When abolitionist, artist, and activist Patrisse Cullors first saw videos of immigrant children in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border two years ago, her initial response was isolation and depression. She wanted to do something—but what?
“I was feeling a lot of guilt and shame, and I wanted to counter that by bringing people together,” says Cullors, who did just that with a durational dance performance piece titled F*ck White Supremacy, Let’s Get Free. This was August 2019, so Cullors put out a call a week before she’d scheduled the performance in the parking lot of the South La Brea gallery ltd los angeles. To her surprise, 200 people showed up, and a majority of them danced the Electric Slide all throughout the 120-minute set by DJ No Name.
On the worn heels of that performance, Frieze L.A. asked Cullors and ltd owner Shirley Morales to bring a one-hour version of the performance to the backlot section of the art fair, just a month before the pandemic shut down the world. Over the course of that Valentine’s Day weekend, Cullors got hundreds of artists, collectors, and dealers to participate in hour-long, silent disco versions of her Electric Slide piece.
This Sunday, April 11, Cullors will be broadcasting a six-hour digital disco iteration of F*ck White Supremacy, Let’s Get Free—from noon to 6 p.m.—to a worldwide audience on the Hammer Museum’s website. The Hammer performance will feature live sets from the DJ collectives Cumbiatón and Everyday People, who will also play Electric Slide dance videos submitted by friends and viewers.
“I was excited when the Hammer came to me about this piece because we lived through four years of such deep trauma and we’re still being impacted by the policies of the Trump administration,” says Cullors. “While some people had immediate relief, there are still babies being caged at the border. There’s still hundreds of families that need to be reunited. There’s still a crisis around immigration.”
In addition to the Hammer performance, Cullors is busy doing pre-publication work on her new book, An Abolitionist’s Handbook, which comes out in October and is an extension of a 2019 essay for the Harvard Law Review. Crenshaw Dairy Mart, the artist-run space she operates with her fellow USC MFA grads Alexandre Dorriz and Noé Olivas, is opening a social practice project next month with MOCA and the Mistake Room that will center around collective grieving, featuring installations throughout the city operating as housing, healing centers, greenhouses, and sanitation stations.
“The way I see my art practice and my activist practice, they are both extensions of my values and my values are centered in abolition,” says Cullors. “So when I’m making art I see my art as part of an abolitionist aesthetic, and when I’m building political projects I see my political work building toward abolition.”
Los Angeles caught up with Cullors on the eve of her digital dance party to talk about art and activism, and how those pursuits are evolving under the Biden-Harris administration.
You’re about to perform this piece F*ck White Supremacy, Let’s Get Free with the Hammer. This is your third time performing it?
Let’s see, I did it once with ltd los angeles in their parking lot and then three times at Frieze. So I’ve performed it four times.
And that all started with Shirley Morales at ltd?
Exactly, in her parking lot. That was a two-hour performance and then for Frieze it was one hour each day.
Why the Electric Slide?
It’s a super familiar line dance in the black community. It’s what we do at weddings, at funerals. I guarantee you if a bunch of black folks gathered for an event or party, there’s going to be the Electric Slide, and it’s going to be kids and it’s going to grandmothers and your aunties and your cousins, so it’s a very family-oriented line dance and it’s a dance that, for me personally, brings me a significant amount of joy. I’ve seen it collectively bring a significant amount of joy.
Is it meant to be an endurance or durational performance?
It’s definitely an endurance performance, it’s definitely a durational piece, and also I just thought I’d be the only one dancing for two hours. Maybe people would come up for 10 or 15 minutes, but I had an 80-person core team dance for the entire two hours at ltd, and then at Frieze we did it silent disco style and for that performance I probably had about 30 or 40 people dance with me that first day. People were kind of confused, like, what do we do here. Second day it just became a huge dance party in the parking lot.
I was doing a project on the backlot as well, and my daughter and partner were dancing with you for quite some time.
I love it.
How do you feel it evolves with each performance?
It’s a different time, obviously. We got a fascist out of office so the political weight of it doesn’t feel the same. But we obviously have a crisis around COVID, and we were ground zero for a long time in Los Angeles and there was so much sickness and death for months on end, so this moment around F*ck White Supremacy, Let’s Get Free is also an opportunity to kind of reclaim what we’ve experienced, especially here in Los Angeles with COVID, but also around the globe. The pandemic isn’t over even though elected officials are making things less strict, and I think people are still grieving they’re still feeling the weight of grief impacted by the state violence on Black bodies, the Freedom Summer of protest last year, so I think this takes on new meaning as this becomes a digital worldwide Electric Slide performance to remind us our work isn’t done and white supremacy is still alive and we still have to call out, “Fuck white supremacy, let’s get free.”
Yeah, exactly. There seems to be some sighs of relief with the dawn of the Biden-Harris administration, but there’s still hate crimes going on, there’s this Derek Chauvin trial happening, there’s a lot of traumatic stuff lingering in the air, and I don’t know if that’s really going to change just because Trump is out of office and, in fact, there might be a rubber band effect.
The other thing to note on that is when you see massive uprisings and huge reckonings in any place, there’s a backlash. Our movement is also experience a huge backlash from right-wing forces. There’s over 250 anti-protest bills across the country that are trying to be passed right now and anti-voting bills suppressing the vote. So while there’s been these huge, major wins and victories and progress forward, there’s always going to be an opposing force that tries to reel us all back. So we have to stay focused and we have to remember that, and this is one way to remember that: collectively doing the Electric Slide together.
