Cat Tyc, a writer, and Ray Ferreira, a multidisciplinary performance artist, got together to speak about Ray's work in video, performance, and writing. Their conversation merges the personal body with the artistic body as they discuss exhaustion, objectification, linguistics, movement, and dissolving boundaries between performer and audience.
CAT TYC: The first video on your website...It has a low beat, and then all these shapes and a lot of language…...
RAY FERREIRA: I’m mounting a new version of that video in the Dominican Republic right now.
CT: That’s what I want to start talking about first. Have you also performed it?
RF: I have performed that piece, I have read that piece, and now I’m going to have a different version of the video. The video on my website is 80% Englishes, 20% Spanishes. This new version is 90% Spanishes, 10% Englishes. And now it’s an installation. There are little jellyfish, as I like to call them, that are a part of it, too. Hopefully, it will be a little bit more immersive. I’m really excited about it. It is going to be really interesting for me to show it because it is coming out of a conversation that I had with my grandmother about life during the dictatorship. The conversation maps out overlapping and divergent elements. Through our conversation I ended up finding out that when she found out he got assassinated, she found out because word came through the house that she was working in. She used to work in his brother’s kitchen or something like that. I forget what she told me. Word filtered through the kitchen that he had been assassinated
CT: Oh, wow.
RF: The piece itself is an attempt to play with and examine how I’m mapping out connections and divergences between her experiences -- through the first part of the Balaguer Regime (which they would not call a dictatorship but was), her move to the U.S., her experiences here ( Reagan and post) and this current post-Reagan upswing in conservatism -- compared to my experience in post Reagan-era New York.
CT: I pulled out different lines that felt like they had a lot of weight to them. One line, “what is the matter?” stood out to me. It spoke a lot to what your work is sometimes centering around, dissecting the question of what’s the matter in the same way that you’re dissecting what is a dominant language and sense of understanding. You are pointing to these problems, and taking the problems as objects and asking, what is this thing in space? Would you agree with that or is it something different?
RF: When I’m asking what is the matter, I’m also asking how does my body act as both a material and ideological construct, how does a body sit within that, remake that, diverge from that, fuck that shit up? My body relates to all these systems of power as an abstraction while also being very much in my body. The way I’m moving through the world both physically and metaphorically is in relation to the way that other bodies are existing and the ways that those other bodies and my body together are recreating different schemas, different power relations. So then that question becomes what is the matter. In the video, the translation of what is the matter is “como ta la cosa” which can also be translated to what’s up.This is important in terms of thinking of what is the matter as questioning what is going on and what are the processes at hand and how are these materials interacting.
CT: I’m really interested in your writing process, but I think I’ll go back to it just because you went directly to the body. Which makes so much sense. You work with text, but form and movement are so crucial to your work. What are your choreographic principles?
RF: I end up thinking about movement in a very linguistic way. I think about movements as nouns and verbs and how the movements connect in a syntactical way. They begin to form a language. When I’m thinking about a performance or about a piece for video, I’m imagining certain movements connecting to certain words or sensations and feelings and then figuring out how those things get improvised together. Through the improvisational connection they form a sort of syntax, a sort of language. This seems related to my being in ESL very young and knowing full well that I needed to learn English in order to function in class. When I speak Spanish I get really tongue tied and I’ve developed this stutter. It feels like a very clear place in which language isn’t just this abstract tool for creating meaning. It is in the body, in my body, through the way I produce it. There’s also the idea of gesture being a tool through which we communicate, so gesture and body language becomes important to the ways that I’m thinking about how we communicate. I go into the work with a constellation of movements that I’m going to have and a constellation of language that I’m going to use. There are ebbs and flows of connections and textures that make meaning that is understood and sometimes not understood. A meaning that is greater or more complicated and challenging comes out of it. Challenging me and the viewer. I am interested in doing the movement to the point of exhaustion.The exhaustion of the replication of the gesture is the place where my body becomes present, not as an idealized performer who looks x-y-z way, but as a thing that has limitations, a thing that is very material, a thing that can fail.
CT: You’re negotiating the different plateaus of existence in a community and the person that we are at work is different from the person we are with our friends is different from the person we are with our family.
