An Interview with David Kagan: By OtherPeoplesPixelsOtherPeoplesPixels: For your recent series The Year In Review you composed music with an electronic producer, shot short films to accompany the tracks, pressed vinyl, and staged live multimedia performances. For your previous series, The Redacted Bunny, you incorporated painting, installation, photography, and video into the structure of episodic television. How do you select the combination of media you use for each project?
The Year In Review (Live Performance)
David Kagan: I spent a long time trying to separate my “lofty artistic aspirations” from my “lowbrow” pop cultural interests, and found I wasn’t having very much fun making art. The Redacted Bunny was a turning point: I was finally able to openly acknowledge how pervasive the influence of television, especially bad television, had been on my life (my earliest memories are probably of The Love Boat). Hence, the work took the structural form of an episodic show. The other media included in the project followed on the basis of necessity: a cast of actors was required, therefore I fabricated costumes to alter my appearance and created a chorus of puppet co-stars. I needed sets, so I collected objects from thrift stores and I painted backdrops. A series of photographs were taken of myself and the various characters to serve as conceptual “film stills.” In exhibiting the video work, these additional elements sometimes served as installation environments.
With The Year In Review, I sought to fulfill a nearly life-long ambition to record an album. But I didn’t want to do a half-assed job, so I set out to fully mimic the entire structure of a proper pop album ad campaign. My first love is video, so of course each of the tracks had to have its own short musical film. I’m an avid music collector (especially of electronic disco from the 70s, incidentally the style emulated in this project) and wanted to create a beautiful, fetishistic, and perhaps useless object. Hence, I had a limited run of records pressed with colored vinyl, full jacket artwork, and inner sleeve liner notes. The most exciting part of the project, however, ended up being the live performances, which I think of as “promotional appearances.” I had never sung live in public before, and I have terrible stage fright, but I wanted to push my art further outside of where I feel safe. I call these events “un-performances,” as I make no claims of having a good voice or any sort of stage presence; when in the gallery setting, I stand rather motionless and expressionless, and blend in with the other installation elements, my voice having no more importance than the projected videos, records, or other objects.
Still From "Patron Saint Of Collapsing Art Markets" (part of the The Redacted Bunny series)OPP: You star as yourself in each aspect of The Year In Review—using yourself as a test subject to explore your interests in identity construction and iconography. You also star in The Redacted Bunny but as the character Bunny Boy. Can you speak about your performative role in each series and how performing as yourself may have differed from performing as Bunny Boy?
DK: There’s no difference for me between playing “David Kagan” or a man in a rabbit suit. The two main characters in The Redacted Bunny, the transsexual mother and human-animal hybrid son, were basically my id and super ego, respectively. I never viewed them as anything other than myself in drag, playacting wild fantasies and darkest self-doubts. Eventually, though, I did come to see that the style of this work—the bright cartoon colors, camera hamming acting, and ceaseless, rapid-fire editing—created a distraction from what I was actually interested in: identity construction.
I found a more direct route to this line of inquiry by dropping the masks and wigs (well, not completely…) and using the material at hand-myself. In The Year In Review, I am “David Kagan” throughout the project, but it’s actually no more or less “acted” than the work that’s come before. Some of the song lyrics are culled from actual email exchanges with curators or quotes from art critiques I’ve had. I had to say the line (which is a quote of myself) “I do primarily video work” over and over a while back when I did a live performance of The Whitney Biennial Song. It sounds really awkward or trite to me, and yet the phrase still comes out of my mouth from time to time in daily life. It’s funny when I catch myself actually saying these things that I’ve used as song lyrics. It makes me realize that I’m acting all the time. I’m very intrigued by the prospect that I might actually be an incredibly insincere person.
OPP: Do your live performances and performative videos incorporate improvisation or do you stick to a predetermined script?
DK: I tend to be very scripted, in general. In my art and my life-it’s when I say things without first practicing them in my head that I get in trouble. Generally, the end product ends up being about 90% planned with a 10% margin for error. I guess I’ve set this strategy up for myself, almost unconsciously, so that the work has a system of internal flaws (the beauty is in the defects after all). Case in point, I shot a video, All The Conceptual Art I’ll Never Make on a rural road in Wisconsin last summer. Basically, I had to walk up and over a horizon line and traverse the better part of a mile up to where a video camera was positioned, and then sing a chorus. The whole endeavor took about ten minutes. The landscape in the camera lens was perfectly desolate—a lonely road cutting through rolling hills of corn. The only problem was that I couldn’t stop the flow of traffic, which occurred arbitrarily: sometimes three cars would pass by in two minutes, then half an hour would go by with nothing. I had to accept that whatever was going to happen was out of my control in this respect.
