Nick Cave: When I look outside, when I go to the front door. That is my new canvas. Today. It's not really what happens in the studio. It's what happens outside of the studio.
Helga Davis: When you're an artist and a citizen, how do you hold yourself accountable to your community, while making work that speaks to that community. I'm Helga Davis.
Visual artists, Nick Cave joined me to share the ways in which art making shifts, morphs, and responds to the world we're living in. He asks himself all of this and more in his pursuit of making work for others.
This is Helga, the armory conversations with Nick Cave.
I was so excited to speak to you today that I got a huge hive on my nose.
Nick: Girl look. It can affect any part of your body, but not the face, okay?
Helga: I was hyperventilating. I don't know what was going on but I was just full, full, full, full of energy. I'm going to ask you a question.
The thing that I was thinking about when actually looking at not just your work online, but even the things that I've been in with you, that, that I've been fortunate enough to be super up close and personal with, is that I think it's easy to look at an artist like you and say he has arrived somewhere.
And that this is, this is a point and a place to; to stop. When in fact, it's just part of a conversation that you've been having for a long time.
And I think the first thing I would love for you to do is to speak to the many roads that have been along this path.
Nick: Yeah. And, you know, I think, we're creators. And, how one defines what that may mean, you know, changes for everyone.
For me, it's, I think once I realized that I was a messenger, that changed everything for me. I was able to release and step into this very sort of independent, resilient sort of space of play and research and discovery.
And within that space able to step out of the way and allow other people to come and play on the playground.
You know, none of my work is for me. And, that allows me to be open. It allows me to provide these invitations in. It allows me to step outside and be on the other side of things.
You know, to be able to look at how a project performs is everything to me. You know, in the earlier years I was always in it. I couldn't judge it. I couldn't analyze it. Cause I was in it. So when you're not in it, you're able to see it. And that allows me this amazing breadth of information. Questions. There’s no end until the end. It's not over until it's over.
I got here because I was prepped. My mother prepped me to be ready for this moment. So, my mother sort of set the foundation. She told me that I was talented and that I could be whatever I wanted to be. That I was beautiful.
My surrounding family, you know, there was love; unconditional love that was so extraordinary that it provided the guidance. Being around creative siblings, cousins, grandparents, quilt makers, makers. That's the world in which I am familiar with.
And then my mother handed me over to the education system. I have always been prepped, groomed, and then handed to the next level.
And so, you know, my instructors in school were like, you know, you're talented. I think you need to go to art school. Be in the art club. Let's do a talent show. These are things that, you know, I have been sort of offered. And being able to be a part of.
You know, I was doing performances at 18 years old. I mean, you know rounding up my friends and we would parade down on the plaza in Kansas City in all of my regalia of sorts.
Did I think that I was, uh, collaborating at that moment? No. That was just me sort of gathering my friends and being resourceful and making things happen and in the moment. You know, when I look outside, when I go to the front door, that is my new canvas.
It's not really what happens in the studio, it’s what happens outside of the studio.
Helga: So you were these kids doing these parades and things. Was there not resistance? To your being a boy who was doing these things? To your friends who were accompanying you on this parade kind of thing? No resistance?
Nick: Yeah, no. No resistance at all.
You know, I went to the Kansas City Art Institute and you know we were all rebellious at that time. You know the 70’s honey. We were all kicking it up and like being as expressive as we possibly could be.
But also working within the sort of boundaries of space limitations. I mean, you can still project and be everything you need to be within that space of limitations.
Helga: And transgress.
Nick: Yeah. And so, it's really sort of, how do you sort of work against that and steel deliver what it is that you're, you're trying to do in the moment. And so, you know, boundaries, restrictions, limitations. That's just not something that I've ever considered.
Helga: Hmm. I keep wanting to say, “but how did you get that way? But how did you get that way?”
Nick: Well, you get that way by exercising that craft. You know, the moment that I paraded with 18 up my friends down on the Plaza in these constructions that I made… That was the moment that I realized like, “Whoa. So, my canvas is outside of my studio. Like this is a vast world that I could possibly operate within.”
And so in doing that, you get response. You get reactions. You know, that is my sort of laboratory. That's where I'm learning about the work and what's possible. There's absolutely no reason for you not to be able to be creative somewhere.
