"I AM THE LEADER": YE (KANYE WEST) in Conversation with Tino Sehgal
032c Issue #40 (Winter 2021/22) launched with a special edition collectible booklet featuring a conversation between artists YE (formerly KANYE WEST) and TINO SEHGAL.
At the time, Ye was between two of the most personal projects of his career. His dialogue with Sehgal touched upon ego death and funeral rehearsals, creative leadership and the quest to create a "template for humanity." Now, it is online in its entirety for the first time.
YE: What up, Tino? How are you?
TINO SEHGAL: I’m fine, sitting in my chair. I heard you are not coming back to Berlin. You wanted to do a project here, right?
Yeah, but we want to give it some more time. The idea went from throwing a Halloween party to doing a performance piece called The Funeral Rehearsal of Kanye West. I feel like every artist should design their own funeral rehearsal. And then, when they die, people can do it again.
I like the rehearsal aspect. It gives the straightforward funeral a twist.
It’s also a new language. At this point, every art piece I do is a window, an app, for human beings. 808s & Heartbreak was the app for Drake and The Weeknd, and The Funeral Rehearsal of Kanye West will be the app for others.
I’ve always been interested in this idea of the work that’s bigger than a specific person who created it. Heidegger talks about this and says that a true “work” does not have an individual author. Something is created where you no longer know who the author is or where it starts or ends, similar to a ritual or Margaret Mead’s “patterned activity.” It’s something bigger than the individual, which is also true of a funeral.
And who better to do it than the artist?
I don’t know if the artist is the best person. Art is one of the last fields in our culture that is still so focused on the individual and individual expressions. In hip-hop, sports, and cinema, it’s a team effort, and often the results are much better in team efforts.
We can exist in a stronger, better way by coming together as artists and scientists to make our Earth the ultimate version of itself. Utopia is a heavy-handed word, but we shouldn’t be afraid of it. We should be trying to make Heaven on Earth. To do that, we need leaders. A community with no leader shall perish. And I am the leader.
My friend Hans Ulrich Obrist and I have been talking about how you’ve created a new way of being relevant in culture beyond the legitimation of gatekeeper institutions, while also remaining innovative. We in the art world are very far behind that scale of meaning production. I think a lot of people in the art world are somewhat delusional that art is still relevant in the age of the internet.
It used to be a division between “pop culture,” which was less innovative but had mass appeal, and “high culture,” which was more innovative but didn’t have mass appeal to then trickle down via more popular arts. All of that has changed because of the internet. Even very niche things can find a place on the internet, and everyone can have a public life online. The question then becomes how you produce relevance. And you do that very well, YE. As for me, I don’t want to collaborate with the screen. I want live, embodied situations, so the price I pay is high.
Fuck the screen. Fuck the internet. Fuck amplified sound. The way you have people communicate is the way people should communicate. [Sings] Peeople should taaalk like this, like this.
[Sings] That’s sooo nice of youuu.
Words separate us. Words are only 30 percent of our communication. I think the artist should be the one that informs how civilization is raised. Kids need to learn more about gospel and singing and what you’re creating as a standard curriculum than four hours of –
I agree with you, but I don’t necessarily have such a high opinion of “artists.” I have a high opinion of what you’re doing, because you’ve put in the 10,000 hours to excel at fashion and music and everything else, but too often artists are concerned with self-expression rather than artisanal practice.
In the 1960s, there was this idea of dilettantism, which was a virtuoso move in the art game at the time, but these kind of moves only work once, like Duchamp’s ready-mades. What’s more interesting is composition, which has to do with details, skill, and artisanal capacities. In general, I guess my reservation to the idea of the artist is that they tend to be siloed to “art.”
You know, Matthew Barney got a kick out the mask I was wearing but I told him, I wouldn’t have gotten to that point had I not watched The Cremaster Cycle when I was working on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Anyway, you don’t have to have faith in the artist. But you have to have faith in the arts and the way they come together to build an ecosystem. Look at China. They’ve built a whole city to look like Paris, but nobody even goes there, because it’s not informed or purposeful. It’s lacking the Matthews, the Andos, the Turrells.
The frequencies of industrialized societies need to be uplifted. An interesting project for the 21st century would be to see whether we can build a society that has a higher frequency. That’s a spiritual project, and we all have a part to play in that. And it is changing. You can see how the frequency is already changing in the younger generations. The way they dance and move and speak and relate to their feminine or masculine sides, all of that is on a higher frequency. That’s also why I love “Requiem Aeternam” on Emmanuel. That choir piece, which has no words, is for me an anti-bureaucratic, anti-corporate, anti-20th-century piece. I think there’s a higher frequency level there.
That’s one of the songs we’re playing at the Funeral Rehearsal! I’m all about no words and simplifying our language. I’m about every period. You know, in that piece we hit these chords they didn’t have in Catholic times. These chords are only from Virginia and Chicago – post-slave, post–negro spirituals.
