Living in a Red Dot Hell: Nadja Sayej aka Snowe White and Art Criticism on Your iPod
I was first introduced to her ArtStars* YouTube videos during my undergraduate degree. Nadja was finishing her vlog series, broadcasting her final few clips from her new home in Berlin. Most of the true ArtStars* videos—the ones where she and her camera crew barraged through vernissages and interviewed artists who spoke in a jargony tongue that was more like a crutch that a language—were filmed in Toronto, where she also wrote for the Globe and Mail. The first season of Work of Art—that absurd art-making reality TV show—was beginning around this time. I’m not sure why this seems important or related, but it sticks in my mind. Maybe something about the then-novelty of watching art criticism on a screen. It seemed to make so much more sense than static reviews, press releases, and reportage. These things were silly but the format seemed ripe.
ArtStars* was gonzo art criticism. The format of the interview often bewildered the artists, as Sayej asked hardball questions without any set-up or smalltalk. In one, a stoned Richard Kern calmly admits to being a pervert. In another, Cyprien Gaillard, from atop a pyramid of beer, takes Nadja’s mic and declines to participate in an interview before drunkenly discussing his “social sculpture” as a metaphor for the Pergamon.
Recently, I went to Club Larry in Berlin alone and watched Snowe White perform alongside Candy Ken and Bainshee. Her Facebook event boldly declared that “art criticism isn’t dead. It just needs beats.” The club was crowded in a way I’ve never seen in North America. I imagined all the amount of people there breathing in and out, producing carbon dioxide quicker than the air could possibly circulate. Sayej rapped from on top of the bar counter while performance artists Jack Bride and Holly Timpener swayed silkily alongside her, both of them painted white in contrast against Sayej’s all-black get up. After her set, I shyly introduced myself to Nadja. Our voices were raw from speaking over the DJ when we arranged to meet up in Mehringdamm. We spoke casually while I recorded most of our conversation from my iPhone.
Steven Cottingham: Where did Snowe White come from?
Nadja Sayej: It was 2012, I was working with the New Berlin Papers and I came across Moritz [Hoffman]’s paintings when I was doing a studio visit – it was particularly this series called Dead Rappers. He just did a series of dead rappers, it was pretty straightforward. He has this really typically-informed style of realism German Expressionism, you know? Very raw, very post-war. I saw these paintings and they changed my life. Mostly I feel weird that the crossover between contemporary art and hip hop is so slight. It’s something that needs to happen more. I’m talking about more than Jay Z rapping about how somebody fucked up the Warhols in his hallway…It needs to be a little bit deeper than that. It really got me thinking about hip hop and the art world being combined. Moritz Hoffmann, this painter who inspired me to be a rapper, is also a rapper himself and his name is Dr. Moe. He used to rap in German but now he raps in English. We are sort of similar (as well as Candy Ken) of being this borderline performance art hip hop that incorporates the art world in lyrics. So, to me, it’s an interesting movement that’s starting with the three of us and maybe more people that we don’t know about. But I rap about journalism and art criticism and I put art criticism in hip hop and trap music because I feel like people are lazy and people don’t read things like October anymore. If you’re lucky, people will check their newsfeed on Instagram. So I want to incorporate “entertainment.” I don’t feel like entertainment is bad, but entertainment has always sort of been the enemy of conceptual art. It’s kitschy, it’s maximalist, it’s not…
SC: …restrained or precise.
NS: Exactly. It’s also like an artist named Rashaad Newsome who also incorporates hip hop into his artwork. He’s based in New York and uses the heraldry of this old European 18th and 19th century stuff and combines it with this Brooklyn style of representation. And then he’s also a rapper and takes the stage at his art shows with his friends. They’re all about queer hip hop and they don’t rap about the art world, but it’s still important that they’re bringing stuff like that to art shows. Me, I don’t come from the ghetto, I come from Mississauga. I’ve never dealt drugs, I don’t own a gun. I’m white, I’m Canadian, and I’m in my thirties. People are like, “You’ll never make it as a rapper. You’re too large, you’re too white, you’re whatever else and you’re not enough whatever.” It’s like, if I’ve been an arts journalist for the past ten years, that’s what’s going in my songs. That’s what I’m informed by. So that’s what I know and that’s what I rap about. I’m not saying that I’m an anarchist in the art world and everything I see is a political injustice and I’m a moral high-roader… Like, who wants to listen to that? You also want party music. You want fun stuff. There’s one song I wrote called “La Biennale” and it’s about keeping it raw while running into these high-profile German art stars at these Venice Biennale parties. They’re all in three-piece tuxedo suits, all pinstriped, and ignoring me. There’s this certain type of elitism in the art world and I think it’s frustrating for a lot of people because there are lots of people who have raw and real talent. But a lot of people are afraid of being raw when there is such pressure to be polished. I think it’s really dangerous to lose your voice, as an artist, as a writer, as a curator, as anything, just because you’re ascending the scales of success. You still have to be able to speak up.
