The Responsibility of the Living

NOV 14, 2018

Taja Lindley in Conversation

Taja Lindley’s The Bag Lady Manifesta will be presented at OBERON on November 15 in partnership with Provincetown’s Afterglow Festival. Here, Lindley speaks to A.R.T. Editor & Assistant Dramaturg Robert Duffley about the materials and ideas at the center of her piece.

In The Bag Lady, trash bags are a central material in both the installation and the performance of the piece. What draws you, as an artist, to trash bags as a material?

Trash bags are interesting—they can squish and pack down, and they can also take up a lot of space. I think those tendencies relate to memory, to how we choose to hold onto things or let go of stuff. Memories can take up space in our lives, but we can also shove them into spaces we don’t return to or think about. Trash bags are a readily accessible symbol: we know what they are used for, and we know why we use them. I invite audiences to connect with the material in a way we’re not used to seeing it—something beyond taking out our trash and our recycling. So when I draw parallels between those uses and the violent treatment of Black people in the United States, and our relationship to memory—whether we’re trying to forget, erase, or avoid things—people get it.

What are some ways you work with those materials in this piece?

I create beauty out of the trash bags. Audiences can anticipate seeing them employed in ways they haven’t seen before, even decadently. There’s a lot you can do with trash bags—cut them, knot them, assemble them. I’ve been able to create some really beautiful garments. Audiences can also anticipate having to interact with the trash bags—they’re not just something you’re looking at, but something you’ll also be able to touch and feel. Another thing that I love about the trash bags is that they really respond to wind, so when I use movement with costumes made out of trash bags, they’re in conversation with my body. And I’m also in conversation with them—we’re responding to one another.

I want to draw your attention to a short film I have online, called This Ain’t a Eulogy: A Ritual for Re-Membering. Around the time I was beginning to work with trash bags, I noticed them blowing in the street, hanging on trees. Then I painted the names of unarmed Black people killed by the police on those bags and filmed them blowing in the wind. In that piece, I located in this material a metaphor for life and death: breath is what we need to survive, and it’s also what allows these inanimate objects to move, as if the dead were coming alive. That’s what I hope to do with my work, too. This piece is a raising of the dead: old bones that we’ve buried, memories we’ve tried to forget of things that have happened in our lives, our families, and in this country. This is an excavation—conducted with material that is responsive to wind, and to breath.

As a theater, we’re thinking a lot at the A.R.T. right now about climate crisis. And one of the themes that comes up over and over again in climate research is that lower-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by crises connected to climate change. Does your work with trash bags and memory feel in conversation, to you, with ecological themes?

I don’t intentionally touch on environmental issues, but I think that my work is an entry point to many conversations. I’m talking about the memories we hold onto, but also about our relationships, habits, and beliefs. I’m talking about our collective memory as a nation—about unarmed Black people killed by the police, about those whose lives are considered disposable.

I think the work also raises questions about who else gets treated as if they were disposable. What other communities are thrown to the wayside and uncared for? Where is our sense of social responsibility for our planet? I think we’re also talking about how people are treated if they are undocumented; we are talking about women, about queer and trans people.

I use a lot of plastic in this piece, and I know that’s not the best material, environmentally speaking. But something that’s been very interesting is the question of recycling: how do we recycle the energies of protest, rage, grief? All the things that come with the shit. I’m asking how we transform those things. We can’t just throw them aside, bury them. The responsibility of the living is to transform the conditions that we’ve been in and to create the circumstances we desire. And I do that with the trash bags.

In that performative framework, it sounds like recycling becomes something other than an act of “green” consumer culture—it becomes a political act, oriented around ideas of justice and healing.

Exactly. Memory is labor, and the Bag Lady is interested in us doing our work. If we’re holding onto these memories, we don’t want to wallow in sadness all the time, but we do need to experience the grief. We need to experience the feelings associated with these terrible circumstances, and we need to use those feelings to prompt a shift. We can use them as a motivation to create. In fact, that’s what I’m doing with trash bags in the space: I’m transforming something that’s considered disposable into something beautiful.

