Raúl de Nieves and Colin Self cross boundaries and blur medium specific distinctions. As an interdisciplinary performance artist investigating sociality and taboo through multi-genre projects drawing on transcultural narratives, de Nieves does everything from make elaborately beaded costumes and sculptures to sing in a three-person, art-punk band—HARIBO. And Self—the Brooklyn/Berlin-based composer, vocalist, and choreographer—likewise glides, shifting between community organizing and social activism to online projects like #COLINSLIST, fronting a queer supergroup Chez Deep, and running a self-professed “non-utilitarian” choir out of his home.
I sat down with the artists this past week to talk about a their most recent project, a restaging of the collaboration’s The Fool (a four-part opera originally developed at ISSUE Project Room in 2014, as part of de Nieves’ residency there) that opens at The Kitchen, Thursday, Feb. 9th.
Ella Coon: So, this isn't the first time that you staged The Fool. Is this the second rendition, a reprise, or something different?
Raúl de Nieves: It still has the same values. But since the first staging, Colin and I have learned more about our own personal practices and how we communicate with others. The work is the same, but there's more ambition. Or, more ambition in that the whole thing is more realized. Colin’s music is now being performed by hired musicians. When we first came up with the piece, it was still developing—a process. In a way, now it's a new piece. It feels completely different.
EC: Completely different?
Colin Self: Yeah. Right after we had done it the first time, we had this conversation with The Kitchen after the show [at ISSUE Project Room]. But then, we had this creative time where communication just wasn't happening. Then, I got this Material Art prize, and Kitchen curator Lumi [Tan] had come to a dinner Raúl and I were at. He said something to her, and she was like, "Oh, we're so happy to do this at The Kitchen," not realizing the conversation had ended. Then, magically, it started again.
EC: By coincidence, almost.
CS: Yeah, yeah!
RdN: I was sitting next to her, and I was like—
CS: It was sort of a magical thing that turned into us figuring out when it was possible for us to make this happen. The last time that we were working on the piece, it was a practice of getting people together to sing, as research. Since then, I’ve been running this choir—this non-utilitarian choir—out of my house. That shaped this version. I think of the choir as not just a place for performance, but a form of research—of just getting people together to sing and to also talk about the fundamentals of what it means to get together and sing. So now, I’ve spent a little bit more time really working with an ensemble of singers.
I think the choir comes out of this realization of a deficit. There really aren’t choirs in New York that are about something other than reading sheet music, or memorizing music. So I was like, "Oh, if that were a kind of practice that I could foster, I would want to make it happen here." And this new ensemble consists of a lot of people from that choir. I think there are only five people from the chorus that were in the last performance.
EC: Most of the new ones are from the choir that you've been running? That’s great.
CS: It's great just seeing how those two threads of interest in research that Raúl and I were thinking about at ISSUE Project Room connect to this ongoing group vocal practice.
But, this is maybe the first time we’re able to work with a lighting designer, or a tech team—which is incredible here. Really everyone here [at The Kitchen] has been so generous. At ISSUE Project Room, we had never made an opera before, so we were really, really figuring it out. Now this time, with this whole experience, I think Raúl and I are really understanding like, "Oh my god, if you do it with this, and this, and this, it's a whole different experience."
RdN: Yeah. In the last run we had our friends play the string parts. You know they're musicians, but working with professionals—in that this is what they do for a living—allows you to… It’s not even about trust anymore. You just hand them the music, and they perfect it to their ability.
When we were first thinking, "Oh, we want to write an opera. How do you do it?" of course the first people we sought out were the closest to us. Now, so many people have been asking, "How did this come about?" It literally was just Colin and I sitting at a table being like, "I think we could do this,” with whatever funding we had. Then everyone else that became part of the piece contributed essentially out of—as a form of—generosity. Now, when we're talking to the singers, it's different. So much happens in one day, or in just a couple hours. We talk a lot about our feelings and what the music does to us. And at the end of the day, it's like everyone's took a B12 shot.
CS: It's true. I think something kind of unexpected about returning to these ideas and the story of The Fool now. Or, this idea of The Fool as a narrative of beginning and end—the either and the otherwise, the betwixt and the between. And, to not see death as an ending? A lot of us have been going from rehearsals to protests. And definitely for me, I feel like being a part of this ensemble—being with these people—gives me this energy, this sort of empowerment to go out and fight, to protest with the voice and the body. I think there are correlations between group singing and group protest.
