PRINT October 2000


MIKE KELLEY'S NEWEST PROJECT is the most ambitious undertaking of his career, and, if everything goes as planned, it should take the rest of his life to complete. The endeavor officially began with Educational Complex, 1995, and continued with the 1998 sequel Sublevel. Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (A Domestic Scene), the third installment of what is ultimately intended to be a 365-part megawork, was first shown this past summer at Galleria Emi Fontana in Milan. It is currently on view at the Royal Academy of Arts in London as part of Norman Rosenthal and Max Wigram's “Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art. ”

EAPR #1 consists of a stage set—a large, shabby, crudely furnished studio apartment—and a twenty-two-minute video documenting a one-act play performed on that set. Inspired by a high school yearbook photo and shot in a style referencing the black-and-white, live-broadcast look of early American television, Kelley's play is a comically overwrought, soliloquy-heavy psychological drama about a traumatized, suicidal ephebe with a serious Sylvia Plath fixation and his prissy, manipulative, equally self-loathing “mentor.” It's as if the Odd Couple had woken up in a Twilight Zone episode scripted by an overzealous drama major and childhood-sexual-abuse victim. This fragment from Kelley's script is in no way atypical:

MAN 1: Come, come darling . . . into my arms. Let's clean up this apartment together. Let's make the bed up, so that we might tear it asunder again later, make an abstract expressionist painting of it with our passion. That is the only kind of disorganization that I can tolerate . . . the one born of passion-the chaos of love!

MAN 2: (screaming and running around the apartment) EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Let me out of here! Help! Help! The sight of this cot sickens me. With what cunning do you induce me into it? It stinks of men. It has the sickly odor of a dirty bellybutton. My stomach starts to seize up at the thought of the cruel theater enacted there. Why do you remind me of it? You twist a knife in my brain!

Shown on a television monitor in view of the stage set, the video imbues the patently fake-looking props and decor with the emotionally loaded atmosphere of a crime scene. As in much of Kelley's work, multiple media are disconcertingly combined in a poetic, hilarious, kind of horrifying investigation of American culture's thirst for pop-psychological meaningfulness. Perhaps inadvertently, the video creates an almost psychedelic interface with the truth-seeking surveillance techniques of television programs du jour like Survivor and Big Brother.

I talked with Mike Kelley about Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (A Domestic Scene), and its place in his immense project-in-progress, at the artist's home in Los Angeles's Highland Park on a broiling Sunday morning in late July.

Dennis Cooper

DENNIS COOPER: Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 was generated by two earlier works, Educational Complex, 1995, and Sublevel, 1998. Maybe you can start by refreshing our memories.

MIKE KELLEY: Educational Complex was a model of every school I ever went to, plus the house I grew up in, with all the parts I couldn't remember left out. It's been reconstructed into a kind of new überschool. It looks sort of like the model of a modernist community college or something. EC has one “underground” part that's located beneath the table and is a model of the basement of Cal Arts. For Sublevel, I took this section of EC and presented it at about 30 percent scale. So it's big enough to walk into, and I lined the parts I couldn't remember with pink crystal. For “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction,” the idea is to come up with a number of scenarios of trauma to fill in these blank areas and explain my selective amnesia. And I decided to ritualize the process and give it a kind of pseudo order. That's why I eventually decided to make 365 pieces, one for every day of the year. Each will have a video component and a conjoined sculptural component—or at least that's the plan.

DC: Was the “EAPR” series planned from the beginning?

MK: I knew I wanted to do something like this, but I wasn't sure what. I'd always planned on having it relate to a modernist utopian architecture. I was thinking about Rudolf Steiner and this idea that there would be a unifying aesthetic system. Instead of being a modernist, essentialist one, or a mystical one, it would all be based on repressed-memory syndrome. I always knew I wanted a central ritual at some point, and that this ritual was going to be a donkey basketball game. That would be the High Mass of this utopian city. Then there would be this immense halftime show. That became the EAPR work.

DC: Is there a why? Why repressed-memory syndrome?

MK: Only in the sense that I think we're living in a period in which victim culture and trauma are the rationale for everything. Especially in pop psychology, childhood trauma is the motivation behind every action.

