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Sound, mind and bodies
Artist Nick Cave brings his soundsuits to Savannah for a unique performance
Nick Cave - photo by James Prinz

As part of SCAD’s inaugural deFINE Arts Festival, which kicks off this week, artist Nick Cave – not the goth–toned musician of Bad Seeds fame – will be in town for a unique performance on Saturday night involving his soundsuits - elaborate ceremonial costumes composed of found objects.

Cave is bringing 30 of his soundsuits here to break ground on a new vision he has for these pieces, liberating them as objects observed in a gallery and turning them into a performance whose goal is transform the lives of both the wearer of the suits and the audience. Each suit makes it own sound, and when combined, the suits in motion create an orchestra of sorts – both aesthetically and sonically – as the performers and the suits interact and move about the space.

We spoke with Cave by phone last week about his development as an artist and the theory behind his elaborate costume sculptures.

Your brother is also a designer. Did you guys grow up in a very artistic family?

Nick Cave: We grew up in an extended family on my mother’s side. She comes from a family of 16 so I had uncles that were in artistic fields. I have amazing aunts who are seamstresses. I grew up with seven siblings, all boys, so we were just out playing. I don’t think, as a kid, I was thinking about art in any particular way as something I was interested in until maybe age 12 or 13.

Were you always attracted to the fashion side of things? I know you studied dance. What was your earliest interest in the arts?

Nick Cave: I don’t think I was interested in fashion. Maybe subconsciously I was, but I don’t think I paid much attention to it. As I became more of a teenager, that’s when it started to change based on looking at art as more of a possibility. When I was in junior high school, I just found it was an innate sort of ability for me.

When you first conceived the soundsuit idea, was there always a performance aspect to them, or did that come later?

Nick Cave: The first soundsuit was in response to the Rodney King incident. It was me responding after reading about it... It was me making a sculptural object, a garment of sorts. Once I had completed it, I realized it could be brought to the body. In the process, I didn’t even think about it like that, but once I realized I could wear it, it was an amazing revelation because I was moving in it, and it made sounds, because the suit was made out of twigs. That’s when I knew that my life had changed.

How much do the source materials play into the inspiration for the suits? Do you still use a lot of found objects, or have you moved on to more art supply materials?

Nick Cave: I’m really committed to resourcing through flea markets and thrift stores. It provides me with this incredible language. I’m really interested in the discarded and reclaiming something that already exists – an alteration or a voice that I can give materials. It triggers the ideas in the work, it’s not from drawings, it’s me being provoked by some artifact. That really is something that’s the core of it and continues to be of interest to me.

When someone puts on one of these soundsuits, there’s a transformation that takes place, part of which is a loss of identity, shedding things like gender and race. How important is that aspect of the suit to the meaning of the whole thing?

Nick Cave: It’s critical. What I’m trying to do is trying to steer one’s encounter in a way that you’re forced to have to reconcile with what is present. The suit itself is so foreign. We have to put our biases and perceptions aside to come to the realization of what it is and be open to that opportunity of not having any defined characteristics of anything that is familiar. What are you confronted with? What do you have to come face to face with? For me, the whole transformation is overwhelming, especially when the wearer is in the suit. What I tell everyone when we’re performing is the first thing you do is settle down and accept the transformation before moving in it because it can really be overwhelming. You really have to make that transition.

When you do these performances, who is it that’s wearing these suits? Do you have a crew of dancers and performers that travel with them? Do you let the public wear them?

Nick Cave: What I’m working on is a 90-sound performance. I think of myself as a humanitarian first, and then an artist. What I’m doing is a small model of what’s to come. I’m working with 30 suits, building the performance by working with the community. I’m working with individuals from dance, theater, individuals that understand movement, working with percussionists, spoken word artists, and really allowing the community to build the piece. What this is doing is merging the community together. These people are coming from all different parts of the city. It’s really a celebration of differences and diversity. I could bring in an entire troupe do the performance and leave, but it’s more important that I bring the work and build the work through the community.

There’s an element of the soundsuits that’s very reminiscent of Mardi Gras or Carnivale. Do you ever think about packing up the suits and heading to an event like that?

Nick Cave: I want to travel the world with this 90 soundsuit performance, going from city to city working with the community, and do this work that I feel is important - using my work as a vehicle for change. There are two parts to my work, the soundsuits that function as sculptural objects, which the galleries and museums support, and that’s the work that’s secure within that environment. But for me personally, it’s the other side that’s more important. I’m also looking at galleries and museums and asking the same question, how can I bring performance into the gallery or museum and again shift the attendance, and the people who are attending these facilities? Because there’s still people that feel intimidated by a museum, or don’t feel that they have that accessibility. I’m working between these two areas, doing what I can to bridge these gaps.

Nick Cave’s Soundsuits

When: Sat., Nov. 14, 8 p.m.

Where: Hamilton Hall, 522 Indian St.

Cost: Free and open to the public