It is perhaps safest to say that Jacob Kassay is a contemporary artist, although he’s been called a “neo-minimalist” and a “post-conceptual” artist. His output includes a wide array of media including films, books, sculptures, and installation, but he is probably best known as a painter. His early paintings consisted of canvases industrially coated with a silver electroplate material that lay unevenly over the coarse substrate. Imagine a mirror printed onto canvas rather than smooth glass, presenting a softened, obscured reflection that defies clear focus or documentation. Many of Kassay’s works employ similar techniques, engaging various technologies in order to create objects that imperfectly or uncannily “mirror” the biological human senses—but only when encountered in real space. These works intentionally elude accurate documentation and representation, more so than many other contemporary works that claim to be experiential [Image 1].
Kassay is influenced by minimalist musicians and conceptual artists such as Rhys Chatham and Tony Conrad, whose drone and flicker works use the senses of seeing and hearing to elicit strong physical responses, but his work has a more subtle effect that promotes an uncanny awareness of sensory perception itself.
I met Kassay in 2010, while I was studying in the Department of Media Study at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In 2013, I presented five of the untitled silver electroplated paintings as part of an exhibition called Time Mutations, at the University at Buffalo Art Gallery. We also screened Untitled (2011), a 16mm film of a helicopter hovering over a space in an open desert landscape, with the frame rate of the camera synched to the speed of the film projector, creating an effect in which the helicopter blades appear to slow and then still. At that time I was thinking of the way that media, particularly recorded media, works to distort time. The warped reflections presented by the mirror paintings seemed to me to be a route to breaking the illusion of immediacy and veracity one encounters when viewing one’s reflection in a mirror, in the same way that video feedback or real-time video synthesis can break the illusion of immersive reality in a moving image [Image 2].
In this interview Kassay and I discuss issues of virtuosity, reflection, consciousness, and sensory perception in terms of several of his more recent works, including a suite of paintings sized to fit precisely into the viewfinder of a camera, and a precise lead casting of the negative space of a human sinus cavity. These works were first exhibited in a 2016 show entitled Jacob Kassay (you) at Art: Concept in Paris. He and I began this conversation via telephone in mid-2016 and continued it in March and April of 2019. The resulting interview combines and intermixes exchanges that occurred during both periods, warping the typical linear conversant timeline of an interview.
The day you called me for this, a friend and I went to ICA Philadelphia to see the Tony Conrad retrospective. There was a photo of Tony being arrested at Artpark in Lewiston, New York, which is also in the exhibition catalog.1 Lewiston is the village I grew up in and funnily enough, I have also been arrested at Artpark—so there’s that!
Maybe you could tell your Artpark arrest story?
I was sixteen and simply got caught there after dark, which is illegal in a state park. My family lives down the road, so it never seemed like a big deal. The police made it into a “thing,” and instead of getting a ticket or taking me home they took me to Goat Island to be processed. My mother was a probation officer in Niagara County, so I wound up with an ACD (Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal—essentially a stern warning and a dismissal of the charges with the caveat that you’d better not do anything like the behavior in question again). Nothing related to the aims of the group Tony was performing with, but a funny coincidence.
Speaking of Tony Conrad, I wanted to ask you about the two “structural” films you made, Untitled and II (2011, 2017), which, like most of your works, have a shorthand title—in this case “the helicopter films.” You screened Untitled at Time Mutations, and I thought it was one of the best and most thought-provoking pieces in the exhibition. These films are another example of works that have to be sensorially experienced in real time in order to make sense. Like Conrad’s The Flicker (1966), with which they share a lineage, they are often described via a kind of shorthand that makes sense to those who’ve seen the pieces in real life, but I think actually further obscures them to those who haven’t [Image 3].
In some way many of your works function as flawed or warped mirrors: they reflect a sensory perception, but not perfectly. The electroplated “mirror paintings” do this of course, but so do the helicopter films (the speed of the helicopter rotors mirroring the speed of film through a projector) and the sinus cavity castings (mirroring a lack, reflecting the open space of the body’s interior). The untitled architectural pieces you showed in 2016 at New York’s 303 Gallery in the exhibition H-L also have a mirror quality, a kind of reversal of the in-between spaces that these sculptures represent.