"A community with no leader shall perish. And I am the leader."
“Gloria” is also in this vein, just with a few words. It’s a great song, but the American accents are a bit too thick for me, there.
It’s so funny you bring that up. I hate the accents. We had to keep recording that song and ended up using the demo vocals, which were the best representation of what I wanted to say with it.
I was talking to Demna about the costumes for Funeral Rehearsal, and I told him they have to look like they came from a thousand years ago, now, or a thousand years from now. And then it can go other-dimensional. It can’t be overly contemporary.
One has to aim for timelessness, especially in the art game. For something that’s not too rooted in your present moment because otherwise it will be dated soon.
When you say, “art world,” I keep hearing “our world.” But the difference between pop culture and art is corniness. Pop is corny, art isn’t. And anytime artists use something that’s corny, they do it in this ironic way, which makes it acceptable.
When I did one of my earlier works, This Is So Contemporary, which has three museum guards jumping and dancing
around the visitors while chanting, “Oh, this is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary,” I meant it quite literally and celebratorily. It wasn’t ironic. But a lot of the reception of it was that it was ironic. I think there are artists, like Jeff Koons or myself, who don’t shy away from what I think you mean with “corny.” Warhol didn’t shy away from it, either. Some of us are uninhibited in that way.
Warhol is one of the reasons we’re able to do it. He was like the MC Hammer of artists. You know, I got a little drop of corniness, that little golden drop that makes it popular. But I can’t let nobody love me too much, because I’m gonna get into this trap of love. And then I owe it to everyone to be the person that they fell in love with. And I’ll never be that person. I have to always have the freedom of being disliked, so I can always be me. And so, this new piece is the death of Kanye West. It is the death of the ego that separates us – it’s the birth of humanity.
Let me start by killing myself.
The less you, the more room for God.
One of the traditional ideas of art is that you make an expression of your own subjectivity. I was never interested in that. Even early on, the people in my work are talking to the visitors, which entails a certain co-production with the visitor. I want to propose something with my artworks, of course. I don’t want to leave it just to the visitors, but I want to enter a dance with them.
My work This Progress, which was shown at the Guggenheim in 2010, is a good example. The visitors walked up the Guggenheim ramp, discussing progress, progressively, with four generations. A critic came to the show six times, and each time it was different. Why? Because every time she said something different. Working like this also creates a leveling. When you would say we’re all the same in front of God, I think it’s also important in terms of cultural formats that we are literally, physically on the same level.
I was walking on the beach last night, and I said, “No more human war.” No more divisions. There might still be some extraterrestrial shit or whatever, but this has to be the end of human war. We have to be humane. We need to be the first civilization that’s civil. We have to create the template for where humanity goes from here.
The template I’m interested in is producing new cultural formats. I was never very interested in the stage, because the stage creates a separation. Instead, I want to create formats that are leveled and more celebratory. That’s why I’ve enjoyed your Sunday Services. When you’re at a gospel service or a hip-hop event, you’re not judging from a distance, you’re doing, you’re creating something together. You’re at a party. That’s why, for me, these kinds of cultures are more holistic and more contemporary than art which always operates with judgment and distance – watching and judging and being at a distance are all modes of the ego. That’s why I’m so interested in producing the app – to use your words – or a template for that. I think that’s really important for the 21st century. But it’s unclear how to do that for big groups of people.
That’s why I’m going egalitarian with Gap. Everyone should be a part of the good life. No more of this class system. You know, I was talking to Jared Kushner before they left office, and he was, like, “We are running a third of the land in America,” and I was, like, “But what are you doing with it?” It’s set up in a way that the Black community will never rise. People are just selling us drugs and selling us bad food, and media, and hate, and people are just not as happy as we could and will be. We are under capitalist rule, and it’s killing us.
It's time to change that.
That’s what impressed me so much about the show you were in at the ICC in Berlin. I thought, “This is the template of how society should be,” and it was shown in this very world’s-fair kind of way.
One of our common interests seems to be the idea of the good life, which is something that the 20th century wasn’t very focused on. The 20th century and industrialized society were in a kind of teenage frenzy of what was possible – “We can produce this” and “we can invent that.” But for what? What’s the price? Is this actually the good life?
The ultimate good life is simpler. It’s for those who are willing to not have any possessions. Your baggage weighs you down.
I’m going to be homeless in a year. I’m going to turn all the homes I own into churches. We’re making this orphanage, and it will be a place where anyone can go. It should be like an artist commune. Food should always be available. The opportunity to make art and be around friends should always be available.
The age of secularism seems to be over. The reason why the good life is not really in focus in the 20th century is because it’s only half of life. It’s only things that can be perceived by the senses or proven in an experiment that exist.
