Gesel Mason on “Yes, And”
December 15, 2020
Gesel Mason is Artistic Director for Gesel Mason Performance Projects and Associate Professor of Dance at University of Texas at Austin, as well as a 2021 resident artist in the TPA+ Fusebox residency program. Whether re-performing vital solos by Black choreographers or building a digital archive of Black dance, Mason’s work utilizes dance, theater, humor, and storytelling to bring visibility to voices unheard, situations neglected, or perspectives considered taboo. As part of her residency, Mason has embarked on a new performance project, Yes, And that re-centers Black womanhood in the creative process. Propelled by a series of questions, Mason will collaborate with local, national and international self-identified Black womxn artists, thinkers, and community members to imagine a form of performance that holds a multiplicity of answers.
Fusebox Co-Artistic Directors Ron Berry and Anna Gallagher-Ross spoke to Mason her inspirations for Yes, And, the interdisciplinary, community-based collaborations she’s undertaking as part of the project’s development, and what it means to locate the “yes within yourself.”
Anna Gallagher-Ross: How did Yes, And begin for you?
Gesel Mason: I think that Yes, And began because of this desire to live your fullest life. To be your fullest self. Sometimes you might say, “Oh my gosh if I just had ____, I could do ____. If I just had the space and the time to do ____, then I could do ____, or if I felt safe, I could do ____. If I wouldn’t get chastised, I could do ____. If I wouldn’t lose money, I could do ____.”
As an African American woman artist sometimes I feel like there are these ideas about the kind of work that needs to be made, or what it should look like, or who it should speak to, or the themes that it should have, and I think in some ways I wondered, Well what would I make if I didn’t feel those real or imagined expectations of my work? What would I make if Blackness wasn’t in response to whiteness? What if I could be my fullest self without any sort of fear or expectation or translation? What would I make? How would I be in community with others?
And these questions were floating around in some of the spaces that I found myself in, and making in, and I noticed some of the ways that I might be making adaptations that aren’t even intentional. Those moments when maybe you’re in a business situation and once you get out you say, “Oh my God! I can’t believe that’s what I was doing the whole time!” Or a relationship where you’re like, “Whoa, look at all of these ways that I put myself in this configuration to make sure that everybody is okay.” I would think about that and then I would see these stories in the media about Black womxn, and how their stories often don’t get amplified or featured or highlighted, oftentimes because they might be in support of other voices like the Black Lives Matter movement. And knowing when somebody like Serena Williams does something, how immediately [issues] like race and the body, and what it is to be a woman, and ideas about how she is supposed to show up come into play. Then I think about Black girl joy and how they can be asked to grow up so quickly, when people say, “Oh she’s fast,” or “Oh she’s trying to be cute,” or “Oh she’s too loud…” All of us have these experiences where you feel like, “Oh, I’m too much of this or too little of that.” So I want to know, what does that liberation look like, but particularly for Black women? What might it be to have that as the center? What if I put myself in community with similar bodies and we see what comes up? Because we are all very different and there’s so much expertise…there’s so much expertise in the body.
Part of what’s happening with Yes, And is that it’s an extension of two other longer projects that I’ve been deeply involved in. One is a piece called antithesis, which is about performances of sexuality, and [looks at] the uses of the erotic according to Audre Lorde’s philosophy, and my other work No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers and the process of turning that into an archive.
The part of Yes, And that connects to antithesis is this quote from Lorde that talks about the erotic as being a “yes within yourself,” and so I’m playing with that idea of trying to liberate the erotic. The experience of the erotic looks different for every single person. There are expectations for every single person about what that should be and what that should look like, because the erotic has been co-opted by the pornographic—so the undoing is super important and very individual. So that was something we are playing with. We were like, “Yes is good enough… the Yes is the thing… it’s whatever turns you on,” and that is different for every single person.
