The noises Mike Kelley likes to make with his main band, Destroy All Monsters, can veer from ethereal to nerve-jangling in seconds, almost like aural, time-based versions of his recent hangar-sized installations. (Kelley also plays solo, and with other artists such as Paul McCarthy and Dave Muller.) His 2005 exhibition at
Gagosian’s Chelsea gallery, “Day Is Done,” was a well-planned assault on the senses, with brightly illuminated stage sets, dissonant sounds and images of manic church sing-alongs and campy high school theater.
It was music that that led Kelley to art, he says—specifically, music that takes its cues from ideas, rather than a beat you can dance to. He claims music and art are different endeavors for him but nevertheless mixes the two without fear of self-contradiction. Since first hearing local acts such as Sun Ra and Iggy and the Stooges more than 40 years ago, Kelley has produced a wildly heterogeneous body of work that encompasses spoken-word performance, drawing, painting, writing, sculpture, multimedia installation and video. This month in New York alone, Kelley is presenting four multimedia extravaganzas, a coincidence that would feel like piling on if sensory overload weren’t inherent to Kelley’s work. There are new paintings at Gagosian, a collaborative six-channel video and sculpture with Michael Smith at the SculptureCenter [see review this issue], a live performance work at Performa 09, and, also as part of Performa, a music festival organized by Kelley.
His recent hybrid shows culminate a growing inclination to mix up genres, in works ranging from early language-based performance pieces to installations of drawings and, most famously, stuffed-animal sculptures to, eventually, the “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction” series, in which he takes high school yearbook or news photographs from the ’60s and ’70s and re-imagines and elaborates their context, adding darkly comic dialogue and music. Kelley is consistent principally in his determination to rethink what’s acceptable. As he says of the music he makes and likes, “It’s what’s hard to take.” This, of course, is an apt description of his own visual work, which has become so influential that it now risks looking familiar—the legacy of its rowdy, funny-morbid, middle-American vernacular has shown up, for example, in adolescent-loser-angst video installations by Sue De Beer and Ryan Trecartin and in the controlled-chaos rooms of Jason Rhoades and Justin Lowe. As Kelley notes in reference to noise music, frequent and compelling use of a fresh idea over time often leads to its absorption by popular culture.
As is clear from the acts he chose for the Performa festival, Kelley’s noise music timeline starts with minimalist experimental composers and improvisers of the ’50s and ’60s, such as John Cage, George Brecht and Tony Conrad, as well as artists, many of them women, who use unaccompanied vocalization, among them Shelley Hirsch (who will be performing with Christian Marclay) and Joan La Barbara. Kelley’s festival, organized with Performa 09curator Mark Beasley, also acknowledges genre-mixing improvisers such as Arto Lindsay and environmental sound artist Max Neuhaus. It ends with industrial music from the ’70s by the likes of John Duncan and Rhys Chatham. Performa curators will take the timeline of noise back even further and remake several “intonarumori”—wheezing, gasping, vibrating wooden sound machines invented by FuturistLuigi Russolo.
Born in 1954 near Detroit, Kelley moved in 1976 to Los Angeles, a city whose art scene he has since helped to define. He received an MFA from California Institute of the Arts in 1978 and still lives in L.A. He spoke with me by telephone from his studio there.
CARLY BERWICK How are you defining noise music, in the context of the festival?
MIKE KELLEY Music that doesn’t employ traditional structuring methodologies, that embraces cacophony and loud volume, and that is not necessarily traditionally scored—I want works from both the music and art realms. I also want to present works that existed before what is now generically called noise music—before “noise” became completely subsumed into popular music and there was still some kind of tie to the original notion of an avant-garde or experimental music.
CB Who are some of the people we’re talking about?
MK Primarily, people coming out of the Cageian tradition or early electronic music, improvisational music, Fluxus—and then, following that, early noise practitioners like those associated with the No Wave scene in New York or the LAFMS [Los Angeles Free Music Society] on the West Coast.
CB Are you cutting it off at the 1970s?
MK That’s the idea. My logic is that after psychedelia these kinds of musical approaches become incorporated into general rock music, electronica, industrial music and other popular forms.
CB Have you ever curated a music festival?
MK No. But since the Performa curators know I have a background in improv noise groups like Destroy All Monsters they thought I might be a good choice to provide a roster of artists for a noise music festival designed to connect with this year’s festival theme, the 100th anniversary of Italian Futurism.