Kevin Beasley on Confronting the Social and Cultural Underlayers of Objects
Kevin Beasley thinks a lot about objects. In particular, specific objects that relate to notions of American-ness and Blackness—and ones that are often linked, subtly or not, with violence. Whether with a Cadillac Escalade, a pair of Air Jordans, or an N.F.L. helmet, Beasley finds deep connections to each item he chooses to work with, rigorously studying their multifarious contexts, meanings, and histories. Happy to let artifacts sit in his New York studio for long periods of time, the 36-year-old artist allows them to slowly gestate in his mind until he feels ready to express whatever he has deciphered out of their nature. From there, he turns them into exquisite, alchemical works of art, from tightly packed “slab” sculptures—large, flat resin blocks that embody the density of the symbolic articles that comprise them—to evocative sound installations and performances.
Beasley’s prolonged approach isn’t mere research; it’s his way of making space to reflect, to pay more attention, and to grapple with the nuances of the complex, loaded subject matter that’s embedded in many of the things that permeate our everyday lives. For Beasley, unpacking subjects charged with underlying connotations is a necessary means for transformation. “You don’t have to fully understand what it is you’re dealing with,” he says. “It takes time. It takes a revisitation. And that’s okay, because that speaks very specifically to a process of learning and understanding.”
Beasley’s work often draws from his personal history, which has included growing up in admiration of the handiwork of his mechanic father, deejaying at house parties at Yale University, and attending annual family reunions in rural Virginia. It was at one such reunion, in 2011, when Beasley came across a cotton field and picked the plant for the first time—an eerie experience that was, as he considered his ancestors and enslaved peoples who once performed the act, all at once distressing, pleasurable, haunting, and illuminating. The following year, Beasley took his fascination with cotton further—and into the deep South. After finding and purchasing a mid-20th-century cotton gin motor on eBay, he drove from New Haven, Connecticut, to a farm in rural Alabama to collect the object. Beginning as part of an M.F.A. project at Yale, the motor would later evolve into an encased artwork, whirling and surrounded by microphones, inside a pristine, clear, soundproof box at the Whitney Museum of American Art—the potent centerpiece of the artist’s breakout exhibition “A View of a Landscape” (2018–2019). (The raw, rancorous noises the motor produced were pumped into an adjacent room that served as a listening gallery.) Later this year, Beasley will extend the project further with a monograph and double LP of the same name, which features sound contributions from artists, musicians, and writers such as Kelsey Lu, Jason Moran, and Fred Moten, whose tracks sample recordings that Beasley made of the churning machine.
On this episode, Beasley talks with Spencer about contemplating these particular objects, sound as a means for greater understanding, and the role of repetition in reshaping history.
Beasley discusses the origins of his interest in drumming, speaker-building, and deejaying, and the role of sound in his work.
Beasley recalls the ideas behind two of his early sound performances, “I Want My Spot Back” (2011–2012) and “Your Face Is/Is Not Enough” (2016).
Beasley talks about his artistic practice in relation to the senses, and how he creates a narrative around objects and materials.
Beasley explains his process of collecting clothing and items for his sculptures, and the factors that inform when and how he uses them.
Beasley speaks about growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia. He also discusses his 2017 exhibition “Sport/Utility” at New York’s Casey Kaplan gallery, and unpacks the meanings behind select pieces in the show.
Beasley details his pivotal Whitney Museum exhibition, “A View of a Landscape” (2018–2019), and the experiences that informed it, including seeing a cotton field for the first time and meeting the owner of the cotton-gin motor that he used as the centerpiece for the presentation.
Beasley considers resin, touch, and time in relation to his “slab” sculptures. He also discusses how repetition can reshape collective memory and facilitate social change.
SPENCER BAILEY: Kevin, welcome to Time Sensitive. It’s great to have you in the studio today.
KEVIN BEASLEY: Thanks for inviting me.
SB: I wanted to begin our conversation on the subject of drumming and rhythm. I understand you studied drums, and I heard you playing a bit on an Art21 video about your work. When did drumming come into the picture for you?
KB: Drumming came at a really early age. I was in middle school, actually. And—it’s so funny—I had this experience where I was in band. I was in concert band. When percussion tryouts opened up, I was like, All right, I’m going to do that, because that’s what I want to do. I want to play the drums. I want to do percussion. And this is sixth grade. I was playing trumpet, and I showed up to the percussion practice, and the band teacher was like, “No, you can’t do it. You can’t try out for percussion.” I laughed, and I was like, All right. He didn’t really explain why, but then the next day, he held me back after the class and said, “I wanted to let you know that it wasn’t that I didn’t want you to learn to play percussion. But you’re my trumpet player, so I need you to play trumpet.”
That was the first instance where I felt like I was denied something because of someone else’s—
KB: Idea around it, which ultimately was totally fine. I think his understanding of my commitment to music was really important, and that was something that he also cultivated. But it was a little funky in that way.
From there on, I played air drums, until my parents were like, “We can’t have him spazzing out in the back of the car like this.”
KB: They got me a drum set in eighth grade for Christmas. They thought I would give it up in three or four months. And I just kept playing. I was playing for hours and hours, maybe six, seven hours a day. They were like, “He needs to get lessons, because he’s not going to quit. And if we have to listen to this all day, it needs to be really good.”
So that’s how it started. My parents were supportive in that way. And I was taking jazz drumming lessons from a local drummer, who also taught at the music store. His name was Larry Scott. He opened me up to listening to a variety of music, but listening to play, listening to articulate rhythmically what the feeling of the music was—even if I wasn’t playing explicitly what the other drummer was playing. How do you capture a rhythmic essence? Having these kinds of understandings around music, and around listening really early on, then became like, Okay, well, then I can improvise. I can try things while I’m listening. It’s not about playing exactly what they’re playing and studying that in that way—which I also did. That’s the natural inclination: You hear it, and then you want to replicate it. But very early on, to try and think about, Well, how do you really understand those patterns? I never formally played for any school bands, or had any training in that way. It was just from listening, and continuing to play, and playing in a couple band’s bands, but that—
SB: Who were some of the drummers that you were listening to, or what was some of the music that was—
KB: Will Kennedy, Dennis Chambers, Billy Cobham, fusion, and then, like, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Buddy Rich. There was a wide variety of different kinds of drummers. And then I also was really into metal and progressive music. I listened to Tool a lot, [and its drummer], Danny Carey. Neil Peart was a drummer that I listened to a lot.
KB: And I was like, This is amazing. I’m going to learn every single lick, every bit of it. I’m just going to listen to the album, and play it straight on. Since then, I think there are several musicians and drummers that I’ve continued to listen to and appreciate.
SB: You also have an interest in speaker-building, and I read that you used to deejay at Yale [University] house parties. So I’m curious, when did your deejay work, if we could call it that, come into the picture? And how do you view all of this—the deejaying, the drumming, the speaker-building—in the context of your own art-making?