Helga: Your early work. What questions do you think you were trying to answer? And are they the same questions you're asking and answering with your work now?
Nick: I think early early was me sort of understanding the sort of vocabulary, the language. In particular material language.
It was really me sort of understanding, you know, how do I want to sort of inform, incorporate movement within my art practice?
Helga: Cause you were dancing with Alvin Ailey.
Nick: Yea. And so, you know, I'm thinking that dance is another medium. It was never a pathway that I wanted to focus on, as opposed to allowing it to be another medium to consider in a body of work.
You know, the body for me has always been the axle for everything that I do. I build around it. I built on it. And I, or it steps into something. So, the body has always been this interesting vehicle to navigate, and to explore, and to deconstruct, and to rebuild.
But, you know, the earlier part of my practice was just me sort of, uh, exercising all of what is possible.
I didn't really know construction in terms of sewing until I was 20 and I was forced to make a garment in undergrad school. You know, I was a screen printer, so I printed fabrics. Well, they showed me how to thread the machine and how it worked and said, “Good luck.”
And that first garment that I did at critique, I looked around and I thought, “Oh! So my sewing is not that bad based on everyone else's work.”
Again, the body becomes the axle for me to bring things to. It allows me to work through identity. I think it also allowed me to think about sculpture and form in a way that I had never thought about before. And then it allowed me to sort of move. To allow movement.
What type of movement I imagine in this printed abstract construction? what does that mean? Where are the limitations? Where are the boundaries within all of that?
And so, you know, nothing's never finished to me. There's always another question. I never had finished work. I produce work that the moment that it takes it’s first breath then I know that I can release it into the world.
And so it introduces itself to me. And then I'm sort of in pause. Stepping back, stepping out of it and receiving what it is that I have created in this moment.
Helga: What are the big societal questions Do you think you're asking though?
Nick: Well, you know, I think as time has moved forward, I have drastically changed. And I think the moment my conscious was awakened and that was the Rodney King incident in ‘92.
You know, you think that you are awake and you’re for this and for that but I was awakened in that moment. And that's when everything, in terms of my practice shifted.
I just started making things that would shield, that would protect, that would hide my identity, race and class. Forcing you to look at something without judgment.
When that incident happened, you know, I was reading something that described Rodney as “larger than life”, “worked out with prison weights”, “scary”.
And I thought, what does that look like? What does that look like in terms of an image? I was in the park setting on a bench and I started to think about, you know, I don't know what it likes to build discarded dismissed less than. And there was a twig on the ground, and I started to collect all the toys in the park. And I went back to my studio, brought my shopping cart and did that for about two weeks. Collecting this, these materials.
Went back to the studio was building a sculpture. Not realizing that I could physically put it on my body until it was complete. And then I was like, “Oh, I can wear this.” And the moment that I put it on and started to move, it made sound. And that's how Soundsuits came about.
And that sound was this sort of new idea of protest. You know, in order to be heard, you got to speak louder. So with this construction being applied to my body at that moment, I, as Nick was no longer present something other had come into the world.
So that was the sort of real, sort of critical sort of beginning of a body of work that was based around this sort of expansive surplus that's out here in the world. You know, I had to do what I needed to do in order to protect my inner being.
You know, that incident brought trauma to a lot of people. And what do we do to protect our inner selves from the trauma? And so I started to build these shelters. These suits of armor of sorts. Because I knew that that was the only vehicle that I had in order to express my emotions. I mean, let me tell you, art has been my savior. I mean, it's everything.
Helga: Who were the people in your community now there in Chicago? How have you been keeping everyone together?
Nick: You know, I think I have to talk about a Facility, this building that I bought, uh, five years ago that has allowed me to be free. In the sense that I can do whatever I want in it, around it, on it. It is the most liberating thing to be able to have 25,000 square feet.
Helga: So we're clear.
Nick: And to be able to have these amazing storefronts that I can't project a video. I can invite artists to come in and create an installation. Invite a group of artists to come and write amends on the front of the building.
That project was based around the George Floyd incident. And to be able to write letters to the world. And for the community to be able to come and stand in front of the building and read these letters, these testimonies about racism.
You know, when George Floyd happened, it allowed me to ask myself, why do I have this property? What is it here? And so. it allowed me to use it according to what I had always planned to do with it.
