Almost 25 years ago, Chicago-based artist Nick Cave created his first “soundsuit” after reflecting on the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. It’s a story Cave has recounted many times: Pondering a complex knot of his feelings in reaction to the force used against King, he looked down at an arrangement of twigs he had made while sitting in the park and saw the beginnings of a sculpture. Ultimately, it took the form of a wearable suit made of twigs — an object that drew inspiration from traditions of African maskmaking and dance but spoke into a context of contemporary sculpture and performance.
The soundsuits, which Cave went on to craft from various materials collected from flea markets over the years, earned him renown within the art world. Lately, he’s been putting the sculptures to work in the public sphere. On Friday and Saturday, Cave’s Heard-TPA will be the centerpiece of Lights on Tampa 2015, the city’s electronic and light-based public art festival, which is returning for its fifth iteration since 2006. The performance will feature 30 pairs of local dancers dressed in an animal variation of Cave’s soundsuits — shaggy, life-sized horse costumes made from raffia and fabrics. A trotting homage to diversity, their 20-minute appearance in Curtis Hixon Park will be accompanied by a live band playing music by Tampa-based musician and composer Ray Villadonga as well as a dozen dancers dressed in Cave’s more traditional (i.e., utterly astonishing) soundsuits.
“It’s always different because we’re using a different community here, and that’s the beauty of this project,” Cave said recently by phone. “Each city brings in a different kind of vibe, a different sound.”
While the idea of enlivening Tampa’s urban landscape is nothing new for Lights On Tampa, this year’s edition ventures farthest into interactivity and community engagement. In addition to Cave’s piece, the program includes six other projects that will light up downtown Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Park on Feb. 20 and 21 from 6:30 to 11 p.m. An installation by artist collaborative Luftwerk located in Kiley Garden will mimic the daily rhythms of the Hillsborough River, while a nearby station of modular blocks designed by Tampa-based Urban Conga will invite visitors to play. A project conceived by Traction Architecture, also of Tampa, promises to turn the Sykes Building into a carnival high striker that lights up when a sensor is triggered.
On Friday and Saturday, Cave’s Heard-TPA will be the centerpiece of Lights on Tampa 2015 the city’s electronic and light-based public art festival, organized by City of Tampa art programs manager Robin Nigh, which is returning for its fifth iteration since 2006.
Until Friday, the only missing element is the people of Tampa Bay.
The weekend will provide the most public platform yet for rising Tampa talent Urban Conga, aka Ryan Swanson. Swanson, a 27-year-old alum of USF’s M.Arch. program, gave up his nascent career in architecture several years ago to become an artist-designer of interventions in public space that facilitate minimally structured play on the part of passersby. (Another of his endeavors, the Pavilion Project, will generate part of next week’s Gasparilla Festival of the Arts.) For Lights On Tampa, Swanson was charged with realizing his proposed project, Urban Pixels, a set of 30 glowing tetrahedron (triangular pyramid) building blocks, 18 inches on each side and illuminated by internal LEDs, which snap together along magnetized edges. He envisions visitors to Kiley using them to construct benches for seating or fusing the pieces together to mix colors.
“People tend to be afraid to actually engage with stuff,” Swanson says. “We hope that people will not just look at it as sculptural elements, but build and play with it.”
Around two weeks ago, a panel of jurors selected the words of local poet Silvia Curbelo to be put up in lights. Curbelo’s phrase, “Can you stand perfectly still and hold this moment open?” will be featured in UpLit, a temporary, vintage rooftop-style installation to be located in the northwest corner of Kiley.
“We hope that [visitors] will just enjoy walking through the piece, that they feel like they can be part of it. That will be the greatest result for us,” Bachmaier says.
For his part, Cave sees a direct connection between creating transformative artworks like Heard-TPA, and effecting a broader change in the way people think.
“I’m a messenger first before an artist,” Cave says. “It’s amazing how you can be put into an experience and it changes your life going forward.
“When you were a kid, you could take two sheets and string them across the bed, and you would have an amazing fort. How can we get back to that place where we can dream and imagine different ways of existing?”