Rashaad Newsome’s Assembly transformed the Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory into an immersive, multifaceted installation and performance space. Working with creatives across a range of disciplines, Newsome wove together vogue dance, therapeutic and poetic narratives spoken by an AI-generated robot-griot, computer graphics, and the endlessly generating patterns of African “diasporic fractals” into an expansive and subversive vision for the future.
Newsome began his deconstructing and decolonizing mission by inserting the transgressive performative energy of Black queer creativity into the former drill hall for the Seventh Regiment of the New York Militia (known as the “Silk Stocking” regiment due to its elite membership). His two-part conceptual “Muthaship” was entered through a “Cargo Bay” that opened into a technologically impressive and thoroughly operatic spectacle of light, sound, and movement. Enormous video projections were encircled with a kaleidoscope of video-mapped walls, where large and small computer-generated fractal patterns moved and morphed alongside flowing bodies and gigantic heads set against expansive landscapes, celestial skies, and a pulsating musical soundscape composed by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. At the center, 30-foot-high holograms projected on a curtain featured dancers sashaying, gesturing, swaying, twisting, and kicking. Being—Newsome’s non-binary AI robot creation—made regular appearances. Composed of a supermodel body covered in wood veneer, with a head fashioned from a Pwo mask and feet clad in platform shoes, Being offered a spoken-word narrative of therapy, advice, and even cooking and dietary tips, along with poems drawn from the work of queer poet Dazié Rustin Grego-Sykes.
African references could be found throughout the installation, particularly in the fractal patterns on the walls, vinyl floor, and wallpaper, as well as on the dancers’ clothing. These citations continued in the gallery of “life pods” with photo-collages set in elaborate black frames and two sculptures frozen in poses celebrating the performative display ethic of Black and Black queer culture. Deploying the fractal that inspired African royal insignias, textiles, and village architecture, and served as the source for digital and computer circuits, Newsome’s installation troubles the ties between technology and cultural domination. Questioning Modernism as a Eurocentric appropriation of African culture, he presents an alternative formation in which the expressive dynamic of ballroom vogue and Black femme/trans performance serves as both a model and critique.
This voguing body and Being’s accompanying narrative of reflection, reclamation, and recovery gave voice to the trauma of racism and exclusion and the poetic potentiality of Black creativity and social practice. The notion of sociality, central to the whole installation, was enthusiastically celebrated in “Command Deck,” a nightly hour-long performance in a small theater, where audiences witnessed a vibrant demonstration of Newsome’s contrary collage aesthetic. Accompanied by a gospel choir and small musical ensemble, dancers performed often improvisational choreography. In what sometimes seemed a nightclub review, singers, musicians, spoken-word poets, and performers proclaimed the dynamic potential and global language of ballroom culture.
Newsome’s ambitious and inclusive contemplation of liberation, pride, and politics was evident throughout: a slideshow of Black trans women who have been murdered or committed suicide began the performances, and a film of voguers from around the world was screened at the end. Even if the nuanced meaning of the piece was overwhelmed, at times, by Assembly’s technological complexity and the dynamism of the voguing bodies, Newsome’s heartfelt embrace of the radical potential of trans and Black queer creativity continued to resonate long after leaving the hall.