In 2010, Steffani Jemison began aProject Row Houses Core residency in Houston, Texas. Noting that 2010 marked the 100th anniversary of W.E.B. DuBois founding The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, Jemison created a project that addressed publication, literacy, and self-education. As remarked by Jemison in her artist statement for Project Row Houses, “one hundred years later, the concept of ‘crisis’ remains surprisingly salient as a metaphor for the remarkably persistent ‘problem of the color line’ described by DuBois, and also serves to highlight the complex role of ‘critique’ (in its philosophical meaning—‘an opposing force’) in African American aesthetics and literary theory.”
Jemison’s Project Row Houses residency was organized in two parts: Future Plan and Program, a provisional publishing project featuring book-length conceptual literary works by visual artists; and Book Club, a collaboration of Jamal Cyrus and Steffani Jemison that took the form of a think tank and reading group inspired by the powerful history of self-education in communities of color. These investigations developed into a greater engagement with past publications and a desire to create further opportunities to examine the potential for these texts to fuel future activity.
On Wednesday October 12, the New Museum will open the exhibition “Museum as Hub: Steffani Jemison and Jamal Cyrus: Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet.” For this project, the artists Steffani Jemison and Jamal Cyrus have transformed the fifth floor Museum as Hub space into an exhibition, reading room, and discussion space. The centerpiece of this installation is a magazine rack that recalls a newsstand, presenting complete reproductions of more than 500 issues of Black periodicals published between 1902 and 1940, including The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races; The Messenger: World’s Greatest Negro Monthly; Ebony; and Education: A Journal of Reputation. These reprints are joined by a series of newly commissioned posters by contemporary artists as well as a collection of contemporary chapbooks, zines, and self-published books. The installation is designed to encourage browsing of the materials, and provides space for both concentrated reading and conversation.
Continuing the project begun with Future Plan and Program, “Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet” is accompanied by an illustrated publication that borrows the form of a reader—a constructive compendium of essays, interviews, and selections from the periodicals and posters on display. Edited by Steffani Jemison and designed by Nikki Presley, The Reader includes contributions from Adebukola Bodunrin, Jamal Cyrus, Egie Ighile, Mitchell Jackson, Steffani Jemison, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts/The Freedwoman’s Bureau, and Greg Tate.
As a part of this publication, Ryan Inouye and I, as co-organizers of the exhibition, presented a series of questions to Steffani and Jamal to learn more about the discussions and experiences that informed the project in addition to a number of its practical and pedagogical considerations. The full transcript of this conversation is available in The Reader, below is an excerpt.
New Museum: This exhibition developed out of the project “Book Club” you both initiated at Project Row Houses in Houston. Could you discuss some of the considerations that inspired the Book Club project in Houston and how it has informed this presentation at the New Museum in New York?
Steffani Jemison: In summer 2010, Jamal contacted me to see if I was interested in pulling together a group to read Koduo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (1998), and we thought it would be interesting to extend that conversation to other texts. Separately, as an artist-in-residence at Project Row Houses, I had proposed to create a book club focusing on writings by black artists and theorists; this idea dovetailed well with his and we decided to work together to create a reading group emphasizing experimental, non-canonical writing by black authors and theorists. [This developed into ]“Book Club” [which] consists of a group of artists and writers in Houston that meets at Project Row Houses. Core members have included Regina Agu, Nathaniel Donnett, Quincy Flowers, Egie Ighile, Ayanna Jolivet McCloud, Lauren Kelley-Oliver, Robert Pruitt, and Michael Kahlil Taylor, along with Jamal and myself.
Jamal Cyrus: Initially “Book Club” was scheduled to meet every other week from September to November [of 2010]. However, due to its success amongst the participants, the project was extended and ran till May . When conceiving the idea, we were attempting to develop a think tank in which we would read and discuss the works of Black artists and critics whose writings were not widely distributed, but whose ideas we felt were seeking out new territories of Black thought and expressivity.
