What’s left when the data’s gone: Kaki King in Abu Dhabi

“I walked into Kaki King’s final performance at NYUAD Art Center believing I knew exactly what I had signed on for,” said magpie’s reviewer at the last of the three performances of Data Not Found at The Arts Center at NYUAD last weekend.

“I left stirred and filled with only more of life’s big questions than answers. That might sound like a dramatic response to a routine musical performance, but it’s true, because this performance was anything other than ordinary.”

You expect amazing musical ability from a guitarist hailed by Rolling Stone as “a genre unto herself”. You also expect imagination and creativity from an artist who has always been willing to experiment with her instrument – finding new ways of playing it, adding new bridges or extra strings, including novel technologies – but also with the content and delivery of her music.

As Bill Bragin, Executive Artistic Director of The Arts Center, put it: “King is one of the most amazing acoustic guitarists I’ve seen, but in recent years she’s become more interested in pushing beyond her virtuosic technique to reimagine the concert form”.

Providing access to artists who can push the envelope in this fashion is one of the raisons d’être for any arts centre. As it happens, Kaki King’s performances – and The Arts Center’s role as co-commissioner, bringing Data Not Found to life in the first place – illustrate another of the existential functions of The Arts Center in particular: feeding ideas and inspiration directly into the university’s curriculum.

Sound and vision

Data Not Found (DNF) builds on ideas that formed a previous show, incorporating digital technology to muse about a digital world. Professional and serious, King took the stage silently. Before she took her place behind her guitar, she pondered the idea of patterns musically and visually by whipping on a drum covered in sand; it was mesmerising display as the lights flickered and sand gambolled on the drum’s surface.

Then she moved to her all-white guitar, its surface essentially became a display unit for video as she performed. The digital manifestations of her music were projected on to the white floor and a white tent in the centre of the stage using lights triggered by her guitar playing.

There were mellow acoustic numbers and then lushly layered, driving rides; the set was truly diverse. Her guitar playing alone is a triumph, the corresponding real-time light show was unexpectedly moving.

If data is everywhere, then maybe it’s nowhere. What’s left if you don’t have the data? You find the real person

And between the music she shared share four short stories – stories about life, death, what we value, what we discard, our posthumous digital records, and most interestingly, the beauty that we create unintentionally as we go through the routines and patterns of our days.

This was intense, intelligent, and emotional art. It wasn’t in-your-face explicit, but it was thought-provoking. Says Kaki: “I had already done some work with a data visualisation artist, Giorgia Lupi, and we wanted to consider the concept of data from a philosophical point of view – not as good or bad, just as a fact. Personal data has always been part of human existence – information about other people comes as names, addresses, gossip …

“We really wanted to look at data through a different lens. A lot of data is about framing the real thing, and after the real thing has gone, or passed through, you’re left with a trail of data. That ended being the real theme of the show.”

So why ‘Data Not Found’? “If data is everywhere, then maybe it’s nowhere. What’s left if you don’t have the data? You find the real person, something that’s far more difficult to understand than the data traces. That’s what you have when you don’t have the data.”

Building the show

The theme may have been set but DNF was never going to be a conventional Kaki King guitar-plus-or-minus-band show. It had to be developed collaboratively, ideally in the kind of space where it would be performed. Kaki King already knew the key people she wanted to work with – video designer Max Bernstein, lighting designer Ryan Seelig, sound designer Chloe Thomson. “What we really needed was a director – and then Annie Dorsen entered the picture.”

Dorsen’s work centres around what she calls ‘algorithmic theatre’ – performance based on the outputs from rule-based programming. She talks about treating algorithms as “full creative partners”, giving them the freedom to operate unsupervised “and letting them perform instead of human actors”. Her Infinite Sun project for Sharjah Biennial 14 had a chorus of 11 laptops programmed to chant from sunrise to sunset with songs they generated themselves from a corpus of basic mantras from a variety of spiritual traditions

Kaki says they all needed to be working together in the same room. “When we were, we were able to work as a team in a wonderfully creative way. Everything happened very quickly then. We did one show as a residency without Amy and then one with her, the next one was our soft opening, and the real premiere was here in Abu Dhabi.”

Kaki King has always been an experimental musician, testing the boundaries of what you can do with a guitar and latterly with performance too. DNF represents something of a step change, though. “As a musician and guitar player who has always developed shows on the road, it’s hard for me to conceive that this one won’t continue to develop too. The difference is that when I want t change a note, I just change a note: when I want to have a lighting cue run into a different video concept that’s a week of work maybe. It’s just a different process.

“While all shows change over time, and you really discover what it is you’re trying to do and how the audiences react, DNF is far more set in stone than anything else I’ve ever done.”

From 2015 to 2018, Kaki toured (and recorded) the adventurous The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, a beautiful and sometimes provocative piece created with Max Bernstein that involved visual art projected directly on to her guitar.

Kaki King performing The Neck is a Bridge to the Body at TEDWomen2015. “I’ve never seen anything like it… a sumptuous feast for the senses, a dizzying display of sound and vision by a guitarist already renowned for her innovation” Boston Globe

Last year saw the forerunner of DNF. Bruises: The Data We Don’t See represents 120 days of different kinds of data collected from and by Kaki her young daughter Cooper, who had been diagnosed with rare auto-immune disease that manifested itself in part as bruise marks on her body (Cooper has since recovered and her doctors believe she will grow out of the condition entirely). Georgia Lupi initially started the project as a data visualisation artwork; Kaki King used that to compose music based on the data collection.

