South London friends and collaborators Klein and Curtly Thomas on identity, experimentation and technology.
Klein redefines what it means to be an artist for the precarious composite of the now. To list the variety of roles she plays would be to miss the point of her wide-ranging practice, a mode of playful experimentation that sees her adopting, rearranging and discarding the conventions of discipline, genre and form so rapidly that it can be tough to keep up. At once prolific and obfuscating, she is just as likely to upload a project to YouTube without telling anyone as she is to collaborate with some of the greatest artists, musicians and writers of our time, including Mark Leckey, Mica Levi and Fred Moten.
In 2021 she released Harmattan, an eerie album of restless classical (dis)compositions, released by Pentatone, and premiered her first feature film, Care, at the ICA in London, bringing her singular flavour of iconoclasm to two cultural institutions, on her own terms. Klein appears on some of these pages alongside Kimora Taylor, an 11-year old artist with whom she has been collaborating for five years.
Similarly, Curtly Thomas is an artist who continually evades categorisation, flipping between music, performance and curation with an intensity that seems designed to shake off those unwilling to follow where he wants to go. Oscillating between a plethora of aliases, including clubcouture, ceremonial acts, smallboydanger, denim and jah umbrella, he collaborates with Nkisi as Axis Arkestra, with John T. Gast as do you want to move back to ldn and most recently with Adam Gallagher as JOG MODE. As collaborators and friends, the two artists caught up over Zoom to take stock of the many different directions they have both been moving in over the last two years.
CURTLY THOMAS: I want to talk about ‘hope dealers’! That’s my favourite video, the most iconic.
KLEIN: When I was younger the only time I had to think and get away from everyone was either on the stairs or in the lift. I wanted to make a video that had friends, people I like, people I admire, just chilling in the lift. It’s kind of as simple as that. Then, as the video progressed, I realised I actually preferred it as a stop motion, so I ended up just using the photos.
CT: I think the filter makes me love the video the most; with that you’re adding a whole other layer. It reveals some sort of intimacy with technology.
K: It’s essentially like an emboss. Even though we were taking videos and shooting photos, I wanted it to feel like something from 1644 that was preserved in a cave – that doesn’t really feel of this time.
CT: Some of the research I’ve been doing has been on geology. When I think about our relationship with technology I think about the iPhone and I think about the combined materials or minerals that make that iPhone new. Recently I’ve been looking at filters a lot – IG filters obviously, filters on TikTok – in relation to costume. Filters basically reveal stuff. They highlight things, you get new information from using filters.
K: That’s what you do for a lot of your shows!
CT: Gosh, I’m thinking about smallboydanger – even clubcouture – do you remember?
K: That was the manic alias. All they did was interrupt people.
CT: I mean, interruptions are really important!
K: The whole thing about clubcouture was to dismantle the live set, or the idea of what a live set is.
CT: To disrupt that space completely. That led me on to this night Wrack-It-Head I put on at Ormside Projects. There was a sampler, the host, Miss Jason, obviously the DJ and then there was the crowd, which we gave whistles to. In the end it became a space where everybody could interrupt each other and everybody was interrupting each other, which in the end becomes more of a unison than an interruption.
K: What’s sick about that is that it removes the idea of the live show as a thing that’s built up to. If you have people blowing whistles and horns it takes away the hierarchy of whatever you’ve built up the live set to be, because I’m about to ruin that. The minute you’re about to hit your crescendo, imma blow a horn. That’s something that I really love doing, especially for live shows. When it’s about to reach the crescendo, I just take it away. I feel like life is building up to a crescendo that you’re never going to get to, so it makes sense doing that in art and music. Remember that time we both watched that Wendy Williams documentary?
CT: That was actually fucking good. It’s probably the best documentary I’ve watched.
K: You know how she cast a girl that does not seem like her, as her? When you’re making an autobiography of yourself it’s fun to cast someone that is not like you at all.
