Pace Live

Torkwase Dyson Talks to Hans Ulrich Obrist

April 12, 2020
Conversation recorded on April 3, 2020

In the first episode of our Instagram Live conversation series, artist Torkwase Dyson speaks with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist about distance, ancestorship, and her framework of Black Compositional Thought.

Scroll down to read the full transcript.
Learn more about Torkwase Dyson.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Hi Torkwase.

Torkwase Dyson: Hi, welcome to round two!

HUO: Yeah, welcome to round two! We are on Pace Online and I’m Hans Ulrich and I am so happy to be with you, Torkwase, in conversation tonight. Thanks to Andria Hickey and everybody else, of course, who organized tonight’s talk. And all my thanks to Arthur Jafa, because it was Arthur Jafa who about a year and a half ago brought us together and organized the first studio visit I made with you. Firstly, I hope that all of you and all your friends and families are safe in this extremely challenging time. Actually, I wanted to begin by reading an extract from (opens in a new window) an extraordinary poem Anne Boyer, the poet, has written, “this virus,” and it has a lot to do, Torkwase, with your recent work, which has a lot to do with distance: I Can Drink the Distance and I Belong to the Distance. In this poem, Anne Boyer writes “we also must engage in large scale social distancing. The way social distancing works requires faith: we must begin to see the negative space as clearly as the positive, to know what we don’t do is also brilliant and full of love. We face such a strange task, here, to come together in spirit and keep a distance in body at the same time. We can do it. I am writing this because I want the good in us to break through the layers of hateful nonsense we’ve been drowning in. I think we can be good, but we also must prepare for an amplification of evil’s evil. The time when the invisible becomes visible is at hand.” End of quote. Of course, Anne Boyer talks about negative space that connects very much to your work also and the links to Glissant. Can you tell us a little about this whole series of work you’ve been doing about distance and particularly I Can Drink the Distance?

TD: Sure, I want to back up Hans, just for a second, and note a few things before we start just so they’re on record. David Driskell made a transition, and I want to note that the way I think and the way I structure my work has a long history of having relationships with Dr. Driskell and his relationship to Tougaloo College, where I went. So, ideas of distance and movement are really ingrained in the way I learned through the people I came into contact with. First with Bettye Parker Smith, then with Johnnie Mae Gilbert, who introduced me to David Driskell, who then introduced me to Mary Lovelace O’Neal, who introduced me to abstraction. So, my relationship with distance is very much tied to this legacy of what we inherit, what we share with each other, and how we then translate what we inherit and what we share into something that you would like to invent. And through that invention add something to the conversation that has to do with more livable futures. So, my relationship with distance belongs to this idea of belonging to the distance and is to recognize that I belong to an ancestorship, and that I belong to forms that those ancestors have developed over time. And it behooves me at this moment to really recognize Dr. Driskell, who was my way into abstraction, which I take very, very seriously of course. This idea of distance has to do, of course, with that ancestorship that’s seeking a form through these histories of moving, and developing geographies, and creating architectures, and moving through infrastructures under duress. This idea of distance has to do with my desire to not think about these histories in terms of time but think about them in terms of reaching in a distance space and in a different place, and to then pull those things together to create something new. And this newness that I am after in both form, and material, and language has that history embedded in it, but I am also thinking about that as a way to provide, share, or contribute solutions for our future, because I am very clear that the history of black spatial brilliance is very much going to be tied to surviving an ecological and environmental future. My work really is about forms that go after that kind of knowledge and go after that knowing. And this kind of work also soothes me as an individual and as an artist. It soothes me to understand that that history is there and that that future is there, and I’m in between working in the present; I’m very much engaged with both.

HUO: And that brings us, of course, to I Can Drink the Distance. You told me that the work really brings together some of the fundamental aspects of your work, there is the curve, there is the box, there is the triangle, or the trapezoid. And I really wanted to ask you to tell us a little bit about this work because it creates a space for people to be together with distance and I wanted to hear more.

