Christian Noelle Charles practices a dance routine to the sound of a metronome, her own voice repeating ‘1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8’, the squeak of her leg warmers on the bare floor, her own ‘huh!’ shout of exertion, then a command to herself, ‘again!’ The lights change suddenly and the song kicks in. Now aware of the audience, Christian is smiling and making eye contact. The lights dim again, and she’s back staring at the floor in concentration. I’m watching documentation of Hustle, performed at Dance International Glasgow 2019, in which Christian deftly draws attention to the complex relationship between the fantastical personae projected by performers to their audiences, while allowing for contrasting and candid insight into the personhood of the performer. This same conflict between the performer’s personhood versus their personae forms the basis of a long conversation we have at her flat over dinner one evening in July.
‘A lot of people see me as CC Time,’ Christian tells me. CC Time is the overarching title for her performance practice—Hustle is one work from this grouping—which has changed and developed since 2015. She uses ‘performance’ as an expansive term, including stage and video works but also spontaneous dancing and singing as she makes her way through the city. ‘CC Time is my time, my only time… I grew up with dancing. I was always taking eight dance classes a week, until I was 18. Then I was around musical theatre, too, as I was watching performances by Gene Kelly and Savion Glover—tap dancers. You’d see them trying to get rhythms and beats into a storyline. And I guess dancing in the street always distracted me from society. Listening to music, I couldn’t help it! It felt good! Doing this puts me in a position of understanding my time and place.’
This daily, impromptu movement leads on directly to the formal outcomes of her practice. ‘Going back to the soundtrack of my life at a specific moment in time […] always felt like a preparation to come into a space and energy. It always felt good doing it, but I can’t do it as much any more, but there are times when I can’t help it and neighbours look at me like, “Who is this girl?”. But at the same time, I get so much joy from that.’
For several years, Christian has been prolifically making and showing her work, particularly in Glasgow since she relocated from New York. In many of Christian’s works, she takes influence from contemporary and pop cultural ideas of the performer, personae of the celebrity and the concept of the selfie. Throughout her practice, she places her body and identity on centre stage, in front of the lens, or as the voiceover in film work. Speaking of her performance practice she refers to her ‘presence’ as central to the work she makes. For Christian, this in itself brings its own specific set of challenges. ‘If your practice is predominantly based in ideas around identity, presence, specifically the Black identity and the Black experience, it is very hard. This is who I am, I’m putting myself out there.’ The full implications of centring her personality and body, particularly as a Black woman have been brought into sharp relief during recent months of isolation. More specifically, the wide-spread pause for cultural workers has allowed her a critical sense of what it means to perform, and the relationship between artist-performer and institutional actors—curators, programmers, critics and writers.
Feel the Music is the foundation of Christian Noelle’s video performance practice. When you listen to your playlist what energy does it supply for you. Is it for motivation, drive, Relaxation. She asks these questions to understand the feelings and actions while performing them for herself in front of the camera. How do you make your life a soundtrack? The videos stretch to a 5 year accumulation of music and documentation that has been a part of her research archive for her film and performance practice. 
Of particular difficulty are the repercussions that come from a superficial engagement by programmers and curators with the work of artists who embody complex ideas around race and culture within their practices. Christian describes an inconsistency that exists across different contexts and institutions when it comes to the kinds of fruitful or damaging interactions that may play out between programmers and artists:
‘There are times I’ve had conversations and someone has said “I love your work, your sense of energy”, but then I’ve also had questions like, “Where’s the Blackness in this?”. And that really churns the conversation of what my work is about.’ Summing up the residual doubts and insecurities that can be created by an insensitive or underdeveloped invitation from an institution, Christian sums up the feeling as asking yourself, ‘are you being picked because of the diversity credit they need for their own financial gain? Or is it because they appreciate and want to support the work? … What’s scary about the art context is how that diversity tag in a work sometimes operates, or even just when curators and programmers use phrases to try and help the artist. Are they taking consideration of the artist? Their culture? Where they grew up? That sense of heavily committed research, how much are you researching?… There’s a very small pool of people that really take the effort like that. That needs to be completely rehashed if institutions want to collaborate with more Black artists, and more people of colour.’
At the same time as pointing out the limits of current programming practices, Christian speaks fondly of the importance of the sense of community she has experienced while living and working in Glasgow. ‘The mentorship that I received from various people, and they’re all in different levels in Glasgow, it was huge. It was immense. I had the mentality that I can do this all by myself then I realised how valuable it was at points to give the wheel to someone else.’ This sense of supportive friendship has been integral. ‘I came here alone, I didn’t have friends or family with me and I had to build a community [from scratch]. And more and more people came to me, bringing that sense of support for what I could potentially become. It was so hard to accept it at times, because I couldn’t see where it was coming from.’ Christian also recognises an important vehicle for progress in the change of demographic of those running galleries in Glasgow. ‘This is just my impression from being here for almost four years, and I might be wrong, but there’s a gradual shift happening. Within the art context, people of colour and Black people especially [seem to be] literally becoming more present in directing the galleries and utilising these spaces, versus a couple of years ago when it was very lacklustre and people were calling out and not seeing that sense of presence.’
