Persistent, O’Grady’s 2007 project for Artpace, San Antonio, is her first video installation. With a generously funded residency, she was able to experiment and, as a “reactive artist,” she chose to make herself open to the stimulus of a new place and situation. It would be only her second trip to Texas and her first extended stay, but she was connected to the state through her second marriage — to Chap Freeman, a seventh-generation Texan whose roots extended back to the Republic. Her first idea was a piece involving boots (Chap’s forbears had been cowboys) and a play on the Freeman family’s membership in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
A chance googling of terms like “San Antonio,” “African Americans,” “music,” yielded a blog item about a multiethnic dance club being closed by its landlord. It was a depressingly familiar story of real estate and the “wrong crowd,” but in it O’Grady sensed a kernel of hope. By serendipitous accident, the DJ who had blogged was also the receptionist at Artpace. With Jay Lopez’s help, O’Grady contacted the owners and dancers of the recently closed Davenport Lounge to produce perhaps her most personal piece to date. A club dancer in her youth and later a rock critic, in videotaping 12 dancers individually on green screen and then monumentalizing them as ghosts on the wall of the vaguely reconstructed club, O’Grady attempted to bridge through a shared intensity for this most basic human activity, one she has often referred to as “better than sex,” both the loss of an essential communal space and perhaps of youth itself.
Documentation proved more difficult than making. Photographers and videographers could only capture the image of the darkened club on a dimly lit street (like the old Paradise Garage cul-de-sac) by changing essential elements of the work. The locked door preventing viewers from entering and approaching the dancers also raised a question: can one make a piece about the frustration of desire that does not itself frustrate?
Lorraine O’Grady, Persistent
© James Rondeau, 2007
Rondeau, guest curator of New Works 07.2, Artpace San Antonio, 2007, analyzes O’Grady’s residency project, the 6-channel video installation Persistent, memorializing a local multi-ethnic dance club controversially shut down.
Lorraine O’Grady’s primary artistic vehicles have been performance, photography, lectures, and critical writing. However, she goes where her work takes her, and recent projects have included the ambitious use of video. A first-generation African American of African-Caribbean-Irish descent, O’Grady has focused her concerns mainly on representations of black female subjectivity, often through the lens of family, literary, and art-historical narratives. These commitments extend beyond her own subjectivity. All her work—intellectual and creative—combats the erasure and invisibility of difference across a spectrum of social concerns.
O’Grady centered her experience in San Antonio on individuals, their memory of place, and the implications of their story within a discussion of race, class, and contemporary urban life. The conceptual locus for these dialogues is a recently closed bar and dance club called the Davenport Lounge. By all accounts, the Davenport was a wildly successful experiment conducted in the heart of San Antonio’s downtown historic district—a neighborhood that is struggling toward commercial renewal. Originally reflecting upscale aspirations, the Davenport was designed to attract an older, affluent crowd—a demographic readily associated with the symphony and theater on the same city block. The lounge did not thrive in this incarnation. After a group of enterprising local DJs took over the basement, however, the place quickly became a sensation, drawing a vibrant, young, multiethnic crowd from all across the city. For a short time, the Davenport fostered a sense of community and, for much of the staff and patrons, a family-like structure. Near the end of its run, long lines wrapped around the block. The club took on a life of its own, serving as a kind of crucible that made it larger than the sum of its parts. The narrative of its demise is a familiar one in which countercultural forces run up against, and are ultimately stifled by, dominant commercial interests. Presumably in San Antonio, the late-night evidence of diversity was perceived to threaten development interests, specifically the sale of high-end condominiums. The owners closed the Davenport, and the staff was subjected to an eviction supervised by the San Antonio police. The culture that had grown up around the club was displaced. In an effort to sustain the memory of the Davenport, many of the young people salvaged pieces of furniture from the club themselves.
O’Grady’s project for Artpace gives form and voice to this story. The artist connected to debates surrounding the shuttering of the club through serendipity and coincidence. Initially, she had considered a range of other possible projects based on local history or contemporary life, including some sort of interface with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. O’Grady had once married a man who was descended from one of the families connected to the Republic, a fact that, she felt assured, would be surprising to many. She also considered a collaboration with a renowned African-American maker of cowboy boots in San Antonio. While researching the city on the Internet, the artist came across an open letter to the owners of the Davenport written by one of the club’s former DJs. Moved by the account, O’Grady sought out the author. She was startled to learn that she had already been talking to him. JJ Lopez, one of the principal forces behind the success of the Davenport, works at Artpace in visitor relations.
