, to bring together audiences and artists, any final thoughts before we run out of time?

    PATRISSE CULLORS: I have one thought, which is truly about encouraging museums to really have, and continue to have, the very important and necessary conversations around abolition and its relationships, and the relationships to law enforcement, specifically, but also really thinking about what the theory of abolition and the practice of abolition can offer inside of an artistic space and inside of a museum and gallery space in particular, and having those, what I call courageous conversations around what would need to transform in order to truly be inside of an abolitionist context.

    And what does it mean for— especially as we— after this uprising, so many Black and Brown artists were being asked to be in shows and be in exhibits and sort of be seen in a way that they hadn’t. And yet, these really critical conversations, I think we’re missing in the art world, not because we weren’t leading them, but institutions were having a hard time grappling with what that looked like.

    And so I just want to keep being— I’m an artist, but I’m also a community organizer. So my community organizer self has to just keep reminding the team that it’s in these kinds of conversations where we’re able to allow for the shift and transformation that’s so desperately needed for our institutions.

    ALICE SHEPPARD: Yes. What Patrisse said. Yeah. Yeah. If I may build on that, not to stop, right? I mean, the trick here is, we’re to make this moment permanent. So it’s not a moment, but it is a culture.

    So it’s not a moment, but it is change, so that— and this is something I think I hope that I do in my own practice as a person, as an artist. But I want to think of museums as doing this, too. Turn in to examine your assumptions, to be in discomfort, to be in discomfort, to be embarrassed by yourself, you know.

    But not to lose hope for yourself. To be embarrassed by yourself, but to have hope for yourselves. To recognize where you’re changing and to dig further into that, and to recognize that whatever happened in the past, you can’t undo, but you can live differently and make things differently.

    But be— but to just take it down, which is the optimist, artist, and idealist in me speaking, because institutions can’t do that. But maybe they can. Maybe you can take some of it down, and allow something new to grow.

    JANUARY PARKOS ARNALL: I think there’s so much room for that growth, and that’s such an important place to leave this conversation with— is in imagining the growth that can happen in the future, and especially with the kinds of words and valuable input that you each bring to the work of museums and to our world, to the world around us. I just so appreciate you both, and Tara, of course, for taking on the moderating of this conversation.

    This was a really beautiful conversation to have. I appreciate all of you for being here, and thank you so much to the folks who are attending this event. I hope you’ll come back again on November 30 to see Primer for an Impossible Conversation, another project that Tara has brought as curator in performance at the MCA. And oh, we have so much to think about tonight. Thank you all.

    TARA AISHA WILLIS: Thank you both for the invitations to use Alice’s word from earlier, that you’ve both left us with, in this conversation. Really beautiful invitation.

    [MUSIC PLAYING]

    Upcoming Dialogue programs— Tuesday, November 30, 7 to 8:30 PM. Dialogue Rescreen: Primer for an Impossible Conversation, David Neumann, Marcela Murray, and Tei Blow for Advanced Beginner Group with guest moderator, Mikki Kendall. Support the future of media programming at MCAChicago.org/give.

    [MUSIC PLAYING]