KB: Music-making was always separate for me, and art making, or visual-art making. I would play in bands, and I would listen to music, and I’d play the drums, and experiment with different kinds of things. And I kept it pretty separate. It wasn’t until I got into graduate school [at Yale] that these things became merged into one—even though when I was living in Detroit, my studio was also where I practiced with my band. It was all-encompassing. But really, those house parties, or studio parties, at Yale was when I realized I needed to deejay, because the music selection was really bad. I just couldn’t…. I like to dance. It’s a big relief, and release, when you’re in graduate school, to just be dancing. The movements, the physicality of it, the listening to the music, the partying, whatever that is—it’s just essential. But I couldn’t get into it because the music was really terrible. It was like Top 40.
I felt like I had an eclectic taste in music, and I felt like in art school, people would be open to an eclectic taste of dance music. And so that’s when I started deejaying, and was actually like, All right, I think I listen to a variety of dance music. And the music that I want to hear, on the dance floor, I should just play that, and see if anyone else would be interested in the same thing. So that started the whole—
SB: Making terrible parties a little less terrible.
KB: Less terrible. That was 2010. The club scene in New York was still really vibrant. GHE20G0TH1K was…. Classmates and I would go down to New York for ghettogoth parties and [the D.J.] Venus X—shout out to Venus X—and whatever else was happening. There were a lot of labels that were hosting parties. You had spaces like 285 Kent, and Glasslands, and random warehouses that were still happening in New York in some way. And that just further propelled the dig into the music, wanting to deejay, not to mention living in Detroit for like seven, eight years, which is like, dance music. That was where I was getting a lot of the stuff that I really loved, a lot of Detroit techno, and then thinking about, Oh, I should deejay some of this stuff. So that started happening.
The moment it became apparent that this was very much a part of my practice was really using turntables to manipulate sound and music. As a D.J., you’re constantly mixing. You’re thinking about the structure of the music. You’re thinking of the feeling of it, all of this stuff, and at high volumes. So the space that you’re in, the way it reverberates the space, being in clubs and that atmosphere—all of that contributed to me rethinking my relationship to, and my understanding around, music not as this formal, abstract process that was only about music composition and music theory, but was more about affect and a kind of physical presence. And just scratching. Hearing one sound, and then physically moving this thing, and then you automatically generate something else—it’s just like working with physical materials in the studio.
I was looking at them side by side and was like, Aha, okay. I’m like, What have I been doing? So then the music became—not less important, but it became expanded for me. And I started thinking about sound in general, and how that can be shaped and understood in physical spaces, which then leads to speaker-building. It’s like multipurpose. Like, How do I make a really amazing party? With a great speaker system. But then also, How do I understand its effect on a physical space? And then there’s a social impact to that. There’s a political impact to that. There’s all of these things. Speakers are built bigger than people. [Sound] affects more people, in positive and negative ways. It can be weaponized, it can be used to bring joy—all of these things. That spectrum—I started really thinking about the consequences of those. That felt more like an artistic practice.
SB: Yeah. This physicality idea—I think it’s interesting in the context that we’re sitting in the same room right now. If we were having this conversation behind screens, or in some other kind of space, maybe as a loud echo-y space, our conversation would probably be different. The way we respond to each other would probably be different. And so it’s interesting how sound plays this very physical role.
The word vibration comes to mind for me, thinking about bodily vibration. And when I think about your performance works, your sound works, so much of it is about bodily vibration. How do you think about this notion of internal vibration? How you feel on the insides, and that effect, which can be very profound.
KB: I think it’s central to a lot of the things that I’m doing. Thinking about sound waves moving through matter, and the density of that matter, its makeup, if the matter is in motion or if it’s static. How that then affects how you hear it, but then also how you feel it. I can’t not think about sound as a physical sensation, particularly when you get into lower frequencies. But just the fact that when you’re not hearing something, it’s because the matter that it’s moving through isn’t carrying it, and it gets dispersed. And that shift—whatever that thing is, that’s either limiting it or amplifying that sound—there’s a major consequence to that. And so all of those vibrations, how you’re hearing them and how you’re feeling them, become so important to understanding the source that produced the sound, but then also its environment, and its atmosphere. The vibration becomes a way of understanding your body and its nuances—its age, its trials and tribulations. [Laughs] It’s like everything that you’re experiencing, I think, gets conjured up through those vibrations.
SB: It’s like muscle memory.
SB: One of your earlier sound performances, about a decade ago, was “I Want My Spot Back” (2011–2012) at the Museum of Modern Art. You filled the atrium there with this loud, kind of obtrusive sound, [and] got a lot of complaints. You were particularly interested in pulling from these a capella tracks from old hip-hop albums. Central to that was the act of breathing, which, of course, connects back to rhythm. So I was wondering, could you speak to that? What was your approach to this piece, and what role was breathing playing in it?
KB: I felt like the a capellas gave me a lot of information about their production. Obviously there were the artists, the people that were behind those sounds. Like, the rappers themselves. And the a capellas give you a way in, and the space between, the way the lips produce—what is it, the A.S.M.R.? The way all of this stuff like—
SB: It’s like, [makes lip-smacking sound].
KB: Yeah! [Laughter] I’m not going to go crazy into the microphone now with the stuff but—
SB: But yeah, you think about Biggie, and a lot of what Biggie did was A.S.M.R.
KB: Totally. His breathing was very distinct. You could hear it. It’s like, if you could just chop up all of the breathing of just Biggie, and listen to it, you’d be like, Oh, that’s Biggie Smalls, right? It was so much a part of his delivery. I wanted to hear that as closely as possible as a way of just stripping the music down, because there’s a lot around it. So the breathing, I think, was something that I was trying to get to, and my emphasis on it, or thinking around it, was like developing a tool that I could then work with, and do other things with. And, yeah, those a capellas, I think, were really revealing. Because not all of them were of high quality. It was just really trying to capture what was out there.
There were some Ol’ Dirty Bastard [O.D.B.] a capellas that were part of Wu-Tang [Clan] songs that were on vinyl . They would have maybe like three different versions of one song. One would be an instrumental, one would be a capella, and you could remix it up. And it’s for D.J. promo stuff. So that searching for things was really important, but just this one objective: All right, let’s capture the texture of the voice, and then see what’s possible.
SB: How did you respond to the audience there?
KB: I really couldn’t, because I was just in it. I was immersed in the performance, and it [took place over the course of] two days, [performed once each day]. And I think that Jenny Schlenzka, who was [one of] the curators at the time and had organized that with [artist, choreographer, and dancer] Ralph Lemon, shielded me from some of that by not telling me what the audience reaction was. I think Ralph was doing the same thing. But afterwards, it was like, Oh, there were complaints throughout the whole building. I had a friend who was videoing a Richter, Gerhard Richter, [artwork] that was on the wall, and you could see it vibrating. The other funny part about it was that “The Scream”  had arrived that week.
