Alexis Taylor’s multi-media installation explores personal history and her experience as a black woman and includes audio recording of Seattle Times Columnist Nicole Brodeur asking to touch her hair
by Jessie McKenna
When Alexis Taylor, a senior at Seattle University, got to work on an independent study project during her last year at Seattle University, the outcome was as much a surprise to her as it was to her teachers.
Since its completion, the multi-media art installation titled “Black Among Other Things,” has taken on a life of its own, breaking out of the confines of the university campus and into the local art scene. It features recordings that Taylor said come from an interview she had with a prominent local journalist who calls Southeast Seattle home.
Among the audio recordings that accompany her new piece is a segment from a 2018 interview Taylor recorded with Seattle Times Columnist Nicole Brodeur, who in 2017 wrote a racially insensitive article about a shooting in Columbia City that conveyed a problematic, but all too common, narrative about Southeast Seattle. In the recording, Brodeur asks if she can touch Taylor’s hair.
Taylor installed “Black Among Other Things” in an unassuming little Central District house and showed the exhibit to audiences on May 4 and 7. Neatly hidden in a roomy coat closet, its looping soundtrack penetrates the double swinging doors and evokes intrigue before you pass through the front-door threshold, like the entrance to a haunted house.
The installation includes a lightly-padded bench that seats up to three and invites people to sit down before a floor-to-ceiling altar of a sort and become immersed in the sights and sounds of the space, the vibrations of the audio track palpable.
“Serenity is supposed to consume you,” Taylor said.
The multitude of things happening is disorienting at first: projected images on three-dimentional objects, a soundtrack booming through the space, various colored lights flashing and battery-operated candles flickering. In time though, the layers of light and sound begin to flatten and become a coherent sort of organized chaos through which the viewer journeys. An audio track plays, changing from voice to voice, short bursts of conversation, people telling stories — at one point Taylor can be heard bawling, barely understandable while she speaks through tears.
Partway through, a voice emerges, a recording from what Taylor called a “weird and awful” encounter with Brodeur.
In Taylor’s recording, Brodeur asks, “What did you — so, is the green woven into your hair?” Taylor starts to say something, “It is…it’s like a…” Brodeur doesn’t let her finish. “Do you mind if I touch it?” she asks, and her words hang in the air in the recording, echoing with an otherworldly quality (Taylor has added these effects to call attention to this moment in time).
Taylor appears to awkwardly accept — at this point, Taylor says she was caught off guard and that Brodeur was already reaching for her hair as if she expected her to agree, though Taylor didn’t feel she had a choice in the matter.
At another point in the audio and visual track, Taylor’s mother’s voice comes in — she talks about pretending like everything is OK, when its not, and the irony and audacity of it — while what looks like a vintage film snippet plays on a loop repeating an image of a black woman with a ’60s hairstyle, turning her head around and around from back to front, her hair flipping and swaying with the motion when she stops to face the camera, a broad smile painted on her face. She looks positively gleeful.
The experience of “Black Among Other Things” lasts about 14.5 minutes. If no one is waiting outside to get in, you can stay and experience a new version of it again. It changes from one sitting to the next, mostly because the viewer can’t possibly take in the many details in the space at any given time, so it’s like watching a movie over again — you see things you missed the first time.
The Emerald reached Brodeur by email. She had not seen the installation as of May 8 but said she wants to. She said she remembers the interview with Taylor.
“Alexis reached out to me and asked me to meet her as part of a journalism class project. Her assignment was to profile a Seattle-based journalist,” Brodeur said. “As she has shared, I complimented her hair and asked to touch it. I shouldn’t have done that; I was wrong to do so. I’ve sent her a message to apologize.”
Brodeur declined to comment in detail about concerns about diversity and representation at the Seattle Times, adding only that “this is an area that we’re continually working on.”
Taylor studies communication, media, and journalism at Seattle University. Taylor’s interview with Brodeur was part of an assignment from a previous journalism class and became a catalyst for “Black Among Other Things.” She chose to interview Brodeur because she’d heard that the successful local journalist, a white woman, had recently written an article that provoked outrage in the South End, particularly among people of color. She thought, how interesting it would be if a young black woman reached out to her to do a profile.
Taylor expected a clueless white woman. She was not prepared for the extent of Brodeur’s lack of awareness. The experience was horrifying, she said, and in more ways than one.
Taylor said the interview at a local coffee shop had barely begun when Brodeur snatched her cell phone out of her hand to spell out her name and basic information for the recording. Brodeur started running the show from the get-go, Taylor said, treating her like the inexperienced interviewer she was, but in a manner that reeked of entitlement.
