A Conversation with John Kelsey

“You can almost taste an artist emerging in a dealer’s mouth”

The Department of Art History Visual Art and Theory is pleased to announce the rescheduling of John Kelsey’s visit to our program as part of the Distinguished Visiting Artist Program. On January 8, Kelsey will discuss a broad range of issues in contemporary artistic practice in conversation with visual art faculty member Gareth James.

Kelsey’s engagement with contemporary art has taken many forms. Indeed, the list of plausible names and functions that have attached themselves to John Kelsey’s practice (not to mention adjectives such as “prestigious,” “critical,” “influential” and so on) is a long one. He exhibits discrete artworks under his own name and is a central figure in both Bernadette Corporation and Reena Spaulings, two collaborative ventures that span the fields of fashion, writing, publishing, film and in the case of Spaulings, names a commercial gallery in New York. In 2010, Sternberg Press published Rich Texts: Selected Writing for Art, a collection of Kelsey’s critical writing previously published in Artforum, Texte zur Kunst, Parkett and artists’ catalogues, and edited by Daniel Birnbaum and Isabelle Graw. The artworld has welcomed the production of hybrid agents for some time now (artist-curators, curator-artists, artist-intellectuals and so on) but in Kelsey’s case, the list does not provide an occasion for congratulations, but for critical analysis and disruption. T.J. Clark once wrote, in response to a similarly extensive list of names that had accrued to his subject: “All of these identities, Debord never tired of telling us, are what now stand in the way of the activities they once pointed to.”

And if these identities can obscure the activities whose possibility they are meant to assure, they can also have disastrous effects on the subjects meant to carry them out as well: as Eric Santner has written, concerning Freud’s famous analysis of Judge Schreber, “… an ‘investiture crisis’ has the potential to generate not only feelings of extreme alienation, anomie, and profound emptiness, anxieties associated with absence; one of the central theoretical lessons of the Schreber case is precisely that a generalized attenuation of symbolic power and authority can be experienced as the collapse of social space and the rites of institution into the most intimate core of one’s being. The feelings generated thereby are, as we shall see, anxieties not of absence and loss but of overproximity, loss of distance to some obscene and malevolent presence that appears to have a direct hold on one’s inner parts.”

That Kelsey is keenly aware of such problems is evident from the preface he wrote for Rich Texts and it can serve as our own introduction to the conversation we will have the opportunity to have with him on January 8.:

Rich Text Format (RTF) is a document file format developed by Microsoft Corporation in 1987. It is a means of making writing travel efficiently between digital platforms while maintaining its “human readability.” Many of the texts included here attempt to engage (and perform) the problem of their own participation within (and extension of) the networked, communicational space they share with art. They are produced on the same screen that’s used to visualize, organize, and mobilize contemporary art, and so no matter what they say, or however inaccurate their perceptions and judgments may be, they know they are close to art, in fact simultaneous with it. “Rich texts” also refers somewhat ironically to the medieval “book of hours” (Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry), but in this case, the hours are relatively poor ones: the writer is among the least remunerated of workers in the art industry, however much the market depends on his service to make the world we call art continue to function as it does. What is a “rich hour”? Like most art writing, these texts are very deadline-driven, written quickly and according to the schedules of others. They sometimes even find a certain pleasure in matching the anonymous and displacing speed of art today. Another possible title for this book was The Tray Table.

Written in the midst of my involvement with the founding and operation of Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York; and with the production of collectively authored texts such as the novel Reena Spaulings, 2004, and the epic poem A Billion and Change, 2009 (both by Bernadette Corporation); and in between various other activities, jobs, and exhibitions, these “rich texts” are also immediately involved with the question of how to elaborate (habitable) rhythms of production today. The reason for avoiding the professional identity of either a writer or an artist, a critic or a dealer, is to bring ourselves closer (and in a more fascinated way) to the problem of how art works under its present conditions. To get closer to a possible and paradoxical definition of art through assuming art’s increasing loss of distinction from other communicative activities. Doing several things at once has been a way of remaining unemployed even in the midst of constant, inescapable employment. Writing, too, can be a form of unemployment within employment, and so is closer than ever to art.


Bernadette Corporation

Reena Spaulings

Galerie Buchholz

Directions: Lasserre Building, Room 104, UBC

The Distinguished Visiting Artist Program is made possible by the generous support of the Rennie Collection. http://www.renniecollection.org/index.php