SB: The [Edvard] Munch painting?
KB: Yeah. They had this exhibition that was opening, and there was a lot of frenzy around seeing that. And then right in the middle of that week, I had my performance and—
SB: It’s own kind of “Scream,” I guess. [Laughs]
KB: It’s own “Scream.” It’s own rupture in the cannon—
SB: The thought of O.D.B. making a Gerhard Richter painting shake is kind of amazing.
KB: Yeah. I’m like, O.D.B. has never been so prominent in this space, ever, prior to this. Neither has Tupac [Shakur] or Eazy-E. That felt like something. Still, it’s hard to find language around what is at its core, but it felt really powerful in that way. The way that that performance textured the space—it felt like that maybe couldn’t happen now, in that form. And also, in a credit to the way that the departments were organized, it still felt “early,” even though I think MoMA’s performance department, at that time, was maybe around for five years. It wasn’t like painting and sculpture.
SB: What for you was going through your mind in terms of time during that performance? How did time pass?
KB: It felt like it was really quick, actually. I was racing against it to try to get this stuff out. Because the way it’s performed, I have like thirty-nine tracks that I’ve developed, and in each track, I can further manipulate them in the performance itself. So just playing two tracks at once, and then trying to explore it, and expand it. You slow things down to try to bring low frequencies in, or speed things up. You’re adding effects on the fly to see how they carry in the space, to see how they respond. There’s a lot of listening. I felt like, Man, I’m running out of time. This thing’s only supposed to be an hour—which is also, on the other end, for people who are listening, a really long time to be listening to sound at such high volumes and with such density.
But I was like, Oh man, I gotta get to this. I gotta get to this. I have a few marks that I need to reach. [It] really felt like there was just not enough time to explore what is contained within it, and what the possibilities are. Because the work, I feel, is a generative one, because it takes something and tries to find other possibilities that are embedded inside of it. But how we perceive it and how we understand it, I think, needs more work and needs more time. So…. [Laughs] The time didn’t feel like it was enough.
SB: Breathing also comes into play in your work. “Your Face Is/Is Not Enough” (2016), is a performance you did at the Renaissance Society in Chicago in 2016. Talk about breathing in this context, because it’s very different.
KB: The breathing, I think, is really essential. There’s a power in breathing, and you have to find that, and you have to protect that, and you have to practice that, and you have to exercise it. In that work, I think so much of it is about that. And then, there’s a score, and in the score the performers are instructed to exert an “ahh” sound for as long as they can, and then they take three breaths. And the three breaths after each one of those—it’s restorative, it’s intended to be its own thing. You have these two things that you have to do. In a lot of ways, it’s a way of re-centering and refocusing again.
There’s this direct relationship to exertion and extending yourself, but always knowing that following it is a restorative period. And that restorative period, it’s not just in response to this thing. It needs to be given space. It needs to be given strength. It needs to be given importance, as if it is the purpose. So you could also say that the breathing is the first thing. And then these “ahh”s that are really extended are the response to that, after you’ve generated this foundation for yourself. What do you do with it?
The breathing, I think, was essential in that work, because it’s also amplified. People hear it. Hearing someone else breathe can evoke all of these emotions and thoughts and feelings, whether it’s anxiety about hearing someone breathe or trying to breathe, or hearing someone breathe gives you a sense of calm to know that someone is taking their time, and they’re present in that way. There are certain associations to it. As an audience, I think you then are trying to reconcile that for yourself, so you’re immediately implicated. The installation contains, I think, twelve masks and twelve megaphones. Taking a megaphone, and breathing into a megaphone, is really powerful. And I’m like, Maybe words are not needed. Maybe it’s this breathing, this thing, and what does that sound like at really high levels? It’s an emotional [sound]. It’s a meditative one. It’s spiritual, in a lot of ways.
SB: Rhythmic, too.
KB: Rhythmically, that’s where you start to find people’s own sense of expression, their own rhythm, their own character, their own nature, all of this stuff starts to happen. You realize it in this performance, because everyone starts out together. And then, at the end, and throughout, there’s this weaving that happens, and people are going at their own pace. The sound of each person’s breathing is very different, and the rhythms are really different. And then you find rhythms where people are doing them together, and then you hear it together. So once you hear it together, then you’re like, Oh, okay, maybe I can do that. I can share this moment, or this thing, with the person next to me. That performance has happened multiple times. And each time it’s very different. But it’s really powerful each time. And I think it continues to grow and change in those subsequent performances.
SB: You primarily make sculptures. We haven’t really talked about that yet. [Laughter] But I was wondering, could you speak to sound just a little bit more, and particularly how it has become a way for you to process the world?
KB: I feel like I say this a lot, because it’s something that I found initially as something that I enjoy, first off. I love listening to things. I love hearing things. But it’s also a way that I feel like I’ve developed a muscle for just listening to something, and then learning and gaining from that. And then being able to then say, “Well, maybe I should react or respond differently. Or maybe I should change something about myself based on that.” It could just be from something that you hear, or something that you experience through your senses.
I think that applies to anything. It’s touch, it’s sight. Your senses are ways of understanding. For me, I’ve really relied on listening to—whether it’s the environment, whether it’s music, words—it’s like someone telling you straight up, “I don’t like that.” And you’re like, All right, I’m going to listen to that. I can process that, and I can do something different based on that level of communication, based on the reads of that.
I’ve always found that when I was making music, there was always a channeling. The process of that channeling—it’s very difficult to know that the thing that you’re doing is also how you feel. So you just do it. And in the repetition—and not necessarily repetitive as in it’s the same thing, but the repetition in the exercise, the repetition in the expression—you begin to notice the nuances and the changes and the evolution of something. So the revisiting gives you more information. It accumulates. It’s like listening to an improvisation on a theme, and then the revisiting of that theme, and another improvisation. Those things began to accumulate. They start to build.
So, I feel like I begin to understand things more in-depth, not just from one listen, but from the revisiting, based on the context, the space, the time, all of these other variables. And you begin to get a more, I guess, three-dimensional understanding, a multidimensional understanding, of what you’re hearing or what you’re listening to. That I really love, because I also think about that visually. You’re constantly building and understanding based on this collection, or this accumulation, of images or things that you’re seeing. I don’t know if that makes sense.
SB: To me, listening connects to this idea of presence, and the notion of being truly physically present, but also mentally present. It’s kind of this notion of “headspace,” of taking the time to engage with something. Your work is so multilayered, and really requires that kind of engagement. And so I was wondering if that’s part of your intent with the work, is to get people to really slow down, pay more attention, listen, think, and actually, in so many ways, deal with the raw or difficult subject matter that’s underlying it.
