Trash Thought and the Work of Nick Cave

In Spring 2016 I presented this at the UC Irvine Visual Arts Conference, illustrated by a rolling set of images of Nick Cave’s stunning soundsuits (see or search online). Cave’s work has always given me courage. Today, I was reminded of it on my way to the #NoBanNoWall protests at Los Angeles Intl. Airport. From inexpressible collisions of injustice and anger—with vulnerability and courage—can come combinations of loving intention, beauty and unfailing surprise.  

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Soundsuits have been at the center of Nick Cave’s artistic practice for more than 20 years. Some are purely sculptural. Others are meant to be worn and performed. Both familiar and alien, exuberant and arresting, these creaturely amalgamations begin from cast-off materials—old sweaters, rugs, mechanical toys, ceramic tchatchkes, reams of buttons—even voodoo dolls and sock monkeys. We could say that Cave is upcycling discarded materials, turning trash into something of quality—and he is. But where does that transformative potential come from, and how far does it extend? I’d like to propose that moment of transformation as trash thought. 

The type of trash I’m talking about is something that has been disconnected from its original context of use and thus lost its originally intended value. The buttons from a moth-eaten coat. The doily crocheted by a great-great-aunt whose memory today leaves no trace. Trash is a leftover, a remainder from a time, place or situation no longer relevant.

Trash is never completely without value, but that value isn’t durable or apparent, and this contingency opens it up to refusal. Usually, we just try to get rid of it. We refuse the refuse.

This means that trash doesn’t command much of a price. To be clear, “value” is not the same as “price,” though in our market-driven culture, the two are easily conflated. Value is qualitative, while price is quantitative. I’m speaking broadly, not only about artworks but also about coffee and cigarettes and rent. In practice, we constantly translate the quantitative into the qualitative. Is $20 a good price or a bad price? The number alone doesn’t tell us. But in a given context, we translate that fixed object into something that begins to sound like judgment or even belief—good, bad, wonderful, horrible. An objective number becomes laden with subjective emotion and meaning. That process of translation from quant to qual bleeds beyond economics into other realms.

Anthropologist David Graeber argues that it’s no coincidence that we use the same word—value—across economic, sociological and linguistic registers.(1) The notion of economic value conveyed by price slides into the sociological sense of value (what’s good or desirable in human life) and the sense of linguistic value (essentially the construction of meaningful difference). Value is not simply economic. And so the idea of “trash” cannot be simply material.

What do you value? How much do you value it? The answers will direct energy and attention to distinguish what’s trash from what’s not. We’re all doing this, from moment to moment, consciously and unconsciously. No one apprehends everything. We reject or let some things slip away while we grasp on to others. A thing that you decide has no value has no claim on your energy and has no hold on your attention. A thing with no value is a thing with no audience.

By responding to context, value judgments in turn create context. Where do our evaluations of trash out there begin if not from our evaluations in here? Freud dubbed the stuff of dreams “day residue,” dreams being a process of sorting the meaningful from the meaningless—working out what we need in order to construct a tolerable sense of reality and letting go of the rest. Forgetting can be a form of putting out the trash thought. How we work out meaning internally, of course, shapes our sense of our own value as human beings. Which brings me back to Nick Cave.

The Messenger

In 1992, Cave had just finished his MA at Cranbrook and moved to Chicago to teach. That was the year that four white police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King, setting off the L.A. Riots. Cave was profoundly unsettled. Sitting one day in  Millennium Park, he noticed a twig. He recalls that he saw it as something discarded, dismissed, like litter—viewed, as he put it, as less than, which connected to how he was feeling about himself as a black male in U.S. society. Was he valued? Was he more than a racial profile?

He picked up the twig, then gathered more, went into the studio and three weeks later had a sculpture. At first, he thought of that sculpture as a sort of armor. Only after completing it did he think about putting it on, and once he did, it made sound. It struck him as being something about protest—to be heard, to make a noise; to be seen while obscuring what’s most obvious about identity.

