What Did She Just Say?
What Did She Just Say?
Abstract and Keywords
damali ayo turns on her recorder as she confronts her interlocutors with performance art. She asks paint store employees to match her brown flesh tone. She sits on the sidewalk and collects reparations for slavery, handing over any contributions from white people to equally surprised black people. As you might imagine, interesting things get said along the way. damali secretly records that dialogue. Producer Dmae Roberts turns those recordings, and damali’s reflections on them, into radio. It’s anything but conventional journalism, but damali firmly believes she’s delivering the news.
THE FIRST WORK I made for radio began with an experiment about race at a very basic level, that of skin color. I wanted to uncover what people see when they look at my skin. Wearing a hidden recorder, I walked into the paint departments of various hardware stores to find collaborators in my experiment. I approached the paint mixer on duty and asked him (or, in one case, her) if he could create a paint to match any color that was presented to him. Paint mixers don’t say no to this type of challenge; my next step was to present him with a part of my body to match. In succession I had paints made to match my left arm, right arm, back, belly, face, palm, thigh, and breast. I assumed the experience I was about to create with individual paint mixers would be unique, or at least interesting, so I packed up the pocket tape recorder and lapel microphone that I had bought for a previous incarnation as a counselor and headed to the stores. This was how I started making work for radio. Originally I asked a sound editor to mix the voices together for an audio montage that would play in a room of a gallery that I had painted to match my left arm, but this never really satisfied me. When Dmae Roberts called me to visit the Third Coast International Audio Festival, we worked together to create a work now known as “Paintmixers.” Dmae was looking for someone to bring a new take to the conversation about race—giving stale but persistent issues a fresh appeal to keep people engaged—which is what I do for a living. She was moderating a panel on this, and asked me to sit on it with Ahri Golden, Sandy Tolan, and Jonathan Mitchell. I gave Dmae my cassette tapes with terrible sound, and she worked her magic. Every time I went to see a paint mixer I wrote about them in a journal, and we took samples from that journal to create the narration for the piece.
James, left outer forearm, by scanning machine, July 15, 2:45 P.M., neutral base.
How can I help you?
Well, sounds like you can mix any paint color, right?
Just about anything. You can give me somethin’ and I’ll do the best that I can with it.
James was my first, and my favorite. I was nervous, but I had inadvertently worn a revealing shirt, and I think my nipples showing through provided a distraction. The paint mixers never suspected I was recording them. I asked James if he could match any color. He said yes, and I pointed to my arm. James stepped up to the challenge, saying the same thing over and over.
I’ve never done a flesh tone [laughs].
“I’ve never done a flesh-tone,” which I liked because it was the first time I can remember my brown skin being referred to as a “flesh-tone.” I felt I was bridging some important barrier—redefining flesh.
I have no qualms about creating a situation that offers people an opportunity to be themselves. As a performer who engages the audience, this is much of what I do, and audio is one of the most beautiful ways to capture it. This is different from typical forms of the audio enterprise, because I create a live and interactive (and therefore unpredictable) performance, and the audience-collaborator is an actor in that performance. I always say that art is only 60 percent the work of an artist; the rest is created by the audience.
I WAS BORN IN WASHINGTON, D.C., while Nixon was in the White House. The Watergate scandal launched our current epoch of flagrantly unethical role models, leaving those in my generation to create our own definitions of fairness, integrity, and honor. As I have since analyzed Nixon’s behavior, it occurs to me that surreptitiously recording people, though it got Nixon in trouble, never quite struck me as the wrong thing to do. It is clear that one should avoid Nixon’s mistakes by (1) not getting caught and (2) using recordings for better reasons than his. In the right hands, I wondered if (p.108) recording someone without their permission might actually be a great tactic for uncovering the truth. As an adult, I tried out this hypothesis. I started recording my phone conversations. I headed to Radio Shack and explained that I wanted a simple device that connected my corded telephone and a small tape recorder. When asked why, I replied, “I’m an artist.” This seems to excuse a great deal of suspicious activity, and even gets me a discount at a store or two.
