Photo: Justin Eddings
Adriana Pilar Nieto | Metropolitan State College of Denver
Blackwaters. Performed by Matthew B. Jenkins. Redline Contemporary Art. Denver, Colorado, U.S.A. March 5, 2010.
This performance took place at Redline in Denver during the opening of the art show “Second Degree of Separation.” Blackwaters explores the relationship of white masculinity to international torture, environmental devastation, and murder. Jenkins pushes the boundaries of embodiment, solidarity, and memory in a gallery setting, in contrast to his street performance at the 2007 Buenos Aires Hemispheric Institute, “Corporate Calavera.” Blackwaters points to Blackwater Corporation and Halliburton as modern manifestations of white supremacy and neo-colonialism, responding to Franz Fanon’s assertion that “the white man can never escape his white skin”. Making obvious his white male identity by wrapping himself in white paint under cellophane, Jenkins simultaneously embodies solidarity with the torture and murder victims of the military contractor Blackwater, and with those whose aquifers have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.”
The performance begins approximately one hour before Matt Jenkins emerges from the back of the main gallery. The room is dark, illuminated with a single spotlight shining on a bathtub filled with black water, and by a video projection (by Phillip Faulkner), on the back wall against a white fiber sculpture (by Rori Knudston) hanging from the ceiling, while red laser lights beam from 20 toy guns. The guns were held by 20 “shooters,” divided in two horizontal rows of ten, aiming the guns at each other for the hour that leads up to Jenkins’s entrance. While they shoot, and the video is projected, Denver-based band the Pink Hawks play John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” As the crowd gathers, the shooters place their weapons down, replace them with small potted succulent plants, and walk away in different directions, thus replacing death with life. The artist’s entrance into the space signals the end of the symbolic violence that the shooters inflicted upon each other. Rather than representing the onslaught of violence, the presence of the white figure signals its end. From the back of the gallery, Jenkins enters holding a sledge hammer over his shoulder, wearing a gas mask, rubber gloves, and a metal protrusion vertically down his chest. His body is wrapped in cellophane with white paint between his skin and the plastic wrap.
The band continues to play as Jenkins walks through the crowd out the front door to the patio, on which a 300-pound block of ice sits. With the sledgehammer, Jenkins breaks the ice into pieces small enough to pick up and carries them one by one back inside to the tub. This process takes approximately ten minutes and involves the repetitive act of walking back out to the patio, through the crowd, picking up a piece, walking back inside, and placing the ice in the tub. The breaking of the ice is a direct reference to the drilling practice known as “fracking.” Fracking uses a combination of chemicals (some unrevealed) and small holes drilled in the surface of unconventional sources of natural gas and oil such as shale and rock. The process causes a series of small underground earthquakes and can contaminate three to eight million gallons of water. Former chairman and CEO of Halliburton Dick Cheney pressured the Environmental Protection Agency to exempt fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (Halliburton conducts most of the fracking in the U.S.). One result of fracking includes the release of methane and other toxic chemicals into the groundwater near the areas where the drilling takes place. In addition to making the water from people’s wells flammable, the contaminants have been linked to forms of cancer and other illnesses. Jenkins’ body as a metaphor for Dick Cheney or a Blackwater assassin serves as a space on and through which the possibility of redemption can occur. Instead of using the giant sledgehammer to extract natural gas from Colorado’s western slope, Jenkins seeks to embody a white masculinity that seeks to repent for the sins of Halliburton, Blackwater and others like them.
After the tub of black water is full of ice chunks, Jenkins lays down in the tub until his body melts the ice. He then gets out of the tub and fills 20 one-gallon jars with the black water. The jars fall and spill over in front of the tub and Jenkins tries to clean up the spilled water with paper towels. This futile, repetitive attempt to contain the liquid is a metaphor for the impossibility of absolute control over natural elements. The performance ends after all the jars are filled with water from the tub. Jenkins rips the plastic from his body, takes off the gas mask, and reveals his face. However, the actions throughout the performance also signal an attempt by the artist to “escape” from his white skin, to embody solidarity. Jenkins’ performance serves to reconcile, even if only for a moment, the neocolonial, environmentally degrading iterations of whiteness signified by Blackwater and Halliburton with the whiteness signified by his own body.
Adriana Pilar Nieto, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Chicana/o Studies at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Her research includes borderlands, religiosities, Latina feminist theologies, and embodied liberatory practices. She is interested in the work of artists who utilize their body to interrogate the intersections of race, class, gender, spirit ,and nation as they converge.
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