You know, I think a lot about service and how can I be of service through my practice. And so that's what it's about. It's about what role do I play in making a change?
Helga: And how have you all been able to stay together? To stay in touch and stay, stay present?
Nick: I think accountability, I think really is what motivates me. What am I accountable for in these moments of crisis? I got quiet, which I do every day. You know, I sit in silence for a couple of hours. Can you imagine if we lived in a world where everyone had to sit in silence every day? How much closer we would come to truth?
And see, so there are these sort of exercises and conditions that I have to do in order for me to do the work that I'm asked to do. Sitting in silence led me to think about, “well, if I'm feeling these particular ways, what is my gallery feeling?” And so again, asking questions, pointing fingers, wanting results.
But you know, in these moments you sort of have to come up with new ways of operating. You know, how do we talk about work that we can't walk around, be close to, touch? You know, we're all doing the best that we can.
Helga: I guess I was thinking about the people to whom you are accountable, who can't come in, necessarily come and be in the studio with you.
Nick: My studio assistants started working from home. You know, I had to completely restructure the entire studio. These are jobs. So how do I keep them secure in, in that sort of manner? So that's how the studio maintained its rigor.
Helga: I'm so glad you used that word to rigor. I had during this time an experience of speaking with some art students about art making. Several of whom were visual artists. And I was fascinated to hear how many of them already had the concern about selling.
And I said, “But you don't even know who you are. You've not developed a voice. You don't seem to have asked yourself many questions, but you're already worried about selling things.” Hmm.
Nick: Hmm. Yeah. Right.
Helga: And they're in school where a certain kind of mental and practical facility are necessary to produce work. But not work to sell necessarily.
Talk about study for you and in your work and house study is important.
Nick: I think the two things that are probably the most important is fear stepping up to fear and failure. So, for me, failure is the answer.
Helga: What does that mean?
Nick: You know, for me, it's like, you must get out of your comfort zone. I'm not interested in you coming to a graduate program with what you know. It’s what you don't know. And so, in that process of research and learning, there's failure. But out of failure may be answers that are right there within that moment.
And let me tell you I've had this, you know, I teach the graduate program in fashion, body, and garment at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and I've had students look… fall out. Emotionally, falling out.
I let them lie on the ground for a couple of minutes. And then I say, “Get up.” Because you must know how to stay in the game. Get back in the game. And we talk about what just happened. A moment of revelation. I mean, these are these moments that are like, let’s now look at what was discussed and sort of start to then analyze and break it down in order for you to understand and to move yourself forward.
Look in my studio failure happens all the time. But I get it. I mean, sometimes I think, you know, I might as well be sitting in front of the fire and just throwing a hundred-dollar bills in because I have just wasted about 10 grand on an idea that does work.
And that's okay. And I too have to take a moment and like turn the lights out, get out of the studio and just accept what has happened. And that's all okay. Because I know that I will get through it.
And so fear, that's the place where I strive the best. It’s working in this sort of space of the unknown.
So, I did this project at Mass MoCA titled, Until. When Denise Markonish came to my studio and said, “you know, I want to invite you to do a project in gallery five”, which is the largest space at Mass MoCA. Small football field. I was like, “Yes. Yes.” She said, “Only one stipulation. No Soundsuits.”
Helga: Your comfort zone.
Nick: But she did not know that I was already moving through that. Again trying to re-imagine what the next body of work may look like. So, she then said, “I'll come back in a year.” She then came back, and it was maybe two months prior to her visit and Michael Brown happened.
And I was in the studio and I asked myself, “Ss there racism in heaven? ”And that was the turning point for the next body of work. That was the catalyst that allowed me to then imagine what I can do in that space. No Soundsuits, but I want to put you in the belly of a Soundsuit. And that's what I created.
And the question was, how does it serve? What is its role? What is it supposed to do? And so there was this one educational component, outreach programming that was created. Invitations where we invited artists to come and respond to the installation such as Helga.
Helga: And then you moved into this other huge, beautiful space. The Park Avenue Armory. And finally, we got to let go.
Nick: Exactly and, you know, coming off of that Mass MoCA project, which was so involved in terms of just the material volume of what it took to build that piece, going into The Let Go, I wanted to strip it back to one material. But I wanted to create a space that allowed me to let go through movement.