A real mirror is virtuosic—it presents a “good” representation of the real space in front of it. Sometimes the virtuosity is so good that it gets mistaken for the real. Photographs (and video) slip into this space I think, traditionally, where they are taken as stand-ins for the actual moment, bastions of veracity. But your “bad,” warped mirrors do two alternate things. First, they confront the viewer with the process of representation, the fact that representation is something that is constructed and shouldn’t be taken for granted. And they also amplify the problems of representation—the way that the medium of representation and the senses themselves can lead us away from “reality” and in unexpected abstract directions. So the question is why are you interested in this process or mechanism of reflection? (Or are you?)
While young, the metaphorical space of photography and its rhetoric were the fulcrum of my own possessive activities in artmaking. The lobster came first. I started drawing parallels from the function of a lobster and other edible crustaceans to that of an image of the subject itself. So, if you have a lobster and it dies in a bath process, as a subject it is not much different than the subject imaged in the darkroom—or so I thought at the time. I cooked a few lobsters, dissolved the meat, and fixed them. I then took the exoskeleton and used yet another bath process of electroplating to return some animation to what was now an object. Exhausting another parallel to photographic processes, I believed that the reflective, mirror-like surface would absorb movement from the room and whoever interfered.
Then I deleted the lobster character. By extrapolating the core value of animation and dwelling on the insistence of transient viewing and movement, I decided to apply a fixed scale to a series of paintings and plate them. If set up in standard sequence, they could act as some sort of living gauge for one’s spatial relationships. Like a zoetrope or a film loop. In either case, because the reflection is warped by substructure it deflects attention between the surface and the onlooker; so, yes to being varied, broken, agitated—all that. I was looking to complicate the presumptive or pretentious moment of material apprehension [Image 4].
What is the emotional or cognitive state that you hope to achieve in the viewer by creating this sense of broken or agitated perception? I ask because I have a very strong response to these works that I call “bad mirrors.” It took me a while to pinpoint why I was so fascinated by the breakdown between sensory input and the kind of completed processing that occurs in mental modelling and spatial visualization. Eventually I realized that works like this allow for space between the apprehension of sensory input and putting that information to work in creating a constructed worldview. They allow for the recognition of sensory data as data—data that can be warped, changed, or manipulated by cognition. The only other way I’ve found to have this type of direct, real-time comprehension of the senses as constituting our constructed reality is through intensive meditation or psychedelic drugs. And the sensory deprivation tank. Maybe the sensory deprivation tank metaphor is a good segue into a discussion of the lead sinus cavity castings [Image 5].
Have you ever heard that saying “a painting is a representation of something that isn’t there” or something like that? It’s something like a yogi-ism that teachers tell their students. Anyway, I was reminded of it when you suggested that the sinus cavity casting might be reflecting a lack; indeed, it does.
The reason for making this was simply to make physical an output felt when I accidentally huffed some in-class chemistry and could see this shape in my skull. It was like a soft high with a loss of equilibrium that spanned physical and psychic space. I had a doctor confirm that this was a common experience with ether, so the projected space I felt was physically real, not imagined—it is an extremely narrowcast and invisible projection. This gaseous space is only felt when something wavers in the atmosphere or when your skull is invaded outright!
The source material for the casting was taken from CT scans, medical data, far from the bone. One title I used, 1:1 (PSIG) (2016), referred to the units of measure used for pressure and stress as it relates to ambient surroundings. This seemed to make the most sense, as what one sees in the final object is the healthy maximum of how this void could be imaged [Image 6].
The films Untitled and II for the most part rely on the same stratified logic: a helicopter sounds like a projector and graphically the machines look rather similar. As far as I can tell, there is no industry-wide, applied “frame rate” or speed for chopper blades. Even on models as ubiquitous as the Huey (seen in every Vietnam movie), the relationship between it and the camera becomes as variable as the lighting in which it is filmed.
The wind was a welcome variable in the both works. The air would shift toward the ground while the air near the blades remained steadily churning with the engine. When the film is projected, I keep the projector close and visible so that the homophonic relationships overlap and bend according to the position of the moviegoer and their own relative perception.
The reason for the sequel is that the shutter speed originally chosen was somewhat caught up to by the default settings of the iPhone. The original Untitled exploited the ability for the blade speed to come into consonance and appear still. II overworked the same principal but employed a strobe, an effect too close to obvious screen malfunction to be allowed on commercial platforms. Each version, along with its decided duration, captured the seizure of the subject. II was also the typical “double the action”/“double the budget” production, and here I would say not as good or relevant, but I believe in second chances [Images 7 and 8].
