Terms of Refusal 2020 Resident Elissa Blount Moorhead in conversation with open call jury member Lauren Ruffin
Learn more about the open call: Terms of Refusal
Elissa Blount Moorhead is an artist exploring the poetics of quotidian Black life to emphasize gestural dialectics of quiet domesticity and community making. She is currently a principal partner at TNEG film studio and co-founder of Red Clay Arts in NYC. Elissa plans on using her time at Eyebeam to learn and experiment with translating her work into Augmented and Virtual Reality pieces, telling stories of the erasure and violence inflicted upon Black people and the communities resisting this erasure. She spoke to Lauren Ruffin, who wears many hats including Fractured Atlas’s Chief External Relations Officer and co-founder of Crux, the first platform focused on immersive content from black creators.
Q: How does the prompt for this year’s Eyebeam residency, “What are the terms of refusal” relate to your work or practice?
EBM: The idea of refusal is something I think about and talk about a lot in and outside of my work. All my life I’ve thought about what that means. A couple of times when I was young, my father took me to see Miles Davis. I got to witness his infamous turning-his-back-to-the-audience stance. I’ve heard people talk about it being inappropriate or rude or problematic. Witnessing it and understanding it, I never thought that. I heard a quote from him where he said “My back isn’t towards the audience, I’m facing the band.” To me, that idea of facing your band—whether it’s your work or your community or things that pull you into what you think is your best generative space—is often deemed “refusal” when a Black body does it. It’s really more like facing your band, facing the things that are generative for you. That’s something I’ve thought about since middle school, negation—as brilliant scholars like Tina Campt and Saidiya Hartman are able to really articulately codify this idea of negation as a generative practice. I joke all the time that my mantra is “Get off me!” There’s this natural refusal that happens to people who are often subjugated like women, Black people, queer people, people that are always backed into corners creatively, domestically, socially etc. I think of it as a really natural state. I don’t think of it as defiance or resistance.
Q: Who is the intended audience for your work and how do you reach them?
EBM: I don’t tend to think about the audience as I make my work. I try to make the thing and see who shows up to see it, and then try to have a back and forth that’s a little bit more collaborative after that. Not that I change the work, per se, but I change my thinking about it. I never think too much about the audience because it would be too difficult for me to make the work in that mindset. When I was writing P is for Pussy, I started thinking about my parents and their friends and Black feminists I look up to, and I was thinking, “Is this sex-positive? Is this really doing what it’s supposed to do?” And I had to stop because it was too controlling. But after the fact, I’m willing to be checked by whoever thinks the work is interesting.
If I put out the first version of something and then kids, people from the city not involved in the arts, regular people on the street, seniors, Black folks in the neighborhood are all really responding, then after the fact I’m like, “Oh, that’s what I wanted.” I would have felt like a failure if they were out there with pitchforks and torches, throwing tomatoes at it. It’s the same thing going forward, there’s always something in the back of my mind where I wonder if this is serving the communities where I’m showing it, is it making sense. When I did Back and Song with Bradford [Young], I was saying to the curator that I wasn’t sure if I was legible or if people would get what I was saying. But then an older Black woman came in and was talking to me about things in the work that Brad and I had talked about and I didn’t know if they were resonating, but they were! That’s when I feel satisfied—when people pick up on things and give you back things that you thought you may have buried in there. That’s big for me.
Q: What role does technology play in your practice?
EBM: Considering “Terms of Refusal”... I know the outside gaze sees vacancy and thinks somehow it’s the fault of the people who have been vacated. I look at it and I think about displacement and the intentionality of redlining and divestment. I am more interested in facing the community, telling our stories to each other, and being able to try somehow, as my partner AJ says, to be an emanation of the people who may have been there in the past. So that’s my refusal of that outside narrative of erasure. Erasure is intentional. It is aggressive. Equally aggressive is our retention of memory and the action of putting those atoms back together to tell our stories. I feel like AR [augmented reality] is an ingenious way to do that. VR [virtual reality] as well.
Q: What are you planning to do with the resources and time you’ll receive as an Eyebeam resident?
EBM: There’s a couple of salient things I really want to get done. Years ago, I conceived of an iteration of this project. I was dreaming about being able to tell stories on buildings that people could just walk past, thinking about Gordon Matta-Clark and some other things, wondering if this could happen. And then 3D mapping was invented and it became something I could do. I was only really interested and able to think about the film part of it, and I spent a long time on that. The 3D mapping and the AR is something where I don’t even know how much I don’t know. I’m building it as I go. The first thing I hope to do is to spend the year matching what I think the narrative is with the right technology, the right tool to share it. Is it an overlay, is it AR, is it volumetric capture, maybe none of these things are appropriate. I want to make sure that the work stays in a comfortable combination of analog and digital. I don’t want there to be barriers to people viewing it. First, I’ll think through that with people who know what they’re talking about so that I can say one thing and they can translate it into the appropriate technologies. The other thing I’m hoping to do on the business side of this work is to put numbers on the materials and processes. What does it really cost? Really filling that area of knowledge that I don’t have around how to get the thing up and running.