Engaging a non-art audience: a conversation with Nari Ward

Nari Ward's
Sun Splashed, Listri Libreria, 2013. Image courtesy of Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM).
Nari Ward's Sun Splashed, Listri Libreria, 2013. Image courtesy of Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM).

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Since the early ’90s, artist Nari Ward has been renowned for his inventive, large-scale sculptures and installations. He has a manner of amassing everyday ephemera and found objects into installations that are larger-than-life, both physically and metaphorically — known for provoking complex thoughts and feeling regarding race, cultural memory, racism, patriotism and socioeconomics.

It’s suiting then, with so much cultural tumult and unrest around us, that Ward will be returning to Georgia for the first time since his solo exhibition, So Called, at SCAD Savannah in 2015. This time he’ll be in Atlanta developing a commission from the college for the Mercedes-Benz Stadium — another installment of his “laces” series, the most notable of which so far has been We The People, which was showcased during the aforementioned solo show last year as well as elsewhere. This time he’ll be creating the phrase “one voice” within the stadium walls, using shoelaces donated by community members. (Interested parties can find out how to participate here.)  

Ward and I discussed this commission as well as other works by phone late last week.

ArtsATL: You chose the phrase “One Voice” some time ago, but I was wondering if you could speak to why you chose that phrase and its importance right now?

Nari Ward: The shoelace pieces are really about the idea of community in regard to a group. At one point, each shoelace belonged to someone, but collectively they make the language for us to communicate, understand and interpret as a group. “One Voice” made sense.

It’s an interesting project. This is my first involvement with a sports arena or element, as an artist. It was a no-brainer. I’ve flirted with the notion of sports’ role within the popular culture in my investigations and creative work before, because part of the way I work is trying to find ways to be inclusive. When bringing in sports, it’s about building an audience and taking them on a creative journey to a critical space. In the case of this piece, I thought a lot about how to to take the expectation of entertainment — that’s what people expect when they go to a sports function — and use it as an opportunity for a critical moment where the audience can be entertained while also thinking more deeply about what the work means.

The found object sensibility is really about finding an everyday object that everyone, regardless of their experience or socio-economic background, can relate to. That creates a starting point for dialogue.

ArtsATL: Absolutely. And there’s a ritualistic element to the modern-day sports arena as a gathering place that makes it an interesting place to put art into play. Especially since it’s a non-traditional art space.

Ward: That was my excitement — the access to an audience who isn’t coming to experience an art journey. In fact, it’s an audience who might have really limited experience with art. That makes for an opportunity to really test out what can happen in that kind of environment.

ArtsATL: Artwork has always had a home in communal gathering spaces — in religious institutions, museums, office spaces and even places of public transport. We never think twice about it in those contexts. But in a major arena, there’s a lot of untapped potential.

Ward: It’s a great idea and something that a lot of sports folks are realizing — the experience of the crowd and audience can be more than just about marketing. It’s about the team still, but we can engage the audience to think about issues beyond sports entertainment.

It’s all about economics. Galleries are economics, too. For the artists to figure out a way to be in a conversation with this audience — a whole community of new eyes — is really exciting. Navigating that common space and figuring out what can be done to engage with this crowd while also what can be done to make things happen outside of that space.

ArtsATL: Yes, and with this being both a football and soccer stadium there’s even greater potential to engage with a lot of cultural groups within Atlanta who participate in these events.

As an artist — what’s your impression of Atlanta? What kind of conversations are you hoping to start here?

Ward: There are a bunch of Atlantas. I was involved in an exhibition at SCAD Savannah, so I was there for good amount of time. Prior to that though, and before going to go see the stadium, I didn’t really know Atlanta apart from the media’s rendering of it. It was always “the South.” Especially since I’m from New York. My perception of Atlanta has become a lot more complex since I’ve been able to spend more time there. It’s an exciting place. Though, if I’m being honest, I’ve still spent more time in the airport than outside of it.

I’m excited to be there to install the work and operating in a community capacity, it’ll give me a much different read of things on the ground.

Installation view of “Nari Ward: Sun Splashed” courtesy of Pérez Art Museum Miami.
Installation view from Nari Ward: Sun Splashed exhibit. Courtesy of Pérez Art Museum Miami.

ArtsATL: What’s your process like after the shoelaces are acquired? Is the community engaged in assembling the work as well?

Ward: That was one of the things that they were excited about, SCAD and myself. The idea behind the laces is engaging the non-art audience, using a material that’s very accessible and even intimate at moments. After all, it’s one of the first things we learn to do that gives us independence as young people — tie our shoes. Very young audiences and adults alike have an experience with this material.

Also, on a rudimentary and creative artistic level, for me, a shoelace is a line. It’s two points connected.