The scripted performance of DNF adds considerably to this idea and represents one definite line of development in Kaki King’s practice. Another is the integration with education.

I get so much out of working with people who are in a phase of life where everything is new and possible. College students today seem more vibrant and focussed that when I was one of them

Bill Bragin, Executive Artistic Director of The Arts Center at NYUAD, was instrumental in getting DNF on to the stage, but also enabled Kaki to work with NYUAD students. “Theatre pieces need so much support in order to be made – it’s not as simple as renting a rehearsal space and getting a band in there and making a record. The performing arts commissioning world is quite alien to me; Bill was our first point of contact and connected us with some other commissioning institutions [The Arts Center is one of five bodies that co-commissioned DNF].

“Bill has been unbelievably supportive, and the great thing we have been able to do in the UAE is to create curriculum and classes around the development of the show – I’ve been excited by this, it’s been really fun working with students.

As part of the preparation for the premiere performance, Kaki and her video designer Max Bernstein visited Abu Dhabi last year and Bill Bragin organised for her to guest in a couple of classes at the university. One was an artist talk in a class by NYUAD Digital Humanities professor David Wisley, talking about Bruises, and they hit it off so well that he designed a new semester-long course called the Quantified Self. “That was actually built around Kaki’s residency,” says Bragin, “and dovetailed around some of his own academic interests about the way people are defined in the modern era by data from Facebook to Fitbits.”

David Wisley himself says that experience was stimulating: “I created the course in response to that visit as a way of exploring how the self-reacts – and what the self can become – in its encounter with data. Incorporating a performance element into teaching digital humanities has opened new windows for me onto exploring the relation of self and all the devices – the digital things – that have permeated our lives.”

What an arts centre is for

Kaki’s visit included deep engagement in the classroom, sharing her process and inspiration and inspiring student works in response to her approach. She loves this: “I have done a lot more teaching in the last five years than ever before – guitar masterclasses, open rehearsals, showing people how we do something technical. I think the best way to learn something right is to teach it, and the more I do the more I love it. I get so much out of working with people who are in a phase of life where everything is new and possible. College students today seem more vibrant and focussed that when I was one of them.”

And as Bill Bragin puts it, “it really takes advantage of the interaction of The Arts Center with the academic programs at NYUAD.

“We realised that the way Kaki King incorporated data into her artistic production could be used to catalyse students in moving from the theoretical to their own creative output. So we had her here for two weeks doing a lot of teaching, mostly guest visits to classes but including a critique of work by students on data sets that were handed over to a computer music class to sonify the personal data.

“Every artist who comes we integrate into classes with workshops and masterclasses. This is the first time we’ve had a full semester course that has been so tightly integrated with a specific artist residency. “It’s really allowed us to cut across a swathe of the campus …”

The Arts Center also ran two Off The Stage workshops itself to introduce the interactive technologies used in DNF. The first, hosted by Max Bernstein, covered projection mapping and live video control software; the second workshop was run by sound designer Chloe Thompson and takes participants through programming and manipulating sound for live performances with Ableton Live.

It’s clear that The Arts Center is becoming increasingly embedded in the curriculum as well as the community of NYUAD. “Even on our fifth anniversary we feel we can still pilot new ideas and explore new modes of operation,” says Bill Bragin. “In the curriculum there’s a lot of emphasis on the interdisciplinary, and on putting theory into practice. Within The Arts Center residency, we can explore all of those.

“But going forward we now have other criteria – identifying projects that can become deeply integrated into the academic programme, not as an add-on but as a centrepiece. We’re still looking at this as beta testing, but it gives us something else to aspire to.

“The work of The Arts Center obviously aligns deeply with colleagues in the music, visual arts, interactive media, film, theatre programmes. But I also think of us as actually being part of the core curriculum. It’s about the arts opening other kinds of conversations, about the arts as a way of knowing, seeing and understanding and investigating, and not just the artistic end product of performance or entertainment.

“When I’m thinking about what makes an artist good for The Arts Center, I’m also considering the audience from the community as well as about the on-campus audience. The issues that are important to introduce on campus are the same that people are thinking about in the community – gender, climate change, migration … and personal data.”

Coming real soon now

And what’s next for Kaki King? It’s unlikely to be more of the same – that doesn’t seem to be in her nature. Though she admits she’s “a little bit hooked” multimedia theatrical pieces now. “But the guitar is still so intoxicating to me – even after all these years of playing it is still able to reveal tiny mysteries. I would like to continue to expand ideas of what the guitar can be.

“The next work I would like to have multiple guitars on stage, a different kind of guitar ensemble, players walking around so that the movement interacts with the music. More low-tech, but more high-concept.

“Or examining the guitar from the inside, the architecture, maybe putting a camera on the inside so that the story is told through the set that you build on the inside of the instrument. There are all kind of ways that I’m still fascinated by the deconstruction and reconstruction of the instrument, pushing it forward and seeing where it resists and where it opens up.

“I’d to continue to do steady work in that field. Maybe it’s a field of one …”

She’s right. There’s no one like Kaki King.

Elizabeth Gray contributed to this article. More about Kaki King here; upcoming shows at The Arts Center are detailed here.


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