The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Jon Kessler Day


‘Jon 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.

‘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.

‘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, and fiction writers like Thomas Pynchon and Philip K. Dick. Similarly, 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.’ — Hal Foster



‘Jon Kessler and His Mechanical Art’

Jon Kessler: The Future Was Perfect

Jon Kessler: Kessler’s Circus



Jon Kessler Official Website
Jon Kessler @ Salon 94
Jon Kessler @ ARNDT
Re: Mika Rottenberg and Jon Kessler’s ‘Seven’
‘Jon Kessler Celebrates the Blue People’
Jon Kessler interviewed @ Artwrit
Saul Ostrow on Jon Kessler @ BOMB
Jon Kessler on Tom Sachs @ BOMB
David Joselit on Jon Kessler @ Artforum
Books by Jon Kessler
Video: Jon Kessler making work in the studio


by Gen. Arthur Prinzhorn and Ethan Prinzhorn


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?

JK: 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.

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?

JK: 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.

Do you think of your work as interactive art?

JK: 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 from 1987 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.

[Your work] comments brilliantly on the image production of our time.

JK: One of [my work’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?



Lost Boy 2 (2012)

Lost Boy #1 (2012)

The 5th Column (2011)

Smoker (2012)

Fallen Hero (2012)

Magnum Opus (2012)

Live in Your Head (2012)

The Future Was Perfect (2012)

I’m Nothing Without You (2013)

The Swans (2014)

Blue Boy (2015)

The Iron Curtain (2016)

Search For Tomorrow (2016)

The Invention of Solitude (2016)

Killing Time (with Robert Longo) (2016)

Birdrunner #2 (2016)

Word Box (2016)

Music Box (2016)

Steam in Stereo (2016)

The Hostage (2007)

Modern Vision (2005)

The Art of Tea (1985)

Isolated Masses (for Peace) (1985)

Heaven ’84 (1984)

Visions of China (1984)

Still Life with Pork Chop (1994)

The Big Wave (1994)

Marcello 9000 (1994)

The Secret Storm (1984)

The Last Birdrunner (1994)

Cookie Machine (1994)

Autumn Box (1994)

The Blue Period (2007)




p.s. Hey. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Well, tons of people go or are sober without using 12-step programs or outside assistance — I mean apart from a few sips of wine or beer when I’m nervous or bored in a social setting two or three times a year, I’ve been ‘sober’ for a long time — and since Corey just said sobriety, I assumed he meant the state itself. I’ve been kind of curious about the Gary Valentine autobio. I always liked his solo stuff and his band The Know before and after Blondie. ** David Ehrenstein, Ha ha, the Proust estate should pay you a retainer. Like I said, one never knows. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. I’m happy the post got to you. Cool, yes, apart from a trip to NYC at the beginning of the month for the Lincoln Center event, I think I should mostly be here in September, and I can’t wait to see you! How awesome! ** _Black_Acrylic, Oh, wow, that Michael Jackson animation is amazing! Everyone, Should you not have had your fill of 3D animated real life bad things yesterday, _Black_Acrylic found a stellar one entitled ‘How propofol overdose killed Michael Jackson’, and it probably more than lives up to what you might imagine. Here. I thought of you instantly when time ran out at the game last night. So sorry. ** Jamie, Hi, Jamie! I do like the sound of the look of your hampered version. I’m good. The meetings: Z, G, and I are going to start the soldiering through a new sketch of the script that incorporates what ARTE asked for today, and we’ll send our proposed fix-it ideas to them when we’re finished, and we’ll see. The producer half of the meeting was a tiresome headache, but we’re all still in one vexing piece for the moment. Ah, so you might stay put and not make the move? Is that complicated? It must be. Oh boy. What’s the latest? Ha ha, I guess I must actually want France to win because I got … what are they called … hackles (?) when you besmirched the French team. Weird how that happens. Iphgenia Baal … no, I don’t believe so. I don’t think I even know that name. How curious. Well, you know me, I’ll go internet search this Baal person and start enlightening myself. Thank you. Oh, the guitar solo thing was just kind of random toss out. I mean, I did grow up as a big concert goer in the late 60s and early 70’s when there’d come that point in many shows where some perfectly okay song was dragged out for 45 minutes while each member took a lengthy solo on their instrument, so my pained memories might have been behind that Wednesday wish. I guess it’s true I mostly am not so into guitar solos unless they’re also creating some kind of structurally interesting segment of the overall song. Do you have a fave? Off the top of my head I guess I’d pick Robert Fripp’s solo in ‘Baby’s On Fire’ as my top. May Thursday quench your thurst. Ticklish love, Dennis. ** Misanthrope, Awesome! So pleased to provide you with fun. My goal in life is to be a human amusement park. I’ve got the dark rides part covered, I just need some rollercoasters. ** JM, You now own that post’s title. Maybe I’ll go back and add a little ‘® JM’ thing. What’s ‘avo’? Wait, I’ll look it up. Huh. So, according to the dictionaries, it’s either ‘a monetary subunit of the pataca’, ‘a New York based design studio founded by Brit Kleinman’, or ‘a badass person who is perfected to the highest degree possible’. I’m taking an educated guess that it’s the third one, yes? Happy day. ** Okay. If you like kinetic things, and who doesn’t (?), I think maybe you’ll like what Jon Kessler makes. That’s a guess. See you tomorrow.


