Art and Protest in the Pandemic Public Sphere:
Actors Theatre & The Louisville Knot by Maiza Hixson
The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 prompted theaters and cultural institutions all over the world to switch from the physical stage to socially distanced programming online as protests against police brutality catalyzed arts institutions’ anti-racist responses.Focusing on Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 45thVirtual Humana Festival as a case study of a U.S. regional theater’s institutional performance throughout 2020-2021, I analyze Actors’ online programming as a pandemic public sphere and crisis-inspired arts infrastructure. I link Actors’ pandemic performance of 2020-21 to the City of Louisville’s pre-pandemic public art performance of theLouisville Knot in 2019 in order to demonstrate how the Theatre and the City of Louisville each approach histories of racialized violence and economic segregation in Louisville through theater and the visual arts, respectively. I argue that Actors’ online pandemic public sphere discourse incorporates a plurality of acts and voices that form a diverse and inclusive institutional performance that starkly contrasts with the City’s neoliberal public art project and political theater, The Louisville Knot. Engaging multiple publics online, Actors performed political resistance against the entrenched white patriarchal power structures of Louisville in an ongoing period of crisis following the outbreak of Covid-19 and the police killing of Breonna Taylor in her Russell neighborhood, where, prior to the pandemic, the City of Louisville installed The Knot. I look back at the City’s staging of The Knot to demonstrate how the City instrumentalized public art pre-pandemic in service of colonial gestures and damaging acts of cultural placemaking, the same devastating patterns that Actors Theater critiques through its pandemic public sphere programming.
Given the health crisis and political backdrop of 2020 in Louisville, Actors Theatre had an urgent need to become ever more relevant to its local constituencies. Located on Main Street in downtown Louisville where protests against the police killing of Taylor took place, Actors initially adjusted to the pandemics of Covid-19 and police brutality by changing the terms of value of one of many “life-making activities”—including that of attending the theater in person.Actors cancelled the 2020 Humana Festival at the start of the pandemic in March and laid off nine full-time employees, yet a March 11 article announced Actors’ 2021 season, which included playwright Idris Goodwin’s Ali Summit for the Humana Festival. Subsequently, an article from April 24 in Biz Journals reported, “…the coronavirus outbreak hit with full force right at the time the international spotlight was shining on Louisville…The 2020 Humana Festival of New American Plays kicked-off March 1, and was set to run through mid-April, but this year's installment had to be canceled as gathering in groups evaporated and social distancing became the norm.”Actors’ Theatre Director Robert Berry Fleming stated: For this community and the national and international theatre industry, closing the Humana Festival is not dissimilar to canceling the [Kentucky] Derby or NCAA basketball tournament — a central event in the national and international artistic landscape," Fleming, Actors Theatre's artistic executive director, said by email. "To my knowledge, there was no other theatre in the country whose recent decision to close their doors resulted in the shutdown of five world premiere plays.
The civil unrest and pandemic in 2020 provoked extreme anxiety about how to gauge the contemporary moment. Looking “back” and to the future, in-person theater might appear as “the good life,”to some; and having lived without it now since the onset of Covid-19, Actors Theatre and its audiences have managed their affective attachment to what was lost. Indeed, upon its turn to digital theater, Louisville’s physical theater has literally “gone dark” in British theater scholar Alan Read’s terms.Absent the architectural space of the theater and stage, Actors Theatre adjusted its attachment to the building’s object-ness and the conjoined ritual of hosting in-person productions pre-Covid. Fantasies of theater’s “in-personness” endured as performers waited out a deadly pandemic, dispossessed of income and the stage while subsisting on cyber-space productions. However, perhaps while the fantasy return to in-person theater persisted and persists, the pandemic public sphere discourse that evolved online posits an even more legible attempt at civic and democratic participation. In a larger U.S. context, writing only nine days after New York theaters shut down, author Alexandra Schwartz asserted, “The suddenness with which the city’s performance ecosystem has vanished defies comprehension—it’s as if the Great Barrier Reef had died overnight. Grasping for comparison, we have to look well beyond the proximate disasters of Hurricane Sandy and 9/11, when, ultimately, the shows went resolutely on.”She added, “What’s immediately apparent, in a suddenly theatre-less world, is how difficult theatre is to replace.”
The cruel optimism of believing “the show must go on” resulted in dashed expectations and created the impetus for a radical shift in Actors’ programming. In June 9, an article in the Louisville Courier Journal reported: Actors Theatre Direct, the company's new multi-channel approach to virtual storytelling, is exploring how "theatre can be shared and of service to those continuing to process the tragic murder of Breonna Taylor and a weekend of protests and violence, during the ongoing disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic," Executive Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming said in a news release announcing the new season…The professional theatre company is meeting a time of "national unrest with a season of stories that meditate on historical legacy, the transformative nature of courage, conviction and hope," Fleming added, including productions of "Where Did We Sit on the Bus?" by Brian Quijada and "Ali Summit" by Idris Goodwin.
Fleming said that Actors Theatre Direct emerged when social distance mandates against public assembly forced the theater to quickly pivot to “forge pathways toward fulfilling our mission in the virtual space. Actors Theatre Direct emerged as our portfolio of digital, multichannel creative content.” He asserted that Actors was “able to accomplish something no other theater has been able to with their streaming options: create a custom hosting/streaming solution that fulfilled the distribution parameters outlined by our union concessions.” As a result, he continued, “We've seen strong ticket sales…from "new to file" audiences, folks who are experiencing Actors Theatre and the Humana Festival for the first time, thanks to the low barrier of digital access.”
The Actors Theatre website advertised its 2020 Humana Festival by posting a question by playwright Goodwin: “What does it mean to develop a new play in a socially distanced community?” Slated to premiere in May, Goodwin’s Ali Summit,did not provide specific dates, times, or links to purchase tickets online; and news articles published on Actors’ website throughout the year year revealed the company’s active response to locally unfolding crises through improvisatory virtual programming. Goodwin’s question of developing a play in real time chaos evoked the late queer theorist Lauren Berlant’s notion of “crisis ordinariness” as a theoretical lens to parse Actors Theatre’s adjustment to the impasse of “catastrophic events” unfolding incoherently in 2020. In accordance with Berlant’s idiom of adjustment, Actors’ survived in the midst of attrition from an in-person theater fantasy by quickly pivoting away from nostalgia for “pre-Covid” normalcy” in order to assert relevance for the communities it served. Read asserts that “theatre’s relevance and innovation are contingent upon variable political perspectives” located specifically within the polis.Using Berlant’s cruel optimism and Read’s idea of theater-in-crisis to analyze Actors Theater’s institutional response to the pandemic and protests, I consider the move to place the virtual Humana Festival and Goodwin’s Ali Summitonline as a demonstration of Actors Theatre’s productivelyincoherent, performative survival during mounting contingency. Through its Zoom programming and multiple platforms for local and national political discourse, it actively fought to remain relevant to audiences amidst the crises unfolding globally. Actors Theatre’s pandemic performance served as an arts infrastructure, an online public sphere, and one possible theoretical model for performance studies scholars to consider the radicality of theater’s broader adjustment to crises in an ongoing period of normative dissolution.