Once hooked up, my device captured basic conversations, mundane moments, and the occasional profound exchange. The most memorable of which is the friend who confessed that the three most important things in his life were “music, women’s naked bodies, and money.” “What?” I asked. He simply repeated these priorities, adding “not necessarily in that order.” I was glad I had this on tape. When it was time to challenge him on these less than noble goals, I played the tape back for him. He loved it. The idea that his words were important enough to immortalize on tape seemed to appeal to his sense of vanity. It took a few months for him to confess to me that hearing his voice had been a bit of a shock, and it was time for him to reconsider that path. Later, after he reformed and got married, he requested that I play the tape for his wife. The “good man” he had become wanted proof of the “bad boy” he had been.
He was the only one of my friends who found my tape recording even the slightest bit useful or amusing. Eventually other friends refused to call me. I had to take the tape recorder off the phone. Still looking for that sense of honesty in everyday moments, I resorted to recording myself. I talk to myself all of the time and thought that this might be entertaining to others. It wasn’t. It was boring. My next inclination was to try to capture the random people who say bizarre things to me, which seems to happen on a regular basis. I frequently wish that I had tape running to record these moments. The people on the bus who ask me personal questions; the random strangers who ask to touch my hair, skin, or that strange backpack I had for a few months; the people who tell me their life stories simply because I make eye contact with them. People need to express themselves, and I seem to be a beacon for this kind of catharsis. However, I learned quickly that these moments were nearly impossible to predict, let alone capture. I simply didn’t have enough tape to get it all down. Plus I felt awkward (p.109) being on mic all the time; it changed the way I was interacting with people. I started to want to create these moments. There is a natural performer in me that brings out honesty in people, but I had to harness this aspect of my personality to generate situations that would lend themselves to tape. I realized that the best moments had to be either created or re-created.
One of the first audio artworks I made for public consumption was inspired by a conversation that took place between me and two white women friends at a restaurant in Portland. We were just digging into our salads when the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” came on overhead. One of my companions said, “I love this song!” and I responded, “Yeah, but have you actually listened to the lyrics?” When she said she hadn’t, I waited until the verse started and sang along:
- Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
- Sold at the market down in New Orleans
- Old old slaver knows he’s doin’ alright,
- Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
She had no idea that these were the lyrics. Most people don’t. Few people really listen to what goes on around them, or even what they themselves say. I find that the world needs to hear itself played back.
I turned this story into an artwork by recording a re-creation of this experience over the Rolling Stones singing “Brown Sugar.” Again, I sang along with the lyrics when the verse arrived. I offered a simple cd interactive port for people to listen to this piece in my show Shift: we are not yet done. I also made 187 brown sugar packets by hand on which I printed the lyrics. I fastened the packets to a three-by-six-foot white wood panel and let the audience read the words for themselves. My next gallery show took this concept even further. Titled playback, the show collected quotes and experiences from my life, or from people I know, and recontextualized them for the audience. I placed prejudiced quotes in Norman Rockwell paintings; I bought Golliwog dolls and placed them in contexts that mirrored my life experiences; I interpreted the phrase “the race card” in a series of greeting cards, a business card, and a playing card. A series of nigger jokes I collected off the web played in a video loop. I also made it possible for people to interact with my web-art-performance rent-a-negro.com, which (p.110) uses experiences and things people have said to me to explore the dynamic of race relations and diversity hiring trends in the United States. I wanted to let people know that someone was listening to the culture we create.
At that point in my career I was a budding artist exploring the society around me and the white box of the gallery. Race and racism have always been central narratives of my life, and so I found ways to bring that experience into the gallery. My approach allowed viewers to see a more in-depth view of me and my experience as an African American woman in the United States, and at times allowed them a mirror in which to see themselves. As I grew and evolved as an artist, creating this mirror became more fulfilling and rich with potential for me. Eventually I left the gallery behind and began taking the work directly to people in any way I could dream up—into the street, onto the web, onto radio, into bookstores, onto stages, into classrooms, and even onto The O’Reilly Factor—as I explored the country’s botched fascination with race.
My work consists of documenting reality and reporting experiences that people would rather overlook. People are quick to deny their actions and words, so recording them and then having the audio evidence on hand makes a big impact. I believe that art should hold a mirror to society. Sometimes society can be reflected back to itself in the simplest ways. My piece “Choose” was a play on the automated programs that assist people in setting up their voice mail when they take out personal ads.