OPP: How do you think the concept of “endless hope” that you speak about in your statement for The Year In Review shapes your work and your artmaking process more generally?
DK: My knee-jerk reaction has always been to declare myself a pessimist but for some reason I am continually putting myself in situations where rejection or failure is a very possible outcome. Whether it’s applying for funding or a residency, submitting work for curatorial review, or doing a live performance with little practice or experience—I seem to just keep going regardless of what happens. Indeed, I guess my mantra is “turn your liabilities into assets.” That’s why the subject matter of much of my work is the absence of success: in The Whitney Biennial Song, an invitation and submission to a museum exhibit inevitably yields the sound of crickets chirping; Epic Pfail is about contacting a prominent artist after I’ve had a workshop residency with him and never hearing back. I’m seeking to infuse these events with a sense of purpose, by incorporating them into my work and seeing them not as mere disappointments, but key components of my art career.
OPP: The Redacted Bunny, was recently included in the Art Video International Film Festival at Cannes—congratulations. When screened at festivals is the series shown as episodes interspersed among other work or edited together sequentially?
DK: Actually, thus far it has always been screened as a single piece, but with the episodes playing non-sequentially. I chose this format as a strategy to more actively engage the viewer, forcing him to make sense of the work and construct it as a whole for himself. By nature, an episodic serial demands passivity: the spectator gives himself over to a narrative (if properly engaged) and lets it wash over himself from episode to episode, week to week, year to year. There is a sense of familiarity and stasis, especially in the sit-com genre. This is the antithesis of what the type of art I’m trying to make does; I require an obstruction, a visible thread that if pulled could unravel the very world I’ve painstakingly created.
Post x 5 Modern Tea PartyOPP: One of eight short films made to accompany the album tracks in your series The Year In Review features your parents and your partner. Tell me about that film. What was it like making work with your family?
Single channel video
DK: This is the short video Post x 5 Modern Tea Party. It was filmed over the forth of July weekend last year—the hottest two days of the entire summer! Conceptually, I’m sort of flippantly addressing the impossibility of there ever being another over-arching art movement (too many cooks in the art kitchen I suppose). It’s made all the more ridiculous with the visuals of my parents, John and I doing a synchronized dance routine in our bathing suits throughout. My ulterior motive was really to share my art making practice with the family—to include them in the process. I was attempting to foster an interaction that was outside of our normal engagement, and I wanted a record it for posterity. Of course, they might beg to differ, and see it less as collaboration and more as exploitation! My parents, though, still break into the dance moves from time to time when I see them…
OPP: How do you seek out support for your work in the form of feedback from other artists having recently graduated with an MFA from Hunter College? Are you rooted to a community of artists where you live and work in New York?
DK: This is something I’m currently sorting out, as I’m just out of grad school. A large part of why I did an MFA was to build a network of artist friends and associates. I value these relationships with former classmates and professors—and try to be diligent in supporting their exhibitions, lectures, open studios, etc. Some schoolmates have been organizing a series of studio visits, which I plan to get looped into soon, though I guess I am still taking a break from three years of art crits!
I live on the Lower East Side, and will be doing a studio residency in my neighborhood early next year (AAI - Artists Alliance Inc.). I'm definitely looking forward to meeting some new faces and making art locally, but I have a hunch that the base of my community will remain tied to my alma mater.
OPP: What is next for you? What are you working on now?
DK: I’ve started work on more music—I’m fairly invested in that endeavor right now. It picks up thematically where the last album left off—crawling from the wreckage of an MFA program as it were. I’ve been reading books on the evils of religion (Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great, Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith). It’s coloring my world right now and I’m sure it will influence the work. Love songs for atheists, perhaps?
I’m also very pleased to say that I’ve received a grant from Art Matters funding a project in Ghana early next year. I’m fascinated by the country—it’s where my partner is from and I’ve been just once before. I’ll be collaborating with musicians, both traditional and pop, on a filmic/music project. It’s still a bit loose as to what final form the work will take, but I’m interested in continuing to push myself further outside of what’s familiar, comfortable, or easy.
To view more of David Kagan’s work visit davidkagan.net