TD: I Can Drink the Distance was a project I started at The Cooper Union thinking through ideas of architecture and space, specifically as it pertains to what I call the hypershape. This idea of the curve, the triangle, and the rectangle is very much tied to enslaved people who self-liberate. Box Brown is tied to the square, Harriet Jacobs is tied to the irregular triangle, and Anthony Burns is tied to the curve. You have a rectilinear condition and a curvilinear condition that are all historically and indelibly related to self-liberation. And these kinds of geometries I put together; I take them, I put them together, I play with them, I toss them in the air, and they land at something right now like the trapezoid. The work in finding a kind of geometric form that also embodies those histories of self-liberation, the geography, and the architect to a form that they physically, in real time, used to liberate. And under that condition I have what I am calling the hypershape. The hypershape, of course, as with all those histories of making, you create a positive space and a negative space. So all of these throughways in the work that you talk about, that I think is this idea of negative space, is simply a throughway, a path-making, creating a space out of no space, inventing a way through something to another side of something. For me, in the work, the negative space is very intentional as a space of thinking both in this moment and in a kind of future. The form sort of activates in a way that visitors can always embody the work and move through the work, touch the work. You know, it’s architectural, so I very much invite entering the work, standing on it, and interacting with it. I’m very much interested in using this sort of methodology of the hypershape to build architectural forms that then both have throughways that think about possibilities, and forms that people can occupy, that most of the time is very much a balance between negative space and positive space. And that happens in the sculptures and drawings too where there’s a sense of the hypershape that shows up, the trapezoid, the throughways, the curves, all of those show up in both the paintings and the drawings.

HUO: So, there’s the hypershape and you also talked about the Black Compositional Thought, BCT, which is in all these works. Can you tell us your definition of Black Compositional Thought?

TD: Sure, so hypershape comes out of that. I’ll read it, I thought you’d ask me this, so I wanted to get ready to read it. Black Compositional Thought, BCT, this term considers how paths, throughways, architecture, objects, and geographies are composed by black bodies and from these formations it also considers how properties of energy, space, scale, and sound interact as networks of liberation.

So Black Compositional Thought considers all of these spatial histories physically—the architecture, the plantations, the houses, the hideaway spaces, the crawlways, the through-pathways that were made—that those things are operating and produce a kind of energy, a sound, an instance, conditions that are unmeasurable. So Black Compositional Thought argues that in all of those conditions, perception is key—perception and movement and making is key. In those conditions for black people was a kind of compositional virtuosity—having to create these conditions and move most of the time in this clandestine way toward liberation. And there’s a history of black people self-liberating and that takes both things that you can measure and know, and things that you cannot. Perceptions around our physical world, but perceptions around the imagination and freedom and space, and a lot of theoretical physics that has to do with that too. So that’s Black Compositional Thought. That’s what I’m working on now. I needed to make something from that, so hypershape allows me to pull out Black Compositional Thinking in a way that works for me.

HUO: That is interesting because this afternoon I watched this extraordinary video of your conversation with Christina Sharpe, for those who haven’t seen it, I urgently recommend that you watch this video, it’s on the Graham Foundation website. In this conversation you also talk about this idea of composition and you and Christina Sharpe connected to care—composition and care. Can you talk a little bit about that? It seems very relevant now.

TD: Composition and Care. That was a few years ago so I’m not sure exactly what we were talking about as the context of how it came up. But I can talk improvisationally about how I feel about it now. In one way, I am very distraught over what is happening with the virus and that new ancestors are coming from this virus and an imposed distance, and a condition of making. As an artist, being pulled out of my studio, for my setup, being pulled out of my studio, being far away from my mother, D. Soyini Madison, and being in this small apartment that I am in in Harlem, composition as a way to keep my neurological system sharp. And the way I care for my memory, and my thinking, and my relationships is very much around ways of drawing again and producing drawings that are from memory about this spatial history. Christina and I are very much interested in the middle passage, ideas of surviving the middle passage, and moving through space that really acknowledges black bodies and the way they move around the planet, specifically around the ocean. So those things—like memory, history, ocean, and the virus, inside—for me, composition right now and working compositionally through my drawings and paintings really allows me comfort, it keeps my memory sharp in terms of understanding this virus is happening under what is a huge environmental crisis. It keeps me understanding scale because being quarantined, if your brain isn’t sharp, if you’re not sleeping, if you’re not taking care of yourself, if you’re not drinking water, if you’re not reminding yourself that the planet is warming, you could be in trouble after this passes. For me, compositional, making composition, setting up compositional strategies in drawing keeps those things relevant in my brain. Because the way I understand all these sciences, social sciences, environmental sciences are very much tied to drawing. Drawing and composition as tools to understand how these things relate in scale proximity, in systems, and things of that nature. Care for my own brain, for my own sanity, for my ability to still love and be present for my friends, and to remind myself how someone like David Driskell cared for me when I was in his home, and the books that he lent me. I was drawing one of the books he had lent me last time I was there, so for me, making drawing and using composition as a way to get closer to that, to close that distance, is very important.