The way that I see this, and I’d love to get your take on this, at this moment with the portrait Rafa Esparza made of you for his solo show at Commonwealth & Council, and then Amy Sherald’s solo show up at Hauser & Wirth, and the Shattered Glass survey curated by Melahn Frierseon and AJ Girard at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery, there’s a lot of work on view showing Black and Brown bodies experiencing moments freedom and leisure. Amy Sherald talks about the importance of that in her paintings. Do you feel that’s what is going on with the Electric Slide piece?
That’s a great question, honestly. Rafa’s show is just so powerful and beautiful. I’ve only seen pictures of Amy’s show, I need to go check it out, but I think what folks of color are trying to exclaim with this positioning of black bodies and seeing us relaxed or at leisure, is that we’re pretty tired of these same old images of us protesting in the streets with our mouths open or yelling at the man. That is one very tiny portion of our lives, we are fully human beings who experience all the things other human beings experience: pleasure, laughter, leisure, love, joy. Under the white gaze we are expected to be this rageful, angry mob of people trying to take down the man, which actually minimizes what joy does, what leisure does in response to things like racism, homophobia, transphobia, state violence. For example, when we first started BLM in 2013 after the acquittal of [Trayvon Martin’s killer] George Zimmerman, Leimert Park was and is a place where black folks gather when there’s an issue in the community, and at that point LAPD had riot gear, it was insane, they were set up and ready for the next ‘92 riots and we responded, it was good satire, and we were like, “Guys, relax.” And we did a read-in, we brought a lot of books, and a bunch of children, and instead of doing a whole protest, we read books to Black children and it looked so ridiculous because they had their helicopter out and their drones and their riot gear, and it was all these black people reading.
And so I think the challenge is we are positioned as angry, rageful people, and, yes, that is part of what we feel, but under the what gaze and under the criminalization gaze it’s the only way we’re seen, because it’s the way they can justify why to harm us and why to criminalize us. So this is a new posturing—and I don’t think it’s new in the way Black and Brown people are thinking, but I do think it’s new out of us artists who are figuring out ways to challenge the ways we’ve been positioned. I know I’ve been positioned as the Black Lives Matter cofounder in a very truncated way and the Electric Slide was me saying I can still yell out, “Fuck white supremacy, let’s get free,” and we’re doing it while we’re dancing, while we’re joyful, while we’re in community with one another.
Yeah, it feels like there’s this want or expectation from some folks, I’m not really sure who they are, for artists of color to have some over-politicized work.
That’s absolutely right.
And it seems unfair, like making someone who is the victim of any kind of trauma or abuse revisit that thing over and over again. You probably wouldn’t do that in a social setting, so why is that OK in an art setting? Why would you have those expectations?
That’s right. [LAUGHS].
I imagine you have to deal with a lot of unfair expectations as the cofounder of BLM, and I’m not sure what those projections might be, but for anyone who’s read your essay on abolition in the Harvard Law Review, and I’d encourage everyone to read that, you seem like an exceedingly patient person given everything that’s thrown at you.
Can you talk about where we’re at on the abolitionist front? Because you open that essay saying a lot of people don’t know a lot about this. Isn’t there a book coming out from that essay?
Yes, there is. October 5 and it’s on pre-sale now. It takes the 12 principles or steps that I focus on in the essay. These are the 12 principles I live by as I try to push forward in my abolitionist journey and the book is an extension of that. Honestly, where we’re at in this abolitionist journey as a country? We’re in the very nascent phases. It’s the first time in history, and Angela Davis and I have talked about this a lot, but this is the very first time people are very publicly talking about abolition. Where it’s a public phenomenon. We’ve been talking about abolition for years, those of us who are activists on the ground who don’t believe in police, prison cells, ICE detention centers. That’s been at the forefront of how we organize, but it was the first last summer that that conversation was lifted up to the popular public. So we’re in the very beginning. The Defund movement is just one phase of the abolitionist movement, but there’s another part of the abolitionist movement that I’m probably most interested in and that’s how do we undo the ways the carceral and punishment system has taught us to treat each other. And the carceral and punishment system has taught us to shame each other and blame each other and to isolate each other and to block each other and to cause more harm.
So this moment that we’re in is a moment to challenge the government, but it’s also a moment to deeply challenge ourselves and really reinvest in the moral apparatus that abolition calls for us to invest in, and that’s what I’m most excited about, and that’s what my book is going to be about. How do we treat each other? How do we show up for each other? What is the foundation? We’re not taught compassion. We’re not taught how to be in true connection in a relationship with each other in our communities, we’re taught the opposite of that. And that’s because of the carceral punishment system we live in.
Are there any new projects you’re working on right now in that vein?
Yeah, the Dairy Mart is working right now with the MOCA and the Mistake Room that we’re calling “Pray for L.A.” and this is another part of our abolitionist work. We were really impacted here in Los Angeles with the surge around COVID and, honestly, fully understand that if we lived in a country that truly valued human lives less people would have gotten sick, less people would have died, and we really created this project as a way to collectively grieve and in that grief build anew. So we’re creating these abolitionist pods. They’re sustainable food pods and we’re creating the beta test for “We Rise” event at MOCA on May 7, and then we’re working with the county to see if we can get these food pods at county buildings and county libraries. It’s art and design, but it’s also the next iteration of my social practice.