This was for a good reason: religions were very manipulative, and it was important to cut off that abuse and manipulation …. But now, I think we can come back to spirituality and know that, yes, there are other dimensions beyond the senses, and we can connect with them – through music, through singing, through intuition, through prayer, through meditation. And that has to be integrated into life. Then comes the question of composition. The details need to be right, and experts need to be around.
The 10,000 hours need to be invested.
I agree with everything until you said 10,000 hours invested. When you have the right people working on things, it happens immediately. I could put together a Sunday Service with 20 songs by tomorrow.
"We have to be humane. We need to be the first civilization that’s civil. We have to create the template for where humanity goes from here."
That’s because you’ve put in the 10,000 hours in all the things you’re doing. What I think is so amazing about your practice is you’ve never accepted being siloed – you’re active in music, design, and clothes. The Yeezy shoes, for example, are a way for a lot of people to be in touch with creativity and design; it allows them to participate in it.
You know, all of the people that have these “popular” positions and all the people that have these “deeper” positions will come together. And we will make the first simple civilization, the first human civilization. It’s not going to be long now. It’s like bamboo takes three years to root. But when it hits, boom.
God has brought us together. You’re no longer in the silo, Tino. We are all collectively working together, and we all play a position, we all bring something amazing and different to the table. We’re a family. I’m going to get the artists and bring them together. We’re not at war with one another.
I think you’re in a good position to use the word “leader,” as you did earlier, because you’ve broken out of the silo. Still, “leader” is a very charged word. I think I would prefer the word “coach.” Like, a team needs a coach.
Maybe I’m the coach of all the leaders. Maybe that’s a way to word it for you. Or “guide”? It’s funny, because this guy who put together our basketball team is always, like, “You’re my coach, you’re my coach.” People won’t say, “You’re my leader,” right? But I am our leader. If you read in the Bible, God has ordained leaders. There are leaders, and there is a position in society for leaders.
Or maybe you don’t need to say it at all. Maybe you just need to be it. I think this is something I’ve always done quite successfully. In my work, I was always very driven by the question of sustainability, but I never talked about it, I just did it. Being a leader without claiming it, that is a stronger position than saying you’re a leader and –
But what if you are it? And when you claim it, people say that you aren’t it? That’s why I go into every conversation, like, “Yo, I’m gonna tell you, I’m Disney.” He wasn’t the coach. He was the fucking leader.
I’ve been through too much to be minimized.
I don’t have a problem with the figure of the leader; I think those positions actually exist. I was once told that there were certain people who were sent to this planet to bring frequencies up with their classical music. This in part inspired me to look at Beethoven for my last piece.
Moses could do everything his army could do, but he couldn’t free his people without the army. And you know, all these leaders, all these people who created the templates – Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, George Lucas – were crazy as fuck but influenced so many people. I’m just saying, I’m the template. Kanye West is the template for Drake and Travis and …
I think that’s also why I am increasingly skeptical about art history. Walt Disney doesn’t play a role in the art history books, but he did big installations and brought a certain aesthetic into the world, which influenced and was part of the imagination of millions of children. If Walt Disney isn’t in the book, then there might be a problem with the book. I agree that the strongest way of producing culture is to make a template. My template was to suggest that museums don’t only have to be a place for objects; they can be a place for people.
What kind of a society is it that only looks at objects?
Changing that is my biggest success. It’s become much more normal to see people doing things in museums since I started this 20 years ago. You could say I have my Drakes – more and more people do stuff with people in museums.
You know, it’s like how old white people are with money, like, “Don’t tell people I got money.” Then there are Black people like Floyd Mayweather who are like, “I got money!” A Chinese head of state doesn’t need to say, “I’m the leader,” but Black people are in a position where we have to state our claim. You are saying this because we are already using white language.
We’re not even talking in our native tongue. It’s like DaBaby said on my album, “These people ain’t finna tell me how to talk.” So, I’m not polite. I’m not humble.
I work for God. And I love what you do. And I think it can be a part of Donda, and we are here to save humanity.
I understand that. For me, the core of our conversation is: what’s the good life? And so, I’d like to know what is it going to look like to be the first civilization that’s civil? How does it work? What are its values?
The older I get, the more I’m interested in the core frequencies, no matter what language they’re spoken in.
What is the core vibrational frequency someone is putting out in a Latin choir, an artwork, or a speech?
What is the contribution to the planet’s frequency?
One needs to say things, because one can’t just insert the frequency into the planet – the frequency always needs a medium – and so that’s why culture is still relevant. But I think it can come from anywhere.
Yesterday, I was on the S-Bahn, and this homeless woman gave a speech. And I was, like, this is a really good speech. And she looked at me, and I gave her some money, but she didn’t really care about the money. She was just, like,
“Thank you. Thank you, that means a lot to me.”
But I said again,
“That was a really good speech. That was uplifting for all of us here.”
It was a good move on the court. And it doesn’t matter what your position in society is, it’s about the frequency that you put into the world.
I love that.
I hear you.
I'm with you.