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Following a three-year hiatus, this month’s much-anticipated return of DLECTRICITY—the public, free, outdoor light-based art show along the Woodward Corridor in Midtown Detroit—ups its game with the addition of New York City-based multidisciplinary artist Rashaad Newsome as artist-in-residence for the 2017 festivities. Working in conjunction with the Detroit Institute of the Arts, as well as numerous community members, from Cass Tech students and the popular Gabriel Brass Band, to individual performers and dance troupes, Newsome will be staging a series of happenings during DLECTRICITY weekend that are not to be missed. 

The major event is the Detroit iteration of Newsome’s King of Arms, his iconic mass processional performance, specially commissioned for the occasion, which will kick off DLECTRICITY on Friday, September 22nd at 7pm in the DIA’s Great Hall. King of Arms launches with the premiere of a large-scale, site-specific video projection, after which, the procession will take to the streets. 

Throughout the summer, Newsome has been hard at work casting local performers and staging rehearsals for Shade Composition, an ongoing, iterative artwork, the performance of which will conclude the DLECTRICITY festival at 8pm on September 23rd at the Detroit Film Theatre. Newsome acts as conductor and vocal choreographer, and will lead an ensemble of locally cast self-identifying Black female performers, whose voices and gestures are synthesized to form a live and improvisational orchestral audio/video collage, mixed using hacked video game controllers.

As DLECTRICITY draws near, Newsome took a moment out of his busy preparations to speak with CultureSource about his experience working in Detroit, and what visitors to DLECTRICITY can expect to see out of his studio. 

King of Arms Procession6 CSKing of Arms procession

CultureSource: Both King of Arms and Shade Composition are iterative works that you have staged in other cities. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of bringing these works to Detroit? 

Rashaad Newsome: The opportunity to simultaneously travel these works was really exciting for me, as I have not yet been able to do it. I am still in early stages of production, but I am already seeing how much the performances mirror one another in regards to their social practice aspects. The processes are both deeply collaborative and dependent on local creative communities. Spending time with the folks here really gives me a lot of insight on their lived experiences, thus making for more genuine portrait of the city.

King of Arms Miami Mass Processional Performance12 CSKing of Arms in Miami.What are common elements of the parade in each iteration, and what are unique? I can see that there is a degree to which they reflect the culture and subculture of their host city—New Orleans Mardi Gras tribe regalia, for example, or Miami ATV crews. What is the significance of bringing some of those subcultures into Detroit? For example, I see that there will be a Miami cycle crew in the parade, and Gabriel Brass Band is of course a Detroit-based extension of New Orleans second line tradition.

The general structure of my processions is a brass band, dancers, and a number of vehicles and people. For this iteration, I created a band by combining Gabriel Brass Band and Cass Tech High School band. In some ways, Gabriel Brass Band is a sonic representation of the City of Detroit and I coming together. They are a local band that honors the rich history of New Orleans music. Their sound is authentically second line. The Cass Tech High School band is much more of a classic marching band, lots of performance, precision and to-the-max volume. I can’t tell you how excited I am to bring these two sonic forces together. There is also a bit of passing of the torch as well. I think it’s important for young artists to see other artists out in the world working. 

In staging and restaging these works, can you point to lessons learned, or elements of refinement? How have the shape or content of these works changed over time? 

The work is constantly changing as the location and the people inform it. I am also always changing the technology I use in the piece. In past iterations of King of Arms, I used one Nintendo Wii controller, which eventually turned into two controllers, which allowed for more control of the audio and video in real time. For this iteration, I have integrated aspects of the program I wrote for my performance FIVE, which was recently performed in Saint Croix at the University of the Virgin Islands, as well as in my hometown of New Orleans at the Contemporary Arts Center. In that performance, I use an Xbox One Kinect Sensor to track the movement patterns of dancers. In this context, I am using my own movement patterns to manipulate to sounds of the performers. 

How did you connect with local performers and parade members? Have there been challenges to the work? Uplifting surprises?

In regard to the parade, a very pleasant surprise was connecting with a Detroit/ Toledo based car collective called the Loyal Kings Car Club during this years Dream Cruise. The Loyal Kings Car Club is a collective of over 20 guys with eccentrically customized cars, who will be joining us for the parade. 

Can you define your role in these works? Choreographer? Organizer? Director? How much control do you exert over the final presentation, and how much comes out of collaboration with your performers? 

I am all of the above. The control varies from piece to piece. Shade Composition starts with screen tests, which act as the casting process and an anthropological study of Black vernacular in that locale. The material from that study informs the overall sonic composition. During rehearsals, loads of things happen that can incite change in that composition. The performers’ job is to create a narrative around the gestures that produce sound, and they have full freedom on how they do that. I am looking mostly for stage presence and rhythm. Once the final composition is done, we rehearse for weeks, finally performing on opening night. The thing is, they know the general piece, but they have no idea how I will conduct it, so there is a huge improvisational element in the piece from them and me. In regard to the parade, the only thing that is choreographed is the parade route, the Vogue performers, dance performance, and some of the music played by the band. 

There is something quite ephemeral about performance in general, and parades in particular represent an extraordinary concentration of resources and energy into a short performance window, which concludes without leaving much of an artifact. What lasting impact does such an investment of energy create or what would you hope it creates? Parades are also a celebration of something—nationalism, pride, affiliation with a certain identity. What, if anything, is King of Arms a parade for?

My hope is that the parade appears as a balm for all the hardship that the Black community has to deal with in daily life. It is a celebration of the experiences of not only Black people in this country, but all who actively resist dehumanization every day of their lives. It is a healing ceremony of sorts.

shade composition2009 still3 CSShade Composition

All images courtesy of the artist.

DLECTRICITY, produced by Midtown, Detroit, Inc., is Friday, September 22nd and Saturday, September 23rd, 7pm to midnight, at destinations from the Detroit Institute of Arts to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), including the Detroit Artists Market, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American Art, the Detroit Public Library Main Branch and the Michigan Science Center. For more information, including where to park, click here.