Who were the audiences being interpellated and discursively engaged by Actors Theatre during the Covid crisis and ongoing protests against structural racism and police brutality in Louisville? To answer this question, I turn to the definition of theater, which suggests a theory within a practice. Theater, derived from the Greek word theorein, is formed from two words, theaand horao, in which thea translates to “outward look” or the way in which something shows itself.In Theater and Everyday Life, Alan Read’s emphasis on the everyday is central to my argument that Actors Theatre created a pandemic-inspired theatrical public sphere in durational crisis. Read’s non-binary linking of the theater and the everyday allows us to view Actors Theatre in crisis because the everyday life of Louisville was and is also in crisis. Read writes that conventional thought surrounding theater in crisis suggests a binary between the inside of the theater and the outside, where everyday life occurs. However, this kind of thinking, Read argues, fails to see theater in an expanded field, beyond its edifice or building, an idea that Bertie Ferdman, Christopher Balme, Janelle Reinelt, and other theater and performance studies scholars have asserted. Thinking that theater is separate from the everyday or “profane,” conditions hackneyed definitions of “political theater” and “community arts.”For Read, the presumption that theater and everyday life are somehow separate is the more profound crisis that creates a crisis of relevance for the theater.
Balme’s theatrical public sphere combines a sense of rational-critical discourse, agonism, and play to describe how artists and institutions may utilize it as a space of civic-minded, political engagement vis-à-vis creative artistic production. I apply Balme’s idea of the theatrical public sphere to the pandemic moment that urgently demanded a greater shift of the discourse to Zoom, Facebook Live, and other platforms where artists and institutions gathered not only to resume institutional programming but to grapple with crises as they unfolded. The fact that Actors successfully engaged publics and counterpublics during the double pandemic of white police violence and a deadly coronavirus was political and in service of agnostic pluralism. Actors’ Artistic Director, Robert Berry Fleming made a concerted effort to make Actors’ programming available online platform as a relevant one in terms of public sphere discourse. From hosting dialogues about how to build economically sustainable Black and Brown communities to creating poetic programming in which queer poet-activist Hannah Drake spoke out against police killings after the murder of Breonna Taylor, Berry did not shy away from the theater’s ability to host democratically engaged political discourse among multiple constituencies. However, it was not solely Berry’s charismatic direction and artistic programming, but the countless Louisvillians—including musicians, actors, and virtual reality software programmers—who made Actors’ pandemic public sphere discourse highly relevant and engaging.
Extending Balme’s theatrical public sphere discourseto consider the pandemic as a pivotal catalyst for the theater’s pivot to virtual programming, it is clear that in 2020 Actors Theatre moved beyond its building to initiate a responsive institutional performance that enabled Actors’ practiced application and outward demonstration of its theory within a practice. In this sense, the Theatre became part and constitutive of the political polis of “everyday life” in Louisville. However, in contrast to the historical everyday life theory advanced by Henri Lefebvreand Michel de Certeau,from whom Read draws his definition of the everyday, Berlant’s term “ordinariness” is useful in describing the daily durational impasse of and within a contemporary crisis. Throughout 2020, Actors swiftly put into practice its adjustment to the daily crisis ordinariness of the pandemic and protests by hosting unscripted community conversations and performances on Zoom, engaging local artists and thought leaders in addressing serious issues plaguing the city.
For Actors’ Humana Festival, Goodwin’sAli Summit performed a relevant programmatic response to the contemporary crisis by expanding theater to Louisville audiences inspired by break beat aesthetics in a mediatized theatrical space. Goodwin’s embrace of the audience as part of a city dialogue surrounding social justice and civil unrest is evident through his contextualization of the Ali Summit. He writes, “I am opening my process up, using this site to share inspiration and work as it comes. In doing so I will be inviting others into the process as well. Perhaps we can answer some of those questions together.”
In a socially distanced city, rather than rehearsing a staged production behind closed doors, Goodwin had to present his creative process online with an audience in crisis, a fact that demonstrates Actors’ Theatre’s need for an urgent mobilization of off-stage activity in lieu of dogmatic adherence to in-person performances of literary and dramatic scripts. The institutional decision to specifically attend to Ali’s legacy of conscientious objection to U.S. imperialism and racism while the city of Louisville reeled from a deadly demonstration of institutionalized oppression and simultaneous health crisis signifies what Read describes as theater’s ethical position. Writing in 1993, Read asserts, “the only thing that can distinguish theater now is an ethical stance. An ethics of performance is an essential feature of any philosophy and practice of theater. Without it, a set of cultural practices which derive from a very specific arrangement of power relations between people, are unhinged from responsibility to those people.”Read’s emphasis on theater’s connection to the city and everyday life offers a critical lens to assess Actors immediate need to speak to the daily protests that took place in the city of Louisville in 2020.
Linking Actors to Read’s provocation to evacuate the building, I return to Berlant’s concepts of adjustment to and managing incoherence in the pandemic crisis. Applying Read’s call for theaters to remain relevant to the times, I characterize Actors Theatre’s institutional performance of 2020-21 as a necessarily socially distanced one of transparent adjustment in relation to real-time exigencies. Although in-person theater expectations dissolved and gave way to ordinary realities of deadly viral transmission, Actors Theatre’s programming grappled with the present beyond simply accomplishing an adjustment.The Theatre conforms to Berlant’s description of how people of diverse groups of greater or lesser privilege adjust to the ordinary as an impasse shaped by crisis.
Yet for many locals, “social distance” from physical theater is not new. The infrastructures that allowed or negated access to productions at Actors Theatre in downtown Louisville, for example, were always already present and contingent on intersections of race, class, sex and gender. The assumption that Actors or U.S. theaters in general historically reflected all of its citizens on stage, or even provided equal access to seating, serves to re-affirm the specious meritocracy that Berlant’s cruel optimism points to. A National Endowment for the Arts-funded study published in The Gerontologistin 2018 assessed the positive impact of lifelong theater engagement on Actors Theater audiences. Citing the NEA, the authors acknowledged that “Mainstream theatre audiences are known to be selectively white, well-educated, and affluent (NEA, 2013),” and Actors Theatre’s audience conformed to that expectation. The study recognized that their “participants were wealthier, more educated, and less ethnically diverse than the general population.”The history of Actors Theatre’s and Louisville’s institutional artistic leadership has also been white and male. In a departure from this institutional history, on March 11, 2019, Actors Theatre announced the hiring of Fleming as the new Artistic Director, prompting local arts commentator Allie Fireel to write:
Fleming is an awesome and interesting choice in his own right, but arts leadership in Louisville is Edelweiss AF, so a black man in leadership is important, and only the second such leader in the Big 5; Louisville Ballet, the Kentucky Opera, Kentucky Shakespeare, the Louisville Orchestra, and Stage One…Fleming is an out (and presumably proud) gay man, and that is also a huge shift. Queer issues have been onstage at Actors for a long time, but the company has never had (out) queer leadership before. But in the community and on the scene he’s been everywhere, meeting everyone, and you can tell he’s got big plans. Between Fleming and Goodwin, Louisville is sending a clear message, it wants to do a lot more than pay lip service to the idea of diversity.
Even before the pandemic and protests began, the institution under Fleming’s leadership became increasingly attuned to queer audiences and racially and ethnically diverse and local publics as well. Fleming’s first season as the new Artistic Director began with Goodwin’s Hype Man: A Break Beat Play (2019) while Goodwin directed Louisville’s StageOne Family Theater.Although Goodwin resigned in January 2020 to direct the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center,he continued to work on the Ali Summitfrom a distance. Read’s notion of theater’s relevance as contingent on its audience provides one basis for my approach to Actors Theatre’s relevance to the everyday lives of its audience. Actors has an international reputation for the Humana Festival, but it is locally understood as being New York-centric, a fact that Fleming is actively trying to change.As Read writes, “If theatre is critical of everyday life, everyday life is critical of theatre.”