Taja Lindley in The Bag Lady Manifesta

Would you say that journey from disposability into beauty forms the emotional arc of the piece?

People are going to have different journeys in the work. But I do rely on my burlesque practice to think about storytelling, to think about costume play and about how beauty is an act of reverence. That’s what burlesque represents for me: the divine feminine, a sexual and sensual expression of something that’s a sacred part of ourselves. Our sacral chakra—which is where we experience our sexuality—is also the space where we experience our creativity. It’s going to take creativity in order to transform centuries-old conditionings of racism and patriarchy, and even this American habit of rewriting history, erasing certain histories—quite frankly, by telling lies about the past.

As for the bags we use in the piece, there is some plastic that we have to throw away, but for the most part, we’re using the same bags that were in my film. The bags that will be in Boston are bags that will be in Seattle; they’re bags that have been in Tulsa, Oklahoma and New York City. They’ve been in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Memphis—so the bags in the performance are literally carrying memories. They’re carrying the energies of the different places I have been and the different people that have had opportunities to touch them, so the process of the work is also embodying the values of the work.

That’s very resonant. Your environmental practices link to your artistic practices, which link to the theme of this particular piece.

It would be cheaper to buy new bags; the shipping can get costly. I’m bringing hundreds of bags with me, and they pile up. They’re heavy. But that’s part of the text of the Bag Lady’s manifesta—“carry the weight.”

I’m glad you mention that—I wanted to ask about the “manifesta” component of the title. What, for you, is a “manifesta,” and how does it differ from a “manifesto”? 

For me, “manifesta” is a feminization of the term “manifesto.” It’s the declaration of a being who is resonant with the divine feminine. A manifesta is interdisciplinary. By definition, manifestoes are declarations of what the writer believes to be true. The Bag Lady Manifesta is that, but not just through the written word: it exists through the spoken word, through the body, through movement and conversation. This work is participatory. I’m asking people to share and be vulnerable in this performance.

So that feminization is much deeper than a cosmetic re-imagining of a masculine, written practice.

Exactly. This is about what we are: respecting and implementing divine feminine practices where for so long they have been repressed, stigmatized, demonized, or belittled. For me, the manifesta is a multidisciplinary declaration of our labor around memory. The Bag Lady comes out of the accumulation of discard. When you throw stuff away, you let it pile up. Things start to grow in those materials.

If we think in that way, of the accumulation generating something else, the Bag Lady embodies that energy. She is the accumulated energy of people not dealing with the elephants in the room, or the skeletons in the closet: the histories of this nation—she comes out of that. And in order to get her point across, it’s going to take more than just an essay. The point comes through something that people can witness and experience—this isn’t a piece that you will just sit, watch, and consume. You will be asked to feel, to do, and to be.

Is that communal involvement oriented in some ways towards a practice of healing or justice?

Absolutely. I believe that the way people traditionally experience theater is by literally sitting on the sidelines, watching other people do the action. I identify as an activist, and I think that the work of an activist is to activate people: to move them and inspire them to take action. Not just to get them to call their Congressperson, but to think about the daily practices in their everyday life that can help transform the whole.

I really appreciate adrienne maree brown. She wrote a book called Emergent Strategy, where she looks how the things we do on a small scale impact what we do on a large scale. In my work, we’re talking about sanctioned violence, and we’re talking about how not every person’s name gets remembered. We’re asking whether we even understand the magnitude of this problem in the US and globally. But before we can even get there, we have to examine our own individual practices around memory, because how we show up in our lives is how we show up in our world. So I’m asking people to be in action, because the work that I’m asking them to do—confronting histories and memories that we’ve been avoiding—is the first step to healing. And I think healing and justice go hand in hand. We can’t achieve the kind of equitable conditions that I desire—that I hope we all desire—if we’re not healing the history of trauma that we have interhited.

Those legacies of oppression are still institutionalized. There’s some individual and collective work that still needs to be done, and I hope that my show is in some way impacting people in their hearts, and in their guts—it’s not just an intellectual understanding, but an immersive experience.

Taja Lindley: The Bag Lady Manifesta
Photos: Kali-Ma Nazarene

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