RF: There is a negotiation that happens through the language that we use, through the ways that our bodies are positioned, through the gestures that we use, and this is all happening simultaneously. How am I inflecting in what particular way in what particular space? I think about how when I am talking on the phone or when I need something from a corporation I have my white woman voice and I’m also sitting a particular way, I actually need to position my body differently which is really interesting. There are many ways in which I inflect my voice to perform a particular performance of gender and race.
CT: To embody that role.
RF: To embody that role. And to think about the ways that we’re always navigating the world through a sort of performance, linguistically and physically. It is embodied because language is an embodied thing.
CT: You are pushing your body to this level of exhaustion and the performance articulates that exhaustion. There is also the exhaustion of negotiating how one wants to be read and dealing with what gets thrown at you. That is exhausting. That can be dangerous. It’s not just a durational feat of, look how long I could put myself through this. You are showing and exploring how exhausting it is to be in this negotiating body.
RF: I’ve always worked with my own body because I can position myself in a certain way and I have a certain ability and I know it’s my body so I have a certain level of agency. I don’t feel like I’m exploiting myself. Though sometimes that potential exploitation is played with in the work. I’ve recently started to work with other people. The piece that I have at the Queens Museum right now has my mother in it. And my grandmother is in the piece we’ve been talking about. Working with them I have to be cautious about how exhausted they feel during the process...
CT: ...Of what you put them through.
RF: You know how exhausting it is to be repeating the same shit over and over again and how tiring it actually is on the vocal cords and to be performing a particular voice. The way I’ve been working with them has been very much “take all your breaks” and trying to not put that much pressure on them. When I work with my own voice, I’ll do it over and over again. And the editing! Editing is very much part of the work and part of the performance. The process of editing and being hunched over gets into the body.
CT: Very much so.
RF: Very much so. The exhaustion of living in my particular body in my particular world. There’s this level of exhaustion that I want to expose to the audience. Not that they’re going to learn any shit from it, they’re not. The people who know, know and the people who need to know probably won’t care. At the very least the work becomes a place where I can maybe draw out some sort of empathy. Not because empathy is helpful, well, it’s helpful but only as so far as empathy is helpful to seduce people.
CT: What do you mean by that?
RF: Meaning that it could suck them in. I like to play with pushing the audience towards a more distant position and then bringing them in towards a more intimate place. When I get close to the audience during performance or sit on them, or when I lean on them, I end up pushing them away. That’s the moment in which people begin to tense up. Empathy can produce a binding.
CT: Why do you think that is?
RF: I set it up in the way through staging and through the use of objects. I tend to perform on a sort of pedestal in an environment I have set up like a proscenium stage. There’s a physical distance, they are a viewer, a somewhat disembodied viewer. Then I break that and get close to them or lean on them. I’m no longer performer as pure object to be gazed at and they’re no longer pure objective viewer. When I am close to them and sitting or leaning on them, I’m physically dependent on them, they could move and they could fall. They don’t usually, they usually just tense up.
CT: Making a perfect…
RF: Yeah, making a perfect… what’s the word I’m looking for?
CT: Another word that came up when you were talking about the exhaustion that you’re performing is objectification.
RF: I’m being objectified all the time, all of us are. There are particular forms of objectification that I receive as being black and trans, that are super problematic in the ways I find... kind of funny. Funny because objectification is making something into an object and this gets close to the actual materiality of the thing. The subject doing the objectifying imagines themselves as not being material; it creates a sort of distance. I play with that. I know how I’m being objectified. I try to make the gaze as present as possible in the space. I put myself on pedestals. I put myself in positions of leisure, like reclining. I’m a thing in the space that you’re looking at. I can imagine that there’s a world in which me being a thing would be really great. In all of its messy materiality. My body is always remaking itself through the gaze and the physical. My boundaries are remade through the gaze and the physical. (By physical I mean through series of chemical, biological, physical processes). I set it up so I’m the object to be viewed. That’s where having that physical connection with the audience is helpful, because all of a sudden, their body becomes a very physical part of the performance in a way that they were not expecting. When I say that people tend to become tense when I approach them or touch them, the bodies that tends to tense are white bodies. I don’t think I’ve have felt that sort of tension from anyone I leaned on and or relied on or sat on anyone who I did not presume to be white. Which is interesting in terms of thinking about whiteness as a material discursive arrangement that presumes objectivity, presumes to be not material, presumes to be neat and ordered. Brushing up against somebody is a moment in which the boundary between your bodies is met while also being the moment in which that boundary may begin to dissolve.
