In recent weeks, our political climate has reached a boiling point. Some consider this moment a result of the recent deaths due to police terror. Others see this as the inevitable consequence of a people fed up. What is certain is that we are witnessing unprecedented steps towards Black liberation.
These events are indicative of a kairos moment. Ancient Greek used two words to describe time: Chronos and kairos. Chronos describes sequential, chronological time. Kairos, on the other hand, describes an optimal and opportune moment for action. Many texts compare kairos to the auspicious moment for firing an arrow in order to strike a target. The kairos we are experiencing now is on the brink of liberation. Monuments honoring the owners of slaves and Confederate leaders have fallen to the ground. Streets have been renamed and landing pages are laden with companies’ pledges to support Black people. Despite these demonstrations, Breonna Taylor’s murderers have still not been held accountable. More Black blood has been shed. Many seem quick to appease the public through displays of support, but true liberation is dependent upon legislative and cultural change.
During this kairos moment, the outward displays of intended allyship raise a question: Are these efforts performative or authentic? And which efforts are necessary for the metaphorical arrow to strike with force and precision? We recently sat down with Lauren Halsey to discuss the culmination of the COVID-19 pandemic and society’s racial reckoning. A native Angeleno, Lauren Halsey uses installation art and architecture to communicate the realities of her city and community organizing to build the reality she wants for her city. Halsey is the founder of Summaeverythang Community Center in South Central Los Angeles. Summaeverythang develops Black and brown empowerment that is economically, physically, and socioculturally relevant. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Halsey and her team have delivered fresh, organic produce to South Central. In our conversation, we explored several ideas including what type of art is important right now, Los Angeles’ familiar cycles of history, and the importance of agile practice as a means of responding to a community’s changing needs. Halsey contributes to this kairos moment with holistic and authentic approaches that are grounded in her community’s needs. Like the name of her community center, she intentionally shares some of everything. This interview is an installment in a series of conversations exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on artists who create movement-centered work. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you first hear about COVID-19? And what are your thoughts on the virus?
Lauren Halsey: My partner and I, we watched the news pretty avidly up until all of this, so I’m sure we started hearing the buzzword months ago. But at the gallery I show at, [there was] someone that works on the team there—he’s Italian, all of his family is in Italy—and he was speaking very early on about the social distancing and isolation and the intensity of it. Nothing is closed yet and we’re just watching him really go through it, and didn’t really register for me until two weeks later, like: “Oh, shit.” I immediately thought, “How is this going to affect South Central and compound it with all the things that are already affecting South Central? What’s next?”
And then, as far as resources, I started thinking about my family. One of my best friends and I drove down to Mexico, basically five minutes north of the border, to meet a childhood best friend and just stock up on supplies and pass them out to everyone.
When did you realize that the world was taking notice of the uprisings? Was there a moment when you realized that something was different?
Halsey: When I saw Black Lives Matter was going to protest at Pan Pacific. As soon as I saw that flyer, I sort of imagined what would happen next. Just as far as the relationship of police to peaceful protest, I knew they would be the catalyst for what would happen next. I never thought I would see Melrose and Fairfax, all the esteemed touristy boulevards and avenues of the city, affected ever in a lifetime. That was the moment, and I think in that moment, for the first time, I felt safe in South Central and people knew better.
Around the same time I had been hearing and seeing people organize their respective communities, whether that meant a food giveaway, care packages for women, essential packages; I just knew people were taking care of each other and really honing in on neighborhood love and togetherness and support.
Does this feel the same or different from when you may have seen similar instances of love or safety like this in Los Angeles?
Halsey: It feels different. I think so many people are figuring out how to be of service. It’s such a gorgeous thing to be driving down Central or 103rd in Watts, and you see 20 efforts seamlessly happening at the same time. They’re not performative. They’re just sort of natural. And I’ve never seen anything like that before outside of something like a marketplace. To see these things just happen in the rhythm of the day, every weekend, if not every other day, has been really beautiful and inspiring.
Do you think that this shared community sentiment is a moment, or can it be permanent?
Halsey: Yeah, [it] definitely feels like it can be permanent. When I think about permanence, I also think about resources, and how these efforts and labor and action get funded ethically. Resources help to sustain a lot of the efforts of these grassroots organizations and leaders, and when there’re no resources, sometimes that becomes difficult, or an action just has to stop. I think the heart is there. I think the poetic is there. Sometimes it just comes down to resources, but we’re Black, and we always shapeshift and figure out how to make do.
Can you tell me more about what you mean when you say that “we make do”?
Halsey: I think that’s just in our bones: surviving and resilience and transcending all of the mess of depression. We always figure out a way to make it work and to sustain it and to offer future and to offer love. And I’m sort of seeing it happening, which is really cool. And I think that’ll sustain itself for a long time because so many folks of all backgrounds, ages, etc. are in the conversation in ways that weren’t happening before. And so I’m not seeing the divide. And when that doesn’t happen, and there’s a sense of togetherness, the making do, we become even stronger and more fierce.
Do you think that the pandemic contributed to this moment being different?
Halsey: People are sitting at home with themselves, either facing themselves in a conscious way or a performative way. My partner [was] saying the other day, it’s not like when Trayvon Martin passed and transitioned, or other folks before who passed away due to consequences of police violence and brutality. People didn’t have to go to work on Monday, or Tuesday, Wednesday—they’re just at home, downloading all of social media, downloading all of the news, downloading all of the literature.