Conrad supposed that he stopped making structural films back in the ’70s, citing the unprogressive inbreeding of the genre he helped create. I wouldn’t have made the work without his influence, but it reads more like fan fiction than it does like something pure within the lineage of a truly idealistic yet bygone cultural phenomenon.
I think it’s clear that technology often mirrors the technology that immediately preceded it. In this way we’ve handed down things like the little floppy disk drive icon in the Microsoft Word program to represent the action “Save” or the burn-and-dodge tool icons in Photoshop—both the words and the icons referencing an analog precursor tool most contemporary users under a certain age have probably never even seen. The technology we use now also wants to mirror the user; it often acts as an extension of the user’s own physical self—either a double or a prosthesis.
I woke up to a while back to a scene most of us are familiar with: the unwholesome, unpunctuated alarm of the television having been on all night. With fresh but hazy eyes, I realized that my digital television doesn’t produce static; it has it. There is a loop of artificial static in place of a blank screen for what I’m assuming is my comfort, as I am a consumer who has witnessed the transition from analog technologies. So, the familiar is being phased out with conscious grace and so are we the consumers.
I was really interested in the title of the Art: Concept show: your name, with “you” in parentheses afterward. The syntax is reminiscent of when you look at a list of your contacts on your phone or on Skype and your own name appears. So your own name is listed, followed by “you” in parentheses—the machine is telling you “this is you.” Just so you know!
That’s exactly where it came from: Gmail. It’s like, “thanx . . .”
The paintings in the show in Paris had this retinal schism going on so that it wasn’t a painting to really be thought about so much it as it was a painting that happened inside you. These were featured alongside the sinus cavity casting where, in tandem, they were meant to keep one’s focus on our own corporeal selves.
That made me think about this blog post I read recently, about the way that the different interfaces that we deal with digitally all have taken different tactics regarding how they’re going to refer to the user. Sometimes it’s third person, such as “the user” or just “user” or “owner,” to refer to you or whoever is using this product or keeps their stuff there. In that case it denotes your status as the owner of the service or product. Sometimes they refer to “you” in the second person, as though the digital entity is another individual, in conversation with you, the user. In that case, the service is saying “I’m your servant,” “I keep all your stuff,” or “I do this service for you.” And sometimes the digital service refers to “I/me”; in that case it’s like a mirror view, an extension of yourself, a place where you exist outside of yourself.
I respond to that demanding or accusatory tone of devices.
So, when a device refers to you as “you,” you see it as the device making a demand of you, as if you are just a conduit to some other device? The computer just wants to, like, find another computer, and you’re just its means of getting to it?
Yes. I don’t know what the purpose might be, but it’s usually asking something into the void expecting that someone is being watchful over this device. I was just going to say that the paintings at the show in Jacob Kassay (you) were made to fit edge to edge in the “viewfinder” of the documenting camera. If one were to take a photo of the painting, it would fit the frame perfectly, so that there would be no sense of the work in situ. But then, of course, it is a photo of something that isn’t steady.
You could just crop out the walls completely, so the work cleanly fills the field of vision. But only through some sort of mediated machine vision.
Exactly. I suppose I was trying to exaggerate the redundancy of the painting’s documentation or add clunk to the end image, enough to slow its inevitable transmission.
Were you attempting to make the works fill the viewfinder of the camera in order to make it more difficult to document the position (or what have you) of the works in the interior space, as an element of the interior design? Many times when we see documentation, especially abstract work in the gallery, it requires the gallery walls to make any sense at all. The gallery walls are what make it interpretable as art.
I think I just wanted to maybe bring that kind of backdrop into question. There’s so much about the painting frame or the photo frame that removes the sense of peripheral vision. So many conversations can be reduced to how artwork is mediated through a screen. I don’t meet many people with good spatial awareness or memory or balance. I think it must be due to all this time spent focusing on a closed frame—a lot of information for your body and mind comes in through your peripheral vision and other less immediate forms of input.
So in a way, the digital or disembodied frame of technology is its own kind of “bad mirror,” except maybe that instead of allowing one to apprehend the process of sensing, it kind of throws the human process of world-constructing out, hijacking the process and putting that effort to use in building a networked human/machine hybrid awareness. That’s pretty dark.