However, specific to the pandemic and protests, under Fleming, Actors has supplemented its programming with improvisatory virtual programming, such as Fix It Black Girlby Hannah Drake and Finding Black Boy Joy by Lance G. Newman II, which were timely responses to the unfolding crises in Louisville. One local author wrote, “While it is frustrating to not sit in a theatre, it will be interesting to see how companies adapt. The online opportunity to quickly develop presentations such as this in response to an unprecedented social protest movement is something ATL has leaned into heavily, with Fix It, Black Girl, and Finding Black Boy Joypart of series of forums on hot button issues on the minds of the community now.”
Selected by Fleming in response to the pandemic, Drake’s Fix It Black Girlwas a collage of spoken word monologues about de-centering white narratives. Drake stated, “Black people are taught about white people all the time. White people have to be intentional about learning about Black people,” said Drake. “Actors Theatre is providing (an opportunity) to learn about Black women. People need to be intentional about watching it, and intentional about absorbing the content, and after you absorb the content go read a book, go read an article.”
Writer Allie Fireel asserts, “Given the upheaval in recent weeks, it would be easy to think that Actors Theatre chose to produce Drake’s work to create synergy with the Black Lives Matter movement. However, the collaboration was actually inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic. Actors Theatre, like many creative organizations, is trying to figure out what their work looks like in Covid Town, and Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming felt that a presentation of Drake’s work -via zoom- would fit in with new limitations on creators and performers, while also addressing issues of racial injustice which were -at the time- simmering and seemingly ready to boil over.”
Further adjusting to crisis ordinariness, in late February of 2021, Actors hosted Convergence, an online event at which the company announced more concrete details about its “storytelling laboratory” and immersive theater technology behind the new season and Humana Festival: Actors Theatre of Louisville’s unique creative innovation partners in this laboratory include narrative technology company Wolf 359; the Louisville-based game development studio Two Scoop Games; nurse, dancer, and Artistic Director Tara Rynders of The Clinic; and Crux Cooperative, a Black-led home for artists working in XR. These remarkable collaborators, hailing from our home state and around the globe, share the aim of building new bridges across disciplines and communities. By bringing them together with many other formidable talents, Actors Theatre of Louisville is investigating how the intersection of art, civic discourse, liberatory practices of anti-oppression, and emergent technologies can aspire to bring about socioeconomic transformation, abundance and prosperity in comprehensive health and wellness outcomes, through an investment in holistic human-centered service and creative artmaking.
Fleming’s artistic leadership during this impasse demonstrates an acknowledgment of artistic voices, stories, and audiences historically obscured by Actors’ theater history and previous leadership. While access to the black box stage, or longing for the physical theater during a pandemic were quite possibly the last thing on protestors’ minds, the pandemic and anti-racism protests proved a fluid “situation” in Louisville that formed a radical breakand one that provoked Actors’ alternate futures. Read’s understanding of the participant-audience informs my contextualization of his theory of the theater’s need to be relevant to the everyday lives of the people within the polis. In order for Actors Theatre to have been relevant during 2020’s crisis ordinariness, it had to see its audience as beyond one of passive consumer, particularly during a pandemic that mandated socially distanced programming, and the local context in Louisville where citywide protests surrounding the police murder of Taylor forced a long overdue reckoning with the history of racialized violence and economic segregation in the city. Within this crisis of structural violence against Black and Brown people in the city of Louisville in particular, Actors Theatre specifically invited local, and queer audiences of color. Fleming urgently responded to both local and national audiences and more specifically those interested in subjects not conventionally associated with academic theater traditions through platforming spoken word poet Idris Goodwin’s Ali Summit. From boxing to break beat poetry, Actors attended to new and younger audiences through the presentation of hip-hop-related programming and unscripted virtual conversations. At a time of crisis ordinariness, the Theater involved local audiences in aesthetic and political conversations online that realized virtual pandemic public sphere discourse. Read’s notion of socially-oriented theater that demonstrates an ethic of community arts relevance is still unfolding in Louisville and were it not for Louisville and the world’s protests against institutionalized oppression, Actors Theatre would not have risen so urgently to the call for social justice.
In March 2020, following the outbreak of Covid-19 and protests, downtown Louisville’s neoliberal staging of the “good life” registered as a futile fantasy. Businesses boarded up their storefronts and have not opened back up since. A prominent statue of Louis XVI at the city’s Metro Hall became an iconic target of anti-racist outrage and was unceremoniously removed.Prior to 2020, however, Louisville business leaders advertised the city as the bourbon capital of the world and poured millions of dollars into new distilleries with adjacent hotels and restaurants. The same leaders did not foresee that the commercial whiskey properties lining Main Street would ultimately sit empty for months.
Such signs of economic downturn and civic turmoil contradicted the superficial branding of Louisville as a genteel tourist destination with its multitudinous posters of white male whiskey pioneers and Derby-themed plop art. From “Wanted” signs for the three officers responsible for Taylor’s death in her own Russell neighborhood home, to the defaced and disappeared Louis XVI statue across the street from Taylor’s makeshift memorial, known locally as “Injustice Square,” downtown Louisville culture reflected local protestors’ urgent calls to end structural racism and police brutality.Locally, the rise of Covid-19 and outrage over Louisville’s mismanaged investigation of Taylor’s case have created a sense of ongoing crisis ordinariness. In the wake of Taylor’s killing and nationwide protests over the police murder of George Floyd, however, the removal of the Louis XVI statue across the street from the Breonna Taylor memorial coincided with a national “reckoning” on racism and the ongoing history of racial and economic segregation. Perhaps in an effort to pre-empt this reckoning in Louisville, city government officials scripted The Louisville Knot as part of its urban vision Plan 2040, which claimed that The Knot would seek to ameliorate the historic division between the East and West end of Louisville.
Located at 9th and Main Street, a few blocks from the Taylor memorial, Actors Theatre, and Hotel 21c’s gilded statue of David, The Knot sculpture was installed between the well-funded downtown arts district branded as “Whiskey Row” on the east side, and the low-income Russell neighborhood on the west side. According to the Vision Russel Transformation Plan, “the Russell neighborhood has 9,590 residents which represents approximately 15% of the total West Louisville population. Residents are predominantly Black in a Metro area where Blacks account for less than a quarter of the population. More Russell households have children than in the City as a whole and the population tends to be younger. Russell’s poverty rate among households is 3.5 times higher than the general Louisville population resulting in 60% of households participating in supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) in 2015.”According to Plan 2040, The Knotarticulated the need to address the “separation” between the east and west sides of the city (known locally as the 9thStreet divide). The Plan claimed The Knot“exemplifies how innovative multi-modal infrastructure improvements can strengthen urban and social connections, transforming an underutilized area into a welcoming pedestrian thoroughfare.”The designers state that it will consist of a series of bent steel tubes “woven together to create a collection of microenvironments to invite interaction, exploration, and play.”
