Artists Reach Out: Thomas F. DeFrantz - Gibney
Week of July 13, 2020
Making space for

Artists Reach Out: Thomas F. DeFrantz

Black man smiling at the camera as he sits on a dance floor.

ARTISTS REACH OUT: REFLECTIONS IN A TIME OF ISOLATION

Senior Curatorial Director Eva Yaa Asantewaa dreamed this series of interviews, Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation, out of grief for her work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance.

“In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there’s no distancing around what we still can share with one another—our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I’m glad they’re part of our beautiful community, and I’m eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.” – Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Senior Curatorial Director

This interview features Thomas F. DeFrantz, dancer, choreographer, educator, and 2020 Gibney Presents artist.


Thomas F. DeFrantz directs SLIPPAGE: Performance|Culture|Technology, a research group that explores emerging technology in live performance. Received 2017 Outstanding Research in Dance award, Dance Studies Association. Believes in our shared capacity to do better, and to engage our creative spirit for a collective good that is anti-racist, anti-homophobic, proto-feminist, and queer affirming. Creative projects include Queer Theory! An Academic Travesty commissioned by the Theater Offensive of Boston and the Flynn Center for the Arts; fastDANCEpast, created for the Detroit Institute for the Arts; reVERSE-gesture-reVIEW commissioned by the Nasher Museum in response to the work of Kara Walker. Professor at Duke University; recent teaching University of the Arts Mobile MFA in Dance; Lion’s Jaw Festival; Movement Research MELT; ImPulsTanz; New Waves Institute; faculty at Hampshire College, Stanford, Yale, MIT, NYU, University of Nice. In 2013, working with Takiyah Nur Amin, founded the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance, a growing consortium of 300 researchers. slippage.org.
soundz at the back of my head Gibney, 2020.

Man holding a laptop computer to the sky in a quaint pose.Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana knowing I was “not like the other boys.” I made dance shows in the front yard of a neighbor with a friend from down the block. We cavorted outside so that passing cars would see us. My grandmother had been a professional dancer when she was young, and my oldest brother was always the best dancer I have ever seen. Eventually my parents figured out how to get me to dance class.  But I also loved computers and writing, and learned how to write code.  In college I studied theater and computer science together. It took a while to figure out how to align these interests creatively, and within my commitment to Black cultures that I learned to care for from my parents.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

My research group SLIPPAGE creates live processing interfaces for performances that usually explore aspects of Black social life. We practice intentionally toward values of anti-racist, proto-feminist, queer-affirming creativities. We imagine creative space that wonders through Black possibilities in experimental structures of performance: unexpected visual and spatial designs, responsive environments, improvised texts. We envision a physical imagining among each other and amid bespoke computational systems that demonstrate the processing of Black thought. A caring for thinking through the undercommons, the Obama White House, the neighborhood dance party, the achievements of Black engineers. We wonder at Black futures aligned with social possibilities and unexpected, non-binary expressive gestures.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

SLIPPAGE works toward social justice through performance. The relationship between experimental performance and the practical concerns of people in need is hard to track and sometimes seems tentative or tenuous. We go on, though, working through an invention in tribute to Nina Simone at a museum or an improvised wondering at predictive algorithms that constrain Black lives at Gibney earlier this year. We care most about thinking alongside communities of color in our diversity, and in the diverse sorts of spaces where we gather. So it matters that we are not only working in the “too cool” venues; we are also at community-led outdoor block parties, or at the local high school training young engineers.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

Working online is okay for now, but Black cultures thrive in proximity.  We have to think about what a year of social distancing might yield; how would our work land differently in exploring aspects of Black life lived apart from a vibrant, expressive group? How will our social norms and expectations shift towards other sorts of social justice needs, maybe in terms of access to clean Internet signal as well as clean water and food, cleaning supplies? What sorts of sounds and movements will Black people invent, when revising how we gather and consecrate time? Our practice is an imagining and a making toward possibilities; it might function now, but it will certainly take some time to align our projects with how we now relate to screens, and a larger anxiety towards other bodies. In this different sort of environment, we have work to do.

Briefly share one self-care tip that has special meaning to you now.

Get away from the screen. Let your eyes unfocus, and your ears unhear. Breathe into a blur. Rest.

 

To read all of Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s Artists Reach Out interviews, visit infinitebody.blogspot.com.

 

Top photo courtesy of the artist.