DC: Your work has always had a developed, poetic association with the idea of psychological trauma, maybe not as explicitly as in this case. Is the explicitness of this new investigation part of an evolution?

MK: I've always been attracted to a variety of philosophical and psychological systems, but always in a poetic and abstract sense. It wasn't until the response I got from working with craft materials like yam, felt, and cut paper, where people really started to free-associate around those materials and to project all sorts of things onto my own biography. It made me really, really unhappy that no matter what I did with those materials, that's all people could talk about.

DC: That surprised you?

MK: I was very surprised. I thought they were just materials. I knew that on one level they evoked childhood and all that, but I also thought they were about class aesthetics and formal things that were going on and things about categorization. Over six years, I did a number of different shows that really focused on different aspects of those kinds of materials, and yet the critical reception always tended to be about nostalgia and trauma. I finally got so pissed off about this that I just said, “I'll give people what they want.” I invented this pseudobiography and started doing “biographical work.” That was Educational Complex.

DC: EAPR #1 was, and its 362 future sibling works are to be, derived from pictures you found in high school yearbooks. Specifically, from pictures of semi- or noncurricular activity rather than from the armies of head shots.

MK: Well, I wanted something very ritualized but very mundane. I also just needed a stockpile. It could just as easily have been movie stills. But I liked the yearbook pictures because they're so mundane. I only picked the ones that were extremely carnivalesque, that weren't normative. I didn't pick sports unless they were wacky sports. I chose artsy stuff or Dress-Up Day or hazing rituals. Pictures where, when you look at them, you don't know what's going on. You just know that it's this kind of free moment in an authoritarian system—a moment that transgresses the boundaries but that's completely allowed, even sanctioned by the system.

DC: Why did you choose this particular picture first? [The black-and-white image (top right), rephotographed from the “activities” section of a high school yearbook, shows two young men—one in vaguely dandyish attire, one sporting mildly ghoulish makeup—interracting on what appears to be a stage set.]

MK: Because it was the most difficult. I decided from the photograph that it had to have been a play. A lot of the pictures just capture a moment, and the videos that come of those will be shorter and the sculptural components more minimal. But I knew this was going to have to be a full stage production, so I thought I'd get it out of the way.

DC: How did you construct the play?

MK: Well, at first the picture seems simple. It's two men in this seedy-looking room, and they appear to be upset. It looks like a picture from a Tennessee Williams kind of drama, so that's the play I wrote. I wanted that level of emotiveness. But what interested me most was that the stage set made no sense. It has all the pieces from a bachelor apartment, but they're not composed in the right way. The stove's in the middle of the room, and there's a bed in front of the stove. So I immediately realized that the action in the play is built around the stove. That's what told me it was a suicide plot. I'd already been thinking about Sylvia Plath as a metaphor for an earlier work I'd done, so she came into it. She was my excuse. And suicide plots always imply a love affair.

DC: The play definitely has a kind of Boys in the Band, preliberationist vibe. One guy is tormented to the point of amnesia about the nature of his sexuality, and the other is a predatory queen. That aspect is pretty loaded and asking for it. But in the video, you frame it in this early television look, black-and-white and seemingly shot live with three cameras à la I Love Lucy.

MK: That was determined by the image and by the suicide pact, and by this strange, indeterminate black thing in the set that I decided was a sculpture with female genitalia—metaphoric possibilities that I could use to accentuate the schism in the protagonists' relationship. So homosexuality just seemed to be the rationale. Because the piece is about trauma, it goes back to the repressed-memory stuff, about having been raped and finally remembering it. So there's obviously this homophobia operating in the thing in a big way, and that's the running joke. We live in a really homophobic culture, so that's an easy fear to introduce.

DC: How did you get here from the utopian school model? I guess I'm asking about your process.

MK: Through writing. I used writing to figure out the rationale of the structure and realized that it was push-pull theory. Formalism, basically. The way the buildings were composed was only for formal reasons. There was no rationale. It wasn't organized chronologically. It was just, This building looks better
next to that one. At one point back in the '80s, I realized that I was developing a kind of negative religion out of my art training and that my formalist painting training was my abuse. So, following on that, for this piece I used self-help manuals as models for writing my own abuse scenarios. I'd use standardized scenarios and fill them with my biography. I always write as a major part of the way I do artworks. It used to be part of the work, but increasingly, with some exceptions, it's become less a part of the work and more a part of my process. It's used to generate ideas and identify themes of the work and figure out how the work will be finalized.