AfterThe Knot was built in 2019, it became a backdrop to the protests in 2020 at the same time as the pandemic situation created an impasse, the difficulty of which was complicated by nationwide civil unrest. Protestors risked their health to rally for social justice and political efficacy and the pandemic clarified the already limited access to healthcare that historically marginalized groups have had. A news article reported that the state of Kentucky “continues to lag in racial equity for vaccine access. While Black Kentuckians make up around 8% of the state’s population, they’ve received only around 5% of the shots administered.”As members of the economic precariat awaited vaccination and perhaps the next stimulus check, the imperative of social distance and wealth inequalityfunctioned as a double impasse that required people to adjust to a highly isolated and precarious state of survival. The protestors’ urgent demands and ongoing occupation of downtown Louisville placed pressure on the city’s political and cultural institutions to respond to the situation.
Upon its completion, a 2019 news article about the grand opening of The Knotstated, “The Louisville Knot has been in the works for three years. The $175,000 public art space was spearheaded by Interface Studio Architects based in Philadelphia, along with the community and city leaders.”Louisville’s public art curator Sarah Lindgren states, “…for years, the norm was people walking down Main Street after a trip to the museum or restaurant, and their journey ending once they would reach the overpass.”In a video of the Mayor, Greg Fischer’s formal ribbon-cutting presentation of The Knot, he thanks all of the people who helped make the project happen, including “partners from the Metro Council, Barbara Sexton Smith, “right in the Heart of District 4,” and the Rotary Club.He recognizes Philadelphia architects ISA while championing Core Design KY who fabricated the metal furniture. Calling out the name of a white male fabricator sitting on the sculpture behind him, Fischer exclaims, “Jeremy made this. This will be one of your signature pieces and I’m really happy that you’re the guy behind this in terms of the fabrication. So let’s give it up for Jeremy. Way to go, brother! Nice job!”Fischer frames the momentous occasion as coinciding with “what’s happening in the rest of our country” but does not actually name what he describes: “9th Street is a divide” but “art brings people together” and “Why not put a great piece of public art right on Main Street?”Fischer’s script continues and then turns to the financial crux of the Knot: Now a piece of art is not enough to create a bridge…Almost a billion of dollars have been invested in the West End of Louisville…a great Renaissance in arts and business…It’s a movement we’ve got going on and The Knot is the entryway to all that…We need to understand the history of the city and how we’re all in this together.
In his political performance, he also refers to the history of redlining as a source of decimation of urban renewal, African American wealth and nightclubs, stating: We can’t control that, but what we cancontrol is our city moving forward, both in actions and deed, and the way that we talk about it. So that’s part of what we’re trying to do with public art. It’s also what we’re doing with our “Lean Into Louisville Initiative” which brings art as a way into bringing people together…Pedestrians will help people…coming from downtown to continue west on Main street to businesses just beyond 9thStreet. “Great businesses like Peerless Distilling, Old 502 Winery, the beautiful, fabulous art collection at ENS gallery so it’s important that people move west and people move east and then it all comes together.
Following Fischer’s statements, Fourth District Councilmember Barbara Sexton Smith stepped up to the podium. The Fourth District includes the Russell, Butchertown Neighborhoods, Smoketown, and other historically low-income areas. Smith announces that she thinks The Knot is going to represent commerce: “Yes, I believe art drives commerce. Just look down the street to the East a couple blocks and you’ll see a 32-foot statue of David! He was very controversial when he landed but I will say, he stands and rests and greets people into what was once called the number one hotel in the world—full of Art. Art Does Drive Commerce. Yes it Does.”
Councilmember Smith was aware that Russell residents have very low household incomes and on average are much poorer than other city residents.Indeed, according to Vision Russell, the “unemployment rate is almost twice that of Louisville overall, resulting is a median household income of $14,209 compared to nearly three times that city-wide at $44,159.”The Vision Russell Transformation Plan thus appeals to affluent visitors and tourists with disposable income to purchase art and the free time to attend The Knot’sconcerts and events.
Although there was no indication of how the extensive list of amenities explicitly envisioned for The Knot (yoga, gardens, concerts) would be rolled out, supported, funded, or specifically programmed, Fischer and Smith certainly vocalized several key themes of the project’s narrative arc. The Russell Neighborhood’s streets were the City’s to be appropriated as a staging ground for performances around objects that the city designated as “art”. Commercial firms worked for city government agencies to help them imagine and script language around the space and objects, which they labeled “art” for the promotion of commercial development of real estate; official civic actors then enacted speeches and proclamations in a highly visible and mediated event designed to communicate the official marking of public history through objects deemed “art”; citizens read, watch, and listened to endorsed deployments of such structures asart, and audience members experienced the city’s theatrical spectacle of public space-taking. Although the ribbon-cutting ceremony starkly diverges from what, if any activity, is evident at the site today,The Knot’s long, hard metal pipes are still painted a cautionary bright yellow and orange. The structure only partially spans one side of Main Street where it is wedged underneath a deafeningly loud, concrete overpass. Concrete beams, ceiling and sidewalks surround the object as inexorable highway traffic flies by.
Following its realization and despite official statements to the contrary, I assert that The Knot has become an ironic metaphor and scenic prop for the city’s narrative production surrounding its avoidance of sufficiently addressing the entangled racial and economic disparity in Louisville. The design and implementation of The Knot exists as a dramatically unfolding politically theatrical production that fails to resolve the historic tension and income disparity between low income and wealthy communities on Louisville’s racialized, late-capitalist stage. As in many U.S. cities, visual culture and public art monuments such as The Knot operate at the epicenters of civic life and thus connect a network of citizen-actors to the street as staging-ground for competing aims, including tourist consumption and the urgent need for food and shelter. In Louisville and other cities, government agencies and tourist bureaus instrumentalize creative cultural production to prime urban centers for increased commercial activity. In this intensified branding process, multiple stakeholders, from politicians to developers, consolidate their efforts to dominate and re-colonize public space. An ephemeral and collective monument and counterpoint to The Knot, Louisville’s unscripted Breonna Taylor Memorial performed against the city’s “authorized” history of place.
The resistant audience or body is glaringly absent from this visual repertoire, a fact that positioned the Taylor Memorial as a significant intervention in the civic archive and history Louisville chooses to plan and mythologize. The Taylor memorial arose out of tragedy, and a collective mourning process and desire to preserve her memory and legacy in the wake of police brutality. Across the street from Louis XVI, the Taylor memorial at Jefferson Square Park sat in the middle of metro government buildings facing the Hall of Justice, City Hall, the Police Department, and Courthouse. In contrast to the gilded statue of David, Louis XVI, or corporate street furniture, this center space became a site of public sphere discourse and unscripted memorial to Taylor, whose legacy as an emergency medical technician reflects a different legacy in Louisville— that of a working class woman of color. Officers hovered around the Park’s perimeter where new memorials began to appear, including one in a tree where tiny name tags listing numerous victims of police brutality were tied to its branches. Paintings and sculptures of Taylor also dangled on the tree’s limbs, creating a visual monument to her life. In contrast to the hard bodies of Louis XVI, and The Louisville Knot, the tree memorializes other African American women who have been killed by police and white supremacists in what certain critical anti-racists have called a modern-day lynching.Some of the name tags fell to the ground like ephemeral tombstones, and bear facts about so many other Black women who have died and whose murderers have never been brought to justice. Each tag was inscribed with the words “Say Her Name.”
