General Arthur Prinzhorn, Ethan Prinzhorn & Jon Kessler
This interview took place in Yonkers, N.Y., on June 5, 2006. General Arthur Prinzhorn is a highly decorated, four-star general who retired from the U.S. Army in 2003. His youngest son, Ethan, will be receiving his M.A. in curatorial studies from Bard in 2007. The Prinzhorns were the next-door neighbors of the Kesslers in Yonkers.
General: Let’s get right down to it, shall we? Is your show critical of the current war?
Jon: The show is certainly a response to our current situation. Personally, I am highly critical of the Bush administration’s disregard for our Constitution and the White House’s kowtowing to the interests of right-wing groups. With an acquiescent media, our government misled us into a war in Iraq, and it’s clear that the same thing is happening now with Iran. But the show is less a polemic against Bush than my personal coming to grips with the rage and alienation that I’ve been feeling of late. How about you, General? You have certainly been very outspoken recently about the Iraq war and certain members of the Bush administration, especially Donald Rumsfeld.
General: As a general, you have a responsibility to the men and women that serve under you, as well as to the civilians that you are sworn to protect. I spoke out against Donald Rumsfeld because he has and continues to display a complete disregard for the men and women of the military and a total contempt for the American people. The way he wants to fight this war is untenable—we’re just killing innocent people as collateral damage for a failed vision of a “new” Middle East. While I support the spread of democracy in the region, and believe that it is incumbent that the region experience political change, the Bush administration is going about it the wrong way. They may very well drag us into a nuclear war with Iran where there are no winners, only losers. September 11 should have been a wake-up call for America to open its eyes and see how our foreign policy and dubious attempts to protect freedom are seen by the rest of the world. But except for a short period of flag-waving, we went back to sleep. I say this as Congress spends the next three weeks debating same-sex marriage—my GOD!
Ethan: But Dad, why were you so critical when we marched in protest of the war? Isn’t that an expression of the kind of democracy that you’re trying to spread in the Middle East?
General: I never critiqued your right to protest, I just knew that it was useless. I had never witnessed an administration so determined to go to war despite the worldwide mobilization against it.
Ethan: So I think we’re all in agreement that we feel lied to—Jon, how does your show react to this perceived injustice?
Jon: Five years ago, if you had told me that I’d be making work that addressed this subject matter, I wouldn’t have believed you. I feel like Michael Douglas in Falling Down or Peter Fonda in The Wrong Man—you can only be pushed so far before there’s a reaction. In 2001, I was working on a series of mobiles that incorporated body casts of my wife, my daughter, and myself. After 9/11, I couldn’t get the image of what the terrorists saw from the cockpit out of my head, so I decided to re-create it. That impulse led to One Hour Photo, and since then the work has taken on this more politicized direction.
Ethan: So there was an explicit change in your work that was sparked by 9/11?
Jon: The change in the work was initiated by the subject matter, but it was propelled forward by the introduction of video into the sculptures. This made the work come alive again. In 2004, when I did the show “Global Village Idiot”, I hadn’t shown my work in ten years. I had lost my voice and didn’t really know what to say anymore. The introduction of video into the work in 2001 catalyzed the breakthrough in the work that I was looking for. People have commented on a return to a looser, unfinished attitude in the new work. Throughout the ’90s, the work relied heavily on production, and I was spending countless hours doing things in the studio that I didn’t like, like polishing aluminum. In the recent work, when I paired the machines to video monitors, it allowed me to be more direct in constructing the mechanisms. At the point when they achieve the desired effect for the camera, I leave them alone.
Ethan: In the ’80s, you became known for doing specifically sculptural pieces that embraced elements of kitsch and found objects—how do you see this current show as an extension of the ideas put forth back then?
Jon: 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. The very early work played with pictorial space by creating a duality between the mechanism and the screens that was hopefully more than the sum of its parts. In many ways, this recent video work is a return to this duality. It’s funny that you say I became known in the ’80s. The changes in the work were facilitated by the fact that I felt completely free to reinvent myself. I had lost or left all of my galleries, and there was little interest in the work. When Artforum published the double issue on the ’80s and there was no mention of me at all, I really knew that no one was watching me.
Ethan: I would also say that there is a related theme in both your early works and your current show, which concerns the fetish. The early work, it seems, plays with this notion of the fetish in relation to objects—the complex power that we lend kitsch, for instance. Similarly, in this current show, you refer to the power that we imbue in the event—the fetish of 9/11. Does this resonate? Are you ever afraid of falling into that trap of fetishizing 9/11 as so many have, politicians as well as artists?
