Body as Battle Ground in the Practice of Artist and Organizer Jordan Weber

In his now seminal text, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates issues an urgent plea regarding the relationship between the state and the black body. “You must always remember,” he writes addressing his teenage son, “ that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence upon the body.”[1] We, the reader, are urged to understand that the body, particularly the black body according to Coates, is a disposable entity, an entity upon which battles are waged, a thing to be taken, discarded and snatched. The state is imbued with an unyielding power to act as it desires in accordance to its legacy of violence and plunder.

Body Snatchers #3, 2016. Dye Sublimation on Aluminum, 17 in. x 25 in.

What we witness in Jordan Weber’s work is a visualization of Coates’ thesis. That is to say, Weber identifies for us, through signs and signifiers, the body snatchers that are the enactors of Coates’ great violence. In the installation Body Snatchers (2016), Weber has configured a scene — slightly akin to the scene of an outdoor training area —comprised of a weight-lifting station on astroturf, in which the barbells are car rims. In the corner of the installation is a car junk heap from which plants are overgrown. A close examination of the scene reveals that the scrap is from an old police car. When installed, at times the car heap is lifted by Weber or another person, most often a male of color. On the one hand, we are tasked with confronting the realities and consequences of the relationship between police forces and men of color: body snatchers. On the other hand, the idea of a police presence being met with an active resistance modeled through the gestures of the performers who struggle to lift the car heap suggest something other than a predetermined outcome.

This tension weaves itself throughout much of Weber’s oeuvre. Indeed, as an artist who is also a community organizer, Weber is intimately acquainted with the complexities that arise as communities engage in strategies of self-determination. What skills are already present? Who are our allies? What are our needs? For this reason, Weber’s installation work has often been discussed within the context of a social practice ethos that includes artists such as Tania Bruguera, Theaster Gates, or Thomas Hirschhorn. Weber himself does not shy away from claiming a stake within the realm of socially engaged art-making, he rejects an approach that gets him caught in the “dizzying vast array of initiatives hatched by professional artists, arts non-profits, and plain old social services organizations.”[2] The Iowa native is careful about how, when, and on what terms he enters new communities to work.

From Body Snatchers, 2016.

This reverence for community and land certainly intersects with Weber’s investigations of the body. Ecological concerns of waste, decay, and blight are not to be thought of as outside the tactics of oppression employed by the state, but as their own forces of disenfranchisement. We need only to look at Flint, Michigan’s ongoing water crisis for a contemporary example of the way in which environmental discrimination and racism affect communities of color. In one installation, a broken basketball hoop rests in the middle of a dry land with a deflated basketball lying directly in front of the hoop. There is no green to be found anywhere. In the public installation Trap House (2016), Weber chose an abandoned house once used by his family members as a drug house as the site of a public installation. The house, tagged with enamel paint and surrounded by dead trees, reminds us that the trap — often a site of underground economies — is the result of policies and actions that target the inner city for the worst. Weber does not attempt to absolve or excuse the site of its past. Rather, he confronts the complex social matrix in which it is enmeshed. When Coates’ asserts that “it is traditional to destroy the black body” he speaks of physical assaults. What Weber offers is the idea that ecological neglect is equally an assault for black, brown, and indigenous folks.

Of course, Weber still makes two-dimensional art, but as he told me recently, the installations are where the focus lies. And though not immediately evident, he takes care to gather materials he uses such as rims, wood, even soil, from local sources as a way to maintain a connection, quite literally, to the ecosystems — cultural and environmental — in which he works. For his upcoming installation at The Union For Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska, Weber is turning abandoned structures into greenhouses for year round food production, a process that involves local farmers and other leaders and makes use of plant species indigenous to the area.

The metrics of social practice are fluid, ever shifting. How do we know what is successful and what flops? Perhaps the best evaluations begin with a critical examination of the relationships that frame these interactions. To be sure, Jordan Weber is an artist not just committed to art, but to his city and most certainly, a larger conversation of equity and justice. That might be the best approach that anyone can take in the muddy terrain of social practice.

 

This essay is published in partnership with Temporary Art Review for the exhibition Sensible Disobedience: Disrupting Cultural Signifiers in a Neoliberal Age curated by Lynnette Miranda at Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City, MO.

[1]  Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (New York: Spiegel & Grau), 10.

[2]  Ben Davis, “A Critique of Social Practice Art,” International Socialist Review, 90.

Jessica Lynne
Jessica Lynne is a Brooklyn based arts administrator and critic. She received her BA in Africana Studies from NYU and has been awarded residencies and fellowships from Art21 and The Cue Foundation, Callaloo, and The Center for Book Arts. Jessica contributes to publications such as Art in America, The Art Newspaper, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, and Pelican Bomb. She's co-editor of ARTS.BLACK, a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives, and a founding editor of the now defunct (but still special) Zora Magazine. Currently, Jessica serves as the Manager of Development and Communication at Recess.