A Dangerous Joyride

The St.Claire and the Artblog are ecstatic to present the 16 finalists of the New Art Writing Challenge. The challenge generated over 70 unique pieces of writing all examining and engaging art in Philadelphia. Thanks to all those who participated and thanks to our jurors — Hrag Vartanian, Abigail Satinsky and Nell McClister.  Below is Ellen Chenoweth’s finalist entry in the 500 Words or Less category covering Joy Mariama Smith’s, Joyride, performed at the Community Education Center in West Philadelphia on March 15, 2015


(IMAGE:  Joy Mariama Smith performing Joyride. Photo Credit: Adam Peditto )


Joyride: a fast and dangerous ride, especially one taken in a stolen vehicle.

Joy Mariama Smith’s body is not a stolen car.  Instead it is a queer black body, freighted with danger in a different way.  Or in the same ways: likely to be policed, likely to be questioned, likely to be followed.

Smith is a reclining Venus in black latex hot pants, covered with a thin layer of deeply black body paint.  A movement-based solo performance installation, the work distorts your sense of time.  Inspired by the Japanese art form of butoh, Smith moves at a barely perceptible pace from one grotesque pose to the next.  This is the slowest Joyride anyone has ever been on.

This means that you have time to notice details.   There’s a moment when you see Smith’s pulse in their upper chest, just below the clavicle, beating exactly in time with the soundscore created by Adriano Shaplin.  You can see a layer of tattoos, resting in between skin and paint, each one with a tease of a story behind it.  Their toes do a mesmerizing curl into themselves and then uncurl.

They has blacked out her teeth, so when they opens her mouth in an extended silent scream or growl, the image is disturbing.  The whites of their eyes highlight the black beam of their pupils, which occasionally fix on you, pinning you to your spot.  You’re watching, but also being watched, and neither of you are making any sudden moves.

Smith often looks like they’re in pain, suffering from some unseen affliction or internal anguish.  The music adds to the sense of distress, with too-loud throbbing beats and then too-quiet silence that goes on for too long.  You’re not sure if you’ve been there for two minutes, two hours, or two centuries.  It’s uncomfortable, but you have no choice but to stay with it.  It would be a disservice to look away.  And they’re in your mind’s eye anyway, even if you close your eyelids, Smith is still there, seared in your brain with the force of their presence.


The performance is over, but the body paint is messy and stubborn, hungrily attaching to everything.  The event’s MC tries to scrub its traces off the floor of the Community Education Center in West Philly.  She says they’ll keep cleaning after we leave, but I don’t think it’s going to come off.  Everything Smith touches for days will become a little more black, the paint operating as a transferable blackness.  Our bodies didn’t touch, but Joyride still seeped under my skin and lingers there, unnervingly.

Ellen Chenoweth is a freelance cultural worker based in Philadelphia, focusing on dance and performance. She writes for thINKingDANCE, teaches at Temple University, and is involved in creating the next incarnation of the service organization Dance UP.

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