The connection between Lopez and O’Grady proved catalytic. Through him and others, she met many of the club’s dancers. Convinced of her subject, O’Grady was at first uncertain of how best to pay tribute to it. One early thought was to recreate the space itself in her Artpace studio. Visiting the defunct site, however, she could see and feel none of the raucous power of what it had been. Seeing only her own reflection in the windows proved to be an epiphany. O’Grady realized that her work, rather than replicating experiences that were not her own, would have to be about the very absence of direct experience—for her and, now, for, the community. Her project is about looking for the Davenport and not being able to find it, and all that such a futile search implies.
Persistent is a surrogate site, the representation or distillation of the energy of a place the artist knew only through others. The artwork, encountered as a sculpture in the studio-turned-gallery space, stages a life-sized facsimile of the storefront façade of the club (substituting smoked glass for the original clear glazing). The pulsing beat of dance music emanates from within—muffled, as it would be from the street, but distinctly audible. In a lovely nod to verisimilitude, the sound periodically intensifies for a moment, as if the door to the busy club were opening and closing to allow for comings and goings. However, O’Grady’s work is experienced, appropriately, at a remove, as viewed through the tinted windows. Inside, the silhouettes of furniture slowly come into focus—Art Deco pieces and eponymous “Davenport” lounges, now talismanic, on loan from the former owners of the club. Six channels of digital video, changing every 10 minutes, are projected on three walls, rendering life-sized portraits of individual dancers, most in their early 20s, variously interpreting the sounds of hip-hop, funk, and house music. There are six hours of footage on view. Like ghosts—or figures from the frieze of an ancient Egyptian tomb—the images hover above the dance floor. The effect is mesmerizing.
Equal parts catharsis and eulogy, Persistent succeeds where so many works of art in this genre fail. It is a rare accomplishment for an artist to come from outside a given community to make work anchored in and about that community in a way that gives voice to others, and, at the same time, that connects to issues of real consequence. O’Grady managed to do just that, in a relatively short time, with integrity, intelligence, clarity, and vision. The artist—years ago a rock critic herself—is perhaps memorializing both the Davenport and aspects of her own past. There is no doubt that O’Grady knows the alluring pleasure and subversive, self-expressive power of dance. Her understanding is presented here in ways that are both specific to San Antonio and, powerfully, collective.
James Rondeau is Curator and Frances and Thomas Dittmer Chair of the Department of Contemporary Art at The Art Institute of Chicago
DJ JJ Lopez’s email invite to the Persistent opening at Artpace, San Antonio, TX
by Jay Lopez. 2007
The founder of the “diggindeepquartet” DJ collective and lead DJ of the closed Davenport Lounge in San Antonio — and O’Grady’s collaborator on the installation — emails a description of Persistent to his list.
Well, we’re back. It’s been a while and the diggindeepquartet has been busy! We’ve been working on solo projects, club nights, YA, Art openings, Art pieces, collaborations, guest spots, and more than anything, we’ve been enjoying the Music!! We have some great news to announce this week so without a further delay, let’s get on with the 411.
Hold up!! Real quick: before we mention all of the good stuff, I wanted to take a moment to say, thank you to everyone who has supported me over the years and the diggindeepquartet. I originally started off the ddq project with high hopes. But one can never foresee the future and one can never foresee the changes that will come one’s way. It is with both great sadness and great joy that I announce that as of July 12, 2007, I will be stepping down from the diggindeeqquartet as founder and director. This does not mean that I will not be djing around the city or that you will no longer see me on the dance-floor sweating it, hell has not frozen over. What this means is, just like the Davenport was handed over to the capable hands of our co-founder DJ Gibb, so will the diggindeepquartet. It is with great joy that I announce our new director, DJ Gibb, Gibby Diaz. This man has been making huge waves in the city since his return from Austin and shows no sign of slowing down. I wish him and the crew the best as I confidently step aside and allow our future to be guided by DJ Gibb. Gibb, keep that mutha rockin’. On with the show.
Since the closing of the Davenport, there have been a few articles, a few radio mentions, lots of talk and most of all lots of treasured memories going around the city of San Antonio. We have this week a very special art opening happening at Artpace (445 N. Main Ave. San Antonio TX 78205). Artist, writer, and all around Hipster, Lady Lorraine O’Grady will be presenting her new installation this Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 6pm. See below for more info.
(from the Artpace brochure)
“about the project: Lorraine O’Grady’s Persistent
Lorraine O’Grady’s Persistent, co-produced by Jay Lopez, is a eulogy to the recently closed Davenport Lounge in San Antonio and the culture it came to embody. The imposing installation, with its accompanying audio and video projections, demonstrates the kaleidoscopic generation and repression of multiethnic counterculture.