HUO: And we are going to talk more about ecology in relation to I Can Drink the Distance and we are going to talk about your Back to Earth project for the Serpentine. But before that, I wanted to ask you about another aspect that I mentioned of I Can Drink the Distance and that’s the performative dimension. Because as I said in the introduction, we met thanks to Arthur Jafa and you did a performance recently called I Can Drink the Distance, which involved Arthur Jafa, it involved Gaika, it involved Christina Sharpe, whom we just mentioned, Deja Smith, among others. Can you tell me more about I Can Drink the Distance? This Plantationocene in 2 Acts. Of course, it connects to many themes in your work, it connects also to the politics of abstraction. It brings together art, poetry, because your practice is so interdisciplinary, it really goes beyond the fear of pooling knowledge—you bring all these worlds together. Can you tell us about what happened in this performance?

TD: Andria Hickey and Mark Beasley invited me to make a work at Pace, and I had been wanting to work with a lot of these artists and thinkers and makers before, so it was an opportunity to bring the people that I think with together. And a lot of it was around dealing with or exploding the trapezoid, to take a form and to really explode it geometrically in space. Because Pace’s gallery is this sort of narrow corridor almost, that is sort of open but closed at the same time, I Can Drink the Distance was about taking what I had developed as a hypershape and then extruding it in the space. This kind of architecture and sculpture were there, and then I invited people to respond to it. I invited AJ and Christina and Dionne, my collaborators Dark Adaptive, Andres L. Hernandez, and Zachary Fabri to come and respond. Usually when I make this kind of condition, when I make a sculpture that responds to architecture, I write about it, I write prose around it, I write some poetry around it, and then I share it with my collaborators and they decide how to respond. I think in this case I asked AJ specifically to make the performance that he did and with Gaika I think there was a bit more collaboration. With Christina, who of course I had been in conversation with before, I think she pulled from her upcoming texts where she writes about some of my work, but I was really interested in her deep research around the middle passage and the counting of the ships that were built to enslave people. Her work, Christina’s work, is very much both poetry and historical research, and subjective, and objective, in this sort of powerful way. Everyone came together and responded in that way and... Andres L. Hernandez responded with drawings from (opens in a new window) The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand and Andres is a part of Dark Adaptive, a performance collective I started maybe two or three years ago. Andres had responded through drawing to The Blue Clerk, he handed those drawings to Zachary Fabri and then Zachary performed in the space. These two acts were a form that I used to divide the two nights, and divide the conversation, and give each artist the space to work in some degree of autonomy. I’m sorry, also Autumn Knight performed the first night as well. It was an amalgamation of, I think, the best band I could have come up with—if I was to make a band in that way. And it was pretty amazing. I don’t know how anyone else felt, but having the space to experiment with people you’ve been in conversation with for a long time, adding new information, inventing new kinds of conditions of response, and having all these brilliant people both work through ideas, create new ideas, and express their concerns around and with other people, that’s kind of what it was.

