(conducted by Calvin Evans and Dan Roussel)
Teju Cole, the Fall 2019 Writer-in-Residence at the Writers House, is the author of five books. In addition to writing fiction, he is a photographer, critic, and curator. He was the photography critic of The New York Times Magazine from 2015 until 2019, and is currently the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard University.
The Writer-in-Residence program is made possible with generous support from the Andrea ’79 and Ken Robertson Writers House Innovation Fund.
In 2017, you put on a performance piece called “Black Paper” for Performa 17. What was the creation process for this, and did anything surprise you about the response to it?
The impetus for that piece came out of the dismay of the November 2016 elections. I asked myself what a rapid response would look like on an artistic level. Art usually takes a long time to figure out what it thinks of what's going on. And yet, at the same time, it's always possible to respond rapidly. So, I started to look for a form. One of the first things that came to me, in January 2017, was the title “Black Paper.” It was this idea that there’s information hidden inside what you're looking at. Then I started taking a bunch of photographs, and then I was invited by Performa 17.
In the summer of that year, I had a photography exhibition that included a large collage work called “Black Paper,” but I already knew that the project was something that would have an ongoing life. Then I did the performance. I'd never done a performance piece before. It was very visceral, very personal. I think some parts of it worked very well. I really, really liked the soundscape I made. I'm not a professional musician, but I made a 42 minute soundscape that, for me, really holds up as a piece of work. The physical body performance aspect was okay, for that moment. I got some good reviews, and some not so good reviews. Interestingly, the not-so-good reviews were in very small places. And the really good reviews were in the New York Times and places like that. As an artist myself, I know that it was a work in progress. I'm now taking some of those complex ideas and working on a book that is also called Black Paper.
I remain curious to see what can be generated out of political darkness, but I also want to engage in these meditations on the color black, on shadows, and so on.