In responding to the exhibition’s theme, Mr. Rawls and Ms. Rankine thought not only about being surveilled by others but also about self-surveillance.
“That’s one thing about being black in America,” Ms. Rankine said, speaking by phone. “You have to curtail your movements, to live in such a way that what the white gaze projects upon blackness will not end your life. So you’re always thinking, can I walk at night? Can I hold Skittles in my hand? Can I have my cellphone out? If it glitters, will somebody think it’s a gun? At what point can I just be?”
Just being, or just dancing — the luxury of that and, perhaps, the impossibility — is a point of interest for Mr. Rawls. His own work often addresses, through marriages of movement, music and text, the complexities of being black in the predominantly white lineage of postmodern dance.
“One never just happens to be black, even in the most abstract dance,” he said. “Whiteness in our society — and this is something Claudia talks about, too — is the space that produces the conditions and terms against which all other lives are measured and enabled or disabled. Dance doesn’t escape those power dynamics.”
In addition to Ms. Rankine’s writing, “What Remains” takes inspiration from the essay “Writing the Void,” by Homi K. Bhabha, published last summer in Artforum. Mr. Rawls said that the notion of a void, or what Ms. Rankine has called “the already dead space,” is integral to the work, invoked through dancing, speaking, singing and the stark performance space itself, a cinder block storage room in the vast Fisher Center, which was designed by Frank Gehry.
“The already dead space is where one resides, or is born into, or gets relegated to, when one is black in our society,” Mr. Rawls said. “It’s a space of heightened potential and unrealized potential.”
For an artist whose main tools are the body and space, that concept presented a paradox: “How do I choreograph a void into being?” he said. “How do I bring so many elements together, not to create a pileup, but a very open constellation?”
At a rehearsal in Lower Manhattan two weeks before the show’s opening, Ms. Willis and Ms. Pretty sat at a table, microphones before them, letting the word “you” spill from their mouths, again and again. Distorted, drawn out and intoned at different registers — with digital assists from Mr. Toussaint-Baptiste — the syllable began to…