SJ: As we began to work together, we found that the group offered an opportunity for us to articulate a set of principles that could guide our activity. Perhaps the most fundamental of these was respect for conversation: polyphony, heterogeneity, difference, and exchange. This didn’t mean that the group shared a common set of beliefs or that we came to joint conclusions during our discussions, but that by continuing to meet we all signaled our respect for the lasting private, social, and political benefits of conversation. Our discussions touched upon consistent themes: starting with a reading of Koduo Eshun’s discussion of Grandmaster Flash in More Brilliant than the Sun, we might consider the inadequacies of contemporary hip hop anthems; this often raised the question of whether Young Jeezy or Soulja Boy were actually as worthless as they seem, and whether perhaps contemporary rappers are just misunderstood by the generation weaned on Nas and Tribe; this in turn might lead some to extol the demonstrably underappreciated gems of Houston hip hop; which might lead others to praise the minor, marginalized, and underappreciated gems of Houston, in music and otherwise; and then at this point, we might discuss the financial challenges faced by artists in Third Ward, and indeed, by the Third Ward community in general; this might shift our attention to the man who is asking passing cars for change at this very moment; from here, we might discuss the possibility of progressive solutions for the lack of a grocery store within a mile radius of Elgin and Dowling; we might consider gentrification and how neighborhoods change; a passing car might remind us of the powerful role of music in defining the soundtrack of a neighborhood, welcoming or alienating newcomers; at which point we might double back to Grandmaster Flash and to Eshun’s argument. We were very much driven by a sensitivity to place and context as factors that we necessarily engage in our lives and creative work (at the time, this meant a special interest in the specific histories, legacies, and futures of Houston, Third Ward, Project Row Houses, the intersection of Elgin and Dowling).
JC: Due to its setting, the NYC readings will not be nearly as intimate as the Houston sessions. It seemed to us from the beginning of our discussions—and this was confirmed as the group met—that the success of the group depends on the chemistry of its participants. You have to understand that although Houston is the fourth largest city in the US, its arts community is very small and tight-knit, and this is particularly true of artists of color in the city. For the most part, group participants had history together outside of “Book Club. At first, we thought it might be possible to achieve this type of camaraderie with the NYC group; over time we’ve begun to understand that maybe this is not possible. But there are small ensembles and there are orchestras, and each has its particular benefits and drawbacks. I look forward to seeing how the NYC group will operate and deal with the material. There are some great minds in the city, and people who can make the types of synthesis that need to occur when dealing with the information covered in the reading material.
NM: One of the unique aspects of “Alpha’s Bet” in the context of pedagogical art practice is the concurrent Book Club, and the understanding that this project and your research is ongoing. Is presenting this information as in-progress an act of cooperation? Or bravery? Or honesty?
SJ: Information is always “in-progress”—discourse evolves, knowledge shifts, and, most importantly, intellectual priorities change. To suggest that “Alpha’s Bet” is “in-progress” is to suggest that it will ultimately reach a kind of resolution or conclusion. This is impossible. Instead, we think that “Alpha’s Bet” presents a collection of resources—a series of conversations, a collection of posters in response to an open-ended prompt, an arbitrary selection of historical materials, etc. This particular collection is drawn from infinite possibilities—for reasons that are practical (some periodicals are easier to find than others), social (the show enables us to create dialogue among artists working in very different communities), strategic, personal, aesthetic, and political. To present a project is also to articulate a context in which the project can be understood. If “Alpha’s Bet” suggests bravery, cooperation, and honesty, I hope it’s clear that we’re invoking the spirit of generations of writers, artists, activists, critics, theorists, publishers, and readers whose values are reflected in every aspect of the work.
NM: The centerpiece of this exhibition is a newsstand containing hundreds of issues of independent African American periodicals from the first half of the 20th century. Structurally, these magazines resemble their contemporaries, there are cover girls, advertisements, editorials, etc. What do you think made these periodicals so radical in their day and what about them remains relevant now?