TELEPHONE OPERATOR VOICE:
If you are Caucasian, press 1; African American, press 2; Hispanic, press 3; Asian, press 4; Native American, press 5. If your ethnic background wasn’t listed, or you prefer to skip this question, press zero. [Beep.]
There is a voyeuristic quality in listening to this audio. You don’t know where it comes from, but its questions ring familiar as part of our everyday experience. I played it in a room full of mirrors, as part of a gallery show in September 2001. Within eleven days of the opening reception, it was painfully obvious that “Arab American” was not an option on this list.
“WHITE NOISE” IS A compilation of questions that white people frequently ask people of color. These questions were collected from my own experiences and those of other people of color. The audio is read by a white
(p.111) actress. When I assigned her the piece, she said, “Oh yeah, I know exactly what this sounds like, I grew up in Texas, and I heard this kind of stuff all the time.” She improvised a few lines, which were perfect additions to the questions I had gathered. She recorded the whole litany (ten minutes worth) in one take.
WHITE WOMAN’S VOICE:
Do black people get tan? What I mean is, does y our skin get darker? And then do you call that “tan” or “darker”? You get blacker, right? Or do you get lighter? Do you get lighter in the sun? You speak English very well. You’re so articulate. You can talk without even sounding black. But you could sound black if you wanted to, right? Do it now. Say something and sound really black. How come black people don’t come to our group? I invite them. Why do you call yourselves black? I mean you’re not really black, you’re more of a brown color. Though I did see this man once who was black. He was actually black, like the color, like my shoes. You have such an interesting name. Did you make it up yourself? Why are you always talking about racism? Can’t you just relax? I tell people not to talk about race around black people ’cause you’ll get really angry and call them racist. Last year I read this book, I don’t remember the name, but a black person wrote it. Have you read it? You’d like it. All the black people I’ve met are so angry, it makes it hard to be friends with them. But you are easy to talk to. You don’t get mad every time I say something. You come from a big family. And you grew up in the ghetto, I mean, inner city. Right? How many brothers and sisters do you have? Did you have to share a bedroom with all of them? Do you know your father? And you were really poor and on welfare. Or did you have money? Then you aren’t really black. Like you are black but you are kind of white too. You kind of act white. I bet you can be black or white depending on whom you are talking to. Were your great-grandparents slaves? I just found out that my great-great-grandparents were slave masters. They owned slaves. Of course I don’t think that’s good or anything. I’m glad that it’s all in the past now. I can’t be held responsible for something my ancestors did hundreds of years ago. It was a really long time ago. Everything is different now. People are equal. I can’t keep paying for things my ancestors did that (p.112) I don’t even believe in. What am I supposed to do, pay a special tax? A white tax?
People who have heard this recording have laughed and become angry, and many have cried. Conversations begin from the moment the audio is turned off.
IN “LIVING FLAG” I created this kind of “collaboration” with the audience by panhandling for reparations. I sat on street corners of various cities with a can marked “reparations” and a sign that said “reparations accepted here.” As white people passed by, I offered them a chance to pay reparations into my can. I then paid those same reparations out to black people as they passed by. I wasn’t aggressive. I didn’t confront people. During the performance I offered a simple refrain to aid people in the interaction: “Would you like to pay some reparations today? You can pay right here.” Of course, the tape was always recording.
It’s kinda a do-it-yourself approach. … You guys wanna pay some reparations today? You wanna pay some reparations? [can jingle]
I’m assuming slavery of some sort.
Do you have anything to explain slavery?
I have to explain slavery?
A wide variety of people passed me by. The largest payment I received was ten dollars from a man in Portland who watched me for several minutes, gave me the money, thanked me, and declined the offer of a receipt. The smallest, twenty cents, came from the assistant to the contemporary art curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Many white people paid me money, usually their spare change, one or two dollars. One white man stood with me for what seemed like hours telling me how screwed up society is toward “minorities.” When I stood up to give some money to a black truck driver, this same white man followed me and when he thought I wasn’t looking grabbed a lock of my hair and rolled it between his fingers.
