New Orleans native and artist Rashaad Newsome's work always has been marked by vivid presentations, including collages and video combining European heraldry and hip-hop bling. In Shade Compositions, he conducted an orchestra of black women making gestures and expressions, mostly of disapproval. In recent years, performances have focused on "voguing," the battle dance-form created by black and Latino gay men and transgender people in New York's "house ball" subculture in the 1970s.
His latest performances of Five — named for voguing's core elements ("hands," "catwalk," "floor performance," "spin dips" and "duck walk") — have an electronic component. Newsome hacked and programmed an Xbox to record movement as data and use it as the basis of visual art.
"I have a background in programming," Newsome says via phone from his New York studio. "I use Max/MSP and Jitter. I also have a background in music production. For all my performances, I create custom software. With this, I used Xbox Kinect. It has a chip that recognizes 3-D forms. Using Max, I was able to write code to track x-y coordinates of part of a dancer's body as they dance throughout the piece. What it's doing is creating a continuous line following that part of the dancer's body. By the end of the dance, you see this form from their movement."
There's already proof of concept. The Contemporary Art Center's (CAC) current exhibition of Newsome's work, Melange, includes prints based on information recorded during performances in spring at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. The CAC hosts two vogue performances incorporating live New Orleans brass band music on Friday, Jan. 20.
"I want to challenge the ephemeral nature of performance," Newsome says. "Performance happens and then it is gone. ... What I am doing with this technology is actually turning performance into physical form. It disrupts or queers this idea of performance. It leaves this object behind. The object — is it ephemeral? Is it documentation? Is it an artwork in itself? It challenges outmoded ideas of what the genre of performance can be."
Newsome will use electronic images from the New Orleans performances to make large-scale sculptures based on voguing. The dance form was first exposed to wider audiences in the 1988 documentary Paris Is Burning and then Madonna's appropriated version in "Vogue." As the dance has spread around the globe, Newsome is making his own film about it as he presents performances of Five at art spaces around the world.
The CAC show also includes recent collage work using pictures from popular magazines to create images of women inspired by transgender women Newsome works with from the vogue and art communities.
"The whole thing I want to do is show how the work moves seamlessly though performance and object," Newsome says. "It does that through this gesture of collage. Whether that be collaging physcial materials to make works on paper, or collaging together sound and movement to make multisensory experiments. I am always composing various different materials in different ways to achieve abstraction."
Also in the CAC exhibit are two videos from the 2010 Whitney Biennial, a major breakthrough in Newsome's career. Newsome also was featured in a 2013 solo exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Rashaad Newsome: King of Arms. It featured large-scale collage works of hip-hop heraldry as well as a video of Newsome undergoing a coronation, complete with groups from parading traditions in New Orleans.