SJ: In magazine publishing, independence means several different things. Major media and publishing corporations were just beginning to emerge in the early 20th century—the Hearst Corporation consolidated its empire of newspapers and magazines by the 1920s, and smaller publishers like Harper & Brothers published books as well as multiple magazine titles. As an alternative to large-distribution commercial magazines, literary chapbooks and “little magazines” were published independently, often serving as significant outlets for radical cultural and aesthetic ideas. Many of the black periodicals featured in “Alpha’s Bet” emerged at the same time as, and were certainly influenced by, the little magazine movement. Like the little magazines, they were forced to find funding, manage printing and operations, etc. without the resources that mainstream periodicals enjoyed. But there were important differences: most independent black periodicals aspired to widespread circulation, to effect real political change, often functioning as the only publications in their fields (black education, research) in a way that little magazines did not. They were sober and political rather than stylish and playful. The stakes were high. Publishing has changed in countless ways since the early 1900s, but the discourse generated by early African American magazines remains fascinating today, not only because many of the issues addressed are still relevant,[for example], what are the political obligations of the intellectual in a democracy? What critical tools enable us to understand the unique features of black expression?
NM: “Alpha’s Bet” seems in dialogue with recent artist-initiated projects and platforms that explore various approaches to self-education and pedagogy, in addition to the exchange and distribution of knowledge. Are there practices that informed your thinking about this project?
SJ: I am very ambivalent regarding self-education platforms in artist communities that serve to consolidate rather than extend knowledge by encouraging a small group of (often highly educated) people to share their knowledge with one another. I’m also frustrated by the fact that such projects often fail to engage the active discourse of critical pedagogy, and that they are uninterested in the history of learning outside of the classroom. I wish that these projects were ambitious enough to consider the implications of their work for education theory and generous enough to join a larger conversation.
In contrast to these, I’m very inspired in the work of Huong Ngo, an artist who has investigated education theory to inform her own practice as a professor and seeks to build upon existing models for alternative education. Book Club was also influenced by the open reading and facilitated conversation model of 16 Beaver, a group that is consistently attentive to the relationship between art, education, and empowerment. For many years, I have followed the work of Shaina Anand, and I am hugely supportive of her collaborative project, pad.ma. From the perspective of display, two projects that Jamal and I considered as we developed “Alpha’s Bet” were “I Wish It Were True,” a VHS archive by Leslie Hewitt and William Cordova, and the e-flux initiated Martha Rosler Library.
NM: Many of the starting points for this exhibition are emergent dialogues. For example, the arcane/visionary nature of Hamptonese, the mathematic linguistics of Rammellzee, and the mysticism of The Nation of Gods and Earths. Can you describe your path to these dialogues and the process of moving them from the margin to the center of the discussion taking place in the exhibition?
JC: Fugitive uses of the King’s English. What amazes me about these particular individuals is how they were able to utilize their approaches to iconography, exegesis, and style to create eruptions of the status quo, and produce identities that were light years ahead of social conventions. For me, this [is] where these seemingly divergent materials join the main themes of the exhibition, and pursue the idea of the archive as reserve.
SJ: In Book Club, we considered emergent and vernacular knowledge alongside traditional forms; it’s not always easy to distinguish between the two. The redundancy and accumulation that define the internal logic of hip hop were central to book club conversations; the expressive language of the black church was another recurring theme. These rich discursive forms have been as important, as major, in our own education as the conventions of history and literary analysis, and we made a conscious decision to respect their significance. We frequently discussed the pervasiveness of “excess” and “lack” as metaphors for the success or failure of black expression—black speech as excessive or as insufficient. “Margin” and “center” are similarly metaphorical terms whose implications have been probed by Derrida and other scholars. By reconsidering these metaphors, I don’t mean to neuter the unique creativity or very real oppositional power of “fugitive uses of the King’s English” by Hampton and Rammellzee, but rather to acknowledge the complexity of describing a path “from margin to center.” When we decided to extend the themes of Book Club to present a series of installations or resources, it was inevitable that these would include materials that are considered “conventional,” like periodicals, as well as ideas that are considered marginal, like the hermeneutic device that is the Supreme Alphabet.
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