General: I’m going to go one step further than my son and say that your show was exploiting the events of 9/11!
Jon: First to Ethan’s point, the works from the ’80s did address commodity fetish, although this was never foregrounded in my work the way it was in my contemporaries such as Jeff [Koons] or Haim [Steinbach]. In the Asian-inspired works, it was more of an attempt to fetishize the culture—turning exoticism and otherness into a commodity. As for fetishizing and exploiting the events of 9/11, there is no overestimating the harmful effect that Al Qaeda’s ability to stage a truly murderous image-event had on the control of image production in our culture. September 11 is a constant reminder of America’s vulnerability and proof that we no longer have a monopoly on big violence.
General: I don’t know if it was your intention, but the sounds produced by the mechanisms in the show sounded like artillery fire. I felt like I was back in the trenches.
Jon: Throughout the summer, I had only one sniper mechanism running in the studio. “Snipers” are the mechanisms that move the cameras in quarter turns by use of Geneva mechanisms. Honestly, I hadn’t predicted the rhythm of the sound of seven of them functioning at the same time. I thought it sounded like a chain gang, but many, like you, were reminded of the sound of artillery—lock and load. I found the immensity of the P.S. 1 space daunting, so I chose to sculpt the space with sight lines, targets, and zones of vision instead of physical mass. The snipers also made the connection between surveillance and the new eye of totalitarian war—smart bombs.
Ethan: One of the many contradictions that gave the installation its tenor was the precision of the mechanism’s control over the mediated “space” in contrast to the looseness of the installation, with the hanging wires and the way that the machines were constructed.
Jon: Control over mediated space is one of the implied subtexts of the show, especially through the use of technology. So in some ways, the show is commenting on, as well as an example of, this. It drives this principle at the same time as it undermines it.
Ethan: In 1954, Michel Carrouges found a structural similarity between Duchamp’s Large Glass and the torture device described in Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony.” His insight was that both were closed systems with one part imposing on the other. This reminds me in several ways of your installation and your evocation of Abu Ghraib.
Jon: The installation does become a series of closed circuits that emanate, affect, and impose on each other. Abu Ghraib was suggested in Theater of Ideas with the GI Joe who is standing on a box with his pants pulled down and wearing a dunce cap. Surrounding him are more toy soldiers hanging from the structure of the sculpture; these are meant to evoke the images of the U.S. civilians who were burned and hung from the bridge. Surrounding them are embellished images of Kabuki, a form of highly stylized theater from Japan, and they suggest a kind of scary “other” that a soldier from Kansas might experience out on night patrol. Finally, the red splatter is meant to frame and encapsulate the order, control, and sensuousness of violence much in the way Kurosawa uses blood in his films.
General: There is something sensuous about violence. For many soldiers, fighting becomes as much an addiction as a duty. It’s funny, because walking through your show oftentimes I wasn’t quite sure if I liked your work because the images were attractive or because they were so gruesome. Is there a history of artists reacting to war?
Jon: For me, Dada is the most poignant example—they were responding to the mechanized bloodbath of World War I. But the title “The Palace at 4 A.M.” comes from a great Surrealist work . . .
General: What does the title refer to?
Jon: It refers to a Giacometti sculpture of the same name in MoMA. I’ve always loved the piece for its sense of staging, a theatrical mise-en-scène that feels like a model for a stage set about a dream sequence. When I read reports of our troops stationed in Saddam’s palaces and heard about Abu Ghraib, I thought “The Palace at 4 A.M.” was an appropriate title for the entire exhibition; it evokes the insanity that happens at that hour, when no one is watching.
General: Did the show change a lot when you mounted it in Hamburg? It seemed so specific to the P.S. 1 space. How is the show in Hamburg different?
