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Night and the city

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published in the catalogue for En Mas: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean, an exhibition which ran at the Contemporary Art Centre, New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2015

Exterior: a street in Belmont, east Port of Spain. Late afternoon, Carnival Tuesday. The booming of music trucks at the Queen’s Park Savannah a few blocks away is like a rumble of continuous thunder in the air.

On the pavement outside a nondescript building, a crew of three men, working in a kind of calm haste, are assembling a tall structure of metal and plexiglass — a narrow ramp on wheels, a ladder-like mobile platform.

Nearby, a door opens to a narrow flight of stairs and the upper floor of the old building. It is some kind of workshop: quiet assistants stand beside tables strewn with black fabric, arrays of tools, white containers of talcum powder.

As the afternoon light fades, new people begin to arrive, some in ordinary casual clothes, others in various kinds and conditions of Carnival costume. They begin to disrobe, and the assistants help them re-attire in black skirts, cropped jackets with exaggerated shoulders, and netted masks. Wearing these new costumes, they bare their throats and chests to be stenciled with elaborate patterns of white powder.
Now it is dark outside. The black-clad, powder-daubed figures — fifteen or so of them, ranging in age from twenty to perhaps sixty — descend to the street. A young woman joins them, lithe as a dancer. On her head is a black motorcycle helmet set with a pair of saucer-size lamps: at the flick of a switch, she becomes an uncanny insect-like apparition, her gaze transformed into a searching beam of light. She ascends the ladder of the mobile platform, now erect as a triangle and bearing the sharp profile of a blade. A young man crouches below on all fours, wearing a spiked collar and a visage of canine jaws, a video image set in the visor of his own black helmet.

Suddenly the street fills with the sound of amplified breathing, a throb like the pounding of an agitated heart. The neighbourhood dogs start to howl. The black masqueraders draw close, grasp the metal structure, begin to push. Now there are cameras everywhere, and clusters of gawking bystanders, and an ominous sense that some event which can’t entirely be controlled is under way.

The procession pauses at an intersection, makes a laborious left turn, and slices slowly into a city in the throes of chaos.

The Trinidad Carnival season begins the hour Christmas can decently be said to be over. But Carnival itself, the climax of increasingly frenzied weeks, lasts for a duration of merely two days. It begins and ends in darkness, stretching from the potent predawn of J’Ouvert on Monday morning to the final pre-midnight Tuesday hours that Trinidadians call las’ lap.

It sounds nearly quaint: a last lap around some tidy circuit, a farewell turn and wave. It is nothing of the sort. By Tuesday night, Port of Spain has sustained a massive forty-eight-hour invasion. Hundreds of thousands of masqueraders and spectators have overwhelmed the city’s nineteenth-century street grid, drawing squads of roadside vendors, garbage sweepers, security officers. Squares and pavements are littered with empty plastic bottles, shreds of discarded costumes. The air carries the scent of Savannah dust, spilled alcohol, sweat and sunblock, urine and orange peel.

On Tuesday night, every man, woman, and child knows the end has come. Final inhibitions fall aside. Suppressed euphoria erupts, and suppressed rage. A little bit more abruptly becomes too much. This was the seething moment chosen by Marlon Griffith to launch his POSITIONS + POWER.

When I look now at the photographs, from a safe distance of nine months, what first comes back is that sense of the uncontrollable, of a relentless progressing chaos. That Carnival Tuesday night, I enjoyed no safe distance: pressed into service in the hour before sunset, I was one of the masked, black-garbed, be-powdered processioners escorting the mobile “surveillance” platform at the center of Griffith’s collaborative performance. The photographs document almost every metre we traversed between the art spaces Granderson Lab in Belmont and Alice Yard in Woodbrook — a journey not just between neighbourhoods, but across social strata, skirting the main Carnival stage at the Savannah and cutting across the time-hallowed parade route followed by hundreds of masquerade bands.

In many of the photos, we appear detached from the las’ lap anarchy around us: an impassive scouting party in an alien landscape. But I remember our journey as a series of confrontations: with amused or angry spectators, irate drivers of cars, police officers trying to control the passage of traffic, a fire engine with flashing lights. Drunken shouts and heckles. Half-naked masqueraders in bedraggled spandex and plumes, refugees from pretty mas bands, staring derisively. A woman who threw a tantrum at the corner of Victoria Avenue, screaming curses, accusing us of black magic. I remember feeling exhausted, nervous, and exposed. And I remember my relief when we arrived at our destination, when we squeezed into the driveway at Alice Yard, and I could finally take off my mask.

The title POSITIONS + POWER is more than a hint at Griffith’s intentions for his bold public intervention in the final hours of Carnival 2014 — or at the social dynamics of Carnival itself, and the wider society that fosters it. Mas is a medium of art, yes, a medium for imaginative expression, drawing on visual spectacle, movement, sound. At the same time it is also a state-sanctioned cultural phenomenon, propped up by “creative industries” policy and tourism campaigns. It is a vehicle of commerce, wildly profitable for entrepreneurs. Before and behind all these, mas is a means of affirming, questioning, inventing, and projecting the identity of an individual, a community.
Position and power are at the common crux of all these competing manifestations — and central to Griffith’s longstanding preoccupation with how mas as a creative process can engage with contemporary art practice. Not just at home in Trinidad: over the past decade, Griffith’s performative public “mas works” have confronted audiences at South Korea’s Gwangju Biennale and South Africa’s CAPE 09, at the year-end Junkanoo festival in the Bahamas and at London’s Tate Modern. The artist is fascinated by the idea and form of the mask, by the power of ritual role-play to interrogate social and historical traumas.

“My work is about relationships,” Griffith says. All art forms require an audience for fulfilment, but in the medium of mas, the audience is an element of the work. The artwork is not the costume, nor the objects we wear or carry: it is the sensation or emotion created in the encounter with those looking on. And that moment of encounter is almost by rule a confrontation, a challenge to the selves we wish to claim and the selves we wish to assign to others. It is always a territorial negotiation, whether that territory is the hot asphalt of the road, the range of a camera, or a conceptual space in which we play out assertions of identity and belonging.

So if I recall that Tuesday night as an anxious, uncertain progress through a city on the verge of drunken hostility — if POSITIONS + POWER seems in memory’s retrospect a kind of ordeal — I can’t say these difficult emotions were unexpected or inappropriate. The artist issued a series of provocations, knowingly embodied by his masqueraders. As every Midnight Robber or Black Indian knows, the simple gesture of a black costume already raises anxieties in an audience for whom, conventionally, Carnival is colour. Our stencilled throats recalled the “powder-neck” look sometimes sported by black working-class Trinidadian women to suggest the freshness of their toilette, an affront to middle-class taste. And we penetrated the chaos of Carnival Tuesday night with an apparatus that returned the attention of the people on the streets with a dazzling gaze and a profound silence — a sober silence so deep you could hear the pounding of a giant heart. Our progress was slow and unsteady, interrupted by obstacles on the street, police barriers, and the dense impediments of other bodies confronting our own.

Our experience was unpredictable, despite the careful preparations of Griffith and his collaborators. Whatever the artist’s intentions or plans, once underway, the fate of POSITIONS + POWER depended on hundreds of individual interactions between the masqueraders and the people we encountered: amused or angry, perplexed or moved. These engagements were unrepeatable and properly undocumentable. It is hard for me to say if we realised or defeated Griffith’s original vision. But in its two hours on the streets, POSITIONS + POWER pushed the city into a confrontation with uncomfortable questions about what Carnival is and what it is becoming, and pushed its masqueraders into their own uncomfortable contentions, not least with the question of how and why we were there.