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Abstraction as Resistance — Reclaiming Identity Through Strategies of Refusal — The Labor of Performance — Relating Audience and Performer — The Politics of Rest — Saying No
Nikita Gale is an L.A.-based multi-media artist working in sound, sculpture, and video. In 2018, Gale made a solo show about changing her name—a form of reclaiming her own identity away from a patriarchal lineage. This refusal in many ways sets the stage for Gale’s multi-disciplinary practice, as she explores what it means to insist on self-autonomy and abstraction as a method for refusal—a means of presenting her subject matter to the viewer on her own terms.
In our hour-long conversation Gale and Zappas talk about how ideas of chosen identity, abstraction, refusal and rest can act as powerful mechanisms in artwork, as well as in protest and dissent. In 2018, Gale made a solo show about changing her name—a form of reclaiming of her own identity away from a patriarchal lineage. This refusal in many ways sets the stage for Gale’s multi-disciplinary practice, as she explores what it means to insist on self-autonomy and abstraction—a means of presenting her subject matter to the viewer on her own terms. We talk through the relationships between audience and performer, and how those play out in recent works by Gale: “Audiencing” and “Private Dancer.”
Lindsay Preston Zappas: Hello and welcome to the Carla podcast. My name is Lindsay Preston Zappas and I’m the founder and editor-in-chief of Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles. Carla is a quarterly magazine, online art journal, and podcast committed to being an active source for critical dialogue surrounding L.A.’s art community. In this episode, I talked to multimedia artist, Nikita Gale, in our hour-long conversation, Gale and I talked about ideas of chosen identity, abstraction, refusal, and rest, and how these can act as powerful mechanisms in artwork, as well as in protest and dissent.
Nikita Gale: Like there’s something about that story that really points to the importance of everyone recognizing what their specific role is in revolution, and in protest and dissent. And because it’s like no two people have the exact same story, no two people have the exact same relationship to authority. And so because of that, no one’s going to have the exact same relationship to how they show up in these moments.
LPZ: This is a packed episode. So stay with us.
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LPZ: Welcome back. Nikita Gale is an LA based multimedia artists working in sound, sculpture, and, video. But when she started at Yale in undergrad she actually wanted to be an archeologist.
NG: I was taking a of archeology courses like very dry, methodical lab work like carbon dating, all that stuff.
LPZ: Strangely, several of the archeology and anthropology courses were cross-listed with art history. So Gale found herself taking courses with art historians like Hazel Carby and Kelly Jones. Through the influence of these classes, Gale ended up declaring her major as anthropology so that she could write a thesis on the representation of Black lesbians in popular media. She was watching the show, “The L Word” at the time and she explains
NG: I really needed to align what I was working on in school with what I was watching or what I was experiencing in my daily life.
LPZ: Now as a practicing artist, various threads of her early archeology and anthropology studies continue to show up in Gale’s practice. She describes the process in archeology of trying to create a narrative around a found artifact.
NG: Trying to reconstruct social and cultural ideas or relationships, simply based on a remnant or the material that’s left behind, when you don’t have the original language or the original relationships, that people who made those things had.
LPZ: This idea of dislocation, absence, and leaving space for interpretation is a throughline in Gale’s work as an artist. As she began to invent her own story as an artist and creative in 2018, Gale made a solo show about changing her name, a form of reclaiming her own identity away from a patriarchal lineage. This refusal, in many ways, sets the stage for Gale’s multidisciplinary practice as she explores what it means to insist on self autonomy and abstraction as methods of refusal, a means of presenting her subject matter to the viewer on her own terms. Here’s Nikita talking about her thinking around the time that she changed her name.
NG: You know, it’s 2018. This is shortly after the 2016 presidential election, and I was spending a lot of time trying to understand what my relationship was to protest or dissent. And so I think for a lot of people, we have these images in our heads of people taking up the streets and marching and protesting in that very specific familiar way that we usually associate with protests or organizing. I just didn’t feel the compulsion to go into the street. And I think a part of that was just having, once again, this fact of not being safe in public space confirmed for me through the election of, basically, a fascist white supremacist. So I was just like “I’m not, the streets, I’m good.” I think that’s for other people, it’s not for me. And I started to do some sort of deep reflection in thinking about the spaces and the moments where I have been enacting protest or refusal in my own way on a daily basis.
