On the passing of Nicola L. / Remembering “Cape of Blues” (2007)

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On the first day of the new year I received notice from curator Laurent de Verneuil that the activist-artist Nicola L. had passed away December 31 in Los Angeles at the age of 81. Years ago I had met and befriended her through the art critic Pierre Restany, and my mind immediately swirled back to a riveting performance about death and homage she did in Paris called “La Cape du Blues” (The Cape of Blues) (2007) at Place Saint-Sulpice as part of the exhibition Les artistes cassent la baraque. I thought it was brave and wonderful and now most relevant to her expiry.

Nicola was not extremely well known, though perhaps some may be familiar with her early-1970s group street performances, such as “Red Coat: Same Skin For Everybody” (1969) and the outstanding “Rug” (1975). “La Cape du Blues” was very much in the same vein, this time involving 12 performers, one saxophonist, and Nicola herself, who directed the event. I was part of a crowd of around 50 people who at first watched the setup, and then walked along behind or beside, as in a pageant. Each of the 12 cloaked performers wore a section of the beautiful blue cape she made where each hood represented a deceased individual (mostly artists and art-world luminaries) whom Nicola admired. The names I recognized that were being celebrated were Yves Klein, Sidney Bechet, Iris Clert, Cesar, Marcel Broodthaers, Raymond Hains and Restany.

The piece consisted of preparation for the procession and the procession itself, which was somewhat like a New Orleans style funeral march, particularly in the way the female saxophonist provided a continuous, bluesy musical riff. We paraded all around Place Saint-Sulpice and then, much to my great surprise and amazement, kept going into the Saint-Sulpice Church (famous for its paintings by Eugène Delacroix and its referencing in The Da Vinci Code) during a celebration of a Mass! The saxophonist went silent then, but we, the blue parade, kept on truckin’; snaking our way through the back of the vast church and out again the other side as the priest was delivering a homily. I had to bite my tongue to prevent from laughing out loud. It was then when “La Cape du Blues” became a truly dark festive nod to the departure of death — that incurable, distinctive disorder.

The jazzy exuberant mood was gone and I now saw this act of performance art as a meditation on the meanness of death in all its inarticulate magnificence, by which I mean it’s nasty comedy.

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On exiting the church, a blustery wind blew hard, and the commemorative mood turned very heavy and sad for me, particularly when I focused on the hooded heads of the performers I associate with those intense hooded figures in Catholic religious’ processions I have seen in parts of Spain. But what I particularly admired about “La Cape du Blues” was its mixture of informal casualness with a formalized ritual: a poignant feeling that at times verged on some kind of secular sacred. Now may Nicola L. herself rest in respected peace.

Joseph Nechvatal

About josephnechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American post-conceptual artist who creates virus-modeled artificial life computer-assisted paintings and animations. Themes he has addressed in his art include the apocalyptic, communication excess, the virus, and gender fluidity. In 1975, he moved from Chicago to the downtown Tribeca area of New York City. He began studying at Columbia University with the philosopher Arthur Danto while working for the Dia Art Foundation as archivist to the minimalist composer La Monte Young. In 1980, he moved from Tribeca to the sordid Lower East Side where he found artistic camaraderie and politically inspired creative energy. There he became closely associated with Collaborative Projects (Colab), the influential post-punk artists’ group that included Kiki Smith and Jenny Holzer, among others. Those were glory days for the famous Colab projects, such as Just Another Asshole, The Real Estate Show and The Times Square Show. He also helped establish the non-profit cultural space ABC No Rio, where exhibitions were animated by political purpose. In the early 1980s, his art consisted of dense post-minimalist gray graphite drawings (that were sometimes photo-mechanically enlarged), of sculpture, of photographs, and of musique concrète audio collages. In 1983, he co-founded the famous avant-garde art music project Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine. In 1984, he created an opera called XS: The Opera Opus (1984-6) with the no wave musical composer Rhys Chatham that was presented in Boston and New York. In 1986, Nechvatal began using computer-robotics to make conceptual paintings. Some were exhibited at Documenta VIII in 1987. In 1992, when he was artist-in-residence at the Louis Pasteur Atelier in Arbois and at the Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, he created computer virus codes that he used as an artistic tool. This work was a reflection on his personal experiences of risk and loss with the AIDS epidemic. In 1999, he earned his doctorat in the philosophy of aesthetics and technology in England and soon wrote two art theory books: Towards an Immersive Intelligence and Immersion Into Noise. In 2001, he extended his initial experimentations into the virus as an artistic painterly tool in a series of artificial life works. These works include various series of paintings, animations, and a lengthy audio composition entitled viral symphOny. He has created a series of virus-based themed exhibitions of artificial life paintings and animation projections that explore the fragility and fluidity of the human body. You can follow him on Twitter at @twinkletwink Homepage: http://www.nechvatal.net
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5 Responses to On the passing of Nicola L. / Remembering “Cape of Blues” (2007)

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