Year 5, Piece Thirty-Eight: Black White Orange
It's about race.
In the summer of 2015, I went to see a Nick Cave performance piece at the Dequindre Cut, a former railway turned greenway on the eastside of Detroit. It was one in a series of many performances from Nick Cave throughout the city of Detroit that summer, to accompany his large exhibition in the suburbs, Here Hear, at his alma mater Cranbrook Academy of Art. Incidentally, I went to Cranbrook for high school, and I happened to go see this performance with a friend from high school who had just moved back to Detroit.
At the event, we ran into my friend Zak Rosen, who incidentally is the husband of a friend from elementary and middle school. He is an audio producer and was there to cover the event for a piece he was working on about Nick Cave.
Nick Cave is perhaps best known for his soundsuits, fantastical full body costumes that totally obscure the wearer. This particular performance featured two people in head to toe raffia, one all in black, and one all in white, swishing and swirling and bursting with each movement.
Watching these two Black and White figures spin and dance and bounce off of each other under an overpass was a meditative experience. I thought about cosmic duality and the nature of the universe. How as the absorption and reflection of light, Black and White are total opposites but also an inseparable pair.
At the end of the performance, Zak came up with his recording gear and asked my friend and I what we each thought about it.
I spoke first, rambling about polarity, the simultaneous difference and unity of all things.
My friend spoke next, starting her reflection with: “It’s about race.”
Yes, it was about race. Of course! I still remember my (white) cheeks getting red in that moment. How could I be standing here in Detroit blabbering about cosmic polarities in the face of this very clear, even dire subject matter? How had I not done even a cursory Google search for Nick Cave’s soundsuits to understand that not so subtle subtext? And something I’d like to think that I thought at the time but probably didn’t: what kind of privilege did I come there with to not see that content either way?
Nick Cave’s soundsuits are elaborate, vibrant, voluminous, surreal pieces, masses of fur and fabric and beads and antique objects. They are made of kitsch but not kitschy, made of whimsy but not whimsical. Therein lies another duality. Because it isn’t what the soundsuits themselves look or even sound like, as much as what they conceal. As Nick Cave told PBS’s Art 21:
I don’t ever see the soundsuits as fun. They are really coming from a very dark place. The sound suits hide gender, race, class, and they force you to look...without judgement.
Nick Cave’s soundsuits began in direct response to police brutality against Black people. As he told Art 21 in the full segment on “Chicago”:
The first soundsuit was in ‘92 in response to the Rodney King incident, the LA Riots.I was sitting in the park one day and just sort of thinking about: what does it feel like to be discarded, dismissed, profiled? There was this twig on the ground and I looked at that twig as something discarded, and then I proceeded to just start collecting the twigs in the park. And I brought them all back to the studio and I started to build this sculpture. I started to realize that the moment that I started to move in it, it made sound, and then it just put everything in perspective. I was building this suit of armor, something that I could shield myself from the world and society. And so out of that came this sculptural, performative kind of work. I think after the first sound suit I had a different approach to art work and I realized that I was an artist with a conscience. The moment I did was the moment that my life literally turned upside down.
Nick Cave’s art career has taken off in the last twenty-five years since he was the only person of color in his class at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. And while his work is certainly not for a white audience specifically, it holds a different sort of tension for white viewers, especially when they are drawn in crowds to newly rehabbed greenways in Detroit. Like the audience gathered at the Dance Labs performance in July 2015, which was diverse but skewed pretty white.
The people I was talking to that day were all white, and my slip-up that day was a very white slip-up. Not because I blatantly missed the content of an art piece, but because of how much shame I felt about it. About getting something wrong, and something relatively minor at that. That kind of perfectionism is a troubling symptom of white supremacy and class privilege. That kind of fear of fucking up doesn’t come from a place of wanting to be a good ally, or wanting to end police violence, or even wanting to dismantle white supremacy. That fear of fucking up comes from a place of not wanting to look stupid, or even worse, from a place of wanting to look woke.
That fear of being perceived as racist is actually quite different from a fear of being racist. One centers the self in the perpetual attempt to say the right thing, and the other centers the movement, being in service to do the right thing. But I don’t even know what the right thing is, one might say. I could get it wrong! Someone could call me out! I could be embarrassed! Yup. That’s how it is. Take a deep breath and get to work.
I’m not trying to get on a high horse here: even this, where I myself am exposing my own racism must be its own kind of self-preservation strategy. This too, where I am exposing the fact that I am exposing my own racism. But context matters. Rainbow Squared as a project is one that centers the self: it’s a creative and spiritual practice, and though it is shared publicly, it is ultimately personal. It’s a space where I and maybe you one day can wax poetic on your fuck-ups. As long as you are accounting for them.
