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New Additions: Nikita Gale

Habiba Hopson

New Additions is a series of interviews with artists whose work was newly acquired in the Studio Museum's permanent collection. This conversation features Nikita Gale in discussion of the artist's work RUINER XIX (2022).

HABIBA HOPSON: How’s your week going?

NIKITA GALE: I’m in LA so we just survived the, well, most of us survived the flooding. But the sun is shining today.

HH: I’ve heard about this wild storm that wreaked havoc across the Pacific coast.

NG: Yeah, it’s our new normal now. Atmospheric rivers.

HH: I’d love to begin by first discussing your background in visual arts. How did you arrive where you are now?

NG: My dad was an architect in the Air Force. He’s now retired. My mom was a music teacher, and they’re both from the South. My mom’s from Georgia and my dad's from Alabama. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska. There were always little foam core models of buildings and a piano or some kind of instrument and my dad's stereo system and lots of records.

I always reflect on this idea of the first time I encountered art or an artist, and sometimes the answer shifts. But this morning as I'm talking about this, I’m talking about family.

My uncle, my mother’s brother who lives in central Georgia, was the first artist I ever met. He is what we now consider moderately intellectually disabled. He was always making these drawings of animals; they were like some form of Cubism. He would make these drawings on cardboard and cut them out in different shapes so you could also play with them. He’d give them to me and my cousins. I have this clear memory of that being an early encounter with an artist, but it not registering as that. It’s like a means of communicating, engaging, or playing.

Nikita Gale, Ruiner XIX, 2022. Concrete, terrycloth, and aluminum, 37 1/2 x 43 x 15 in. Studio Museum in Harlem; Museum purchase with funds provided by the Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family in honor of Nancy L. Lane 2022.1. Photo: John Berens–Brooklyn, NY

My family moved to Atlanta right before I turned nine, and I remember going to the High Museum and seeing art. I’m sure we went to the Anchorage Museum too. I just don't have any memories of it. That was when I started seeing museum art, which felt inaccessible to me at the time. [During my undergrad], the concept of being an artist full-time revealed itself to me.

My degree is in anthropology, but it was all archeology. Then I changed my major at the last minute. I had this semester where I studied with Kellie Jones and Hazel V. Carby. This was significant because it was my first time learning what the Studio Museum was. On the last day of class, Kellie mentioned she was involved with the Studio Museum, and I was like, “Oh, I’ll check this out.” A couple months later, I trekked to Harlem from New Haven.

There was a group show up [Frequency, 2005]. It was the first time I saw Rodney McMillian's work, who I ended up studying with at UCLA. I realized what art could be and what it could do. Hazel Carby's class was the first time I saw Lorna Simpson's work [Shoe Lover, 1992]. There was a lot of contemporary art by Black artists that I was exposed to at that time.

After undergrad, I worked in advertising for a long time, took a totally different turn. I graduated at the end of 2006, so there was one year before the bubble burst and the 2008 crash. I was working [as head of advertising] for an internet startup and we weren't really affected as severely by the market shift. During that time—I’m still in Atlanta—I was photographing a lot of music shows. A lot of my friends in Atlanta are musicians. That was my community. It wasn't visual artists. It was mostly musicians and people who were in creative fields related to independent Black music. I think Atlanta is an interesting city—socially, politically—for forms of Black American creativity that often don’t hit escape velocity to go beyond the confines of Atlanta. That's kind of the cool thing about it— there's a lot of kids doing the weirdest shit. That was my life for many years, documenting that.

I was shooting album covers or editorial stuff, and I made a little experimental portfolio, and was thinking I should apply for a residency. I applied for the Center for Photography at Woodstock (CPW) residency in Woodstock, New York. When I have these conversations, I'm always aware of the younger version of me that would be listening to something like this, because there’s a lot of mystery and opacity around how this field works. So, sometimes I catch myself: “am I being overly detailed right now?” But I’m approaching this from an educational standpoint. It's nice to demystify this stuff.

HH: It’s interesting you’re saying that because that’s a question I recently teased out after sharing my questions with our Education team at the Studio Museum. They were like, “Everything is great, but I would ask a question about how they arrived to where they are because of the opacity of this field.”

NG: Depending on where I am, the answer changes. Studio Museum is an institution that’s very near and dear to my heart. A lot of people see a significant form of community at this institution. Thinking about my nineteen- or twenty-year-old self who just learned about Studio Museum from Kellie Jones, it’s fun to think about that version of me listening to an artist talking about their trajectory.

