Terence Nance’s Comfort Film Is Purple Rain
The filmmaker and artist discusses his debut solo exhibit at the ICA Philadelphia and why the art of Sesame Street is taken for granted.
Terence Nance’s practice is rooted in ritual. His identity is in fact. The multi-disciplinary artist starts and ends his day with prayer and sees his work as a channel for the people and culture around him. Many know him for Random Acts of Flyness, HBO’s genre-bending sketch show that has attracted guest stars like Whoopi Goldberg and Lakeith Stanfield as well as a cult audience, critical acclaim, and a Peabody award. But long before the show the 41-year-old NYU grad had gained attention for his art practice, the subject of a new exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Entitled “Swarm,” his first-ever solo show surveys his last decade of work and runs through July 9, 2023.
“There was a lot of freedom to present, ultimately, a lot of sound, music, film and cinema in a way where the space that it’s projected within is creatively determined by [the team,]” Nance says of the immersive experience, constructed around his surrealist projects. “We were able to dial in a space for this work to be shared and delivered that’s just more conscious of the details.”
Curated by BlackStar Projects founder Maori Holmes, the exhibit features large-scale, multi-channel videos and installations — for example, his short film Univitellin is presented as a multi-channel projection within a recreated bedroom. Here, we talk to Nance about the experience of revisiting his work (“It was a challenge I was excited to meet”), accessing Black omnipotence, and the artistic authenticity of Sesame Street.
Was there something that you discovered or rediscovered going back through your work for this exhibition?
There’s a lot of it, that’s what I’ve discovered in a way. There’s a lot of things that I’ve made over the years, things that I’ve forgotten about or just haven’t watched or interacted with in a few years. I forget how much music I have made to put in the films and then obviously the album, V O R T E X, itself was made a long time ago. So it reminds me of all those days making that music that isn’t always a part of my day to day.
Also just how much all of this stuff is just expressions of not only my subconscious but our subconscious. So much so that it’s not always clear to me, in a way that I would have expected it to be. It doesn’t always have legibility to me because when it was made it was intentionally made from a subconscious or semi conscious communal space.
When you say our subconscious, or a communal subconscious, who are you include in the “our” of community.
Basically everybody in the credits who made this stuff. Obviously, also my family and all of the spaces and places I’ve lived. So North Dallas where I’m from, South Dallas where my family is. It’s a lot about where I’m from and who I’ve been around and under the guidance of.
The whole feeling of being a channel, or the discipline of being a channel, is the experience of temporal awareness of being part of an expression of a swarm. That’s one aspect of channeling to me. That’s what I mean when I am talking about we or ours or us.
Something that strikes me when looking at your work is what feels like this sort of omnipotence in the plurality of Blackness. That seems like a lot of buzzwords but there’s this feeling that what you’re doing is so informed by the global Black diaspora. I’m interested in knowing how that happens: is it really extensive research, is it this community?
I understand that the process that I’m in is being aware that I’m semi-representative of a network of experiences that I’ve just been fortunate enough to be a part of. I’ve lived in different places, spoken different languages — and different Black places. Maybe it’s not a lot but it’s been some very great ones. I grew up in The South, lived in New York for a long time — Brooklyn, Bed Stuy specifically — living in Paris for a few years. Living in South Africa for a bit, moving through Ghana a bit. All kinds of places and thus all kinds of different expressions that felt like that spooky “oh this is the same as what I know” or “I’ve never seen nothing like that.” Both ends of that. And all of my work is representative, in some way, of that network of experiences across Blackness.
Also I’m trying to make a discipline of what access to a more infinite experience of Blackness looks like. That’s something I have through ritual, through prayer, through making things as a prayer. Making art in that prayer and accessing that infiniteness. Because of those very brief moments of contact, some of those things get through which are deeply unattributable. They aren’t attributable to effort, or research, or rigor in the way I understand it. That is the omnipotence you’re talking about.
So let’s get to our Culture Diet questions: What time do you wake up in the morning and what’s the first thing that you do?
Since you said that: How important is ritual to your practice?
It is me. It’s always been that way for me but I didn’t know that’s what it was. Malidoma Somé describes ritual as “necessary, not routine and in facilitation of a spontaneous interaction with spirit through using some on-Earth intervention.”
What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?
South Side. That’s the last fire show that I watched besides Random Acts. It’s amazing, shout out to them!
Do you remember the last movie you saw in theaters?
Wakanda Forever. I’m grateful that I was able to breathe that world. I’m grateful to Ryan Coogler for facilitating that ritual of grief. That brother is a teacher. He taught us a lot. Love to him. Love to his spirit.
Is there a movie you return to again and again?
Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man for sure. I think personally there’s something comforting about seeing people from my grandparent’s generation in their youth and knowing that they were just trying to figure it out at some point and made some super fly shit in those moments.
Also I watch Purple Rain for comfort. It’s always existed since I’ve been alive but it’s also representative of like Black omnipotence. I always think about the fact that Purple Rain was a movie that existed that was not actually about Prince. It was like a movie that was being made that he somehow came into. It’s funny to imagine how that movie would be without him because it seems like only him and his world. But that goes back to that omnipotence.
What was the last concert that you went to?
What books are on your bedside table?
I haven’t really been at home. One thing I was reading was Joy Haro’s The Poet Warrior. And then another book I’ve been reading is Finite and Infinite Gains by James P. Carse.
Is there a book you find yourself returning to?
Of Water and the Spirit by Malidoma Somé for sure.
What albums or playlists are you listening to right now?
I’m a beginning to end album listener. Contour’s album Onwards! is amazing. That’s crazy. Also my brother Nelson Bandela’s album God Dad Bod. He has so many albums but that one is good. Also India Sky’s Somewhere Over the Mystic Moon. Oh and Little Simz’ latest album No Thank You. She’s unstoppable.
What was the last museum exhibit you really loved?
There’s a lot of good ones. I did love the Ulysses Jenkins show here at ICA. That was really cool. But I was also really pulled in by the Jim Henson retrospective when it was at the Museum of the Moving Image.
In pop culture, Sesame Street and the Muppets and all the things the workshop created are taken for granted. They are so taken for granted that you don't really interrogate the why of it. You don’t think about the deep obsession, love, and rigor for the craft of puppetry and just art really. This was a workshop and a communal exercise. It was sort of tragically relatable because of how much the resistance to what he was doing by networks and companies was evident in the exhibition. To see that he had to face that and his studio had to face it and his family had to face it just felt like … I just didn’t know that. I thought it was easier. He was just trying to do what we’re all trying to do: he was trying to bring healing, and more specifically healing to our child selves through play.
The last meme you were sent?
My friend Khalil just sent me one. There’s this shadowy, Thanos-like figure and he’s wearing a sign that says Hollywood. And he says “I fear no man.” Then he leans forward and says “but that thing” referring to a big white square that says artist. He leans forward more into the light and says “that scares me.”
It’s just funny because of what we’re going through. This Thanos like figure that’s ultimately projecting like power, confidence, and omnipresence, but the moment someone is trying to do something free and creative and be an artist, he’s like “oh I don’t know. That shit won’t make no money. That scares me.”
What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?
Pray. Meditate. Prepare the next day. I pray to my Ori in the ways of my ancestors, and any spiritual beings that are relevant. A lot of them are out there. So I pray out loud.