Visual Identity: Kevin Beasley On How Sound Shapes His Art

An interview with the rising New York artist who is currently in residence at MoMA PS1.

November 07, 2014

Kevin Beasley's studio is in the part of Long Island City that's a far walk from any of the high street style shops, restaurants or bars. The story of how the New York based artist ended up there involves a fluid and somewhat unbelievable set of circumstances, like hearing about a rent-controlled two bedroom in the West Village. Beasley explains that as he was finishing up his year long artist-in-residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a collector offered him use of a largely abandoned wreck above a parking garage. He talks in detail about the work he's put into breaking down rooms, putting up dry wall, and wiring the space for sound—something that's become an important part of Beasley's sculpture practice. A room in back that used to house the owner's massive comic book collection has been left intact and turned into a fully functioning music studio.

Originally from Virginia before he settled in NYC, Beasley's work has for the past several years been a mixture of sculpture and audio based works. Like I Want My Spot Back, an improvised soundscape built out of heavily manipulated hip-hop acapellas from dead rappers like Tupac and Ol' Dirty Bastard which he performs on a modified but recognizable nightclub style turntable rig [that's him performing it above at MoMA in 2012]. In it clear snippets, like a passage from The Notorious BIG's "Long Kiss Goodnight" (from which the piece gets its name) seep up out of a viscous, subterranean bed of sound made up of metal and bubble-like effects that could very well be used to score a scene on a near-future battleship. The work stands as a haunting testament to the sheer amount of information that can be pulled out of these left-behind music files.

I.W.M.S.B. was Beasley's first fully realized audio work, but his interest in the material qualities of sound spans back to his time at grad school. "The parties at school were really bad and so I started DJing," he says by way of explanation. "But immediately I was drawn to it as a tool in the studio. Instead of just throwing music in it, I was throwing in weird sounds." Eventually he built his own massive pair of subwoofers in order to intensify the corporeal listening experience. When he performed I.W.M.S.B. in October 2012 in the central atrium at MoMA, the sound shook the entire building-tall central column in a way that clearly demonstrated the work's unrelenting physical presence. The curator Ralph Lemon, in a conversation with Art21, talked about the effects of confronting the museum audience with such an overwhelming performance. "Most visitors, I'm sure, just heard it as very loud, terrorizing. MoMA let it happen, as disruptive as it was. That instance crystallized for me this idea of black music as metaphor for some kind of American-ness. An invasive threatening under-rhythm, but also beautiful."

When talking about his own work, Beasley acknowledges that there are inherent implications of race in the making and perception of his work, but it is clearly also not a central concern. In unpacking a performance he did at this year's Whitney Biennial in which he made sounds by interacting with a set of mic'd and prepared sculptures, he talks about it in terms of how context can influence his process: "You have a really specific body in a particular space. And there are consequences that one must reconcile with that kind of interaction. There's these different connotations or relationships that are really exploratory." Beasley's primary interest, it seems, is in the confrontation of material: how sound fills a room, how a body can subtly or wholly effect the space around it, how social dynamics can inform the movements of a body. In a lot of ways his work is about that moment of contact. The Whitney performance, for instance, was Beasley's way of thinking about the physical properties of a microphone-to-speaker set up. "I've been taking these microphones...[and] thinking about sound through a really physical medium," he explains. "It's not just solely about recording atmosphere but actually the quality or condition of that atmosphere. Like the space between you and that microphone—if there is something obstructing then that conditions the way that you're understood or the way that that information is."