LPZ: Is that something you feel like you had to work through? Because I think I’ve had my own thoughts about it as well, but as you said, we’re all kind of shown or we all think about protest as being this physical in-person action, right? I heard Kendrick Sampson say recently that the protest is like the PR. He’s saying this is the red carpet, this is the physicalized forward facing moment that’s so important. But I think it’s easy to think that’s the way to show up.
NG: Yeah, as you’re describing that, it really reminds me of this idea that makes me think of someone like June Jordan, who is a writer, activist, who, in her intro, has an incredible forward to her book, “Civil Wars” that’s one of my favorite things to read. I read it at least once a season.
LPZ: That’s awesome.
NG: And yeah, and she is talking about how shortly after the Harlem riots she had this moment where she just recognized that she had been so consumed by anger and hate that she had lost sight of what the whole fight was about. Then she takes up this project with Buckminster Fuller, that’s this architectural plan for a new a sky rise for the residents of Harlem. And so there’s something about that story that really points to the importance of everyone recognizing what their specific role is in revolution and in protest and dissent. And because no two people have the exact same story, no two people have the exact same relationship to authority. And because of that no one’s going to have the exact same relationship to how they show up in these moments. I think it’s really important to recognize that. I think this also kind of ties into a common critique of identity politics in general. It’s the way that it still sort of forces one to kind of lock themselves into a particular category. There are so many ways to show up, and be radical. And so the naming thing for me was a big one.
LPZ: Yeah. So the naming, so choosing, again, to go with Gale, which had been in your family on your mother’s side, right?
NG: Yeah. It’s a maternal middle name that’s been passed down at least, I want to say, three or four generations at this point. There’s a central video piece, that’s called “Descent,” which starts out by saying— it sort of outlines this pretty contentious relationship I have with my father. There’s a kind of refusal of patriarchy which I think is something that often gets lost in feminist discussions, particularly when race is introduced. We sort of lose this relationship that happens interracially. And so it sort of outlines this relationship with my father. And then that becomes an entry point to think about how the last name is not only this sort of characteristic of patriarchy and the way that genealogy gets handed down through naming, but it’s also addressing the way that there’s this conflation between genealogy, biology, and property, especially when you think about the history of chattel slavery in this country. So the work is kind of like a meditation on those things.
LPZ: And the shedding of those things, right? And refusal of those lineages. I also think a lot about naming as this kind of record. My family has done a bit of genealogy and my dad got really into it for a while. And just this sort of tracking of the patriarchal lineage through the male name and so many of the women are kind of confused or get lost or you’re not really sure.
NG: Yeah. And they always have different last names and different records, too. It’s funny that you’re mentioning the tracing genealogy because I recently started using ancestry.com. There’s something about the pandemic that has, I think, prompted a lot of people to sort of look back on things. I had been avoiding it for the longest time because I know how it’s going to end. Eventually it’s just, there’s just going to be this black hole where people were just objects on a ledger as opposed to legal humans, you know? And so it was really crazy. There’s some crazy stuff in there. I realized that I have a fourth great-grandfather who was a Confederate war soldier. Yeah, crazy shit. A white guy, obviously. I grew up with both my parents being from the South, so there’s a lot going on down there, but the genealogy thing is really–
LPZ: It goes deep, man. That’s really deep. So this kind of refusal of name and being able to move forward on your own terms, right, did that feel like a line in the sand when you changed your name?
NG: You know, it’s funny. It was a very gradual process. It started late undergrad, basically, where I was kind of toying with it. I was like, “you know, this last name just doesn’t feel like it’s mine. I don’t feel like it’s a reflection of who I am.” Something that I brought up in the talk at CAAM was this idea of citation and how that can be the sort of act of reverence, or way of paying homage, or a sign of respect or something. So I was thinking about that as well, in terms of honoring the matrilineage in a way, through the taking of those, the first and middle name, as how I identify.
LPZ: Sure, sure.
NG: Yeah. Because I do want to point out I still haven’t legally changed my name by design. That’s because there was also something in that descent show where I was having a studio visit with Young Joon Kwak, and we were talking about what it means to legally change your name. Then you are stuck in the system again, you’re just capitulating to the legal structure. So there’s something really radical, too, about just being like, “this is who I am and this exists” in a social field that goes beyond the legal bullshit. And so the legal name still gets attached to banking information and official documents.