DC: The fact that you're a writer as well as an artist seems key to the distinctiveness of your work. Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but I think there's a way in which your visual decisions come from a language base. The subterraneousness of your work seems literary to me.

MK: The writing operates as a way of developing things, but I resist the Duchampian thing where the work suggests a lot of secret, explanatory text. I don't think that the writing is a key to the work's meaning.

DC: Maybe writing is a key to its editing.

MK: Writing is a methodology. The work is complicated. You know it's not simply about pop reiteration or recognizable visual codes, which is what a lot of work right now is about. People recognize that there's something tweaked, something wrong in my work, but they don't necessarily know what it is. It doesn't say on the surface of this work that it's about repressed-memory syndrome. It doesn't have to. That's part of the way everyone looks at everything anyway.

DC: There's such a tendency right now to resist reading art as something that might have an emotional or psychological infrastructure.

MK: We're in a really super-neo-formalist period, but one that's operating within a pop bracket. So a lot of formalism is being projected through the clichés associated with pop culture. You have a ton of artists who take a post-Minimalist formal approach, but instead of using raw materials, they use materials derived from popular culture. So Damien Hirst uses a Dan Graham–esque structure to reference medicine ads, or Cady Noland will project the National Enquirer through a Naumanesque structure. I think she's a good artist, but that kind of practice is extremely dominant. It's funny, because I've always thought that mixing pop and formalism was a really important part of my work, but compared to what's going on now, my work is arcane.

DC: Are you afraid that the reaction to EAPR #1 will be skewed toward the video and that the sculpture will be seen as a related decor?

MK: Yeah, I am. One thing that's always interested me a lot is the idea of stage props. That's always been in my work, but in this piece I explored a peculiarity of stage props: They are designed to be seen from far away. Close up, they're all fucked up. I wanted to work with that aesthetic, so here they're designed to be seen in close proximity. Sculpturally, the piece is mostly about that conundrum. There are all these differences of proximity that I think are really sculptural issues. I think that's something that can get lost, and I just know that the piece will be read exclusively through the play, through the thematics of the play. I just know it. But there's an interesting relationship between the things in the photograph and how they've been translated into physical objects, and that aspect has to be considered or the piece is lost.

DC: Sculpture, and the issues around sculpture, are coming back in a big way. You might be surprised.

MK: In a funny way, my work is really formal, but that formality is never talked about. People always glom right on to its abject nature, or blah blah blah blah blah. I've been typecast as some kind of mindfucker or something.

DC: The only good thing about that is it portends a second wind, a second life for your work when its fullness is inevitably discovered and celebrated. But maybe that's already happening in Europe, where your work is obviously very popular.

MK: I don't think there's more understanding of my work in Europe. There's just more opportunity. I think my work's seen through an exoticist gaze in Europe, that it's seen as being involved in some weird American psychology that they don't quite get. On the other hand, there's a respect for what I do over there, and an openness. They'll just say, “Do something.”

DC: Meanwhile, your American fan base gets shortchanged. With the exception of a work that you showed at Metro Pictures last year [Framed and Frame Miniature reproduction “Chinatown Wishing Well” built by Mike Kelley after “Miniature Reproduction Seven Star Cavern” built by Professor H.K. Lu, 1999], it's been a few years since you've shown your major pieces in the United States, right?

MK: I haven't had the opportunity to show most of my recent, larger works here. In the States, you get pigeonholed generationally, and after my retrospective I think I was seen as an '80s artist. Especially now with this youth art boom, it's all about the next thing. It's also cheapness. No one wants to pay to ship them. Besides, there are probably fewer than ten museums in the whole United States that show contemporary art. There's a lot of competition to fill those spaces.

DC: So we're fucked, basically?

MK: I'm hoping to resolve that problem with this project. Right now I'm working on a gallery show in Paris that uses scraps from Educational Complex. I'm making a dystopian city of the future out of them, kind of a ruin. Then I'm going to start doing gallery shows of shorter video pieces with smaller sets that will continue the "EAPR series in a more easily displayable format. So I'll be back.