Terms of Refusal Resident 2020 Pelenakeke Brown in conversation with open call jury member Ezra Benus
Learn more about the open call: Terms of Refusal
Pelenakeke Brown is an interdisciplinary, afakasi Samoan, disabled, immigrant artist from Aotearoa (New Zealand). Her work focuses on movement, especially mark-making, at the points of intersection between disability and Pacific Island indigenous culture. She has been examining the mark-making potential of the computer keyboard and hopes to develop more of her own drawing iconography using the histories of technology, disability, and indigeneity. Among many other achievements, Pelenakeke is an alum of the NYFA Immigrant Artist Program and the Laundromat Project. She spoke with jury member Ezra Benus, a New York based artist and poet best known for his paintings, sculptures, and performances focusing on the cultural assumptions around disease/disability.
Q: How does time relate to technology and movement in your work?
PB: Time is a really important concept in my work. I’ve been thinking about time specifically in regards to crip time—time that’s not capitalist or productive–and aboutthe crip body and what it means to move within crip time outside of the capitalist notion of time. I’m also thinking about time in space as “Va,” a concept in indigenous Pacific philosophy regarding how relationships in space have to happen in time. Within that concept, there’s a specific thought, “Teu le Va,” how do you nurture or hold the space? I think that speaks really nicely to crip time because crip time is about how you can tend to the crip body and nurture the space in that way. I like to think about my time as an intersection between crip time and the Oceanic or Pacific ways of thinking. Disability and identity are interrelated. A lot of my work is about trying to connect those two modes of time. I’m really thinking about how we can be intersectional in spaces, especially those involving technology.
Q: In line with the prompt for this year’s Eyebeam residency, “What are the terms of refusal,” can you talk about an instance when you’ve used refusal as a component of your work?
PB: Last year, someone asked me to write a piece for the Movement Research performance channel about movement. I was really tired and I just wanted to think about movement in a way that wasn’t a dance piece, so I was looking down at my fingers and thinking about how I write on the keyboard using one hand. I was thinking about how this choreography is specific to myself. Then I was thinking about the Va and the relationships that are occuring in the keyboard and really noticing the words on the keyboard like “return” and “shift.” Then I noticed the symbols on the keyboard and realized that they reminded me of tatau, traditional Samoan tattoos.
I wanted to refuse the original prompt and do my own thing, so I thought, “How can you move without moving?” What does that look like within my crip body? The keyboard, technology, is how I keep in touch when I’m too tired to leave the house. I think that’s really important. And then there’s been a real revival for tatau art in the diaspora of oceanic people. A lot of the time it’s about trying to connect to our ancestral, indigenous culture. I was reading about that and thinking about how the tatau is a way of marking ourselves out in the world. It’s a way of communicating out in the world, and how the keyboard is also a way of holding this time and space. I hope to develop more of my own drawing iconography using all of these histories.
Q: How has your experience with disability and the medical industry informed the creation of performance choreography?
PB: I reprinted my medical files at the end of March last year because I didn’t know much about my actual medical history. When I grew up, I knew that I had cerebral palsy but I didn’t know the medical terms around it even though I had grown up in a hospital. I wanted to understand more, so I turned to my medical files and I decided to make work. I was really surprised by the information I received. I found out my mom went undocumented for the first three years of my life. Learning about my personal history with my parents through medical files was really surprising. To play with the text, I tried many different approaches. I made audio scores, then I decided to make blackout poems where you choose different words and then you blackout the words you haven’t chosen. What is left is a new text. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. When I was working in the studio, I thought “what if I only selected words that were movement based or made me think of movement or motion in humans?” I started to make poems that made sense to me. These became choreographic scores in a space where medical terms can cross over into art terms. I found this to be a powerful way to play with that text without getting bogged down by it.
Q: You often work collaboratively with other artists. How has that informed your past work?
PB: When I was working in the studio making Excavation: an archival process as part of my Disability Dance NYC Artist Residency, I worked with Marielys Burgos Melendez. I had been doing a lot of authentic movement on my own and with other people. Authentic movement is a kinetic technique where there are two people, one person closes their eyes and they move without music. They are trying to move by letting their body guide them, rather than doing what they think they should be doing. It’s a really helpful tool for me to find movement in my body without thinking about judgement. There’s a witness, and the person who witnesses you holds the space for you. After you finish moving, they tell you what they witnessed without using any value judgements, and then you tell them what you experienced as the mover. I find that the process is a really helpful tool. There are many ways you can do it, you can do it without talking or you can do it where you move and you speak, which is my favorite way to do it. I found that the most important part for me is having a witness there. I find it a really rich process, having someone hold that space for me, so I asked Marielys to come in and help me think about movement. She became my key witness.
I’ve also been working with Yo-Yo [Lin]. She was a 2019 Eyebeam resident and she’s been sharing her technology with me. We’ve been skill sharing and I have co-facilitated some of the workshops that she leads with Movement Research. She’s been teaching me AV and VJ stuff. It’s important to me to always be thinking about how to collaborate with people. That doesn’t always mean meeting, sometimes we have phone meetings. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can share with people and be equitable. That’s been a big part of this year, asking to be paid for everything and not doing things for free just because you get inundated with opportunities as an artist.