Shaking the Museum: Kevin Beasley

by Jenny Schlenzka


One year ago Kevin Beasley shook up the Museum of Modern Art in New York—literally. Just out of grad school the artist presented his sound performance, I Want my Spot Back, for which he processed voices of dead Hip Hop rappers and transformed them into bloodcurdling wails blasting through the entire Museum’s Atrium. For this interview Beasley returned to the space with one of the curators of the performance, Jenny Schlenzka, to reflect on what happened.


JENNY SCHLENZKA: We are standing in the MoMA Atrium, the scene of the crime, so to speak, where you…

KEVIN BEASLEY: Where the blood was spilt.

JS: Yes, where you performed I Want My Spot Back almost exactly one year ago. How would you describe the piece to someone who wasn’t there?

KB: I performed as part of Ralph Lemon’s, Some sweet Day series, which he had conceived for the MoMA Atrium. The performance consisted of me mixing “acapellas” from early-to-mid-Nineties deceased rappers. It was a project I’d been working on for probably about a year and it kind of culminated here—in its best iteration—because it was a real physical exploration, even in the way I was trying to gather the music or gather the sounds, and what I was thinking about in terms of where the sort of body is in these voices and these spaces. Doing it in this space allowed for all of that to be extrapolated because of its cavernousness. It was kind of crazy, I remember Ralph saying, when we were walking to do the first performance, Ralph was like, “I’m scared, man.” [laughs]

JS: What was so scary about it?

KB: The fact that it was so loud and so obtrusive. From an earlier iteration, I knew people were really struggling with the aggressive nature of the tracks. They were all a cappella versions, but the way I had expanded and extracted the frequencies and the different layers within those vocals made it very powerful. In order to hear and feel it that way, it just needed to be amplified that much and the Atrium is a transition space, people are passing through. The Edvard Munch Scream had arrived as a special loan in the Painting and Sculpture Galleries that week, so people were mainly coming for that—not expecting this very overt sound from which they couldn’t escape.

JS: I remember the sound penetrating everything; my body, the space, the walls, the adjacent galleries, the windows and skylights were shaking. It was very overwhelming. Were you aware of the audience reactions during the performance?

KB: There was constant movement happening, that I caught in my peripheral vision. Once, towards the end, I noticed that the group of people had really thinned out. People were kind of like, “okay, I’ve had enough” [laughs]. I’m also in the center of it, it’s really visceral for me too, but I was working to try to maintain that feeling for myself as it was happening, because I’m trying to reinvent it as it happens.

JS: With the live mixing?

KB: Yes, there is a lot of pre-production in this piece, a lot of manipulation and moving frequencies and things around. But the live performance is really the opportunity for me to expand and dig deeper, changing the pitches, controlling things with my hands—I didn’t have a given set list. There was the first track which was this Biggie interview and then there are a couple parts that I kind of wanted to do something with. In Tupac’s Smile there’s a part where Scarface says, “And now a moment of silence, let us pray.” From that moment on, I kind of reel in all the other sounds and honor whatever is in the track. But it’s always evolving, I don’t know when that’s going to come and if and how it’s going to happen, what’s going to be layered. It’s like being a club DJ, you have your tracks, but when you are mixing them you have to react and respond to the moment.

JS: How did you start making the work?

KB: Initially, it came from this interest in speaker building. I started DJing and it made me get back into Hip Hop; like Biggie, Gang Starr, Big L, and Tupac, something I grew up with. I was very interested in actually just playing with it (Hip Hop) and it made so much sense to me, because at the time I was making objects; to me it was beyond just dance or meeting a crowd, it was another tool that I had in my studio and I was really interested in really thinking about: like what is my relationship to this music? How has it shaped me? I think that that sort of questions made me say, “well, maybe I should just go back to it in a way, and try to explore what it was in the music that I was so drawn to.” I was very into P Diddy, he did a lot of really amazing stuff in terms of production, obviously the whole Death Row thing was really—the way like gangster rap on the West Coast was just very sort of definitive and broke out. I then said, “okay, what is the most sort of human bodily thing in all of these tracks?” And that’s their voices, their presence. So I just started searching for a cappella tracks and I got really interested in listening to the breathing in between, like Biggie was a heavy breather you know [laughs].

