Conversation with Jon Kessler

Right before the opening of this year’s Manifesta 11 in Zurich we spoke with New York-based artist Jon Kessler. He is collaborating for the biennial with the Italian watch manufacture Officine Panerai located in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Together with Adriano Toninelli, a watchmaker at Panerai, Jon Kessler has been developing a new production, The World is Cuckoo (Clock), which can be seen during Manifesta 11 at the watch and jewelry store Les Ambassadeurs in Zurich. Jon Kessler has been exhibiting in a great number of galleries and museums in the US, Europe and Japan since the early 1980s. He is mostly known for kinetic sculptures in the tradition of Jean Tinguely or Nam June Paik. Beside his artistic practice, he is also Professor of the School of the Arts at Columbia University In this interview we spoke about some of his most significant installations and exhibitions during the first decade of the 21st century, about the way the terror attacks of 9/11 changed his work after 2001, and about his current project for Zurich.

The interview with Jon Kessler was conducted by Henrik Utermöhle at the Institute of Art History, University of Zurich on June 3rd 2016.

Mr. Kessler, you have just arrived a few hours ago here in Zurich. Did you take any parts of the plane with you to incorporate into your new production?
I did! When the sculpture was picked up in New York by the shippers, it was not completely finished. As I will later explain to you in more detail, the piece is coupling a very large clock with a very precise, beautiful watch movement. I needed to make a protection for the watch movement and therefore had a piece of glass blown in cylindrical form, which has a notch and some bolts inserted. So this what I had to make during the last week, and I brought that on the plane.

I was actually referring to an earlier work of yours, The Palace at 4 A.M., which was installed at MoMA PS1 in New York from October 2005 until February 2006. The work was the largest and most complex that you had realized until that point. It was also your first solo show in a New York museum. The work deals with the role of the media as a propaganda tool, video surveillance, the war in Iraq, the terror attacks of September 11, politics and advertisement. In 2006 the installation moved to the Collection Falckenberg in the Hamburger Deichtorhallen, where it is regularly on display since then. Besides transferring a site-specific installation to a different place, you also added a plane window from the flight you took to Germany, inserting it in front of a brick wall within the piece. Can you tell us something about this and how your work changed being exhibited in Hamburg?
This was the largest work I had ever done until that point, in fact I would say that it was my first installation. Before that, I made individual sculptures and maybe put them together in a space, but I wasn’t thinking about the pieces as an installation where you walk in and experience the whole thing as a gesamtkunstwerk. So when the piece was shown at PS1 it was one thing, but then as it travelled to different locations, I tried to keep it alive and make it exciting for myself. I would change the work every time I showed it. I would alter parts; I would add stuff or I would take stuff out. When I was flying to Hamburg on a Lufthansa flight, the plane was almost falling apart. It was an old plane, the seat was coming up and when I tried to shut the window the frame fell out. As soon as that happened, I took it and put it in my bag. When I got to Hamburg the first thing I did was this piece I have called The Sniper: it’s a camera located on a Geneva mechanism, so it’s moving in 90° turns and at one point it hits this plane window. It is kind of disorientating, because in Hamburg you see a brick wall through the plane window.

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The work’s title The Palace at 4 A.M. derives from a surrealist sculpture of Alberto Giacometti from 1932. Can you tell us something about the relation between your work and Giacometti’s sculpture?
Well, I steal a lot of things, and I like to steal titles. I’m not very good at giving my work titles and it is a lot easier to steal good ones. When I took over the title The Palace at 4 A.M., I was actually thinking of a very different kind of palace. I was thinking of the insanities that happened at the beginning of the war in Iraq, when the soldiers would occupy the palaces. Craziness was happening there all through the night. This kind of insanity made something like Abu Ghraib possible. This is what I was referencing. The Palace at 4 A.M. was a title appropriated from an artwork of the 1930s, but it was also a way to address what was happening in Saddam Hussein’s palaces. I actually included pictures of these buildings in the work. Another piece of mine is called Kessler’s Circus, which is a ‘stolen’ title too. It’s a reference to another big hero of mine, Alexander Calder, and his work Calder’s Circus (1926–1931). The World is Cuckoo (Clock) is not stolen though. I made that title up and I feel really good about that one.