CT: Totally! I think you have to allow room for that, that’s the fun bit, no? You’re jumping between bodies.
K: Allowing the different versions of yourself to exist. Imagine the version of Wendy Williams purely on Instagram compared to the version of herself in her TV show.
CT: Even the version of herself back in the day! I had zero clue that she was involved with anyone in hip-hop.
K: I had no idea that she was a real hip-hop cat. Wendy Williams? Iconic. I need to brush up my knowledge and be more of a hip-hop cat, because I feel like I’m such a millennial in that I’m not really respecting the old cats. I’m still like: ‘Modern music is the future, modern rap is the future.’ I look back at old hip-hop, at artists like Slim Thug. When I was younger I thought he was alright and now I realise he was revolutionary, he was actually the future. You even think about other forms of hip-hop, like Outkast – the duo, the performance artists.
CT: The avant-garde!
K: The whole costume element. For them to even allow themselves to play these characters kind of reminds me of some of the stuff that you’ve been doing. Coming back to clubcouture, having those different identities K that you can take on for different projects is really the same as what Wendy Williams is doing.
CT: You’re a completely different side of yourself with different people, when you interact with different things and when you interact with technology. With technology, I feel like there’s a sense that you can actually show all of these sides, sometimes at the same time. Look at how you have to change the way that you are with technology, like when Zoom just cuts out and you have to reshift your thoughts, reshift your angles, reshift everything to get back to that point, which is, as you said, that crescendo you can never hit. You’re always showing all sides. Over lockdown I was doing some work with these digital facial manipulation apps. I know you use these apps as well.
K: Why are you looking at me like that! I ain’t a shape-shifter! I’m a catfish! You be using the face manipulation apps to explore something, I’m gonna use them to catfish, no one will ever find me again.
CT: I mean you look different all the time! Like every cover, every gig poster, you look completely different. When I was using these apps at the beginning of lockdown I started to really explore these new identities. I was doing ten a day, it was quite obsessive in some respects. I think that’s the fun part, constantly making new ones. I think everything always comes back to some sort of fatherhood shit. I talk about geology and this connection with technology, but it always comes back down to this paternal longing. I’ve been working on this project for a while now, where I just take pictures of my face using my iPhone, I put the photos through these multiple filters and I never know what’s going to come out at the end. I try out these combinations of different features, different noses, different eyes, different lips, and it always comes out completely different. I’ve got this mad collection of baby fathers, basically, that I’m going to put into a book. I’m working with this photographer Liz Johnson Artur.
K: I really love how you use the idea of morphing and taking yourself outside of yourself, because that’s really what people do in general. How they present themselves on Instagram, or on their YouTube channels or in family photos – it’s all taking different identities. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed playing with. I’m trying to run away and change my identity, so whenever I see you do that I wonder, are you trying to run away? Like you said, I look different in all my press shots because I feel like I’m on the run. It’s important to show your different sides and to also play around with the very idea of self.
CT: Play with them! Nowadays there’s this pressure to hold one identity. People are speaking about identity politics and it feels like identity has to be so fixed and it’s like, nah, I’m not here for the fix. Maybe that’s also running? We’re just playing, we’re flipping it, every day.
K: Wanting to have one identity is cool, but I guess you can end up almost invalidating the other sides of you that are still there: the you when you go to the corner shop for your mum, the you when you go to church, the you when you go to the rave.
CT: This is what you show me! Because you have an intimate use of technology, you really allow for this vulnerability of allowing people to see those sides. A lot of people do not show these. It’s almost out-of-body, the way that you speak about those things.
K: It’s the mundane parts that sometimes people don’t care about. I feel like the reason why my stuff could have an element of intimacy is because I don’t really look for where it fits. If I looked to see where it fits, there are certain things that I just wouldn’t have had; I would have taken them out. Whether it’s a live show or a video, I try to maintain it as a place where you can get to know the real me, especially because I don’t really speak that much about other parts of my life to my friends, or anyone really. These videos and these outlets I have are the only ways where I can get what I’m really thinking in my core out.
