Ayanah Moor began her talk on Thursday at the Frostic School of Art by thanking the audience for coming in from the last 85-degree afternoon of a March heat wave, and she promised to keep her presentation brief. Introducing just three carefully selected recent works to make her case, Moor demonstrated the powerful capacity of artistic research to generate new kinds of audience interactions – with mythmaking, with imagination, and with mistakes.
Moor’s projects draw heavily on print media as source material. She is interested in the words that others have written, but she modifies these found texts to allow the reader to produce new meanings – setting up for us real encounters with imagined archives. The effects she produces are quite striking – simple in presentation, but loaded with desire, ambiguity, performance, and demonstration.
In preparing the research for Good News (2011), the artist found a 1981 Ebony article, “Where are the Eligible Black Men?” from which she selected a spread of quotes from women describing the men in their cities. Changing some of the pronouns and a few gendered nouns, Moor, a queer-identified woman, transformed these quotations to produce an imagined community of women telling about the datable women in their hometowns. She reprinted these altered quotations in large black-and-white, hand-lettered screen prints on newsprint, adding a veil of mediation to conceal her work upon the archive – and to simulate for the audience the impression of encountering these quotations as truthful evidence.
For All My Girlfriends (2011), Moor was drawn to the textual descriptions of JET magazine “Beauty of the Week” centerfolds. Not sure what to do with these intriguing pages, which both critiqued (white) American assumptions of beauty by celebrating black women’s bodies and their achievements and continued to participate in exploiting and objectifying these women, Moor described her research process as a ‘survivor battle’ between competing ideas in the studio. With a grant from the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, she decided to use these texts to create an audio installation in the elevator of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Narrating these pithy commentaries about the Beauties’ achievements and measurements, the artist allows the audience listening to visualize these women themselves, and to ponder the nature of the artist’s relationship to the many “girlfriends” she presents – is it empathy, critique, fantasy, desire, or some combination of these? The invisibility of the sound installation renders these texts undecidable in their meaning as they captivate and intrigue elevator passengers.
The last work Ayanah Moor described for us was a more elaborate performance from 2009 – the Pittsburgh Passion Project, Mistaken ID. In this piece, the artist tried out for the National Women’s Football Association team in Pittsburgh, made the cut, and played on the team for one season. Or rather, she practiced with the team mostly – since, as a new player, she seldom played during games. One key image that emerged from the project was a text that was (like her other work) not produced by her directly. In a broadcast of a Pittsburgh Passion game, the broadcasters mistakenly identified her onscreen for several seconds – in the opposing team’s uniform and with mistaken statistics as well.
This video still becomes a key aspect of the work for Moor – and serves as a linchpin in understanding her body of work. It is a media text that circulates a fictional message about an art performance (that was unknown to her fellow teammates and members of the association). It is a text in which the artist’s presence surfaces fantastically, and through which imagined and fictitious evidence is conjured into being. But her name on the screen is real enough. And she was really there on the field – just not where the broadcasters thought she was. The textual signs Ayanah Moor holds up in her work demonstrate; they make visible hidden actualities and unseen desires.
As a closing piece of advice to the art students in the audience, the artist explained how the Pittsburgh Passion Project really worked: “sometimes committing to the process will yield something that you did not intend, but if you’re paying attention, the result will be awesome.”
For more information about Ayanah Moor, check out her website.