Sage Ni’Ja Whitson’s Transtraterrestrial Premieres at EMPAC
Sage Ni’Ja Whitson’s (2019 Grantee) Transtraterrestrial is a new live performance installation designed to amplify the dark. In dialogue with Yorùbá Cosmology, Astrophysics, and research on the “blackest black,” the work centers the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy through a Black, Queer, and Transembodied lens.
The live performance installation is a prequel and a premiere of Whitson’s Creative Capital Project, The Unarrival Experiments. It takes an audience through an otherworldly dive into the dark. Led by space conductor, Trans Trappist the Extraterrestrial, this work traverses the dark as an ancestor, embodied transgender technology, and cosmic intervention.
In advance of the premiere, Sage Ni’Ja Whitson shares their Creative Capital Artist Diary, with insights into what inspires the work, the power of a pause, and plans for what’s next.
Transtraterrestrial will be presented at EMPAC in Troy, NY on April 6 and 7 (tickets and more information here).
This is a light-filled corner of my studio, on the first day i was moving in. As I stood in the space, knowing that my research was on darkness, I thought about the many ways that this work has called me to think in unreasonable, illogical, conjuring ways. How do I experience darkness in a world consumed by the spectacles they can “see”? Or how do I experience darkness in a world consumed by making spectacles of those they refuse to “see”?
The charge for me in my studio space has been about cultivating a sacred environment that honors my multi-modal thinking and making. It holds me. It invites my Spiritual Dear Ones to visit and make their demands. My practices are an intimate engagement with Ancestors and Spirit and takes on multiple forms. Movement, dance, installation, and writing are constant presences in my creative process, and I am currently moving my work into an embrace of my visual art background. Practice is listening and receiving, and readying myself for the unknown asks brought forth with a new work.
My Great Grandmother is the impetus and Ancestor guide of this work. She was a Black Indian rootworker who taught me about refusal. She taught me that the attempts to visualize her (I have no images of her) was antithetical to the medicine she was attempting to share with me. That refusal to manifest as a “sight to behold” inspired what has become a constellation of 6 projects and 6 years of chasing the dark. Her intervention lead me to dark matter and dark energy, to the stars. To a work that has changed me over. And over. And beyond.
Contending with what cannot be seen *as* its offering continues to transform me. I challenge myself to remove phrases like “light at the end of the tunnel” or “bring to light” and the ways of thinking they represent. I hope that audiences experience this work as an invitation to rethink what has been a colonial imposition on an ancient concept: the dark is necessary for life. It is a magic. And the people who wear darkness on their skin are its children. Magical, Real, and Necessary. Whether or not we are “seen.”
I gave my artist presentation on this project in June of 2019 and moved into my studio in January of 2020. I began conversations about this work in early 2019 with EMPAC visioning several residencies to develop what we knew was going to be a large project, and nothing on the scale that either of us had ever attempted. Then, like the rest of the world, we were told to pause.
Eventually I learned that the pause was, too, a medicine. Or maybe a punch disguised as a necessary demand to discover what my “yes” really was. And it induced grief. And rage. I felt as if I would lose momentum or clarity, or that the institution would lose interest or faith or funding (because as many of us experienced, covid shutdowns taught us a lot about what institutions were committed to and to what they were not). But Ashley, the dance and theater curator kept talking with me. We kept discovering what this irreversible world change meant for our values, practices, collaboration, and this project. She didn’t ask me to make it different, or make it smaller. She didn’t ask me to bend. I think she also knew that I wouldn’t. But that is because she knew that the covid shutdowns invoked excavation at the deepest levels possible. Without the distractions of gigging and making and being beyond my human capacity, the work came directly to my face.
Creative Capital has been a sweet, transformative gift. One of the other practices that I discovered and deepened during the pandemic shutdowns was virtual reality design. I accessed funding to purchase computer and VR equipment to support this work, now a staple in my practice. I have also gained a beautiful circle of collaborators, organizational and institutional partners, and consultants that have sustained me.
I received the award the first year Creative Capital abandoned applications by disciplines. I feel as if that opportunity allowed my work and thinking to be most clearly received. No one was asking me to explain if/how my making was a dance. They were just asking me to articulate my art. And while dancing and my kinesthetic wisdoms remain critical modalities of how I conjure, I continue to shapeshift disciplines, to the point of dissolving them, ignoring them (they simply have no place in process). My transgender embodied experience leads me to expand notions of morphology. This work has called me to imagine wildly alongside deepness and precision.
After we bring the Transtraterrestiral prequel to a close, Babbbbyyyyy I am taking a nap!
And going to the ocean.
I use the work “prequel” to name that while this is a premiere, it is a beginning. Building this space|ship, a 20 foot art object that is the home and transportation device of the dark to the dark, has been a lift that needed time and resources and thinking and a range of experiments in order to ripen. The commission from EMPAC has been a collaboration and example in what can be made possible when an arts institution listens in to an artist’s vision and, even when it intimidates, finds mutual excitement and opportunity to grow into a radical dream together. This prequel is a tender reveal, *and* it is a step toward another to soon come sharing of my fully fabricated art object made in collaboration with architects (informed GREATLY by the work done with EMPAC engineers) and based off my vr design. However, this prequel premiere is the first introduction to all of the elements of the world, together. It is beautiful, powerful, tender opening and offering.
Sage Ni’Ja Whitson Transtraterrestrial will premiere at EMPAC in Troy, NY. Tickets available for April 6 at 2:00PM, 5:00PM, 8:00PM and April 7th at 5:00PM and 8:00PM. Tickets and more information.