Absent from Plan 2040 and The Louisville Knot design is any mention of addressing the overlooked contributions of historically marginalized artists of color in U.S. cities. As the Louisville public art curator, Mayor, and city councilmember scripted Russell’s art history through comprehensive arts planning and placemaking, they re-performed cultural erasure. Their public appearances, archives, and objects record the mandates that will be passed down through generations. While The Knot was designed to bridge the gap between two seemingly disparate worlds colliding at 9thand Main, it effectively re-inscribed its own idealized performance of white supremacist placemaking for tourists and affluent residents, couched in “arts-as-public-amenity” language that advertises it as a site of “community” engagement. At the threshold of the Russell neighborhood and central business district, The Knotaffirmed the city’s structurally violent performance of gentrification as scripted in Plan 2040.
Louisville Arts Place-making initiatives such as The Knotcan be examined alongside Place-Based investigations in the Russell neighborhood where “Breonna Taylor's shooting was the result of a Louisville police department operation to clear out a block in western Louisville that was part of a major gentrification makeover, according to attorneys representing the slain 26-year old's family.”Although a spokesperson for the Mayor denounced the allegation in the Louisville Courier Journal article, Fischer’s established political performance of placemaking lends credibility to the attorneys’ arguments that “a police squad — named Place-Based Investigations — had "deliberately misled" narcotics detectives to target a home on Elliott Avenue, leading them to believe they were after some of the city's largest violent crime and drug rings. The complaint…claims Taylor was caught up in a case that was less about a drug house on Elliott Avenue and more about speeding up the city's multi-million-dollar Vision Russell development plan."The sad irony of Vision Russell is that it failed to see Breonna Taylor and the obvious question remains: Why did it take the killing of Breonna Taylor for the City of Louisville to allow a public monument to a young Black woman in downtown Louisville?
In the aftermath of the Taylor tragedy, Actors Theatre’s socially distanced theatre in virtual space became the site of public sphere discourse surrounding the details behind the Taylor killing and subsequent protests in Louisville. The virtual pandemic public sphere served as a necessary substitute, and “technology of patience”during 2020. The Humana Festival’s Ali Summitwould also continue as planned, but as a socially distanced Humana Festival-in-crisis-ordinariness online. Presenting the Ali Project on the Theatre’s website, Actors also linked it to Goodwin’s own website. The self-identified “scriptwriter and breakbeat poet” Goodwin’s Ali Projectweb page included several videos, spoken word poems, audio recordings, iconic photographs and text. “Welcome to the Ali Summit: A New Play in Progress” read the title heading. Introductory text situated the time period of Muhammad Ali’s 1967 conscientious objection to serving in the Vietnam War as the historic moment from which Goodwin’s narrative takes its inspiration: “In this new play with deep local roots, acclaimed playwright and poet Idris Goodwin explores a defining moment in the story of a Louisville icon, collaborating with Actors Theatre to catalyze a dynamic community-building initiative.”A portrait of Goodwin introduces the playwright to readers with the accompanying text that announces “A New Process For Changing Times” due to the Covid-19 impact of the performing arts, which prompts theater-makers to “think about process and presentation in new ways.”Goodwin professes that he had previously approached new play development with the live stage in mind, with a 90-120 minute “run time” and eventual premiere on a physical stage. His website was both archival and performative in its real-time documentation of theater during crisis ordinariness, a process-based theater practice that reflected the struggle to create relevant dramatic content during major civil unrest and a pandemic that forced socially distanced theater.
Goodwin provided a video excerpt entitled 1967 under the Ali Summitheading of Monologue #1, and offers a thematic question of “What Does it Mean to Fight?” The video is a rhetorical framing device for the playwright who recites1967as a break beat poem over iconic footage of civil rights movement protests and countercultural moments foregrounding those in Louisville over the last year. Goodwin recites:
1967 / a number / before the summer / 1967 / a number before the summer / sounds of revolution / Jimi Hendrix hands and heat / melting strings / a cascade of insanity / oh my country tis of thee / red / white / napalm red / frying wet jungles / 1967 / a number / before the summer / of sex, drugs and Marx / sound of the sparks / 1967 / bodies move across concrete / pursued by blue red lights / baton-clutching white / officers / counting 8-9-10-11 / all poor folks go to heaven / 500,000 American troops stationed on the ground in Vietnam / 11,000 would be killed in the course of a year / 1-1-0-0-0-1 / young / fast /quick-tongued / footed / swift / hard-hitting Louisville son / was a hero to most until / 1-9-6-4 / Cassius Clay no more.
The 1967 video illustrated in images what the spoken word text describes: street protests, Hendrix playing guitar, napalm bombs exploding in Vietnam, burning buildings in the city, white police officers arresting Black citizens, U.S. troops enlisting to fight in the war, and lastly, famous images of Muhammad Ali in the ring. “1967,” Goodwin writes, was “the year of the summit…a year of major protests across cities. Sound familiar?[emphasis mine]. I wanted to write a piece to establish the time period, and bring the audience into the right frame of mind before delving into the story.”The video’s juxtaposition of archival period photographs and contemporary break beat poetry presented a powerful vignette “setting the stage” for Ali’s momentous decision to change his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay to Muhammad Ali—the thematic subject heading that Goodwin next presents on his website: What’s In a Name? Goodwin elaborates in a text box: “Ali certainly “shook up the world” as a fighter with a unique style inside and outside the ring. He was what we now call a disrupter. When he rejected his “government name” Cassius Clay Jr and renamed himself Muhammad Ali, after joining the Black empowerment focused Nation of Islam, the world gasped. In many ways this change of name and consciousness struck a harder blow than an uppercut.”
Goodwin also aligned himself with Ali’s struggle inSay My Name, a video on his Ali Summitwebsite in which the camera follows the playwright walking into a city café to order a cup of coffee. Goodwin attempts to tell the barista his name and when Goodwin retrieves his order, the camera films the coffee cup on which the barista has misspelled Idris as “Edreese,” an error that prompts Goodwin to narrate how his mother selected Idris from a book of African names. As Goodwin continues this story, he exits the coffee shop and walks down the street. His narration is a rehearsed break beat spoken word poem, delivered with such ease that it seems somewhat improvisatory. The scene unfolding behind Goodwin shows parked cars and a row of industrial buildings turned into stylish boutiques as he recites the poem:
I always thought the name came out of a book. My mother still has it. It’s crude and it’s orange and it says African Names. Now inside African Names, it says something like “Idris means immortal” but I don’t think that’s right. My mother’s name’s Patricia. My father’s name is Donald. Their parents are named Thelma, James, Ruth, and also James. They wanted us to have names with throat and vowels. In Detroit the name was a minority. The Black church asked, “Why you give that boy that Muslim name? Why you give that boy that African name? There are names in the Good Book—strong Apostle names...
