People mattered to Fred Moten when he was growing up in 1970s Las Vegas. As a black kid living in a segregated area of the entertainment capital of America and beyond, Moten and his friends made their own fun. At home too, growing up with his janitor father, a school-teacher mother who campaigned for desegregation and a lively coterie of activists, artists and bohemians, the social scene on his doorstep was an important influence on the man named by Art Review as the tenth most globally influential people in the arts.
“I grew up around people who were really interested in the arts and beauty, and who always had interesting things to say about it,” says Moten. “As a kid as well, I was part of this really intense social group, and we would always embark on these collective projects with bike ramps or whatever, and we’d do things together, which was great. I’d much rather do something together with someone than by myself.”
It’s not difficult to see the long-term effect all this has had on Moten’s work as one of the most forward-looking thinkers of his age. Since his first publications appeared at the turn of the century, Moten has explored black identity and culture in a discursive and engaging way that can flip from Charles Mingus to Hannah Arendt in a sentence. Recent books include Black and Blur, Stolen Life and The Universal Machine. While deeply radical in their thinking, they are rooted in a need for shared emotional experience that goes right back to Moten’s early days.
One can see this in particular in Gravitational Feel, the artwork Moten has created in collaboration with artist Wu Tsang, and which is shown in Glasgow for the first time next week. This forms part of Episode 10: A Means Without End, the latest long weekend of discussion, provocation and sharing of experience organised by Arika, the ever-expanding public forum initiated and led by Barry Esson and Bryony McIntyre, the duo previously behind Glasgow-based experimental music festival, Instal.
Gravitational Feel is nominally a steel, wood and rope construction given its emotional impulse by the audience who move among it, brushing, strumming and stroking it in a touching interactive display.
“We call it a sculptural performance,” says Moten. “You could call it an installation, but it’s also a performance in terms of the way people interact with it. Sometimes it’s me and Wu interacting, but largely it’s about how other people experience it. That’s the main thing. Wu and I began working together about six years ago, and came out of our friendship. A lot of it comes from us not being in the same place, and I guess I’m interested in non-local communities.”
At Tramway, Moten will also take part in several other Episode 10 events alongside contemporaries including Brazilian philosopher and artist, Denise Ferreira da Silva and Berlin-based artist and film-maker Arjuna Neuman. Poet Nathaniel Mackey and Colombian mathematician Fernando Zalamea will also appear alongside Moten.
This is the third of Arika’s Episodes Moten has taken part in. The first, Episode 4: Freedom is a Constant Struggle, saw him in dialogue with poet and playwright Amiri Baraka and trumpeter and composer, Wadada Leo Smith. Moten’s second appearance was at Episode 6: Make a Way Out of No Way, when he appeared alongside grassroots community organiser Charlene Sinclair and Miss Prissy, the self-styled queen of black working class dance form, Krump. Moten also took part in Arika’s week-long series of events in 2012 at the Whitney Biennial in New York.
“They were a lot of fun,” Moten says of the events. “I was working with a lot of people from the U.S., but it took us all to be in Scotland for it to happen.”
Despite co-creating Gravitational Feel, Moten is loath to call himself a poet or artist, and actively resists definition in those terms, both for himself and others. The things that matter in terms of shaping his thinking remain much closer to home.
“There are people who are called artists or writers,” he says, “and it was musicians I encountered first. People like Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone, Earth, Wind and Fire, all the music my Mom was playing. And there were writers, like Amiri Baraka, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Gayl Jones. But in terms of, let’s say, my relationship to the aesthetic, which is bigger than art, I would say my relationship to my Mom and the people who I grew up around, who fed me and schooled me, they’re more important. It wasn’t an academic thing, but it was intellectual. These people thought deeply about what they said and what they did, and it was a social thing.”
All of which not only relates to Gravitational Feel, but to Arika’s line of inquiry in bringing people together in a public space to interact in ways that the work of Moten and others enables them to do.
As Esson puts it, Moten’s thinking about how communities exist in everyday opposition to prevailing power structures “has had a profound impact on our own thinking, ways of collaborating and even just the kinds of things we believe could even be possible with the events we organise.”
Moten put it even simpler.
“In the work that Wu and I do, there’s a sense of community,” he says, “and it’s a more detailed form of social life. And I guess once you start thinking about social life, it becomes more mysterious and more miraculous. It’s a miracle we’re constantly trying to understand, to get people together to try and understand it, and to keep on asking questions.”
Fred Moten takes part in Arika’s Episode 10: A Means Without End at Tramway, Glasgow, November 20-24. Events Moten will take part in are All and at once with Denise Ferreira da Silva, Arjuna Neuman and Wu Tsang on November 20, 8.30-9.45pm; Poetry, Mathematics, Debris, with Nathaniel Mackey and Fernando Zalamea, November 22, 8-9.30pm; Discussion on Mathopoetics, with Fernando Zalamea, November 23, 2-4pm; Gravitational Feel runs from November 22-24. An opening performance takes place on November 21 from 7pm to 8pm.
The Herald, November 14th 2019