I wanted to figure out how to take this thing that everyone has experience with and either push it into a space where it would be related to a monolith. For example, I did this earlier iteration of the “laces” project called We The People, alluding to the United States Constitution’s preamble. That’s an example of a monolith that’s almost become a platitude that people don’t think about it anymore. I wanted to reinvigorate it by bringing singular experiences to it, just as a memory space. Then the expectation for this text can be shifted into a more personal experience in thanks to the material. It was really aspirational to ask and to see if a rudimentary material could form a concept and, if so, how would it change it and alter the way that we read and interact with the text.

For me, that audience availability made it possible to find ways to get the material from the public. In the past I didn’t get it that way. I would source them from discarded laced shoes but I couldn’t get enough, so I’d get them from second-hand places. SCAD and the stadium are conducting programming to help acquire them from the community. Even tattered or worn ones can contribute.

At some point I’ll come back and make the piece with some community members using donated laces. We’re hoping to get close to 10,000 laces — the more from the community the more energy there will be in the piece.

ArtsATL: You’ve used found materials in a lot of work. What’s the difference to you as an artist when the community is actively engaging with the work by providing the materials as opposed to developing works with pieces you’ve selected yourself?

Ward: I feel a lot more responsibility to the community. I’m bound to the contributors to figure out how to best include them in the process. The pedagogical component of the work changes. The conceptual component is adjusted as well — when I’m collecting something from the street it’s because it engages with the narrative that I’m interested in telling as an artist. With this one, as much as I put things into play there’s a humility to saying, “let’s see what comes in,” and I’ll have to react to them — the colors, the sizes. Here there’s no playbook.

ArtsATL: I appreciate your use of words like ‘playbook’ when the work will be shown in a sports arena.

Ward: [Laughing] That’s funny, I always use the word ‘playbook’ or ‘toolbox’ in reference to things that I can implement artistically. When you’re out of the studio and it’s site-specific those get really thrown off. It’s empowering and scary. Anything could change and you grow from that, but it’s scary because you could fall on your face . . . but still grow. There’s safety in studio practice. You always know what you have on hand to put in play.

Ward installing "We The People."
Ward installing We The People.

ArtsATL: There’s something really beautiful about that trade-off. Usually, it’s the art that affects your audience, but in this instance, you’re letting your audience transform your art. You said in an interview last year that “it was necessary to be a participant in the evolution of an idea.” It’s wonderful that you’re not just making grand statements like that, you’re actively asking the community to participate. Building off of that thought, what are ways you hope to see other artists and communities participating right now?

Ward: There are a bunch of artists doing very interesting stuff already. It needs to continue, these artists collectives engaging with neighborhoods on a grassroots level. The thing about it that’s sort of scary is that it’s become a strategy that a lot of capitalist ventures have taken a hold of. You bring artists into poor communities, they build the community, they build relationships and then suddenly the processes change. Gentrification happens. That’s something that we need to consider, how to hold off of that as much as possible. The artist comes in with new ideas for a community, that’s their strength. But you don’t want to shift that completely.

Artists like Power House Productions in Detroit are a great organization. Rick Lowe at Project Row Houses in Houston, Theaster Gates in Chicago. Things are happening and more needs to, but we need to keep the model in check, to figure out how to humanize things as much as possible and consider that not everyone can live in these neighborhoods and make room for individuals who are at risk of being pushed out. They’re just as relevant. This idea comes with a social sensitivity that’s very important.

ArtsATL: Well, you’ve mentioned how capitalism harnesses artists’ power — how does it feel to make a work for an NFL stadium payed for by Mercedes? I mean, that’s most certainly a capitalist venture.

Ward: You know, this is a complicated question. There’s an artist I love and hate just for this reason, on a very high level: Ai Weiwei. He’ll make a really powerful work about refugees or his own land in China and at the same time partner with a Mongolian billionaire on a project. Things are so complicated now that there’s no reason not to get involved in grassroots efforts while still working with a power structure on something that might be tangential or unrelated.

The fact is, if you get power as an artist, the power shouldn’t only be used to shout into the system. It should be used to work within it and figure out how to adjust it or bridge it for other possibilities. It’s not good enough now to be the angry, outspoken and scary artist standing outside of the house. It’s much more dangerous for the system to be the complicated artist operating inside. When the mischief maker is brought inside the house and given a position within it, they can’t walk away from you. They feel a connection to you. That’s how change happens.

We have to use the connectedness to change what’s around us without changing ourselves.

ArtsATL:  What else are you working on right now?

Ward: Because I’ve started to work on large-scale projects, it’s difficult to place them. Not many people, foundations and institutions can acquire your work. If you want regular people to have your work you have to figure out how to get it to them. Outdoor works excite me.

For the first time Socrates Sculpture Park, this really amazing spot in Long Island City and the precursor to the High Line, that Mark di Suvero, a contemporary artist turned it into a nonprofit artist space. Then, about 15 years ago now, the sculpture park was incorporated into the actual parks department.

In the past, they’ve always programmed group shows. For the first time, they’re asking me to do a solo exhibition. I’ll be taking it over in the spring. Now I have to link up with the history of the community there to see what I can say in that space. It’s exciting.

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