In this month’s Oral History Initiative, we pick up where we left off with Jon Kessler. In Part II, Kessler discusses his decision to opt out of grad school, the collision of opposites in his work and the way he finds balance in making art and music. Audio + Transcript below.
Artwrit: So at that point you were already in the city then, where did you go from there? What was the next step? Was it a blessing in disguise?
Jon Kessler: It was a blessing in disguise. I spent six months in the East Village, living in a shithole apartment, paying way too much for a small space on Avenue D. And then, I had a friend who I went to SUNY Purchase with, who was Polish American, who grew up on North 7th street, and he said, “You should check out Williamsburg.” I’d never been here. I took the L train and got off at the first stop, got a map, and I drew a circle and said, “I’m not going outside of this circle.” That day I found ten spaces and this is where I ended up. So right after the Whitney program, I ended up here, that spring actually. Graduated Purchase, moved here, and that was it. I sort of never really thought about grad school… I mean, Yale was obviously a very famous grad school at the time, but I was done with school. I was really done; I just wanted to start my life. And so my education, my grad school in a sense, was being in New York, hanging out with artists that I had access to. I moved to New York and I called up artists, and I called up Louise Bourgeois. She was in the phonebook.
That’s so hilarious.
I remember saying to Louise, “Can I work for you?” and she goes, “What do you know how to do?” and I said, “Well, I make sculpture and I know how to make fountains.” And she said, “I love fountains! Maybe you can make a fountain for me!” I never ended up making a fountain for her, but it was just that level of access.
And I would go to Soho and I would go to openings, and I would hang out with the generation… For me, it was the generation of Judy Pfaff, who became a friend, or Bob Kushner, another artist. I would go to Food, which was the place where Gordon Matta Clark ran.
Amazing! You’re in it! You’re in the thick of it!
I was in it, I was deeply in it. And yet, I was out of it because at the end of the evening I would come back to Williamsburg, which was fucking deserted, it was like I was living on an island somewhere, in the middle of nowhere. And in fact, there would often be… I’d say to people around here, they’d say, “What are you doing?” and I’d say, “I’m going to the city,” and they would say, “You’re going to the city?!” Like it was some far away place. On a Friday night, I would be the only one on the L platform.
I swear to God!
Things have changed!
Yeah, things have changed!
Now there’s the stampede out to Williamsburg for the weekend, that’s interesting.
I’m wondering how… You’ve sort of seen New York grow up, too. Not even grow up, change, for better or for worse. But along with that, I think technology, like I mentioned before, you’ve seen it go through enormous change and I’m wondering how the shift from analog to digital, if it’s affected your work at all? I know you were already using video since the beginning.
No, I wasn’t using video; I was using analog motors.
Oh, so you were! Okay.
I didn’t start using video until 2003.
And that’s really where your work took off I think, right?
Well, the relationship, my work has always addressed the relationship of high and low. Those cultures have collided in my work. In the ’80s I was using a lot of found objects and I was using a lot of kitsch stuff, and I was sort of using a lot of flea market stuff and I was integrating all of that work into a high art setting. The work was being shown at major museums and being bought by collectors in the high art world. But it’s always been about the collision of those things, high art and low art, and analog and digital. Even before I was working with digital technology, I was referencing it in analog ways. There’s early pieces where I’m making work that is about digital mosaics; I was making work that sort of looked like Photoshop before Photoshop. I was making work that looked like virtual reality using lenses and lights and changing patterns. I remember looking through the first issue of Wired magazine and thinking, “Oh my god! This is my world!”
Yeah! I agree!
I was almost like a futurologist, making pieces that referenced that stuff. And then, ultimately I started using digital technologies but it was really behind the scenes. I used Photoshop to make my work, I used digital processes and scanning. But now the work is sort of using… I would not say the highest technology but it’s a little bit like the way Nam June and that era of video artists, as soon as technology got into the hands, it got cheap enough and small enough that artists could use it, they used it.
And that’s sort of what I’m trying to do.
I thought about Nam June too when I think about your work because it’s always still about the use of the video, all of his work, which I find interesting. Of course you bring in other content, but that’s really the meat of a lot of the sculptures I think.
Yeah. Nam June for me is a real touchstone; I actually wrote his obit for Art Forum when he died. They called me because I had the PS1 show at the time, it was sort of like the idea of making video sculpture, obviously… I owe him a lot, just in terms of the form. But then, people have said the work is a little bit like a collision between Nam June and Jean Tinguely. Nam June did not have the mechanical parts, and so I’ve got the mechanical parts of Jean Tinguely and then the video spectacular culture of Nam June, sort of put together.
Yeah, and I think there is definitely something to that.
Well, I did want to ask you about music, because I know you love it. And I had the opportunity to see you play when I was still in school, which was great, just to see how many worlds you really are involved in. It’s not just halfway either, I think you really are immersed in more than one realm of creative production. You were telling me earlier that you’re actually now in three bands, is that so?
Wow. What is that like… I mean, it’s the same thing, you’re crossing over many different fields. What is it like to be in one second in the studio with the band and in the next moment be back at it in the studio?
I’ll tell you why music is so important to me. It is a performative act unlike making art. Making art, even though what I do in the studio is encapsulated in a certain kind of performance and muscle memory event. Being an artist, unless you’re Marina Abramović, does not have that kind of level of immediacy. So I make my work, it takes me six months to make my work, and I make my work alone, so I’m kind of deeply invested in it. And then I bring it out into the “market,” so to speak, I bring it out into the town square, and show it and get a little bit of this [claps], or Roberta, a little bit of this [smacks], or whatever it is. But then, it’s your opening and then you walk away and the work just has its own kind of life. But in music, it’s like this immediacy that is so meaningful, it’s so wonderful to actually play, and I have good nights and bad nights. Sometimes I’m really on and that’s true of any band, you feel it, you feel the energy… You’re in it.
It’s contingent on that moment, that one moment.
It’s contingent on the crowd egging you on, the applause, the level of engagement, all of that stuff is really very much about being there. And I love that, I love that. And that’s probably what always… From a young age, from a very young age actually, I was on talent shows when I was like, six, basically when I could hold a guitar I was taking lessons and going out and doing these local talent shows. I think I needed that level of engagement and response from an audience. But all these bands, even the band you saw me play with, The X-Patsy’s, we go to Europe and we’ll play in front of five thousand people in quite large halls. It’s an art band. The fact is that it’s Robert Longo on guitar, Barbara Sukowa, the actress, as a singer. The rest of the band are hired hands, and they are pros, they’re professional musicians. But with Robert, Barbara and I, this is not what we do; this is not our day job.
It takes some pressure off.
There’s some freedom there.
It’s fun, it’s super fun! And we said, “When this stops being fun we’re going to not do it anymore.” So every now and then we find ourselves in a four-hour sound check, dragged-out, idiotic, stagehands. And we’re like, “We’re not having fun!” But then as soon as we go back to the hotel, chill out, and come back for the show, it’s like, we look at each other, and we’re like, “Can you fuckin’ believe that we’re doing this? How awesome is this?”
How fantastic that you really didn’t, in the end, have to choose between the arts and music.
Yeah, it’s true. It all worked out.
Well I think that’s really… You’ve answered most of the questions I’ve had and we’ve gotten to talk about a lot of things that I’ve been kind of wondering about, because I’ve been running into your work and thinking about you up at Columbia; I miss being in your class. It was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.
I really enjoyed it.
That’s cool, that’s great!
Thank you so much!
Thank you, Sandra.