johnbrown: Notions of Visual Evidence


In his dance-based multimedia works, Dean Moss uses theatrical techniques and abstract storytelling to create a physically and psychologically intense atmosphere that the viewer must navigate through in a 60- to 90-minute time frame. He creates a contemporary dance in the mind of the viewer where the motion of the figure becomes a subtext. As a visual creature, I am drawn to his use of images through props, videos, installation-staging techniques, and how the performers transform themselves throughout the entire production. Part theater, part visual moving installation, and part dance, Moss carefully composes johnbrown as a series of vignettes that leave an unsettling feeling about family, race, culture, class, and violence.

I first became interested in Moss’s work through his collaboration with Laylah Ali, a visual artist who makes meticulous gouache drawings of figures. Her most well known characters are gender neutral, brown figures with large round green heads. In the collaborative work figures on a field (2005), Moss and Ali imagined the round heads on the figures as red bouncy balls, a visual analogy that created a distinct connection to the drawings without disrupting their uniqueness. Together they created a rich visual frame, which Moss took and choreographed movements to that connected to the larger environment. Moss has a keen interest in using bits and pieces from the real world—a photojournalist’s diary in Nameless Forest (2011) or a 19th-century historical figure in johnbrown (2014)—in order to create a psychic emotional experience through contemporary dance.

The research and conceptual ideas behind johnbrown began with the blending of Ali and Moss’s voices. Both have an interest in John Brown, the 19th century white abolitionist figure who died in hopes of giving freedom to slaves. In the end Moss’s voice became the sole translator of the piece, while Ali went on to explore an online platform through the Dia Art Foundation for her interpretation of the elusive figure. Moss’ johnbrown questions the historical narrative of John Brown, whose raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 stirred controversy due to Brown’s embrace of violence as a means of change. Moss was interested in how perception and interpretations of events can change over generations, and purposely wanted to contemporize the narrative.

I always wonder about a choreographer’s process for creating a piece, and Moss has a particular way he constructs a work. He investigates a project over a period of years, dedicating himself to one new work at a time. Hence, the depth and layers of meaning that get packed into a single piece can be overwhelming as a first-time audience member. johnbrown began as a series of fragments. The initial fragment was presented at the Museum of Modern Art during Some sweet day, a three-week program of dance performance curated by Ralph Lemon in 2012. In that fragment Moss used a series of props, white foam core boards with silver mirrored Mylar surfaces, and deflated red bouncy balls, to construct an initial abstract portrait of Brown. The compression of this fragment created one of the seven semi-autonomous segments—titled after individual articles of John Brown’s Provisional Constitution of 1858—in the final piece.

Additionally, Moss collaborated with a MoMA teen group to create the props from this segment. This process of working with the teens inspired Moss to incorporate them into the final performance: the teens became a bridge between audience and performers, aka audience doppelgängers. The teens engaged physically with the rigorous aesthetic process; they participated in a discourse about history, otherness, and the power of radical compassion; they shared their own idealism in the work; and they truly experienced a process of being radicalized, as they, in turn, helped radicalize the audience and their fellow performers. Moss is interested in a cross-generational perspective that allows the work a certain paradox. As one part of the production looks back more than 150 years to assess and reflect upon this historical figure of John Brown, another looks forward into the future.

A question of evidence

Our culture of violence has been visualized more publicly in the last year, and yet the images seem unable to bring about the radical change so many of us hope they will. While in graduate school, I took a course on the history and complication of evidence. The professor, Tom Keenan, traced a narrative through literature and various theoretical texts of how evidence has been thought of culturally since Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The notion of evidence—and what constitutes viable evidence—has shifted over the years, from witnessing, first-hand testimony, and archival evidence to photographic images and, more recently, forensic DNA evidence. We can think about johnbrown as a form of questioning visual evidence.

Recently, art historian David Joselit posed a question to post-Conceptual artists: “[H]ow can we account for the fact that the video of a police officer pressing his arm against [Eric] Garner’s throat—a document that could not have been less ambiguous—did not ‘speak for itself’ before the members of a grand jury? If such a visual artifact can so blatantly fail in the task of representation before the law, both politically, as the proxy for an absent victim, and rhetorically, as evidence, doesn’t this present a challenge to how we define the politics of art?” More importantly these iconic images, visual representations, or evidence can longer be said to accurately represent a historic event or cultural movement. In my curatorial practice, I am fascinated by the overlap of legal quandaries and conversations about contemporary art. I think about Moss’s johnbrown in this context of these ideas of visual evidence. What constitutes evidence? How do we think about this in a world where black youth are being killed at such a rapid rate? How are we preparing this generation to become activists? Are we educating the next generation about the history of slavery? Moss’s multidisciplinary practice untangles historical narratives into rigorously physical structures in which activism and poetics hold equal conceptual footing in order to ask these very questions about the nature of politics and contemporary art.

Rachel Cook is associate curator at DiverseWorks in Houston. Her curatorial work reconsiders the relationship between images and objects and investigates methods of delegation embedded within performative and participatory work.