Louis Chude-Sokei Brings BU, Spoken Word, and Dub Reggae Sounds to Venice Biennale

His piece Thresholds will welcome guests arriving at a German pavilion at the renowned conceptual art exhibition

Photo: A photo with a older Black man sitting in a recording studio with the dials and controls behind him.

Portrait of Louis Chude-Sokei in the Mouse on Mars duo’s Paraverse Studio in Berlin. Photo courtesy of Chude-Sokei

Venice Biennale

Louis Chude-Sokei Brings BU, Spoken Word, and Dub Reggae Sounds to Venice Biennale

His piece Thresholds will welcome guests arriving at a German pavilion at the renowned conceptual art exhibition

April 16, 2024
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It’s normal for faculty in fine arts or creative writing to have their own thriving artistic practices outside academia. Writers write. Painters paint. Sculptors sculpt. But who’s representing Boston University at the Venice Art Biennale 2024, starting Saturday?

That would be Louis Chude-Sokei, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English and director of BU’s African American & Black Diaspora Studies Program.

An installation version of Chude-Sokei’s spoken-word-and-electronics piece Thresholds will welcome guests to a satellite location of the German Pavilion on the island of La Certosa throughout the seven-month Biennale. He is also set to perform live versions at four opening receptions around Venice this weekend.

Wait, the German Pavilion? Yes. A recorded version of Thresholds several minutes long will play on a loop along the wharf where guests will disembark from water taxis to take in the exhibitions on La Certosa until the event ends in November.

“They go through this transformational threshold to enter the island where all the sound art is,” says Chude-Sokei, who is also BU’s George and Joyce Wein Chair in African American Studies.

It’s all the result of “five years of steady work doing performances and projects about sound and space in Germany,” he says, with a basso chuckle that acknowledges the unlikeliness of it all. He has become popular in that country lately by working with some of the edgier elements in the German art world.

The Venice Biennale, running April 20 to November 24, is one of the—if not the—largest and most important visual and conceptual art exhibitions in the world. “Venice is the closest the art world gets to the Olympics—it’s the one place where, literally, the world shows up,” London-based curator Hammad Nasar told the Financial Times in 2022. Countries can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their pavilions.

The theme of this year’s event is “Stranieri Ovunque” or “Foreigners Everywhere.” The idea is to examine outsider status from a variety of angles, including cross-border migration, the displacement of indigenous peoples, and the othering of queer populations.

“My work—from literary writing and academic research to the projects in sound—appeals to people I never expected, folks who just don’t fit in and find themselves always foreigners, even in their own homes,” Chude-Sokei says. “I like that this Biennale highlights and welcomes that sensibility, particularly in a time when we’re all feeling increasingly alienated from wherever it is we thought we belonged.”

The German Pavilion is curated by Turkish-born Çağla Ilk, the first non-German artist to take that role, Chude-Sokei says. As codirector of Germany’s Staatliche Kunsthalle [Culture Hall] Baden-Baden, Ilk is intimately familiar with the country’s art scene.

Among the artists she chose for the Biennale is Jan St. Werner, half of the electronic music duo Mouse on Mars, which is a big deal in Germany. Werner is one of several artists who will create installations on La Certosa.

Photo: A small studio scene with a individual sitting by a mic on the right hand side. In the center, another individual with a funky haircut sits in front of another microphone.
A recording studio scene with Chude-Sokei (clockwise from back right), Oxford University scholar and violinist Gasia Ouzounian, Kurdish/Iranian vocalist and women’s rights activist Hani Mojtahedy, and German sound artist Michael Akstaller. Photo courtesy of Chude-Sokei

Chude-Sokei collaborated with Mouse on Mars on a well-received 2021 album called Anarchic Artificial Intelligence, which features his voice (rendered by algorithm) and words from his work. He has also created a predecessor of Thresholds for Werner’s exhibitions (listen to an early iteration of it here).

“I did an installation at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt [House of World Cultures] in Berlin a couple of years ago for a festival that Jan put together, called the Sound of Distance,” Chude-Sokei says. “I worked around the doorways and entrance spaces. And it had a pretty big impact on people. In fact, there were many times when they would be congested with people just sitting in the threshold, listening to the sounds that came from the installation. And Çağla was really moved by it.”

So she invited him to the party as well.

Chude-Sokei’s scholarly work and writing focuses on Afrofuturism and how technology appears in the African diaspora, usually in connection with music; he is an expert on dub reggae, among other things. He is also intimately familiar with migration and displacement—his critically acclaimed memoir, Floating in a Most Peculiar Way (Mariner Books, 2021), details his early life from Biafra to Jamaica to the toughest streets of LA.

Thresholds blends all of those worlds together, as his sonorous voice spools out gnomic phrases such as “Migration is also an act of listening” and “Place is either traumatic memory or hesitant aspiration,” while his Traktor Kontrol Z1 controller chops and slices and echoes his words over a layer of electronic sounds. The words may activate listeners’ linear thinking, while the dub-style mix brings on feelings of displacement and migration on other levels.

Chude-Sokei reads some of the explanatory text people can access from their phones as they arrive: “Sound marks this border via my voice blending with the ambient sounds, but bringing the listeners’ attention to the very moment of transition. The very moment when one arrives. Arrival is a stage, though it never ends.”

He will also perform live versions of Thresholds this week at the opening reception for the German Pavilion and Biennale previews for VIPS and the international press, as well as the public opening on Saturday. And he’ll perform a special dub/DJ set for the official opening reception tonight.

“Of all the places where my work has some traction,” he says, “the last few years, Germany has been uniquely, uniquely good to me.”

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Louis Chude-Sokei Brings BU, Spoken Word, and Dub Reggae Sounds to Venice Biennale

  • Joel Brown

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    Joel Brown is a staff writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. He’s written more than 700 stories for the Boston Globe and has also written for the Boston Herald and the Greenfield Recorder. Profile

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