Cave’s work is frequently commissioned by the world’s top galleries and museums (the High Museum owns one of his soundsuits), but his true purpose is creating performances that are free and accessible to the public, he says.
“I’m an artist with a civic responsibility,” he says. “I think a lot about that. I get the museums and I get the galleries, but I’m more interested in the public relationships I create. We still have a large population that doesn’t frequent museums. I’m interested in what I can do as an artist to interface with these communities to bring their creative energy to places they’ve never been. That’s what really matters to me.”
Cave grew up in central Missouri and attended Kansas City Art Institute with plans to become a painter. The Rodney King incident in 1991 changed all of that, instigating a new way of thinking about himself and what mattered to him.
“That was the thing that triggered me and led me down this path,” he says. “I made my first sculpture, and then I realized I could physically wear it. And when I put it on and moved in it, it made sound. That led me to think about the role of protest. In order to be heard you’ve got to speak loud. That’s how the soundsuits were born.”
Cave often finds the objects for his soundsuits — everything from old buttons and flour-sifters to abacuses — at the flea markets and antique fairs he delves into during his travels. “Resources are all over,” he says. “Whenever I’m traveling, I’m checking out these places because I’m curious to find out: What’s here? I find an object and then, to understand how it will function in my work, I move it around the body.”
One of the beauties of his work, he says, is the fact that the performer isn’t visible inside the soundsuit.
“All gender, race and class disappear,” says Cave. “You’re forced to look at something without judgment. We’ve disguised all of that, and you’re engaged with something that’s a different sort of hybrid. What does that mean when you encounter something unrecognizable and unfamiliar?”
“Up Right Atlanta” will feature an all-Atlanta cast, and movement for the piece will be created by renowned Atlanta choreographer and Spelman professor T. Lang.
“I’m giving her carte blanche to do as she wishes,” Cave says. “I’m excited to see what she’s thinking about. I’ve told her I don’t really want to know. I don’t want to be of influence: my suit is enough influence.”
The choreographer visited Cave in his studio in Chicago’s South Loop last November to try on several different soundsuits in advance of the performance.
“As soon as I put one on, it felt like it was stuck onto my skin and I was able to move in a certain way that I don’t normally,” she said. “It was intense, but safe. Putting it on was exhilarating, it was electric, it was a lift. It held a lot of power.”
“Up Right Atlanta,” which takes place in what will soon become Ponce City Market’s food hall, will be divided into two parts. The first involves eight dancers accompanied by eight technicians who will assemble soundsuits on each of the performers’ bodies using multiple objects arranged on tables. There will be 30 components per suit, which will attach to metal apparatuses on the dancers’ bodies. The “initiation” segment is accompanied by the music of a polyrhythmic drumline and a soundsuit figure in a costume resembling a drum major.
The second section has the dancers migrating to a raised platform where a quieter, more contemplative performance set to piano music will begin. “It really is a piece about the conditioning of mind, body and soul,” says Cave. “How do you become a warrior? It’s about validating and building a level of confidence. Upright.”
Cave is curious to see how Atlanta reacts to his first work here, and he says that “Up Right Atlanta,” may not be his last for the city either.
“There are thousands of places, thousands of amazing parks and neighborhoods in Atlanta,” he says. “I would love to come back here to do more work… I will.”