THE MACHINE MAKER
Jon Kessler used to make machines that made art.
In 1992, one of those machines was called WORD BOX and it made concrete poetry. Picture a tall, nicely finished, off-white rectangular box with an electric cord snaking out from underneath, a contraption that would not have looked out of place in a modernist video arcade, if there were such a thing. Glass panels allowed a series of two-sided black-and-white word paintings to be read from either direction, and revealed the mechanism that raised, shuttled, and lowered them in poetic succession. A different machine, AMERICAN LANDSCAPE #2 (1990), made painterly landscapes behind its glass front. Inside a clean wood console nestled a Technicolor sunset set on a dimmer and a distinctly American vista: a dark, flat plane populated by a little shack, from which emanated the flickering blue glow of a real television set. With an exterior suggestive of TV set cabinetry and an interior that was literally animated, the diorama offered a picturesque scene fit for a television generation.
Various other machines made what might paradoxically be called moving still lifes. CRASHING BY DESIGN (1986) arrayed clusters of fake grapes, a Michelin Man, a Sapporo can, an Italian candy dish, a deco statuette, and a little plastic car on various levels of an elaborate metal framework. The whole functioned as a vanitas in action, as various objects spun, rotated, and cast shadows, and the automobile sped endlessly back and forth, clocked by a speedometer. The Ikebana series from 1994 consisted of aluminum wall-mounted light boxes against which were arrayed color-separated duratrans. The transparencies presented photographs of individual Japanese-style flower arrangements, but motorized gizmos shifted them continuously such that they added up to a single still life for only a moment then kept on moving.
A large batch of machines from the 1980s made shadow play pieces. Inside wall-mounted structures sat a hodgepodge of mixed media, from twigs and miniature ships to human figurines and a toy dump truck; in front of them hung glass or plastic screens against which a variety of ingenious light systems cast evocative shadows. Motors and gears angled a branch thisaway or moved a plastic soldier thataway, adding to the projection's effect. The kind of secrecy that makes a magic lantern magic wasn't part of the game, however. Seen from the side, works like GARAGE (1987) revealed how their elegant silhouettes derived from setups as basic as a painted-over Fisher Price garage rotating on a bicycle chain, illuminated by a single bulb.
There were other kinds of machines, too. Machines that made music, like the elephantine MUSIC BOX (1992) – a medieval contraption of wood, steel, and leather that enlarged the simplest of musical mechanisms to a frightful scale. And the charmingly wonky ARTS ET METIERS (1989), which repurposed an old bellows, telescope, phonograph, and wooden barrel, along with sundry vacuum cleaner hoses, into a concerto of moans, squeals, and squeaks. And there were machines that made theater, like the witty MARCELLO 9000 (1994), in which one colorful upright cabinet rolled toward another, both of them based on sixties IBM mainframe computers. When they meet, the audio reels stored inside their shells sprang anthropomorphically into an impassioned dialogue from La Dolce Vita.
So, as I was saying, Jon Kessler used to make machines that made art. Or rather, he made machines that aspired to make something that looked more or less recognizably like a number of different forms of art. Which is a rather convoluted way of saying that he made machines that parodied art, but then there are simpler ways of making concrete poetry than by fashioning a human-size mechanism to display a series of word paintings. It's called pen and paper. No one would accuse Jon Kessler of taking the simple way out.
After a ten-year hiatus, Kessler has since 2004 been making art again. He still makes machines, but the machines that he makes don't themselves make art, or something that intentionally takes the guise of art. Which is not to say that they aren't up to their old parodic tricks. On the contrary, they most certainly are. But along with the times, their subject has basically gone to hell: from the culture shock of automaton art to the shock and awe of smart bombs, from cultural politics to the politics of war.
Take THE CHERYL PICTURES, a machine from 2004 in which a naked child's doll rotates continuously at the end of a wooden arm, atop an ad-hoc metal stand. A small surveillance camera tracks Cheryl's every move, capturing the effect of gravity on her long red hair and her mobile plastic eyelids. An adjacent LCD screen plays the resulting video feed, and there's Cheryl in close-up, smiling like she's having the time of her life, hair blowing in the breeze, eyes closing in delight or some such plea-sure—when in reality she's undergoing a mechanical version of sit and spin, baby, sit and spin. A relentless, violent situation can appear astonishingly pleasant when translated onto a closed-circuit monitor, even, it seems, without the help of an editor.
