No artist has produced a more pointed, or more powerful, response to the events of 9/11 and the debacle of the “War on Terror” than Jon Kessler. With image-machines that are at once deeply funny, deadly serious, and wholly anarchistic, Kessler takes bites out of the spectacle of the Bush regime—signal images of its authoritarian politics, misbegotten wars, and clueless culture—chews them over, and spits them out again. The effect is one of calculated rage against the current machine of American Empire.
Kessler is well known for his homemade mechanisms that activate found representations, usually drawn from mass culture, often with delirious lighting and compulsive movement. Yet over the last five years—that is, since 9/11—a shift has occurred in his work. He has introduced video, mostly in the low-tech form of small surveillance cameras, some of which relay the bizarre actions of automatons on nearby monitors. He has expanded the scale of his mechanical tableaux, sometimes to the point where they almost engulf the viewer in a noisy tangle of gadgets, screens, cables, and wires. And he has responded, directly and indirectly, to the image-world of the Bush era, reworking news bites, military reports, tourist postcards, seductive ads, and franchised toys into delirious little dramas that deconstruct some of the political fixations and cultural fascinations of contemporary America. Imagine The Light-Space Modulator of Moholy-Nagy redone with gizmos found on Canal Street by an artist who (like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange) was forced to watch the awful events of the last five years on television, and that might conjure up some of the effects of his two recent installations, “Global Village Idiot” (2004) and “The Palace at 4 A.M.” (2005–06).
Even when the image-machines of “Global Village Idiot” were related thematically, they remained discrete physically. This is less the case with “The Palace at 4 A.M.,” which absorbs some stations of “Global Village Idiot” and develops others into a vast, disjunctive environment. Two of the most provocative stations in these installations are One Hour Photo and Heaven’s Gate. In One Hour Photo, tacky postcards of the World Trade Center revolve on a vertical conveyor belt, at the bottom of which is placed a small video camera. As each card approaches the camera and then trips over it, an image is produced on a monitor of a wobbly zoom toward the Twin Towers. This perverse point of view, in which we are led to identify with what is effectively a weapon, first became familiar during Gulf War I, with the little cameras located in our “smart bombs.” In One Hour Photo, Kessler conjures up the perspective of both terrorists and victims on the doomed planes—a point of view obscured by the repeated videos of the jets seen from the ground. In effect, Kessler, who lives only a few blocks from Ground Zero, offers up an imagining of this other trauma, an imagining that, as a Freudian might say, cannot be worked through psychologically and so must be repeated compulsively. In this way, he also captures an essential aspect of spectacular events of this sort—how they are at once traumatically real and utterly mediated.
Just as provocative is Heaven’s Gate. The video in this station flies through a model city into a model apartment, where it zooms in on a computer screen; here we see the ass of a doll, then pass through it, only to emerge, on the other side, into the space of a gallery—an anal rebirth into the art world. As David Joselit has commented of this piece, Kessler “imagines representation as a carnal act”: In opposition to the pervasive myth of virtual information, we are asked to consider the material, often corporeal, effects of data (Joselit also notes that “Global Village Idiot” appeared in the midst of reports of the Abu Ghraib torture). More broadly, we are led to reflect on a general condition of obscenity, in contemporary news and entertainment alike, in which representations, bodies, and machines often converge violently.
Kessler works by blunt appropriation and perverse refunctioning, and this goes for his titles, too. “Global Village Idiot” is a clever contraction of “global village” and “village idiot.” The second term requires no explanation, while the first is drawn from Marshall McLuhan, who, in such texts as War and Peace in the Global Village (1968), argued that the instantaneous reach of mass communications had, for the first time in history, projected a planetary audience. The Kessler phrase suggests that in the global village of today, one of endless infotainment controlled by a handful of governments and corporations, we are actively trained to be village idiots—cultural know-nothings and political incompetents. This insight—that technological progress and social regression can be complements, not opposites—is key to the critical charge of his art, and it flies out in many directions at once. For Kessler is the idiot here; so is the viewer; Bush is as well (one is reminded of the bumper sticker “Somewhere in Texas a Village Is Missing Its Idiot”); and bin Laden is not excused either (in an interview, Kessler hilariously imagines Osama, holed up in a cave somewhere, watching Nip/Tuck, a television drama about the trials of cosmetic surgery). In other words, “global village idiocy” is an equal-opportunity condition from which no one is immune.