Filmed in 2019, Goodwin’s Say My Name predated the city’s ongoing crisis ordinariness and Actors’ Theatre’s programming adjustments to the situational impasse of the pandemic and protests. In the video, Louisville’s “NuLu” neighborhood appears behind Goodwin as he walks. A few blocks down from Actors’ Theatre on Main Street, NuLu was recently re-branded as such, according to the NuLu Business Association plan.Goodwin filmed Say My Namewithin this area, which became the unexpected site of protests against neighborhood arts gentrification in July 2020 coinciding with Black Lives Matter protests against Louisville Metro Police. A Louisville Courier Journal article from July 30, 2020 announced that “Several protesters confronted a local restaurant operator outside his establishment Thursday after he publicly denounced a list of demands that activists have issued to dozens of businesses in NuLu, a small commercial district in downtown Louisville. The protesters say business owners in the area have benefited from years of gentrification following the demolition of a public housing complex that displaced many Black families. And they put forth the demands during a demonstration last week, calling on the owners to employ more Black people, purchase more inventory from Black retailers and undergo diversity training.”The NuLu protests were among dozens happening all over the city throughout the last year. Approximately one year following the killing of Taylor, the city remained in acute crisis ordinariness where Goodwin once performed his Say My Name poem.
Following Berlant, the extreme inequality in neoliberal Louisville has been everyday crisis ordinariness for those most affected by socio-economic deprivation and racialized violence. Actors Theater’s performance and Goodwin’s online Ali Summitsignified an extension of its stage to city publics and audiences beyond those with an expensive box seat. Goodwin’s stylistic approach to the Humana Festival must also be viewed in the break beat cultural tradition that influenced Hip Hop, a movement that began at society’s margins, arising out of a predominantly African American economically depressed South Bronx section of New York City in the late 1970s.Break beat usually refers to styles of music that use a section of a song in which the drums and/or rhythm section takes over from the melody, creating a rhythmic “break” in the music.Goodwin’s website content reflected a break beat aesthetic and pedagogical style; in particular, his 1967 and Say My Name performances carry the break beat aesthetic into the online Ali Summit platform. The Hip Hop aesthetic tradition now features prominently on Actors’ Theater’s virtual stage.
Looking back on Actors Theatre’s pandemic performance in 2021 and the City’s gentrification of the Russell neighborhood through The Louisville Knotin 2019 is useful to my analysis of Actors’ and the City’s respective engagements with public sphere discourse. Although the City envisioned The Knotas a physical amenity that would magically bridge two seemingly disparate worlds of East and West End Louisville in public space, it failed to meaningfully address deep structural inequalities in Louisville. In contrast, Actors’ Theatre’s virtual programming during the pandemic encouraged focused conversations with local Black leadership surrounding economic and racial injustice in the city on the Internet. Using the Ali Summitas a springboard for Zoom-based community conversations devoted to building Black wealth in Louisville, Actors provided an interactive digital environment for creative and cultural producers to share information and devise strategies of mutual empowerment in a demonstration of cyberspace as a global public sphere.Actors hosted a Community Conversation on Zoom on May 20, 2021, which featured Berry, Goodwin, Tawana Bain, Dr. Angelique Johnson, and Dave W. Christopher Sr. Berry posed questions to the speakers such as: “Ali’s legacy is legendary; What impact do you still hope to make?”:
Dave Christopher:I want to put Black and Brown in a position to do what I know they can do. If I wake up, I either win or I learn…the impact I want to make is on families and community…to make them independent…to give a man a fishing pole by not questioning his ability; to make them believe that you canfrom the top…
Tawana Bain: Because so many others are given that belief without a doubt, those outside and within our culture don’t believe we can; so many entrepreneurs and young people are never given that trust…Somebody once trusted me and who am I to look at someone and feel that you don’t deserve that trust?…[we must] put people around tables they don’t normally have proximity or access to: who you might date, what colleges kids are accepted to…I struggle with Black people dissing LGBT [for example]: You’re missing out on a lot of access because of close mindedness that determines what access you and those around you can have; your religious views can be your views; you being friends with LGBT won’t make you LGBT…
Robert Berry Fleming:As a Black queer middle-aged artist, I appreciate that; it’s always great to be reminded when we can come together to recognize we’re better together…
This virtual conversation among participants utilized Ali’s legacy to center Black and Brown wealth-building in Louisville also underscored the city’s history of “urban renewal” that displaced Black centers of wealth and business ownership. The conversation directly countered Mayor Greg Fischer’s public statement at the unveiling of the Louisville Knotto forget Louisville’s history of redlining and embrace its narrative of economic development. Such urban renewal across the country was justified as “progress” and much of the displacement was to create highways for “modern” cities remade for suburban commuters rather than city residents.In keeping with Fischer’s logic of erasure, it is also possible to consider how non-figurative art amenities such asThe Knot sculpture also disguise racial and economic disparity and become a stand-in for the privileged white paternal body and narrative of “progress” in Louisville. An ironically apt metaphor, The Louisville Knot, forms a physical intervention in public space that fails to re-brand spatial histories of racial and economic violence wielded by the city officials and economic developers. Although The Louisville Knot was an expensive failure, it provides the basis for a contemporary understanding of the structural inequality Actors Theatre is working against by providing relevant public sphere discourse online. The urgency of this discourse in the city happened as a result of the outbreak of protests over the killing of Breonna Taylor and the pandemic that forced socially distanced programming. Actors Theatre immediately and effectively mobilized its virtual public sphere at a historic time in the U.S. when suddenly the world was finally attending to Black and Brown people of Louisville, including its queer voices, rather than its bourbon-based branding.
In addition to Actors Theater of Louisville, other regional theaters such as the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Out of Hand in Atlanta, and the Berkeley Repertory, for example, serve as sites for rehearsals and productions of anti-racist programming. Such performances of institutional response happened in the wake of international year-long BLM protests, the U.S. capital insurrection, and Trump’s tragi-comic presidency, all of which forced public discourse surrounding the children of undocumented immigrants being detained in “cages” at the U.S./Mexico border and other racist and xenophobic systems of oppression structuring the U.S. The Guthrie Theater presented online programming, includingMissing Mississippi Moons, a play inspired by Minneapolis local actor/playwright Antonio Duke’s grandfather’s story of struggle in the Jim Crow era. In June 2020, in Atlanta, Out of Hand presented a virtual dinner and discussion series featuring “Child Sacrifices on the Altar of Uncle Sam,” a 10-minute monologue by playwright Avery Sharpe, about the “troubled” foster care system. Announced a new season for 2021 in May 2020, Berkeley Rep claimed it would mount the Pulitzer-prize winner Martyna Majok’s play Sanctuary Cityabout “young DREAMers who fight like hell to establish a place for themselves in America, the only country they know as home.” Certain programs such as Atlanta’s dinner/discussion series utilized theater as a social practice for public participation in which attendees of Sharpe’s play, for example, then break out into Zoom discussion groups to dialogue about systemic racism and police violence as an expression of that system. This facilitated virtual discussion was held less than 48 hours after protests over George Floyd continued and Rayshard Brooks was shot to death by a white police officer.
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011, p. 6.
Shea Van Hoy, “Actors Theatre Leader on the Weight of Canceling the Humana Festival of Plays,” Bizjournals.com, April 24, 2020.
Shea Van Hoy, “Actors Theatre Leader.”
Lauren Berlant’s phrase in Cruel Optimism.
Alan Read, The Dark Theatre: A Book About Loss, (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2020).
Alexandra Schwartz, “Performers on Lockdown Turn to Their Smartphones,” New Yorker, March 30, 2020.
Alexandra Schwartz, “Performers on Lockdown.”
Kathryn Gregory, “Louisville's 'Fix it, Black Girl' Celebrates the Resilience and Power of Black Women,” Louisville Courier Journal, June 9, 2020.
Van Hoy, “Actors Theater Leader.”
