Meet LA’s Art Community: Nikita Gale Is Thinking About the Politics of Sound and Music

The artist Nikita Gale (selfie by Nikita Gale)

Welcome to the 24th installment of the interview series Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.

This week, I interviewed the artist Nikita Gale. Gale’s work explores the history of protest in fascinating ways, from looking at the role of the barricade to tracing the influences of rock and roll performance. In particular, Gale is interested in the political function of “silence and noise.” “When we speak of sound, we are speaking of touch,” Gale writes. “So when we speak of listening, we are also speaking of being touched and of feeling.”

Gale’s first solo museum exhibition is currently at the California African American Museum (CAAM), though the space is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Titled PRIVATE DANCER, the show provokes new ways of thinking about the “shared experience of music concerts” by creating an “uncanny experience” in which we listen to soundtracks by Tina Turner.

Gale’s work has also been exhibited at MoMA PS1, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), Commonwealth and Council, the Hammer Museum, and other venues. Gale holds a BA in Anthropology with an emphasis in Archaeological Studies from Yale University and earned an MFA in New Genres at UCLA. Gale currently serves on the Board of Directors for GREX, the West Coast affiliate of the AK Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems.

*   *   *

Nikita Gale’s “AUDIENCING” was presented as part of VW Sunday Sessions on February 21, 22, and 23, 2020 at MoMA PS1 (images courtesy MoMA PS1, photo by Maria Baranova)

Where were you born?

I was born in Anchorage, Alaska. My father was an officer in the Air Force, so our family bounced around quite a bit throughout the US for about the first decade or so of my childhood. I really feel like I’m from Georgia; my family moved there when I was nine. I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. Most of my mother’s family is in Georgia, and it’s where I went to elementary, middle, and high school.

How long have you been living in Los Angeles?

I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2014 to attend the graduate art program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). When I first landed here, I lived in this great three-bedroom apartment right behind Underground Museum in Arlington Heights with two LA artists and friends Nina Sarnelle and Abigail Collins. After grad school, I lived in a live/work studio in Inglewood for about two years before moving to Boyle Heights at the end of 2018.

What’s your first memory of seeing art? 

This is a hard one, but if I don’t overthink the distinction between seeing art and immediately recognizing it as art versus seeing art and not recognizing it as art, I’d say my earliest memory was playing on the Noguchi Playscape in Piedmont Park in Atlanta in the early ’90s. My mother is a musician and was a music teacher for most of my childhood, so I was very fortunate that she exposed me to a lot of art and music when I was growing up. She is really into music and art festivals. I remember going to the National Black Arts Festival in Piedmont Park with her every year for what felt like a decade.

Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph?

It depends on what it is, but I generally like to photograph the art that I see if I know I won’t immediately remember the name of the artist. I use my regular, old ass iPhone 6S. Now that most exhibitions and events are taking place online during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve gotten into the habit of making short screen recordings of things that I like, especially Instagram Live events because it’s hard to know if they’ll be archived and made available later or not.

What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year?

I was out of town for most of the part of this year when galleries and museums were still open, but I really enjoyed Postcommodity’s Some Reach While Others Clap at LAXART in January. I was also able to get a socially distanced appointment to view Paul Sepuya’s A conversation about around pictures at Vielmetter Los Angeles, which was such a dreamy and poetic show — exactly what I needed in the midst of a very disorienting and traumatic time. I, unfortunately, didn’t get a chance to see Ja’Tovia Gary’s THE GIVERNY SUITE at the Hammer Museum before the shutdowns, but I am such a fan of her work. I had a chance to see a screening of THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT at AFI Fest late last year, and the Hammer also screened it recently and hosted a really cool talk between Ja’Tovia and Hammer curator Erin Christovale.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

Well, let’s see. This is tough because I’m always reading a couple of things simultaneously. I recently read Toni Morrison’s Jazz; it’s such a brilliant book. As with all of her books, she manages to gracefully weave real historical events into the private and atomized lives of her fictional characters. In this one, she constantly references the Silent Parade of 1917 in New York. That book has really been sticking with me in thinking through my relationships to ideas that relate to the social and political properties of sound and music and how those concepts intersect with black womxns’ subjectivity. I’ve been reading a lot during quarantine. I’m almost done with Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes, which is a tiny but very dense book that I picked up a year ago and am finally finishing (I have one chapter left). Jennifer Doyle led a seminar called “Marxism for Artists through Human Resources” this spring that recently concluded, and we had some really fantastic readings for that class. I think my favorite text from that class was W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction. Epic is the only word I can think of to describe it. I’m slowly poring over that one while continuing to read fiction at night.

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?

I like to see shows with friends but view the work at my own pace and then reconvene to discuss when we leave the show.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a project at Cloaca Projects in the Bay Area that is due to go live in August. My first solo museum show PRIVATE DANCER at the California African American Museum (CAAM) is up, but due to the extended shutdowns, it’s unclear when the museum will be able to open to the public. For the last two years I’ve been organizing Omniaudience, a series of events dedicated to speech and listening with Triple Canopy for their Public Engagement Residency at the Hammer Museum, and this project will be published this summer in the new issue of Triple Canopy. My contribution to the issue is an essay about “River Deep – Mountain High,” a song by Tina Turner and Phil Spector that was a commercial failure at the time of its release in 1966. There are a number of other things in the works, but I’m from the South, so I’m superstitious and don’t want to jinx anything by letting any kittens out of bags too soon.

What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?

我说中文

Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects?

My personal mantra has always been “Desire is data.” What that means to me, is that pleasure isn’t natural; it’s conditioned. So, when I find myself enjoying something, it’s information that I can use as a point of departure for a project. The throughline with most of my work is unpacking that process of conditioning but also trying to have a good time while I’m doing it. I get a lot of inspiration from reading, listening to music, watching videos of Tina Turner performances and Prince guitar solos, and trying to maintain a practice of slowly reading the spaces I inhabit.