LPZ: But in that way you’re almost, kind of, separating yourself from those structures. saying “this is not really me.” It’s almost this clear separation between your creative pursuits, your social pursuits, and other bullshit that society kind of traps us in. Like all these systems and capitalist structures that, by design, we have to sort of participate in, but that can be someone else, you know?
NG: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s just a simple matter of language, you know? Just words.
LPZ: Ugh, language, again and again, it comes back to language. I’m so interested too, about that idea of refusal and choosing what you make visible to the viewer. I think that name is such a great place to start because you’re sort of choosing what you’re offering of yourself to the public in a way. And I think your work does that often too. And thinking about this idea of abstraction— an easy way to describe abstraction is “absence of the body.” I think abstraction could also just be withholding a certain sense of didactic information. So, anyway, I’m just curious to have you speak about abstraction as it relates to that idea of withholding or controlling what you make visible to the viewer.
NG: Yeah. This ties back, or could be connected to the relationship that I have to protest and taking up space in the street. There’s some relationship to public space in that way. But also in terms of abstraction, if I were to think about it as a relationship to the body or absence of bodies, I’d say that it feels like a really critical vehicle for me. A lot of times when I’m thinking about abstraction or I’m referring to work as being abstract, it’s really about a relationship between materials. Sometimes there’s something that happens where a subject feels like it’s being interpreted through a different set of materials. For example with “Private Dancer.”
LPZ: Yes, I’m so excited to talk about this work because I feel that I’m one of the few humans that’s had the pleasure of seeing this work! Because this is your piece that’s up at the California African American Museum and was installed in pandemic time and the museum is still closed. So the public hasn’t really been able to see it yet, save for website which CAAM, by the way, is doing an amazing job of providing videos and different kinds of ways to engage.
NG: Yeah, they are. Shout out to CAAM.
LPZ: And Cameron, she’s doing a great job with all of that! So I was able to see this work, “Private Dancer,” and let’s see where to start. I want to describe my experience a little bit, but maybe–.
NG: I would love to hear that.
LPZ: Okay, so you walk in the space, it’s in one of the smaller galleries at CAAM, and all I know ahead is that the work is set to Tina Turner’s album “Private Dancer” in some way. I wasn’t really sure if I’d be hearing the album or not. So anyway, you walk in and you see these stage trusses, which you were describing as the sculpture in this space, right? There are these fallen trusses that almost become a body too, but those are sort of central in the space, stacked haphazardly on each other. On top of those, there’s several of these stage lights that are like spotlights, right? And the whole room is dark. So these are the things that are moving to Tina Turner’s album. It’s been kind of computerized to be the vehicle that this music is felt through, which was so interesting to me. How light became this vehicle for sound and for music, and was equally as felt by me as a viewer, but in such a different way than listening to a Tina Turner ballad or what have you. The mechanization of the whole thing and the light and the way that it really was confrontational in a way when I became the performer at times. I was complicit in this act, then other times I was very much trying to hide in the shadows. So it creates this really interesting dynamic with the viewer.
NG: I love hearing about your experience because one thing specifically that you mentioned is this blurring of boundaries. That’s something that I am always really fascinated by in terms of the work I’ve been doing recently around performance, particularly the sort of dynamics that emerge. Not only within an audience between audience members, thinking about the audience as a public space or social space, but also that the relationship between the audience and the performer, which I think is always a constantly shifting dynamic that feels in many ways improvisational, particularly in live scenarios. I mean the cam work, it does a number of things. One of the things is that it really hones in on this relationship between performance and technology and thinking about the ways that the music industry, particularly, is so dominated by recordings. Typically, even in live performance settings, what you’re hearing is actually a performing body mediated through a massive technical apparatus, like loudspeakers, trusses, stage, all that stuff. And so the stage itself in those materials become this really important social object or social element. I’ve really been questioning how those relations change when those materials are still there? The stage materials but also the performer themselves is absent and the audience is still there to some degree.
Right, and at what point do those objects and those kind of ephemera of performance recall the performance and recall the performer? I think the Private Dancer work really blurs those lines where it’s in the reference. The shadow of Tina Turner looms so large in that piece because you know it’s in reference to her music. So I felt like I was trying to pick out specific songs and it really is queued up that way. But at the same time it’s so abstracted. Kind of what we were talking about before of this sort of refusal of overt didactic language where you’re just giving enough. Even the decision to say it’s Tina, you didn’t even have to tell the audience that it was a Tina Turner album. So just choosing where to situate the viewer within their own understanding of the work.