HUO: Of course, if we continue I Can Drink the Distance now in our collaboration at the Serpentine, it’s another really interdisciplinary project called Back to Earth, which is part of a project where we invite practitioners to respond to the climate emergency, and it has a lot to do with collaboration with many other institutions. The artists will do fifty campaigns for Back to Earth, which will happen in the galleries, it will happen on-site, off-site, it’s all about sharing resources really, together with many other organizations to amplify these artist campaigns and support artists. Now, it’s interesting also because, of course, your collaboration with architecture has to do with that project because it’s the first time that you and David Adjaye will collaborate and, of course, as right now it can only happen online, we will amplify the project with lots of different research aspects online. It’s a project really about change, it’s the idea that an exhibition can be a catalyst for change, and, very much like the climate crisis itself, Back to Earth is a complex web really of interconnected research, of interventions and it asks questions such as: What new ecosystems can foster agency within ecosystems? What kind of resource sharing and collaborative working practices are necessary to present complex responses to these very complex problems the planet is facing? Can you tell us a little bit about what you conceive in terms of this new iteration of I Can Drink the Distance and maybe it would be interesting to also hear a little bit more about water, because this project has a lot to do with water. In the first conversation we had, you mentioned water and of course Cildo Meireles always talks about that, you know, water as being this more and more rarified resource.

TD: I am looking forward to a new iteration of Back to Earth. I was really excited by the invitation because it gives me an opportunity to work with water and work with ideas of liquidity, which are, I think, part of the project: the idea of liquids that are both of water from the body and this exchange of the body liquids with oceanic liquids, specifically in the history of the middle passage. And Christina talks about this in her book as well, as bodies are thrown overboard, are elected to be overboard rather than endure what is unknown, bodies are now in the ocean and the liquids in the body mixed with the water and the liquids of the ocean turn into particles over time and those particles are in a constant condition of state change just because of environment. And this is idea of how science works and how biology works with the body and now how it’s working with climate and water. To think about these things, water and climate, liquidity, the body, and black history, I’ve decided to really dive into deep-sea mining. Deep-sea mining is a continuation of what it means to hyper extract. I’m very much interested in thinking about extraction as my ancestors were extracted from the continent, extraction as it pertains to oil and gas, and extraction now as it pertains to deep-sea diving. And not an extraction of oil but an extraction of zinc and copper and cobalt and what that does differently than a kind of oil extraction is it really disrupts the earth’s platelets. And in my mind, learning about what that means, new ways of deep-sea mining, and new frontiers of energy extraction. This is the future. If we’re all in the condition of thinking about the future while thinking about the past, then we understand that these things are indelibly tied, specifically as we are thinking about global warming. It behooves me to think about what kinds of sediments from the transatlantic slave trade are in these bodies of water who have drifted off in this planetary condition. Now, this is an unknown, this is a part of the imagination, I don’t know, but I speculate that there’s a heavy presence there. So to say now that there’s a new kind of, you know, using water as a superhighway, using water as a superhighway for black bodies and all kinds of global exchange of materials, but now using it as a throughway, a pathway, to get down a thousand feet below to extract these minerals, you also extract the earth’s platelets. Who knows what this extraction will do to platelets shifting naturally as opposed to inducing these shifts, trying to then get under the earth’s core, which is under the ocean to extract these minerals. So this sort of hyperextraction and this sort of hypercapitalism, and I’ll say Capitalocene condition, absolutely has to have, for me, my work, and my research, a really deep connection, to connect with using waters for superhighways, for exploitation and degradation and death. This water liquidity and my campaign around deep-sea mining is a way to set up a rubric where I can argue that these things are connected. I don’t have to argue it, they are. But I can express work and make art objects that think about these things that are connected. Here we go, now we’re using this sort of object that has this negative space in it to then dig into the ocean’s core, to then put solid objects in it, that become positive material, so this really violent kind of extraction is what I’m going to mine with this project. It was great to work with David Adjaye and respond to his architecture, which is a curvilinear condition. He’s making, which I think is brilliant, a curvilinear condition inside a rectilinear condition. Because as you know, Pace’s gallery space is basically a square, so he’s putting a circle inside a square. All I’m doing, really, is taking deep-sea mining maps, which would be these spaces, and I’m laying them on David’s architecture, so we’re creating negative space by laser cutting into these walls an abstracted map of the mining. I’m taking this positive rectilinear form and creating a negative space inside of it. And then on the walls, on the gallery walls themselves, I’m really pushing for paintings that are very much in my language, lots of liquid, lots of water, lots of improvisation, that then, on top of it, I create the rectilinear, curvilinear conditions. It’s hopefully a very discursive condition between water and solids and state changes and movement, and the architecture and the infrastructure that brings all these ideas together.

