Kevin Beasley’s New Book & LP Set Surveys Art Suited for Sight and Sound

Kevin Beasley’s new publication A View of a Landscape is a monograph paired with a 2-record set of vinyl LPs expanding on the artist’s work with sculpture and sound. The title relates to a 2018–19 exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, to which Beasley transplanted a vintage cotton-gin motor whose whirring sounds he captured with microphones and broadcast in the museum. But the publication also looks back to survey the evolution of Beasley’s various bodies of work, much of it engaged with his childhood in rural Virginia and his pathways through Detroit, New Haven, and New York.

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The book part of A View of a Landscape includes essays by writers including Fred Moten, Adrienne Edwards, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, and Thomas Lax (as well as this author, who first wrote about Beasley in 2015). The sound part of the project includes new recordings created by L’Rain, Moor Mother, Jlin, Jason Moran, and more. To all involved, Beasley granted access to an extensive image bank featuring photographs, videos, and other materials related to his work, with an invitation to draw on them however much or little made sense.

In advance of a release-related event at Performance Space in New York on March 23, Beasley spoke with Art in America about mixing mediums, abstaining from authorship, and finding new forms for work that looks backward and forward at once.

What was the genesis for the new book and LP set? When did you start thinking about adding that to the body of work it surveys?

Around 2017 I applied for a grant for a sort of eight-part project that would incorporate a soundproof chamber with a motor running, a listening room, and sculptures, and then some photographs and a publication that would possibly have a record and some writing in it. The publication was something I conceived as another channel for the work and a way to put out images and ideas I’d been trying to reconcile. This predated the idea for the Whitney show, so it was originally intended as an independent project that could work alongside the other works but channeled through a different medium.

Kevin Beasley.

What was the original conception for the “View of a Landscape” group of works as a whole?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the South and a kind of material presence of that channels through it, but not so plainly or very clearly. For me, in the studio, there’s always residue that drives my aesthetic choices. And then there’s this push to understand what a site or specific geography does to the way we process things like music or politics or experience. When I would travel from Virginia to New York, the way I would carry myself in different contexts was very actively different. I remember my mom being really specific about garments and clothes that I could or couldn’t wear. Those little details of geography and the way we navigate and move are really particular, and I want to try to in some way make sense of what that is and how we apply it to broader landscapes [and narrower ones], like how we view the relationship between the South and the Deep South.

There are things I’m trying to uncover in the work and in conversations with people who are also trying to uncover them. In a lot of ways, the publication tracks how I’ve moved throughout the United States. I haven’t lived in so many different places, but there are enough touchpoints to sort of graph what experiences of moving are for Black folks in America. For me, that was being in Virginia, and then in Detroit, and then New Haven. All of these places have some kind of fraught relationship, either with intense conservatism that makes it difficult for Black folks to navigate these spaces equitably, or just systemic racism that is manufactured very deeply. The image bank that I provided everyone with had traces of these things, but then seeing how people put things together was really interesting.

Two open pages of a book with pictures of an old, rusty cotton-gin motor in a workshop.
A cotton-gin motor that Kevin Beasley sourced from Alabama and turned into an artwork exhibited at the Whitney Museum in New York.

How did your idea for the image bank arise?

It’s strange because, even though the publication was an idea that I imagined would represent my work and be an actual object or thing I made, there was a kind of release of authorship. I gave almost 20 people the keys to do what they will and to bring their thoughts and considerations into the fold, and then I assembled that. It allowed me to continue a more collaborative—dare I say curatorial—direction to things that I’m processing. I said, “Here are some images and some stuff I’m thinking about. They may seem very vague, but what is your response? How do you process this?”

There were maybe 1,000 images: images that I’d taken off my family’s property and some videos, but also images of artworks and examples of projects of mine from over the years. It was like a dossier that I could hand to someone to show what I’ve been up to. It was organized by subject matter, but I didn’t provide descriptions for how to use any of it. It was more like, “Here’s some stuff I would like for you to see. Make time to go through and process what it is, and if you have questions, we can talk.” I feel like every artist has a cache of photographs and references and things they’ve collected throughout the years, and it’s just a matter of in what context they share them. I’ve had videos that I only share during a studio visit—I wouldn’t put them in an exhibition. Some things are reserved, and the image bank had items that were of that nature. But after giving them up and releasing them to people who would enter them with a certain amount of consideration and care, I felt like if somebody could justify pulling an image and using it, then that was enough for me to let go of what that thing is and let it live.

Did you have artists books or publications in mind as a model, however directly or indirectly?

We all have box-set LPs that have liner notes, but those are a different form because they don’t necessarily have extensive catalogues showing other aspects of someone’s practice. I really wanted essays for this as well, and it felt like a space to put all of this stuff into. To me it was important for it to exist in this box-set form, with a record in a slipcase in a tight container alongside a book, so that those things could exist on a shelf together.

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Kevin Beasley’s A View of a Landscape, published by the Renaissance Society.

What sort of prompts did you give to the musicians involved?  

I obviously had ideas around what everyone would contribute, but I think I did a decent job of refusing to guide them. I provided all of them with a set of stems—24 tracks from the recording of the motor—and the only stipulation was that they had to use those as a sort of starting point. But they could do anything they wanted with them. I’ve had some kind of relationship or some sort of proximity with all of them. They were all aware of the of the work already, so they weren’t coming in completely cold. But when I got each track back, I had no idea what they would be.

Were you surprised by any of the contributions, or were any of a kind that was unexpected?

There were quite a few. It’s less surprising in retrospect, because he’s been engaging in performance as of late, but when Fred Moten delivered his essay, he also sent me an audio recording of him reading it. It’s altered a little bit from the text, but I felt like he was wanting to bridge both [parts of the project, the book and the LPs]. I used his recording in one of the musical tracks, and he was happy about it. Some of the essays responded to my work, but also to certain aspects of my life and my family’s life as well. I didn’t really have a lot of expectations, but I was really surprised by how strong those things were. I realized I’ve known everyone involved for a long time, and all these things came from conversations that were natural and didn’t feel forced, all from relationships that have been built over a long period of time. It’s powerful to realize that all of these people have experienced the work in person and have been able to account for that through language in a real palpable way. Having people write about you is weird. It’s a strange experience.

The LPs, with the cotton-gin motor on front.

What do you feel like the publication adds to the “A view of a landscape” project overall?

It’s very simple: it adds an object in lots of people’s homes. The attention we paid to it as a physical object was important to me, so that when people get it, they can handle the cotton paper, the plastic surfaces, the different kinds of textures and layering. It’s the first time I’ve been able to have so much input into a widely distributed object. And conceptually, materially, it’s interesting because it’s not so common to get a book wrapped in corrugated plastic.

What is the status of the cotton-gin motor now?

It’s in storage. We’re waiting for its next destination. There are some things being worked on to realize it again. We’ll see what happens…


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