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Suits for All Sizes

Interview with Nick Cave

Chicago-based visual-performance artist Nick Cave is known for his Soundsuits—vibrant pieces made from thrift store materials that can be worn like alien skin. They transform the wearer, obscuring race, class, gender, and individual perspective.

The suits move and flow when dancing, and they even make a little noise. Cave, who trained as a dancer, dresses locals in his suits during his touring shows. Inspired by the Rodney King verdict, LA riots, and twigs picked up in the park, Soundsuits are a joyful answer to questions about who we are. We asked Cave about the aspects of his suits and performances.

Describe the experience of wearing a Soundsuit.

People assume it’s easy, but it’s not. I take wearers through an exercise, asking them to describe a suit before putting it on: its materiality, what it weighs, how large it is. I want them to talk through the description—touch it, maybe pick it up, feel its density and weight. Then we go into the process of transformation—surrendering and becoming something other. You put on the suit and sit in it, and at that moment, identity, gender, and race no longer exist. It’s all hidden. Next we start to move, and there may be restrictions in terms of motion, or due to the weight of the suit. Or once you move in it and expand, it may create this massive amount of volume. It varies. It’s about connecting with this sense of transformation and what that means.

How does an observer see someone who’s wearing the suit?

The person on the outside is looking at a hybrid. There may be some similarities or cultural references to ceremonial dress, but the suit asks how you stand with something “other” and accept something “other,” something different. It asks us all—including the wearer—those questions that are important in my practice.

Nick Cave, March 29, 2012, University of North Texas, Denton TX

In today’s landscape of 24-7 digital media access, what’s the value of having a performance in a real, physical space? How does that differ from watching a video of a performance? 

I think it’s such a major difference. Let’s talk about environment and space. [I think about] how we identify with space as a canvas and composition, about arrangement and placement within space as away of invading, transforming, and looking at that space. That’s different from looking at a performance through a lens, because a lens can only catch so much. I think it’s also the essence of the performance—the feeling, collectiveness, that we’re all in this expression and sharing this moment. There’s interaction with the audience. With the lens, we catch glimpses of an experience. As a whole, there’s much to be said for being present. The energy, message that’s delivered, motion that’s involved—these things can’t be experienced if you’re not there.

“You put on the suit and sit in it, and at that moment, identity, gender, and race no longer exist. It’s all hidden.”
Nick Cave

Is there some memory imbued into an object after it’s been lived in for a moment? Is the Soundsuit different after it’s been worn? 

Much liberation happens when you’re in it. You know you have permission to express yourself in ways that are very unfamiliar. It really is quite extraordinary. Coming out of that is like shedding this moment of liberation that lets you not be judged by society. There are these two amazing moments: the moment of camouflage and the reveal.

How does the materiality of the Soundsuits relate to their use in performances?

Either they’re for performances or they’re sculptures, so they’re very different in the material language.With the sculptures, we can be more sensitive to materials, because there isn’t any stress on the material. In terms of performance, we think more about the amount of activity brought to a suit by the wearer. I also think of material in terms of its fluidity, and in some cases sound. It comes down to how things are built. 

Drive-by (film still)
Nick Cave, 2011 | Video duration: 10.06 minutes

What’s the importance of community to you, and how does that influence your work?

Community is so much a part of my practice. I feel it allows me to understand my purpose. I could bring an entire troop and deliver a performance and then pack up and leave, but I’m more interested in the imprint we leave on a community. We leave behind amazing artists that we’ve allowed to stand on a new platform. So when we go to a city, we pull up our sleeves, get into the trenches, and look for talent and creative people.We find that we’re introducing communities back to themselves. We’re amazed at how many dancers or musicians or vocalists live within three blocks of each other. You realize that you get to make things happen [where] you live

You’re surrounded by 300 people who were working on this performance, and you all live there. The possibility of making things happen has just been reintroduced to the community. But what the audience sees has nothing to do with this work that’s delivered, revealed, and discovered through a two-week residency. It’s life-changing for me, as well as everyone involved. It’s about creating space for people to be heard, and individuals to be voices for others, pairing artists who never considered working together. It’s getting out of my own way and looking at this as away of sketching and expressing ideas.

“Much liberation happens when you’re in [a suit]. You know you have permission to express yourself in ways that are very unfamiliar...Coming out of that is like shedding this moment of liberation that lets you not be judged by society. There are these two amazing moments: the moment of camouflage and the reveal.”
Nick Cave

Do you find that bringing specific people together changes your ideas for a piece? Do your ideas evolve because of the people involved? 

The ideas evolve, but it doesn’t change the content. We have a goal and a project to deliver, and we always know what that is. But the growing and shifting of expression is very much available and acceptable within this space of developing and creating a work. I don’t think a work is ever finished; I’ve never thought that way. Regardless of whether it’s a performance or a sculptural piece, there is always another way or an extension. It comes down to, “Are we delivering the message we set in place?” 

You’ve spoken before about creating a space of possibility. What potential do you see in creating that space of possibility—how can that influence the broader society?What’s the potential? 

It’s two things. First, it’s about common ground. The Park Avenue Armory project and The Let Go project were about, “How do we create these safe spaces where we can put our emotions?” I come from a movement background, and that’s how I deal with things, [that’s howI]work it out, on the dance floor. To create that kind of space for everyone who’s interested in participating, and invite corporate or civic organizations to bring their work force into Let Go and just be able to dance—I don’t know you, and yet here we are in this common space—and express ourselves without judgment, it’s very interesting to me.

At the same time, it’s providing platforms for artists. I did a project in Shreveport where I met incredible musicians, vocalists, and spoken-word artists who [typically] work with an audience of 800, maybe 1,000. To create a project where they have an audience of 8,000 changes how they’ll move forward. That’s what possibility is about. It’s being placed in these extraordinary opportunities that allow you to see yourself in the world differently.

This article was originally published in Issue 16 of the Mohawk Maker Quarterly. The Mohawk Maker Quarterly is a vehicle to support a community of like-minded makers. Content focuses on stories of small manufacturers, artisans, printers, designers, and artists who are making their way in the midst of the digital revolution. Learn more about the quarterly here.

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