Harlem Air Shaft: Interview with Justin Randolph Thompson

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Harlem Air Shaft
“Harlem Air Shaft” is a multidisciplinary performance that examines the relationship between jazz, ritual, and memory in the context of a Harlem streetscape.



“Harlem Air Shaft” is a multidisciplinary performance that examines the relationship between jazz, ritual, and memory in the context of a Harlem streetscape. The show was created by award-winning multimedia artist Justin Randolph Thompson in collaboration with choreographer Stefanie Nelson and visual artist Bradly Dever Treadaway. The piece is an improvisation-driven performance featuring dancers, a musician, a jazz union representative, and a poet in perpetual motionIt was designed to remind viewers of the rich cultural heritage of the place, the economics of memory and the complex history of community, resilience, art, and healing. The 40-minute show is also inspired by the tradition of DIY Harlem rent parties that were popular in the 1930s and 1940s and the title is drawn from a Duke Ellington composition. The economics of jazz is a central theme of the show with the morse code making its way into the rhythmic dances, among many other compelling aspects. It will be presented on the city blocks 126th and 125th Streets between 5th and Madison.

Justin Randolph Thompson recently discussed this show and more via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How does this project align with what you have been doing as an artist and what is new about it?

Harlem Air ShaftJustin Randolph Thompson (JRT): All of my work is about bringing a group of people together to engage in a conversation, exchange and meditation on sites of cultural memory. This work is part of an ongoing series at the intersection of performance art and academic discourse, jazz and economics. This is by far the most ethereal chapter leaving space for the viewer and performers alike to construct it as a whole by relying on memory and imagination.

MM: How did you get involved with “Harlem Air Shaft” and what was the process like?

JRT: A long time collaboration with choreographer Stefanie Nelson began leaning to the overlap of her work on dementia and memory and my work on public commemoration. There seemed to be rich territory for examining these elements in a way that also confronted the challenges of collective work amid the social restrictions and distancing associated with the COVID pandemic. Nothing is more fleeting than a performance that can never be witnessed in its totality. Nothing challenges memory in this way. The process, as is typical with my work, was a series of connected conversations carried out separately then brought together in real time and space in Harlem for a moment of sharing and witnessing.

MM: How did you choose your collaborators and what do they contribute?

JRT: The collaborators on the project are part of various worlds in which I am engaged. Some have been featured in past projects and others are new to this work. Each was selected based on sensibilities and a desire to connect them with the others and to generate forms of meeting and exchange that extends each of our communities. Each person contributed their own meditations and interpretations on the subjects at hand. The range of languages extend beyond any form of what I could project and opened my own perception of what is possible.

Harlem Air ShaftMM: What is your favorite part of this show and why?

JRT: Pre-performance there is a moment of informal gathering, meeting and exchange. the air is ripe with what is about to go down and we are in a space already rich with atmosphere, history and meaning. Informal dialogues with passer Byers and audience as well as crew and creators expand the notion of performativity as we are already engaged in the work.

MM: What do you hope the audiences remember most about this show?

JRT: In a sense the work highlights the fragility of cultural memory while demonstrating that it is also simple to enact through coming together. I hope that the audience may have witnessed a marking of time and a generating of new histories anchored in rememberings of the past.

MM: What inspired the themes and why are you so inspired by Harlem?

JRT: Harlem has a role in mythological memory as a Mecca for Black history and is the site of so many layers of jazz history along with the development of a range of economic strategies for self-preservation.

MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?

Harlem Air ShaftJRT: I am working on a multichapter film project Minted in Enemy Bronze supported by the Italian Council that is born from Super8 recordings of gestures and conversations carried out in sites of cultural memory. These works are experiments in collective enacting of gestures of self-protection and notions of self-preservation. This project involves public presentations at the MACAAL in Marrakech and at the Museo MADRE in Naples and had one chapter performed the day after our Harlem performance at Socrates Sculpture Park with Brandon Ross, Jason Thomspon, Tatjana Lightbourn and Hanan Saafir. The evening involved a concert by Kwami Coleman and Soundworks. We are also working on an exhibition for all of the material from the Harlem Air Shaft performance set to be hosted by the Hunter East Harlem Gallery.

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To learn more, visit Justin’s official website. A post-performance exhibition is planned with Arden Sherman at the Hunter East Harlem Gallery for Winter 2021/22 bringing together video documents from the performance event along with an experimental documentary that will be an outgrowth of the performance. More details are to come but please visit https://www.sndancegroup.org/events/harlem-air-shaft-1 for more information.