We’re worn down by the world. We’re doing everything we can—calling our senators. And then after coming to choir, you feel that there is something you can do on a personal level, on a systemic level, to create change. One of the performers was saying how this performance is a prayer of sorts. A suggestion that something could exist, or a narrative that could exist, within and without opera—a togetherness, community, a sense of care.
EC: Yeah, could you talk about how this ensemble, or the opera, relates to your—Raúl’s—notion of the supra-individual? Or how these generative collective bodies, like choirs and assemblies, are part of this conversation given (as you mentioned) the current political climate?
CS: I think of Raúl, and this term “supra-individual,” of being a person who's, every single day, creating joy and beauty in the face of cynicism and doubt. We're really taught hopeless, the sort of vogue of hope in this nation. We have a problem of being like, "Oh, now there's hope. Now there's not hope. We're doomed. Oh no, it's going to be okay." Over the years of knowing Raúl, that persistence towards worlding—of creating worlds, especially within the circumference of a community, or collaboration—has always been there.
I think that's one of the reasons why, and I say this all the time, Raúl is my favorite artist. Getting to work with him, especially in a context like this is such a gift. Not only to myself, but all of the performers. We all get to collectively coauthor this story and experience.
RdN: Yeah, for me this work seems—We’re really open to everyone who is in the piece. We’re just one. Even our lighting designer is a huge part of the cast.
CS: My friend introduced me to this concept of ante-narrative. Ante-narrative is a bet placed on the future. There’s a generosity, but also a persistence. Everyone participating in the show is, in some way, casting a bet. They’re like, "This is something we believe will exist in the future. This is a form, this is a narrative, a relational narrative, that I think that we need to see through whatever muck we're presently in. [This narrative] will prevail, and through it become something else.” Seeing that today feels even more powerful than it did in 2014.
RdN: Essentially, Colin and I are working with traditional values. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. Through the knowledge that already exists, through these stories and these narratives, we’re asking ourselves, “What is it that we need to let go of?"
You constantly ask yourself this question, and essentially at the end, it's fear. And right now, the world is in a state of fear. Whether it's in the United States or outside, it's like we're constantly bombarded by these ideas of fear through the media. For us [The Fool] is a prayer to release the sense of fear within ourselves, and hopefully the people that come and see the piece.
There's this kind of death narrative in the show. Obviously, I don't know what death feels like. I’m alive. But, I've had family members die. And, I feel like they're closer to me now; their memory is so embedded in my life. It's like I carry their selves with me, you know? Their body is disintegrated, but their minds are still within us.
So, we can use the archetype of The Fool to guide us through this experience. I want to believe that there is a journey, and that this journey can't be done by itself. You need guidance—whether it's a tool, a person, a being; you’re constantly looking to them for help. For me, this cast is those tools. They give me so much hope. Every time I look at them, I'm like ... “Wow. I know it's only 25 of us here, but it feels like a whole world in a way.”
EC: Was the process leading up to the show improvisational? Or, was it more structured?
RdN: Obviously, we work a lot with improvisation. But, this process was pretty structured. We have songs, and we break them up into different vocal ranges. Also, I guess what we’re learning at The Kitchen, working with people like Janet and figuring out lighting, is how to take this experiment to the next level—not of perfection, but refinement.
CS: I think back to the first time too. Now, it’s like Raúl and I are revisiting something we've done before. But also, I think, the show has transformed through things like our relationship to [Janet]. Even just sitting down together and listening over what we’ve done, it’s like, "Oh, here's a song that we didn't get to do last time because we didn't have the time or resources."
EC: That’s great. So it’s the same libretto?
RdN: Pretty much, yeah. When I think about how these songs came about, how they were able to be shaped, it's just so beautiful to think you can just write down things on a piece of paper and, with the help of others, they turn into structures.
EC: So, why the form of opera?
