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Out of Line: Q&A with Shaun Leonardo

By Brittney Seegers | June 15, 2017

Now in its second year, Out of Line presents a new set of arresting, intriguing, and playful performances by some of New York City’s most exciting contemporary artists.

Shaun Leonardo is a multidisciplinary artist who uses modes of self-portraiture as a means to convey the complexities of masculine identity and question preconceived notions of manhood. We’re excited to welcome him to the High Line to perform a final iteration of “The Eulogy” as part of our Out of Line series.

Taking Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man as a starting point, “The Eulogy” delivers a poignant commentary on police violence in the United States in the style of a New Orleans second line funeral procession. Music by the Sugartone Brass Band will interweave Leonardo’s speech, punctuating the words that serve as a memorial, a rejection, a challenge, and a call to action all at once. Appropriate funeral attire is encouraged.

Friends of the High Line: Tell us a little bit about what you have planned for Out of Line. What do you want attendees to take away from your work?
Shaun Leonardo: There are so many unknowns with this particular piece and very much so for this iteration, given its public nature. From the very beginning of my practice, I have always been interested in what might happen when a social dynamic develops in a given moment right when there’s an audience present that has certain expectations of what a performance piece is, how it’s supposed to be enacted, and how that comes into conflict with a public that just happens upon the piece … That has always been extremely exciting to me, and that is, in many respects, half of the piece to see how these two different audiences collide.

I always find that, not only in this work … that if we’re able to restart the way we look at these deaths by first centering the loss of humanity, then we might be able to move the needle … If we can return to the fact that there is a person lost to unnecessary means and reasons, then maybe we’re able to meet at the middle and actually have a conversation. So that’s why this speech is incredibly important to me because it moves in all of these different spaces, and that’s what I want people to leave with. That, at the very end of the day, it’s our collective responsibility to remember these lives, to remember that these were people that should not be gone.

I want to provide this moment for people to just be together and really contemplate the sadness, and just have a moment of relief. But I do realize, given the hard content, that it will likely be a diverse crowd – and that’s increasingly important for me, too. I’ve always felt that part of the objectives of my work is to have an audience member note their own place in a performance, which is why so much of my work is public participatory. I want their bodies to be active…as this is a procession for people to move with the piece, for people to complete the piece in that way.

FHL: “The Eulogy” draws heavily from Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man.” What was it about that novel that resonated with you over other works?
SL: “Invisible Man” has been inspirational to a number of my different works … It’s a book that I continue to revisit because, although it was written in the ’50s about race relations, it continues to be more than relevant today … It’s the way in which [Ellison] is able to articulate what it means to be rendered so highly visible that he might as well be looked at, or looked right through, might as well be transparent. What it means to really be perceived as someone else’s definitions, and what it means to navigate American society – invisible in that way when you are being defined be everyone else’s eyes but your own.

In thinking about these deaths, these tragedies, what I found most compelling about [“Invisible Man”] is that the nameless narrator really struggles to find the appropriate words. His speech moves in different phases, almost from commemoration to challenge. He acknowledges, in an almost elusive way, that he is meant to memorialize this fallen brother, this friend, this colleague, this person who was close to him. But, at the same time, he realizes that he is doing so in front of a community, in front of an audience that may not be responsible for the death – but is the same community that abandoned this person. And, maybe indirectly, that refusal, that abandonment, leads to a person’s demise. So when thinking about the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, I think about how those words really encapsulate this idea that these tragedies are all our responsibility.

A phrase Ellison uses throughout the novel is, “what it means to be lost to history.” With each death, the death before, that’s buried. Right? It just gets lost to another statistic, lost to another news report. And these media representations of police violence flatten these tragedies into another event, into another debate about police relations and race relations and profiling. And what we lose at the center of that is the fact that someone has died.

FHL: You’ve performed this piece before; how has it evolved with each performance?
SL: This is the fourth and last iteration of this piece. Names have been added … I had started with the parameters of the last three to five years as a starting point, and even then it was not hard to collect those names. I diverted from those parameters because I did encounter names that reminded me of these very visible moments of angst and pain. Like Amadou Diallo, which is over a decade [ago] at this point, but also names like Sean Bell … He was a person from Queens, and he died on the day before his wedding. He was the first guy that I remember looking at his image and seeing myself.

I also, for personal reasons, don’t want to repeat the piece. I’ve always felt, artistically, to flee the piece when it’s at its strongest moment. I wouldn’t want to reprise it and have it feel empty of anything. But it’s also, as you can imagine, heart-wrenching … So, after a while, I don’t want to place myself at the center of it.

FHL: What makes the High Line as a venue unique or challenging to you and your work?
SL: Part of the reason I’ve decided this would be the final iteration is that when I first scripted it – and I use that word lightly – is that I intended for it to be on the High Line. I always intended it to reflect a New Orleans jazz procession, and to have it move. So, this is the first time that I will be able to accomplish that, and given that it is the closest to how I originally desired it to be, I feel the need to end it here.