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From Tina Turner to Vivaldi, Nikita Gale is Making the Familiar Uncanny

The LA-based artist is known for turning performance on its head. Gale's upcoming Performa commission promises to continue the tradition.

By Makayla Bailey

October 25, 2023

Nikita Gale, PRIVATE DANCER (2021). Installation view at the California African American Museum, photo by Elon Schoenholz.

“When I make most of my work, I’m thinking about who will feel authorized and acknowledged by [it] and who might feel alienated by it,” explains Nikita Gale.

The LA-based performance and installation artist has become known for weaving together whispers, screams, political speeches, the music of Tamia and Tina Turner, and even the sounds of cats and dogs in an expansive art practice that takes its inspiration from the dazzling spectacle of commercial live music performance. Rupturing spectacle, Gale’s work lies in breaking things down into their constitutive parts, retaining some recognizable elements of performative experience and eschewing others in favor of something uncanny, yet familiar.

Take Gale’s performance, AUDIENCING, which debuted at MoMA PS1 in February 2020. It inverted nearly every preconceived notion of what constitutes live music performance: the audience became the focus as everyone sat facing each other in a circle of chairs. Instead of a performer, a sound system played a program of bent and amplified pop sounds. Searing stage lights careened around the room underneath the vaulted metal armature of a large commercially-produced stage, creating an atmosphere that blended elements both familiar and strange. According to Gale, each performance felt different depending on who was there and being in the room transformed into something more than spectatorship. As the artist wielded sound, light, duration, and intensity to craft a scenario ripe for a rapid, continuous exchange between attention, performativity, power, and control, viewers became active “audiencers.” For in Gale’s sonic universe, you’re just as likely to find yourself underneath, within, or as part of a stage as in front of one.

Next month, Gale will continue the work of creating carefully-crafted spectacle with OTHER SEASONS, the artist’s first live performance featuring musicians, set to debut on November 4 at the 2023 Performa Biennial in New York City. In it, Gale will play with noise and silence, distance and closeness, describing the commission as one that will “manipulat[e] the audience’s felt experience of space using volume.”

Installation view, Nikita Gale: END OF SUBJECT, 52 Walker, New York, 2022, courtesy 52 Walker, New York.

Before electrifying the art world, Gale was heavily involved in the late noughties music scene in east Atlanta. Coming of age in the Obama-era with “all of the Black genre-bending kids,” Gale took photographs of live music performances, made album covers, and attended underground parties. Spending a lot of time backstage gave Gale the ability to create images that deal with Blackness and performance, and gained the artist entrée into a burgeoning scene filled with young creatives like Bosco, Spree Wilson, Proton, and the late DJ Speakerfoxxx. 

In a phone interview earlier this month Gale quickly connected work from this time period with key parts of the artist’s practice now, describing an ongoing interest in grappling with representation and examining the boundaries between live performance and the images that circulate after. The artist professes an intense interest in what it means to be seen, in “the space between a human body in front of you performing and the image that gets created out of that performance.” 

Music runs deep for Gale–the artist’s own mother was in Ebony Explosion, a funk group that opened for The SOS Band, imbuing Gale with an early appreciation for bombastic performance styles. Gale also credits the experience of consuming a range of music media—from live shows to CDs and promotional content—as a key part of what connected the artist to the outside world as a kid. “[It’s] something so many people experience and participate in that [making work about media], it’s almost a no-brainer for me,” Gale explains. Growing up in the 1980’s, the artist recalls what it was like to construct a young identity while having access to fewer images and representations of Blackness in media, lamenting the “limited options for what I could be.” “The menu” at that time, as Gale muses, included “cyborg-like” superstars Janet Jackson and Tina Turner, who churned out “highly produced and controlled images of themselves” to accompany their sonic output. Still, Gale identified as “nerdy and into computers” and didn’t see many representations of Black women outside of the house. This dissonance continues to forge the broad questions Gale has been grappling with for the past 15 years, and the artist’s interest in a particular mode of engagement: paying attention. 

Installation view of Nikita Gale's Ruiner VIII (2021), photo by Joerg Lohse, courtesy of the artist.

