Maps and power / response to Rosy Simas’ “We Wait in the Darkness”

This is a very belated response to Rosy Simas’ dance show “We Wait in the Darkness” at Red Eye Theater–the Saturday matinee. It was raining hard throughout, and you could hear it on the roof. This is also a response to Rosy’s connected exhibit at All My Relations Gallery, which I saw right afterwards. There was a part of the gallery set up like the stage of the show, with large rumpled paper and projection, but mostly: “Simas’ exhibit reflects pieces of her grandmother’s life story, and a small part of the story of the Seneca people. The exhibit is both a historical piece (an antique map collection of Seneca history, Simas’ grandmother’s belongings, artifacts) and her contemporary response to that history (the plans for a dress made of relocation maps, …” (program).

I’ve been trying to think about these maps–their use in the dance show and their presence in the exhibit. I want to consider the place of maps in performance here a bit. I love maps, for one thing, and work with them; particularly Great Lakes maps and places, which are a core part of this show. Through dance it explored, in part, the government seizure of Seneca lands in western New York near Lake Erie for the purposes of a reservoir, and for this, a relocation map was projected and also finally brought out and torn apart into its crass tracts. The climax of the show, at least for me, was the retrieving and methodical tearing up of the map, and there was no dancing then at all, and for a good spell. I’d been so keenly following and interpreting the body and movements, that their lack seemed really deliberate and crucial. Instead of dancing, the body was just tearing pieces, putting them around the stage, and handing them to the audience, in an ordinary, frank manner.

What was it about the map that ended the dancing, and that brought about this very practical attention? Was the map, as an object constituted of symbols and abstraction/representation, taking over from the body abstraction/representation that is the act of dancing? Was it an artistic move? Or was the tearing so necessary–so necessary to show in relation to the brutal dividing of land and people, and therefore necessary to do without grace or gesture or basically abstraction–that it required this new “real” motif on stage where we were so used to sitting with the magic of dance? How did the power of that map end up taking away the power of that dancing–the power of dancing overall (the map it could have been danced on, torn up dancerly, represented as torn up in a dance, etc)?

One answer could be that that map was official, “object[ive]” history, in an institutional governmental sense, not the oral history or personal imagery or other more subjective gestures of heritage and identity that were presented. This was the actual fucking map (blown up real big) that was used to relocate people, make tracts of their homeland, and manifest eminent domain into yet another piece of compromised/contested North American land. It was not art. It was all power–a tool. It needed to be shown as such, and then destroyed–without art, equally directly. It’s purpose of brutally dis/enfranchising land had to be also starkly presented. But the frank demonstration of all this struck me as the one thing, strangely, that was overly symbolic about the dance show. It brought me to think that the map had again had its way in exercising its power: it set the terms for its own artless destruction/re-functioning through its seemingly matter-of-fact coherence, which compelled a like response of matter of-fact tearing. It wouldn’t have done to dance the map to pieces; such an “artistic” move may not have been an adequate victory over it. It needed special attention.

Such was the power of that map; it undercut and overshadowed. It was like a fetish, fixated on, tortured, dotingly, piece by piece. A sweet sheet of trauma to rip into, lay, pass around. I did for one love the way it sounded when it tore, and the shapes it tore into seemed just right somehow (were there cuts scored into it; was it so attended to, even backstage?). And like a fetish, what it represented was very independent of it as the actual object it was, there on stage. That is, I understood what the map represented, and what the focused utilitarian tearing of it meant, but its significance–the map as a signifier–seemed inflated [ballooned –> hollow] in comparison to the other substantial material we sat with relating to a Native narrative, lineage, land, scars, embodiment, body–in short, everything antithetical to that map. So much real, personal history threatened, indeed literally drowned, by the faceless force of institutionalized, bureaucratic colonization, which emanates from the likes of a little map. It needed blowing up, as large as it may loom in the psyche. How else could it have been handled?

This is where the installation/exhibit comes in I think. A bunch of sort of beautiful blue, dully deadly maps surveying white settlement, Native peoples, and plans for land in Western New York and around the Great Lakes were displayed around the gallery, with placards describing them. After seeing the show and with that tearing-up act in mind, I was thrilled to find these, to be given the opportunity to continue thinking about this aspect of the work. The fact that there were several maps, and that they were on some level more “authentic” [in size, origin, etc] than the one torn up on stage, brought them out of the realm of a fetish and into that of artifacts, pinned up and open for examination. They weren’t presented as art but as context; a cartographic corroboration of the dance’s physical-emotional exploration. They were permitted to function as maps, and through contextualizing them altogether, their power was used against them to emphasize the damage they made possible, and not only the order they maintain. It became vivid to me to imagine how pouring over these would lead to using that relocation map on stage in a way that would be outside, or just clearly beside, of the dance motif. Perhaps the map hadn’t won again, in compelling that choice, but had been spoken to with equal authority. The common language was then not art exactly, but more force–ambiguity couldn’t be afforded.

Interestingly, that one large relocation map appeared also in the exhibit, as mentioned at the start of this response, laying on a sewing machine across the room. Here, it was to be cut it up and reconstituted into a dress and worn around. So intimate in a way–very different than the staged tearing up. Again like a fetish, the inverse of a rabbit’s foot. Power objects are such an interesting challenge to subsume–it’s like they make any creative subversion bring them right back into the spotlight. It makes me personally consider the inherent tensions and challenges of doing work about race, to chip at the tip of an iceberg… How do you not re-inscribe racialization onto yourself as you try to address that very trauma–especially when using its tools? I was really drawn into imagining Rosy’s process with this in the multiple surfacings of those maps in her piece and exhibit.

 

Moheb Soliman

Rosy Simas, We Wait in the Darkness

Red Eye Theater

July 19, 2014

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