And that we can have our differences, but we can work it out on the dance floor. So no one gets hurt. And then you're surrounded by Chase which was this mylar streamer curtain that moved throughout the entire Armory, which was 40 feet high by 120 feet in length.
The reason why it was titled Chase, because it was designed where it was green, yellow, black streamer. In front behind that was black and blue. It was a person of color being chased by the police.
You know, the George Floyd incident, that was really, really hard for me. Yet society is retraumatizing a race as we watch these trials. And we have to be careful and understand where we have to turn it off.
But the thing that I took away that I had not ever thought about was Black Excellence. And so now I have fully allowed that to be in the forefront of my practice going forward.
And if any trauma happens along the way, I will then insert that into the work. As opposed to the, that being the driving force. Black excellence. What does that mean? I don't fucking know. But what I do know is that it feels good in my bones. And I'm not going to define it because I'm going to let it define me as I step on this journey.
Helga: I look forward to seeing you.
Nick: And I look forward to you being in the Black Excellence.
Helga: Thank you Nick Cave.
Nick: You're welcome. Thank you.
Helga: And that was my conversation with Visual Artist, Nick cave. I'm Helga Davis.
If you want more of these conversations, subscribe for free wherever you get podcasts. Give us a rating and share with a friend. And don't forget to follow me at H-E-L dot dot G-A-D-A-V-I-S on Instagram.
Helga: The Armory Conversations is a co-production of WNYC Studios and Park Avenue Armory. The show is produced by Krystal Hawes- Dressler with help from Darian Suggs and myself. Our technical producer is Sapir Rosenblatt. Original music by Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran. Avery Willis Hoffman is our Executive Producer. And a special thanks to Bob Faust.
And now, The Coda.
Nick: Helga, I have to ask you a question?
Helga: Yes, sir.
Nick: What was those experiences like for you since you were invited to perform, as you did in both installations.
Helga: Well, I can tell you that what I felt in the invitation was my needing to be accountable to my community. Even if they were a community of people. I didn't know.
When I got to Mass MoCA, I went with a saxophonist and I was also angry. No one had asked me to be accountable to my anger. Because I, I know that there is a service there that is bigger than the anger itself. And so, I got Mr. John Tibbetts, who was the coordinator of all the artists, and I said, “Here's what we're going to do. I'm going to give you this bowl of mints.” And we filled up this big bowl with mints and at the bottom of the bowl was a ceramic gun.
I put myself on one of the staircases to The Cloud as a corpse. And then I just put Curtis in the audience. And John went around and offered people mints. And he would go to the person and say, “Mint? Mint? Would, may offer you a mint?”
And people would take them or not take them. And then the corpse at some point came to life and as the corpse came to life, the corpse began to sing this aria from La Wally.
It’s a piece of music that I love. It's a, I saw the film, Diva with the soprano Wilhelmenia Hernandez when I was a kid and I always loved her. And I always wanted to sing that piece of music. But in this abstract arrangement of the piece of music. So, Curtis accompanied me on saxophone.
And the corpse got offered the mints and then the corpse makes a mess of the bowl and finds the gun. And I continue to sing the aria while pointing the gun at the audience.
It's how I felt inside. That one could go and sit in the opera while these horrible things were happening to people who look like me. And have a mint and think nothing of it.
And then I asked the audience the question, “Where is peace?” And I gave people an opportunity to write down some responses and I read them out loud to hold the audience accountable for the places they imagine as peaceful and the places they want to create as peaceful.
So now you can't say you don't know what peace looks like. You know what violence looks like. You know what betrayal looks like. And now you also know what peace looks like. Go in peace.
And then for The Let Go, not only did you make this incredible garment for me to be in to also protect me. I felt very protected in the beaded piece and its weight. I did need another lung to sing in it, but okay.
And then Chase was going around and then I emerged from Chase to sing something that again, gave the audience, invited the audience to be accountable to one another. Through music. Through sculpture. Through being together. Through language. And see.
So in fact, what you did was that you made me accountable. And I think that's a thing that I, I am missing and that I have missed in these last months of being in isolation.
It is this way of having to answer to, for, with, other creative people. So thank you for that.