A Q&A with Nick Cave

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By Johnny Ray Huston

Nick Cave and I probably crossed paths in Heaven one night. Heaven was a club on Woodward Avenue in Detroit where you could go, after 2 a.m., to dance and sweat and lose yourself to the sounds of DJ Ken Collier. Cave's time in Heaven has made it possible for him to create "Meet Me at the Center of the Earth," his show at Yerba Buena Center of the Arts. Time spent in that kind of cathartic, uninhibited place is necessary for someone — someone like Cave — to bring people to the Earth's core and allow them to begin reimagining from the center of existence. When Cave and I talked on the phone recently, the morning of a full-page profile of him appeared in the Sunday New York Times, our discussion started near Heaven, and ended in Barack Obama's Chicago.

SFBG How has your studio changed over the years, in terms of location, layout, and contents?
Nick Cave My studio has changed according to the way my career has changed. I've expanded in space due to demand. I've had to bring on more studio assistants. It's evolved and grown, but without expanding beyond my means. I look at it the same way I did when I had a clothing store. I try to make smart moves.

SFBG Do those things influence your process, or do many of your ideas originate outside of the studio space?
NC I think it does occur outside the studio space. The studio is where the ideas are manifested. The ideas come from being out there in the world — just being open. Though sometimes a revelation may happen in the studio, based on an experience I'm developing. It happens when it happens.

SFBG We've both spent formative time in Detroit and the Detroit area. I went to Wayne State [University], while you went to Cranbrook Academy of Art]. I'd love to know more about your experience there with [fiber artist and teacher] Gerhardt Knodel. I wondered also whether you had ties to the club scenes in Detroit or Chicago at any time.
NC Oh, hell yeah [laughs].
Cranbrook was probably the most extraordinary place for me. I could have gone straight to New York [City], or to other schools, but I knew I needed an environment that was somewhat isolated, because of my desires to be distracted by other creative endeavors. Cranbrook provided this amazing intensive rigor and isolation from the world. Yet I had Detroit, which really allowed that gritty balance. It was the best of both worlds. When I needed to get the hell out of Cranbrook, believe me, I did.

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Photo by James Prinz

SFBG Around what years did you go to Cranbrook?
NC I was there around 1987 and 1988.

SFBG That was when I went to Wayne State. I like what you're saying about isolation — in Detroit back then, everything great was isolated, which made it more of a discovery when you happened upon it.
NC It has these little pockets. I spent a little time in Royal Oak. I was very much into the underground club scene. It really was my savior. Cranbrook was sterile, and yet it provided me with focus. I could get my feet solidly on the ground there.
Gerhardt was the most extraordinary person, even today, in my life. A true mentor has your back — they know that you have it, so they do what it takes in terms of pushing you, challenging you, forcing you to stand up for your beliefs and have conviction. He provided me with the tools to walk out of that school knowing how to trust myself.

SFBG Was house and techno music important to you then? During that time I would go to places on Woodward Avenue.
NC House only. Woodward Avenue — exactly. Dancing was critical to me at that point. It was a way of releasing this week of work. I could just hit the dance floor and let it go.

SFBG The greatest experiences I've ever had dancing came from going to after-hours places like Heaven on Woodward.
NC Oh, the music was so on. It was also very transient and scary at the same time, like "Where the hell am I?" But everybody knew it was a place of sanctuary in some sense. It was a place to be inspired and let go of all your inhibitions. It provided this amazing tool and fuel.
Too bad we didn't run into each other!

SFBG I also want to ask about the differences between Detroit and Chicago, because I have vivid memories from that time of taking the train back and forth between the two cities — the train station in Chicago was this beautiful old building with vaulted ceilings, while the train station in Detroit was a trailer in an abandoned lot. Did you move to Chicago after Cranbrook?
NC I was offered a teaching job right after grad school at the Art Institute of Chicago. In Chicago, it was the same thing — I had to search out where the clubs were. But once I found them, they were a critical component to the way I was thinking about my work, and this expressive way of looking at movement.
I'm telling you, these kids would tear it up. Sometimes I would just watch. It's very different going to a club where it's fully about your own expression and allowing a sense of independence and freedom. That's what I need to use as a mechanism in thinking of how to apply movement to my work. There was Club LaRay in Chicago, there was the Vault. I could hit the dance floor solo and dance for two damn hours and not even stop. You could just go there and do what you needed to do.