HUO: Thank you so much, it’s brilliant! We have a lot of questions which came in. I’m going to ask you some of those questions. But I have a last question, actually, again related to interdisciplinarity. I wanted to ask you to tell us a little bit about the (opens in a new window) Wynter Wells Drawing School for Environmental Liberation, which is a project very dear to you. Could you tell us a little bit about the manifesto of this school and what it means in this very current moment?

TD: Well, the Wynter Wells School for Environmental Liberation is a forum where I can put all of the theories around Black Compositional Thought, where I can test the hypershape, where I can put science around extraction, where I can think about the history of the transatlantic trade and in the condition of chattel slavery. I can do all of these things as a base, as a foundation, and then from that think about what it means to understand systemic climate change, and what it means to understand imagination around the future, and then invite people from their different fields and skills to take over a workshop or a class and collaborate with me with their urgent concerns. We have scientists, we have environmentalist who specialize in anything from space to geology, we also have people coming in who specialize in environmental solutions, we have people coming in who are architects and artists, who are thinking about how we build new futures. Wynter Wells is a roving school that allows me the opportunity to work with different people, hold workshops, hold talks, produce films, produce conversations around this rubric of creativity. Dionne Brand, Mitch McEwen, Christina Sharpe, we invited them to give talks at the Graham Foundation and then we’ll turn those talks into books. What will happen is, we’re creating content from these very brilliant people that can then be shared. And then Dark Adaptive will come in oftentimes during Wynter Wells and think through performance during this workshop. I don’t do performance, I don’t make performance, so I invite people who are interested in how performance works. D. Soyini Madison, my mother, came in with Dark Adaptive, who is an extraordinary performance theorist, activist, artist in the world. It just allows me space to think the way I like to think and build knowledge that makes sense to me.

HUO: And for those of you who have dialed in later, I just want to reiterate that for more research about Torkwase’s work I recommend (opens in a new window) this conversation with Christina Sharpe on the Graham Foundation website, which basically addresses many of the topics we’ve evoked tonight. We have a lot of questions that came in and they have a lot to do, of course, with the current moment and the world we’re living through. One question is how can or should art and artists respond to these times? And as a follow up to that, can art be practical or what is its role in these times?

TD: You know, what’s interesting about that question is that the answer is always contextual. So, what art should be is determined by who you are, where you are, what your capacity is, what your skill is and what you can offer. You know, what art can do depends on how you think about art as a tool or as something else. I think these questions really ask: What do you want to contribute? What is your position? What is your condition? Do you feel like the art of a kind of still stillness and silence works? What is your goal? What is the kind of form that you are interested in and can be critical of? I think that there is always a register of answers to that question. What can art do? What should artists do? And my answer to that is it’s a subjective condition. What is a kind of agency for you and your community? What is a kind of agency in your own household? Maybe you just need to keep your own mind together or maybe your neighbor across the street who is 89 needs a box of water and a game set by the door. But understand that human beings have been fighting viruses for a long time, and there’s a lot of loss around this condition, so I would encourage people to figure out what their capacities are and what their capabilities are and try to exhaust that condition.

HUO: Thank you, another question, which just came in, is what comforts you and sustains you in times like this?

TD: family, my friends, food, conversation, my memories, drawing. I am very much into, right now, environmental documentaries that have to do with the ocean, and things that work in a condition of sensoria that remind me that there are large whales and there are sea mammals, and there are howler monkeys, and there are sloths, and there’s a big planet out there waiting for me to get back in it and to engage in it. Understanding that and watching things and hearing things that feed that are very important to me. What is difficult, I’ll say, is living in New York and not being able to see paintings in person. Like, that’s shockingly [expletive] me up. I can’t go down the street and see a painting or a sculpture in a space. Like the haptic. I can’t see so readily in quarantine the history of humans and the haptic. So, what’s curing that or making me easy around that is drawing and using materials in my house to keep the haptic in the front of my mind.