Lots of white people refused to make a payment, claiming, “I’m enslaved by the IRS.”
(p.113) Giving away the reparations payments was the best part of my days. People were surprised to get money from someone sitting on the street. Many black people came over to me because they were concerned about a young woman sitting on the street looking as if she were in need. When I explained my task to them, joyous laughter was often the first reaction. When I explained further that white people had made the payments that I was giving out to black people (I usually had to explain this part twice), their response was at first disbelief and then pleasant surprise. People wanted their reparations. It was thrilling.
More than any other moment, a group of adolescents created an experience I will never forget. Of all my audience-collaborators, I found these teenagers the most powerful—more than the white man who argued that I wasn’t living in reality, or the white woman who screamed and yelled at me that I was uneducated. This group of kids (two white boys, two white girls, and one black boy) created such a compelling moment because their experience happened between them—not between them and me—because of the space created by my performance. It went like this:
I’m collecting reparations.
DAMALI TO BLACK KID:
You, you don’t have to pay.
[raising his fist]: Black power! [nods] All of our hard work.
The white kid standing next to the black kid pushes him, throwing him off balance.
You’re only half black.
The black kid grows angrier. Looking at the white kid, he points to his skin color on his arm. The white kid starts walking off. The three other white kids in the group stand and watch. The second white boy takes a step toward the first white boy. The two girls cover their mouths and mutter awkward laughs. The black kid tightens his face and his brow furrows. He frowns, then places his hands on his hips.
When those young people left me on the street corner and went back to their lives, did they continue to have that conversation? Were their friendships different because one had gotten angry and the other violent? Did the two girls who stood and watched the whole thing quietly have to mediate further arguments between the two young men? I will never know, (p.114) but I can be sure that these and other questions are raised for the people in this scenario, as well as for those who experience it through audio. When people are allowed to interact with art in this way, without a narrator explaining, interpreting, or telling them what to think, the audience enters the work, moving beyond simply listening, observing, or being reported to. They start to experience.
Another memorable, and more hopeful, moment occurred in Harlem between a despondent black man and an in-touch white woman.
People always ask me if my work has a sense of hope. I respond that I’m just engaging reality, offering real chances for dialogue. One of these moments happened in Harlem. A black man complained to me about white people and their lack of respect. Then a white woman came up and paid two dollars in reparations. He was shocked.
[in conversation]: That’s the first time I’ve actually heard somebody say that.
It’s true though.
He said he’d never heard a white person care about black people. He continued to listen, and eventually, he asked her for a hug. The two embraced as I watched from the sidewalk below.
Sometimes the scene wasn’t quite as rosy. I found that white people are harboring a level of rage usually, stereotypically, assigned to black people. Here are a few more of the comments I recorded on the streets:
WHITE WOMAN #1:
You want reparations or you want something to do with slavery, you don’t sit on the side of the street and bum money. It’s just dumb.
WHITE MAN #2:
She and her group should go to work to better themselves. Instead of trying to get reparations for past deeds to their people.
WHITE WOMAN #2:
I know they were mistreated and maybe they deserve something, but to sit there and beg for it on the street corner … not too classy. I don’t think it’s my personal responsibility to repair people for things that were inflicted on them a couple of centuries ago.
WHITE WOMAN #2:
How can you fix that injustice? You can’t … with money or anything else.
WHITE MAN #3:
I think it’s a completely irresponsible idea. We corrected the wrongs as we went along. It’s un-American, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s dead wrong.
Something has to help us break through these patterns of ignorance, passivity, and denial. What better way than to listen to our own voices? By presenting these voices, I hope that reality becomes impossible to ignore. As an artist, my audio work has been crafted to give our society a mirror in which to observe its own blemishes. I hand the audience their reflection in the hope that they will discover the urgency of these issues and the opportunities to heal them.
I’m collecting reparation payments, and here—I’ll make a payment to you.
For the work of our ancestors … no, but that’s what I’m doing. I’m collecting it from white people, and I’m giving it to black people. There you go. What do you think of that?
[Laughs.] Is this some kind of quiet way of protesting or something?
I’m just getting the work done, you know what I mean? Getting the job done.