JS: You were interested in the breathing?

KB: [laughs] I felt, “I should really listen to that and see if I can extract the low frequencies from just his breathing”; and then I started to slow the tracks down. (In the past) I had a drum teacher who told me, “You know, if you want to become a better drummer, then you should play everything really slowly to understand time, to understand the feel of something.” I guess that was just kind of a natural thing for me, to slow the music and these voices down and then it gets into the actual recording devices, into the production, the timbre and the quality of the voice, the quality of the instruments being used to record. That also interested me, because of the high production values of this rap from the early-to-mid-Nineties—the golden age of rap.

JS: In anticipation of the series, we talked a lot with Ralph Lemon about the Atrium as the big empty white cube at the heart of the temple of modern art and his idea of infiltrating it with what he calls “blackness.” He never explicitly said so, but I always understood that as a political act in itself. Did it feel like that to you?

KB: It wasn’t initially important for me, when I was first developing the work, but bringing it here it was so blatant and obvious to me that [laughs] – I thought “alright, so I have to deal with that.”

JS: Deal with what?

KB: With the fact that the intention of putting me here was to draw some type of attention to this idea of “blackness” and where it exists inside of art, inside of culture, how we sort of define it, how it moves, how it shapes and how it can change, and also how people respond to it. Even though it’s not so much about—ha! This is tough—it’s not so much about race as much as about a kind of, as Ralph said, “a kind of acting out” or maybe a sort of…

JS: A sort of aesthetics?

KB: Aesthetics, yeah, and it became very apparent: there is a lot of friction. I’m playing alterations of rap music that are very aggressive, and very violent at MoMA, which is—especially in the Atrium—a very sterilized environment. The first time we actually came to this space to look at it, one of the first things Ralph said was “this is your audience.” I paused, I looked around, and very few people were speaking English, and there were very few black people walking around.

JS: You mentioned earlier that Ralph told you he was scared, right before the first performance. I remember him being very worried about the piece being too loud and aggressive, that it would get shut down. Did you intend the work as an attack?

KB: That wasn’t the intention. For me it was a matter of necessity. During the rehearsal we were asking for more speakers, to make sure there were no pockets where people could escape, because that kind of immersion could allow people to hear and feel what I was trying to do, like exploring something within that space.

JS: But some people did perceive it as an aggression. We received a lot of complaint notes from visitors that day.

KB: The most angry letter said, “Never let Kevin Beasley in the building ever again, Jesus Christ people!” [both laugh] You know, when I first saw them I thought, “where is the positive letters?”

JS: Were you disappointed?

KB: I wish I could have answered, “you should spend more time with it”; or “maybe we should talk”; or “you should hear it again”; or something. I feel that there is something missed in those letters. I can’t expect everyone to feel the same way or to even have the same response. The negative responses come from people’s own personal histories. I’m still trying to chew on the kind of letters where people were saying like, “it ruined my experience of the rest of the museum,” because I think that gets deeper into what their expectations are of the museum, and how they view this space, and how the structure of the space helps to perpetuate that.

JS: Most of the other work you have been making manifests itself in sculptures. How does sound play into that?

KB: Yes, I am mainly doing sculptures, but sound for me is just as physical, tactile and experiential as any other material, and there is also an equal amount of play, if not more. With this piece, sound was being translated into another kind of material and then came back out through this very physical experience; through dancing, through reverberations in the floor and the wall. I find this very interesting because it’s another material I can use to help understand myself and my environment: where am I located, where are other people located in relationship to me? It helps me bridge social aspects, like “how can I understand someone else through this kind of material?” and “how can they understand me through it?” For me, this gets into art making in general.


Originally published on Mousse 41 (December 2013-January 2014)


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