Published in LARMAGAZINE.027 Human Figure / April-May 2017

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Photography James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Catalina Restrepo: In some interviews, when you talk about the SoundSuits, you refer to them as a kind of shield that conceals race, gender, and class. However, the essence of the human figure and its movements are not entirely lost on them; in fact, they stand out as surreal or psychedelic places. How do you approach the human figure, beyond labels that are socially or politically attributed to it?

Nick Cave: It’s not coming from one particular place. My research started with the Rodney King incident in 1992, the LA riots, and that was when I decided to make the piece. This sculptural work became wearable, and through that I also found myself looking at ways of coating and armoring my spirit in order for me to work in an aggressive, very disturbing time in society. But I’m looking at all sorts of things—I’m looking at Haitian artifacts, I’m looking at textiles, at a tribe in Africa, at a Carnival, as points of reference. So the SoundSuits as objects do not come from just one particular place, they really are a combination, these sort of collective and wearable vestments that are used through rituals of organization and performances to talk about a broad scope of practices and beliefs.

CR: Currently, the United States and the whole world are unveiling a smoldering display of racism and I know you have a very strong critical position on this issue. As a victim of police harassment, you describe your work as a way of dealing with anger. And also, although your pieces look colorful and fun, they really come from a very dark place. Tell us a little about this.

NC: I think, as a minority, it’s unfortunate that I have to move through the world with a degree of consciousness and awareness. When I hear on the news about Trayvon Martin, Freddie Grey, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Christian Taylor, Sean Bell, Michael Brown —these individuals, these minorities that have been shot, that are unarmed, and that there’s no reason for these acts—, I’m not even sure I’m safe in the privacy of my own home, and I’m certainly not safe outside. At the same time, I’m surrounded by a community.

Part of the world doesn’t even find it to be a concern that these things exist, or they act as if it’s happening in another part of the community, so there’s a separation there.

I could be having dinner with my friends and feel distraught or saddened by the most recent acts done by police invasion, and yet that conversation would never come up.

Part of the world we live in continues to look forward, and another part of it is haunted and stifled by this hybrid anxiety, this disparaging destruction. We find ourselves torn between these two places, yet at the same time we operate as if there’s a place for optimism and hope. I’ve got to be proactive; I need to be the voice of those that can’t be heard and reach out and put this work into the communities that turn their backs against it.

I must figure out an alternative way to present or develop the work so that it reaches another person, and I’ve got to think how I can draw you into the work and then take you on this journey in process. So, I’m coming up with strategies and methods to deliver the work into the places that I think need to be confronted with it.

CR: I personally identify two very interesting references in your work. First, some African dances, especially the masked one of the Winiama Village of Ouri, in central Burkina Faso, or the Kempo dancers at Diegone, Senegal; the other ones are the costumes used by men during pagan festivals in Europe, some of them well portrayed by the photographer Charles Fréger. I find it very interesting that these two apparently distant cultures get combined in such a beautiful way. What do you think about this?

NC: Well, as I said earlier, I think the project is a body of work that is really multicultural in its delivery, that it’s not only of western sensibility. But living in the world, and me being out in the world, I am open to what I take in and combine that with my history, my knowledge and experience. When I’m in Senegal working on projects, I’m also interested in the rural communities’ ceremonies that are part of festivals, and in understanding how performing rituals is part of the cultural identity. When I’m at the Carnival it’s important that I can be intrigued as a spectator taking in the experience. And then how does that feed back into my own practice? Or when I’m in Paris at a couture show—how does these elements and building of a surface or a cloth apply to my own practice?

Being in the world is also research. How am I researching in the world? How am I using that to expand my platform? It makes the work universal, it doesn’t exist within one culture but it’s multicultural, with its connections and references.

Photography James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

CR: In one of your interviews you told the story about one of the SoundSuits. Each of them is made of everyday objects. Is there an everyday story behind each of them?

NC: Well, I think the everyday object is really me making a conscious decision to look at all the discarded materials. In a world where we have so much excess and so much surplus out there, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I’m interested in that duality—how we look at excess and how that can be implemented into renegotiating how we use materials. I like to take something out of context and renew it so we look at it differently, we honor it differently. It resonates; it’s a renewal of these sorts of materials. I’m interested in this exchange of information, this shift in how we read or look at things.

I was raised in a family where we didn’t have a lot, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t be creative based on what I was surrounded by. You can make something extraordinary out of nothing. I loved that principle, that practice.

CR: Another thing that your work reminds me of is the nests that some birds make, where they collect objects. There are some birds, like ravens, that even collect shiny things to decorate them. Do you think that, in some way, objects become part of us? Where does your interest in collecting objects come from?