The “And” part is related to No Boundaries in two ways. One is the idea of having these Black choreographic voices at the center and not trying to make them fit into a certain canon, but also shifting the whole thing and asking, “What can we learn from this being the center?” And as I have turned No Boundaries into an online digital humanities archive, I’ve been talking a lot about the body as an archive: a repository of memories and experiences. And if we lean into that, if we trust that before we come up with words, before we come up with definitions, and before we decide who it belongs to and what it’s supposed to be… like if we go there, what might emerge? If we get out of our own way what might emerge? And after spending so much time, like ten years, in each one of these projects in different ways, I’m coming out of that asking, well AND what’s next? And then COVID happened and that kind of gave me permission to be in this space. It was welcome to realize we are all in the “I don’t know” and we’re seeing some of these structures crumble around us, and now we have this moment to be like, “Wait… is that necessary? Is that really the way it should go? Is that really the way we need to show up? Is that really the way this needs to be done? WHY?” And so I’m kind of embracing that space and that moment, and finding folks to be in community with, and that has been rejuvenating in this time.
Another reason I know that Yes, And is actually important is that every time I ask a Black woman, “Who would you be and what would you do if as a Black woman you didn’t have anything to worry about?” People’s minds crack open a little bit. They’re like, “Wait what… Wait, what?! If I didn’t have to worry about how people are reading my body, if I didn’t have to worry about my Blackness coming first? Not that it would go away, it’s there, but what would happen if I didn’t have to take care of that space? What would happen if I was and did feel safe? What would happen if I was in community with others and sharing that sort of expertise and knowledge? What would happen if I trusted my body and my intuition? What might we make and how might we do so in community with others?” And it just felt like something like the ball started as this little seed and just kept growing and growing and rolling and emerging.
AGR: I so appreciate these questions that propel the work, and the way in which the “Yes” in a sense unlocks the “And,” making so much possible. In this residency, what you’re articulating is a kind of methodology, a way of working. Could you speak about what this methodology looks like?
GM: Yes, And is a methodology of undoing. A process of liberating the creative spirit. And I’ve had some opportunities to be in residence with some of my collaborators in different capacities, and being in that space with other collaborators, with time to play, with no expectation, has been so generative. And that is really what I’m looking forward to, and have been trying to embrace during this time. We’ve been meeting with each other every other week and I ask folks in these meetings “Where are you at? How’s it going? What do you need, and What are you doing well?” And what we’ve gotten out of just those questions and those conversations has been so rich. It’s just important to have the conversation, to share the experience. And we’re writing stuff down.
There is incredible expertise in this group. We’ve had wealth management classes, we’ve had mindfulness meditation together, and I’m like, “Who else wants to do a thing?” There’s an intergenerational mix in the group and so you’re getting all of these stories and backgrounds from so many folks and I think in some ways that is helping me guide the residency. Like what are the pieces that we need to be a part of this process? What are the pieces we need to be a part of this methodology? And some of them say, “Oh! I think that music is a part of this,” or “I think that storytelling is a part of this.” Having the opportunity to talk freely and openly about family, legacy, spirituality, self-care, health, work, career and then sort of creatively thinking about how to respond to those things. Like, how does movement come up when somebody talks about their family? Like in our last conversation we had this beautiful thing where someone was sharing the fact that they have their grandmother’s letters, and now they are at the same age that their grandmother was when she wrote these letters. And so this beautiful question about ancestry and projecting ourselves into the future came up. How do we tell and share our stories so that they’re accessible to the next, and up-and-coming generations? How do we want to shape this moment? And these things are just so generative in terms of what they create when we have the space to just have the conversation.
So instead of coming in saying, “I’m going to make a thing, and it’s gonna look like this” we’re using all of our expertise and letting it bubble up. Part of what I’m embracing is the space of this residency. That there’s no need to have a certain outcome by a certain time. This flexibility and the fluidity are super important. So this is what might emerge out of this time in Austin, in this moment, and ultimately I do want to create a website that is sort of like the archive of Yes, And. This archive would document what happened in this community, and then you might see over here, oh, this is what happened in another community, So you can see the people that I’ve worked with and what has emerged in each place, the tentacles of the project. But it’s those voices at the center that create that kind of methodology, that create this process of undoing.