CS: I started doing this thing called The Elation Series, which I was calling operas, really not having any training or knowledge in opera. Still, I can’t name three opera composers. But, even thinking about people creating work in this way, people like Klaus Nomi—who was really about shifting what the potential container or semantics of that word would be—I was like, what is an opera? Then, I think through the process of The Fool, [Raúl and I] started looking at the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, total work. Were both inspired by this idea of an opera as this massive container of creative and artistic relationships. I think about also Bread and Puppet Theater, and Peter Schumann. There's this history of other artists who seeking to change what opera means.
EC: It's more about kind of destabilizing what opera is, then?
RdN: Yeah, in a way. Because, obviously, [when you see the show] I think you walk away being like, "Oh, I did see an opera." There are these narratives and voices. But even when we're rehearsing, it seems like more than just creating a performance. We have become so personal with one another. It’s a form of prayer.
EC: What does it feel like to introduce this thing then to a large group of people and perform it? Is that…?
RdN: For me, it's pure joy, because—
CS: It's just joy!
RdN: There's no more nervous energy. This knowledge is a gift, for me. And I know if I could just give it back to people, that's exactly what I want to do. Just share.
RdN: It literally is my heart.
CS: Yeah, I just feel so fortunate to get to do this. It's such a blessing.
RdN: It will be really interesting when Thursday comes.
CS: It's so crazy!
RdN: I know! I still can't believe it. I'm like, "Oh my god, this is actually happening."
CS: But it's happening.
RdN: It's happening.
CS: Something just clicked when we were at my house yesterday. There was just this thing where I turned off the lights at my house, and we sung this one song in the darkness together. And one of the core members was like, “It’s become real to me. We're doing a show. This is an actual piece of work."
EC: That’s great! So, how did you guys start collaborating, originally?
RdN: I met Colin on stage, pretty much.
EC: Oh, really?
RdN: We were playing at this Greenpoint [venue]. I think it used to be a store or a popup shop. And, it was love at first sight.
CS: I was like, "Who is this?" I think I did this crazy performance, and I exploded this huge bag of Easter eggs everywhere? It was just bags of eggs, and then Raúl did crazy performance with band. It was—
RdN: It was the first staging of HARIBO.
CS: Oh yeah, HARIBO. I was like, "Who is this person?" Our first performance we did together was this thing in Miami in 2011. I kicked through a mirror. Raúl—We almost jumped into the ocean. It was just this really crazy performance.
RdN: Since then, it's been so amazing. We have so many similar qualities, but also so many different ones. I mean when I think about soul mates, obviously Colin is one of them.
RdN: We just saw each other. I feel like we’ve been friends forever.
EC: That's incredible.
RdN: It really was just like destiny of some sort. To be here, and to go from there, and being here, and realizing this work. It was hard, but also really easy. It's been so easy to work with Colin. And, I know we'll have more projects in the future.
CS: We just want to make more after this one.
EC: So, The Fool is part five in The Elation Series. But, there are six parts. Does the sixth exist?
CS: It's on its way. The relationship of [The Fool] to The Elation Series is fragmented. This one is like a reverberation of the first staging at ISSUE Project Room. But the sixth one started for this festival in Austria. But, we’ll inevitably… These pieces are part of a very porous system. The shows change depending on when and where they’re performed. But yeah, Raúl and I, we want to do Carnegie Hall.
EC: That would be crazy!
RdN: That's the thing. I was talking to my mom yesterday and was like, I remember moving to New York and always knowing about The Kitchen. I saw this La Monte Young piece here. When I saw it, I was like, "Oh, I wish. One day." Look, here we are. When I see Carnegie Hall, it's not because I'm trying to be like, "Oh, well I deserve it.” But I think this work belongs in so many places. We can perform it on the street, we can perform it at a punk venue, or we can perform it in a really “legit space.” But, our work really is made for the experience.
EC: And, all audiences?
RdN: Yeah. Now, going from The Kitchen it's like, "Oh, it's a piece of cake. We can do it anywhere."
CS: Coffee cake!
RdN: Coffee cake!
EC: Is there anything else you think our readers should know about your practices or the show?
CS: We're very grateful for everyone. Every single person who's made this performance possible.
RdN: Yeah, I have so much gratitude. I feel extremely thankful to be able to have a platform to share our love for creation and bring people together.
Ella Coon is a Brooklyn-based artist and writer. She is currently exploring the nature and limits of representation in the context of new media.