  1. Heavy metal is filled with “16th-note-climbing-the-scale” solos that have given lead guitar a bad name. I’d second your praise for Fripp’s “Baby’s On Fire” solo; his solos on Bowie’s “Heroes” & “Fashion” are almost as good, as is his work on King Crimson’s best studio and live albums.

    I started drinking when I was 16, but I always drank in very moderate amounts. I’ve never had more than 4 beers (or the equivalent of other kinds of alcohol) in one sitting. Consequently, I’ve never been hungover in my life. I quit drinking when I was 26 because I realized that it made me depressed more than not by that point. I thought “this is supposed to be pleasurable, but it usually has the opposite effect, so why bother continuing?” But I never had a problem with it, and to me that’s what’s saying you’re “sober” means. I don’t go around saying I’m sober, I just say I don’t drink.

    Have you heard the new album by Ozkharp & Manthe Ribane, released by Hyperdub last Friday? Despite the president of Hyperdub recently saying that footwork and gqom are the most interesting music genres right now and the fact that Ribane is South African, this isn’t gqom. It’s actually pretty eclectic: one song reminds me of Grace Jones, others recall the R&B/IDM synthesis of American singers like Dawn Richard and Kelela, a few could aim for the US mainstream with their use of Autotune and influences from dancehall and mainstream pop while others go for something more experimental and closer to ambient music with vocals. Ozkharp’s production mixes stuttering, rhythmically complex beats with synthesizers that alternate between airy atmosphere and Gothic presence, while he also likes tuned percussion instruments. Ribane is a choreographer and actress who only started singing seriously a few years ago, but she has great presence.

  2. Ahoy Dennis! Some of these pieces are so eerily moving, esp those dated 2012, for some reason. Cheers for another inspiring introduction.
    I just saw your amazing PGL US distribution news! How good? Hope you’re both extremely chuffed.
    Man, I’m sorry I besmirched the French squad and caused your hackles to rise, but I’m glad I got you to use the word besmirched. That is one surprisingly pleasing word. It is funny when you find yourself getting defensive or whatever about something that you weren’t quite aware you cared about, eh?
    Best wishes for your TV revisions. Are Z and G feeling a bit more positive about things?
    Jarret Kobek is putting out Iphgenia Baal’s next book, which is what put her on my radar. I’ve just bought another one of her books right there between those two sentences. I like her a lot so far.
    I might prefer the Creepers version of Baby’s on Fire? Is that sacrilegious? I’ve got the Eno one on now to check that solo. I’d probably have to choose a Television solo (Little Johnny Jewel, The Fire, Torn Curtain), but if you know the Feelies first album, I really like the way most of the songs have multiple unflashy solos, sometimes all at once, kind of socialist solos – they’re kind of my faves. And having just finished listening to Eno’s BoF I was talking nonsense.
    Ah, the Brussels situation is taking a bit of plotting and thinking about. I’m a little unsure as to what I’ll be able to do for paid work over there, as I’m pretty practically unskilled.
    How was Thursday? Mine’s involved trying to fix glitchy scriptwriting software, or trick it into working. Very boring.
    May Friday be like a Disney directed day.
    Ketchupy love,

  3. Congratulations on the great Permanent Green Light news! Another cool thing I learned of today is that Gucci and Frieze have commissioned films on 80s youth culture from Jeremy Deller on rave and Josh Blaaberg on Italo. Not sure when these are viewable by Joe Public but the trailer for Blaaberg’s BWH – Livin’ Up soundtracked Italo film is here and it has me salivating.

  4. Dennis, Would I be wrong to assume Gisele is a fan of Kessler’s work or at least parts of it? A pretty neat guy, methinks.

    The dark rides part indeed. 😛

    Speaking of rides, mine’s blowing up. Or something. I’ve got five fucking warning lights screams at me on my dashboard. I’ve only had the car 5 1/2 years. What the fuck? I’m dropping it off tomorrow night. If repairs are in the thousands (it’s Subaru, those overcharging cunts), I’m just gonna pay the fucker off and buy a new car, probably a Toyota Prius. Ugh.

    On top of that, our oven just broke. Second one in 4 fucking years.

    At least my novel ain’t broke. Yet. 😮

    There’s something else that just broke here too, but I can’t think of it.

  5. An amazing but almost unknown guitar solo: the early ’70s Australian band Coloured Balls’ “G.O.D.,” which stands for “guitar overdose” and sounds like one of Neu!’s uptempo songs extended for 20 minutes! I co-sign Television; for me, the difference between them and the Grateful Dead, to whom they were often compared, is that they sound like they’re racing to get through “Marquee Moon” even though it’s almost 11 minutes long and has multiple guitar solos.

  6. Hi, Dennis!

    I met Steve today at Anthology, it was fun!

    Great posts continuously!

  7. I love kinetic things. I don’t think I’ve seen Kessler’s work before. I’m sure it’s no surprise I enjoyed the Lost Boy pieces (and many others).

    Sorry to hear about the continuing ARTE drama, Dennis. Work is so not fun here, sigh. I just need to look at the Quays’ Black Drawings more, I think.


  8. One day I wanna make something kinetic. Thanx for the kind words and all. Speedy fly in and out today. Hope speed’s good for ya. And around etc.

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