Q&A with Ada Pinkston
Dr. Ada Pinkston is an award-winning multimedia artist, educator, and cultural organizer living and working in Baltimore, Maryland. The founder of the performance art laboratory, LabBodies, Her art explores the intersection of imagined histories and sociopolitical realities on our bodies. Over the years, her work has been featured at a variety of spaces including The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Walters Art Museum, The Peale Museum, Transmodern Performance Festival, P.S.1, The New Museum, Light City Baltimore, and the streets of Berlin.
Mind on Fire had the pleasure of presenting Dr. Pinkston back in the Fall of 2017, alongside Wume and Missy Mazoli, and it was at this concert where I first met her. It was our first tech-heavy show, and we had been in the space all day making sure the lights, sounds, and all the chains of electrical and digital communication were operating smoothly. We're scrambling. The show is either going to work or not - and we're not entirely sure which.
Ada comes in with her tech, looks the space over, chooses a corner to set up, checks the power, then she goes back stage to find a chair.
We get everything under control, and I head on backstage to see if Ada wants to run anything. She coolly replies "no" and waits patiently and pleasantly to move on. She's fine. My memory says she was working on an orange.
The audience enters. They sit. Ada comes from back stage to her corner. We ask the audience to stand and gather around. They do. The rest is immaculate. Ada has the ability to make a space at once playful and serious, offering her audience the opportunity to interact (which she is able to easily improvise from) and think. She opens up a room and all the neural pathways inhabiting it.
This is why I'm excited that Dr. Pinkston is the first in what will be a series of interviews with our collaborators. What follows is a Q&A we shared via email:
You founded LabBodies, a performance art laboratory/collective, in Baltimore in 2014. Why did you form the organization, and how has it changed or grown over time?
Hoesy Corona and I formed LabBodies after attending a Coco Fusco lecture organized by The Contemporary. One of the things that struck us after this lecture was the fact that the audience did not know how to grasp the work of this amazing performance artist. This made us both see that there was a need for a platform for performance art in our community.
As alumni of Maryland Institute College of Art, we saw that performance art was often seen as an afterthought. The secondary consideration in the framework of object-based based "fine-art." However, we know that performance art has its own form, language and considerations. We wanted to create a space for local artists to develop their voice in performance art and to consider the formal elements of performance art in a safe and open format. That is why we started the Open stage nights. Soon after we began, we started doing commission projects for larger public and private art institutions. That was our focus for a while. Once we got these commissions we focused on making sure that we prioritized showcasing other people of colour and women artists.
Now, that we are approaching our five-year mark we are in the midst of a series of strategic planning sessions and re-assessing and re-evaluating what our performance art platform without walls will look like in the next five years. In particular, how do we sustain our work without a consistent stream of resources, and how do we create a platform for a deinstitutionalized institution?
What makes performance art an important medium among the disciplines? What are its strengths? Its weaknesses?
Performance art is important because it exists in a cannon that is not historically European and male. It is a practice that has a vernacular that is deeply social. Performance art needs a few things: space and time considerations; interactions between the performer and the audience; the artist themself/themselves are the person/persons who create the script/score; some ties to and considerations of traditional performance and visual art forms like: theater, dance, spoken word, music, sound, video art, and sculpture; and the breaking apart and reconsidering the dynamic of the fourth wall.
For me, all of these elements mixed together is what creates the perfect storm of a dynamic work of art. These elements are the strength of performance art because it is moving, it is intersectional, and evolves with the audience and the air of the room or the public site that the work is presented in.
The strength of performance art is that it is an experience that people have in a limited space and time. But this limitation of space and time is also a weakness. It is difficult to document the magic that is conjured when a performance artwork is strong. However, it is this line between the strength and weakness of performance art is something that we are all interested in playing with as performance art curators and performance artists.
This past October 5, in the final days of Kavanaugh's appointment proceedings, you participated in Brick X Brick, a national public art performance that builds human 'walls' against misogyny. You wrote a thoughtful article about your experience here. What is art's relationship to politics? And does an artist have a responsibility to participate in political discourse?
Art is a powerful tool. Art can be used to evoke emotion. Art can be used to transform the senses and communicate to the mind, body and spirit of a person. When used for good, art can be used to open up the minds of a broad public. Through this context, art can be used to transform society. We see examples of this in advertising and marketing campaigns used by corporate entities and political parties. However, art that is used for the good of humanity is a lot more difficult to come across in forms that reach masses of people. And I think that is why we all create smaller artists-run spaces, platforms, and smaller scale experiences for people to consider the ways that we can all work towards considering all of our humanity on deeper levels and shift towards a more just and equitable future.
How has Baltimore changed since you've been here? What impact has that had on yourself and other artists in the city?
Baltimore is in the midst of a serious re-gentrification process. So is every other US city that I am aware of. Before I moved to Baltimore in 2011, I lived in Oakland, California. The regentrification process in the San Francisco Bay area is a lot more resourced, swift and violent. But it is happening there just as it is happening in Baltimore. North Avenue alone is an example of the shift that exists in most cities in the United States and beyond.
This type of change is not new and stems from the colonialist foundations of the United States. However, it is important to think about this relationship. This impact has increased an element of scarcity and increased chasms between people with privilege and power and people who lack privilege and power. It also creates a more acrimonious debate over who is an insider and who is an outsider, and the concept of social, political, and racial identity becomes complicated.
Overall, the people in my community are aware of these chasms and are working to ensure that equity is at the centre of all decisions that are made in terms of who gets grants and who does not. However, the water gets murky when we consider the subjectivity of these considerations. But it is important to de-mystify the processes that are at play and the context that we are all working within and without.
Who are your influences? Is there a particular artwork that you want to highlight here?