NG: I was actually recently reading about Simone Forti’s “Face Tunes” work. There are these scores, these drawings, that she made that were profiles of faces. Then these pieces are performed, but nobody ever sees the scores. So she’s relying on this translation or some sense of the sound actually feeling familiar in a totally never before experienced way. But there’s a reliance on believing that that shape, just through experiencing it through sound, still feels familiar on some level.
LPZ: Interesting. Whoa. And then just the mediation of that and what gets lost within that translation between a physicalized drawn figure and the embodiment of that through sound.
NG: Yeah. And it’s about what gets lost, but also what other thing gets created when those things are rearranged or the relationships between them get rearranged. It becomes a question of just thinking about the ways that most things in pop culture are simply reflections of other things. Like politics, for example, is a good example of that. It’s like a music concert or our relationship to celebrity and entertainment is not so different, especially now, from our relationships to politics. Especially In light of all of the conversation around abolition and destroying or getting rid of structures that are more harmful and violent than they are good it’s realized they have multiple functions depending on who you are.
LPZ: That’s a very polite way to put it, Nikita.
NG: It helps some of us, it fucks others. How about that? Basically it’s like thinking about that conversation around abolition and destruction feels like a really important idea with relation to this work, which is essentially a collapsed ruin that points to the absence of a figure. Either the figure has left or they haven’t arrived yet. I mean, I think of it as a structure that points to an absence.
LPZ: Absolutely, wow, that’s so potent. Also how the sculpture itself might be this sort of figure that could be the embodiment of a figure that collapsed in a way in the space. I was also thinking a lot about helicopters and lights and how lights can be this mechanism of control on the body, in those more nefarious ways especially when speaking of the police. Again, as the viewer, you become enacted in that—you’re sort of tracked by these lights that are in one way programmed to do their little automatic dance to Tina Turner, but it also feels very much like you’re an active participant and I’m glad we’re talking about it in terms of abolition in this present moment, because I definitely felt that in experiencing the work.
NG: I was revisiting John Cage’s silent four minutes and 33 seconds piece. And the way that work, because it’s silent, pushes at the edges of perception. I’d like to think about it as a horizon of listening where you typically know what to focus on, but because the work is silent, there’s no specific object for the audience, besides just looking at the figure of the performer not performing. The silence of the piece causes everything in the room to be sort of—
LPZ: Amplified, yeah.
NG: So there’s a similar kind of thing that happens with silent work, especially when it’s sort of explicitly stated that sound in some way, whether it’s sound or silence or music or silence, is implicated in the construction of the work, that becomes this additional medium to focus on. That piece in the center, the lighting trusses, they aren’t making any sound or any musical sound, at least, you’re just hearing the sounds of the lights and the trusses squeaking.
LPZ: Which are quite loud! So these lights have this “zip” kind of automation sound that becomes very rhythmic. It almost creates this, like we were talking about with Simone Forti, it’s this interpretation of how one thing, in another way, creates this third thing. I picked up on that sound as this kind of third thing. I think I heard you say the other day that nowhere is actually pure silence, everything is just relative on that spectrum, I guess. And thinking about John Cage’s work in that way is really interesting.
NG: Yeah, absolutely. That idea of the spectrum, which also sort of feels like it ties into what we were talking about earlier— about this idea of a spectrum of identities or ways that we can engage with these ideas of refusal or descent for protest.
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LPZ: I want to also talk a little more about this idea of the audience and exchange between viewer and performer and how that gets messy in your work. I think I’ve also heard you say the viewer could be as valuable as the performer? That there’s this idea of showing up and being present that’s this kind of exchange of energy that happens? And maybe thinking about that specifically with your piece “Audiencing,” which was at PS1, was that last year?
NG: It was actually this year, it feels like it was last year. It was February. Yeah. It was the last IRL project—the last meet space project—we did before everything shut down. For people who haven’t seen images or who weren’t there, it’s like people are shoulder to shoulder.
LPZ: The audience is sitting in a circle, but it’s like tuna fish or sardines. They’re all kind of crammed in there.
NG: It’s a huddle, it’s basically a huddle. And so the really striking thing about that work was that each performance, despite being completely automated, felt very different.
NG: I sat in on five of the six performances and the audience and the energy really, as I’m sure people who perform live can attest, it felt so drastically different each time.
