Shreveport is a border town at the crossroads of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. The city is known for its musical history—the term “Elvis has left the building” was coined there. But Shreveport also suffers from crippling issues of injustice. Shreveport prosecutors use peremptory challenges to bar people of color from juries, and juries in Caddo Parish “now sentence more people to death per capita than juries in any other county in America.” Beyond disparities in the justice system, Shreveport has the fourth-highest rate of persons living with HIV in Louisiana. In 2013, 22.8% of the residents lived below the poverty line. Poverty, health, and the justice system are all intertwined here, and this year visual artist Nick Cave is in residence at these crossroads, participating in a residency with the Shreveport Regional Arts Council. How does a visual artist address these problems? From October 2015 to March 2016, Cave is working on a multi-dimensional project that attempts to speak to the disparate realities of the citizenry.
Tori Bush: What led you to create this project in Shreveport? How does the history and context of each place inform your projects?
Nick Cave: The Shreveport Regional Arts Council contacted me when I was working in Detroit on a project titled Hear Here. They were interested in working with visual artists who practice within a social spectrum as well. And I was very interested in the project, to work with social organizations, which for me was a different outreach than I was familiar with. And I was even more interested in the fact that SRAC was using art as a kind of healing device. I was very interested in that, and really that is why I came on board with the project. It allowed me to go even further into the fieldwork.
This project is the way I’m interested in working right now. I come to a city with an idea, and the city builds the project. And the thing that’s so fascinating here is that this is really Shreveport’s project. I’m acting as the director.
I said from the start, this project is not going to be a wow-wow, bang-bang performance, where everyone is going to have a good time. We are working with social-services organizations that aid citizens who are trying to reenter society. We are dealing with serious issues. How can I come to this project with compassion? How can I create a work that is reflective of the voices of the community? How can I leave with an imprint so that it is moving, and not just fluff? It’s allowing me to rethink the role of my work and the purpose of this project, and take myself out of the center of it.
TB: Tell me a bit more about how this is making you rethink your work—is this community work an evolution of your own process as an artist?
NC: Well, it has made me realize everyone that is involved—we are finding roles so that citizens of the community all have a major part in the project. Shreveport Regional Arts Council has been having these amazing bead-a-thons, and thirty beaded blankets are being made at Shreveport Arts Center by everyone in the neighborhood who comes. [Local poet] Poetic X is working with individuals and families about the role of the service organizations, and what they are trying to overcome, and for the opening performance he’ll use these stories to tell an amazing narrative as a spoken-word piece. During the performance, individuals will come and place these blankets on Poetic X as he is reading. For me it is all very sensitive work. I don’t want anyone to feel that I am coming in and exploiting them. And so I have to think about that really clearly.
TB: Can you tell me a bit more about the community groups you are working with in Shreveport? What is the role of each community group in the project? Can you tell me one great story from your time there?
NC: We’ve been working with Mercy Center, Providence House, Lighthouse Ministries, and Hotel McAdoo. Every time I come to Shreveport I visit each house and speak with everyone there and thank them for being involved. You know, everyone wants to feel that they matter, and to say, “Oh my god, this is amazing” just puts a glow on their faces.
Mercy House is one of the organizations helping persons with HIV. There is one individual there, Larry, who is so spectacular, and he is so committed to the narrative in the blanket he is creating and talking about what that means to him, using the blanket as a sense of comfort, protection, a form of warmth. He talks about how happy he is to be part of this project. And I told him the other day that I will put him in a major performance piece titled Upright, which is an initiation piece, a piece about empowerment. Larry will transform by stripping down to his shorts and tank top and then he’ll be rebuilt into a new, sculptural object. Again, I’m looking at ways in which I can help facilitate individuals in positions where they may not have this opportunity before.
TB: And you’ve already spent a significant period of time in Shreveport?
NC: I’ve already been here five times. I’ll be back in December for a few days, and then I’ll be here for January, February, and March, a week to two weeks each month.
I’m so interested in finding out who is here in terms of musicians, actors, dancers, etc. Can this project be a magnet and draw the community together? How can this project be a facilitator to keep creative people here thinking and continuing this kind of work with one another? Once this project is over, I’m gone. So how can I leave a lasting imprint?
TB: Can you outline all the moving parts of this project?
NC: I’ll be doing an exhibition with a series of short films that will open in February in Shreveport. That exhibition is titled Spotted. The major piece, this Upright piece, will open in March. There are nine initiates who are going through this process of stripping down, they come on stage in their street clothes, fold their clothes, and stack their shoes on top. Then they proceed to sit down on the stool, and then we build them up into a shaman of sorts. As we are done building them, we say, “You are complete,” and in that moment, they writhe and become liberated.
When you’ve been initiated, you can stand in the world differently. And I think it is up to all of us, we can have cheerleaders, we can have supporters, but it comes down to us as individuals, how do we now proceed? Do we have the tools to proceed? Like Larry, for example—he is amazing person and I want him to recognize this by creating a platform on which he can stand.
TB: You’ve said you built your first Soundsuit in response to the Rodney King beating as a way to create a barricade between yourself and the world. Do you feel that your suits are more impactful when there is a heightened awareness of the inadequacy of the justice system, for example, in Shreveport?
NC: I think once the Rodney King incident happened, I realized at that moment that I was an artist with a social conscience. That has allowed me to be a renegade and ask myself what can I do to find new ways to create work that is not offensive, and allows me to lead an audience into an experience—and yet, once you are there, you can decide whether you want to address what is behind the work.
But you know, honey, we got a lot of work to do around the world. I wish that there were forty Nick Caves and we were all dropping projects on all the same day and then moving to the next destination, because it’s a lot to do.
TB: So what comes next?
NC: After Shreveport, we are working on a major project at MASS MoCA. I’m so excited about it. That exhibition is titled Until and I’ll tell you a little about it. I’m putting you into the belly of a Soundsuit. It’s a piece that is political, but it allows the audience to walk into this space that talks about what gets me fired up and motivated to do the work that I do and why I do it. It’s a kinetic piece with this moving environment that shifts. At some point you are twenty feet in the air experiencing something. All these different entry points allow you enter into the work, and it really comes down to what is going on socially in the world.
TB: You once said, about putting on a Soundsuit, “I was no longer Nick. I was a shaman of sorts.” To me, your Soundsuits read as having a cultural connection to Mardi Gras Indian Suits, and I know Dan Cameron has done an excellent job revealing that connection curatorially. Carnival is a moment when anything is permitted. Our ingrained social and political structures are thrown out the door and hierarchies are temporarily overthrown. The performance of Carnival occurs on the border between art and life. Do these ideas resonate with you? Do you hope your performers exist outside of social or political structures, if only for the moment they have the suit on?
NC: Yeah, that is exactly what I’m trying to do. I have got to come up with a tool that works as seducer to some degree. I have to be able to pull you in. How can I diversify my audiences? What role do I have to play to be part of that shift? I have to take that seriously. That is why I’m interested in coming into these cities and understanding what is going on in the neighborhoods. We are still struggling with people who don’t feel comfortable going into museums. As a visual artist I ask how artists can be part of enacting a change.
TB: And do you think that change is actually happening in the United States?
NC: I do these lectures and I go to art openings and I’m looking around and I’m like, no. I need more diversity here. That is in my top five goals I must achieve for each project. How can I change this climate? What do I need to do? We as visual artists need to continue to be renegades and say, “Yes I am here to do a project, but what is the social service?”