The Power of Nick Cave


In 1995 the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was asked about the evolution of religion. He simply went on to say that someday churches will be replaced by great dance halls, places for parties. As I see it, the artist Nick Cave—who created the ultimate performance series The Let Go—has just fulfilled Jodorowsky’s prophecy. Throughout June, hundreds of carefully selected performers, dancers, singers, and social service groups from local New York City communities, including Vy Higginsen’s Sing Harlem Choir, in tandem with Cave’s famous hand-crafted Soundsuits, transformed the Park Avenue Armory into a raving sanctuary of supernatural energy.

Cave’s vision was to transform the massive drill hall into an extravagant disco land where people could, even if for an hour, be liberated from the “vulgarity” of the times, to experience and participate in the divine act of release from the emotional pressure of modern society; of course, not without the help of New York City’s finest DJs.

“This project was all about acknowledgment, it was all about availability, and it was all about liberation. Everyone is welcomed; everyone is welcomed with open arms. We are a collective, we are operating on common ground. This is how this project sustained intent through common ground.”

During An Evening of Artistic Response, which included performances by Nona Hendryx, Helga Davis, Francesca Harper and REGG ROC, and the Dance Activists, I had the honor of meeting Mr. Cave himself, who curated the event. He gracefully accepted my proposal of engaging in an artist talk. I must add that before my third and final visit to The Let Go for The Up Right Performance, I had only seen Nick Cave’s Soundsuits idle and in museums. I knew they held a mighty energy, but I could hardly predict the sensation of witnessing these deities in motion. To have them rise and move towards me in all their grace was nothing short of cathartic. 


The moment I met Mr. Cave, I knew the purpose of our interaction would be to speak of his message; because, as Cave often says of himself – he is a messenger first, and an artist second. 

FA: Is there any connection between the concept of attending a church or a spiritual gathering in this performance?

NC: I think there is certainly some sort of higher existence that informs how I come to this work. I am desperately of trying to find an alternative way for us to engage, for us to intercept and intervene, to establish an interplay that is harmless. It seems that what is coming out of everyone’s mouths these days is so vulgar and insensitive, the only thing I could think about that would be useful – is movement. I looked at this drill hall (The Armory) and thought about turning it into a dance hall. To be in a place where we could speak our minds through our bodies.

FA: What is the best scenario for a person visiting ‘The Let Go?’  What are they feeling when they come out of these performances? By the way, my son was ecstatic from the gliding glittering curtains – he quite literally lost his mind. 

NC: (Laughs)…We don’t allow ourselves to feel liberated, we are living in this world that is overwhelming and emotionally difficult. To know that you have a free range to come into the Armory, and be invested in experiencing The Chase – this kinetic Mylar installation that’s moving in front of you. You may not be interested in dance, but all of a sudden you are immersed, and it encapsulates you in its electric form. What does that feel like? If I am going to travel to a place, I want to create something so that we can all have an experience. How do I build an experience so that, let’s say, you and me AND your son are able to have a connection? I want that moment to be everything. I want to change relationships. 

FA: You say you are a messenger. I know from working on projects that are pure inspiration that sometimes I can’t even recall being there or how it all happened. 

NC: It really is an out-of-body experience for me. Sometimes I look at what I have created and I feel so detached. It may be that messenger thing I speak about. This project is me delivering my deed. This is me delivering what I am told to deliver. And IT does the job that it’s required to do. It should stand on its own merit. 

FA: So, there is trust in the fact that IT will do that? 

NC: I think the moment I realized I was just a messenger –  it gave me much more independence and freedom. It took away the pressure. It’s not about the art first, it has always been about me delivering the deed. What is my civic duty? What is my responsibility? How do I use the art as a vehicle for change? That is where I exist in my practice. 

FA: You once said you always knew you were special, and one morning you woke up and you knew it was ‘now or never.’

NC: Yes! I woke up one morning, and something said: “It’s now or never!” I was like everyone else, an artist working, but I was always pushing everyone in front of me, and even by doing that I was still always coming up in front. So, I had to take a leap of faith, step up to fear, to know what is possible on the other side. This is what the drill hall is all about – possibility, dreaming, optimism, beliefs, empowerment. It’s all about letting go. How do we find a way to let go? How do we let go of the frustration? We are politically pushed to these extremes, and we have to somehow find ways to counteract.

FA: I love that the choir in the Up Right Performance is not in costume – it created such a beautiful contrast with the Soundsuits, and honestly, I am just afraid to even ask about them – there is just so much there!

NC: Ha! That was interesting. They asked me: “What should the choir wear?” and I said:  “You know what?! Just wear your street clothes!” 

You know, I have been thinking – we have a large part of our population that grew up without transitioning.  This is particular for men. How do we move our children into manhood, and from manhood into self-hood? The Up Right Performance is about that. It’s a rite of passage. How do we define these moments that shape our lives? 


It was also my way of showing the audience how a Soundsuit is built.  In this performance we are experiencing decompression, where the ‘initiate’ is stripped down to their shorts, bearing their soul, and is then rebuilt into this shaman-like form. But we don’t recall the moment when the transition happens. We just see the transformation, and now we are encountering this otherness, this hybrid. 

FA: To me this hybrid is more familiar than what I encounter every day in my regular life. 

