Not Not Performance Art

Krump Session with Qwenga

February 21, 2024
By Rossen Ventzislavov


Krumping might not be performance art, but there is wisdom to be drawn from the analogy. The “Krump Session with Qwenga” I attended at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (ICA LA) on January 4, 2024, has been described as the first such session held in a museum space. Organized by Qwenga Cole, an interdisciplinary movement artist, the event was part of the Infinite Rehearsal with Chris Emile and No)one. Art House show curated by Chris Emile and Amanda Sroka.1Over four decades, the ICA LA, formerly the Santa Monica Museum of Art, has pioneered many nascent approaches to art-making and performance. “Krump Session with Qwenga” was co-organized by Asuka Hisa, the museum’s long-standing Director of Learning and Engagement. The premise of the show was to celebrate the museum as a “space of invention, improvisation, and revision,” providing an opportunity for a collective of dancers, sound artists and choreographers to rehearse and perform new material in a temporarily erected dance studio. The organizers framed Infinite Rehearsal, in its aim and overall effect, as a work of performance art intended to accumulate “an archive of the living.”2More of the description of Infinite Rehearsal

If I could briskly define what a museum is, what performance art is and what krumping is, I could probably just as easily find what these three have in common. And, yet, as I was watching the krump session at the ICA LA, I could not have been further away from the clinical safety of definitions. Physics does not bend to krumping but it sure stretches, arches and snaps. Watching the session, it dawned on me that gravity was ungrammatical—it only acquires a language through motion we make and motion we experience. Krumping, in this sense, is almost unbearably articulate. So many of its tropes—chest popping, arm swings, jumps etc.—are legible to the bystander but also seem to be laden with layers of hidden meaning. Each move is stacked with content. A stomp could be a threat, a demarcation, a steadying, a resignation or multiple other things and many of them all at once. A move is also stacked in terms of intensity, a layering of power and emphasis. What complicates the motile tapestry is the weaving of different bodies into cumulative gestural and narrative threads. Does the same move mean the same thing when performed by a different body in a different sequence and to a different beat?

Krump sessions with Qwenga, 2024, all images courtesy of Asuka Hisa

Qwenga himself had graciously prepared me for some of this complexity before the session. The music, he had said, was meant to loop so that, as they took each of their respective turns, krumpers would gradually wind their routines up to a higher level of frenzy and artifice against a steady backdrop. He had compared the semi-circle to a black hole that consumed more energy with every pulsation. It took a little time for these remarks to flesh out. The room started out mostly empty with a huddle of people in one corner operating a soundboard, the occasional head bobbing to the steady pump of early 2000’s hip hop, and some audience members trickling in. Gradually krumpers of all ages, sizes and gender presentations made their way in, spontaneously drawing a horseshoe formation.3As Qwenga told me after the session, among those present were luminaries of early krumping like Lil C and Slayer. I initially struggled with the black hole metaphor—there was just too much love, too much elation, for the group’s dynamic to resemble the threat and destruction that image evokes. But what I started to realize as more krumpers joined in, and the expressive temperature rose and rose, was that the human horseshoe did have the relentless energetic pull of a black hole. The beauty and redemption of it, as I saw it, was that no matter how berserk the staccato movements eventually became, each one of them had been built on a harmonious progression of audience encouragement and shared euphoria.

Most times when we use the word “articulate” as a compliment, we hazard condescension.4I owe this observation to my friend, the fiction writer and filmmaker Desmond Hall. This is because articulateness can and should be assumed of all humans. To praise someone for any quality is to acknowledge the possibility that they, or others like them, might lack that quality. The level of conceptual and physical articulateness in krumping, however, does not admit of such condescension. As an outsider, I was humbled by its sophistication and the self-alienating effect it had on me. To witness such poetic grace, so precisely executed and yet so insistently improvisational, is to be reminded of how beholden my own body and its movements are to the dumbness of gravity. My joy in watching the krump session at the ICA LA was a function of two interlocking forces—the painful awareness of my relative inertness and the pleasure of communal uplift that hoisted me above the threshold of comprehension.

Could this krump session count as performance art because it is a part of a larger show conceptualized as such? The procedural “yes” can only do so much here. The more responsible way to go about this question is to address the way “Krump Session with Qwenga” troubles the waters of institutional framing and medium specificity. In terms of framing, krumping and performance art are intriguingly similar because they both take shape in practices of survival and creativity far outside the museum context. Just as krumping is rooted in the life of gang warfare, street fighting, hip hop cyphers, and clowning, performance art often emerges from rituals of labor, nightclubbing, sexual gratification and political activism.5Jennifer Doyle’s observation that performance art explores “the contiguity of art with the social spaces that surround it” applies equally well to krumping. See Doyle, Jennifer. 2013. Hold It Against Me. Durham: Duke University Press. 14. The fact that performance art has already penetrated art institutions is just a matter of historical contingency. And, even though it has been around for much longer than krumping, its marriage to the rarefied world of fine art continues to be somewhat provisional.

And what about medium specificity? We might feel tempted to consider krumping a genre of dance, but that would leave out so many of its building elements—the radical responsiveness to fellow performers’ bodies, the ethos of unscripted collectivity, the porous relationship between artist and audience. When it comes to the medium of performance art, these features are part of its toolbox as well. In fact, they are precisely the parts that make performance art so hard to define and to fit into normative art categories. Definitionally, the concept of “nested media” seems to be a better match for both kinds of practice than any claim to medium specificity. The nesting of art media, in the formulation of philosopher Berys Gaut, allows for the possibility that “media can contain other media.”6Gaut, Berys. 2010. A Philosophy of Cinematic Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 19. Both krumping and performance art activate aspects of art forms that are not exclusively their own. And, on a higher level of radicality, they both encompass modes of expression that reach far beyond art altogether. This is probably the best version of an “archive of the living” we could hope for. And if it takes a museum box to start honoring and archiving the uncompromising vitality of krumping, we are all the better for it.7Soon after the “Krump Session with Qwenga,” a beautifully filmed recording of the event appeared on YouTube.

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