KB: I mean, at its core, I feel like that’s what I’m trying to do. Just as a person in the world. So I think—
SB: Beyond being an artist.
KB: Exactly. So then, I think the exchange between the work and an audience or a visitor grows, and gains from that time spent. We don’t necessarily always have that. So I always try to build in this understanding that…. I love the word “accumulation,” because I just think so much about [how] your experience with something doesn’t necessarily have to be complete. You don’t have to fully understand what it is that you are dealing with. It takes time. It takes a revisitation. And that is okay, because that speaks very specifically to a process of learning and a process of understanding, and that the growth and evolution of something is a long path. I feel like the work is so much about that, because there’s just too much packed in. There’s too much there.
SB: Yeah. I mean, I’m thinking immediately right now of your work “Strange Fruit (Pair 1)” (2015). Which is this assemblage, or you could call it an “accumulation,” I guess, of speakers and sneakers that are dangling from this rope on the ceiling. It combines both this physical and sonic element. There’s so much metaphor embedded within it. I’ve seen it in two different galleries, and both times had a different experience engaging with the work. At the same time, it’s very direct. It’s not so subtle, but it doesn’t hit people over the head. There’s this sort of fine line that you find. I was wondering if you could speak to that, and more generally, how you think about creating a narrative out of this material, and the sound, and the objects?
KB: We were talking [earlier] about going through this past year in the pandemic, and still trying to experience, and still trying to recognize, nuance and subtlety when things are very hectic and scary in a lot of ways. Because I think that nuance gives you an understanding of an edge. It gives you the texture, the quality of an edge. It allows you to really assess what your relationship is to it, and maybe the feasibility of being able to manage it. So the nuance of something, I think it doesn’t happen if we’re using blunt objects to communicate something. Even when, I think, with that work, it’s extremely blunt in a lot of ways. It’s like very much—
SB: You could call Air Jordans a “blunt object,” if you actually understand how you’re framing it.
KB: Yeah. Right. So that to me feels like, Okay, how do you confront things that are very forward and very blunt in that way, but allowing there to be room to move through what they are, and move through your understanding of them? Which is, I think, about reconciling those circumstances, reconciling the difficulties that you have of understanding it, confronting those things, and not feeling like it isn’t possible.
And the generative aspect of it, I think, within art-making and within the experience of art, allows for those other possibilities, which then says, “Well, the violence that is inherently a part of this is something that is inherently a part of our everyday. But there are generative ways of getting through this.”
To me, that’s the work. I go to the studio to try to refine that. And it’s really difficult. [Laughs] It’s really hard. But it’s something that I find to be necessary. And it’s rooted. I think art-making, your practice, allows for the practice to address form and aesthetics and things that may open up the possibility of reconciling these issues and your relationship to them.
SB: We’ve talked about the role of hearing, but I wanted to also bring up touch. This notion of texture, tactility, is so at the core of your work. You’re exploring history and memory through these garments that you select, or the different materials you choose to use. How do you view the role of touch figuratively and literally in your work?
KB: I have a conundrum, because I want people to touch the works in a lot of different ways. Not everything, because some of it’s just not conducive to that. But I do like what is gained from physically touching and physically understanding these things.
The work is presented in institutions where there’s no touching allowed, at all. So when I think about touch in my practice, I can’t divorce it from the context that [it’s] always experienced in. I think the touch [aspect] is something like, Man, that looks good. It’s like seeing a really nicely rendered photo of a meal that you’d love to eat. And you’re like, Man, that thing, it probably smells really great. Or, I’m real curious about that.
So there’s that. I think, in a lot of ways, there’s an understanding that we have based on other experiences that allows you to then enter into the tactility of something. That maybe you don’t necessarily have to touch something to understand its tactility, its mass, and its weight, in a way that applies to you as an individual, as an audience. That’s where I’m like, Okay. That’s cool. That’s then allowing people to draw into themselves, something that maybe they wouldn’t have, if they weren’t experiencing this work.
But that’s something that I’m really trying to reconcile, and have constantly been trying to reconcile. Some of the performance works, sculptural works, have contact microphones, and in those performances, you touch them. “Strange Fruit,” which is on view [in the exhibition “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America”] at the New Museum right now, is also a work that has a touch component to it. Touching that work gives you a completely different sonic texture than just the noise you make into the microphones. But I don’t think they’re going to let you touch that, so….
It’s important. The tactility of something, the physicality of something, means a lot to me because it’s something that I need in order to navigate. I need to touch, and [that] I need to understand. I’m trying to understand something in depth in a lot of ways, and there are consequences to those things. So, wanting to engage in a practice that is very much dealing with the physical, and dealing with touch in a lot of ways—there comes a moment where that’s not feasible, where that’s not possible anymore. Degradation, death, your deterioration, your body, your senses. You lose these things. They’re not with you forever.
SB: They change over time.
KB: They change. Yeah. That’s something that I’m really big into.
SB: To make much of your work, there’s this act of gathering clothing, which also is an act of touch. And this clearly takes place across time. Tell me about your process, and the role of time within that process, of gathering the clothing, and then deciding how to use it.
KB: The gathering is really varied. A lot of it depends on where it’s coming from. If it’s coming from myself, then it’s really a matter of, All right, I’m not going to wear that anymore. Or, This thing would look really nice in a sculpture. So then it becomes a part of the studio. Or, if it’s clothing from a friend or a relative, then those get kind of roped in, too.
I feel like I have a little responsibility around what I do with that, knowing where it comes from. Everything that comes into the studio, I have to know where it’s coming from. I don’t collect random items off the street and bring them into the studio, because I am not engaged in a practice that can really account for all of those things. I really like to focus on the things that I feel like I can account for. That then brings the sort of circle really close.
So I have clothes from my mom. And I still haven’t done anything with them yet, because the more I sit on them, the more I’m like, Man, what does that mean? What does that mean to make objects out of her clothing? What do those objects look like? That’s something that, over time, I’m really trying to figure out, but also let it run its course. Some things don’t enter into a work for years. I’ll have it, and I’ll just let it sit for three, four, five years, seven years—however long it takes—until it feels ready to address its materiality and its history.
The house dresses that come from a now-closed shop in Harlem [that was called Granada], those works were really—I feel like maybe I was dealing with those for my lifetime. When it became clear that this was a material that I could make artwork out of, I was at the Studio Museum in Harlem [as an artist-in-residence]. It became apparent that, Oh, this is something that I can do something about. That I can further understand my relationship to the neighborhood, but also to my grandmothers, and my aunts, and understand a little bit about their relationship to these things that are steeped in a particular kind of economy.
They’re also about a comfort—a physical, body comfort. They don’t wrinkle. They’re easy to wash. So there’s labor associated with them. And that labor is also something that is on both ends of the spectrum: as consumers, but then also as how they’re made and how they’re made for a really particular audience, or a really particular group of people. They’re not particularly wealthy, but yet you have something that’s tailored for specific use. The gathering of those was really, I think, about understanding my relationship with the shop-owner, his family, and then also the community, which I felt like I was a part of, even though I didn’t necessarily wear them.