Her behavior was more or less what she’d expected and experienced countless times in the company of white women. But then, just minutes into their meeting, Brodeur took her cluelessness to eleven by observing her hair with green braids and eventually asking to touch it.
Taylor said she was frozen inside; she didn’t know what to do. She’d been accosted, her hair fondled by this woman she’d only just met. And given her assignment and position — her first journalistic effort — she didn’t feel like she could realistically say no without consequences. She had to maintain rapport. She was working on an assignment with a deadline, interviewing an older, successful woman working in a field Taylor hoped to enter after college.
“To have that be my first experience was disheartening and made me think of journalism in a grim way,” Taylor said.
In those few brief minutes, Taylor said, Brodeur had revealed herself to be incredibly unaware of herself and her privileges as a white woman, entitled to take up as much space as she wants to, even if it means invading the space of others, to view the world through a lens of whiteness as though it were the only one worth looking through.
Taylor cut about half of her prepared questions and tried to get through the rest of the interview quickly. She’d been silenced, she said, when Brodeur came at her like that. She’d taken away her voice, taken control of the situation and left Taylor feeling paralyzed and unable to continue with the interview as she’d planned. Taylor wondered how many other people Brodeur had silenced in her career as a community journalist.
“Black Among Other Things” grew out of an independent study project with Seattle University Communications Professor Rick Malleus. The project was meant to study autoethnography, a form of research in which the author studies and reflects on personal experience and connects their story to wider concepts, whether political or cultural.
Taylor drew upon her knowledge of communication theory to produce the project. Throughout the process, she considered and experimented with various methods of communication and how to convey what was inside of her — how to conjure a reasonable replication of her lived experience in another person’s mind and body.
Taylor said she knew her project would be personal, that she had something to say, specifically about being a black woman in America — what that means and how it feels. She’d been slowly building up confidence, an array of skills, and collecting the tools with which to say it for many years, not fully aware of this fact or doing so with intention, per se.
As she started to sketch out the installation, she knew it would look something like a darkroom. She imagined a figure with arms reaching. And so the idea became a blueprint, but nothing more. For further inspiration, Taylor turned to approximately 18 months of audio and video recordings she made with no particular idea of what she’d eventually do with them, if anything. The audio tracks she would compile from her many recordings of her day-to-day life experiences would become the backbone of the piece she would create.
Her mother instilled this habit of documenting her life. She told her to “record everything.” The sentiment being that as a black woman in America, if you didn’t have proof, you wouldn’t be taken seriously, wouldn’t be believed.
Taylor notes it’s difficult for women of color to enter and be successful in journalism. As long as this is true, the Brodeurs of the world retain the power over the public, she said.
Taylor did not know how meaningful and cathartic it would be for her to produce “Black Among Other Things.” She set up the solo exhibit with the help of Emily Pothast, who hosted the installation in her own home. Pothast has used her home for exhibits in the past, calling the venue Aura. On May 4, when the piece was unveiled to the public, Taylor said it was like the whole thing came together.
Even before viewers had gone home from the debut of “Black Among Other Things,” people behaved differently than what Pothast had come to expect from attendees of exhibits in her home, offering to help clean up, going above and beyond. She said it seemed like everyone who’d experienced Taylor’s exhibit had ratcheted up their level of empathy and desire to connect with others and make a difference.
They got it, and to Taylor, that meant that other people, everyone who has seen “Black Among Other Things,” carried the weight that is her black experience, if only briefly — the weight she’s holding all the time, she said.
Taylor said her project has become a call to action. She hopes that it will encourage people to get closer to one another, “so you can actually hear what the narrative is.”
The experience for her, of creating this work of art and sharing it with others has been validating and eye opening, perhaps most significantly it’s been what she called a “coming into consciousness,” a concept she recently learned from a muralist whose voice is featured in “Black Among Other Things.” She’s reached a point in her life where everything that came before seems to have been leading to and now, she says, it’s time to figure out what kind of impact she wants to make.
Alexis Taylor will graduate from Seattle University on June 16 and plans to move to Brooklyn, where, she says, there are more publications and more opportunities. She hopes to find other people taking a different approach to journalism and communication, educating each other and the public and sharing information in innovative ways.
Taylor plans to show “Black Among Other Things” again at a future date and says she and Pothast will announce the next opportunity to experience it via their Instagram pages.
Featured Image: Alexis Taylor speaks at a showing of her installation “Black Among Other Things” in the Central District May 7. (Photo: Jessie McKenna)