An Excuse for People to Sit in a Room Together

Interview / April 2023

An Excuse for People to Sit in a Room Together: Jacob Barnes in Conversation with Nick Klein
by Jacob Barnes

I first came to know of Nick Klein’s work through artists Allan Gardner and Jack Kennedy. Nick performed a set at the opening of the pair’s exhibition Spectre of Paradise in Berlin, an event around which we spoke at length about each other’s work; what had shaped it and where it was going. We found that we shared much in common; a distaste for the casual, corporate artifice in which the art world peddles, along with a passion for building and maintaining communities. With Nick’s solo exhibition at Sara’s in New York immenent, I sat down with the Miami-born interdisciplinary artist to put some of these thoughts to paper before he settled in Chinatown for the next month:

Jacob Barnes: Let’s start from today and work backwards: Your upcoming show at Sara’s in New York. What’s the show? What’s happening, and what’s the intention behind it?

Nick Klein: The show at Sara’s is called Bring the Flowers to the Theatre; it’s the inaugural exhibition of Sara Blazej new space in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The show centres around a big stage/sculpture, with billboard-esque sculptures around it. Using that stage and the billboards, we’re doing activations in the space six to seven days a week, subsequent documentation and archiving of the events. We have performances, we have lectures, we have classes, we have community organising events, political grassroots organisations, and everything in between.

I’ve known Sara for a really long time, and when we were in our very early twenties, we were living in Miami and wanted to start a project space, but we didn’t really know what that meant at the time. Now this opportunity came up and I knew I had to do it. I wouldn’t usually be able to do a show like this in New York. This is more the kind of thing you see at a Kunsthalle in Europe. The fact that we get to do it in Manhattan, with such a rich plethora of people to invite to activate the space, is a complete blessing.

As a project, it really revolves around aurality as an access point. I think that people in contemporary art (on an industrial level) don’t know what to do with sound, because sound has such a wildly democratic potential. Obviously, it has a rich history, but its potential for accessibility and democracy acts as a kind of liberation from the modalities that contemporary art tends to function in. As a result, sound is always put into a funny, offset box. This show connects a lot of dots in my practice over the years but is gesturing towards a larger discourse or ontology: I think many of my peers are in a strange space where they don’t identify as a painter or a musician or a sculptor or sounds artist (whatever that is); they just embrace a multiplicity to their practice. Hence, the show invites a lot of other people that are existing in that interstitial space to demonstrate their practice.

JB: I’m really interested in the language that is set to develop between the democracy of sound and the democracy of the space as you intend to use it — it’s starting with a principle and then growing it. Can you say more about that?

NK: Well, it’s not without its flaws and its inconsistencies. And it’s a project; it’s not a set work. I’ve found it really, really, frustrating over the last fifteen years that there was a constant need to compartmentalise or compress practices in the ways that we see or understand them. I understand that there are institutional imperatives for that, that there are market imperatives for that. But none of those things are really important to me and my friends, you know? I’m critical of many the discourses that have emerged around sound art, but it remains this incredible vessel — it’s an excuse for people to sit in a room together, and really that’s what I’m interested in. There seems to be so much work today that relies on a contrived perception of rarified genius, or on recourse to an atomised and isolated human condition. This was really about people entering a room together and trying to have a conversation.

Also, it just so happens that because of the hurdles in contemporary art and its inaccessibility, I and a lot of my friends have been able to hone our artistic practices within subcultures as opposed to contemporary art.  As a result, we’re very familiar with the American DIY and European DIY contexts, which are critical to being able to do something like this. We understand how these spaces are iterated because we’ve spent our lives living in them; we now can just apply it to the contemporary art world.

JB: That’s a good segue to discuss the roots of your practice. Doing something like this takes a clarity of vision that must have taken a while to hone; can you tell me a bit about your background?  

NK: If we go all the way back, I’m the son of two dancers. I grew up in a dance studio, and music was always important. In high school, I went to conservatory music school, and then I had the opportunity to go to art school in Miami. That’s where I met Sara and my best friend artist Miguel Alvariño. Those are two relationships that were super, super formative for me, and they continue on to this day. Then I wasn’t able to continue my studies, and I was in a bind, because I was in my early twenties in Miami having just stopped going to art school. Luckily, I was able to work at galleries all around the city: I would volunteer a lot and I would offset my lack of formal education with being an art handler.

Doing that then took me to New York. There, I really noticed this kind of class differential, where, being the art handler, you don’t have access to the same kinds of information or conversations as someone who graduated from a posh art school. I ended up landing in robust United States DIY noise and club cultures, and they really solved my problems. They solved my issues with contemporary art and became spaces in which I could explore relational questions through things like club nights. Within those democratic spaces you ask if the dancer is important, if the DJ is important, if the bartender is important, and you come to realise that those spaces are created by all of those forces working together. You think about the physicality of volume, and those places solved sculptural issues for me. I leaned into volume; I leaned into the physical presence of performing, and into subverting space to the best of my ability. I started a label in that time with my good friend Miguel, and I’ve been doing it now for almost ten years.

But I always felt like I was approaching it from a different position than “music people.” I never had the concerns that music people had. With that in mind, I decided to go to Europe to get my master’s in sound art because I really didn’t know where else to go, or what to do with myself. I had done a lot of touring with techno. I’d gotten to tour the world, and I’m blessed to have done that, but school allowed me to enter a more academic and theoretical environment. The intention of me having a label was to share friends’ work, to curate it, to disseminate that information, and to create an archive that would grow. Now I was able to apply that thinking in a more structured, thought-out way.

