Mechanization Spurns Command
What would the Dadaists have done with themselves without the monster mechanical meat grinders of the First World War?
Andre Breton: psychoanalyst and left-wing social worker. Tristan Tzara, Romanian cabaret manager.
Jon Kessler often speaks about the Dadaists, clearly spiritual ancestors of his art practice, though he seems rather less pulverized by trauma than they. Man Ray, the American bubble gum king, is a particularly clear precursor. This East Coast urbanite was the one member of the Surrealist clique that Breton never purged, likely because Man Ray was indeed American, and therefore too pragmatic to court immolation on ideological principles.
The American among the Surrealists was the ingenious tinkerer of the bunch, the bricoleur, the image-hacker who dismantled cameras, put salt and pepper on wet film, glued tacks to a household iron, took glue and scissors to magazines, and titled his paintings in Yankeefied French... Kessler does quite similar things, only on a broader globalized scale and with more advanced hardware.
Man Ray, being a Surrealist, presented himself as a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Mystery was likely what Man Ray saw in a mirror. Jon Kessler is by no means a Surrealist, and therefore into wonkified, deconstructive explications of intent: "I was always interested in getting people to look behind the curtain. Getting them to become active viewers, to investigate the mechanism, to suspend their disbelief, and, finally, to have an experience with the objects that I was presenting, even if many of those objects originated as kitsch."
It's unthinkable that Man Ray would spoil the rayograph magic of solarization by bluntly solarizing a bunch of wet film-stock right in front of gallery traffic. By contrast, a Kessler video installation trots out its Rube Goldberg aspects front and center. It's a mechanism. That's what it is. Why cleanline the works away inside some designer's suave shell? Why waste valuable creative hours polishing the aluminum to a dazzling gleam? That glossy, deceptive pitch is oldfashioned, because it's Modernism, and therefore for rubes and hicks. An open-source method empowers the end-user.
Kessler's video art never exults in its Nam June Paik videosity. So it's much better suited to the current epoch when the video screen is cheap, grimy, tiny, battery-powered or flatly colossal, and, in any case, ubiquitous: video as an everyday banality, kitsch, junk. When there are video screens within our pockets, purses, laps, all over airports, at traffic intersections... video in banks, bank machines, convenience stores and the cheapest fast-food joints ... it's hard to find an aspect of urban life spared a video installation. So the point is to put them to work.
A model like Kiki de Montparnasse was famous in a Paris neighborhood, but Brazilian bomb-shell Gisele Bundchen has to tote so much globalized semiotic freight that she disintegrates at Kessler's touch. When it comes to the supermodel racket, a clacking, spinning Gisele Bundchen video installation is raw cinema verite. Can anyone, even at the remotest video-night in Katmandu, still think that Gisele looks that way without a team of image groomers? Or that gawky heiress Paris Hilton really "looks like" Paris Hilton © ® ™?
What's to become of a creature like Paris Hilton when finished performing her obligatory Edie Sedgwick virgin-sacrifice dance? And Gisele she's one of the better-behaved among the sorority, but is that at all likely to end well? Perhaps some future Kessler re-integrative machine could tenderly reassemble the scattered fragments of women maimed by the glamour biz. It's hard to imagine anyone else up to the challenge.
What unheard-of, hackerly skills will be required for art in tomorrow's video-broadband Internet: when a so-called web "page" is nothing like a "page." When video compositors and web-design software can mix, match, and munge a chunk of text, annotations, hotlinks, static images, video snippets, music tracks? And it all comes gushing straight out of the same pipe, a bubbling slumgully of creolized media.
"Film," in the sense of a long strip of celluloid, will soon be deader than Hammurabi; whole "video" is a formatter's acronymic nightmare of dot-mpg, dot-avi, dot-mp4... "Special" effects become the basic means of production; everything is fixable in post, cinema is a branch of software design, and James Agee, Pauline Kael, we scarcely knew ye...
A chaotically creolized media world lurks just over the horizon, what Lev Manovich calls "hybrid media" or "soft cinema," and this multinational, rhizomatic, kitsch-heavy hacker playground resembles nothing quite so much as a giant Jon Kessler installation.
Nobody ever designed, made, or engineered the Internet for the haywire applications now being foisted upon it... the planet's latest operating system is an awesome mix of appropriated media and colliding cultures, some relatively static and some in frantic motion, some more or less progressive and some the very heart and soul of the Coming Dark Age.
If you could somehow physically instantiate this scattered enterprise, well... it wouldn't be surreal, exactly, but you could mock that up, plug it in, spin it up to speed, and insert: video screens, tatami mats, Chinese restaurant figurines, Moroccan brass, the Rosetta Stone, light bulbs, lawn jockeys, counterweights, vinyl toys, magnifying glasses, and pretty much any possible residue of popular culture in some vaguely aestheticized, web-designer's frame of phony democracy. Then, yes, you'd have a Jon Kessler artwork as the objective-correlative of tomorrow's native technosocial condition. Not so much a prank as a prophecy.
The artist best fit to rival Kessler in this regard is likely Mark Pauline, the "robot performance artist" from San Francisco. Pauline, the punk Tinguely, publicly smashes his performance objects in ear-splitting wunderkammer orgies of Roman candles, flamethrowers, and Tesla coils. The acid-drenched deserts of Burning Man are thick with Pauline's disciples, while Kessler is a calmer, more contemplative figure, more Europe than Pacific Rim.
Jon Kessler makes toys. They're sweet and life-affirming little things, full of ingratiating Zen whimsy.
The world doesn't lack for high priests of an agglomerative hacker aesthetic. "We make money not art," as electronic-arts maven Regine Debatty wryly puts it, and she would know.
Regine thinks that art's relationship to technology is a marginal one, best pursued as an interventionist act of critique and sabotage, carried out by grubby denizens of the atelier against the soulless, shiny creatures of the megacorp. Kessler is not merely grabbing a Phillips head screwdriver to turn it against the practice of engineering; mechanism is his heritage, and he's a thinking man.
"Mechanization takes command," as Sigfried Giedion put it. But what if mechanization were last century's news and its "commands" were as dead as Napoleon's? What would we think of that? How would we think?
A proper critic in that world would be like the SCHOLAR STABILE of 2003, one of Kessler's simplest, most penetrating works: A small clay mandarin scholar, counterbalanced by a set of coins, weaves a track through space and time. This poised little gentleman is gamely asserting his Confucian proprieties while mounted on an Alexander Calder invention.
Whither tomorrow will carry us, he knows not, but by golly, he knows what he likes.
 Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command, A Contribution to Anonymous History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969).