Seven years ago, Maya Stovall started dancing outside liquor stores in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood of Detroit. Having grown up in the Motor City, Stovall understood the socio-cultural dimension of these voided spaces — the no-man’s-land of a parking lot, cracked pavement, or grassy base of a gargantuan strip mall sign — as the unofficial public squares of a neighborhood and city blighted by centuries of systemic inequity and anti-Black violence. Stuffed with overpriced snacks, drinks, dodgy electrical equipment, and sun-faded clothes, alongside the de facto offerings of beer, wine, and spirits, the McDougall-Hunt liquor stores are sites for seeing and being seen. With each conceptual performance, Stovall challenges the spectacle of a distressed neighborhood while generating a space for shared conversation. These performances, which became the basis of a video art project featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, as well as exhibited at the Cranbrook Museum in Detroit and the Museum of Contemporary Art Canada in Toronto (both 2018), find themselves recorded in book form as Liquor Store Theatre (Duke University Press, 2020) — but the 328-page volume, which Stovall was working on simultaneously as she was staging the choreographies, transcends mere documentation.
Stovall is an anthropologist by training, and this becomes abundantly clear in the first few pages of Liquor Store Theatre, which is meticulously researched and scintillatingly told. From a prologue that situates the project’s use of choreography as a type of ethnography, Stovall first leads the reader through five centuries of political-economic racism against African-American enslaved people in the United States. Zooming across time and into the city of Detroit, she sutures this larger history together with the institutionalized oppression that met the 1.5 million African-Americans who arrived in Detroit during the Jim Crow era: from anti-Black real estate policies and industrial job market, to the racist urban renewal plans, post-recession foreclosures, punitive credit markets, and loss of essential services like water, that disproportionately affected Detroit’s Black households, from the 20th century to now. “In Liquor Store Theatre, I toggle between the smooth and the abstract, the gritty and the material,” says Stovall, “in order to document, historicize, and ultimately, to transform.”
The introduction brings us into the heart of Liquor Store Theatre as a project that is neither conceptual art nor anthropology alone, extending beyond the reach of either discipline. Embracing critical geography theory — the idea that space does not just exist, but, as French marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre argued, it is socially produced — alongside contemporary critical, Black, queer, feminist theory — including Roderick A. Ferguson, who assesses the fetishization of low-income and Black neighborhoods as necessarily perverse in an anti-Black American conscience — Liquor Store Theatre works across multiple channels. Stovall builds on a solid history of interdisciplinary approaches to the social sciences, citing experimental anthropologists Laurence Ralph, Deborah A. Thomas, Kathleen Stewart, and Zora Neale Hurston as key influences, critical geographers like David Harvey and Edward Soja, as well as theorists of desire, affect, and everyday life. But most of all, the project is shaped by Stovall’s informants — the individuals who decided to approach her in one of the dozens of performances she staged throughout the years to strike up a conversation; strangers who, over the years, became close friends. The video recordings are just a fraction of the project.
Abandoning the ethnographic compulsion to document everything, Stovall suggests that the work of Liquor Store Theatre truly happens before the camera is switched on and after it’s switched off. The politics of setting the stage for each performance and the conversations that happened with McDougall-Hunt residents rarely made it onto the films: jittery, five-minute-long scenes that reverberate with Detroit electronica mixed by music producer Todd Stovall. The publication of Liquor Store Theatre therefore becomes a space to unpack the true depth of the project, as well as a site for exploring Stovall’s larger research methodology.
Read the full interview with Stovall via the link below.