LPZ: Interesting, which is, I think, a goal of the work right? Is to kind of foreground the audience and participation? The work—and maybe you can describe a little bit—I sort of think of it as the counterpart or even the opposite of “Private Dancer” in a way. The audience is so present and then the performers are still absent. But it’s very specific audio and a kind of movement of lighting that creates this performed experience that feels a little more overt, maybe slightly more controlled than “Private Dancer?” Can you describe it a little bit?
NG: Yeah. So there’s a 45 minute audio piece that I produced basically with a team of voiceover actors who were reading some original text and parts of the script that I had written. And then there were other texts that dealt with some of these ideas around spectatorship and performance that were also read. And then within that, there are these clips that sort of mixed together, different pop songs. There’s these accessibility voiceovers that are basically a person who is speaking and describing what you’re seeing on a screen, which is an option on a lot of Netflix films now. There was specifically this voiceover audio for Beyonce’s Homecoming that was really, really striking.
LPZ: Is that what that was? Oh yes.
Voice Over: “Wearing the lavishly decorated mustard yellow marching band uniform and a tall black hat with a white feather. She plays a deep marching snare drum. As her strokes accelerate her scowl intensifies. Next, she puts a whistle in her mouth.”
NG: It was really striking to me because it felt like there was a very specific decision that was made with selecting the voiceover actress for that particular film because it’s clearly a young Black woman speaking, which is typically the voice that is the last one that would get selected for something that’s meant to be descriptive or quote unquote, “neutral.” So it’s kind of like a collection of these different instances where an idea of audience or spectatorship comes into play. I actually think of it as a listening workout because you’re constantly jumping between pop music, theoretical text, podcasts, every type of medium of viewing or listening gets mixed in there.
LPZ: But it’s kind of genius that you, again, you’re withholding where everything is coming from. You’re kind of blending it together. So there were certain moments where I thought “Oh, it’s Lizzo,” you know, or a certain really iconic riff that we all just know in our bodies at this point. But then there are other ones that I was less familiar with. I totally tracked Homecoming. And then some of them are created texts by you and kind of just pulling all these sources and weaving them together into this larger tapestry.
NG: I’m a really strong believer in being simultaneously worked over by a work and feeling invited to engage critically with the material, because for me–
LPZ: Wait, what does that mean?
NG: You know, to just sort of be so enthralled or just embedded in the work that you sort of implicate yourself just through the satisfaction or enjoyment, to some degrees.
LPZ: As the maker, you mean?
NG: No, I mean as a viewer—as both really. I mean, it’s hard for me to make a work if I’m not super interested and excited about it in a context that goes beyond the studio, you know? I think that in that work there are lots of entry points, you know? And I think pop music and just entertainment in general is a huge entry point. You can simultaneously be amused by something and also implicated in it. And those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, I think.
LPZ: I’m curious about the entry point of pop music and it being this kind of ubiquitous subject or experience that we all have a reference point to even in the world outside of the art world, and thinking about that as sort of a democratic entry point. Do you think about that or your work relating past a sort of art world as an audience and how pop music as an entry point activates a larger audience or demographic to step into your work?
NG: I mean, when I think about pop music and popular culture, specifically American popular culture, U S popular culture, I’m reminded of this essay that Glenn Ligon wrote. I can’t remember when this came out, but he was writing about Kelley Walker’s work, and these enlarged images of King magazine covers that he was smearing with toothpaste.
LPZ: Oh wow.
NG: And Glenn was basically writing about who owns what types of images. Because Walker is this white, Southern, gay man making images that largely reproduce the Black figure or images of Black people in general, or “Black stuff,” quote unquote. A lot of people were really riled up about this work. Glenn is kind of, I wouldn’t say he’s defending the work, but he’s using the work as a point of departure to talk about what it means for people to own images. He pretty much concludes by talking about the way that American culture is Black culture and that there’s nothing more American than, I can’t remember who he says, some really incredible Black singer like Aretha Franklin. He might’ve even mentioned Whitney Houston and The National Anthem. There’s something about thinking about pop culture and especially pop music and the ways the cultural contributions that Black people have made to that genre. And so there’s a kind of, not necessarily explicitly stated, interest there, but because it becomes an entry point, it almost kind of operates like a kind of citation or something, if that makes sense? It’s like, this is something I’m interested in, this is also a space in music and performance specifically where, as Arthur Jafa says, it’s a space where Black people have fully actualized themselves culturally. And so it was always a space where things like emotion and desire and political ideas could be expressed and then broadcast and distributed over radio or through recordings.