SB: I’m struck, too, to mention here that you use some pretty unusual materials at times. I think probably, most notably, was your brother’s wisdom teeth [for the work “My Brother’s Teeth” (2012)].
KB: Yeah. [Laughs] Those materials are really core to a lot of things. It’s a work that I made, actually, while I was still in graduate school. I got a phone call from my brother. We were chatting, and then he was like, “Hey, I got my wisdom teeth pulled.” And I was like, “Oh. How do you feel?” He’s like, “Oh no, it’s good. I’m good. I’m like, back [to normal]. Do you want them?” And I was like, “Yeah. Yeah, that’d be cool.” Then he just mailed them to me. It just felt appropriate to put them in a work.
But oftentimes, I’ll get phone calls from family and people who know me. They’ll be like, “Man, this is an odd, weird object. But I think Kevin would want it. I think this is something that he might do something with.” It’s oftentimes something that has some meaning, or there’s some thing within people—they feel something. Maybe they don’t want to hang onto it, because it’s not that big of a feeling. It’s not like [an] “I’m going to frame this” kind of feeling. But also, it’s like, I can’t just throw this away. So then what?
For me, that’s really meaningful, because there are a lot of little things like that that have the potential of generating a conversation, or pointing to something that has a much deeper meaning, that then allows you to feel something or release something. It can become cathartic, or it can point to certain issues. So that work [“My Brother’s Teeth”] ended up…. It’s hard to describe it as a sculpture, but it’s composed of a carpet padding wrapped up and rolled up, and covered in rubber and foam. It has a pair of my underwear on it. It looks like a body, basically. And the teeth are at what you would call the kind of “head,” so a seventh [of the way] down, or something.
It feels like the work points to identifying a body. It looks, very specifically, like a mutilated body. And the impact of that, my brother’s teeth, thinking about a relationship with someone, someone who maybe you didn’t know, but they’re part of your community. The kind of violence that’s exerted, or that they’ve experienced, renders them no longer a part of the world that you know, and in the form that you know. And that this level of identification is within their bones, or within their teeth. It then becomes a really heavy, difficult work to process in that way.
SB: Yeah. I mean, I haven’t seen it in person, but just looking at that, and having experienced other works of yours in person, I can only imagine there’s this sort of vibrational experience like we were talking about before, that’s probably not dissimilar for people when they watch these videos of violence, whether it’s Rodney King being beaten or George Floyd. That idea, to me, of how one responds to an act of violence, or responds to an image of violence….
KB: Right. I mean, as an artist making work about these things, you then feel that responsibility, or the care, that needs to be taken. When I’m looking at certain materials, or when I’m looking at certain objects and establishing my relationship to them, it’s to really understand the space that I’m entering into, because it’s very sensitive. I know there are things that I want to have conversations around, and about. And they’re very difficult subjects, and they’re very difficult things to address. And I want to use material. I want to use a method that I know how to process the world in, which is through making art. It could be different for someone else, the way that they process it. It could be writing. It could be through social work that they do. For me, it’s so much about making things, but that also means that I have to really invest time and understanding around the implications of those things.
For me, it’s always like, if I can turn inward and I can look at the things that are close to me, and really try to understand those foundationally, it gives me a better ability to be able to communicate things, because I understand the relationships between these materials and between the issues that I’m dealing with. There’s an experience there that I can tap into, rather than pointing over across the state line or crossing, or somewhere else where something is happening, whether it’s in a different country. Pointing to that, and then trying to say, “Well, this is something.” Well, what is your relationship to that place? There’s a responsibility there to understand those things. I really feel like I have to take my time, and also be very conscientious of those [things]. And then maybe you’re not the person to take on that kind of lead role, and maybe it’s about facilitating others, facilitating a space for someone else, or a platform for someone else, to really address those things.
SB: Some of what you’re talking about, it seems like, also connects to just understanding who you are in the world, understanding your body, your place, your family.
SB: Let’s go back to the beginning of your life. I would love for you to tell me about your parents and your upbringing in Virginia. What did they do? What was your childhood like?
KB: I was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. For the longest time, I felt like I was left out of something, because most of my family was either born or raised or lived in New York City at some point. So my mom was born and raised in Harlem, along with her siblings. My father was born and partially raised in Virginia—on a farm, actually—but then had moved to New York later in his teenage years. Both of my older brothers were also born in New York. So I was like, “And then you all came to Lynchburg, and then had me?” We would visit New York a lot, [when I was] growing up. So I always had this understanding of a Southern, suburban life, in a predominantly white community, a white town. And we’d come for just like a weekend trip. It’s like, Oh, it’s your uncle’s birthday. Or your cousins are having a party or something. Or we would just go on up to see someone because they’re sick.
We would visit family living in project houses, or that lived in a brownstone in Brooklyn, in [the neighborhood of] Bed-Stuy. There was a point where I was like, I remember saying to my parents, “Can we go see touristy things?” Because we’d go to New York a lot, but we were, like, in the neighborhoods. We would never go to Manhattan [because] driving through Manhattan is always a nightmare. My dad would always drive and he was like, “I don’t want to deal with it.” We actually did a vacation in New York, where we would go to the museums and see all of these things. Maybe I was ten or eleven or something. But being adjacent to New York in some way felt like there was something here that resonated with me, growing up.
My upbringing in Lynchburg was extremely fruitful. [It] gave me a kind of sensibility that I really try to retain. And that’s like, there’s a certain kind of slowness. There is a common courtesy. It’s more like a lower-middle-class understanding. It’s not a high-impact, high-density kind of environment. It’s actually really conservative.
And so the things that I learned, or the things that I gained, I felt like I really had to extend myself in order to get. It was like, Oh, you’re going to take drumming lessons in Lynchburg? There’s one drummer that would be able to give you the kind of things that you’re looking for. It’s like a one jazz drummer kind of thing. And, that’s not actually true. There are a lot of people who play different kinds of music there. But it felt like things were a lot more—
KB: Intimate. Yeah, exactly.
SB: When did art, or the notion that you could become an artist, come into the picture for you?
KB: Really early on. As a kid, I was always drawing. I always had a sketchbook. My mother got me drawing lessons when I was maybe ten, and the public school system was kind of a nightmare in terms of advocating for the arts. Growing up, I wasn’t in an art class until I was in high school. I had one teacher when I was in elementary school, in kindergarten or first grade. Outside of that, I didn’t have any art classes. When I got to high school, that was when I was able to take art classes. So my mom was very proactive, even early on, about painting and drawing and all of those things.
I developed my skill set really early on, and just knew that this was something that I wanted to do. It wasn’t until the reality of cost, and making a living, you know, when you’re applying for colleges, that it became apparent that maybe being an artist is not the way to have a career, or the way to support yourself.