HUO: Thank you and I was reading today Stefan Zweig saying that books can be company in times like these, so I was wondering, what are you reading at the moment?

TD: Oh, what am I reading? Well, you know, I’m one of those people that has to read things over and over and over again. So, I’m just reading things over again. But new, what I read most recently, I got (opens in a new window) The Art of Kamau Brathwaite and I read this maybe two days ago, his conversation with Nathaniel Mackey. This is a really amazing book, because I wanted to hear his words and hear the interviews, so that’s new that I’m reading. Oh, I just got this in the mail, (opens in a new window) Saidiya Hartman [Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments]. I haven’t cracked that open yet. But other than that, same old things, (opens in a new window) Bodies in Dissent, (opens in a new window) Glissant, (opens in a new window) Tidalectics, you know, (opens in a new window) Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries, I started reading that, I posted some of those today. So whatever, I don’t have a fidelity to one or the other, I kind of move around. If something hits me, I’ll move to something else, and then I’ll just kind of dance around from book to book as they inform each other.

HUO: And we both of course have in common that we re-read Édouard Glissant all the time. I have a ritual to read Édouard Glissant every day.

TD: Yeah that’s good, you know, because we were talking about the abyss. Sometimes when I’m reading Glissant, well recently when I’ve been reading Glissant, I start making animations, because I was telling you about the haptic thing, so I was like ‘okay well how can I self-assign in quarantine?” So, I self-assigned making animations with my phone and so I’m doing these animations about abyss.

HUO: Can you tell us about those because they are very DIY, a kind of do it yourself animations.

TD: Sure, so I’m a student of Sam Messer. Sam has been making these incredible, for I think two years now, these incredible stop motion animations where the drawings are amazing, the texts are amazing, he’s just an amazing artist. So, thinking about Sam, I was like, ‘I could download a stop motion animation.’ I just take my other cell phone, I download a stop animation, and then I get a tripod, which has a little clicker, and then I make a mark, I make another mark, and then I take these stills of each mark with my phone. And then I dump those in the animation app and then I just run it through really, and then I just use what’s in my house, so these animations they’re black salt animations because I was just in a bunch of salt water, diving in salt water. I wanted to make some saltwater drawings, so I’m making these saltwater drawings into animations on my little desk.

HUO: And these animations are very do it yourself and we wanted to talk a little bit about your instruction pieces. Also around ‘93 I started (opens in a new window) a project with Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier where we achieved Do It and it’s basically happened since then, there has always been a version of Do It, many of them happen with the ICI, and it’s basically this idea that these instructions by artists can be interpreted in many different ways, and it’s interesting also I think in terms of the current moment because many of these things have actually to do with taking us away from the screen and doing things and it means not only doing things at home, it means also doing things for someone else, thinking what we can do in this situation right now for someone else. So I’m very interested in reactivating right now Do It and I wanted to ask you to tell us a little bit about your instruction work, because you have your incredible 99 second drawing project and other instruction pieces, it would be great to see that and hear about it more.

TD: Well, it just started with me watching Nova on PBS. I was just watching Nova and some environmental documentary, and I just wrote to some friends: make a 99 second drawing. And the first instruction was kind of vague—thanks Derek Fordjour—it was like kind of vague and people were like ‘what?’ So, I made it clearer and then I developed it. The drawing is called 99 cents, so it’s to make a 99 second drawing where you set up a condition where you document yourself making a drawing. And it can be a drawing in the expanded field, I think Theaster sent me a drawing just of the sound he was making. My friend Pamela Sunstrum sent me a drawing of a mask that she was making. People have just been sending me through their cell phones these 99 second drawings. And it can be about sound, it can be about material, it can be about distance, it can be representational, it can be experimental, but it’s just 99 seconds. And it was just a way to stay connected to people and thinking about what I would get as I get them in, the kind of different expressions and different instincts. And some were much about improvisation, and some were much about inclusion, and some were much about concern and preparedness. Because my friends know that really my work is about preparedness practices. I’ll send you the full text and I’ll send you some of the work that I got in.

