2008, A white man listens to himself
A white man listens to himself is a live performance that I presented as part of the exhibition Black Is, Black Ain’t at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. The performance was very simple. Every day I sat and watched my video monologue What a black man feels like. I would spend the whole day watching and listening to the monologue and I performed 5 days a week for three weeks. I took two breaks a day.
I like this performance for number of reasons.
It symbolizes something that I think is particularly relevant to analyzing race perception. That is racial perception’s continuance, through private, solipsistic, monologue inside oneself. Very present in the United States but still rarely spoken about, racial perception is often crafted and elaborated in private. This contributes to the already marked way in which racial thinking, the elaboration of what that person who is supposedly so different from you is really like, is a reflection of the person doing the thinking. For this reason it seemed very appropriate to just watch my own monologue, in other words, to just re-imbibe my own thinking while also, obviously, reflecting critically on that thinking.
The fact that I was there to “listen to myself” was a useful counter-balance to the confrontational aspect of being an artist and standing in front of your piece for the duration of an exhibition. While I wanted to confront people with an explicitly open racial monologue and torque that confrontation even further by being literally present as they watched the video, I did not want to create a situation that was so confrontational as to discourage people from stopping and being involved. With a title like “a white man listens to himself” it was quickly clear that my main focus was to watch my monologue. This left room for people to come and sit down and watch without the anxiety of worrying about I was gong to do.
Finally, I liked the performance because I felt that its title expresses a significant ambiguity about authority. The title can be interpreted a number of ways, for instance as an assertion, “a white man should only listen to himself” or as a simple statement as in “here is a white man listening to himself”. Obviously part of the problem historically has been that white men often only listened to themselves. I like the conjunction of the problematic patriarchal tradition with the pathetic aspect of me listening to myself over and over, for example, one viewer asked: “what’s the title? Purgatory?”