The use of video, Kessler has remarked, “freed me to think of the machine as events and the image created as the spectacle.” This formulation points to the circularity of his image-mechanisms, but there are also breaks within them. For even as his machines stage events for his cameras, the setups are rough, and the viewer not only watches the low-tech images but also sees their madcap production, which is sometimes so close to destruction that the two cannot be easily separated. The automatic aspect of the image-mechanisms is thus far from perfect or stable: Like little Frankenstein’s monsters, they almost threaten to turn, if not on their maker, then on their viewer. And this viewer is also far from whole or secure: One not only sees but also is sometimes seen, and no two viewers witness precisely the same thing. Machine and image try “to complete each other, which is impossible,” Kessler comments, and so “a puncture” is produced between the real and its representation—a puncture that allows us to see through these setups and, in principle, to see through others in the world. Through his own little dysfunctional spectacles, then, Kessler suggests that the great spectacle of American power is also in trouble, that its wizards cannot maintain its theater of illusions forever, that wondrous new technologies are always haunted by awful new disasters, and so on. And in this way, he points to another crucial contradiction of the American Empire today: Even as its power goes unchecked by its allies, let alone by its enemies, its image, especially in the Middle East, continues to take a beating.
In “The Palace at 4 A.M.,” Kessler pushes these concerns to a new level. One enters this infernal world through a passage that is later revealed to be a giant beaver-shot. (“I do want viewers to be reborn when they enter my show,” Kessler says, “but not in a clean state.”) One then encounters a big blowup of the trashed residence of Saddam Hussein; the palace in question seems to be his. Yet one also sees a huge image of Bush with the word “war” scrawled in blood red, so the palace might be the White House as well. In short, the palace seems to be a psychological bunker that they share—and that, too often, they have made the rest of us share as well. At first glance, this Gesamtkunstwerk of media overload seems to be a carnivalesque world, turned upside down and inside out, but it soon becomes clear that this is actually how much of our world is. Finally, then, the palace in question might be your own home, too, say in the middle of the night when the “War on Terror” troubles your sleep. Indeed, one experiences an oscillation between engulfment and recoil in “The Palace at 4 A.M.” that is a little like a nightmare.
With these installations, Kessler recalls various predecessors: Robert Rauschenberg and his rambunctious combinations of media appropriations, Claes Oldenburg and his regressive theater of homemade objects, Jean Tinguely and his auto-destructive contraptions, and so on. Closer to the present, one might also think of Mike Kelley and his inspired reenactments of the weird things that asocial men concoct in their basements and backyards. Other associations come to mind as well—media theorists like Paul Virilio, filmmakers like David Cronenberg (“The Palace at 4 A.M.” could be titled “Videodrome”), and fiction writers like Thomas Pynchon and Philip K. Dick. However, “The Palace at 4 A.M.” also alludes specifically to Alberto Giacometti and his Surrealist game boards, cages, and the like (Kessler borrows his title from one such work). The general connection to Surrealism seems clear enough: Kessler updates its strategy of pointed juxtapositions of found images and objects, which often result here, as in the best of Surrealism, in a “convulsive beauty” in which desire and death are bound up with each other. The connection to Giacometti is more precise. In his own Palace at 4 A.M., with its little figures in a skeletal house that is also a nasty cage, Giacometti conjures up an obscure drama of Oedipal subject formation. In his “Palace,” Kessler reflects on how we are formed as subjects today, how we are inscribed in new regimes of global entertainment and imperial politics.
In this regard, an element of paranoia—of critical paranoia—runs throughout the work, as it runs throughout Surrealism, McLuhan, Virilio, Cronenberg, Pynchon, and Dick. Dick once defined the paranoiac as the person with all the facts, while Freud viewed the paranoiac as a subject desperate to connect “all the facts,” often through complex conspiracy theories, precisely because they appear so disconnected in the first place; for this subject, the very survival of the world seems to depend on the coherence that he or she can project on it by sheer force of interpretative will. In a further study, the Freud associate Victor Tausk focused on paranoiacs whose conspiracy theories took the form of control by “influencing machines.” Clearly, Kessler plays with the tension between connection and disconnection in the world, and he, too, constructs “influencing machines” to do so (that could be another rubric for his installations). At the same time, he refuses to be at their mercy; indeed, his machines are models of how to jam, however momentarily, the image-flow of the great machines of power.
I want to conclude with one more association that, to my mind, trumps all the others. Nearly one hundred years ago, in the midst of World War I, the Dadaists in Zurich developed a strategy of mimetic exacerbation: In their Cabaret Voltaire, they took the corrupt words and images of the powers then at war and played them back as a caustic form of nonsense. “What we call dada,” the great Zurich ringleader Hugo Ball wrote in 1916, “is a farce of nothingness in which all higher questions are involved; a gladiator’s gesture, a play with shabby leftovers, the death warrant of posturing morality and abundance.” In the midst of another war, Kessler produces a Cabaret Voltaire for our own time, its pandemonium updated to suit present conditions; and as Ball took on the role of the “magical bishop,” so Kessler assumes the guise of the “global village idiot”—a shaman who seeks, perhaps impossibly, to exorcise the pandemonium of the present, pandemonium as in “abode of all demons, place of lawless violence or uproar, utter confusion.”