The horrific terror attacks of September 11 in 2001 marked a point of history with global effects that has been considered by historians and the population worldwide as the beginning of a new historic epoch. History was tangible. For your work these events seem to mark the beginning of a new phase as well. You introduced video in your works. Can you tell us more about this connection, why was this the logical following step to implement video within your artistic work?
This is a long story and it is kind of personal. I started showing my work in 1983, when I was making mechanical sculptures. I exhibited very regularly, mostly in America, in Europe and Japan, up until 1994. And then I suddenly stopped showing; I stopped making work, I stopped really being excited about the work. I was still going to the studio, but I was not excited about what I was making, so I didn’t show. Little by little, I lost all my galleries because I was not producing anything. So there was definitely a kind of pent up anger that needed to be released. When 9/11 happened, I was living in Tribeca, a neighborhood below Soho, very close to the World Trade Center, where I still live. My daughter was in school two blocks from Ground Zero and was evacuated by my wife after the first blast. She saw the second blast and saw the people jumping out of the buildings. The Red Cross came to my building to look for body parts on the roof. It was a horrific event. 9/11 was a tremendously historical turning point for everybody across the globe, but I was experiencing it locally in terms of the shift, literally wearing a gasmask leaving my house. The image that the world was looking at was the plane flying into the building. It was almost like a mantra, you couldn’t turn on the TV and not see this image. But the image I could not get out of my head was what the terrorist had seen from the cockpit. So I decided to make it. The piece is called One Hour Photo. It’s a very simple premise where postcards of the World Trade Center are on a moving conveyor belt, similar to a one-hour photo developing machine. There is a very small surveillance camera, which is fixed, and the postcards come into the camera. It simulates the view from the cockpit. I thought if I could simulate the view from the cockpit I could exorcise this horrific image from my mind. It turned out that in this piece, I was premising what I said before about this anger I had, because it felt like a dam opening up. I was realizing how incredibly mad I was, not just about the fact that these towers came down, but also about me and my own place in the world, and what was happening to this world. And of course the election that Bush stole from Al Gore. I was already on edge and it just started to pour out of me. The introduction of this new material, video, was the medium that allowed me to express these ideas. It wouldn’t have been possible without images. As I said, I always made mechanical sculptures and these pieces related to the work of Jean Tinguely, but then with the introduction of image, it started to relate much more to the work of Nam June Paik. Coupling these two things together, to have the mechanical with the representational, televisual, was for me a kind of perfect symbiosis. I think of them as spectacles and events. The events are the machines that create the spectacles, which can happen on the screen, on a projection or a big architectural wall of monitors, but it’s really about the relationship between these two things.

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To me One Hour Photo is a very remarkable piece of yours. Looking at the images created by the surveillance camera, it reminded me of those images that where distributed in the media during the Gulf War in the 1990s, deriving from the so-called intelligent weapons with a camera mounted at the end of the projectile and you would just see an image moving directly into the target.
Yes, I have a piece that was referencing that. It was a target bomb that went through MoMA and destroyed it. It was also shown there. That was as close to institutional critique that I have ever gotten.

To address a more recent work, we could speak about the outstanding installation The Web, a solo show first mounted at the Swiss Institute of Contemporary Art in New York in 2013. It is an immersive and interactive installation that works together with an app, which accesses the photos of the visitors and feeds them to the displays mounted in the installation. In this piece you are linking digital and online culture such as social media to your work. Yet, the title seems not to refer to the World Wide Web but more to a domestic social network within the exhibition space. There is also a weaving machine creating a blue cloth, which wraps parts of the installation. In the reviews of the exhibition many scholars connect this piece to the work of Jean Tinguely. The Swiss artist Tinguely is mostly known for creating drawing machines or big machines without an obvious function. How is the work of Tinguely an inspiration to your work and where do you see the similarities?
I love Tinguely’s works, but at their heart they are about destruction. The pieces are made to destroy themselves and that is why they are made the way they are, without bearings. Very often when you see a sculpture of his, it has a button you have to push in order to make it work, because it can’t run all the time since it would completely implode. I love his playfulness. It is that contrast between the power and energy of the machine and the dada expression of nihilism, with the playfulness of having this enormous thing maybe turning only a couple of feathers. That is what I really love about the work of Tinguely. When I entered the artworld around 1980, after going through the highly theoretical Whitney Program, there were no people making kinetic art. So I had to find historical examples. Tinguely was one of the artists that I gravitated towards. I had the great experience of being able to show several times in the Tinguely Museum in Basel. That place is filled with his old assistants. They have his tools down in the basement, where they constantly repair his old machines and they have great stories about Tinguely, too. I just feel like I am part of a historical lineage of people who put motors in works in order to express themselves.

