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Embodying Funk

Kate Speer and emancipation through improvisation.

By Arts & Culture, Entertainment

Emancipation Through Improvisation

Illustration by Berke Yazicioglu.

Illustration by Berke Yazicioglu.

Kate Speer is hopeful as heck. Energetic, vivacious, and bubbling over. She is clearly committed to dance as a social practice, as activism, as momentum and movement for change. Yet after her presentation is complete, and she’s finished her water bottle, out-of-breath and spent, she seems distant. Exhausted. Spaced out. Pale even. Her comments during discussion continue to be to the point: this is activism, this is change-in the making; this is no-doubt spiritual.

Speer’s presentation took place as part of a weekend conference on Performance Studies at Northwestern University on the panel, “Mobilizing Affect.” In her thesis, “Transcendence, Testifying & Funkitivity: The Spiritual and Political Dimensions of Charisma in David Dorfman’s Prophets of Funk,” Speer dawns a ’70’s inspired purple dress and sunglasses and intersperses her reading with dance numbers specifically devised with iconic, funky choreography.

What I found particularly compelling was not Speer’s presentation, nor her research, but what panel discussant Barnor Hesse had to say about it. Hesse’s task was to specifically articulate the “mobilization of affect” in relation to the presented theses. Hesse acknowledged Speer’s main kicking argument — that the prophets of funk are like Pentecostal priests, inspiring spiritual possession that renders social results due to the charismatic skill of the prophet/priest/artist/singer/musician/performer. He acknowledged that the space between performer and audience member fosters certain chemistry. However, Hesse challenged that there is more to these charismatic characters than meets the eye or hits the ear, pointing out that this charismatic performativity is composed of a complex entanglement of being. In describing a concept of black performativity, Hesse referred to poet and philosopher Fred Moten. He explained that to Moten, “enslavement and the resistance to enslavement is the performative essence of blackness. And that through the act of resistance, improvisation takes place.”

Hesse asked Speer, “So are there charismatic moments in participatory events of black music, like funk, which are unsettling and compelling reminders of that double bind of enslavement and resistance to slavery?”

During Speer’s presentation, she briefly went into the etymology of Funk, its semantic roots being in the Kikongo word lu-fuki, or a strong body odor. The word “funk” functions as a conglomerate of “smell” and “fuck,” an example of dual-embodiment wherein language has transformed to include two inflections, the oppressor and the resistor. Funk pins exoticized racism to the very table it leapt from with an enduring voice of resistance and re-appropriation, much in the way that words like “queer” and “bitch” are reasserted. These reassertions are playing with language in order to present simultaneity of meaning, marking both the pain and the pleasure of the word. In some circumstances we see the word, we hear the word, and also understand the word for being adversely comprised of what it is, and what it isn’t (or what it’s resisting). In this reconfiguration, the senses are not apart from our understanding, but the experience deliberately places cognition in communion with the senses, evidencing an innovated pathway of empathy. But how does this circumstance occur? How can we invite this hybridity of cognitions and sensations?


Thom Donovan’s essay, “A Grave in Exchange for the Commons,” Fred Moten and the “Resistance of the Object,” posits Marxist theory with Moten’s poem where the blues began and artist Adam Pendleton’s auditory installation to explain how language and improvisation cultivate a commons that reasserts the limits of production, thereby fostering freedom. He points out that in “Private Property and Communism,” Karl Marx argues that the object, as private property, functions in correlation with human perception — and suggests that the senses themselves are in a contemplative relationship with objects. Furthermore, that the senses are not merely just senses, but human senses, painted over with a societal and cultural aptitude for perceiving. Marx says that the transcendence from private property is the result of “complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities.” So, how do we emancipate ourselves?

Donovan describes a tradition of blues “in which talking voice and talking instruments become interchangeable, where communicability and expression are thus uniquely coextensive.” He proposes that this interchangeability is when the senses, or the organs of a being, “infuse one another.” Where the seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, and loving are made available to one another, there is an opening — a commons. Donovan calls this “making common cause against the alienation of their common property.” The commons allows us to move beyond commodity. For the body, which has become the object/commodity, the commons is a place to give the body back to itself. In the commons, we are released from the human-sensorial hijacking through a hybridity of vibrations, where language and sound co-mingle to reassert an embodied form of expression.

The embodied practice of improvisation cultivates the commons also by eliding commodity in its participation with ephemerality. Donovan articulates that in Moten’s book, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Moten “suggests how the collective labor of the ensemble and the improvisatory nature of blues performance can both lead to models of collective organization and production that oppose expropriation, the reproduction of private property, enclosure, and other forms of subjection. In the improvisational techniques—scoring becomes unforeclosed — it resists being authored — by the fact that it is written and performed, live and recorded.” Improvisation is a performative agency that reconfigures corporeal and cognitive experiences. In this reconfiguration of the sensorial and intellectual body and mind, an emancipated practice emerges. Improvisation emerges frequently during solos in funk, as is celebrated with artists such as Herbie Hancock and Bootsy Collins. However, improvisation is not just wide open, but involves a set of self-imposed limitations — and in pushing against these limitations, we embody our diversely unique freedoms.

That day at Northwestern University, when Speer made the decision to leave the podium and turn up the music, it would have been nice to see, to hear, and to feel her contemplate improvising, participating and embodying funk. She performed choreographed movements, virtuously executed but nonetheless a form of representation. Representation in a sense that it lacked the very power of REpresentation, as in, differentiated repetition. Is this why she seemed the way she did after her presentation? Wrung and empty in an unsettling way? I want her to perform her funk. The dangerous thing that she may have done is to slip into making funk a commodity — a consumable formula for social change. And she, herself, is made into a commodity, objectified in action. To her, I say, let that go! Let go of what you know! Give in to yourself, give yourself back to yourself, and in doing so, you give others back to themselves.

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