Then there's ONE HOUR PHOTO, also 2004, wherein dozens of World Trade Center picture post-cards pass by another tiny security camera. Dangling from a contraption that looks like a cross between a chicken rotisserie and a conveyer belt, the images shuttle horizontally toward the camera one by one before lifting up to make way for the next. The resulting live feed produces something far more disturbing than these parts would imply: a highly pixilated image that zooms nauseatingly into the Twin Towers over and over again, as if positioned in the cockpit of a plane about to hit. It's a first-person shooter view, from the perspective of a pilot terrorist, as bereft of consequences as any other video game.
These machines formed two of the independent stations in Kessler's 2004 "Global Village Idiot" show at Deitch Projects. Collapsing the terms global village and village idiot into an apt and timely short-hand, the exhibition's title pointed at the US's presidential cretin and the devastatingly broad effects of his actions, as at a number of other undeniable and undeniably foul situations, among them the beauty system wherein a not-very-Brazilian-looking Brazilian woman named Gisele Bündchen becomes the world standard for all that is female and desirable.
As self-sufficient, closed-circuit machines, the various stations in "Global Village Idiot" aggressively sent up instances of intercontinental horror, all of them functioning on mindless autopilot, all of them hauntingly familiar. But with THE PALACE AT 4 A.M., his gargantuan 2005 installation at P.S. 1, Kessler created a machine that went beyond all previous parodic episodes. He made a machine that apes the machine the media machine, the political machine, the war machine—in all its manipulative, incessant, interconnected ubiquity.
Titled after Alberto Giacometti's seminal surrealist sculpture of 1932, Kessler's THE PALACE AT 4 A.M. also recalls two present-day citadels, equally populated by bizarre happenings: the bombed-out royal house of Saddam Hussein run amok with U.S. soldiers, and the White House, where who knows what the Bush administration gets up to at odd hours of the night. In Kessler's PALACE, 300 monitors stream live feeds from some 60 video cameras sited around the exhibition space, while forty-odd kinetic sculptures set various image schemes in motion, generating yet more media for broadcast on those screens. Billboard pix of Bush, his marauding army, Saddam's demolished palace, and a sprawling naked woman loom over everything as central motifs, to be endlessly repeated through video feedback loops. Doorways cut into the billboard panels implicate viewers as they enter and exit, as do cameras that catch viewer and blunt background image juxtaposed. Smaller images proliferate endlessly—luxury automobiles, American soldiers, fiery explosions, dusty bombed-out neighborhoods, applauding politicians, the World Trade Center ruins, dark shirtless men with arms raised in surrender. Torn from glossy magazines, reconfigured, repurposed, recorded, and replayed, some of these pictures are recognizable, some not, but each is as much a part of the dizzying, deafening image stream as is any other as is the viewer, too.
Individual machines make their particular parodies, some more pointed than others. SHOCK AND AWE (2005) points a camera out the gallery window onto the Long Island City industrial landscape, capturing it along with the outline of a fiery sky pasted onto the glass windowpane. Fed to a monitor, the two images flatten into one and presto, it's April 2003 all over again, only this time the target isn't Baghdad, it's Queens. Elsewhere a flock of machines called SWANS (2005) film the viewer through irregular holes cut into warped sheets of aluminum, the flip-side of which are covered in headshots of glossy models. Small LCD screens spit the double faces back out, collapsed together and looking like animated versions of Hannah Hoch's From an Ethnographic Museum series from the mid-1920s, but with a devastating twist: amid the distorted noses and slashed cheeks, the viewer's own live face stares helplessly out.
Everything is connected to everything else in THE PALACE AT 4 A.M. Images picked up on this camera or generated via that machine transmit incessantly to any of a dozen banks of monitors. Viewers watch those monitors under the surveillance of other video cameras, themselves hooked up to monitors. Amid it all hang three miles of wiring and cables, visibly tracing the connections along which data and electricity shuttle from one device to another. Everything is exposed: where the images come from, where they're going, and most importantly how they're being manipulated. This is no high-tech operation, leaving viewers helpless in the face of some sophisticated, invisible security system with a brilliant digital brain. It's radically different from the everyday media spectacle, wherein covertly altered facts and figures get directed along lines drawn by political interests and focus groups; soldiers believe they're bombing Baghdad in revenge for 9/11, others think they're chasing down WMDs, and it's the "unknown unknowns" (as opposed to the "known unknowns") we're told to watch out for. Unnervingly low tech and transparent, THE PALACE AT 4 A.M. instead lays everything out in plain sight and still the viewer is impotent. Exposed or not, the spectacle remains unstoppable and voracious. To hope for a power outage would be as pathetic and hollow a victory as turning off the nightly news.
Even as the mechanism of their participation is made clear, viewers can't escape the machine. It's a devastating demonstration of how we are all implicated, no matter how carefully we may try to keep out of the crosshairs. We're all caught in them—lucky for us they're the crosshairs of a video camera and not a machine gun.