Artists address history, segregation in Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics performance

The doors to the LookOut! Gallery are closed, despite the fact that a performance is set to take place any minute. A crowd gathers on the second floor of Snyder Phillips and anticipation charges the air. People chatter excitedly – no one, it seems, really knows what is happening, not even the performers. Through the window, you can see a small band waiting, clutching their instruments. Actors dressed in gray sweats and hand-sewn sashes stand to the left of the band, shifting their pink paper shields from one hand to the other. Two men, the artists, walk around the gallery, checking to be sure everything is in place.

Eventually, the men seem satisfied. They signal the performers, who file out of the room. The crowd streams into the gallery, standing like parenthesis around the large sculpture in the center of the room.

Then, a far-off drum sounds and a man’s gravelly voice begins to sing. The beats of the drum increase in intensity as performers and artists proceed to the gallery. They file in. The artists immediately disappear behind the sculpture, an amalgamation of televisions, photographs and documents. One of the artists sits at a desk, rhythmically stamping “DENIED” onto photocopies of historical documents. The other lies underneath the sculpture in the center of the room. Out front, the actors in gray begin to battle with their pink shields raised high, the only sounds the thud of shields crashing together.

Soon, the band begins to play, a brassy tune that simultaneously fits and doesn’t fit in the room.  After several minutes, the melody fades to a single trombone, and the last note rings out, an exhausted sigh as the performers exit the gallery.

The crowd stays still long after the performers depart. A single viewer claps cautiously for a minute, but stops when no one joins in. This is Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics.

Bradly Dever Treadaway and Justin Randolph Thompson, new media artists, educators and friends, are exhibiting their work Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics throughout the as part of the series  “Perspectives on African-American Experience: Emerging Visions.” The exhibit is supported by the RCAH, the MSU Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, MSU Surplus Store and MSU Department of Art, Art History, & Design.

The project incorporates photography, video, sculpture, music and performance. The title, Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics, references a quote attributed to Mark Twain.

“It sort of speaks to the fallacy of numbers and how they can be construed or misconstrued to support any such argument,” Treadaway said.  

The artists first heard of the series through a friend of Thompson’s. The exhibit follows MSU’s 60/50 Project, which celebrated the anniversaries of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Project 60/50 is part of a year-long “community conversation on civil and human rights,” according to its website.

“In our collaboration, we’ve never really addressed so directly the ideas of race or racism so head-on… We wanted to think about how given the contemporary discussion we have around education, it’s been said that schools are more segregated now than they were before (Brown v. Board). And what does that actually mean and what statistics are they relying on to make those kinds of assessments?” Thompson said. “Really, things are much more complicated than any statistics can communicate, and I think art is one place language can be abstract and open enough to explore it further.”

The two call themselves “new media artists,” a term that incorporates the multidisciplinary nature of art.

“The arts have traditionally been very categorized, segregated. The kind of expertise and focus has been historically singular – you are a painter, you are a photographer,” Treadaway said. “These days, I don’t think it’s practical or viable as an artist to have a singular focus; the lines between disparate media have been blurred completely.”

The artists said they wanted to spur a dialogue about race as well as the more uncomfortable aspects of art.

 “You can’t rush through the layers of it. Someone will ask for an explanation of different aspects of the work, but I’m not really telling you what the work is about,” Thompson said. “I’m telling you what motivated its creation, and that’s not its meaning. Its meaning is something you create through your dialogue with it.”

Their goal is to give people time to think about the work, to grapple with it beyond the obvious.

“The left-behind energy invites a secondary contemplation for what’s happening here,” Treadway said, referring to the awkward applause at the end of the performance. “The performance aspects of the moment dominate but as the absence is created by our departure, the focus turns to the visual elements.”

Treadaway and Thompson met as undergraduate students at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and have been collaborating on and off ever since, despite the long distance between them. Treadaway lives in New York and Thompson resides in Florence, Italy.

“We probably bonded through music first, and that kind of grew into sharing ideas and finding ways to bring our differences and similarities together,” Thompson said. “You have to feel a certain comfort with somebody to really let loose. We feel comfortable enough to completely hack at each other’s work, but we also feel comfortable enough that we have to defend our choices in that work.”

The exhibit centers on history, an area Treadaway said he first was drawn to after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, where much of his family is rooted. In order to help preserve their shared past, he began collecting personal items like photographs and letters. When he was done with the project, Treadaway said it only made sense to interpret the collection as an artist.

Thompson, on the other hand, has lived in Florence for 14 years.  He said his interest in history comes from his environment.

“It’s a place that it’s all around you, and if you try to avoid it, you end up making very superficial and, I guess, escapist art, because you’re trying to avoid something you can’t,” he said. “I grew up with history as a very important aspect in how I was raised … A lot of the little I know of my own family legacy was passed on through stories, and those stories were connected to larger ideas of African American history and folk traditions. There’s a strong connection to Africa that I still to this day don’t know if I ever really understood, but that was given to me as that’s your legacy, you have to remember.”

Watch a video of the performance here

Story by RCAH student Kelsey Block. Photos by Katie Wittenauer and Ian Siporin.