The soundsuit became a way to disrupt the audience’s evaluation. Who is it? What is it? Where does it come from? What is it trying to say? With face obscured and obvious markers of identity overwhelmed by the unexpected, a body in a soundsuit becomes a body beyond easy social evaluation.

For Cave, that was the start of an artistic ambition that touched “multiple fields of power,” weaving personal and communal identity with a broader politics. He began to think of himself differently, as an artist with a humanitarian sensibility—a “messenger.” Today, Cave often works collaboratively in community art residencies, where he says he aims “to make everyone feel relevant.”

Relevance is another word for value. Relevance is another way of saying that you are heard, seen and not forgotten. Upcycling materials isn’t simply a reclamation of stuff. Embedded in his art practice, Cave models reconstitution of value that extends beyond materials to participants and audiences. He demonstrates that finding value in what has been discarded is a skill not simply about making things but necessary to making ourselves.

I suggest that our consideration of trash begins with what we have rejected about ourselves and—by extension—others and the horizon of our possible worlds. Dreams hold clues, as do those themes that recur. The object that captivates. The idea that won’t let you go. Trash thought may lead to idioms that upcycle literal trash into art objects, but—more fundamentally—it traces how we reassess perceptions of possibility, transforming abject shadows through the investment of our own fascinations and desires.

That investment also begins to move materials and their associated ideas that had been prematurely silenced or stilled. Cave’s art moves objects relegated to a dusty secondary market of thrift shops and antique malls back into circulation in the market of ideas and experiences. Doilies become ritual medallions. Little Black Sambo dolls push us to think again about how racism is insuated in the everyday. An abacus becomes a face that speaks beyond calculation. These revalued materials bring previous lives with them—haunted with humane presence. We see that alien is not alienated.

The vector that transforms trash into something of value—something that might be associated with “quality”—is not in the material but rather in its shadow: something rejected, perhaps uncomfortable, finds representation. Trash thought upsets the very value assumptions that deemed something forgettable in the first place. Trash thought can spur new art objects and, as Graeber puts it, create new universes of value.

Trash thought is that moment when we recognize that we are missing something. It stops us to reconsider what we or others have dismissed, not simply in the material but by extension within ourselves—alone and in community, in solitude and in solidarity.


Bolton, Andrew, et al. Nick Cave: Epitome. New York: Prestel USA. 2014. Print.

Cave, Nick and Marilyn Sylla. “Exotic Muses: Dancers by Robert Henri and Nick Cave.” Video. Mead Art Museum, Amherst, MA. 27 Apr. 2012. Web. 11 June 2013.

Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. New York: Palgrave. 2001. Print.

Juxtapoz. “Nick Cave: A Blanket Statement.” April 2016. Print.

Roffe, Jon. Abstract Market Theory. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2015. Print.

Begin By Degree

This is a shorter, revised version of my piece from in|DECISIVE|form, a collection by some of my CalArts Aesthetics & Politics colleagues. Watch the recorded presentation below (about 14 min.) or head over to Medium to read the text version (which Medium says should take you 7 min. — the mouth is half as fast as the eyes).

With particular gratitude to Martín Plot, founder of the CalArts Aesthetics & Politics program and wise guide through the thesis process. 

Your Libido Will Do the Looking

"In the Land of Retinal Delights" by Robert Williams
“In the Land of Retinal Delights” by Robert Williams

We’re at a cultural moment struggling to find our way out of false dilemmas: action-reaction, domination-submission, high-low, either-or … they’re all two faces of the same coin. What’s the third thing? What’s the next-order idea? The “and” that changes the conversation completely?

In art, look to Robert Williams’ “Rubberneck Manifesto,” a profoundly honest perspective that gets to the psychic reality of experiencing art in our times. No more high and low. Just what speaks to your eye, mind and soul.

I quote and re-quote the bolded bits below. First published in 1989, it’s more relevant than ever.

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What is the worth of observation? Beyond the practical use of the eye for functioning successfully in everyday life what are these values of simply seeing interesting things and enshrining them as art?

