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Space Negotiation and Unseen Labor

Performance

2019


*This was written in anticipation of the performance for Space Negotiation and Unseen Labor in 2019.


Space Negotiation and Unseen Labor


In my performance piece, Space Negotiation and Unseen Labor, I am engaging with the idea of

perceived advantage or disadvantage through constructed opportunities. To facilitate this experience, I

am using a wheelbarrow filled with 125 pounds of sand, dozens of small American flags on sticks planted

upside down in the sand, pieces of thin rope attached to the flags and wheelbarrow at varying lengths

and outsourced labor via audience interaction. The audience can only see the sand in the wheelbarrow

and the sticks attached to the flags, with the flag portion completely buried in the sand. The American

flags help facilitate the audience members’ connection to opportunity by consciously placing them in

the country in which they currently reside, regardless of their states of citizenship or orientation to the

country itself. There are some flags directly affixed to the wheelbarrow, making them impossible to pull

out without significant force, and others attached to the wheelbarrow via varying lengths of rope, which

are easy to pull out from the sand. These rope lengths represent perceived advantage or disadvantage,

even when there is nothing at stake. During the performance, I will place my body behind the

wheelbarrow to lift and push it toward the audience members, directing them to “take what you want.”

As they attempt to pull a flag, they will be confronted by the restriction of the rope length and decisions

that need to be made as I continue to move the wheelbarrow toward and away from the audience while

they are holding the flags.


The performance will expose our internalized decision-making mechanisms as it relates to

considering others’ advantage or disadvantage in life, represented by the length of the rope, including

the actions we take based on our perceptions of our own circumstances. Who is willing to travel with

the wheelbarrow despite potential discomfort, who is willing to wait to be approached, who will come

and attempt without my prompt, which participants are willing to negotiate space and trade flags for a

more ideal position, who abandons the flag and lets it hang off of the wheelbarrow or drag on the floor,

who complains, who asks for help, who teases others, who will attempt to yank the flag from its

connection to the wheelbarrow, who will travel in harmony with others and the moving wheelbarrow

and who has so much rope that they do not have to consider anyone and simply take up space in any

way they would like? If we opt into taking these courses of action when there is nothing at stake, what

are our responses when there are real opportunities or disadvantages we are attempting to pursue or

escape?


It is by design that the experience above lends itself to the idea of “liveness,” as mentioned in

Julie Tolentino’s work. I do not want to manipulate, direct or encourage the room any further. The

performance offers a window into how people view physical labor, negotiating space and self-regulation

when given an opportunity to do more for someone that has less. The performance is a vehicle for me to

explore what emotional “unseen” labor looks like in the physical realm. Labor is traditionally used to

explain different forms of shuffling people and objects from different points or different acts of service

requiring the seen labor as it relates to physical exertion. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’

Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside is an example of seeing the physical labor it requires to scrub the

steps of a museum for hours but we aren’t necessarily connected with the unseen labor of her

experience. This unseen labor does not feel as present or understood in comparison to Julie Tolentino

who uses her body, objects, labor, site and unseen labor seamlessly in her performances and engages

with the element of surprise; unlocking what she calls ‘“taking the performance out of the

performance”, the “liveness” and “emotional vibrator” of the experience. This activation of space allows

for the unseen labor to be present even if one is only experiencing her work through documentation.

Her work with needles as she self-described, “matches the intensity of loss and anger” and gifts the

audience an opportunity to experience unseen and seen labor through her performances.


I also intended this work to engage with the invisible emotional labor that black and brown

women have to exhaust in different spaces. As a brown woman, I often experience being perceived as

the person expected to provide this labor for other groups. This piece is an exploration of that reality

through the physical labor of moving the wheelbarrow, the emotional labor of engaging others as they

take advantage of not needing to participate in labor. By reducing my facilitation of this engagement, I

am relieving myself of the need to negotiate the space on the participants’ behalf. They are required to

manage it on their own amongst themselves. This is not typically my personal experience because of

safety concerns, needing to have my needs or wants met (being beholden to a group with more power)

or other considerations I need to navigate to thrive. At the same time, I am also demonstrating that

even when I take a step back from the more overt emotional labor, I still am carrying the load

represented by my continuous holding of the 125 pounds of sand and wheelbarrow.


I hope this performance invites self-reflection and reveals the ways we choose to bury our heads

in the sand, ignoring others’ disadvantage, heightening our own, leaving others behind when we’ve

obtained the opportunity we prefer and a myriad of other responses to perceived opportunities to

advance.


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