I’ve gotten so many phone calls and texts from all sorts of people who literally are going insane, either genuinely are performatively, and figuring out what to do about their whiteness, because they have all this time now. I think people are sitting with themselves and seeing the world unfold, and whether wanting to receive it or not, [they] get a lot of the messaging. I don’t know if they’re understanding, but definitely getting a lot of the messaging coming towards them from us. But I think the pandemic makes it totally different. The consistency of the protests as well—the consistency has been totally different, which makes the scale different.
You talk about the difference between something being genuine or something being performative right now. Can you describe the difference that you see between those two?
Halsey: I think a different reaction comes to terms with being a reaction that bears a tangible result for the benefit of Black people—not a Black person, Black people. I’ve seen a lot of reposting of the messaging, or reposting of facts, or reposting of “donate here.” But I guess only time will tell who those transcendent folks are who are deeply down for the labor of rearranging their entire existence to the benefit of fucking supremacy and the institution of slavery. A lot of white people that I know, I think they think racism is like being called a nigger. And I’m like, no, it’s the way you talk to me. It’s the way that I come into the space. There’s not a Black person hired, what the psychological and emotional impact does for someone that has to work in that space, and then the microaggressions. I think undoing all of that mess is a lifelong decision, that if that decision is made, it’s impossible to be performative. But right now, I see a lot of the kumbaya messaging: “We’re together and we’re behind you.” I see a lot of aesthetic messaging too; that really gets on my nerves. I don’t know that I need to see another mural.
I think it starts with putting Black people in positions of opportunity that we’ve been strategically locked out of. And that’s a lifelong gesture.
Do you think art is important right now?
Halsey: Well, it depends on the art, because I don’t think all art is important right now. These aesthetic solutions that empty out a call to action—I think that’s anti the work right now. Now, you know, and I don’t think that art always has to be the solution or that it can even be a solution. For me, I’ve been thinking, what can a sculpture do right now? Or what can a collage that I’d make do right now aside from propose alternative futures for Black space, which is what my practice has always done? I can’t find an answer to that. I’ve been more interested in the balance of creating those propositions aesthetically, while at the same time they coexist with a tangible offering that gets back to resources and how you fund things and pay people ethically and all that. From now on and for the rest of my art life, marrying the artwork or an art object will always be a gesture that affects the context and the subject.
That’s been a lot of work, but it feels like my best work yet because I’m not thinking about just art and the aesthetic possibility of dreaming or imagining—I’m thinking about that and then taking it to the street, to the audience that the work is about and for, and then bringing them back in as more than representation.
It’s interesting because I’ve been listening to you describe how art can be significant and important right now and how you think about your practice. I hear you responding to your own question around the difference between showing up in either a genuine way or a performative way. What if anything, are you feeling inspired by?
Halsey: What I see on the weekends when we go and we do our produce distribution, when we get to Watts and we see so many different ideological groups and leaders just together in this moment, giving and sharing, whatever that means. I feel incredibly inspired, deeply moved and energized, and like I’m finally doing the real work. That’s the best part of this.
What relationship do you see between your art practice and your activism?
Halsey: I don’t see them as separate. I think post-school, so 2014 and 2018, it was figuring out how to survive, doing art, knowing that the goal in mind was always to have some sort of community learning center space.
I think my dreams and aspirations for the artwork started to happen about a year ago when I was finally able to land the space. I think my practice shapeshifts to what I think the needs are. And right now, I never ever thought that I’d be working with produce, [but I believe] the needs are for food, and so the space has shifted to a lot less sculpture, a lot less carving, if any, to assembly lines every week getting these boxes out. So I think whatever the needs are, now that we have a space, the activism will show up in the form of the artwork at the minimum, but depending on resources, the action will always exist in the community center.
What future needs do you want to be able to respond to?
Halsey: I call it Summaeverythang, some [of] everything, because I think it’s everything we need that I made the space in response to. I thought when I got that space [that] I would create all of these really high-level elite, funky, cool moments, activities, workshops, [and] symposiums that folks without access—kids, mostly young adults—could be involved with seamlessly. Everything from homework and reading and having a personal tutor Monday through Saturday to having [a] music studio where there’re music classes, having a film program [with production classes], taking kids to surf camp—just all the beautiful things, and being there consistently as an institution in my neighborhood for as long as I can fund it. Hopefully forever, and it all being free, and it hopefully existing as an institution in children’s lives from one, five, or six when they begin to 22, 23 when we’re still helping them and nourishing their health through college, through job placement and resume-building—all these things.
In light of COVID-19 and this new reality and reckoning, have you reimagined how [the public] consumes what you create and put out to the world? That might be your art or that might be what you create within the community.
Halsey: I think my work has always posed questions or hinted at solutions to all of the oppressive forces that we’re up against every day. I think now hopefully with everything that I’m trying to make in my community center and art moving forward, people won’t see it [as] separate [from] the action. It’ll always coexist.
Now that I have the space to do it with the community center, [I’m asking myself] how I can help other organizations, people, leaders in a collaborative way to think about the community ethos of everything that we do. Not just the sole role of the artist to describe or represent—it’s that, plus the civic practice, the social practice. So I hope that people juxtapose the conceit of both projects when they think about me, or [about] the community center. But I have to keep doing it. I have to keep finding the resources. And that’s not easy. But I’m trying to figure it out.