But I’ve known Sara from my days in Miami; she knew me when I used to be the frustrated art handler. It’s an emotional thing to get to do this show, so while it’s technically my solo show, I hope that for the people who participate, it becomes our solo show; a space for them to occupy and express.

JB: I can imagine in some ways it must feel impossible that this is happening. The way you tell that story, it sounds like there were a lot of dead ends you found your way out of.  

NK: Yeah, a lot of dead ends.

JB: But in some ways, it’s like you’ve now been reabsorbed into the academy. After going the long way around, not going through art school and coming up through DIY scenes, you’re now putting on the big Manhattan solo show with a bunch of your friends — you got to the same place in the end.

NK: I mean, it’s weird. I’ve been dreaming of this idea for a very long time. My whole life, essentially. And then once the opportunity came, I knew I had to pursue it. I wanted to reciprocate that support through my network; to give back that appreciation. It’s probably not going to make a huge dent in the machinations of the explicitly capital-driven art markets, but for five weeks, we have this idyllic space, within a major metropolitan environment, which we can cultivate around different imperatives than selling commodities. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we can open up space for conversations that aren’t predicated on that. We can have the zine maker and critic and musician. We can have the painter who wants to do a stand-up comedy routine.

JB: A more practical question: living in Europe, much of this show is the product of thinking within a European context, where you can extrapolate strategies from publicly funded arts programs and the like. Do you have any concerns about how that thinking lands within an American context? Or is that a non-issue, being American yourself?

NK: There was always this folklore of, like, “If you go to Europe [as an artist], you’re going to get fed the best, then you’ll be put up in a hotel, and you’ll get a good fee when you play in this or that…,” or other some sort of other romantic thing. I remember someone telling me ‘Oh, we were put up in a villa for three days and we swam in the hot springs!’ And of course this takes from a European context, where not only was there support for these kinds of projects, but there was a generosity of spirit that differentiated art from more capitalistic demands. However, even within Europe there has been an erosion of the social support systems that allow artists to do these kinds of projects. It’s not entirely gone, but neo-liberalism is doing its best to do away with it.

But what the US has that Europe doesn’t is excess space that really allows you to get creative. Sure, we didn’t have music funds or grants or something that we could get from our states, but we had excess space and some guy’s brother, who could build stuff and drive around. When I think about this kind of project in the US, I realise that we had this all along. The only problem is individual projects don’t last because they can’t; things always change.

I just hope the project is successful on its own terms; if we can get greater funding to better compensate everyone, then that’s a plus too.

JB: Is there anything we haven’t spoken about?

NK: I guess I really want to drive home that I love that we’re just getting together in some capacity. The doors are open. It’s a place of production and sharing and exchange.

JB: That’s an impetus that I’m really attracted to, and I find really interesting. I’m consistently drawn to art because it’s an opportunity to stand around things or within spaces and just exist within it with other people. The thing one does with art is experience it, and that act is best realised and memorialised around other people. Honestly — are we speaking off the record? — I think we need to acknowledge that everything else besides being together is totally useless. Not to be unduly morbid, but we’re all slowly dying, and we all die alone. And that just something we need to acknowledge when we consider experiencing art with others–

NK: Don’t leave this off the record.

JB: The very nature of existing is incredibly bizarre, and if you’re not sharing that with someone, it’s kind of wasted. It’s just pointless, because no one knows what they’re doing, and the only way we learn how we want to be in the world is by learning from others. It’s such a thrill to be enthralled by ideas, to just hang out, or decide to give wild things a shot. It’s honourable to put together a space where you can’t hide from others, and you revel in that vulnerability.

NK: Yeah, I like that there’s this huge capacity for failure here, but that’s not the right word. Failure is not the right word. It’s that feeling of failure, which is necessary at that level of sharing and exchange. You have this raw vulnerability and I think that within contemporary art, that’s not there. Also, when you flip through the pages of a magazine, the power is not usually in one article. The power comes from juxtaposing one piece with another piece, and that friction and multiplicity creates an intellectual variability that I think is very profound. The fact that we do that in person with this project feels really, really good.

JB: I don’t think it’s necessarily that contemporary cultural institutions or venues don’t allow space for that collectivity, but instead that the nature of art as commodity forecloses on the possibility of that connectivity because you can’t sell a community. One of the things that I really love about what you and Sara are doing is that you’re fearlessly shoehorning what art can and should be into an ostensibly commercial context. You’re kind of saying, “Fuck you; if you want to buy it, buy it. You can have it. That’s not the point, because the point is the process.”

NK: If we can take this one sliver of time to redirect the architectural functionality or the context of a space, that’s what I want. As depressed and as miserable as I am on a daily basis — and you can leave that in — I live for these moments where we have a moment to reassess how art can make living a better experience. If I have any hope in this world, it’s that in these moments we are creating a little bit better of a situation, even if it’s just for these hours or days or weeks. It’s a version of reality that I love.

Image Credits:

Image 1: Courtesy of Nick Klein; Photo by Joanna Chwilkowska
Image 2: Courtesy of Nick Klein; Photo by Conor Williams