CT: You have this savvy way of reorienting space. Like, ‘the performance should happen over here,’ but you’re like ‘no, no, no. It’s over here.’ And, you are right, it is totally right there. It makes sense right there. But the whole room has to reorient to that choice that you’ve made. And then the other thing I’ve noticed, is that you tend to work in the dark. Another line I pulled out was ‘white light is always normative,’ and I wondered if there was a relationship there.
RF: I normally work in the dark, but I don’t normally think about it in relationship to that line. There must be some sort of relation because it’s part of the work. I enjoy working in the dark for a couple of reasons. One is that it allows me to hide when I go into the audience. If the light is happening in one particular zone, where the performance is happening, and then all of a sudden the performance is not happening in that well lit zone, it’s like “Oh, what is going on?” This activates the audience as somebody in the space. As some body in the space. I like to play with the relationship between the audience as the objectifying thing or objectifying entity and how they can begin to feel how their bodies are arranged in the particular space. The other thing that the darkness allows for is my movement being fully understood. Our vision is different in the dark, depending on the speed which I’m moving, depending on the light arrangement, certain movements are seen or obscured. I don’t know if you were there at the performance I did at Columbia...
CT: I was.
RF: The darkness is also like the club. A place in which the bodies dissolve too, everyone is bumping up against each other, everyone’s bodies melding together through sweat and stains and spilled drinks, and just being high or drunk. But in the performance, the dark dissolves my body in a different. It is another way of activating the audience in the sense that, what they’re objectifying is something that is not fully seen.
CT: It’s an abstract.
RF: Right. Literally, they are objectifying my body as something that is not being fully read, because it’s always hidden through mirrors, through the gaps and projections, through the space between people. I’m also thinking about the piece that I have up at the Queen’s Museum, and thinking about darkness. I’m thinking about Fred Moten’s writing on Chris Ofili show at the New Museum. That room that was dark, with the black and blue paintings. The ways in which the figure is both present but its boundaries are diffuse. That’s another thing that I’m working with, how my body can be more diffuse. And how people are trying to map out where my arm ends when I make a gesture. The other thing is that I’m performing without my glasses. I’m having a similar relationship to the audience in the sense that in the darkness their vision is blurred and when I’m performing, I can’t really see that well. I’m looking at a bunch of blurs. The audience doesn’t know this but, I’m doing what they’re doing. I make eye contact with them. I make an assumption of where their eyes are. I’m making this assumption of where their body is, how far can I extend my arm in order to avoid your body or not. Who am I staring at at this particular moment? If I’m directing text at someone, even if it’s lip synched, I’m directing the text at you because I’m looking at you, and you’re seeing me looking at you. And I’m either not seeing you or seeing some blur of you and making assumptions about where your blur exists and what that blur is.
CT: The blur recreates the nightclub. The blur creates the feeling of “it doesn’t fucking matter”. And it helps you let go.
RF: The worst moment is when the light turns on. Ah, that’s the worst! And all of a sudden, everything becomes too real.
CT: Everyone becomes a little cockroach running as fast as possible.
RF: Everyone’s running for the darkness, everyone’s running to grab their stuff, leaving for the train. When things are fully visible, this utopic illusion of the club enters the world too hard, like way too hard. Everyone’s like “you’re makeup is smeared,” and all of a sudden you’re so much more sober than you were before. All the magic dissolves. There is something wonderful about the way that lights can move around and the way that darkness allows for blurring that things actually become more… I don’t think we have a word for it. I want to say clear but that’s not it. I want to say concrete but that’s not it. It’s some sort of proximity that you can gain from the blur.
And it is this kind of materiality that is only accessible through haze.
CT: A word that keeps coming to mind as you speak about this is liberatory. When I think about my best moments dancing in a nightclub in the dark, it’s alone. Your friends are there but you don’t know where they are, and when the music completely takes you over it’s almost as if you are just your body. I might be being a little too romantic about it all.
RF: Ugh, it’s so gross how romantic it is. When the music takes you over. That beat pumping through space and pumping through other bodies too.
CT: Right, well the beat is also kind of like your heart. I mean there’s so many bad disco songs that are made about this. I should state, for the record, that I am aware of that. But it still feels really true.