Ron Berry: That’s awesome. It seems like there’s such a deep kind of imagining that’s going on, which on one hand feels like it was central to this project to begin with, and then it also feels like we’re in this moment that is inviting a deep reimagining on top of that. So it feels like these two sort of things like really lining up to allow us to crack open some things in a big way. Does that resonate?
GM: Yes. To be asking these questions during the pandemic, during the racial reckoning, all of a sudden I was like, “Oh, no, this is essential.” Like it’s essential work. I think sometimes in these moments, it’s about giving yourself permission to be in that creative space. You really have to hold and honor the time that you have. We’ve been joking about a parallel universe of Yes, And that is “No, But.”
I actually got this gift from artist Michelle Ellsworth. Michelle offered that if anytime I needed to say no I could just say that “I’m working with Michelle Ellsworth right now so I can’t. I just can’t.” So I’ve been offering that to the Yes, And community too. Like if they need to say no, they can say they are working with Gesel on Yes, And, and it’s part of “No, But.”
But seriously, I realize that there’s some ways that I’ve been doing things that are not actually sustainable. I am so busy right now, and then I think about how usually I would be traveling, I would be performing, I would try to be trying to put this thing together, and doing all of what I’m doing right now. And like, what does it mean to translate something over zoom and to still give people a full experience? And, oh what should this performance be like? I’ve been pushing away expectations but now I have an excuse I’m like, No, it’s the pandemic. No it’s being in this Black body right now. I need some space. But the reality is that that’s always been the case. But now I can, and I’m hoping, I’m really hoping, we can hold on to this, and then as we emerge from this time, we don’t just throw that stuff away. Challenging the product oriented nature that performance takes on, removing geography, removing time, in some ways it’s been kind of a gift.
RB: Yeah, that’s interesting. Artist Ty Defoe talks about the idea of partnering with time in a different way that allows for different things to happenI love thinking about time as a partner or collaborator, and in this moment, there’s what feels like a real urgency but also its the first time in my adult life to take a little more space to think about how we might do things differently and to allow for other possibilities to enter, and so maybe on the surface those things seem like opposing things, but maybe actually rearranging your relationship with time allows you to actually address the urgency in a different way that’s more helpful and more meaningful!
GM: Yeah. I think time and output, right? I actually don’t mind being at home. I like my dog and my garden. You know, it’s not bad. And I hope that in the streamlining, there are some things that stick. And we’re in it long enough that maybe it will resist this “Let’s get back to normal!”
And in thinking about time, there are these performance avatars, physical avatars that I’ve been playing with, one of which emerged out of my time at the Rauschenberg Residency. I call her Josephine, and she’s out of time. She’s something that emerged out of listening and giving space. Embodying her lets me practice ways of being in the world. Like there are some things that Josephine would do that I would not do. Josephine’s like, “I don’t care, fuck it.” Haha! And so, I’m wondering about these other avatars that give us access to time travel and different ways of being. When I have permission to be in this body and in this space in this way, it’s almost like if we can practice this enough, these exciting things might start to emerge.
Photo credits: Essentials Creative
Storytelling Circle participants: Mykaela Johnson, Yunina Barbour-Payne, and Nakia Winfield
On Dec 31, 2020, Mason will perform “BURST!” a durational new year’s performance at ICOSA Gallery, the culmination of her TPA + Fusebox residency, that sources the creative expertise of Black womxn as a transformational practice to mark the transition from 2020 into 2021. The performance begins at 10pm CST and can be viewed here.
Gesel Mason is one of four artists/collectives participating in the inaugural Performing Arts Residency launched by Fusebox Festival and Texas Performing Arts. The first of its kind in Austin, the residency program is geared towards adventurous Austin-based artists who are pushing the boundaries of performance and on the cusp of new projects, as well as furthering the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the local performing arts community. This interview is the third in a series of conversations we call “In Process,” with resident artists about their creation process.