Lauren Bakst offers an intimate lens on
C O M P R E S S I O N: the recent work of her friend and fellow artist Niall Jones.
C O M P R E S S I O N
If you’ve ever gone out dancing with Niall Jones until the early hours of the morning, then you might have grasped something counterintuitive about the art of the clubgoer. That is, the promise of the club is not the one so often represented to us as bodies losing themselves on the dance floor in the transcendent euphoria of substances and sweaty communion. Yes, there are drugs and dancing, but the club is in fact a much more dispersed terrain comprising a series of liminal zones—lines, toilet stalls, bars, DJ booths, smoking areas—that compel one to linger and forgo desires for climax or arrival. Outlasting the moon on any given night in New York requires a particular brand of physical and psychic endurance—the effort of meandering, of being willing to wander, of not wanting anything in particular to happen. It is this errantry coupled with duration that Jones’s latest installation and performance work, C O M P R E S S I O N, transmits to the theater and also asks of its audience.
Entering The Neilma Sidney Theatre at Performance Space New York for Jones’s performance, one passes through a set of swaying black vinyl panels. An automated roving light emits a single ray of fuchsia that surveils the surroundings—somehow both sexy and unnerving. Raised platforms held up by steel scaffolding line the periphery of the room. I observe myself amid the audience as we negotiate our positions on this de- and re-constructed stage. As in much of Jones’s work, tonight’s theater has been turned inside out, disassembled, and overexposed. Lights, sound equipment, and the tech console—all that would typically be hidden from us—are starkly on view, becoming aesthetic in their careful dis-arrangement. During the daily installation, Jones invites us to treat these theatrical devices as sculpture; during the nightly show, they function as anatomical parts of a living entity, transforming the theater itself into another performer. This gesture is critical in that it deflects and refracts the attention we have been programmed to direct onto Jones, as the performer before us, toward the apparatus that structures our coming together. Suspending the set of performer-audience relations commonly available to us, Jones invites those who are willing to reroute presumptions of relatability toward the possibilities of shifting and unstable proximities.
Channel check. Jones, in a cargo green jumpsuit, works his way down the far wall, opening each of the window shades as he goes, dancing just barely to the techno track. The city night falls into the theater, granting the performance a porousness between “in here” and “out there” that disavows the thing as a hermetically sealed event. Jones’s voice booms. “COME ON.” Every hit, drag, and step sends an echo through the sound system. When the lights flood us in a deep red, Jones removes the upper half of his jumpsuit before expertly grinding and lap-dancing his way through the audience. Not everyone desires this communicable sweat and friction, some reciprocate with pleasure, and others are inevitably passed by. The erotic proximity of the club is not confined to this scene but is recirculated throughout the performance, as when in a later moment, Jones falls back into the hands of audience member and virtuoso improviser Ishmael Houston-Jones, who catches his waist without hesitation. Somehow, this accidental but fortuitous touch marks the zone of convergence between these two Joneses, both of whose choreographic impulses transmit the threat of force in every caress, the possibility of tenderness amid brutality. Bringing the libidinal matrix that undergirds the scene of performance into relief, C O M P R E S S I O N suggests it is as much of a structuring condition as the theatrical architecture itself.
Now donning a transparent mask over his face, Jones’s exhales bear the approximation of a trombone being played. Lips to mask, spit to plastic, each blow animates the movement of chest, limbs, and spine in a fragmented coordination. Jones’s haunted solo distills an evocation of the brass band into the interanimacy of body and breath. Visible just beneath a layer of frosted plastic, IN, BRASS, an enlarged xeroxed print of a band photo from 1997, is embedded in one of the platforms on which we sit. The image and the dance footnote each other. As degraded copy and deferred trace, these footnotes animate the material reproductivity of black performance. “JIMMY, PLAY BALM.” If Jones is not at the tech booth initiating the cues with the press of his fingers, then he is directing one of the technicians to do so. Mounted atop a scaffold on wheels, Jones uses the ceiling’s pipe grid to pull himself and the structure across the floor, cooing, “If you can’t make me say ooh / Why you askin’ for some / You ain’t really want none…” In Jones’s acapella and stuttered delivery, the bridge from Destiny’s Child’s “Lose My Breath” becomes a melancholic aphorism for queer desire.
IN, BRASS is just one among a selection of images embedded in the stage-cum-seating. The OCTOBER SERIES displays a grid of distorted self-portraits taken over the month of October during the thirty-sixth year of Jones’s life. Bruised, xeroxed, and enlarged, Jones made these images in service of an impossible duet with his mother Gloria, who died on the last day of October when she was thirty-six. Generated from within the irreparable breach of loss, Jones’s self-portraiture imagines what his mother’s last month of life might have felt like. In their disfiguration, the images offer incalculable evidence of a touch across time. In another assemblage, JOHNSONJACKSONJEFFERSONJONES, an original photograph shows Jones’s grandmother holding her face in her hands, caught in a moment pregnant with indeterminate feeling. Neither nostalgic nor sentimental, these images are not the makings of a reconstituted family album. Rather, they have been messed with, multiplied, and dispersed, sent out in the service of some other possible life, into the crowd of Jones’s heterotopic assembly.