Nietzsche saw art as man’s struggle against negative social forces by use of the imagination, which he considered a product of pure ego. Art for him was the highest form of clear lucid thought, a tool for the good. Schopenhauer envisioned art as a device of pleasure. Tolstoy viewed art as propaganda and Oscar Wilde held to a doctrine of “art makes life,” meaning art is sometimes more real than reality.

But there exists another factor and here is where I state my dictum, this is the act of simply being attracted to something visually, base curiosity! The purest form of art is to give way to simple visual interest. To look at what you find yourself driven to see. Higher notions of art tend to confine art with lofty moral restrictions. When art is passed off as a quasi-religion which can only be administered and interpreted by a special-order of priestly elites, the system invariably stifles imagination — even when the art is as liberal as blobs, slashes and spatters. Art that has to serve as the instrument of artistic revolution is limited by having to react to a greater force in a continual hope of some overthrow, hence becoming the tool of reaction. Even the great revolt is enslaving.

But when all predetermined prejudices are momentarily set aside and you are one of the many at the scene of the horrible accident your libido will do the looking. Something dead in the street commands more measured units of visual investigation than 100 Mona Lisas. It isn’t what you like; it’s what the fuck you want to see! Art is not the slave of decoration. Hail the voyeur, the only honest connoisseur!!!

from Visual Addiction: The Art of Robert Williams, San Francisco: Last Gasp 1989

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Robert Williams Studio

Watch the animated Dream Detective series on YouTube.

Remembering the ? of Janice Porter

Janice Porter | "self portrait"
Janice Porter | “self portrait” | 1970s? (I think Janice did this at RISD)

The odd way news travels today … a task to update a broken link to Janice’s website turned into the discovery that, nearly a year ago, she died. Breast cancer. She’s gone. And — as I look around my house — not gone. Strange how she has been and is with me every day, her work on my walls, never far out of view. Brave strokes, joy with a tinge of terror. A mother of lovingkindness.

1985. Howard Liebhaber (another dear one gone too soon) was teaching Janice and me typesetting on Mergenthaler Linotype machines at Blue Ink. He didn’t know much more than we did, so he spent most of his time napping while Janice and I struggled with Merg ABORT messages. We went dancing, talked over stovetop espressos at her Powderhorn Park apartment, son Jai playing nearby. She was always so far ahead. Immersed in life. Willing to love, however messy, while I was busy shoring up my defenses.

When Howard and I started Smart Set, she gave us “coffee cups laughing.” Twice, as it turned out, after a cleaning crew tossed the original in an overzealous sweep one night. I bawled. With typical off-handed ease, Janice said not to worry. A week later she turned up with a second drawing.

Janice Porter | "coffee cups laughing" | pencil on paper | 8 x 10 | 1985
Janice Porter | “coffee cups laughing” | pencil on paper | 8 x 10 | 1985

But her ease was not easy. After I moved to Boston, we exchanged a few letters: “I’m falling apart, without much free time to do so,” she once wrote. A year later: “Have thrown my hands up in the air about me, my life. … I’m dissembling and assembling me now continually. … I’m also letting my work life break open. … I’m looking at grad school and perhaps college-level teaching, something I think I could enjoy as I grow old…”

She and her family moved to Chico, California, where grad school and teaching at CSU pushed her art to the next place. I followed her exhibitions through her website, but otherwise we fell out of touch. She knew how much her work meant to me, but the ache in my gut, heart, throat says that I wouldn’t mind the chance to tell her one more time.

Janice Porter, 2001
Janice Porter, 2001

Re-reading her letters today, this line strikes me  — especially the question mark planted in the middle: “Interesting how we live with confusion but die (?) with some certainty.” I didn’t think much at the time about that question mark. But I’d like to think that, somewhere inside those parentheses, she’s alive.

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some of the Janice Porter artwork and imagery that accompanies me

video of Janice Porter’s book “Glow”

“Mementos: The Stuff She Carried,” the most recent of many columns by Anthony Peyton Porter, Janice’s husband

Chico News & Reviews Arts Devo tribute to Janice