I simultaneously have an interest in cars. My dad’s a mechanic. It guided me into moving to Detroit, studying automotive design for a couple of years, and then I realized that’s not what I want to do for the rest of my life. But there was a real practical decision around that, that I think was still trying to be connected to the arts and still wanting to make things, but finding a practical avenue for it. And that didn’t work out. [Laughs]
SB: Was your dad’s life and career as a mechanic something that you thought about? Has that impacted your art-making at all?
KB: Yes, and no. It’s impacted my making, for sure, because he’s someone who works with his hands. He did everything. He would do the plumbing, he built the deck, he would fix the cars, it was all of it. So I learned a little bit of that. It was like, “The first car that you’re driving is going to be a stick shift. All of my children, first cars, stick shift, you need to know.” Talk about tactility and feeling and understanding the machine. That, I think, has left a major impression on me. The desire to be a mechanic was never—I never had that. But I really love to work on things. I love to fix things. I do a little bit of work on cars myself if it’s necessary. I’ve changed an alternator before, and I’ve changed the oil before, I’ve changed the tire before, I’ve done mild service. Really, the translation of labor is something that’s really stuck with me, and that I’ve valued, and really see as something that I have a relationship to, and that I should respect, and that I should address in some way.
SB: I should probably bring up, too, that you had an exhibition [at New York’s Casey Kaplan gallery in 2017] called “Sport/Utility,” and in that exhibition, there was a 2008 Cadillac Escalade [titled “Sport/Utility” (2017)].
KB: The narrative around that work and what that object is, it’s…. I’ve been apprehensive about addressing my relationship to automobiles in a lot of ways, only because I think that there’s just a lot of sensitivity around that. There’s so much to unpack, and so much to uncover in a lot of ways, in terms of talking about, in this instance, the kinds of racism that exist on high corporate levels, and how that shapes highway systems, how that shapes labor and manufacturing, and labor unions and all of this stuff.
KB: The Cadillac [piece] was basically looking at these objects that are symbolic of— whether it’s success, whether it’s a certain kind of class, or acceptance into society—like, Cadillac embodying that. It would only make sense that there would be this racist policy that would exclude Black people in its very early years, [which] was later lifted, that would eventually save the company, due to the fact that a lot of Black working-class people couldn’t afford homes, nor were allowed to own homes. So the next big thing that you could buy, if you earned a certain amount of money, and you wanted, as a material possession, an automobile is one of these all-encompassing things. And the Black community in a lot of ways had been, I think, stereotyped, but then also stigmatized, and denied access to what could be considered elite or luxury across the board.
Cadillac has this connection to the Black community. Very, very much so. Part of that comes from this denial, where a lot of Black working-class folks would hire white men to go to Cadillac dealerships to purchase the car for them. And sometimes would just buy a used version from a white owner. Cadillac did internal research to understand its demographics, and there were all these Black owners, and they’re like, Well, how is that possible, because of this policy? And that, in effect, was used to lift this policy, or this ban. So it just felt right to buy a Cadillac, and then crush it. [Laughter]
SB: I’m sure that was just pretty cathartic in a lot of ways.
KB: There’s a lot mired into it, into the act of doing that from an environmental standpoint, from a socio-political standpoint. But doing that definitely felt like what I had to do. I was not going to keep that car. But when I bought it, I was like, I own a Cadillac. Oh. And I made a post on, it was either Instagram or Facebook, at the time. And people were like, “Congratulations! Oh, my god! you made it!” [Laugher]
SB: You’re like, I’m actually going to be destroying this car—
KB: I was like, Yeah, no, no, not so fast.
SB: The show, the title, “Sport/Utility,” and what it goes into—whether it’s the “Untitled Petrified” (2017) piece, which conjoins two N.F.L. helmets colliding, or the golf clubs, the “Billy’s Clubs” (2017) piece. I even think about the use of Air Jordans in your work. So many things are embedded in each of these objects. We just unpacked a Cadillac Escalade as an example. How do you think about reshaping understandings of these cultural touchstones, I guess we could call them, these objects that we associate so strongly with certain identities?
KB: I think it’s an exercise in pulling a curtain back on something, or revealing a little bit more about what it is. Because a lot of it goes unseen. I had no idea that the names of golf clubs were so violent. Striker. And it’s like, Billy Club. You think about that, and then you just kind of put two and two together, and you’re like, Okay, golf is a predominantly white, privileged sport. And there’s all of these associations and affirmations of violence in order to play this very kind of casual, elite game that’s not nearly as violent as actual American football, but yet it finds its way into this sport.
It just rubs me in a weird way to then see a group of older white men using these “Billy Clubs,” and striking these balls, and just in their thing. And it just affirms something that is systemic, that was kind of shocking. It was like, Wow, this is actually the name of this thing. And I was like, “This is going to be an easy piece. I can just put this together.” [The clubs I used] came from Captiva, Florida [and were sourced when I was at the Rauschenberg Residency there].
There are a lot of these this-is-too-easy kind of associations, almost too obvious, in how these things come together. But they have real implications. And I think that those implications reverberate in so many ways, and they become muscle memory; they become ingrained, and embedded, and unrecognized. That’s the scary part of it, that it can go undetected, and how deeply embedded it is. And it’s just not necessary. If you need violent names for things to make your game more fun, then I don’t know if you’ll ever fully enjoy what it is you’re doing, because it requires so much destruction and so much energy in order to even have that. And that then becomes affirmed in every other aspect of it: of your life, your lifestyle, the way that you live, the cues, the things that you look towards in order to find fulfillment [are] driven by these levels of violence. Anyway, that exhibition, I think, was really complex in addressing those things: how things subliminally are present, and then how certain things are also very obvious and very straightforward.
SB: What’s so striking about each of these objects is their relationship to the body—and particularly, I think it should be said, Black bodies.
I wanted to go into your work that you did at Yale for your M.F.A., and the work that led to your exhibition [“Kevin Beasley: A View of a Landscape”] at the Whitney [Museum of American Art in 2018]. There’s an incredible story you have, and process about, rediscovering cotton. I was wondering if you could speak to that experience, which involved a family reunion that your family does every year in Valentines, Virginia. This was the summer of 2011. Tell me a little bit about seeing cotton in this field, and how you reacted to that. What happened to you in those moments? Because it seems very transformative.
KB: Yeah. The more I look back at it, the more I am able to recognize how transformative it really was. Then you start to really think about [how] something that could be so small, in a lot of ways, can have a larger impact if you allow it to. I could have not responded, felt a little something, and suppressed it, and then just been like, All right. It is what it is. And then just keep moving on.
SB: But you made the time.
