Americanness, as an identifier, has always been tricky for me. For most of my life I have been resistant to labeling myself American, because I see ‘America’ as an oppressive world force, a place of inequality and hypocritical values. As a kid, I could never understand why every single morning we were required to stand with our hands over our hearts, staring at the dinky flag in the corner of the classroom to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Most days I quietly refused to participate, shuffling side to side, staring at my feet, the ceiling, the back of the kid’s shirt in front of me, anything but the flag. I grew up in a very patriotic, conservative town and my parents were diehard hippies (like lived in a cabin in the woods with no electricity and brought my brother and me to protests as kids, hippies), so discontent with the government was demonstrated for me. But even outside my parents’ influence, I could never understand why everyone took such pride in something so very much out of their doing or control. It seemed illogical. I felt that way about sports, about ‘school spirit’ and about the United States.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about theories of embodiment, identity, and nationality. Dancers as Diplomats by Clare Croft, and New World Drama by Elizabeth Dillon discuss the construct of nationhood and the embodiment of nationality as an act of performance. Inspired by these texts, I decided to lean into my discomfort with my American identity, to investigate what is American that I already embody, and to experiment with performing Americanness.
What feels American to me is multiculturalism – in the truest sense. The merging, converging, and colliding of cultural identities and expressions. I have multicultural aesthetics inside my body and in my way of moving. While I am a white woman of purely European descent, I have hip hop, African and Latinx expressions and embodiments living within me. Grappling with the use of those aesthetics inside a white body is tricky, to say the least, because of my position of privilege and the very real risk I have of appropriation. I grew up in relationship with hip hop (Black, POC) communities and I spent 5 years in LA in close relationship with Latinx communities. My perspective of the world and my embodied movement has been effected by these communities and their modes of expression in deeply integrated ways. It would feel just as disrespectful to prevent myself from being effected by the generous welcome and mentorship I received from members of these communities, as it would to claim their influence as my own. I think this is an American experience. Wrestling with exchange and appropriation as a constant within non-verbal communication is American.
When Quianna Simpson, a fellow first year MFA, asked me if I would like to collaborate with her this semester, I tentatively shared with her what was on my mind…this embodied nationhood question. Thankfully she jumped into the conversation without hesitation, meeting my bumbling questioning of nationhood with her own. We were in it together: trying on and taking off performances of Americanness, testing to see which ones fit. When beginning to generate movement for the piece, Quianna (I call her Q) and I wondered: what would read as recognizably American to an audience? We started simply: with a google image search for ‘America,’ ‘American,’ Americans,’ ‘American Icon,’ ‘Americonic,’ etc. The images that appeared were a range of representations of iconic historic events, cultural figures, and cultural identities. The first version of the piece we made was simply these in a randomized sequence—a kinetic rolodex of American iconography.
Rend(er) Americonic. Screenshot. Video by Katie O’Loughlin.
Our conversations while deciding which of the google images to include revealed complex relationships with representation, identity, and appropriation. What right do we, as two culturally Christian people have to represent images of Judaism or Islam (even if we feel that the inclusion of those identities is important to the representation of the United States)? How do we include the substantive amount of violent American images (militia, police force, the KKK, slavery) when we as individuals have strong ideological opposition to the ideas associated with these images and experience visceral resistance to embodying a stance representational of those ideas? The exclusion of these images simultaneously protected us, as the embodied subjects publicly representing identities that are not fully our own; and also prevented us from being able to make any statement about the images we chose to exclude. Is exclusion denial of existence? Denial of influence?
Clare Croft asks, “when people become aware of being marked as ‘official’ Americans, how then do multiple layers of representation—nation, various communities, and the individual—either serve the construction of American identity or fall outside of that identity?” (Croft, 8). The initial version of the piece, existing as a rolodex of American iconography, did not reveal the complexities of our negotiations, and ran the risk of simply being a collage of nationalist images—it was definitely not something with which I was interested in having my name/my body/my performance associated. I began to realize that Q’s and my resistance to embodying certain images was the crux of the work. The excluded portions were, in fact, more important than the included ones.
Elizabeth Dillon speaks of the stage as a place that “allows the relation between the embodied (ontic) persons and the represented (mimetic) subjects to be at play” (Dillon, 11). Q and I were experiencing this as a dissonance—a dissonance between our own embodied identities and the identities we were attempting to represent in performance.
So arrived the next step in the process: the endeavor to reveal the tensions experienced when embodying images associated with a nationhood in which we did not feel pride. Questions arose. More questions than we had time to fully explore.
Do we reference the excluded gestures? Is this possible to do without associating ourselves with ideologies we each strongly oppose?
Do we repeat the patriotic gestures until we exhausted them/they exhaust us?
Do we break character to speak to each other, performing ourselves in negotiation with these images instead of performing the images alone?
Do we take turns stepping out of the image to adjust/reposition each other to correct or confuse the image?
Do we record and playback sound of ourselves having candid conversations about our experiences negotiating identity, culture, nationality, patriotism, Americanism, including our resistances and oppositions?
Do we invite more people who represent other experiences and identities within American multiculturalism to influence and/or perform in the piece?
Most of these questions are still swirling for Q and me. What you see below is step one in integrating these layers. You will see and hear us replaying conversations we had about already included images of protest and patriotism. The complexity of our negotiations has not quite yet landed, but the work and the conversations are, as are our we, works in progress.
New World Drama—Elizabeth Dillon
Dancers as Diplomats—Clare Croft