RF: Physically it is really happening, the base is physically moving through you...
CT: it’s moving your clothes
RF: Your water bottles.
CT: Your hair.
RF: Everyone is alone but also part of everybody else because you presume everybody else is in the same state, going and doing their thing.
RF: Hopefully. It’s a presumption I make. Which is a problematic presumption because super scary things can be happening…
CT: Or just someone having a bad night. It doesn’t have to be too extreme.
RF: There’s a constellation of things that can be happening.
RF: But the presumption I always make is that everybody else is in this blurred state.
RF: Together. But I’m also not aware of everybody.
CT: How can you be ? It’s not your responsibility to be.
RF: No, but it’s interesting to feel that we’re all in this same blur but I can’t even feel myself. I’m just moving.
CT: That’s the metaphor you’re creating. Going back to ‘what’s the matter,’ the materiality.
RF: Because materiality is super messy. And we’re making it. When we look at this table and we call it a table because we exist in the particular discursive moment where we call this thing a table. The fact that we’re making a neat, concrete object, says something about us, about our needs, about where that need is coming from, where that idea of thing being a thing is even from.
CT: What’s your writing process like?
RF: When I write, I tend to write a list. And then I take that list and start working. I usually do that by hand first, and then work on it on the computer and organize it into a system that I can then read to perform. I make a schema on the page.
CT: Like a score.
RF: I make a score for myself. Which has been interesting when recording with other people, because it was hard for my mother to read how I had written the text for the Queens Museum piece. When there were too much space between particular letters, she couldn’t read them. She couldn’t understand to read them as one singular word. She was also searching for punctuation to tell her how to space things out. Then for my grandma, it was more interesting because she’s old and she can’t really see that well.
CT: She was just reading what she thought was there.
CT: She was like you in the crowd.
RF: I had to say it and then she would repeat it. But she wasn’t replicating.
CT: She’s her own performer.
RF: Yeah, she’s her own performer.
CT: Have you read any Merleau-Ponty?
CT: I’ve been teaching a class and we just read the chapter in Prose of the World about conversation, discourse, and dissecting the dynamic of the conversation. And we were doing it with in parallel with this podcast episode called “Still Processing”.
RF: Which one?
CT: It’s the episode they did about the Baywatch movie.
RF: Oh, I haven’t listened to that one.
CT: It’s really good. I like it because it gets off the Baywatch movie so fast and becomes more about how the hosts have very different relationships to the beach as a space. They dismantle the listeners assumptions that these two people, because of their identities, would just…
RF: …have the same…
CT: Experience. So, I am bringing in Ponty in order to help us think about how to listen to a conversation, and to be open to the possibility of redirection and reorientation. Do you think you are thinking along similar lines ?
RF: I’m more of an organizer of ideas, and an organizer of language and systems. At least that’s how I approach my work.
CT: I was also interested about your relationship with other medias.
RF: In what way?
CT: I guess… music.
RF: There is something about music. It goes back to the club. The beat creates an organizational system that allows you to dissolve. When we think about music we think about rhythms more than we think about systems. This could be totally wrong but, people who have rhythm are typically from particular populations. There’s something interesting to me about white folks not having rhythm. It’s its own system. It’s its own particular type of knowledge that’s discounted. So I am thinking about how a rhythm in a song or beat is an organizational principle to work with and about how there’s certain systems that are privileged. Generally, white people’s systems are being privileged. But white people have no rhythm, which is a different type of system. Potentially, that rhythm (and by rhythm I also mean something that’s felt versus purely known—something accessed through the body) is potentially a site for the beginning of a liberatory thing, a new system. While rhythm is an organization principal, it needs difference embedded in it in order to ‘sound good,’ or to be interesting. So a beat needs to disrupt itself in order for it to work. What would it look like if we actually had systems that actively disrupted themselves in precise, conscious ways that was self-reflexive?
CT: Last question. What are you reading right now?
RF: Right now, I’m reading the Bloodchild, Octavia Butler’s collection of short stories. I’m kind of reading a bit of Undercommons and a little bit of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling. Particularly I was reading the chapter on cybernetic bodies or something.
CT: She’s so problematic.
RF: I know ! I know !
RF and CT: [laughter]