Intimacy and Uncertainty
"Notes on Uncertainty" with Kenneth Tam
September 27, 2021
YoU Co-Thinker Kenneth Tam reveals the process behind Silent Spikes, a two-channel video and sculptural installation that explores group dynamics, gender performativity, and the negotiation of intimacy. Both the production and the exhibition of this work were delayed due to the complications of COVID-19. It was finally presented at the Queens Museum in Spring 2022.
I started producing Silent Spikes in December of 2019. The first shoot took place at The Kitchen, a performance venue in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. I invited a few men I had recruited on various online sites, including Craigslist, to participate, all strangers to each other and to me. I planned a series of movement activities as a way for the men to get to know each other. A dancer and choreographer I had worked with before, Alyssa Forte, helped guide with some loose instruction. None of them were trained in dance or movement.
I’m very drawn to the kinds of vulnerability that can emerge when people are asked to perform for the camera outside of their usual behaviors. Sometimes it results in awkward or even uncomfortable performances.
I find that these awkward moments can reveal how our everyday presentations are guided by unwritten but internalized scripts. How we construct our identity is tied to things like our race, gender, occupation and class, and each one of these categories carries within it information on how we perform ourselves.
Due to the pandemic, production on Silent Spikes immediately ceased. I had to cancel an elaborate group shoot, as well as a trip to Northern California to film the tunnels dug by Chinese laborers. Especially during the initial lockdown, it was difficult to envision how I was going to finish the project which required close interactions and contact between the participants. It took several months before they and I could feel comfortable working in the same space together, with modifications. Thankfully most of them were still eager to continue.
And instead of flying to the Sierra Nevadas, I hired a cameraperson out there to record the footage I needed. There were definitely parts of the project that I wasn’t able to shoot as I originally hoped, such as street interviews of Flushing residents, or my participants interacting in the tunnels.
Even before COVID, I’ve learned to be flexible and nimble with my productions, especially since my work can be so spontaneous and unpredictable with its reliance on participant contributions. There are still threads to this project that the pandemic prevented me from fully exploring, and I hope that there will be opportunities in the future to return to them. But even though I had to adapt, and couldn’t pursue all the ideas I had for this project, I hope I can revisit them in the future.
All images courtesy the artist and Commonwealth & Council.