CT: I love that about your work. It’s almost like you keep a diary that you allow people to engage with. Remember when we did the ballet?
K: Oh yeah. Osanle.
CT: I’m shocked at how you managed to get me to do that, how you managed to get all the other artists to do that. That is your fucking number one quality: that you manage to pull people out and get them to do something they would never have done before. Even when you’re working with much younger hip-hop artists or grime artists, you’re always interested in putting people in new situations. Do you remember I sent you that guy William Greaves?
K: I’m so happy that you mentioned William Greaves! When working on the film version of my musical Care, which you’re in as the bad guy, everything was feeling very meta. At that point I felt very confused and just at the right time you sent me William Greaves and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. When and when I watched it, I was so happy that this was possible, because that is life! You start off going one way and your life takes a series of subplots within subplots within stories. With making stuff, or putting on shows, I think it’s more interesting when you allow life to take its natural meta course. What happens if I give this person, who’s never played an instrument, a kalimba and some loop pedals. Before you know it they’re making something really fresh and original because they’ve literally never done it before. I think the possibilities are endless.
CT: Creating the situations is important – it’s the thing that allows space for experimentation. That’s something that I don’t see as much now – people aren’t playing as much, the space for experimentation is becoming smaller. As you say with the IG squares, it’s like people now think you only have that square.
K: Yeah, well you do! Because TBH, if you don’t follow the square rules, you get shadowbanned, my g.
CT: I’ve been shadowbanned. I’m shadowbanned now.
K: Bro, being shadowbanned is a vibe, you ain’t poppin unless you been shadowbanned! I can imagine for a lot of people it can be quite nerve wracking, because you open yourself up to scrutiny, to someone calling you neeky. It’s easier to put on another mask, the embossed filter and just kind of live your life. I feel like with people realising that there’s other people who have done weird things, more people will feel com- fortable. It’s just annoying that people have to see something that is visibly weird in pop culture for them to be like, ‘Okay, I can do it.’
CT: I think we teach that. You want to see yourself reflected in the narratives of the world – you get taught that from when you’re first reading books. It has to be relatable in this very direct way. Care at the ICA was one of my favourite times with you. What was the difference between making the play and the feature film?
K: I’m not gonna lie, with the musical version there was no expectation because I didn’t even know what the ICA was, or know anything about what I was doing. I used Tracy Beaker as a loose base and made the musical with a lot of my friends. I particularly wanted to use people from the UK music scene and reimagine them in this fictional world. With the feature film version, I had a lot more time to zoom out and dig deeper, and a lot of it became a story that hit close to home, hence why I always call it a half-autobiography. Care, the feature film, feels more like my life, but mixed with fantasy.
CT: I was in Ghana once during harmattan, it was intense! The layers of sand everywhere make you see the city differently, it becomes dreamlike. What made you title this album Harmattan?
K: The last, and first, time I went to Nigeria was during harmattan, during this misty time, and it felt very supernatural, but I still felt like I belonged. Really and truly when I made the album it just felt like the season.
CT: What instruments do you play on the album?
K: I play the piano, there’s autoharp in there, there’s a broken violin, there’s a Yamaha keyboard that I transposed into a trumpet, there’s the classic drum programming, there’s another drum from a kid’s game, there’s my guitar and there’s my harmonica, which I transposed into a tuba.
CT: What about our secret album?!
K: Well, if anyone wants to hear me and Curtly’s secret album just type in ‘Klein and Curtly Thomas’ into YouTube. I love that we made it and this is probably the first time we’re actually telling people about it. It’s probably one of my favourite things that we’ve done together.
INTRODUCTION: Henry Bruce-Jones
INTERVIEW: Curtly Thomas
PICTURES: Gabriel Moses
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