Jon: The interesting thing about the show is how flexible it is. Since the snipers are based on zoom lenses, it doesn’t matter if the target is five feet away or a hundred, the show could expand and contract accordingly. In New York, the show was mounted in that giant room, which acted metaphorically as the grand public ballroom of the palace. The smaller rooms adjoining this were more private chambers, in which I placed many of the figurative works. In Hamburg, I used the billboards to create a series of rooms that allows the viewer to come upon the show’s ideas in a slower fashion. When they view someone on a monitor, they can’t just turn around and see them, since they will most likely be in another room. I cut holes in the walls and mirrors, and the billboards have been refigured to create more of a labyrinthine trip through the looking glass; sections of the show are lit with flashlights mounted to the cameras and acting like searchlights. Shock and Awe, a piece in which a photograph of Baghdad being bombed is cut and taped to the window in such a way that it covers the actual sky and becomes part of a composite image, turning the outside world into a prop, took on an odd and unexpected dimension in the Hamburg installation. A camera, trained on the street, happens to photograph the neighborhood where Mohamed Atta had lived while he planned the destruction of the Twin Towers. The idea of this show began as a reaction to the toppling of the World Trade Center. In a haunting and bizarre bit of chance, the Hamburg installation returns to the place where 9/11 was masterminded. There are also some new pieces for Germany, such as a sniper that uses an airplane window from my flight over . . .
General: You mean a picture of the window on your airplane?
Jon: No, no . . . the actual window.
General: Jon, you stole an airplane window?!
Jon: Well, I guess I did. Hey, the plane was literally falling apart. When we landed, the window had come loose, so I stuffed it in my bag. It’s inset into a wall with a view of a brick wall through it. There’s also a new piece at the entrance that has a camera inserting itself into a silicone vagina—this piece creates a double insertion, one with a camera entering a vagina that brings you into the mediated world telegenically, and then the billboard of the woman’s crotch that you physically walk through to enter the show. It immediately sets up the symbiotic relationship between the camera and the viewer, which continues inside as spectator and performer, voyeur and exhibitionist.
General: Well, I can’t say that the missus liked walking through the vagina to get into your show. It seemed a little blatant and, according to her, a poor decorating choice.
Jon: I was really thinking about the relationship between pornography and war that surfaced when the Iraq invasion began and the only place to see uncensored footage of battles was on amateur porn sites. These sites began as a place to post nude photos of girlfriends and wives but then became a place for U.S. troops to post videos of gruesome war scenes so that their family and friends could have a more accurate idea of what was really going on in Iraq. The viewer enters the show through a vagina, which belongs to a wall-size photo of a naked woman from behind. The image comes from an X-rated magazine, but all the sexually explicit details have been removed. I wanted the viewer to be reborn into the show; however, I didn’t want this to be a clean or simple birth, but one complicated by the media’s infatuation with disaster and titillation. These image-collages are also mimetic, commenting on the media’s own desire to excite and unnerve.
Ethan: True. Throughout the show, you use still images that mirror the titillation and violence of the actual show, so you constantly have this double experience of understanding this chaos interactively and through the still. Can you talk a bit more about your use of appropriated images and source photos? For example, what about the piece The Office?
Jon: I began with four coffee-table books that I bought at the Strand bookstore in New York—all of them were tributes to the efficiency of American power and might. These books were the readymades, and I used them as a starting point to build my own narratives. The pages got ripped out, cut into, painted on, and collaged together to form new stories. This propelled the work forward, and I built the machines to drive the narratives. In New York and Hamburg, The Office is the first piece that you see, and it presented the idea of the corporate lull, an antidepressant-laced monotony, the incessant calm that is only a prelude to the shit storm that you were about to experience through the encroaching entryway. I also think of it as a recruiting office; traps that are set in small towns to enlist undereducated, undervalued human flesh and bones that have become yet another part of Cheney’s collateral damage in Iraq.
Ethan: And how do the Swans figure into this ennui or sedation?
Jon: The Swans refer to extreme-makeover reality shows such as The Swan and Nip/Tuck. I took images from popular women’s magazines and made cuts in them to reconfigure their shape and image. The strategy is tied to Dada practitioners of photo collage such as Hannah Hoch and John Heartfield, but sculpturally they follow a line that began with Picasso’s Cubist sheet-metal guitar. The viewer completes the representation of the women, which are mounted on walls, as they approach the pictures; a surveillance camera captures the composite image on a screen. It is sort of a riff on that line from the movie Jerry Maguire, “You complete me”; in these pieces, the viewer literally does. The Swans refer to the fashion, commodity, and celebrity culture that dominate our lives. They are a way of taking back some power by subverting the images that control us, making these images our own. I made most of the Swans in a week, one led to the next and there were some violent ones. I took a sledgehammer to Winona Ryder’s face. But most of the pieces were produced with nip and tuck procedures—after the photograph was mounted to aluminum, it was cut with a jigsaw. I must admit, I was in weird violent zone last summer as I was creating the P.S. 1 show. I had to work fast, and it didn’t allow me time to doubt myself. Only having four months to produce the show was probably a positive thing.