“Paying attention” is a deceptively simple phrase that Gale employs intentionally, seeking to move away from an ableist framework that privileges one specific sense as the way to experience a work of art, such as watching, or listening. Paying attention unearths many complexities. For one, in the art world, investigating Black performativity often means engaging primarily white audiences. For Gale, this brings up questions. “What does it mean to be seen?” the artist queries. Often, Gale turns to two iconic performers, Tina Turner and Beyoncé, to unpack the tensions between public and private selves. Central to Gale’s interest in both is their use of alter egos; with each, there’s “some understanding that it’s a performance, and it’s not actually who you are off the stage,” the artist muses. Gale continues, animatedly detailing how Tina Turner was “constantly talking about the artifice of the entire thing, how it’s a performance, and she’s an actress,” and “Beyoncé has Sasha Fierce, which feels like that boundary between the human person and the image.” 

These days, viewers have grown increasingly accustomed to feeling impossibly close to performers. Even the way we hear sound, the artist expresses, is often based on an approximation of closeness: in live music, acoustic accuracy is often less important than falsifying an environment where sound feels like it emanates from mere feet away from the listener. But what does it actually sound like when someone is singing or playing an instrument from 100 feet away, without amplification? 

OTHER SEASONS, Gale’s Performa project, will take these questions of distance and perception as core themes. Working with the Unsung Collective, an almost entirely Black music ensemble based in Harlem and Los Angeles-based musical director Lisa Liu, Gale will unravel and reconstitute Antonio Vivaldi’s 1723 concertos, “The Four Seasons.” The performance will destabilize the audience’s perceived origin of sound by playing with distance, duration, and authorship. Gale will intersperse pop music with the original melodies, injecting the atmosphere with a sense of ostranenie or “making-strange.” Here “the season” becomes a framing device for attention and media: think seasons of TV, of theater, and the lowest hanging fruit according to Gale: Vivaldi’s iconic concertos, a metaphor for the season as an increasingly intense and arbitrary unit of measure in modern times. In the words of Kathy Noble, Senior Curator at Performa, “due to climate change, what was once predictable is now often quite chaotic.”

wo concrete columns lit by a warm yellow hue stand in the center of a mostly empty room. On the right hand side a thick curtain occupies around 10% of the frame. On the ceiling, small bits of scaffolding seem to hold up the columns and the two lights that shine down on them. Various aluminum pans lay on the floor and another object hangs in the background on the left hand side.
Installation view of Nikita Gale: IN A DREAM YOU CLIMB THE STAIRS (2022), Chisenhale Gallery, London, photo by Andy Keates, courtesy of the artist and Chisenhale Gallery.

Musically, Gale has compared Vivaldi to a pop star, characterizing the composer’s work as “bombastic, baroque, an ultimate attempt at representing something as ephemeral as weather.” Because all of the movements in “The Four Seasons” are fairly short, with durations equivalent to modern songs, it functions as “really early, proto-pop,” according to Gale.  “At the time that he was making music, I would imagine that if someone had heard the third movement ‘Summer’ for the first time, I feel like their head would have practically exploded. It’s such an intense piece of music.”  

In just under an hour, OTHER SEASONS will weave modern pop songs into a recomposition of Vivaldi’s work, and alter key components (such as choral, strings, wind, and percussive elements), alternating between acoustic and amplified sonic experiences. Likewise, Gale hopes to draw on the artist’s own experiences at concerts by recreating the feeling of hearing a sound system glitch or go out.  “You hear what the person actually sounds like without the amplification,” Gale notes. “It’s almost like a weird kind of whiplash happens.” This “whiplash” is meant to mirror the modern experience of shifting seasonality, which, once stable, now exists in a matrix of uncertainty, dread, and rapidly changing weather systems.

Though dependent on individual experience, listening—and more broadly, paying attention—is ultimately a collective process. “We listen to things differently. We experience things differently,” Gale professes. Perception of sound creates a temporary reality for viewers, which Gale exploits. “Even if you’re in the same space, listening to the exact same thing or watching or experiencing the exact same thing, it produces a number of different results. And a lot of that also is reliant on who else is in the room with you.”