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Artist NIC Kay seeks balance during the pandemic

The coronavirus shut down everything in the art world, yet it opened new possibilities for artistic expression

One in a series on the arts world reopening.

Before the coronavirus pandemic began, performance artist NIC Kay was bouncing around the country, producing work in cities such as Chicago, New York City and Portland, Oregon. But when the virus arrived in the U.S. and most of the arts world moved online, Kay didn’t follow. It was unexpected for someone who’s explored Black and queer internet communities through movement, music and documentation with the hashtag #blackpeopledancingontheinternet.

Instead, Kay moved outside, decamping to the Albany, New York, area and becoming a first-time partner in the process, and beginning a residency with the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan. Being a second-year candidate of the Bard College MFA program has also allowed time to think intentionally about how all the different projects relate to each other, and how the sense of self requires more nurturing and meditative practices alongside their creations.

Kay spoke with The Undefeated about slowing down, returning to performance and taking risks.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did the beginning of the pandemic affect you and your work?

Everything that I had was canceled, every last thing – from talks to performances and teaching and studio space – everything. A lot was telling me, I felt, to slow down. So often we do the things that we don’t have enough time to articulate fully. Or we don’t make time, or the market or the art/dance/theater world don’t allow us to sit with them and process. We have the invitation, and then we have to present or exhibit, and then it’s on to another application or to another residency. I am extremely grateful for all the opportunities I have had, but now need to focus on sustainability. So I didn’t do any online performances during the last year and a half. Interestingly enough, I have always done stuff online, I just felt like I didn’t have anything useful to say.


How did you start to think about making work again?

It wasn’t until February of this year when I started talking to the New Museum about this residency. It didn’t feel like a stretch. I’m able to start from where I’m at, which is a very tender place. I just know that I had shifted and the audience that I’m speaking to has shifted. I want to be conscientious of how I approach and what I say and what we need right now. And I don’t necessarily know what that is, but I need to play in a way that I hadn’t allowed myself before. I’m thinking of pleasure in a way that I hadn’t thought about before.

The residency is a continuation of a hashtag that I had been casually using for the duration of time that I’ve been putting videos on the internet. I had been searching for other videos of people dancing and I would always type in some version of ‘Black people dancing,’ ‘Black people on the internet dancing.’ I wanted to see what popped up. Any time you’re getting caught in the algorithm of oppression, you’re completely taken aback by the extremely consistent, and sadly, basic forms of racism – the shifting context, the language used around an image, the way that they freeze a video that creates a different type of relationship.

How are you thinking through that context in your residency?

I’m researching and playing with how to use tools [editing, sound, visual or text] to think about memory in relationship to movement, rhythmically, but also in terms of masses on the internet – like the difference between being able to reach out to all my friends on Myspace and who we were then and what we needed from each other, versus, say, Instagram, which came years later. But the tools and how we [first] learned to be together, I believe, inform how we show up on the platforms that we’re using now. And I’m just trying to figure out, what does someone who started using the internet in 1997 [next to] someone who started in 2012 bring differently? I am excited to play while also giving my body a rest in real time.

How do I sustain myself as an artist, if I don’t ask for more help?

How has prioritizing rest changed your creative process?

For the most part, I do solo performance, so I’m often alone, but I’m thinking about how to build more of a team around my ideas so that I’m working in a community that can hold not just the concept, but also me as a person. I am totally down to do it all. In some ways, I love doing it. But at this point, I’m asking myself do I need to. How do I sustain myself as an artist, if I don’t ask for more help?

How do you hold onto that as in-person performances start back up?

The first performance that I’m going to do live is this Juneteenth activation, a site-responsive work in Fort Greene Park. The conditions of the location will shape what the durational experience will be for myself and pedestrians. It is sort of a section of the piece that I did with Keyon Gaskin at MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions called Sloth-ish: Where Does It Hurt? But this time, it’ll just be me in a costume fashioned after the idea of the tumbleweeds. In some ways, it’s a baby step – I’m not directly interacting with anyone. I’m sort of in the wind. It’s a durational work where I’m slow-moving in a circular, insular sort of process.

It’s also very low stakes, compared to 150 people coming to see something inside a building. And even if it’s work in progress, we both know nothing in New York is ever work in progress. I don’t know why they keep lying to people. It’s like, honey, if you perform at [Movement Research at the] Judson [Memorial Church], you’re performing at Judson. That’s it.


This can be a draft, but it’s not a light affair.

Exactly. It’s fun, but then it’s also scary. In some ways, that’s why I started making work more seriously outside of New York. So that when I left in 2011, I could have the space to be unsure about things and not have the scrutiny of people who wanted to see a particular thing happening. [I’m trying to] not be so taken away by that pressure. Moving upstate has been a chance to have access to more green space. It’s been a gift to be able to kayak and hike at a time when we were so far from family and friends. Having a baby in this environment has been easing. We don’t have the same sort of environmental stressors that are thrust upon you in the city. I miss the Bronx for sure, [but] I want to take this opening and blast it, just continue to try and push as much as possible.

I just want to take some risks that center the things that I say I want: Black people that I love, and the Black people I’m getting to know, other people of color. I try to remember we are multiplicitous, and sometimes I don’t even know all of the ways that we are showing up. There’s no way that I can forget, in my body and in my mind, that there have been shifts. I will never be the same, and we will never be the same.

Intentional change can happen if we’re thinking about movement in configurations and duration and style, you know, and I guess that’s why I love performance. I can think about how I can be more active in my nonperformative life by thinking about the ways that performance helps me be present as a person in general.

Benedict Nguyễn is a dancer, writer and curator based on occupied Lenape and Wappinger lands (South Bronx, NY). Their criticism has appeared in Vanity Fair, Into, Brooklyn Rail, Shondaland and the Establishment, among others. Recent projects include their multidisciplinary performance platform “soft bodies in hard places,” their newsletter “first quarter moon slush,” a second novel, and sometimes being online @xbennyboo.