In that moment in July 2015, I think I suffered my shame silently. Maybe I tried to save face by chiming in about race after my friend brought it up, but I’m pretty sure I ultimately got kind of quiet and let it pass. I’m not even sure anyone noticed. Zak turned off his recorder and we all chatted a bit more, likely exchanged speculations about when I would be moving back to Detroit (something I am still ever-threatening), and went our separate ways.
Then a few months later, Zak sent me a link to his audio piece.
Even though I was curious, I never listened to it. I never responded either. I don’t think I even clicked the link. I was afraid he was sending me the piece because I was in it, and if I was in it then I didn’t want to hear my moment of ignorance captured for perpetuity. I knew it would be two anonymous seconds at most, but I still couldn’t bear to hear it.
Now it’s 2021. Drawing Black White Orange for Rainbow Squared last week had me thinking again about what Black White means to me. And again, I thought of cosmic duality, the opposite swirling forces of the universe also hanging together in total unity. And this time, I also thought about the ways that does and doesn’t track to the language we use to describe the pigmentation of people’s skin, of Black and white’s tremendously destructive social history.
So Black White made me think again about going to see this Nick Cave performance piece, now six years ago.
Well, with the power of the internet, I found Zak Rosen's audio piece about Nick Cave and I finally listened to it. Even six years later, it gives great context for Nick Cave’s work and specifically his work in Detroit that summer. It also describes the performance piece at the Dequindre Cut that day in detail, coloring in my memory of what it actually consisted of.
This performance was part of Dance Labs, in which a local dance company would be paired with a local musician who would receive a box of costumes, a rehearsal space at MOCAD, and a week to come up with a public performance. The performance on Sunday, July 26th, 2015 was choreographed by Biba Bell with music by Frank Pahl. And apparently, in addition to the black raffia soundsuit and the white raffia soundsuit, there was another costume: a long piece of fabric with five sets of holes for five dancers’ legs, arms, and heads to come out of, so they could move together. The color of the fabric? Black lined with Orange.
And of course, my voice is not in the audio piece at all.
Which is perhaps the most perfect outcome of my worry over being exposed for fucking up. Not because I was off the hook, but because it was so self-centered to worry that I was ever on it.
A voice that was in the audio piece was Nick Cave’s. Zak Rosen met up with him at the Here Hear show at Cranbrook where they talked about one piece in particular.
[Zak Rosen:] “Can you describe what we’re looking at?”
[Nick Cave:] “So this is TM13 which is a Trayvon Martin sculpture that I had completed for this exhibition.”
[ZR:] The Trayvon Martin piece begins with a Black mannequin. It’s wearing jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie, hands behind its back. And then the mannequin is surrounded by hollow plastic figures.
[NC:] “Functioning as guardians in this place of innocence.”
[ZR:] “We’ve got Santa, Jesus,”
[NC:] “and a little bear, and then an angel on his back.”
[ZR:] Then the piece is completely covered in a beaded web, as if Trayvon Martin is trapped.
[NC:] “Very repressed and very tight to the body, concealing it, suffocating it, bonding it.”
[ZR:] But the front of the figure’s right foot is poking out of the webbing,
[NC:] “Providing a sense of relief to a degree.”
[ZR:] TM13 is grounded in the real world, but it’s elevated to a dreamier place. Cave makes us confront our country’s brutal relationship with race and violence. He critiques the way we treat each other. But he also reminds us how powerful the human imagination can be.
[NC:] “I don’t even know if I’m making art. I’m not thinking about it like that. I’m just lucky that I have this medium as a way of sort of expressing things that are difficult for me and the world.”
Black White is Interconnectedness, Transcendence, Light, and yes, Race. Orange is Creativity, Creation, Art. So here Black White Orange can be Interconnectedness through Creation, Interconnectedness through Art. Nick Cave seeks to speak to a wide audience, to bring issues of race and relationship to light through art, through whatever he creates. A self-proclaimed “artist with a conscience,” transcending and transmuting terror through creation. Transforming blow molds into guardians, transforming a discarded twig into 500 soundsuits, into so much more.
Every piece for Rainbow Squared is a documentation of the performance of making. These animations are what I tried to make while my kid was home with a runny nose, rolling his flat bed truck into my shot and constantly touching the camera because he insisted that my black and red tripod laid horizontally across the kiddie craft table looked like a railroad crossing sign.
Though I am sharing this on Halloween, this piece about costumes, about true-life horror, and even about pumpkins did not start out as a piece for Halloween. Black White made me think about Nick Cave who happens to make soundsuits, and the pumpkin was the Orange I had lying around because it happens to be Halloween. As I go deeper into long form writing, I go further off schedule, which is why I am still writing this particular piece on October 31st. But I suppose the synchronicity of Black White Orange is no coincidence. Connecting cycles of time through art.