SC: Yeah. Otherwise you sort of succumb to this industrialization where your passion becomes an obligation and you have to meet certain demands. It becomes really ugly to observe.
NS: Definitely. Artists who are represented by galleries are trying to perpetuate a certain style so they keep selling. And there are musicians who are on record labels and don’t want to get dropped. I’ve sort of realized that I make a living as a journalist so I can use my rap music to do whatever I want. And I’d like to keep it that way.
SC: With Snowe White, you sometimes use a stereotypical pop-music rap vernacular, talking about making money and looking good, but you’re also playing with that. Mentioning taxes, too.
NS: I think you have to work with clichés, you have to use familiar tropes to lure people in. It’s hard because you want to fit into some sort of context of our time but a lot of people are not even thinking about avant garde anymore. Like, the whole meaning of the term avant-garde was being the frontline of an army. “Advance guard.” The ones who end up dead first.
SC: Do you think there’s something avant-garde in bringing art criticism to rap? Or rap to art criticism?
NS: That’s for the audience to decide.
SC: But for you it’s just a natural coalition of your interests.
NS: I love rap music. I’ve really gotten into rap music the last few years, the same way that Francis Stark has. I interviewed her in Venice and she was saying that she was just a latecomer to hip hop. And she fell in love with it and she’s reached out and fell in love with some pretty big names to collaborate with in her own contemporary art. She says hip hop is art and it’s overlooked as an art because it’s often violent or derogatory kind of thing. But there is some truth and beauty in it as well. I fell in love with it and realized I had a voice and I’ve always been a musician in the closet. But I never felt like it was something I could do to make a living. So I started a band in my late teens with my ex-boyfriend in Toronto and did it for a few years and then just kind of moved on to art and then writing. It’s always been in the back of my mind—if you have a childhood dream, it’s kinda hard to forget it for the rest of your life. It’s never too late to make your dream come true, even if it’s totally stupid. You still have it inside of you. So, for some reason when I was in Berlin, I just became a rapper. I didn’t even name myself Snowe White. Other people started calling me Snowe White.
SC: That’s the honest way to get a rap name.
NS: I was christened. Because of my haircut. I was in a jam in a basement of some club one night and everyone was taking turns with the mic and I was just like doing whatever and then later I was told that I looked like a modern Snow White. And it stuck.
SC: You said you couldn’t make a living being a musician. Is that still important to you?
NS: It discouraged me in my early twenties. I thought, if I’m not going to be as big as U2 then what’s the point? Because I saw a lot of musicians struggling. And most musicians are lucky if they make fifty bucks a night. So I just wanted a more stable career, which ended up being freelance journalism of all things. Still after ten years, the love never faded. I found an outlet with hip hop and just started writing songs for myself that I couldn’t always get out in other writing. Like, who wants to sit in front of a laptop for ten hours a day? Some people are into but I need some exercise. I need to improvise. The time of focusing on just one thing or one career is over.
SC: I wanted to curate a show that was like a rap song. I wanted to bring in really famous artists to play roles akin to cameos, doing a guest verse, but then I felt disparaged because what if most artists’ egos are too big to be part of my, like, apartment gallery exhibition?
NS: I mean, I hope not. I hope they would be into being in something similar to the format of a rap song. But it’s all about who you respect as your contemporaries. There are a lot of egos in the art world. I think I’ve seen the very best of it and and the very worst of it.
SC: It’s funny when there are really only a couple thousand people in the art world and not a couple million.
NS: It’s a tightly-knit universe. I love writing about art. And going into a gallery. But the job positions of art critics or journalists at art media publications has sharply declined, obviously, the past ten years. There’s still room and desire for it but maybe it has to occur in a different way. I realize that if I want to reach a larger audience I shouldn’t put my journalism or art criticism in publications or blogs or even video blogs. I should put it into music because music is a universal language that everyone understands. Everyone goes to music festivals in the summer. Not everyone is going to go to Documenta. Having people dancing and singing along to your lyrics just feels so much better than sitting on a panel discussion.
SC: Earlier, you said that you are white, Canadian, and not a drug-dealer. I assume you’re talking about yourself in relation to certain hip hop acts from the ’90s. Is this how you view rap, or what you mean mean you use the word “rap”? Is it a music of discontent?
NS: It’s funny. Because of my ArtStar* videos some galleries became really wary of me. I covered Cyprien Galliard and the gallery asked me to take the video off the internet. And when I went back to interview John Waters for his big solo show, they were looking at me, trying to get me out of the gallery. It was like, “What are you going to do? Call the cops on me?” Like am I really an art critic gangster? So it’s funny, there’s a similarity between the art critic and the rapper. There’s something tough about those persons, they’re story-tellers by nature as well as social commentators.
Premier of “Art Critic Rapper” by Snowe White.