Ethan: Jon, but I find it a bit disconcerting that all the images that you tore apart are of women. Is there a reason for this?
Jon: I tore apart men’s faces elsewhere in the exhibition, but for different reasons. The Swans are all women because we live in a culture where women’s bodies are objectified, and with television shows like The Swan and Nip/Tuck, these pieces are a kind of extension of what’s already happening. Women’s faces and bodies are distorted in ways in which the artificial becomes the ideal. Individual traits are replaced by shapes and textures never found in nature; bumpy noses, crooked teeth, frizzy hair, little breasts are erased; and real people are turned into freakish fakes. Lips and breasts and brows are so incredibly distorted but have become so ubiquitous that they’re beginning to look almost normal, almost natural. I’ve always liked playing with that in my work—artificial nature.
General: Who is the hairy guy? He’s definitely gone AWOL.
Jon: Yes, General, he has. He was originally made for Party Crasher. I used an English collectible figure and customized him with horsehair. In fact, he’s an Arab character. My initial instinct was to make a self-portrait: an aging, suntanned hippie; me, if I had made a few different life choices. But when he was finished in the studio, people would come by and ask me who the homeless guy was, or the terrorist. So he became my hippie/homeless/terrorist dude, a kind of floating signifier. For “The Palace,” he returned as the central character in Evolution. Using two different Arab heads, I customized the readymade to make four characters. The transition has him waking up in the burning embers of the WTC, on a blog site kissing the troops in Iraq, as a four-star general, and, finally, after receiving a Botox treatment, he becomes a Republican Senator.
General: Are you trying to say that these types are one and the same?
Jon: They all occupy the same world stage at the moment, and they push up against and react to each other.
Ethan: Can you talk about why you used that one piece of prerecorded footage from Google Earth that showed P.S. 1 and Phoenix getting blown up?
Jon: Like the cameras trained on the street, I wanted to further complicate the proposition of the exhibition by adding footage that I might have made in my own low-tech way using cameras, photographs, and machines. Besides, Google Earth is the most amazing surveillance source available for artists to steal from.
Ethan: Do you think of your work as interactive art?
Jon: My work has included the viewer for many years, so in that sense it’s interactive. Isolated Masses from 1985 had a heater that slowly warmed the viewer if they got close to the work. Path of a Carp from1987 had an electric eye and voice chip that welcomed the viewer in Japanese. In my new work, everything changed when I removed the background in Party Crasher and the hairy dude occupied the same space as the viewer. This premise of including the viewer continued in Heaven’s Gate, Gisele and the Cinopticon, and exploded in the “The Palace at 4 A.M.” The viewer certainly interacts with my show whether they want to or not by constantly entering the work—completing and disrupting the camera’s sight lines.
Ethan: How much of the show was conceived in your mind beforehand?
Jon: The original pitch to P.S. 1 was nothing like how it turned out. The ideas for the show snowballed as I began working with images that I tore from the books and spending more time at P.S. 1 over the summer. The show grew organically and changed direction as I progressed, much like the way my individual sculptures evolve. In the end, “The Palace at 4 A.M.” turned out to be much more image-based than my previous show, “Global Village Idiot.”
General: I remember that your dad had a workshop in the basement of your house, but I don’t remember you spending much time there. Were you trained in engineering?
Ethan: How would you know if he spent time there? You were never around!
Jon: My dad was a bricoleur and my brother is an engineer, so the genes are in the family. I’ve picked things up along the way, and the mechanisms are based on trial and error. I had the idea for a mechanism that would have intermittent motion and turn a camera 90 degrees. I worked on this for weeks, and when I finally succeeded, someone came to my studio and informed me that it was a Geneva mechanism, invented centuries ago for clock mechanisms.
Ethan: You always talk a lot about play in your work. How do you build play into the process?
Jon: This is difficult. Making work that has to function involves a lot of methodical labor and engineering, so I have to create spaces in the pieces that allow a more intuitive, faster way of working. Almost all of my sculptures begin with me sitting on the floor in my studio playing with a video camera and found objects.
Ethan: It’s obvious how the airplane images work in your installation. Why did you include the cutouts of Hummers?