HUO: I’d love to see it. Now we are getting a question that is very recurrent, it arrived three times already. Everybody wants to know about your background in architecture. Do you have a background in architecture?

TD: I do not. I do not have a background in architecture at all. Everything that I know and understand about architecture was an accident really because, my friends hate when I say this, but I was making some really uninteresting—I thought they were uninteresting paintings—and I was like ‘I’m going to give up painting, I don’t know if it’s useful,’ so I started going into solar energy. And to have solar energy in an off-grid system, and this was what, ten years ago, then, they weren’t really making available, flexible solar. I needed a thing to put the solar array on and something to put the battery bank in. Just thinking about public use of utility and power, I ended up making something architectural because of a necessity. I thought clean energy, free for the public, and I needed a thing called architecture to make it accessible to people. Then fast forward, I ended up at (opens in a new window) Eyebeam. Hi Roddy! Everybody apply to Eyebeam, it’s the best support condition ever. I got a fellowship at Eyebeam and they were basically like ‘hey, make this solar powered roaming thing,’ and then I just made a studio, a sort of roving tiny studio that was solar powered. And because I was at Eyebeam I could figure out the solar technology, but I hadn’t yet figured out the architecture. That was the thing that was kind of holding me up. That’s when I really got into architectural history and thinking about architectural drawing, and architectural experimentation and it just kind of blew my mind. All these things started coming to question. And I started befriending architects, my partner Andre studied architecture, and I started reading and looking at so many architectural projects, so everything now is a kind of self-taught situation. I have architectural drawing books, history books, you know, just diving into the importance of architecture and how it works and how it functions. It’s been a real eye opener and now it’s very much a part of my practice. It’s been sort of directly a part of my practice for now about five years, so I was like, oh okay this architecture thing, memories of Elmina and castles that were built to enslave something meant something completely different. The box of H. Box Brown meant something completely different. So if I understand those, not through the lens of just me experiencing them, but architecture as an intention, a field of power, a field of construction, a field of destruction, a field of possibility, then working those things into my paintings, then you know, revisiting Tony Smith or (opens in a new window) Beverly Buchanan it’s like my brain just kind of exploded, you know (opens in a new window) Richard Hunt. I’m just self-teaching, I’m really just teaching myself architecture, hopefully I can make architecture myself one day.

HUO: And that leads me to the next question, your future architecture, I’m very interested in your unrealized projects. Because we know a lot about architects unrealized projects because they publish them very regularly, but we know almost nothing about visual artists’ unrealized projects, we know almost nothing about poets’ unrealized projects, about novelists’ unrealized projects, about scientists’ unrealized projects. And of course there’s a whole range of the unbuilt, of unrealized projects, there a projects which are too big to be realized, again (opens in a new window) Cildo Meireles, he said there are projects which are too small to be realized, he also wanted to put a small cube in a huge museum which otherwise would be empty and it took him a long time to do this project, it was too small to be realized. Then there are projects which are utopic so they are unrealizable, there are projects which are partially realizable, and then there are projects which I call the locker projects which are somehow forgotten and can be reactivated. And then of course there is also censorship, there are the projects which have been censored. I often spoke about this with (opens in a new window) Doris Lessing and the late Lessing said there is yet another category which is self-censorship, there are projects which haven’t been realized because we haven’t dared to do them. Within this range, this very wide range of unrealized projects, I wanted to ask you to tell us maybe about one or two of your unrealized projects, dreams, utopias.

TD: That’s funny. I have an unrealized project, I’m not sure what category it would fall under, is that okay?

HUO: Yeah, totally, yeah. It can be fluid.

