Nicole Miller’s multimedia installation at the Kemper is built on Black St. Louis voices
Step through the light-blocking curtains into Nicole Miller's installation at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, and it takes several seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dark room.
Three large monitors intermittently display bits and pieces of a film showing bodies in motion: dancers, circus performers. On the wall behind the screens, laser light occasionally bursts into view to spell out abstract designs and words like “Now” and “Here.”
The walls are lined with 24 speakers that transmit a dense soundscape of voices and music.
The voices are those of St. Louisans of color. Miller conducted the interviews last year for the multimedia installation “A Sound, a Signal, the Circus,” on view at the Kemper through July 25.
“I tried to ground the conversation in them just talking about themselves and what their lives are like, but then bringing the conversation back to this idea of what it feels like to be alive,” Miller said. “I really wanted to see how people responded to that very big question. And in particular, what it feels like to have a body.”
Miller said there is power in the experience of hearing people of color talk about life and death, and feeling comfortable in their own bodies — while not actually seeing them.
“I hope that the viewers who come into the space really start to reconsider the kinds of hierarchies they've held and their perspectives as to whose bodies it's important to consider right now,” Miller said. “The withholding in the space, of not seeing the bodies that are being talked about, can help them sort reconsider their relationship to them in a different way.”
Viewers will see dancers and circus performers Miller filmed in Las Vegas. The crucial sound element came from her 2021 interviews with St. Louis residents including students, members of the Circus Harmony troupe, poets Treasure Shields Redmond and Precious Musa, Washington University professor Geoff Ward and Kirven and Antonio Douthit-Boyd, the co-artistic directors for dance at CoCA.
Sound designer John Somers wove the voices of 22 St. Louisans into the 45-minute soundscape.
“This is designed to be playful,” Somers said, “and to have people explore the space and experience different sound elements depending on where they are in the room at different times.”
In some of the 24 speakers, the voices of participants are clearly audible. In others, Summers’ original music and sound elements predominate.
The piece gets at weighty matters of life and death, as interview participants answer Miller’s questions about what it means to be alive. But the degree of playfulness seen in the film attracted Musa, one of the poets heard in the soundscape.
“I just love that. I love watching Black people play. Because I don’t think that’s a state we’re allowed a lot, right? It’s always something. It is always something that’s preventing us from that play,” she said.
Musa will lead a series of poetry workshops related to the installation. She’ll team with Edil Hassan on a workshop for middle school students at the Griot Museum of Black History on May 7; Musa will lead a session for high school students at the Griot on June 11; and she’ll partner with Lillian Gardner on a workshop for adults at the Kemper on July 16.
The Kemper commissioned “A Sound, a Signal, the Circus,” which builds on Miller’s earlier work mixing sound and light to highlight the experiences of people of color in the U.S.
Her 2016 piece “Athens, California,” seen at the California African American Museum, featured video interviews with young students of color augmented with laser design by longtime collaborator Zak Forrest. Forrest also authored the lasers in the Kemper installation.
“To The Stars,” a 2019 piece commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is a film that interpolated comments from young people of color talking about racism and an interview with Yvonne Cagle, who is one of six Black women to serve as a NASA astronaut.
Miller said she is fundamentally a filmmaker but looks for ways to merge that interest with the world of fine art.
“As a Black filmmaker, as a woman, I felt like my demographic had kind of been left behind [in the film industry] but that maybe the art world would offer this new opportunity to make a different kind of moving image — where one could consider the subjects and the work in a different way than they generally have been considered in film history or in cinema,” she said.
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