So, Ariel Shanberg was the director [of CPW] at the time, and he taught me so much because at this point, I still have never been to art school. Most of what I’m learning about art is coming from Tumblr or the internet. Paul [Mpagi Sepuya] had done the residency I think the year before. We ended up being at UCLA together at the same time. There are these funny intersections where it’s like ships in the night and you merge at some point.

HH: That synchronicity is so real.

NG: So much of my story, and the stories of many others, comes down to relationships.

There’s an emphasis on the centrality of relationships in the story, whether it’s relationships to parents in early childhood, relationships to aunts and uncles. I’m thinking of my maternal grandfather who was an avid tinkerer and photographer. I would follow him around and he taught me how to use power tools. I was nine years old with saws and shit. Where I am today, it’s all relationships. I didn’t get to the grad school stuff, but it’s the standard story: have a portfolio; you apply.

HH: I want to go back to your mom and dad if we can for a second.

NG: Let’s do it.

HH: It just clicked: your mom was a piano teacher, and your dad was an architect for the Air Force, and here you are. You’re creating these environments, these experiences for viewers that are engaged with public space, engaged with sound. I’m going to skip to our third question so you can share how you explore sound in public space. How does this relate to your interest in social behavior?

NG: I’m going to try so hard to keep it brief. Godspeed on the editing.

HH: I recently watched an artist talk you gave at Pepperdine University; you began this talk with this beautiful poem by Eileen Myles in which they say, “I believe in sound.” I offer that as something to think through.

NG: Literature is an important part of my creative process. I often enjoy using a poem or a passage as an anchor for the work. That Eileen Myles passage was beautiful to me because it situated this magical type of thinking within a history of recorded sound and how it works. It's also thinking about the physics of sound, the idea that sound is a vibration. “Vibrations whizzing past Mars,” I think is one of the lines.

When I think about sound and public space, one of my primary interests is that sound is a consequence of a kind of friction or touch. It's not limited to the sense of hearing. When we're talking about sound work, the term “listening” gets used a lot. I fell into that kind of mode of talking about sound early on. But I started using the word “attention” more. I find “attention” a much more generous and inclusive term because a lot of my work is about performance, but not necessarily. I’m not performing. I consider myself to be on the other side of performance, so to speak. It’s not on the stage, but backstage or infrastructure or looking at the mechanisms that go into producing a performance.

To get back to the sound question, it always starts with some desire, being curious about why I’m attracted to something. I have this statement I use a lot: “desire is data,” which means desire isn’t an apolitical condition. It’s conditioned like language or gender performance or performances of difference. The things I’m interested in are things that have been conditioned in me through the matrix of social and political life I operate in.

HH: I went to OTHER SEASONS (as part of the 2023 Performa Biennial), which was fabulous, and I recently watched the exhibition preview video for your solo show at California African American Museum (CAAM) in which you talk about this question: what happens when you remove the sense of a figure or what happens when you remove the performer from a performance?

NG: I love the way you reflected on that because the ongoing project for me is the tension between visibility and representation and understanding that there's a profound distinction between those two things. In the context of a culture so rooted in capitalism and consumption and oppressive politics and mechanisms, it's really important to articulate the difference. With work like PRIVATE DANCER, the CAAM work, I was thinking a lot about Tina Turner. RIP. I think of her as this figure with a clear awareness of performance as a kind of labor and the image she's creating. There were only a couple times where she alluded to her relationship to labor and thinking of performance as work, as a job.

The thing about Tina was that she retired, so we got to watch her set up this elaborate playback system for the image she created. She did a Broadway performance where she watched her avatar. It's like if you had the opportunity to see how life would happen after you've left this realm. It was an experience of watching this figure see things play out after they've left the stage, so to speak. PRIVATE DANCER was an opportunity to look at the materials of performance, the truss and lighting and cables and the lighting system that go into creating that image, highlighting and amplifying a body to make it appear psychologically, conceptually, and emotionally larger than life.

What happens when things are no longer operating smoothly, so you’re not aware of them and what they're doing? I created this arrangement where the trusses appear to have collapsed, but everything’s still working; the figure’s not there but the system is being activated. It’s being driven by this recording of Tina’s performance. The lights in that piece correspond to the entirety of the Private Dancer album. It’s a continuation of this idea of using recordings of labor as a resource to produce a new arrangement of materials, new types of performance that don't rely on the repetition of the biological body having to do the same thing over and over again. It’s a type of labor that often isn’t identified as labor because it’s entertaining and it’s highly aestheticized. You go to the Beyoncé show and you’re like, “This is the craziest thing I've ever seen.” But you're also like, “She's working hard.”

