Conversations on Performance Event: Andrea Fraser & Simon Leung, Tuesday, May 28

Feeling Seen

Kellian Delice at Pageant
April 23, 2024
By Andrew Kachel

Review

As I sat down to begin to write about Kellian Delice’s recent performance at Pageant, **STAR SPANGLED BANGER, I idly scrolled YouTube playlists of performers singing the national anthem. I came across a 2016 video of Aretha Franklin opening a Thanksgiving Day football game in Detroit.1Aretha Franklin. The National Anthem. 2016. Ford Field, Detroit, MI. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvqMOH0zYq0 [Accessed March 17, 2024.] For four and a half minutes, Franklin peeled each line, word, and syllable apart before suturing them back together with her silky vibrato. The camera panned across players and coaches. Some fidgeted awkwardly. Others clenched back tears. A Minnesota Viking flinched, eyes glistening, and dropped his head. I felt my eyes begin to well up too, the performance having tapped a wellspring of emotion with ease and relative immediacy. Franklin seemed unconcerned about taking her time – with an emphasis on the taking. There was something transgressive in extending this often perfunctory song, wrenching something different out of it, eschewing its melodies as a matter of course, submitting it to her own style and tradition. What was it exactly that she produced? Perhaps, as Fred Moten has written in relation to Blackness and improvisation, it was something akin to “the possibility of action in lingering and the promise of freedom in action.”2Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 70.

For the entirety of Delice’s hour-long performance, he sang the Star-Spangled Banner on repeat. I didn’t cry. But I did hear the song in new ways – not least because it was one of the first coordinates of the performance that I could grasp.

Photo by Andrew Kachel.

Photo by Andrew Kachel.

Along the two flights of stairs leading to Pageant was a crowd release notice stating that one’s presence in the space constituted consent to being photographed and filmed. Yet the most palpable feeling in the room was one of occlusion, not surveillance. The room was bisected by a provisional sheetrock wall that ran half its width, the visible wood frame coding the space of the audience as a backstage area. A small flat-screen monitor hung on the wall, and a translucent plastic sheet that extended from the edge of the wall resembled a semi-permeable stage curtain. As the audience settled around the edges of this environment, the first notes of the Star-Spangled Banner sounded. Delice’s voice was amplified by a microphone with no musical accompaniment. At the same time, the monitor showed a naked shoulder from the back – presumably Delice’s – standing in front of a microphone stand. A black square blocked out his head. Shortly after the singing began, a performer standing near a slit in the curtain assumed an air of coordination and began pointing at audience members one at a time, beckoning them forward. Another person’s hand reached through the curtain, guiding audience members to the other side. It soon became clear that the monitor showed a live feed of the happenings on the other side of the curtain: each audience member who passed through the curtain promptly appeared in the video’s tightly composed frame, in close but somewhat ambiguous proximity to Delice. A quick camera flash and the person was led away before the next was promptly ushered into position.

Photo by Andrew Kachel.

Photo by Andrew Kachel.

I remained in this liminal zone for about half of the performance, not fully aware of what was going on in the other half of the space. There was only so much information to glean from my position, and the stray stimuli that filtered back through the divide – a nervous laugh, a blurred movement – only underscored a loose structure that I couldn’t yet fully access. Meanwhile Delice continued to sing, unfolding each successive rendition with ease, switching seamlessly from bold and resounding intensity to torpid and oddly lustful timbre. At times the final line of the song flitted right into the first. His anthem was a continuous and shapeshifting repetition.

“Are you ready?” the performer in front of the curtain asked when it was my turn. After passing through the transparent barrier, the first thing I registered was audience members sitting in tiered rows staring back at me. (Funny that that’s what I remember. It’s difficult to observe when one is being observed.) I was positioned by another performer behind a structure that looked like an A-line gown made of unopened home delivery copies of the New York Times, shiny and taut in their recognizable blue plastic sleeves with the front pages just barely showing through. Next to me was Delice, naked except for an opaque black plexiglas box that he wore on his head. His back was turned to the audience, while I squarely faced them. My photograph was taken and I was led to a seat. I watched as two or three dozen more people came through the curtain. Some mugged for the camera, others were gravely serious, nervous, studiedly neutral.

The lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner can basically be distilled down to two questions, an observation, and another question. The lyrics center on the visibility of the American flag as a national symbol, its connection to armed struggle, and its illumination by violence.3It actually consists of four verses, but only the first is ever really sung – the entire song compressed into an eternal beginning. Like Franklin’s, Delice’s delivery was unconstrained by its traditional cadences. Each stretched-out repetition afforded him opportunities to torque each word toward a new meaning. Delice’s hyper-visibility, coupled with his improvisational repetition of the charged and ubiquitous anthem, operated in productive tension against the performance’s layered obstructions to visibility and its regimented structure. By modulating both his and his audience’s ranges of action and visibility, Delice subverted certain demands that American culture and its institutions can make on performing bodies, emphasizing – if we look again to Moten and his positioning of improvisation as a lens through which to consider dynamics of (in)visibility – the paradoxical notion that “invisibility has visibility at its heart.”4Moten, In the Break, 68. Moten’s sprawling considerations of improvisation offer a constructive lens through which to consider the twinned dynamics of hypervisibility and invisibility. Delice stopped singing soon after the last person came through the curtain and was photographed. A tentative applause, and people began to file out. Delice stayed still.

Photo by Zoey Lubitz.