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 NickCaveArt.com 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.
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.