Nikita Gale, Private Dancer, 2020. (3ED + 2AP). Moving head LED lights, MAXMSP Lighting Program, DMX cable, aluminum truss, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Californian African American Museum; Photo: Elon Schoenholz

HH: You have to maintain total equilibrium on tour. I can only imagine the personal sacrifice you have to make so that every day you’re showing up the same if not better as last night’s performance. What steered you to create RUINER XIX and the “RUINER” series?

NG: Shortly after Trump was elected president of the United States by a landslide, I had this real sense of total alienation and of not being surprised. I would say I wasn’t alone in that feeling, particularly as a Black queer American person.

It was a continuation of something that had been going on for a while. But there was this uproar of protests. I feel like the majority of people taking up space in the streets were, a generous way of saying this would be, liberal, mostly white, middle to upper class folks who have benefited from various forms of white supremacy–the types that are insidious and not overtly racist. What that looks like to me was a real identity crisis in action. I was feeling this tension around wanting to do something, take some kind of action, but protest or taking up space in the street was feeling, not necessarily archaic, but there was a level of it that felt performative.

It made me feel cynical and despondent because I didn’t want that to be the feeling I was having. So, I started reading about the history of protests, which is linked to a history of civic architecture and infrastructure. When I asked myself, what is the thing about protesting in the street? There's a contract that’s broken when someone steps into the street in an unsanctioned area.

In a developed area, you have the sidewalk, you have a curb, which I think of as this kind of limit. You have the street where cars belong, and maybe you have crosswalks. When there are so many concepts and it’s overwhelming, a grounding practice I have is to look at what these things are made out of. The street, the sidewalk, the curb, but what are these things made out of? When I’m talking about state power and infrastructure, what’s the material I immediately link with those things? It’s concrete. It’s invented in ancient Rome and it's still in use today to bind things together and to pave and dominate parts of the landscape. Concrete became this shorthand for that relationship to power and authority.

Terrycloth is cheap and has a relationship to the body. You use it to absorb sweat, water, blood, or what have you; it’s soft and gentle to the human form. It also has this interesting relationship to sound. If you go to a makeshift studio, you can pad walls, windows, or doors with it to block or absorb sound. You’ll often see, if you live on a noisy road or noisy area these terrycloth panels that help deaden the sound. I started thinking about terrycloth as this material that represented a DIY way of dealing with external forces or noise without having the means to do it in a more sanctioned way. By hydrating the terry cloth, dipping the terry cloth in this concrete, I was making these gestures that are like drawing in space [to reference Lorraine O’Grady’s Writing in Space, 1973–2019].

It became this performative, meditative process to think about this tension I was encountering at the time. I’m drawing with this material within this armature of aluminum. There are these frames that the terry cloth hangs off. The series is called “RUINERS” because I was thinking about fugitive or errant gestures that don’t necessarily get recorded. By using terrycloth to dampen sound, I wanted to create almost a map or legend of the kinds of gestures that are familiar to occupying a certain position socially.

These gestures of coping with preexisting rigid structures aren’t always archived. If they are, it becomes a type of exposure where it’s recorded and the system of authority absorbs it, and it becomes this consumable, marketable thing. When I was thinking about these works, it was like, “Is there a way of creating this map or document of this process of moving through spaces that get increasingly tighter and more restrictive while also retaining that quality of still not being totally legible, or that the legibility is embodied as opposed to something meant to be read?”

Nikita Gale, Ruiner XIX (Detail), 2022. Concrete, terrycloth, and aluminum, 37 1/2 x 43 x 15 in. Studio Museum in Harlem; Museum purchase with funds provided by The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family in honor of Nancy L. Lane 2022.1. Photo: John Berens–Brooklyn, NY

I start in one orientation and then I draw and weave things around the initial armature. That cures, then it’s rotated ninety degrees, then the frame has essentially expanded and gotten tighter. So, the moves I have to think about making on the next pass become more restricted and I have to think a bit more. There’s something game-like about it. I have another series that’s called “RECORDINGS,” which documents this performative process that happens in the studio. It’s like a document of my mind working through this restrictive grid I’ve presented for myself because the armatures are reminiscent of banisters you encounter in a public building or barricades, which we see at most protests now.

HH: I think aluminum is used as a barricade in festivals and concerts and this sort of tightening and loosening that we’re seeing and that we’re sensing, which invokes something very visceral within me. There’s this loosening and tightening and discomfort and expansion.

NG: Expansion and also a sense of suspension as well; things are moving in every direction. It’s like anti-gravity.

HH: I would love to hear your thinking about the numbering. Especially the use of Roman numerals, because when I saw “XIX,” it took me back to elementary school and learning about Roman numerals.