KB: Yeah. It was making the time, and it was actually slowing down and actually being like, Whoa, I’ve never experienced this before. And seeing this field…. And really, it’s also like, to put the image in your head: This is in August, and it’s really hot in Virginia. Driving to the house requires you driving around this dirt road that’s flanked by fields on either side. There’s pine trees that surround the property. And it’s very big, open skies, really blue, really brilliant in that way.
I’m driving down, and cotton, in this stage, is at the last leg of what would be the flowering period. So it blossoms, and the flowers change colors, and they arrive at this kind of pink color before they turn brown and the boll starts to develop. So there was no cotton present. It was just the plant, flowering. And I knew, from the shape of the flower, what it was. I knew from the way that the plant is structured. It’s like, This looks like cotton. This doesn’t look like soybeans, or doesn’t look like tobacco, or other things that are typically planted in that region.
I was like, This looks different. And I looked closer. I was in my car, and I looked closer, and I was just like, This is cotton. I could identify it. And I knew. But it wasn’t like seeing a cotton field that was in full … that was ready to be picked and harvested. That came later, and that felt like, Oh. I need to see that, and I need to come back down, and I need to invest time in it. So the feeling was, This feels really weird, seeing this growing here. This was probably not the first time that cotton was grown on this property. That also raised all of these questions about land ownership, and how long had this property been in our family. And thinking about my ancestors. It just got really deep really quickly. And I needed to unpack it. I needed to know. I had questions about things, and the process of doing that led me down a really, really long path that I recognize as a lifelong project, and even more so, [as] a way of redefining my approach to the world and making in general.
SB: It of course led to this “A View of a Landscape” exhibition work, but first, I’d love for you to describe traveling to Alabama to get this motor and meeting this man, Bobby, who had owned it. What was your time with him like and what did you learn on the journey to Alabama?
KB: It was transformative, for sure. Just a little bit [of context]: I was in graduate school [at Yale]. So that was a primer. Being in New Haven, Connecticut, was something where, the people in the program, all of that, you felt there was always like an opportunity to really explore something. Or not opportunity, more like the eagerness to explore something. And you saw it as like, something would happen, and you’d be really sensitive to those things.
I remember coming back from the family reunion, and talking to my classmates about it. Then I went down to Virginia in December to spend time on the property. And that’s where I was picking some of the cotton. It had already been picked at that time, but there was a lot leftover. From that moment, I was talking to a really dear friend of mine, [interdisciplinary artist] Leon Finley. And in those conversations, it became apparent that this was something much bigger than what I had experienced, and what I was already doing. And I was researching these ways of processing the cotton. That was where the cotton gin motor came into the conversation. And being in New Haven, Eli Whitney, who [invented] the cotton gin, it’s his home. There’s a museum, and there’s all kinds of historical information about his life and the cotton gin.
Long story short, Leon and I were like, “We need to go to Alabama to get the motor, but also, to just go to Alabama.” This travel from Connecticut, all the way down through the East Coast, through all of these Southern states, into the Deep South, felt like a really important journey, a really important thing to understand. And Bobby was like the Wiz or something. You get there, to this journey, and you’re like, This is going to be wild. This is going to be crazy. I don’t know what I’m going to do. What’s going to happen? I had never been to Alabama before. I’d been to Georgia, but I’d never been to Alabama. And this was rural.
I talked to Bobby on the phone a couple of times, and he was really generous on the phone, but, you know, it’s different when you’re in person. Arriving and being on his property, he drives up in an all-terrain vehicle. He pulls up to the driver’s side, and he looks over. And I roll the window down. Our hearts are racing at this point, because what you see coming down is like—it’s the South, it’s the Deep South. And he turns over, and he says, “You didn’t expect it to be this cold down here, now did ya?” He’s like, “You see that tree over there? That’s a pecan tree. The frost is keeping it from doing what it’s supposed to be doing.” Something like that.
KB: And then he goes into it. Our jaws are wide open, because we’re getting everything. We’re getting his character, we’re getting his accent. We’re getting the things that he’s talking about as a farmer, as someone who’s lived there his whole life. And then it was completely immersive for the day. I felt like the whole point of that, of going down there, was to understand the context for which this motor was coming out of. And it was full. He was just telling stories the whole time.
SB: And of course, the years the motor was in use were such pivotal years for civil rights, for massive shifts happening at the midcentury in America.
KB: I mean, it starts with World War II, it gets through civil rights, and it gets into Vietnam, and everything between all of that. This thing is just operating, just running, just processing, processing, and processing.
SB: And where did that cotton go?
KB: Yeah. I mean, you can draw all of these lines. You think about the economy. I even think about the highway system, and the further development of industrialization, baby boomers. It’s just like everything was happening while this thing was processing. There was a lot of growth within the country. And I felt like, Oh, this thing was kind of a witness. Its role was to produce one kind of thing. It was very limited. But it gives the permission to build those associations, and to really try to understand what the broader context is.
So I always felt this work, tapping into it, would just take on so much more than actually I’m capable of processing and understanding. But it’s worth going through. And then, in some way, understanding it from my perspective as a… What’s my generation? I’m born in ’85. I guess I’m a millennial?
SB: Yeah. I was born in ’85, too.
KB: So it’s like, what is that relationship? How are these things impacting my life in a lot of ways?
SB: How did this particular work, the fact that it got to be presented in the way it did at the Whitney, and just the way that you structured it as the artist, reshape your life, reshape your thinking about your own work, your own practice as an artist? I mean, as an outsider, it does seem like it had a very catalytic effect. And it’s not lost on me that exploring the terrain around cotton was a way for you, as an artist, of also kind of harvesting seeds for these new ideas and the sort of directions that came out of this project.
KB: I think about the motor, actually, as a driver for a lot of it. And obviously, with the cotton, thinking about, yes, the spreading of these seeds and this sort of generative quality. I think what I’m really trying to do is understand these things in portions. To try to really take, and then also collectively involve as many people as I can, in order to really try to understand what’s happening, or understand what the impact of this legacy is in maybe a way that I’m not necessarily seeing out there. Seeing it in a lot of different ways, and seeing how people cross paths in ideologies. [Pauses] I mean, I’ll get lost in it, really trying to process everything at once.
SB: Well, I think it’s worth mentioning you do have a book coming out [that] explores this project more in depth. And it includes a double LP. So it’s bringing a lot of these elements of your work together. And you worked with many writers and musicians on this project. People like [poet] Fred Moten and [singer and cellist] Kelsey Lu, who contributed sound contributions. How do you view this project, and how did you choose these contributors?
KB: I had wanted to produce a publication as another part, or another extension, on this exploration. I would say if the motor and the sound chamber and that installation is one part, then another part are the sculptural objects that are being produced with cotton. And specifically works that are dealing with certain events that surrounded the acquisition of the motor, the cotton itself, the family reunion, these things.