SFBG It’s tough, because the way that histories are written and because of the ephemeral nature of the clubs, the only way someone can know what we’re talking about is if they were there.
NC Clubs have changed -- the really good ones last for short periods. I’m finding that here [in Chicago], DJs and club wheelers and dealers lease out a club for a night. They’re like gypsies, they move around.

SFBG Stopping by Yerba Buena Center on the day of the show, I was struck by the final-hours nature of your assemblage process. I’m sure some of it had to with how enormous the show is, but it was very well organized. Your pieces are extremely layered and specific.
NC We were right in the middle of it all when you stopped by. It looks like a lot of work putting it together, but the real work is about design. Once I figure that out, it is only a matter of time before the show falls into place. The work is finished in the studio, so once it arrives, it’s really about putting the assemblages together. For a show, a lot more time is spent thinking about the space. Being able to come to the YBCA a year and a half ahead of this exhibition allowed me an understanding. I worked with the staff [curator Kate Eilertsen and others] there in terms of floor plans and how I wanted people to move through the exhibitionl.

SFBG I like the X-formation in the large room -- it creates intersections or interactions among the viewers.
NC That’s a big component. I don’t really think of myself as an artist, but as a humanitarian. I’m using my work as a vehicle for change, so for me, it’s important to allow that cross-pollinating experience to happen among the viewers. And as a viewer, when you get to the center, you have to make decisions about which direction to pursue. All of the sudden, you have to think about options.

SFBG In the art writing about you, there are plentiful references to Mardi Gras Indian clothing and traditions, and African tribal art. In terms of a dance link or contemporary pop culture, I wondered if you see an affinity with or connection to krumping?
NC There are these underlying aspects: We can look at Carnaval, we can go to Africa and look at Yoruba ritual. And we can bring it in to the contemporary world, with krumping and house balls.

SFBG I thought about house balls as well -- not to be reductive, but because of the time period we were discussing earlier. I remember going to clubs in New York, and seeing Paris is Burning as a young clubgoer in Detroit. It was a revelation.
NC Paris is Burning was fabulous, oh my god! It was so real. I just went to a ball about six months ago -- I happened to run across it because I was going somewhere else. I found that I was there until 4 in the morning because I was so in awe of the categories and how defined it was. Likewise, in my work, there’s this multi-layering of meaning and references that we can pull from all kinds of directions. Leigh Bowery is another influence, in terms of extremes that I can then fold into what I do.

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Photo by James Prinz

SFBG I know you have a brother who is close to you in age who is also a designer. What kind of conversations do you have?
NC We come at it hard. We do not tolerate a lot of nonsense. We know it when we see it, we know who is bringing it and who’s not. We do all that we can do to protect the purity. It’s great -- we’re one year apart and aesthetically we have the same sensibility, so I can play off of his reaction to something. I might go to an exhibition and then he’ll go three days later and we’ll discuss it. We have an ongoing dialogue. It’s refreshing to have someone that you can connect with, or fight with sometimes and still love each other.

SFBG What is your mom’s reaction like?
NC She expects my shows to be at a certain level, and more. She also realizes that at an opening, it’s just as much her opening as it is mine, because of the amount of attention she gets as my mom. She knows that she has to be very present about my development and the direction of what I’m doing, so I think for her it’s a lot of work (laughs).

SFBG What is the experience of wearing the Soundsuits like for you personally? How does it vary from piece to piece?
NC For me, the difference between one and another is extreme. I take my time with all of it. I don’t really draw. [A Soundsuit] is intuitively developed, through materials provoking an idea.
Once I put it [a Soundsuit] on, I have to settle with myself. I don’t move for a while. I’ve got to reach the point where I surrender my identity and it’s no longer present. If you don’t do that, you find that it’s too overwhelming. People have had emotional breakdowns [in the Soundsuits] -- they’ve lost control.
I tell people to settle and work through the transformation, because that’s really what’s happening. Once you do that, it’s all about being present, finding out what [the Soundsuit] offers -- what the conditions and limitations of movement are, and what they mean. There’s a lot of work in the sense you have to move to a new identity. And then it’s all about conviction. Again, it’s about how much you are willing to surrender -- are you willing to get rid of inhibitions and let yourself go completely?
If you come from a dance background, there really aren’t a lot of times when you have a sense of freedom of expression and come into a new way of moving. It takes time to get to that point.