LPZ: And then fully assumed and accepted into mainstream culture, which is so radical, you know?
NG: Oh, yeah. The downside of that is just the stakes of visibility, which is what this work sort of circles back on. The stakes of visibility, or being consumed in that sort of expression being wrapped up, and these ideas around labor and the way that labor is highly aestheticized in performance and how visibility has become this way of exchange. You exchange visibility or some access to your body in exchange for capital.
LPZ: Yeah, which I was thinking about in relation to your work. I think that’s true of artists a little bit. I mean, it’s still a creative output, but I feel like art, in a way, is this performance of a private physicalized gesture or whatever it might be. Thinking of lines on a page or a drawing, and how that becomes this kind of fetishize object of desire. It becomes this vessel of all this physicalized labor.
NG: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s like Marx, it’s a social relation. So it’s like the art object then represents, not only the labor of the artists but also a relationship that an institution has to that labor or the relationship that a collector or a collection has to that object.
LPZ: And, in the same way, an art collection at a museum reflects the zeitgeist of the museum.
NG: And it also increases the value and the cultural capital of the owner.
LPZ: Right. You can be cool by association, right? So interesting. I feel like with performance and creativity it’s not viewed in the same way as labor for a construction worker or these kinds of traditional physical labor jobs. But it’s interesting that you talk about performance as work. This is a job, this is somebody’s physical body working.
NG: Yeah. It’s physical work. It’s like vocal chords being recorded into a microphone. I think, you know, I’m working on some projects right now that are really trying to hone in on this idea of the studio is an extractive site for labor. And I think it’s very important to not lose sight of the physical exhaustion and energy that goes performing. I think it’s, you know, a result of performance or specifically celebrity in this idea of the image of the performers exceeding the capacity of the body that creates this unmanageable situation. It just can’t be maintained. We see it through the untimely deaths of people, like Whitney Houston, Prince, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, or Amy Winehouse. And I think that’s a part of the problem— is this kind of, I don’t know, not having enough of a conversation around the reality of this work as creative labor.
LPZ: Yeah. And also imagining the performer’s body as infallible, or just capable of something beyond a mortal space or something. Kind of how we were talking about protest as this PR moment, right? This is the forward facing thing, but there’s all this private work that goes on constantly to get to that performance or forward facing moment.
NG: Absolutely. This is making me think a lot about the end of 2017. I got very sick really suddenly. I got really sick and I didn’t understand what was happening to my body. So I was just in bed for maybe two weeks? I was trying to rest and not do anything. One of the things I ended up watching was the Lady Gaga documentary.
LPZ: Yeah, totally. Yes. I can see how, why you’re bringing this up for sure. Yes.
NG: I think it’s “Five Foot Two,” and I was so surprised. I was so shocked by what an intimate portrait it was of illness and disability. Because Lady Gaga, for people who aren’t familiar, has fibromyalgia. So she’s in constant chronic pain basically. A lot of the scenes in the film are of her going to different doctors and getting massage therapy and ice baths and all this other stuff. I was just struck by how much detail they went into about what it actually takes to sustain.
LPZ: Thinking too about these examples, like lady Gaga, and the physicality of performance and the idea, just to go back to what we talked about initially, of refusing or being very particular about what’s presented to an audience. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of rest. Do you know the Instagram account “the nap ministry?”
NG: Oh yeah, that’s ATL.
LPZ: So good.
NG: Yeah, ATL all day.
LPZ: Yes. It’s the idea that grind culture is capitalist, it’s violent, and that the idea of rest can be seen as stepping away as a sort of radical political act.
NG: Yeah, Absolutely. I mean, this is one of the reasons why Tina Turner is such a kind of North star for me in the context of pop music and performance. She retired. She basically retired and did not look back. She actually recently did an interview that I was reading where the interviewer asked her if she was going to come out of retirement to perform, and her response was “if people want to see me perform, they can go on YouTube and look at the videos. That’s what I do when I want to see myself perform.”
LPZ: Oh my God, genius.
NG: It’s just brilliant. In such a short response, she kind of encapsulates her understanding of how technology works in reference to performance. This thing gets locked in and it becomes an object. Then people get to engage with that over time and there’s no specific duration attached to it. You just get to watch me do the same thing over and over again, you get the kind of psychological satisfaction of watching me perform.