NC: I think we collect things because we’re interested in holding on to the memory. There’s a nostalgia that is part of our DNA and of how we build our identity. We collect things because we need them around us and they help identify who we are as people. We collect in terms of the material content, you know, handcrafted things that fit in the hand, there’s a comfort there. It’s really about what we choose to live with. And why do we choose to live with the things that we have? It’s about creating or building that sacred space. What do we need in our lives to create a sacred space? It’s what all of these artifacts, all of these personal things are really about. Again, it’s the same as that bird finding that load. He completely adorns his nest. That elevation, that refinement, it’s an attraction. It’s the same for us, we open our doors and we walk into everything that we believe.

Photography James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

CR: In your documentary AS IS, 2016, directed by Evan Falbaum, it’s evident that your practices in dance and visual arts are one and the same thing. How do you conceive your work in relation to these two disciplines?

NC: Well, I feel I need both. There is this space that is basically a think-tank, the making space, a creative space, a laptop, the studio—the place in which you build ideas. Once it’s created, how do we place that into the world? I’m a messenger to deliver these themes. Right now in the studio we’re creating the messages, and then we will deliver them out into the world; they love to be able to exist and operate on their own. So how do we make these works in the institutions that live within the creative world, reach the global world? What are those venues that become satellites and get it into a broader community? One feeds off the other. You can’t have one without the other.

The object is always the instigator in my work. It’s me looking at something that triggers an idea. It has always been a found thing, that is the motivator, that is the stimulator or provocateur of me thinking about it in terms of its options: How can it be used? I’m interested in duality that something may appear to be one thing, but, if I turned upside down, it can also offer a different reading, a response. It really is the object that is the instigator. It’s all in the material and language.

CR: In this documentary, the importance you give to the dance rehearsals is evident, which is curious since in the end, neither their bodies nor the rehearsals are seen. You also talk about art as a transforming process, so in a way, the end result comes from them and their movements through the suits. Would you say that the rehearsals represent the transforming power, and the result is the final piece?

NC: That’s interesting because now, with this work, I’m finding that working with performers and movers, the process is becoming a very intricate part of the performance. I don’t know if there is ever a performance. I don’t know if there is a separation between rehearsal and performance anymore. I’m very interested in the spectator witnessing the process, because what is fabulous about it is that there is an intuitive discovery, there is a transformative moment that is so extraordinary and you can’t record that, you can’t recreate that in the performance, it’s all in the moment. That’s what I’m more interested in now, being able to build a work as the audience is experiencing it. I’m looking at it as a fixed sketchpad that I’m developing as I’m building the work. Through that process there are so many amazing moments you can’t record because they’re lost in the instant, and that’s when you reach these extraordinary revelations. I’m not interested in the conclusion; I don’t think there’s a conclusion in any work. There’s always questions left unanswered, and I think that is perfect.

Another thing that I’ve been doing through these rehearsals is that they really become workshops. I’m interested in the participants, what they can contribute through the process; I provide the general idea but I want them to provide a point of view that then makes the work richer. I have a very loose idea, but I’m very open to new ideas and other ways of thinking. I think that helps to inform a better result. How do we involve other collaborators? What does collaboration mean? I think if I am working with people, it’s a collaboration no matter what. I have to find a way in which we can work together.

We really built these amazing, creative connections. If ever I need anyone, they’re available. And if they ever have projects that need people I can refer them to others. It’s about building relationships, about making connections and helping one another. We need as much creative energy in the world as we possibly can produce.

CR: Finally, could you tell us a little about your upcoming projects?

NC: My upcoming projects are just open until that MASS MoCA at the Contemporary Art Museum in Massachusetts. It’s a massive installation. Part of it is also a collaboration with community organizations, community leaders, civic leaders, and really creating this social media think-tank, this safe haven for very difficult conversations that are happening right now in the world. Also, I’m working with some amazing artists that will be doing a call-and-response to the installation. So I’m working with Brenda Wimberly, Helga Davis, Bill T. Jones; musicians, vocalists, dance companies that are also coming in through this program, who are creating works within the installation. This show will travel to Sydney, Australia, to Carriageworks, which has an amazing facility, and then it will all come back to the States, at Crystal Bridges Museum.

I’m also working on a new project at the Armory here, in New York City, which opens in 2018. It is a response to these town hall meetings that are happening around the country, but I’m doing a dance hall. It’s a Dance Hall-Town Hall combination. There was a moment in my life where dance, and having a place and outlet to work out your frustrations, it all happened on the dance floor. It will be open for 3 months in this big Armory facility where I’m working an entire program of DJ mixers that will operate with a curtain that will be moving throughout the space, where people can dance.

All my work is about creating platforms to congregate, a place to go where we can, through conversation and movement, engage in broader dialogue. To have a place to go to work through frustrations that are politically based, that we’re not doing through violence, that we’re doing through acts of movement and emotion.

Creative people are creative, it doesn’t have anything to do with social, economic, gender or race differences. It’s about this internal gift and being able to surround yourself with extraordinary people. The idea of just being extraordinary... I came from nothing, honey, and I’m extraordinary.

It doesn’t have anything to do with the surroundings we were born into, it’s about finding this internal connection and recognizing what we’ve been blessed and gifted with.


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