Jon: I want to cry every time I think of Earth Day in 1970, when we buried a car in high school. Who would have thought that thirty-six years later, people would be driving around in Hummers as a status symbol? Thomas Friedman says it all in his op-ed piece “In My Next Life” in the New York Times: “Then I at least want to be the owner of a Hummer—with American flag decals all over the back bumper, because Hummer owners are, on average, a little more patriotic than you and me. Yes, I want to drive the mother of all gas-guzzlers that gets so little mileage you have to drive from gas station to gas station. Yes, I want to drive my Hummer and never have to think that by consuming so much oil, I am making transfer payments to the worst Arab regimes that transfer money to Islamic charities that transfer money to madrassas that teach children intolerance, antipluralism and how to hate the infidels. And when one day one of these madrassa graduates goes off and joins the jihad in Falluja and kills my neighbor’s son, who is in the U.S. Army Rangers, I want to drive to his funeral in my Hummer . . . stopping at two gas stations along the way.”
Ethan: Those seem to be the dots you’re trying to connect in your show . . .
Jon: Yes, the show is about connections, connecting the dots of causality. Some of this is created by the camera movement combined with the machines acting as editing machines, but also from the viewer’s movements and cognitive understanding of the show. The belligerent insistence to start a war; antiwar protests; consumer culture, which keeps everyone dazed and confused; Shock and Awe; Bush watching Shock and Awe on TV; you watching Bush watching; someone watching you watching Bush . . . In New York, the final piece I made was The Drowned World, which refers to Hurricane Katrina, a tragedy that exposed the fact that we can’t answer the needs of our own citizens, especially if they’re poor and black, and that the government is more anxious to pay for civic construction in Baghdad, even if not much is built and especially if the money goes to Halliburton. A touchstone of this show was the film Apocalypse Now and Coppola’s desire to play with and personalize the history of the Vietnam War, creating narratives that subjectively expressed the insanity of the situation. The difference, of course, was that Apocalypse Now was made after the war. That’s why I was so struck by the television show Over There, the scripted docudrama about our troops in Iraq as it was occurring. There’s no better example of the immediacy of the absorption of life into mediated experience. I believe we have come to a point where there is a separation from experience and the image; the image has become liberated from the experience, such that through the news, the Internet, and various other media, we encounter an overload of imagery, what Paul Virilio calls a visual crash.
General: I’m so sick of cameras everywhere I go—being filmed all the time. I suppose it could be a deterrent for perpetrators, or maybe we’re gathering more visual information than we could possibly use. Even so, the military is at the forefront of the intelligent processing of all of this audio and visual information.
Ethan: Yeah, with AT&T’s help and personal rights being sacrificed . . .
General: You know what they say, sonny boy, you have to break some eggs if you want to make an omelette. Jon, can you talk about the use of surveillance in the work?
Jon: The constituent character of surveillance—mediated cultural experiences augmented by anxiety—is present throughout all my work since 9/11. However, “The Palace at 4 A.M.” and some of my newer pieces respond specifically to the Iraq war and the unlawful occupation of that country. Unlike “Global Village Idiot,” which was composed of eight or nine discrete sculptures, “The Palace at 4 A.M.” implicates the spectators, turns them into the surveilled subjects, and refers to our ambiguous role in these recent world events. The play of camera, image, and monitor is ubiquitous, and spectators are constantly disrupting sight lines, thereby becoming active viewers/participants in the installation.
Ethan: As much as the show addresses surveillance and the media, it also insists on an unmediated experience . . .
Jon: The show is meant to be experienced. There is heat generated by the television sets, the smell of rubber from the miles of electric and coaxial wire, the sounds of the snipers imitating gunfire. There is a wave of experiential stimuli, which leads the viewer through the installation. While “The Palace” conceptually foregrounds the role of and our relationship to the media, it is in many ways a tribute to the unmediated experience. The machines are a physical experience for the viewer to actually have, quite different from viewing videos in a dark room.
Ethan: And yet it comments brilliantly on the image production of our time.
Jon: One of the show’s intentions is to oversaturate the viewer’s visual stimuli and expose the world as a prop for the constant fabrication of images to feed our collective desires. Reality shows and photo-op wars are an unambiguous manifestation of this phenomenon and an example of the democratization of voyeurism. The exhibition is emblematic of our historical moment, where time and imagery are conflated, so that our relationship to experience becomes increasingly confused and distorted. This complexity is internalized by the viewer, who simultaneously becomes spectator, performer, voyeur, and exhibitionist. If we are to appreciate our infatuation with and proximity to surveillance, then, for me, the question becomes not How can we destroy the camera? but How can we undermine the surveilled image and empower ourselves?