LPZ: I feel like she’s talking about how technology has replaced the need for a physicalized experience and that the audience does have the autonomy to basically watch anything anytime at their fingertips. That’s really interesting. She’s like, “yeah, my labor’s recorded, you don’t need me.”
LPZ: I’ve been reading this book that came out a few years ago by I’m Martin Herbert called “Tell Them I Said No,” have you read that? It’s all about how these figures chose to say no, stepped outside of the capitalist art market and the ways that it wants to control or demand, again, a physical labor from artists, and how they flipped from Agnes Martin to David Hammons to Cady Noland was super interesting.
NG: Oh yeah. Such a good one.
LPZ: It’s that idea of choosing your own engagement with these very demanding structures that are prevalent in our culture. Especially this grind culture and this demand that we have, specifically on performers and creative individuals, that are viewed as these genius or singular individuals, right?
NG: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That reminds me, I meant to do this much earlier in the conversation, but I want to give a shout out to Josephine Wang, who’s the lighting designer for “Private Dancer” because that work was really a collaboration. We’re talking about labor and the distribution of labor and artist studios and Josephine did an unbelievable job in the programming for that show. Anyway, the beautiful thing about that book is, once again, tied into an earlier part of our conversation around the many ways that one can engage with these ideas of refusal and saying, no, you know? There are so many ways to do it and there are so many ways to think through what the terms and rules of engagement are. For us, not just as citizens, but as creative individuals. It’s easy for me to say that, I think it’s much more difficult to do, given just the different material realities that we all have as artists and social political subjects. That’s why I think it’s really important to think about that idea of spectrum or doing what you can with where you are, because something that may seem like a really small gesture, actually, in the context of the life of someone who may be really squeezed, could feel a lot more resonant to them. Especially versus someone who has more resources or has greater access to certain things. I think it’s a question of scale. I love that book. It’s really an inspirational text for anybody looking for some inspo.
LPZ: Anyone looking to rest, step back.
NG: To get some more examples of how the artistic creative ancestors have been creating space for themselves.
LPZ: Something interesting I was talking with a friend is all those artists were known by the time they kind of chose to step back. I think that is a very key difference to name, and just opportunity that was already in front of them in order to have the luxury of refusing their own labor and its commodification.
NG: Yeah, absolutely. That’s something that I think about a lot, especially with Cady Noland’s work. The privilege and the resources and the luxury of being able to say no is certainly something I think about with Cady Noland’s work because she’s a highly valued artist. She’s in a ton of collections, she’s the daughter of Kenneth Noland, and so she’s set in a lot of ways which is why I prefaced it by talking about the way that it really comes down to a question of scale. What can you afford to say no to? Or what makes sense in the economy of your reality in a way? Where does refusal or where do those gestures make the most sense so that they don’t become huge sacrifices of your wellbeing in some way? But certainly I do think about this idea of rest and the rhetoric around self care and the way it’s been co-opted by very privileged people. It’s just a way of copping out or dropping out. I feel like I’m very aware of that and wary because this is another thing that happens a lot of times. The rhetoric of people who maybe have lots of material disadvantages often gets co-opted by people with more resources as a means of copping out. I think it’s important to pay attention to the context, right?
LPZ: Absolutely. The reclaiming of that space can be such a powerful tool of determining your own involvement with something or your own participation and what you offer others. I think in our capitalist society we can all relate to that feeling of pinched, you know? I think it is important to name that that is such a different scale for every individual that’s coming to it with different circumstances.
NG: Yeah, it’s that question of scale, things getting scaled up or scale down, according to one’s very specific position. That’s something that I really feel there needs to be space for. I don’t think we have the structures right now that afford us the nuanced types of spaces where that can take place.
LPZ: The Carla podcast is produced by Contemporary Art Review, Los Angeles and me, Lindsey Preston Zappas, with production assistance from PJ Shahamat and Jordan Horowitz. Joel P West composed theme music. The podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. We also archive and post every episode with episode transcripts on our website, contemporaryartreview.la. Carla has been publishing digitally during the pandemic and we recently released Issue 21. The issue and all future issues of the magazine will now include Spanish translations. You can head to contemporaryartreview.la/print to check out the newest issue. Thank you so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.
Abstraction as Resistance — Reclaiming Identity Through Strategies of Refusal — The Labor of Performance — Relating Audience and Performer — The Politics of Rest — Saying No