From the Inside Out: Ken Okiishi


Ken Okiishi’s name has appeared alongside that of Nick Mauss in several collaborative exhibitions, but (Goodbye to) Manhattan is his first showing of solo work in New York. In a long video and an array of presentational supplements, Okiishi puts pressure on what he calls, in his press release, the grandiose analogies underlying New York’s art fantasies about Berlin, and vice versa. Acknowledging his position of no distance, complicit in everything he presents, Okiishi uses his friends (artist-boyfriend Mauss, curator Pati Hertling and student-critic Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen) as conduits for these Germano-American misfires. Filmed against a green screen and reciting a garbled script, the actors wander aimlessly in a permanent haze of jetlag. But even as he deflates the art world’s perpetual transatlantic quest for “something else” or the “next big thing,” Okiishi refrains from a knowing cynicism.


MICHAEL SANCHEZ: In (Goodbye to) Manhattan, you make use of the tropes of a certain scene that shuttles back and forth between the art worlds of Berlin and New York. Yet every component of the exhibition, from the video to the posters and lobby cards that advertise it in the gallery, inhabits a fiction-the framework of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1992). The people onscreen are ostensibly playing roles taken from the movie Manhattan, but they are also playing themselves (or typified versions of themselves). Could you talk a bit about how your exhibition dramatizes this social constellation?

KEN OKIISHI: If there is an overarching concept for the exhibition, it is that Manhattan is translated through Berlin and back again. This is, on the one hand, an autobiographical reality (I’ve been going back and forth between Berlin and New York for the last nine or so years); it is also an often fraught channel of cultural exchange. From the New York perspective, the dream of Berlin eventually always becomes framed in terms of real estate (well, really, in New York, what isn’t eventually framed in terms of real estate…?) In Berlin, everyone still finds New York so glamorous-from a fantasy of mingling with the progeny of exiled high-bourgeois German-Jews to living in a Ryan McGinley photograph, to a retrograde exoticization of “black culture”… In neither place is the discussion really that interesting—but what I’ve found in going back and forth is that the slippage in understanding, the terrible translation, has an amazing catalyzing force. The idea of the city, and how one makes a life in it, is thrown into ongoing crisis; and the dialectic that emerges from this actually feels alive and like it might develop in unexpected ways. The inter-text that seemed to handle projections from all sides was Woody Allen’s Manhattan. And the site of the exhibition, this abandoned period-piece early 80’s renovation of a brownstone in the ritziest neighborhood in Manhattan, seemed the right place to articulate this assemblage of displacements.

SANCHEZ: Because your exhibition was the first to be held in Alex Zachary’s space, it’s almost as if the gallery was making its debut alongside your work. At the opening, people compared the low ceilings and carpeted floors to everything from a suburban den to a gallery in Cologne in the 90s—another slippage like the ones you’re describing. One of the things that struck me about your video is the way it demystified the reciprocal glamorizing of New York and Berlin… while still, perhaps, taking some pleasure in it.

OKIISHI: Demystifying? Yes, in terms of a certain hype—but also opening up the possibility of authenticity. It matters that all of the people, all of the locations, all of the social interactions involved in making (Goodbye to) Manhattan, including ones that didn’t pan out, were real; that the approach was from the inside out; that it took three years of not really knowing what I was doing, but doing it anyway; that two of my best friends from my New York-Berlin-New York life and my partner of more than nine years are the “stars”; that the background of the gallery chitchat scene in the video was filmed in the material space of the intersection of Berlin/New York art worlds, at an Evas Arche und der Feminist performance upstairs at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, where I was performing, as background music, crappy piano versions of songs used as soundtracks in Woody Allen films; and that, through a convoluted series of events, I ended up showing it with someone who had also become a close friend and who grew up in the mise-en-scene of Manhattan. This focus on “reality” and working from the “inside out” probably sounds like a contradiction, because, of course, the entire screenplay was “written” from outside of an already existing screenplay. When I extracted the three main female parts, and then ran the official German translation back into English via an online digital translator, I wasn’t exactly conveying “real life.” Or was I? Aren’t our social narratives so continuously mediated and determined by various normative forces that manipulating the social scripts on the level of the script is the only way to convey something other than a predetermined narrative track with bland dialogue? And what could be more pleasurable than this opening up, this possibility of a new experience?

SANCHEZ: All these dislocated positions (which, in another time, might have been signs of an anomie) are handled without a trace of angst. In fact, the video is quite hilarious. Would you agree?

OKIISHI: Yes, sometimes it is absolutely bonkers! But some people have also cried while watching certain parts-sometimes the same parts where others laughed the hardest.

SANCHEZ: This frenzy on the cusp of ecstasy and total breakdown. It seems to run throughout the video. I see it in your camerawork—which is jittery, distracted, impatient, but also fascinated by whatever is around it and eager to take it in. On the other hand, the people on the screen seem rather detached.

OKIISHI: I think this has to do with how I filmed them, which is meant to bring out an estrangement from language, or dislodge the naturalistic alignment of character and speech, but also to bring out real emotion. There is a lot of silent space where you can see them concentrating but not really knowing what is going on–which is also space for the viewer’s mind to wander, but then you are confronted with this mangled language which coheres enough that you start to form an understanding that interrupts your thoughts, or mixes with or frays. Emmelyn is really quite brilliant at all of this: in her performance of the Tracy/Hemingway character, she manages to plow through the garbled language in perfect “Tracy voice” like the lines actually makes sense, and the way she moves—it’s this perfectly articulated liminal performance. And her face speaks so many things at the same time!

SANCHEZ: These estrangement techniques, at least for certain Brechtian filmmakers, are usually used for exactly the opposite purpose: to get rid of emotion. In spite of inflicting communicative handicaps on your actors’ language (at times, you completely drown out their voices with blaring classical music), you still seem very interested in the possibility of communication. An affective communication that, nevertheless, refuses to direct your viewers into feeling a certain way. You spoke earlier about your work opening up the possibility of a new experience. What kinds of new experiences are you looking for?

OKIISHI: I think following Brechtian strategies with a reified image of politics—an input-output approach, such as, if the situation is A, and you do B, then the audience will realize C—I think this trend in contemporary art is terrible! But I think this also mirrors how, at least in Germany, Brechtian theater is totally normalized. To me, the Brechtian actor, at worst, can look like a zombie following a strict, ideologically determined, morally “correct” script. In showing you the actor acting, we are left with something even worse: a de-subjectivized person drawn along some inevitable path without agency—well, the only real agency being that of the author as god-substitute, who can even convince the audience that the actor is making real decisions! And as regards the “relaxed audience,” the always-in-the-head, self-critical-smug-ideal audience of Brecht: anyone who’s ever been to Germany knows that squelching emotion is not the problem! One thing I’ve never understood is when people say that they don’t like to be “manipulated” by movies. How many times do you have to be shown that “it is just a movie” to get it? Aren’t we smart enough to be able to deal with complicated emotional responses? So, I am happy that you are asking me this question, since this is not my interest at all, a standard set of self-reflexive cinema strategies. My real interest is intervening in sites of subjectivity formation in order to activate agency.