TD: Okay great, fluid is good. Agility and skill, that’s my sort of... So, I want to as a public sculpture, build a piece that I’m titling Pilot, and Pilot is a character from (opens in a new window) Toni Morrison—I don’t want to use the word character, it is an entity, a being, from one of Toni Morrison’s novels. And Pilot, her character, has a small earring that is basically a box, and in that box is her name, Pilot, that her father has written on a piece of paper. Her father dies, but before he dies he writes the baby’s name on this piece of paper. And then Pilot, the entity/character, wears this paper in her ear inside of a box. So, my unrealized project is to make a public sculpture of that box. You know, (opens in a new window) Song of Solomon. And I’m really interested in Pilot as a person, as a being, as an entity, and the box, and sometimes since we’re doing fluid, as I study and read Pilot as a literary turning point, connected with Toni Morrison, I also imagine myself in that box with that piece of paper. So, conditions of scale and my imagination sort of conflate. What would it be for me to be the air in that box with the paper alongside a Pilot swinging and moving? And it’s a silver box so one moment, you know, in the story, it glistens, and right before she transitions. That’s very much unrealized, I don’t know if it’s impossible, but it hasn’t been said yes to yet.

HUO: It’s wonderful, thank you so much for telling us about this. Absolutely wonderful! We just got in another question which is about your quote, your famous quote about comprehending the incomprehensible. The question which came in is if you could explain what you mean by comprehending the incomprehensible.

TD: Wait, I’m not sure that’s my quote. Is that my quote?

HUO: Yes, you said it in (opens in a new window) an interview with Monique [Long], “To comprehend the incomprehensible. And, let me say, systemic order and industrialized white supremacy is a kind of incomprehensible condition if you only focus on the narrative of the black body. We’ll never really understand what a virus that is.”

TD: Okay right, I needed a little context for that. Because sometimes I think making something comprehensible can be a violent act, so I want to distinguish that forcing a kind of comprehension on someone else’s body for this space of representation can be a violent act, that’s not what I’m talking about. This idea of the incomprehensible is a way to think about infrastructure, specifically maybe invisible infrastructure that by design is incomprehensible in relationship to industrialized white supremacy, and the extents of hypercapitalism. So, there are these systems of sprawling that are almost networked and just thinking about understanding the history and the ownership of extraction industries themselves, it’s built to be incomprehensible. So, the way or how you work that out through art objects or questions is to build systems yourself, that then kind of rub up against the incomprehensible that is harming you or the incomprehensible that you need to understand and then test your system up against that one. And you know that’s the way theoretical physics work, you take all of these known conditions and you put them up against something that’s greatly unknown that they’re trying to figure out so you close the distance between what is incomprehensible and what is comprehensible. And that’s a political act. If we’re trying to figure out systems between the poetic and the measurable that stops harm, you first of all have to make that distinction because the idea that somebody is going to demand that they understand me or understand what I’m doing or understand my history and the cultural conditions of my people, that you demand that you understand that is ridiculous. But on the other side, there’s a kind of comprehension that is designed to keep you from resisting the very oppressive condition that makes everything intolerable. I just want to be really clear that sometimes comprehension is not the goal. And sometimes it very much is the goal in the condition of industrialized white supremacy and hypercapitalism, I want to be the one in charge of comprehensibility of my own subjective condition, and especially the condition of black people. So, it’s a difference.

HUO: Thank you so much, I have one very last question. And I hope that this is chapter one and that we can continue soon. Actually, the last question for today is the Rainer Maria Rilke question, and Rilke wrote this wonderful little book which is (opens in a new window) Letters to a Young Poet. I realize that many young artists are actually watching you tonight and listening to you tonight, so I wanted to ask you what would be today your advice to a young artist?

TD: My advice to a young artist, this is going to seem really simple but is very true, today it’s to get as much sleep as possible, to clean your brain, to make sure that all these systems don’t cause you the kind of stress that shorten your life. I would say take every step that you can to fortify your immune system so that all the conditions of your being are straight. And then, just really take your own thoughts seriously. Really take your own thoughts, your own subjectivities, your own skills, and your own virtuosity really seriously. I would say also look at as much art as you can, and think about theory that speaks to your work and others’ work as much as you can, and really work hard and do something over and over and over and over and over again and over again.

HUO: Torkwase, that’s actually wonderful advice for all of us who have been listening to you tonight. Thank you all for joining us and thank you so much Torkwase. Thanks a lot, see you soon!

TD: Bye!

  • Pace Live — Torkwase Dyson Talks to Hans Ulrich Obrist, Apr 12, 2020