Jon Kessler, Part I

by Sandra Orellana Sears, June 2012.

This month our Oral History Initiative features Jon Kessler, artist and professor at Columbia University. In Part I, Kessler discusses the impact of new technology, on society and individual, as well as the unexpected results of reconnecting with old friends. Audio + transcript below.

Artwrit: So thank you, Jon, for being here today with Artwrit. I’m Sandra Sears, and we also have Jason Shrier here, with operations. We’re talking to Jon Kessler today, who is a professor at the graduate program at Columbia University. I actually studied with him in… Gosh, it’s been a long time now, but I think 2008, something like that. You recently had a show in Salon 94 on Bowery, right near the New Museum, which was wonderful. I hope some people got to check it out. It was great. I think I wanted to start with that. I found it fascinating because I think I’ve seen some of your other installations, which were similar. The idea of video sculpture definitely was the foundation, but these seemed different to me: They’re more about internet culture and television—still surveillance, but more about media. What was the inspiration behind them and what was it like to do an immersive… I know you’ve done immersive installations before, but it was a great space at Salon 94. What was it like?
Jon Kessler:
 Well, the inspiration for The Blue Period was actually being on the subway, and realizing that about seventy-five percent of the people in the train with me were on their cell phones, engrossed in an immersive environment. They were either texting, or playing games or reading on their Nook or their iPad. Basically, they were there physically, but they were only partially there. So, for me, I realized that the whole sense of what physical space is, is actually really breaking down with… The acceleration of the technology is actually causing a rupture in physical space. So I wanted to create a show that, once you were inside this enclosed, controlled space, you really became aware that you were there, but you were also accompanied by other people, and you were kind of also lost in that space. You were filled up or displaced by other images, via the blue screening effect, the special effect, and various other effects, so to speak. Your physical body was in question. Your physicality was really more of a contested site. I’ve been very influenced by Guy Debord and Society of the Spectacle, and McLuhan, and the early writers who spoke about the emergence of media culture and how it would affect us in terms of alienation and isolation, and so on and so forth. For me, having grown up in the television generation, it didn’t really seem like it had fully come true until I all of a sudden realized that just about everybody is walking down the street, about to get run over by a car, and they’re deep inside their screen. I’ve been fascinated by that. My work, in some ways, incorporates media culture and media theory, but it’s also a very simple idea. It’s something I want people to feel. It’s not something I want people to go to the show, have this effect and then have to read the press release to understand.

Yeah! Part of it, too, is that a lot of the mechanics are exposed. There isn’t this finish to a lot of your sculpture. Maybe earlier, but I’m not familiar with that work. I think that starting with the post-9/11 immersive sculptures, there is something about them that is not distracting. It’s not like this is a finished sculpture and you need to be more concerned with the quality or the finesse; you expose everything. In that sense, the tension of that, with the images, I think is very inviting to the viewer. Whether or not the subject matter is, is a different story, but I always feel like you [snaps] get it right away, and I think the fact that you maybe have experienced the evolution of technology is also interesting. You do seem to have a very strong understanding of the engineering and all of that, right? You work with motors, lots of electronics. 
Yeah, technology, electronics, motor control.

I know you said you grew up with television but it also seems like you’ve grown up with all these other aspects of technology, and that’s even become the content: this insane growth and development of internet culture, even to me, and I’m sort of lost in it. For my generation, it’s still shocking. I still can’t believe when I go on the subway that no one is looking up anymore. To me, actually, it’s a huge frustration that I experience. I think other people from our generation, perhaps, are more excited by it, or it’s not necessarily a negative aspect of contemporary culture.
Sure. Well, when you look at social networking, you realize that it’s an amazing force. If you look at Arab Spring, and the power that Facebook or Twitter has had on the world in the last couple of years, it’s phenomenal.

It is phenomenal. 
It is phenomenal. So, every new technology has a kind of plus and minus. Nuclear technology has a plus, and then it causes atomic explosions as well. That is sort of the history of Modernism, which is that every new technology is going to bring about a yin-yang impact. But the fact is, you see, I’ve been making mechanical work for thirty years. My first show was in 1983, and it was really the addition of the video into the work, which happened after 9/11—it happened in 2003 for my show at Deitch—where I started to integrate small video cameras into the work. It was the introduction of a new technology that brought into the work lots of new ideas. Then I started to actually work with… I might have been alluding to surveillance culture or spectacle culture beforehand, but it didn’t actually use the technology. It didn’t critique and exploit the technology I was using.

That’s interesting. It’s cutting back to the McLuhan “medium is the message” thing. I think that must have perhaps had an even stronger impact. Now I think people, especially my generation, is a bit more jaded. We come into contact with these kinds of technologies all the time, it’s just part of our world. I certainly think it must have been something quite different back in the day. 

Was the first show at Artist’s Space? 
It was, it was at Artist’s Space. It’s kind of a funny story. I was here, in this building in Williamsburg, and I had moved in in 1980 and I had spent two years fixing up the building because it was basically a bombed-out shell. After the second year, finally I got heat and I got a toilet, and I made myself a studio. I put together a group of five or six pieces, small pieces, and I went to a party, kind of an art world party, and I looked at this kid who looked familiar and I said, “Did you go to Tyler Hill Camp?” which is where I went to summer camp for seven or eight years when I was a kid. And he said, “Yeah,” and we started talking. He was a curator at the New Museum.

Oh wow!
And he said, “What do you do?” And I said, “I’m an artist,” and he said, “Well, I have a friend who is a curator.” Valerie Smith, who I’m still friendly with now. And she was a curator at Artist’s Space, she came over. There was an opening, and literally I think a month later I had a show. And then six months later I had a show at White Columns, and then three months later I was at MoMA. I was in a group show at MoMA.

Wow. Rapidly.
It happened really quick for me, it was very rapid. In fact, I couldn’t go to the opening at MoMA because I had a house painting company and I was doing touch-ups, finishing up a paint job. It was that moment of transition, of like, “Maybe I don’t have to be house painting anymore.”

Sure! But still having the responsibility of it. 
Yeah, still having the responsibility of doing it.

That’s great, what a great moment that must have been.