NG: I feel like I have this funny idea in my head that I have a set number of these that I'm going to make, and then I’ll just go on to something else. But I have such a good time making these. I can't emphasize that enough.

There’s something aesthetically about the Roman numeral system that visually feels balanced. It's clean lines. There’s no curves with the numbers. It’s as simple as that.

HH: Where does it begin and where does it end? What's the point that it stops? Does it stop?

NG: Does it stop? Sometimes it’s a matter of stepping back and saying, “Yeah, this one’s ready.” Or when I’m exhausted.

HH: I’d love to transition back to Tina. If you were to create an artistic bibliography, what visual artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, would you include?

NG: I prepared for this question. We put together a little list. I mixed them together for a little mystery. As I mentioned before, literature is an important part of my practice, finding some brilliant mind that has articulated some idea I’m grappling with. June Jordan is one of the first people who comes to mind.

Toni Morrison, of course. Ted Chiang, who writes some of the most incredible contemporary science fiction, and it takes him a long time to release books. Margo Jefferson’s Constructing a Nervous System. God. Thomas Tranströmer. He’s this incredible Swedish poet. Tina Turner, of course, Cady Noland, Stuart Hall, PJ Harvey. Sophie Muller. Incredible music video director. Music videos are a big part of my creative constellation of influence. I mean, I grew up in the eighties and nineties—but those Hype Williams and David Fincher music videos, all those people in the nineties. Es Devlin, stage designer for all the big British pop shows. Eva Hesse is an obvious one to me. Doris Salcedo. The Japanese Mono-ha movement, Barbara Kruger, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Beyoncé, Jason Rhoades. That’s a tricky one. I still put that one on the list. Polarizing figure. But a lot of that work slaps. Andrea Fraser, former UCLA mentor who I respect dearly. I recently saw this Paul Pfeiffer show at MoCA Geffen. It’s incredible. It’s installed brilliantly too. Pope.L. RIP. Incredible mind, incredible practice.

Janet Jackson. I got to follow it up with that. I put Alexander McQueen on this list because when I was in my early twenties, I was obsessed with the art direction for the runway shows. It's like performance art. Of course, the designs themselves were incredible. But thinking about ways that installation art and performance art are infiltrating parts of culture, especially the early- to mid-two-thousands. Sunny and Linda Sharrock. Ravel. The Impressionists. Anicka Yi. And Lorraine O’Grady, duh. Simone Leigh.

HH: What lies ahead?

NG: At this point, it’s step-by-step, week to week. I'm doing my first solo show with Petzel and Chelsea. I don’t want to say too much about it right now because I’m one of those artists who has the framework of the idea and picks at it until a month before the opening. The work feels more alive when I do it that way. I’m not a machine. My brain is constantly changing. The ideas are constantly shifting as I’m making the work. I feel excited about the process of making the work.

HH: We’ll end with these last three questions and a prompt for you to ask the next artist. The first is, how do you start your day?

NG: I drink a big glass of water and I meditate. I write a gratitude list, just ten things. It’s easy, really quick. It changes my relationship to the day. I pull three tarot cards—one for myself, one for my relationship to others, and one for work. Some little guideposts for the day. I try to work out once a day because you got to get in the body because the rest of the day, you’re just going to be stuck in your brain.

HH: If you suddenly had access to unrestricted funds resources, what is a project or activity that you would take up?

NG: It's funny because my sound project is called INFINITE RESOURCES, and it came out of jokingly thinking about this very question.

I don’t think it would be an artwork. I think it would be some kind of social project. Maybe I would make a free school.

HH: The last question is from Brandon Ndife, and he asks you two questions. Have you changed a mind yet? And is that an artist's job?

NG: I don't know if I’ve changed a mind but I appreciate the idea of gently redirecting or influencing a mind. I find as I do more work, I run into people who remember an experience they had with my work. At the end of OTHER SEASONS these women came up to me in tears. That happens more frequently than I would expect. It’s moving when it happens. There’s something resonating with people and that's the most meaningful aspect of it in many ways. But is that our job? I don't know if that’s the primary job, but I do think it’s one of several consequences of putting work out in the world.

HH: Lastly, please share one question you’d like me to ask the next artist.

NG: What is your first memory of encountering art? I was thinking, when I was talking about my background, I could have said, “When I went to the Studio Museum, when I went to the High Museum,” but it was actually hanging out with my uncle in Gray, Georgia, at six or seven years old.

In June 2024, New Additions was launched as a podcast. Listen to new episodes featuring intimate conversations with artists every month, and follow New Additions wherever podcasts are found.

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