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Issue 147

Consciousness: Lex Brown
by Cason Sharpe

W. E. B. Du Bois coined the term double consciousness to describe a particular phenomenon of Blackness. The term refers to an ability to see oneself from a subjective vantage point, and simultaneously from the vantage point of the whiteness that oppresses. It’s a concept of enduring relevance, especially in the contemporary moment, when various institutions, both inside and outside the art world, have had to create ad hoc committees in order to make the simple declaration that Black lives matter. I tried to suspend my judgment as these statements of solidarity began to flood the feed, but I couldn’t help but read them as carefully crafted pieces of PR. My skepticism led to the uneasy feeling of double consciousness, the value of my Black life reduced to a question of bad press.

  • COVER DESIGN: LEX BROWN; COURTESY OF GENDERFAIL, BROOKLYN

In Consciousness, published in 2019 by New York’s GenderFail Press, Lex Brown uses the form of the monograph to pick apart Dubois’s concept from an artist’s view. Consciousness is a collection of song lyrics, photos, films stills, and drawings by the Brooklyn-based artist, whose practice jumps between music, songwriting, video, and performance. Consciousness surveys Brown’s work from 2011 to 2019, using her lyrics as its narrative spine. She breaks the book into nine sections, each containing the lyrics to three or four songs, laid across the page like poetry. These lyrics/poems are intercut with images from Brown’s video and performance work, creating a fuller picture of her multidisciplinary practice. A subjectivity forms throughout the course of the book, one that is created both on its own and in response to its audience.

Consciousness is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Instead of charting her development in a linear fashion, Brown leads her audience around in circles; themes, images, and phrases loop back on themselves like an internal monologue. Photos and film stills move us from green screens to forest floors to backyard art parties and back again. The section titles express Brown’s revolving door of concerns: “Body/Image,” “Lights Camera Action,” “Everyday Life,” “$5.99 or $9.50 with a Milkshake,” “Say There Was A Pain…,” “Woods,” “Hello.,” “Data Trauma,” “The Acid Year,” “Togetherness.” These sections are imperfect containers, the ideas held within one spilling into the next. I notice Brown has a habit of lifting a line from one song to repurpose it in another, creating a layer of lyrical repetition that highlights the importance of revision and recontextualization in her practice. The cover and the title page of each section are printed on semi-transparent paper. You can see the palimpsest of lyrics behind each title page, and traces of previous songs imprinted onto future ones.

Brown recognizes that the work that she does live with her body is different from its documentation, so rather than try to reproduce her performances in print on a one-to-one scale, she takes the opportunity to create a book that’s something else entirely, a political tactic as much as an aesthetic one. In her foreword, she identifies herself as an artist-singer, which is, in her words, “not [a] conceptual theory or poorly executed character, but [a] purveyor of a bodily medium which has the unique ability to critique our relationship to images and technology by being leveraged alongside them within a singular practice.” If this is a book about the development of a particular consciousness, it’s also a book about the bodily manifestation of that consciousness, and the political implications of the slippage between body and mind as a marginalized subject. How does audience perception of the body impact the way ideas are received? How does audience perception of the body impact perception of the self? The questions that Brown poses throughout the book dovetail with a broader history of Black thought, which can be understood as an ongoing attempt to under stand a personhood that is continually denied.

Consciousness explores these ideas through a subversion of reader expectations. If readers are interested in the chronology of Brown’s work, the book contains an index at the back, but the non-linear ordering of its contents denies the neat narrative of professional development that most monographs seek to highlight. There’s no clear path from early to recent work, only a series of concerns that reoccur and overlap, the result of which is much messier than a straightforward survey. If the goal of most monographs is to canonize an artist, to document their work in order to place it with in a particular art-historical discourse, Consciousness nimbly elides this archival impulse. This manoeuvre allows Brown to reject the fetishistic grasp of a contemporary art market, with its impulse to collect the work of Black artists under the reductive banner of diversity. In order to consume Brown’s work, an audience has no other choice than to engage with the ideas contained therein.

Similarly, Brown’s lyrics upend audience expectation through jarring tonal shifts that move from irreverence to sober reflection, and play between simplicity and nuance, self-righteousness and self-parody. In “Worst Behavior (Drake Cover),” she changes the rapper’s famous hook “Motherfucker never loved us” to “Ciabatta on my big sub,” a clever jab at the snobbery of the Brooklyn creative class to which she belongs. In “FEELING,” Brown declares “But goddamn I’m glad to be alive goddamnit.” I relate to the contradictory subjectivity that Brown builds throughout the book; it’s that double (or perhaps triple, even quadruple) consciousness, one that is forced to reconcile how it conceives of itself with how it’s seen by the world. If I had to identify the book’s thesis, it would come, in classic non-linear fashion, in the middle, toward the end of a tune called “B-Song”: “And I had a sense that what I had to do was collect something from the sky / Put like with unlike, and unlike with like / And put these disordered ducks of one kind in a row / In harmony.” Perhaps it’s this unifying impulse, the desire for a whole self with all its contradictions, that led the artist to title the book in the singular. Consciousness is a slow unveiling of a complex self, one that Brown’s body of work seeks to create and expose. If the art world wants to make the claim that Black lives matter, its institutions have to reckon with the multifariousness of Black art and Black thought. Otherwise, as Brown’s work suggests, the claim is only good PR.

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