Performing a book: NIC Kay launch of 'Cotton Dreams' started with a bouquet of cotton, and became about textiles, labor and the history of slavery

Over ten years ago, NIC Kay started taking performative walks down the streets of New York City—merely exploring a glimpse of an idea. Carrying a bouquet of cotton, a mannequin and other seemingly random objects, the NYC-based artist (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) sparked discussions and interesting public visuals. They had no idea those walks would grow into the book “Cotton Dreams,” which would then lead to a live performance and book release at Links Hall. 

“Cotton Dreams,” a book Kay created in collaboration with Candor Arts, a Chicago-based book design and publishing company, houses the text, images and materials Kay gathered over the past 11 years since taking a walk with that first bouquet of cotton. This mix of visuals and textures explores the history of slavery in relation to the clothes we wear today, and to ourselves as modern consumers. The “Cotton Dreams” release takes place Friday at Links Hall in an evening of live performance and discussion. The live performance expands the book’s themes to highlight the hidden labors behind making runway fashion look flawless and desirable. The perforamce will be followed by a discussion with Kay and La Keisha Leek, a Chicago writer, administrator and curator known for numerous exhibitions (including recently the Petty Biennial, which aims to queer traditional biennial showcases).

“Cotton Dreams” will be available for purchase for the first time on Feb 14 in conjunction with the launch event at Links Hall.

So how exactly did the current version of “Cotton Dreams” come to be?

Kay was sitting outside on a lunch break from their job at Ralph Lauren. A random woman handed Kay a bouquet of cotton, a simple gesture that sent their mind spiraling. Walking back to work, with cotton bouquet in hand, Kay began the first of many “street walks,” a public, semi-performative way to explore what it was that stuck out as so significant about this cotton: its use in fashion today, the history of cotton itself and its ties to slavery. On the train, out with friends, and down the sidewalk, Kay began carrying seemingly everyday objects in semi-performative walks, bringing those objects to life just by their placement in unusual, yet obvious spaces. 

“They themselves are objects that create a moment of stillness,” Kay said in a phone conversation with See Chicago Dance. “Like if two people are walking with a couch down the street, that requires a lot of space and physical exertion, so people are aware that something different is happening. With cotton, I didn’t have to do much. I was initially carrying it because I received it, then I continued carrying it because it was a powerful object.”

When Candor Arts approached Kay in 2016 about collaborating on a project, Kay used the opportunity as a way to document the bits and pieces of their creative process with these street walks. Landing on the title “Cotton Dreams,” Kay and Candor Arts funneled text and images inspired by the walks, plus clothing and old collages of those gathered materials into a more complete statement on fashion, self reflection and the history of slavery. Osnaburg, a loosely wound fabric that slaves in the United States were clothed in, was used to wrap the book. The monogramming on the cover, as well as other fabrics used throughout the pages, were developed to recall styling and outfitting during slavery. With a goal throughout the entire process to make the book as performative and three-dimensional as possible, the creative team incorporated textured fabrics and photos as well as historical craftsmanship into the final product.

“Because I am thinking often about live action—how to create an experience between the performer and audience or viewer that feels engaging—it took us some time to figure out how to make the book as performative as possible,” Kay said. 

In an e-mail to See Chicago Dance, Candor Arts co-owner Matt Austin noted that, from the beginning of making the book, “Cotton Dreams” was meant to be experienced and not simply read, which is why the live performance aspect of the book release is so important. The performance expands on images from the book and the shadowed history of fashion—using the inherently performative nature of the runway to expose the hidden labor behind runway fashion.

“I think the beauty of runway shows is that they make the performance of wearing clothes look effortless. What I’m trying to do is remove the effortlessness, in some ways,” said Kay.

In reflecting back on this long, 11-year process, Kay admitted how much they’ve learned about the nuances of the creative process. 

“I’ve made a lot of performances since 2008, and each has been a very different development process. It’s a very strange but wonderful process to have started from ‘happening’ you know? Just taking an idea and going into the street and doing things which don’t really require anyone to sit down in a seat,” Kay said “to taking these collages as a way to figure out what sort of world I wanted to create for the project, before I had the tools to do that on the stage—or to even think about the stage as being the space I wanted to occupy.” 


“Cotton Dreams” releases Feb. 14 at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave. There will be a live performance by NIC Kay followed by a discussion with La Keisha Leek. The book will be available for purchase at Links Hall on Friday, and online following Friday’s launch.