Forgotten friends — a grey or maybe purple safari

Getting a little schooling about the history of Caribbean colonialism, while chit-chatting with Berlin-based choreographer Just in F. Kennedy

Published:
March 29, 2017

Words:
J. Scott Stratton & Just in F. Kennedy

I will be the first to admit that I never thought much about the U.S Virgin Islands. For most Americans, it’s but a blip in the periphery that only comes to center focus when dreaming about vacation spots or when getting annoying pop-up holiday ads, because at some point you Googled “Caribbean Islands”.

For most Danes, the Virgin Islands are more likely to be a distant elementary history lesson about bad land trading deals and Denmark’s embarrassing history in the slave trade. In fact, the Danish West Indies—as they were known for over 150 years before being sold to the U.S in 1917—is not a subject that has ever entered my ears in the near decade that I have lived in Copenhagen. Better to think of the Caribbean Islands as little pockets of distant paradise for holiday getaways, rather than tiny communities steeped in a history of poverty, racism, ethnic cleansing, cultural displacement, and battles for cultural reappropriation.

That is, until I was contacted by the Virgin Islands-born, Berlin-based artist Justin F. Kennedy—sometimes known as Just in F. Kennedy.

The choreographic scene being what it is, I had heard his name before, with only a single degree of separation between myself and this rather eccentric artist—the age old friends of friends story. Kennedy reached out to tell me that he was pulling himself from the Berlin madness to put on a site-specific performance based on a fiction narrative about Danish colonialism, celebration alternative scenario regarding the transfer of the Virgin Islands.

Of course, I took this as an opportunity to get a little schooling, an alternative cultural perspective, and insight into a rather unorthodox performance piece.

So how did all the choreographic madness begin for you?

My creative rhizomes began as a kid in the Virgin Islands where I did a ton (musical) theater and dabbled in Caribbean dance and ballet. I went on to study ethnic studies and post-modern choreography at Wesleyan university, danced neo classical ballet in San Francisco and then ended up in berlin in an art boy band with a masters in choreography and strong urges to revive Ska and create sci-fi punk operettas!

My performances are experimental and cluster around music, art and communion!

As an artist, how was the transfer from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Berlin?

Not quite a direct…by way of California and New York City. I made it to Berlin after being quite fed up by the trappings of classicism (in dance) and at moment of really needing to get weird with my expression. Berlin wasn’t really on my radar but a Finnish guardian angel/choreographer, Tomi Paasonen invited me to dance in a new project in summer 2008 and I ended up falling in love with the city and stayed.

Moving to Berlin finally gave me the creative license to “let my freak flag fly” and be as weird as I wanna be!

Can you tell me a little bit about the concept of Forgotten Friends?

This march marks the centenary of the Danish transfer of the Virgin Islands to the US. As a straddler of both the Virgin Islands and Ur-a-Pee-On contexts, I noticed that there are a lot of festivities planned in the Virgin Islands meanwhile in Denmark, there is a lot of discourse. I wanted to conceptualize an event commemorating Transfer Day that was both festive and discursive. Also as I believe that science fiction is a powerful tool to imagine alternative/potential futures and because colonial history is so tired, Forgotten Friends remixes and interweaves a fictive mythology (Etherland) with real Women’s histories of iconic Virgin Islands and Danish figures.

Can you tell me a little about your research for Forgotten friends?

So first I began researching existing reparative gestures for colonialism such as public apologies or financial reparations and then as began to dream up and ask around for other relevant gestures such as: co creation, active empathy, a danish fund specifically supporting Virgin Islands art, or reinstalling recycling in the Virgin Islands (just to name a few).

I then began reading up on ecofeminist decolonization, VI and Danish Women’s History, paintings featuring colonial subjects from the VI, porno-tropics, skanking and sci-fi-esque sounds.

Would you say that the marks of colonialism are still present in the U.S Virgin Islands? Can you elaborate?

For sure there are faint traces….yet there is colonial residue everywhere some constructive, some destructive, just with different faces. In the Virgin Islands, for example, colorism is still an issue; often white people move here and focus on the agriculture and the wildlife to avoid looking at the black and brown people; and revolutionary indigenous autonomy is practically wiped out….on the flipside, you can also feel so much Danish influence in our architecture (such as the gingerbread rails in Frederiksted or the ruinous sugar plantations from the Danish Slave Trade). Although we live in a supposed “post-colonial” society, now many of the marks are left on our self-esteem and desires.

Why did you choose to make this piece site-specific?

I have been obsessed with the tour format for a while! I love the host/visitor model and the dynamic of moving through space (a walking meditation). My final work for my MA was a Haunted House, followed by the ANTI-CAB, a performative taxi service and now Forgotten Friends, a Reverse Safari.

Without the black-box or white-box to work with, how do you utilize the city space in the performances?
The cityscape is an integral component to the mise en scène! Each stop on the tour has a particular imagery assigned to it, always considering the site! I’m so inspired by the challenges of public theater; it’s so much harder to capture an audience and create pictures in the public arena.

Is there a plan for moving people from location to location?

Yes, we are 5 performers in total and each of us will drift in and out of the guide/performer role.

How will you account for groups larger than 8 people being interested in this piece? Are you afraid that it makes the piece exclusive? And is exclusivity not a by-product of colonialism?

We just discovered that there is a bit more space available so we can take up to 12 people officially. However, as much of the performance is in public, it will draw its own crowd. It has a semi-permeable membrane and will take place at different sites in CPH, all of which are open to any public. We are also not opposed to people tramping behind.

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