Jon Kessler and His Mechanical Art

Uploaded by vice on Oct 7, 2012

JON KESSLER: I had a friend in undergrad who grew up on North
7th Street.
He was Polish-American.
I was in the East Village for six months in a
tiny, crappy apartment.
He just said, you should really check out the first
stop on the L train.
And I'd never been out here before.
And came out, drew a circle on the map around the Bedford
Avenue stop.
And that day, I found about six or seven places.
And I moved into this building where I paid $150 a month for
the whole building, and I got a 10-year lease.
MALE SPEAKER: What year was that?
JON KESSLER: That was 1980.
I had that moment in my life which I'd wanted, which was
the older generation had had it in Tribeca and in Soho,
where you just go to a factory building, and the landlord
just could not imagine that you'd want to live in an
abandoned factory.
And this neighborhood was so desolate at night.
And he was just happy to have someone
looking over his factory.
It really seemed far away back then.
I mean, I would tell people I was going to Manhattan.
They'd say, you going to the city?
This is only 27 years ago, but it really
was a different mindset.
This is a photograph--
which I didn't take, it actually was given to me-- of
a flower arrangement from Japan of quite a well-known
arranger, Sofu Teshigahara.
And this will be motorized and mechanized.
And so the motor here will be moving these panels slowly, so
it actually deconstructs and looks like that a lot.
But these are constantly shifting.
And there is one moment when it registers, and
it looks like that.

And I've used motors and lights principally since I
started showing in 1983 at Artist's Space.
It was my first show.

The work always did have a relationship to what was
mechanically creating a representation.
Sometimes that representation would be projected onto a
screen, sometimes a representation would just be
the performance itself that would sort of flatten out.
I learned how to do all the stuff I was doing just from
the store owners on Canal Street.
They were so generous, and I didn't know really how to wire
up a light bulb.
And I'd go in there, and it was pretty desolate back then,
Canal Street.
It wasn't the pirated CD, Louis Vuitton, Gucci industry
that it is now.
It was just kind of a sleepy, industrial, surplus
And I'd go in there, and buy the owners a beer.
And they'd sit down with me and draw up diagrams.
That's how I really learned how to make what I'm making.
That was my school.

This space had been abandoned for 20
years, so it was a wreck.
It was really a wreck.
I lived without a toilet for almost six months, and I had a
wood burning stove.
So I used to go out with my truck, and collecting wood
pallets, bringing them home, chopping them up with a
chainsaw, and sticking them in the wood stove.

With Planet Thailand, they started in Green Point, and
then they opened a small little
restaurant on Bedford Avenue.
And then they opened this big place.
And when they did, they asked me to design the fountain.
MALE SPEAKER: How'd they know you?
JON KESSLER: They actually knew me through my friend
Julius, who was the general contractor on this job.
And they didn't know me.
They just basically said they wanted a fountain.
And Julius said, you got to look at my friend Jon's work.
So that's how it happened.
The idea was to make a fountain with a boat.
I was determined to do it without a motor.
So I guess starting with the idea of maybe a rowboat, I
happened to have found a large boat which
had two sets of oars.
And then the symmetry of the fore-oars
sort of found itself.
And then I used the principle of a Japanese--
this is quite common in a Japanese garden, which would
be a bamboo cup which would fill up with water.
And then the weight of the water would tip the cup over.
And it would make a knocking sound.
Just a sort of typical Japanese idea of just the
small sound.
You're aware of it.
It keeps time.
And so when the cups fill up, actually the oars move.
And then when the cups release the water, the
oars move back down.
So it's a constant moving piece.
The last element was the duck, which is actually a taxidermy
duck that-- oh, my god, this is such a crazy trip, going to
a taxidermist in the Bronx.
I found him in the Yellow Pages.
And I go back there, and it was mostly rats.
He had mostly taxidermy rats, and then this one duck.
I called him on the phone, he said he had a duck.
And I go there.
And then I put a life preserver on him.
And he's wearing a little sailor cap, and
he's walking the plank.

MALE SPEAKER: You ever get mugged on this street?
I wasn't mugged, but I had a knife to my throat, right at
my driveway.
And it turns out the guy puts a knife to my throat.
And he was the guy from Joe's Busy Corner.
The girls--
slice him up, Jimmie!
Slice him up!
And I'm like, I got a knife here.
And I'm like, you're the guy from Joe's Busy Corner!

They could have slit my throat.
And no one would have found me here for a few days.

It wasn't until after 9/11, really, that the work changed
with the use of video.
And I had in mind a piece which was in the PS1 show
called "One Hour Photo." Just really, I couldn't get the
image of the cockpit, what the terrorists saw on 9/11, I
couldn't get it out of my head.
And I decided to actually create it.
I used a surveillance camera in order to make that scene
come to life using postcards of the World Trade Center.
And that's when the work really
shifted and took a turn.
And all of a sudden I had this duality between the mechanisms
and the monitors.
And that's when the work got a new life, I would say, like a
new pair of legs.

