Soundsuits, Art and Activism

One piece that has continued to stick with me over the past few weeks is Augment by Nick Cave, which ran August 2019 through April 2020. The project, installed by Now and There in Boston, is a piece of art, a social experience, and a call for the city to come together in public and spread joy across the city. It centers around the question of “What brings you joy?” and relies on interactions between people and art. 

This project is especially powerful because it is complex and multi-dimensional and seems to push the definition of public art. It reminds me that public art can essentially be anything the artist wants it to be, and that it doesn’t have to be static. Instead, it can be moving and changing and shaped by interactions with the public. The voices of the community are active and alive in Augment, a dynamic and energetic piece built by the way people choose to engage with the art, with one another, and with the question of what brings them joy. 

After viewing Augment, I was inspired to learn more about Cave and his other work, especially his Soundsuits. These pieces are both sculptures and fashion pieces, and they come in many different shapes, colors, sizes, and materials. Like Augment, they pushed the definition of public art, showing that it can even be something worn on a body and can be part of a performance. At first glance, they are fun and eye-catching, but they actually have a deeper, more troubling meaning. The goal of each of them is to hide the gender, race, and class of the person wearing them. 

The inspiration behind the first Soundsuits was the beating of Rodney King, and Cave says in an interview with Art21 that the point of the pieces is for people to look at his work without judging it based on identity. Cave explains that the pieces are meant to represent the need for Black men like himself to build a thick skin to protect themselves against the system and that is built against them. Since Soundsuits hide identity, they make racial profiling impossible, and serve as suita of armour of sorts that empower Black people in America. 

Cave’s Soundsuits brought me back to a question I raised in the first blog post about what role public art plays in activism, and how it can address social, racial, environmental, and economic issues. It made me think about what constitutes activism. Can public art itself be considered activism? Or is the action created by public art the activism? Maybe it’s both. The Soundsuits were clearly a way for Cave to express his deep frustration with a system that works against Black people, but is that activism in itself? I’m hesitant to believe that with no background information someone, especially a white person, would be able to understand the message behind the pieces, let alone take action from it. But maybe that’s not the intention of Cave’s pieces, and that’s okay.

In my first blog post, I wrote about the goal of public art, and how it was meant to be understood without more information. I’m starting to question this goal because I fell in love with Cave’s Soundsuits only after I was able to read about them, understand the context behind them, and see how they expressed Cave’s pain so clearly and beautifully. Cave’s Soundsuits are meant to be understood past surface level and within the context of the history of violence against Black people in America. Moving forward, I want to keep exploring and questioning how public art can contribute to activism if it is generally supposed to be taken at face value. I also want to explore personal examples of public art and activism in my own life — like, can signs at protests be considered public art, and how is this different from Cave’s Soundsuits?

For more information about Nick Cave and his Soundsuits, visit these websites:

Nick Cave: The Greats

Nick Cave on Art21

Nick Cave’s Soundsuit sculptures – Everything you need to know

How Nick Cave’s Soundsuits Made Him an Art World ‘Rock Star’