The project is comprehensive in its interrogation of these physical qualities, and Beasley uses different types of microphones as ways to explore different sides of this dynamic. "Each one has their own particular way of picking up sound or picking up vibrations," he says. "This one has a contact mic in it, this one has a hypercardioid microphone in it so it kind of tunnels all of the sound. This one is two microphones—you know when you're holding a microphone and your rubbing your hands on it, it picks up that noise, it picks up the sounds of the actual device. They operate kind of like contact mics. But you can also hear a slight ghost of whats happening in the space." In his loosely scored performances he plays each of these sculptures like an instrument in a way that feels like he's trying to exhaust their potential. He later talks about the connection back to how this helps him understand the bodies that inhabit the space: "I think about the condition of a body," he says. "How do we socially navigate these bodies? Through sound—a really specific kind of sound defines or comes from a certain place. Or maybe its the material of an object like a pillowcase. What does that conjure? Like how you can hear something and that sound that your hearing automatically correlates or responds to some type of really physical thing. Like if I smack my hand on the table, the sound of that is from the hand and this thing. You can draw conclusions about what I'm made of or where I come from, how I feel as a person by the bluntness of that." The logic is somewhat slippery but then again, so are the categories. We may define something as either physical or aural but the two are in a constant feedback loop, and in a sub-visual world these are both just ways people can experience touch.

"When I look at a pair of Jordans, I have a really specific experience with that: being a teenager, desiring those so much. I'm also thinking about audio or sound as another sensory experience that is culturally embedded in how we view things."

The materials Beasley uses in these rigs as well as his stand-alone sculpture also speak to this theme of contact. The objects are a combination of resin, polyurethane foam, and bits of old clothes, usually his. Beasley says he was drawn to these materials for their physical qualities—the way he can work them as they set, the way insulation foam finds gaps and fills them. But he was also drawn to their omnipresent role in our lives. "I was thinking about foam being so present daily. Like how we interact with it. But yet we're not necessarily seeing it all the time. It's not a material that sits on the surface because its meant as a filler, it's meant for beds and couches. It provides us with a certain kind of comfort. It fills in a lot of spaces in our places and houses." In a similar way to the recognizable verbal passages in I Want My Spot Back, the clothes act as touchstones to culture—to the surface material that defines our experience beyond a primal sense of touch. "It becomes more complex when you think about how it's not just about physical object but an object that has a history," says Beasley. "And then you think about what could that potential history be. I'm using my clothes because it's something for me that has a really particular thing, pieces that start to draw on some broader cultural resonance. I'm trying to be very delicate about how these things reveal themselves. There's a lot of loaded conversation to be had." Beasley is referring to instances where he incorporates things like a pair of bootleg Nike Jordans, a striving status symbol that starts to have a more direct, social conversation. "When I look at a pair of Jordans, I have a really specific experience with that: being a teenager, desiring those so much," he explains. "I'm also thinking about audio or sound as another sensory experience that is culturally embedded in how we view things." The material has a history, but in this case its a personal one—these are Beasley's clothes and music; his hands ply and shape the resin and foam as they set, his body informs their scale.

In the past year things have been moving quickly for Beasley. He was added to the roster at the prestigious Casey Kaplan gallery in New York and recently, along with a group of collaborators called ALLGOLD, started a six-month residency in the Print Shop space at MoMA PS1. ALLGOLD—comprised of Stephen Decker, an artist and DJ under the name SYSDJ, and graphic designers Golnaz Esmaili and Inva Çota—is involved in applying their interdisciplinary skill set towards the creation of an events-oriented "curated social space." Beasley is excited about the possibilities: "We're thinking being open for several days a week where people can literally show up and have coffee and tea and sit and have conversation," he says. "So there will be talks and lectures, all different types of things that you wouldn't necessarily consider to be in a proper museum like PS1." The way he talks about ALLGOLD is almost like a thinktank, a social laboratory where the group can test out different event archetypes as a set of interactive experiments that are at once public and personal, improvisational and highly controlled. It sounds like a fitting next step.

Check out ALLGOLD's upcoming events at MoMA PS1 here.

Lead image courtesy of the artist, photo by Julieta Cervantes.

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Visual Identity
Posted: November 07, 2014
Visual Identity: Kevin Beasley On How Sound Shapes His Art