The research that I did for the show I feel like wasn't
really anything special, having lived in America in the
last four years, that we are all sort of experiencing
day-to-day all the lies and all the deceit, and the shock
at things like, well, Bush winning the first time around,
and then Bush winning again the second time around.
It was an incredible disappointment
and shock to me.

I think the show does encapsulate a certain amount
of rage that I have, and disappointment, but also a
certain alienation that I have, the country in some ways
being stolen from me, and that the Constitution was being
stolen from us.
And that in a funny way, had you told me that I'd be making
this show four years ago, I wouldn't have believed you.
And I feel in some ways I'm sort of like Michael Douglas
in "Falling Down," or Henry Fonda in "The Wrong Man," or
something, being pushed, pushed,
pushed, until this happens.
And I'm just reacting to what's coming upon me.

It was almost like a diary, just like me processing all of
that information, all of that day-to-day existence in
America, from 9/11 to the buildup of the war, to the
Hurricane Katrina, to lots of
connections that were happening.
And coming to the studio, and really sort of for the first
time maybe in a very long time where I was just working very,
very intuitively, very immediately, and very, very
quickly, actually.
And then not even processing it so much.
Really just consciously sort of knowing that as I was
working, I was getting my confidence back, and my
intuition was being restored, and I was just
going to let it flow.
And that's what I did.

Toys have been something that's been very consistent in
my work since the beginning.
I think of the necessity in this work to play.
It doesn't come off didactic.
And there's a level of play that disarms the viewer.
And then you can, on top of that, lay on
any content you want.
And I think there's a certain power in the
simplicity of the mechanism.
But then the image that you see on the screen is actually
quite sophisticated.

I wanted people to be suspicious of the images that
they're getting.
I think you have to constantly be questioning how those
images are coming at you, why they're coming at you,
connecting the dots back to what the media, in some ways,
is constructing for you.
And these pieces are all there.
There's not a single thing in that show that is not in the
room if you have the energy and the will
to deconstruct it.

When I'm working on a show, I don't know--
especially one of these big shows, like the show I'm
planning, in scope is going to be a very ambitious project
like the "Palace At 4 AM." And I don't know what it's going
to be like before I start.
And I really do feel like I'm finding my way in the dark,
and just gathering evidence, and gathering forensic
information, bits and pieces, like after the bombing, in
order to put it back together, the scene of the crime.
The show is called "10:10--
The Time Was Now." And there's going to be photographs I'm
working on.
There's going to be sculptural installations.
There's going to be lots of monitors all over the room.
So it's very, very crowded.
These are very large.
These are these paper pulp pieces I'm working on.
These will be covering the walls of suicide bombers.
Then you walk in, and it's sort of all about time.
Here's the time.
It's 10:09.
This is like a minute before the moment of detonation.
These will just be covering the walls.
MALE SPEAKER: They're all 10:10.
JON KESSLER: They're all, you know, 10:08, 10:09.
And it's really how the advertisers choose to portray
the watch face, because it's kind of like
a happy face, right?
And it still shows the logo.
So I'm just taking advantage of that fact, and sampling,
and using that, and stealing the watch ads for my show.

The whole center of the show is going to be sort of like
the atrocity exhibition of using figurines, mostly
soldiers, to create these events.
And here is one where the soldier's just
covered in crude oil.
There's the one that you saw where he's being
dragged along the floor.
And I've just started to compose these.

And then there's this guy.
He's an aging hippie waking up sort of on the beaches of
California, sun tanned, and the long, gray hair, maybe
with a bottle of Ripple in his hand.
And then he morphed into a kind of much more complicated,
political character.
He figured very prominently in the "Palace At 4 AM." And he
became a piece called "Evolution," where he became a
right wing senator.
And he was on a blog site kissing the troops in Baghdad,
and waking up in the burning embers of
the World Trade Center.
But now he's really sort of turned into just everything.
He's the mash-up.
I collide him with all the characters
that I'm working with.
But his voice is gone.
He's trying to speak, trying to communicate.
And all of those sounds, those motor sounds, those server
motors are actually going to be picked up with little
microphones that are on his face, and they're going to be
coming through the sound system.
So it'll be loud.
It'll be sort of a loud, worrying,
whizzing, motor sound.
I'm not glorifying this.
But I really want there to be this feeling when you walk
into this show that death is imminent, or that it's somehow
suspended in that moment just before death in order to make
you feel completely alive.
So the work, you can see, has changed a lot.
Flowers and beauty.
Although I think the work is quite beautiful still.