The twilight street scene environment recalls the artist’s first visit to the nightclub two months after it had been shut down. Upon entry, one encounters an austere façade, dimly lit by floodlights and revealing only the viewer’s reflection. O’Grady has superimposed this portrait of the spectator onto the building to evoke a sense of personal loss, inviting us to mourn the destruction of a space that so many had once enlivened in a free expression of the beauty found in diversity.
One must peer into the windows, almost pressing one’s nose against the glass, to see within O’Grady’s nightclub. The sparse interior features carefully arranged clusters of Art Deco furniture and empty Davenport lounges. On the walls, ghostlike projections of Hip Hop, Funk, and House Music dancers energetically move in sync with the pulsating music. Emerging as a contemporary manifestation of Egyptian funerary monuments, the exhibition evokes the riches of a bygone era and the eminence of what has been lost.
The fusion of rhythms that resonate from the edifice are vibrant, yet melancholic, in their repetition. Composed by the DJ’s Rise and JJ Lopez, the mix sporadically fluctuates in volume, mimicking the sounds emitted from opening and closing club doors–a nod to the lines of Davenport patrons that used to wrap around the city block. The loop begins with an upbeat and energetic tempo that quickly diminishes and then rises once again, symbolizing the rise and fall of the Davenport Lounge. This Hip Hop funeral anthem both heralds DJ culture, underlining its presence as a profession that combines the artistic efforts of myriad peoples, and memorializes what Barbara Ehrenreich has called “the need for public, celebratory dance that seems hardwired into us. . . a uniquely human capability.”
O’Grady’s installation symbolizes neither failure nor success, but the perseverance of counterculture in the face of racism and discrimination.”
Thank you everyone,
Keep the Faith
I’ll see you all on the dancefloor,
- diggindeepquartet “by dancers, for dancers”
Myspace JJ Lopez
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Exhibit reflects downtown dance club
by Dan R. Goddard Express-News Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News, July 25, 2007
Daily newspaper review of O’Grady’s video installation Persistent, at Artpace, San Antonio, TX, July 2007. A work on dance, music, economics, and race that recalls O’Grady’s own past as a club dancer and rock critic.
New York artist Lorraine O’Grady has memorialized the Davenport, the downtown club that once occupied the space at North fSt. Mary’s and Houston streets and featured the city’s most innovative DJs.
You can dimly perceive dancers who seem to be floating in the air inside the dark club with heavily tinted windows and throbbing music set up in a downstairs gallery at Artpace. The installation, titled “Persistent,” is part of “New Works: 07.2.”
“It’s becoming a familiar story when the cost of real estate collides with parts of the culture that don’t always fit the landlord’s agenda,” O’Grady said. “I was responding to a story I read about the closing of the club. It seemed like one of the places in the city where all the races came together to dance.”
An African American artist who often deals with racial issues, O’Grady early in her career became somewhat infamous as Mademoiselle Bourgeoisie Noire, a whip-cracking alter ego who attacked racial divisions in the arts. She just finished spending five years teaching studio art and African American studies at the University of California-Irvine.
Recent projects include an examination of the relationship between the French writer Charles Baudelaire and his Haitian wife, Jeanne Duval, and a “Miscegenated Family Album,” about the resemblance of the women of O’Grady’s family to the Egyptian queen Nefertiti.
Photo: Artist in residence Lorraine O’Grady looks in on her video installation at Artpace recalling the Davenport, a downtown dance club. ”
But I never do the same thing twice,” O’Grady said. “For San Antonio, I just started Googling things I was interested in. At first, I started thinking about doing something with cowboy boots, but when I looked further and found out about the Davenport, I decided it was a story I could relate to because I started out as a rock critic. ”
Now the music they played at the Davenport isn’t my music, but I can see how it helped to bring a lot of diverse people together.”
O’Grady managed to track down a dozen dancers who appeared at the club with the help of Jay Lopez, who works as a DJ when he’s not manning the reception desk at Artpace. She also salvaged some of the club’s furniture, which is part of her installation. ”
I tried to re-create the sensation of standing on the corner of St. Mary’s and Houston and hearing the music inside the club,” she said. “Getting the tint right on the windows was the hard part. I didn’t want you to be able to see too well, but I wanted you to be able to see OK.”
The dancers were videotaped in front of a green screen, used for special-effects photography, inside a commercial video studio. The dancers are projected onto three walls inside the gallery space. But for the front, O’Grady created an almost perfect reproduction of the big windows that were one of the club’s most distinctive features.
The windows are tinted so dark that it’s practically impossible to see inside without cupping your hands around your head and pressing your face against the glass. But if you stand back, the dancers appear like ghostly figures floating in mid-air, moving in sync with the relentless techno beat.
Express-News publish date July 25, 2007