The publication was another part that I wanted to realize that would incorporate writing and reflection around—I’m going to say this broadly—like, American landscape. But really looking at it through the lens of the work, but then also through music, through certain histories. Whether it’s musicians, or it’s through labor, or it’s through other artists. And then also allowing a group of, I would say, like-minded musicians and artists who really take their practice not just seriously, but they take it with an amount of care that extends beyond just the formalities of it. They really consider social impact, a much broader impact, without sacrificing either. And inviting people to really process this stuff alongside me in the ways that they feel comfortable in.
The audio that the musicians have contributed comes from samples that were pulled from the motor when it was running. And they’ve all created their own compositions with that stuff. Moor Mother, Laurel Halo, Eli Keszler, Jlin. You mentioned Kelsey Lu. Ralph Lemon and Okwui Okpokwasili. Robert [Aiki Aubrey] Lowe. I mean, the list of people is actually really amazing to think about. Because, genre-wise, it’s across the board. Jason Moran. It’s a really remarkable thing to listen to, and how people are approaching this. But as a companion to these texts, you have Thomas Lax, Mark Godfrey, Andy Battaglia, Daphne Brooks, Fred Moten, as you mentioned. Ralph [Lemon] also contributed a text. And all of the ideas that are going into this. Adrienne Edwards. I feel I should name every single person, but I’m leaving them out because it’s going to be too much for me to manage.
I’m interested in how all of these varying ideas around the work, and around these issues in particular, what it looks like. Like, what is that? And maybe from there, there’s a way to better understand what the landscape is. It’s like looking out on the horizon, and making out certain details, and certain things that you know, and other things that you don’t know. The survey is really about that. It’s about trying to continuously look, and continuously build a relationship to it.
So even the ideas that these contributors are bringing to the table around these subjects, I think it’s going to give a view of a landscape. [Laughs] Which is really, maybe not what I imagined was even possible going into this, going down to Alabama, and picking this motor up. But I think that it begins to do that when you give room and space for people to really delve into this little boll, this little budding seed.
SB: And time.
SB: Hearing you describe this, I’m thinking of your resin “slab” works, which are kind of landscapes in their own way. Resin is this way of creating frozen time. And I think, engaging in this idea of void, or what’s not there as much as what’s there. It also speaks to this idea of body and body language that we were talking to. Muscle memory. All of this is embedded in these objects, these slabs. How do you think about resin? And why resin? What effect do you think resin is creating for you as an artist on these works?
KB: It’s a good question, because it’s one that I’m constantly thinking about. The original use of it, for me, was to bond things together, to be able to take these objects that I had some affinity for, and embed them, encase them, preserve them. To be able to coat the surface, or protect the surface, in some way. But then also,[there’s] what it looks like. I’m processing this object. You coat something in resin, you dip it in resin, it drastically changes what that object was, and what it can potentially do. As an industrial material that is used widely, for so many different things that we experience on a daily basis—all kinds of plastics and surfaces and household products—it felt synonymous to a lived life. Something that is—this is something that’s integrated into our existence and our understanding right now.
In a lot of ways, environmentally, it becomes very problematic. So what does that then mean? Because the resin I use very specifically is a polyurethane. And polyurethane, it’s organic. This stuff breaks down over a long period of time—a really long period of time. What is the relationship between this very organic material that goes through a kind of industrial process, and its impact, and its effect on us? For me, it’s the headliner in my dad’s ’74 [Chevrolet] Nova, or whatever. The headliner comes down, and the little stuff drips. The dust puts a coating on your hair, or you sneeze because of it. Or the seat that splits open, and you see the foam underneath it, that polyurethane.
The revealing of that made me feel like, Well, I want this material to be on the surface, and I want it to bond things, and I want it to embed things. And I want to use it in all of these different ways that literally puts you in touch with this other thing that’s very much everywhere. So it feels like, to me, a really common material that I’ve been using. And it’s evolving, I think, how I’m using it, and how I’m thinking about it as a sculptural process with casting, the different shapes that you make, and the different kinds of impressions that it gives. That’s how I’ve been thinking about it for a really long time.
SB: I want to end on an idea that’s sort of a meta way to end, but it’s this idea of repetition and looping. [Laughs] I wanted to loop back to some things you were saying earlier. I mean, so much of what drummers do, D.J.s do, is about repetition and looping. And it’s also a motif, I guess, if I can call it that, in your work.
SB: What role, across time, do you think repetition plays in forming collective memory, in defining our histories, and ultimately, in shaping the planet?
KB: Wow. Well.… [Pauses] Hmmm. There are a few things that come to mind. I think about the difficulty of repeating something over and over in the same way that it originally existed, like [the composer] William Basinski or something. That the loop, even the loop itself, shifts. It slightly changes. And it may be subtle, and it may be almost inaudible, but in the way that it cycles over again, you have the previous time as a marker, and as something that has actually left an impression, so it almost can’t loop in the same exact way.
But what you see is the effect, or the impact, of that. It’s legible. There are consequences. And yeah, I feel like, if I were to apply that to historical events, it’s something that we have to really understand. That it’s not just that, like, “Oh, history repeats itself” kind of thing. It’s more like it comes back around in a different form.
SB: A mutation.
KB: It mutates. And within that mutation, what’s important is that we’re able to develop the muscles to understand how it mutates. So you have to understand maybe what it was in its origin in order to be able to read what the mutations, or the shifts, or the changes are. It’s not really a matter of if it was the same or not; it’s just about its path, or its journey.
And the loop, when you’re listening to it, it’s like, if you don’t know it’s a loop, or if you’re not recognizing it as a loop, then it just feels linear. It doesn’t feel like a loop at all. And loops often do that, because they’re constantly shifting, they’re mutating. They’re not crossing over the lens in the same way every single time, or they’re not doing the same thing every single time.
I think that, even in music, performance, or composition—even when you have the best performer who can render it the same way every single time—it’s still not the same. What I like to think about is, Then what is the repetition, and then what is the loop? That has to go to the core essential of intention, its mission or its goal. What are we trying to accomplish? What are we actually trying to loop? What kind of experience are we actually trying to loop over and over again? Maybe that gets to something. Because then you can then say, “If the physical form of this thing is evolving and changing,” and if you understand what’s driving it, that is potentially where the loop is.
So if I were to use William Basinski as an example, it’s like maybe he’s actually the loop, and not the thing that he’s producing, or the thing that’s coming out of that. Maybe he’s trying to constantly get back to something, and get back to something. The reiteration of the importance of these subtleties, or of time. The insistence on coming back to something over and over and over again, even if the coming back doesn’t yield the same result every single time.
But I don’t think you are able to understand that unless there is time. Time passes, and you’re able to then reassess, or understand, again, this accumulation, the subsequent residue, or whatnot.
SB: Kevin, this was amazing. Thanks for coming in. Really, really enjoyed it.
KB: Thanks for having me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on May 11, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by our managing director, Mike Lala, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.