NC: Yes! because we have forgotten that our daily rituals should be a realization into self-hood. We have to remember that every day, when we get dressed, it is our rite of passage. It’s like kids who want to wear that mermaid outfit ten days in a row. And we say: “No, you can’t wear it again!” and that kid is having a moment. It’s critical! That kid is empowered by that suit. It gives her the power to get ready for the day. And we need to know how to get ourselves ready for the day.

FA: Again, I can’t believe you had a ‘now or never’ day. I hope mine is coming. 

NC: Girl! There is no manual to follow as an artist. These are our own paths. How do we understand trust and faith? I am interested in this higher existence, and in what is my purpose. What am I here to do? How do I interface and connect with that? We need to understand intuitiveness. We need to sit in silence. 

FA: Do you meditate?

NC: I sit in silence every day. I have been doing it for thirty years. I turn off the radio in the studio and work in silence. Sometimes something would overwhelm my spirit, and I would begin balling. And I would work through it. 

FA: Do you ever suffer from artist’s block? There are brilliant artists who suffered from it so badly that they committed suicide. Have you ever struggled with that? Although I can’t really imagine you in that state.

NC: I don’t know if I think about it like that. I know when I need to take a break and not do anything. That is important to me. I am always sketching and writing ideas, but I try not to be under stress or pressure. 

FA: So you are a part of the art world, yet you are so much bigger than it is. Is the art scene a good place to be? So many people are trying to make it. 

NC: The art world is a vicious place. It always has been, it always will be. But if I am going to do the kind of work I am going to do, it cannot be interrupted by any outside perspective. I have to do what I am called to do. I am lucky to have the space to dream. I have no idea how my projects will impact or influence anyone – it is all a gamble. The amazing thing is that these ideas are all in my head. I am only asking; “Are you all willing to walk with me hand in hand in this dream?” And I find myself with three hundred people who are willing to walk with me into this dream. The art scene – I don’t really think about it. 

FA: You said the Soundsuits come from a dark place – sometimes from a place of rage. 

NC: Yes, after Rodney King and the LA riots of 1992, I wanted to build a protective suit of armor. Someplace I could hide within, something exuberant, something lush and plush, adorned; because as a black male I did not feel that way in that moment. I felt like I could easily be profiled. How do we deal with a world that is not fair? As a 10-year-old boy I was told this is what I am going to have to be prepared to deal with. How does one juggle all of that and still feel extraordinary and special?

FA: And how does one prepare for this kind of world as a black male? 

NC: It’s when our mother, who adores us, sits us down and tells us: “One day you might be called some words out of context, or be stopped by the police. You may not have done anything, but I need you to behave a certain way. This is not to cripple you, and you will need to rise above this.”  I mean… It is unfortunate, but it’s part of my upbringing; and not everyone has the ability to work through that. So, we have to ask what are our strategies and our protocols for being our most authentic selves. 

FA: As a professor of art myself, I want to ask – how do you find that connection with your students? Especially in the digital age where children grow up with everything at their fingertips. 

NC: I start the semester by asking everybody individually what they aspire to be. It’s hard for them – some of them are afraid to say it, because they think they may not be able to live up to it. But if I know what they aspire to be, I can then help facilitate that. As a professor working in Higher Education, I find that not everyone has the skills or abilities, but what do they have? Even with the phones – how can we use this as a tool to create something? Sometimes it is more important to step back, and then it’s back to availability, and being open. How do we walk hand-in-hand and share an experience? Sometimes those that have it may fall back, and those you never thought would come out of the woods are all of a sudden… WHAT?! When did you wake up?! And it is extraordinary. It’s like what happens in my own studio when we work as a team – how do we find a solution? As long as you take ownership and accountability we can make something happen! 

FA: I find there is a big difference these days between the privileged and non-privileged kids when it comes to performance. 

NC: Yes, let’s say my students that come from non-privileged backgrounds come with a different kind of hunger, and a different kind of determination. Those that come from privileged backgrounds don’t necessarily put in the same kind of work. They handle it in a different way. But I erase all that! As far as I am concerned – we are all in the same boat. What I think concerns me now most of all, is how to get everyone to collaborate, and how do we break down this kind of barrier. 

FA: It is a shame that Education has become so expensive in the States.  I see an upside and the downside of Grad School – it helps with connections, but these days artists don’t have the stories they once did – yet so many brilliant artists, as usual, fall through the cracks. 

NC: I wish we were more open in the Education system; to where experience could be just as valuable as a Higher education. In my travels, the people that I meet and work with – the talent is so extraordinary! They understand training, and the tools, and the self-taught process. They could teach just as well as anyone who is coming from Education. I wish that would come into play within the Education system. Some people are so extraordinarily brilliant right out of High School that they could go into teaching college-level, just based on their own experience. 

FA: The amount of non creative-work that an artist must do to sustain their practice is overwhelming. Many people are not able to do this. I met a brilliant outsider artist recently on a street corner in Queens selling his drawings for $15. I bought $200 worth from him. It was one of the best days of my life! 

NC: OMG! That’s fabulous! You brought possibility back into his life! I need to see one of those pieces! I remember in school, the first time someone bought a piece of work of mine – just that feeling! The feeling of someone acknowledging your ability, your craft! It’s everything. 

“Thank you Nick Cave! The message is loud and clear, and your heart is the messenger!”

You can experience Nick Cave’s new body of work at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City in November; 2018. And a full feature on his practice in Issue #3 of The Know Cultural Almanac in 2019. 

Images by Masha Orlov and Fascination Anxiety