SFBG Is Ronald K. Brown developing his upcoming Soundsuit performances without input from you, and will you be seeing them?
NC I’m going to them. I really want to understand what it’s like for you to see [the Soundsuits], and what it’ll be like for me to have the same kind of experience. When I put a show together, you as a viewer have a different experience than me, because I’m building the work. I wonder if I can indulge myself when I’m not a part of it. The only way I can see of doing that is by handing over a series of Soundsuits for performance and allowing Ronald to bring his interpretation to them. I can step back and be an observer.
I’m also learning. It’s data about the potential around the work in relationship to performance.

SFBG You have some big plans in that regard [a 90 Soundsuit performance in 2012 at Chicago’s Millennium Park].
NC Yes. It’s a big deal for me to be on the outside now and ask myself if doing this is valid in the future.

SFBG I wanted to ask about the Millennium Park project. Also, the video of people in Soundsuits moving through the city in the YBCA exhibition makes me wonder abut the role of Chicago in your life.
NC Chicago is my hub. I do most of my work in New York, but Chicago provides me with an amazing studio and loft to live in. I look at Chicago as a canvas, or a lab. I will put it out there in the streets in a second. I love to create a little happening, because I’m interested to see how people respond: How is the South Side responding, how are people on the North Side responding?
To turn a corner and encounter something is intriguing to me.

SFBG You get that feeling in "Meet Me at the Center of the Earth"'s video pieces. In a way that is never obvious in the manner of gags on TV shows, they bring across the experience of being in the Soundsuits in this gray urban setting, but also of being someone who might encounter the Soundsuits.
NC Yes. There’s the bus going by, and you think, “Hmmm, I wonder what the people on the bus were thinking.” It’s a big deal to me to be able to bring light in a sense into that type of setting. Maybe it’s 5 p.m. and everyone is coming home from work. Maybe you‘ve had a bad day and all of the sudden you see these Day-Glo suits moving along the streets.
Chicago is a vivacious city. It seems to be growing rapidly. And yet it’s not so congested, like New York. I have this amazing relationship with the Mayor [Richard M. Daley], and I sit on his Fashion Council. He’s talked to me about this Millennium [Park] project. He saw the [2007] exhibition at the [Chicago] Cultural Center and asked me about my next projects. When I mentioned they involved performance he said he really wanted to be a part of it and suggested Millennium Park.
Next year, I’m doing a project that takes place between Chicago Avenue and the [Chicago] River on Michigan Avenue. At every block corner I’m going to set up a platform for time-based Soundsuit performances. Kids from music programs in the public schools will provide music. I’m just thinking of ways of getting this work into the hands of the everyday person who might struggle in terms of being comfortable in a museum setting.
Right now, with this economy and with people losing their jobs, as artists we need to reach out.

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Photo by James Prinz

SFBG I like the injection of an actual presence of the surreal or hyper-imaginative into aspects of day-to-day life, or “normal” settings. There is a lot of talk about change in America right now, but you don’t want it to always to be within political discourse.
NC This is the way of the world. We have got to realize that this country is a biracial country, period. Barack (Obama) being President has really changed the dynamics of how we are going to be working as citizens in this country. His administrative duty is being President, but his real work is much bigger than that.

SFBG In this moment, I’m interested in anything that brings the fantastic or extremely colorful or bizarre into daily life, because there is a danger of everyone becoming too solemn.
NC We’re paralyzed -- with emotion, with hope. With my exhibition at the [Yerba Buena] Center, I want people who have gone to it to be ambassadors that tell people, “Oh my god, you have to go to this show.” I want it to trigger and to manifest in this extraordinary way. I want to force the community to be proactive and to think about possibility and to dream.

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