The conceit behind Race Cards seems simple. Artist Selina Thompson has written 1000 questions about race. All these questions are suspended as part of an unpretentious but effectively designed installation.
Audience members in Adelaide are invited to watch a video of Thompson as she reads out the questions; the footage was taken during a multi-hour performance she presented alongside the installation when it was shown in the US last year. Then punters are welcomed into the installation where they can read more of the questions, before choosing one to copy out and think about later and another to answer on a card that will eventually find its way back to Thompson.
Soon after beginning to engage with this deceptively straightforward set-up, a knotty tangle of thoughts and feelings emerges. The more time spent with the installation and Thompson’s performance, the more suffocatingly urgent interrogating that tangle becomes.
The context created by Thompson’s performance persona is central to this electrifying relevance. As she reads her questions, she is familiar and funny, her pop culture references smart and stingingly insightful. It’s an effective artist who can raise a laugh and moment of genuine introspection solely through a single question about Sisqo’s “Thong Song”.
In the performance, Thompson is also generous in other ways – taking the time to explain specific cultural references from her home country of England that might not translate for the US (and by extension, Australian) audience. And she is wry and knowing about the traumatic content of some of the questions she poses.
Hours could be spent on each question, with potential answers unravelling to reveal only more questions
Her emotional largesse, this extreme generosity that emanates from a charismatic persona, induces an important dual response. She puts the audience at ease, making us feel safe to think honestly about race, and she gives us a reason to press ourselves. Thompson has engendered a need to reciprocate – heading into the installation, there’s an impetus to match what she has given with equal energetic attention.
And so, the installation becomes non-rhetorical. Rather than experiencing it as a list of questions written by an artist to which there is no answer, the work becomes a push to interrogate your own thoughts. Hours could be spent on each question, with potential answers unravelling to reveal only more questions.
This cascading introspection is mirrored in Thompson’s structuring of the Race Cards installation. These are not 1000 discrete queries, but a finely-tuned guide to an introspective stream of consciousness. Most questions draw on the last – either as an extension of the same topic or as an indirect prompt to reconsider the assumptions that influenced your last answer.
As the realisation dawns that Thompson has, at least occasionally, foretold that someone will answer in the same way as you, another layer is added to the experience of the installation. Perspective becomes central to the tumbling question-and-answer interior monologue the work has induced. Shifts in the perspective from which the questions are asked become noticeable. Suddenly, it is impossible to just ask yourself a question and examine why you are answering it in a particular way. You must also imagine who is asking it and wonder how you might respond differently if the questioner was not who you imagined.
Slowly then, the audience is helped to fully feel the complex weight of history and hierarchies that bears down on these conversations, and to identify where they belong in these systems. And, because Thompson has designed this version of the installation specifically for its presentation at the Adelaide Festival, this fresh and nuanced emotional understanding is put to constructive work.
Peppered among the questions are those she has written particularly for this Australian audience – questions that force us to consider our individual responsibility as citizens of a colonised country, the divergences between our social media activism on Black Lives Matter and our real-life activism, and even how the festival season relates to white supremacy.
Before entering the installation, the idea of choosing one question to take away and another to answer felt like it might be a token nod at participation. As the experience draws to a close, that seems absurd. Now, these choices are imbued with the heft and hope of responsibility. It seems like what we choose to think about and what we choose to say in answer to Thompson could be part of a meaningful move toward true empathy.
This is the real power of the installation – the intersection of its intelligent interrogation of a complicated subject and its highly-considered strategy. Thompson has choreographed the audience journey precisely and she leads us deep into ourselves and then back out again – forcing us to face our inner monologue and then showing us how intricately connected those thoughts are with what has been and what will be.
Race Cards is open for viewing daily from 10am – 4pm until Sunday, March 14, at the Institute Building, State Library of South Australia.
Read more Adelaide Festival stories and reviews here.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.