Following on from the discussion of the kinds of anxieties and inadequacies surrounding the worry of ‘tokenistic’ programming that can be fostered when working with institutions, specifically for Black artists, Christian gives a first principle of good practice: ‘I’m now at the point where anyone that invites me somewhere also has to have a conversation with me. Meet me for a cup of coffee and get to know me first, rather than going straight to the work.’ For Christian, this kind of initial stage of approach is ‘sacred and it needs to be nurtured before moving on.’
Even before a coffee date, there’s the first email interaction. I mention a recent event where the artists Emmie McLuskey and Kimberley O’Neill described their approach to contacting artists while they and Ima-Abasi Okon were organising last year’s (2019) edition of the Artists’ Moving Image Festival. They’d craft each email with care, making sure to express why they were enthusiastic to share that artist’s work, and their intentions as programmers. It multiplied their workload exponentially, but it was a way of resisting the more brusque versions of messages from art professionals of which they’d each been on the sharp end of previously. Christian recognises this desire to receive a ‘love letter for your work. That just needs to be the tone for the first run of emails, then you can fall back into straightforward communications. Because by that point, as the artist you have a better sense of the person and where they’re coming from, and you know how busy they are. But if you skip that first sensitive stage of becoming acquainted, then as an artist you just turn away from that exchange. … When that’s happening, there are more chances of things going wrong or going off course.’
As well as discussing the professional risks of being so visible and present in her own artworks, there’s also an interpersonal clash that can happen when her performance practice as CC Time bleeds into social interactions. ‘Code switching, a lot of my introductions change a lot. I might say, “Yo!” or “He-low!” These are little changing moments that say—not that CC is here—but that this is what my energy is right now. It sometimes looks or feels fake, but it might just be that I find a certain sound funny. I know with gallery openings, you enter with a certain presence. I was always the one screaming or laughing, when I’m meeting up with friends. Then when I’m working with a curator, it’s a switch to talking professionally.’
Amongst discussion on the outcomes and impact of her practice, I ask what works would be the best to mention. Christian points me towards In Da Be a Be. It’s one of her latest performance video works, and in it she creates her most visually complicated film work to date. It’s a response to the Nick Cave exhibition that was in Glasgow’s Tramway last year. She has spliced her conversational performance in which she remembers family members, laughs and shares recollections of how she would always look in the mirror if she was crying as a child. A grid is formed as a digital layer on the screen, and the shiny, spinning cut-metal shapes from the exhibition have been filmed and are overlaid as a further transparency on the surface of the video. Micro-editing gives way to one long sequence of Christian moving and sometimes lip-synching to Twinkie Clark’s 1981 song My Soul Loves Jesus… At points she’s performing to camera, then the atmosphere switches and the audience become witness to something private that is being shared. It’s a poignant turn as Christian looks into the camera and is spotlit, then spins into a silhouette to dance along. Audience and performer at once, Christian melts the distinction with her shimmering and affecting presence.
Christian speaks about how she positions herself to more formal performance practices and how she relates to the anxieties and expectations that surround the classical role of performer. ‘It’s supposed to be dismantling the insecurities rather than coding them.’ To explain this nuanced distinction that underlies the intention of CC Time, Christian makes an analogy - likens her relationship with conventional acting to wearing a dress - ‘This is just another reference to me walking through a city. I would always go to Macy’s in New York, and I remember thinking, “I need to buy a dress, I want to know what it feels like.” But I could never cross my legs, that’s why I don’t wear dresses. So I was trying it on, and I had that sense of insecurity that I didn’t meet the expectation of what I was meant to look like. But I didn’t want to, I just wanted to feel comfortable for myself in the dress. …What’s funny is that how I appear and act, it looks like it’s fakeness. [It’s the same] in my performance practice, when people say it’s a persona that I’m trying to become, but it’s not. It’s more of a branch that’s literally trying to extend itself or I want to expand on something I enjoy intuitively that I’m willing to share with an art audience. It’s the same with the videos, I always wanted to find the rawest part of that branch.’
Distancing herself from straightforward definitions of acting and performance, instead she thinks of herself as ‘shadowing’ these practices—existing alongside them, but having different outcomes and ambitions. ‘When they talk about auditioning and acting, [it’s about working towards a] sense of understanding the character and knowing your place. That’s why when I get the comment after a performance “you should be an actress”, it feels like that sense of shadowing is removed… It’s like [how I describe] wearing a dress, but right now for me [I feel the same way about] riding a bike around the city. It’s about dismantling those insecurities that felt like doubt, to expand on what makes you feel.’
 Quoted from Tramway TV Description by Catalina Barroso-Luque
Christian Noelle Charles is a Black female artist currently living and working in Glasgow, Scotland.
Adam Benmakhlouf is an artist, writer, and educator based in Glasgow.