Alan Read,Theatre & Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance, (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 3.
Read, Theatre & Everyday Life, 1.
Christopher B. Balme, The Theatrical Public Sphere, Cambridge, 2014.
In Critique of Everyday Life(Vol. II),Lefebvre critiques the philosophical fetishization of the Word (Logos) as he brings “everyday life into language” in pursuit of a larger discourse that transcends the discursive.
In The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau argues for a re-appropriation of language by its speakers to demonstrate that marginal groups are not passive consumers in their everyday “ways of operating” or poetic ways of “making do.”
Read, Theatre & Everyday Life, p. 6.
Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 3.
Berlant, p. 8.
Suzanne Meeks, etal. “Theatre Involvement and Well-Being, Age Differences, and Lessons From Long-Time Subscribers,” Pubmed.gov, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28398577/.
Allie Fireel, “4 Big Thoughts On Actors Theatre’s New AD Robert Barry Fleming, And What He Could Change In Louisville,”Arts Writing Is Dead, Regional Arts and Culture Online Magazine, March 11, 2019.
Kyle Harris, “Idris Goodwin Appointed Director of Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center,” Westword(online magazine), February 5, 2020.
Marty Rosen, “Actors Theatre Enters New Era: Focus On Heartland, Says New Artistic Director,” Leo Weekly Magazine, Dec 4, 2019.
Read, p. 1.
Keith Waits, “Review: Finding Black Boy Joy,” Arts-Louisville.com, July 4, 2020.
Allie Fireel, “Hannah Drake and Actors Theatre premier ‘Fix It Black Girl,’” Queer KY, June 12, 2020.
Actors Theater website, https://www.actorstheatre.org/humana-festival/.
Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 5.
The Associated Press, “King Louis XVI statue removed from protest site in Kentucky,” ABC News, September 3, 2020.
Katrina Helmer, “Downtown Louisville business owners hope March Madness brings slam dunk for sales,” WDRB, March 9, 2021.
Maiza Hixson, “Still Life With Discontent: Louisville’s Visual Culture of Protest and Wim Botha’s New Exhibition at 21c” published in Magnum Opal, online journal, August 28, 2020.
Louisville Metro Comprehensive Plan 2040, published by Louisville Metro Government, November 1, 2018.
Vision Russell Transformation Plan, 2017, p. 30.
Plan 2040, p. 55
Ryan Van Velzer, “One Year of Covid-19 in Kentucky by the Numbers,” WFPL.org, March 15, 2021.
Senait Gebregiorgis, “'The Louisville Knot' is creating ties between divided communities, Louisville Courier Journal,” September 6, 2019.
Access Louisville: The Louisville Knot, Louisville Metro TV, published September 10, 2019, YouTube.
Vision Russell Transformation Plan, p. 30.
Jhacova Williams and Carl Romer, “Black deaths at the hands of law enforcement are linked to historical lynchings,” Economic Policy Institute, June 5, 2020.
Phillip M. Bailey, Tessa Duvall, “Breonna Taylor warrant connected to Louisville gentrification plan, lawyers say,”Louisville Courier Journal, July 5, 2020.
Berlant’s term in Cruel Optimism.
Excerpted text from The Ali Summiton IdrisGoodwin.com, http://www.idrisgoodwin.com/alisummit.
Idris Goodwin,1967 Excerpt, Idrisgoodwin.com, posted to YouTube, June 11, 2020.
Idris Goodwin, Say My Name, video, Idrisgoodwin.com.
“Newly rebranded NuLu Business Association launches Strategic Plan 2012,” LouisvilleInsight.com, Nov. 15, 2012.
Bailey Loosemore, “'Mafia tactics' or 'legitimate' demands? NuLu businesses respond to protesters,” Louisville Courier Journal, July 30, 2020.
Abbie Fentress Swanson, “The South Bronx: Where Hip-Hop Was Born,” WNYC News, August 2, 2010, https://www.wnyc.org/story/89709-south-bronx-hip-hop-year-zero/.
David Drake, “Review: The BreakBeat Poets on How Hip-Hop Revolutionized American Poetry,” Gawker, July 27, 2015.
Balme, p. 174-178
Actors Theatre, Community Conversation, May 20, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?ref=watch_permalink&v=4284169164978858
Still Life with Discontent: Louisville’s Visual Culture of Protest and Wim Botha’s New Exhibition at 21c
Published in Magnum Opal Journal, 2020. By Maiza Hixson
A memorial for Breonna Taylor currently exists at the Jefferson Square Park in downtown Louisville where protestors have demanded justice for the 26-year old African American woman who was murdered in her home by three Louisville police officers. In this space, people also mourn David McAtee who was shot by the Kentucky National Guard in June while defending his local West End eatery, and Tyler Gerth, a 27-year old photographer who was shot and killed in the Park while documenting the Taylor memorial. From “Wanted” signs for the three officers who have yet to be charged for Taylor’s death, to the defaced statue of Louis XVI across the street from her memorial, the city’s visual culture reflects urgent calls to end structural racism and police brutality. The sculpture of Louis XVI at Louisville’s Metro Hall has become an iconic target of anti-racist outrage—a sign of deep civic turmoil that contradicts the superficial branding of downtown as a genteel tourist destination with its posters of whiskey pioneers and Derby-themed plop art. A few blocks from Jefferson Square Park, in front of the high-end hotel/museum chain 21c, a 30-foot tall gold replica of Michelangelo’s Davidgazes down from his pedestal at so many “Birthplace of Bourbonism” placards lining Main Street.
Beyond bourbon and golden boys, a new exhibition inside 21c, entitled Still Life with Discontentby artist Wim Botha (b. 1974), complicates Louisville’s history of “classical” public monuments and present commercial landscape. A white South African, Botha interrogates racial segregation and his Western European art historical training based on Apartheid cultural education. His re-interpretations of canonical art provide an international context for addressing the local Louis XVI statue as part of a national dialogue on public art. Through a series of hacked up reconfigurations of “classical” marble busts and statues, Botha critiques his training in a Christian higher education curriculum that emphasized white cultural supremacy in the Dutch Afrikaans settlement where he grew up.Like a metaphorical mirror, Botha’s sculptural interpretations of white Eurocentric art icons, from ancient Hellenistic figuration to Roman commemorative busts, enables reflection on Kentucky’s history of controversial monuments and murals, such as the recently removed John B. Castleman (major in the Confederate Army) statue in the local Highlands neighborhood and Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s 1934 fresco depicting slaves at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. According to 21c Director and Chief Curator Alice Gray Stites, Botha’s exhibition was supposed to have opened just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, but due to the shutdown it only opened in July. In the wake of Taylor’s killing and nationwide protests over the police murder of George Floyd, Botha’s exhibition coincides with a national reckoning on racism and the ongoing history of racial and economic segregation in Louisville.
