PRINT October 2005



THIRTY-TWO DOWN, 333 TO GO. Back in 2000, Mike Kelley unveiled Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (A Domestic Scene), the first installment of an ongoing, gargantuan serial work that will eventually comprise 365 video pieces, each with its own set, or sculptural component. Next month, “Day Is Done,” Kelley’s first solo show at Gagosian Gallery in New York, will assemble an ambitious multiplex of thirty-one videos and associated sculptural “stations” (Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions # 2–32, 2004–2005) that the artist has made since.

The exhibition reactivates Kelley’s career-long investigation into the social mutations of desire and repression. But his earlier concerns with repression production—in the adolescent or in the family as a whole—give way here to the vertiginous “retrieval” and wayward reinvention of mythical community and subcultural traditions. The symbolic space-time of the work or school day, the governing structures of labor, duty, and obedience announced as “done” in the exhibition’s title, are overwhelmed in these filmed performances by hyperthyroid phantasms of the “extracurricula,” which Kelley delivers pell-mell in color, rhyme, and rhythm across a sprawling panorama of substrate Americana.

Culling photos from high-school yearbooks, the artist confronts himself with dozens of pop-cultural subject positions (goth, hick, choirboy, thug), which he embeds in as many or more ritualized social forms (pantomime, religious- and secular-holiday celebrations, Halloween, a workplace motivational event) and then animates in a sequence of musical numbers ranging from genre-specific simulation to farcical complicity, from conceptual montage to delirious incantation. All this Kelley happily complicates with psychosexual improvisation, glaring stereotypes of every stripe, and great gobs of compositional rearticulation and synthesis that return to the impromptu scoring of his performance work of the early ’80s.

Kelley refers to the Extracurricular Activity project as a commentary on the horizon of failed modern utopias, a kickback against the idea of art transforming the world. And so it is, but only by virtue of another of his signature bottom-to-top inversions. For the utopian in “Day Is Done” is identified not with the massing or totality of the final product (or the dream it brokers) but rather with the veins of dislocated utopianism immanent in the systems of religion, patriotism, or ritual protocol (holidays, authority figures, conventions) that are appropriated and distended in the American vernacular—and transformed once more by Kelley.

Of course “Day Is Done” is also good old-fashioned, updated, unwholesome fun. We should probably let it be what it also is: Kelley’s chicken dance around the art world.

John C. Welchman


The Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction series of videos arose from my desire to fill in the blanks in Educational Complex, 1995 (an architectural model made up of every school I have ever attended), with some kind of action. The blank areas represent all the locations within these buildings that I couldn’t remember. The videos are false memories of “trauma” associated with these sites. I wanted these to consist of a very generic filler of shared cultural experiences. While some of this content and its detail might be subjective, at core it’s recognizable to almost everybody: popular forms of entertainment and social rituals.

The imagery is derived from photos of extracurricular activities found in high-school yearbooks. I developed a “plot,” if you can call it that, by building image connections between a set number of photographs from the hundreds I have collected. I worked with a limited group of iconographic motifs—specifically, goth and Halloween imagery and religious spectacles.

The first of the projected 365 videos, Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (A Domestic Scene) was shown at the Emi Fontana Gallery in Milan and then in “Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2000. The tape was a half-hour melodramatic play mimicking the look of ’50s TV dramas. With the current series I didn’t want people to get so caught up in the individual tapes; rather, I wanted to create an experience akin to channel surfing. The structure of movie musicals seemed a good way to achieve this, as they generally dispense with traditional narrative. Musicals are episodic and contain a variety of scenes, acts, and production numbers. Among popular forms the musical is the least unified and coherent. On the formal level I moved from a single set with accompanying tape to something more like spatialized filmic montage: a feature-length film in which montage is literalized in space. I wanted complexity, but I never imagined that I would end up with the thirty-some tapes that I did. It just turned out that way.

Once I chose the images, I wrote songs and music for a series of production numbers based on them. I worked with a choreographer to develop dance numbers. The question arose: What narrative elements should hold the production numbers together? Musicals and pornography operate similarly: There are the popular acts, and then there’s the narrative glue that holds them together, which is generally unimportant and often ridiculous. My narrative glue consists of a thin plot in which workers in an undefined “institutional workplace” attend a yearly grand spectacle.

This show will consist of a number of sculptural islands with accompanying videos presented on a variety of projection screens. All the sculptures in the show were produced from set pieces, materials, and props used in the production of the videos. I have always been fascinated with film props; they have no life outside of film and were never designed to be seen in person. The whole point of EAPR #1 was to focus on such provisional objects as sculptures, though these were built in the manner of stage props meant to be seen from quite far away. In contrast, the objects in this show were built to be seen on video, close up, and so were constructed in a very different manner. I also designed the sets for multiple usages; the front might be related to a completely different scene than the back. This forces both continuities and divergences as one views the exhibition. The tapes aligned with a particular set won’t always be chronological. To make up for these discontinuities, I will use a computer syncing system. This way, the videos switch on and off at different moments, allowing for a temporal chronology, if you like, but not a spatial one. A programmed flow of tapes, analogous to a single-channel version of back-to-back sequences, will move throughout the gallery. There is roughly three hours of taped material—too much for the typical viewer to take in—so I plan to have the tapes run from three different points simultaneously. That way the viewer can enter at almost any time and follow the action.

I plan to open up the Gagosian space as much as possible since the sculptural stations are architectural in scale. The sets consist of doors, walls, windows, etc.—so the sets themselves function as exhibition partitions. The viewer will enter a darkened gallery to discover a spread of architectural fragments sequentially illuminated by the various synchronized projections and monitors. I hope the viewer will intuit that there is some kind of narrative flow operating. Of course, this flow is quite complex and difficult to navigate, but like a musical, it doesn’t really matter if one can follow it or not.

One of the thirty-one segments is a children’s Christmas nativity play. It is a slow and painful piece of theater in real time. I played a children’s song and one of the kids did a weird little dance to it. This prompted me to shift musical style, to counter the form of the play with inappropriate accompaniment. I composed a modernist electronic sound track for it. The girl’s movements seem to trigger this superimposed sound. Modernist performance is presented through the form of a children’s play. I increasingly became interested in producing such frictions.

My working method consists of giving myself jobs. I have photos of people, dressed in such-and-such a way, in certain situations, and I have to write dialogue or songs for them. One reconstruction, for example, is written in the manner of a sitcom, with a laugh track. There is no real reason for this. It was simply an exercise in style.

In the literature of Repressed Memory Syndrome, the recovered memories of abusive trauma tend to be of everyday situations gone bad—fellow church members become satanic abusers, a father becomes a rapist, a children’s preschool becomes the site of deviant rituals. I have followed this logic and taken standard folk entertainment forms, generally viewed as positive, and perverted them, though for the most part in a subtle manner.

The folk entertainments I represent are true in the sense that most people have done or experienced such things themselves during their lifetime. I don’t see them as simply shallow any more than I see “false memories” as shallow. They are truly felt experiences. Movies and pop songs are similarly real on the emotional level. I’m playing with the equivalence of art and true recollection.

I want to create a contemporary gesamtkunstwerk that is not utopian in nature but is an extension of our current victim culture. My version of this unremittingly dark vision is presented as fun, as a carnivalesque escape from the drab daily grind of normal life. We are now in a period in which a lot of fun art is being made. I put this show together with New York in mind. There’s a lot of Broadway in it, and Broadway is quintessentially New York.