For our first A.I.R. Reflection of Session II we turn the spotlight onto Arizona resident, Nika Kaiser. Her work could perhaps find acceptance beneath the equivocal umbrella term of surrealism, the kind of creative endeavor whose intrinsic meaning remains clouded in the depths of a dream, but to impose such a label would be to deny the work’s conscious and palpable complexity. In many of her pieces mythology functions as a framework for both aesthetics and narrative. Behind each of Nika’s fantastical characters, a story dormant awaits to be awoken and revealed. Look no further than behind their masked eyelets, between the folds of their guises. There are secret conversations occurring everywhere–the landscape too, is not short on words. And Nika herself? Listen to what she has to say.
1. What are you working on at Byrdcliffe?
I’m working on a video, one that relies on the Catskill landscape and mythology as a backbone to support an exploration of my own relationship to this region. I’ve also discovered that the lineage of the Byrdcliffe Colony and its well-preserved architecture has become important to the work as it evolves.
2. In several of your pieces, the desert seems to function as more than just backdrop, acting as a kind of informative and interactive space for your characters to navigate. Now that you’re in Woodstock, how has the shift in environment affected your current work?
Well, one thing that has been central to my past work is an idea that landscape is not a separate entity from its inhabitants; it informs one’s personality as one navigates and exists within it for a period of time. As landscape is constantly changing, so is the person in it.
The desert is a complex place; it exists on an edge of reality because of its extreme qualities and the tenuousness of its ability to support human life. Its mysterious because of its vast openness. The heat can sometimes feel hallucinatory, it slows the mind down. For that reason, I have always felt it a location well suited for exploring ideas of consciousness and states of “selfness” that are beyond the physical.
I’ve found that Woodstock and the Catskill region have similar qualities for quite different, often opposite reasons. This forest is overwhelming, its density and expanse are illusive. Because of the intricacy of trees and plants, I find myself often seeing things inaccurately: shapes appear as animals but are instead tree trunks or vice-versa– just the other day a few of us were driving into town and a black bear seemed to appear out of thin air on the side of the road! I’ve been really excited to discover these corollary qualities in a totally different place. I’m beginning to understand that this environment represents another similarly pivotal experience of reality.
3. Your characters are very striking. They are often shrouded or masked such that their facial features are obscured, giving them an alluring mystical quality. They sometimes dissolve and vanish then reemerge in full corporeal form. Who are these figures? Are they part of some greater world or narrative or is their purpose of more visual and aesthetic purpose? Does the fact that you perform as some of your characters influence your understanding of them?
In recent work, I used costume as a way of supporting ideas of complex identity– the feeling of being made of many parts. My costumes/characters reflect that too, in their construction. Many times, they’ll be wearing a 1920s fur coat owned by my best friend’s great grandmother, a Mexican balaclava that my mom used for skiing as a child, and an Italian party hat I found in the thrift store around the corner from my house. Clothing or costume is a transformative device, even in everyday life. Wearing certain items makes you feel a particular way. I think a costume can also be a transcendent experience, you can become a different thing or become a part of something much greater than your perceived self. In many cultures, donning costume is a way of entering a new reality– connecting with or manifesting spiritual beings.
My characters are all that– complex versions of myself, sometimes channeling personal experience, and sometimes a greater collective identity. Some characters re-appear through my work, as a sort of constant cast of the subconscious. They’re hybrid forms of personal and cultural folklore as well, and I often draw reference from types of figures who have universal roles within storytelling.
4. Lastly, sound plays an important factor in your videos. Can you discuss your use of sound and how it functions with the environment and your characters?
Yes, in most of my work I end up producing sound that’s a mix of personal vocal manipulations and field recordings in the landscapes depicted. I often collage disparate sounds from nature with the visuals in the video– to me, it sets up an idiosyncratic relationship that can feel like two separate mind-states simultaneously. Sort of like when a train passes by outside while you’re asleep, dreaming, and your mind interprets it as a whalesong. My videos take place in transitioning states of reality so the sound is often meant to provide a more multi-sensory version of that experience.
Check out Nika’s website to see her photographs and watch her videos!