Botha’s Prism 10 (Dead Laocoön), 2014, is a black cast bronze interpretation of the ancient Greek sculptureLaocoön and His Sons. In Greek mythology, Athena punishedthe Trojan priest, Laocoön, for famously warning the Trojans to “beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” While the original white marble version features the anatomically naturalistic bodies of Laocoön and his sons being strangled by serpents, Botha portrays the figures as torqued abstract black shards. Rather than placing the sculpture on a marble base, Botha stages it on a wooden palette as if storing the work for shipment. The artist’s reimagining of the “classical” depiction complicates grand narratives of Western art, and Botha extends this canonical critique in Untitled (Nebula 9), 2016. A white Carrara marble bust of a man mounted to an unpainted wooden pedestal, the figure’s eyes and mouth appear gouged out, as if attacked with a chisel. Instead of being sculpted in a noble tradition with perfectly smooth skin, this face remains highly de-familiarized and marked by unknown tragedy. Seen collectively, Prism 10, Nebula 9, and other works in Botha’s exhibition evoke questions of how viewers interpret classical visual culture and whose cultures are omitted in the commemoration of western European myths and figures. In the catalogue for Botha’s exhibition, African Art Historian and author Elizabeth Perrill writes, “Botha’s work intersects with the political realities of South Africa and the United States. This discontent’s meticulous explorations of forms of commemoration and mythologies mark the lineage of classical art as a component of institutional power in South Africa and beyond.” Perrill alludes to similarities between present day U.S. to post-Apartheid South Africa. The fact that 21c and the North Carolina Museum of Art elected to co-host Botha’s first solo exhibition in North America at this time politicizes the curatorial decision and agency to situate a national dialogue on racial segregation in two Southern states through contemporary art. It isn’t by chance that Botha’s disfigured marble portraits are on view at 7th and Main Street in Louisville. Looking at the abstracted faces of Botha’s subjects, one is reminded of neo-classical sculptural realist traditions that underpin Louisville’s and many other cities’ aesthetic cultures. As museums mount exhibitions that speak to racism, and states across the country remove emblems of white cultural oppression—from confederate monuments to Spanish conquistadors—the question remains whether art, aesthetic protests, and other visual representations of critique against structural racism signify the actual presence of social justice.
Sculpted in Carrara marble by the French artist Achille-Joseph Valois in 1829, the statue of Louis XVI was created for the king’s daughter and gifted to Louisville by the French city of Montpellier in 1967. Married to Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI was the last king of France (1774–92) in the line of Bourbon monarchs and was beheaded in the French revolution in 1793. His aristocratic legacy symbolized by a statue should be considered an ironic representation of democracy in Louisville. Yet the statue has acquired alternative meaning in 2020. It is no longer an intact western classical emblem of Louisville’s chosen white heritage; it has become an icon of civil unrest surrounding Taylor’s and George Floyd's murders at the hands of the police. Initially, a protestor broke off Louis XVI’s right hand; subsequently its right wrist and the left hand were painted black, and then the words “BLM / We Will Win” appeared in black spray paint across the base. The name “George Floyde (sic)” was also spray painted across the pedestal. In light of the sculpture’s augmented state, one wonders if the city will allow Louis XVI to stand. It has simultaneously become art, rubble, and a living archive augmented by anonymous hands. Rather than beheaded as the French rose up against absolute monarchy and corrupt leadership, Louis XVI has been behanded in Louisville by protestors fighting against police brutality. Like Botha’s aesthetic interrogation of monuments and memory, the protestors’ alterations of Louis XVI succeed in re-framing and ultimately deposing the city’s elitist icon. Like Botha’s sculptural interventions in western classical portraiture, the statue of Louis XVI in its current state speaks back to institutional power and oppression in a deeply socially, racially, and economically divided city that attempts to camouflage such schisms with bourbon ads and French heraldry.
Across the street from Louis XVI, Jefferson Square Park sits in the middle of metro government buildings and faces the Hall of Justice, City Hall, the Police Department, and Courthouse. This center space is an unofficial memorial to Breonna Taylor whose legacy as an emergency medical technician should mean more to the city than a gilded statue of David, Louis XVI, or corporate fiberglass horses. Officers hover around the Park’s perimeter where new memorials have begun to appear, including one in a tree where tiny name tags listing numerous victims of police brutality are tied to its branches. Paintings and sculptures of Taylor also dangle on the tree’s limbs, creating a visual monument to her life. In contrast to the hard bodies of Louis XVI and Botha’s scarred busts, the tree memorializes other African American women who have been killed by police and white supremacists in what certain critical anti-racists have called a modern-day lynching. Some of the name tags have fallen to the ground like ephemeral tombstones, and bear facts about so many other Black women who have died and whose murderers have never been brought to justice. Each tag is inscribed with the words “Say Her Name.”
Elizabeth Perrill essay in Wim Botha, “Still Life with Discontent,” exhibition catalogue, published by 21c Museum Hotels and North Carolina Museum of Art, 2019.
I organize experiences that fuse everyday life and experimental performance. Employing my own personality as a medium, I facilitate situations that engage diverse publics in alternative rituals and sociological experimentation. I use existing environments—from art galleries to online digital culture—as makeshift stages to explore a broad range of human activity.
I am interested in how place and environment influence us. Geographic regions and architecture inform my research for performances and I draw on the international and local languages of the visual culture wherever I live and work. Boundary-crossing and humor are additional pretexts for enriched social interaction within my work. I am committed to themes of accessibility and treat my performances as conceptual public art that functions within and beyond the designated gallery walls, including the online, digital environment.
My run for Mayor of Santa Barbara was a form of public performance that explored the boundaries between art and life in a post-Trump age in which anyone can become the star of his or her own reality TV show. The sense of political instability and a lack of essential self also underpins my recent performance projects. In an age of online pornography, extreme fetish sites, and the rise of amateur content in the form of YouTube performances, tutorials and more, anyone can insert him or herself into digital space. In response, I create and insert myself into a website advertising Real Lonely Dolls. Here, I perform between the analogue and digital realm, attempting to grapple with my own isolation and depreciating value as a human female body in a rapidly accelerating world of artificially intelligent erotic robot dolls. Within this techno-utopian context, I explore my own creative potential to identify, commodify and advertise aspects of myself in a self-deprecatingly humorous way that questions who or what is desirable and worthy of love.
The Lonely Painter, for example, straddles the art world and popular digital culture in videos that function as “self-healing” meditations and simultaneous homages to Bob Ross. In these, I paint meandering doodles and cryptic phrases while maintaining a pleasant demeanor and dialogue with the viewer. Drawing inspiration from Hennessy Youngman who taught postmodern art theory through a hiphop lens in hilarious viral videos called Art Thoughtz, I sought a rejoinder to his approach to online art pedagogy. The Lonely Painter waxes expansive on artistic subjects such as how to sell art and how the concept is more important than the actual painting (which excuses her lack of concern over the imagery and technique). In this work, I straddle the line between the traditional studio and post-studio realm of digital space. I employ humor to engage the viewer in a dialogue surrounding the art market in late capitalist culture. My work reflects aspects of futility and optimism in equal parts.
I am interested in selective occupations of professional roles, public space, and social rituals that shape and define individual identity and culture. Weddings, dinner parties, political campaigns and museum lectures are all theoretical sites for creative intervention. The Lonely Painter, The Mission, Real Lonely Dolls, Running For Mayor, Dream Disaster and other projects involve calculated speech acts and scripted performances that draw from my interdisciplinary background in curating, writing, music, research methods, theater and sociology. I treat the art and exhibitions as aesthetic media for creating a dialogue with the viewer. Rather than strictly placing objects on display, I approach art and curating from a critical, creative, educational and social standpoint. I employ digital video and new media as tools to encourage public participation in visual culture. I seek to facilitate alternative experiences of art and exhibitions, including how conversations can aid in the understanding and reception of images.