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What I have noticed as a recurring element in your works is the exposure of the underlying mechanisms. The devices of your kinetic installations are almost always visible. What is the reason for that?
That’s right. It has been something that has been present in my work since I have been showing in the early 1980s. I think I’m interested in the suspension of disbelief and engaging the viewers to understand how the illusion is being performed and occurring, and yet making a kind of pact with themselves to suspend their disbelief and just go along for the ride. It’s a little bit like a magician who lets you know how the tricks work, and somehow it’s not spoiling the effect they have on you. Thematically I am interested not just in the mechanisms, but in the idea what the mechanistic properties of the work are. It could be the mechanisms of a motion, of politics, of capital or of exchange and those are the mechanisms that I want to expose. Like a lot of artists of my generation, such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, I feel like I exploit and critique at the same time. So I am using some of those mechanisms in order to expose and critique.

In an interview you once said: “I’m not a chess player, I don’t make art that way, and I never know where a body of work will go until I get there.” This quote alongside the plane window we talked about before, which you spontaneously decided to take along and integrate in a piece, might give us an idea about the way you work. What interests me is: how far do you plan ahead before the production of a piece, for example the one you will be showing at Manifesta 11 in Zurich?
Christian Jankowski invited me to the show and asked me to choose a profession that I wanted to collaborate with. I had a few ideas, and finally I landed on a watchmaker. Then Christian told me there was a company called Panerai that wanted to collaborate, and I should immediately get on a plane and come meet them. I said no, because I wanted to have an idea first. But he told me to just get on a plane, meet them, and everything would fall into place. Now that is kind of risky – but I did it. I went to Neuchâtel, visited the factory and took in as much as I could within that day, and right before I was leaving the factory, they informed me that the next day I would meet with the CEO of Panerai, in order to explain my project. So, feeling a little bit tricked by Christian, I went back to the hotel, took a hot bath, drank wine and sat there, thinking that I had to come up with an idea now. And somehow it just happened. I have to say I’m a musician too and I was brought up on improvisation. The rules for engagement of improvisation are to jump of the cliff, which is actually the most exciting thing for me. When I was talking about chess playing in the interview you mentioned, I was thinking about friends of mine. Artists can have very different approaches. Two artists that are great to put side by side, to create a binary, are Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. One was wildly experimental. He repeated himself a lot, especially later in his life, but he took huge steps between bodies of work. The other one was more of a chess player, always thinking a few steps ahead. Right now I have just finished this huge piece and I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I don’t have the next five years of exhibitions planned out. So this is how The World is Cuckoo (Clock) came about. The drawing I made that night in the hotel room is actually quite similar to the way the piece turned out. This is kind of unusual for me. Normally I do improvise a lot and the pieces go through numerous changes. I make everything myself, and that sets me apart from my friends and many artists of my generation. They have enormous studios and lots of people working for them, while I prefer to produce everything myself. I like that the work can really shift and morph during the process. The Palace at 4 A.M. was like that. It started with a couple of key pieces and then it just grew and grew in a very organic way.

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For your new production to be shown at Manifesta 11, you are working together with Adriano Toninelli, a luxury brand watchmaker. This collaboration seems very comprehensible, since you are using mechanisms in your works that are derived from watchmaking, such as the Geneva Mechanism. Was it your first choice to work with a watchmaker, knowing that you would produce an artwork for a biennial in Switzerland entitled «What people do for money», 
or have you also considered working with someone from a different branch of industry?
It seemed a little too obvious to work with a watchmaker, so it was not my first choice. A lot of the other professions I had initially in mind, however, were already taken. But the collaboration with Panerai has been really great, and Adriano is also a fantastic person, so I’m very happy we did this project together.

Can you explain the project to us?
The premise is that the piece is like a cuckoo clock, but is not telling the time. It is telling a story about a bird that can no longer fly – maybe because of climate change, migratory patterns have shifted and it lost the ability to fly. Maybe there are so many antidepressants in the water supply that it just doesn’t really care to fly anymore. Therefore, it’s being retaught how to fly. The idea to The World is Cuckoo (Clock) is that this very beautiful and precise tourbillon movement is powering a big, crazy sculpture. The tourbillon, as a part of Adriano’s world, is connected through a bridge to the sculpture and powers it. I call it «le marriage» between his world and my world. It is one of the most fun projects that I have ever done because of this collaboration, working together with someone who is so good at what he does. We have so much in common. Even though we work in so different ways, we are using many of the same machines to do what we do. Adriano’s machines are just so much more precise. Working in the studio with him was fantastic and I’ll try to describe it. There we were, two people from two different worlds coming together and participating in a project. Through movements, processes and techniques we were actually sharing a common language beyond the spoken one.

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