Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy: Collaborative Works (2000)

Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy: Collaborative Works, Toronto: The Power Plant, 2000.

At the artists' dinner, Mike Kelley said that this massive exhibition could never be mounted in the United States. I guess that's still true.

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Design: Hahn/Smith Design

Design: Hahn/Smith Design

A Twisted Pedagogy

I escaped to the open country, and fearfully took refuge in a low hovel, quite bare, and making a wretched appearance after the palaces I had beheld in the village. This hovel, however, joined a cottage of a neat and pleasant appearance.…On examining my dwelling, I found that one of the windows of the cottage had formerly occupied a part of it, but the panes had been filled up with wood. In one of these was a small and almost imperceptible chink, though which the eye could just penetrate. Through this crevice a small room was visible, whitewashed and clean, but very bare of furniture….By degrees I made a discovery of still greater moment. I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds….I learned and applied the words, fire, milk, bread, and wood.…I easily perceived that, although I eagerly longed to discover myself to the cottagers, I ought not to make the attempt until I had first become master of their language; which knowledge might enable me to make them overlook the deformity of my figure…
                        Mary Shelley, Frankenstein


In the passage from Europe to America, many things are lost and some are gained. The immigrant leaves behind a culture of the word—more than just his or her native tongue but a moral authority embedded in a literary tradition—to enter a culture where the image predominates. Freedom has to be negotiated in this new terrain of visuality. The immigrant joins the New World as if entering a forest of signs. Yet most of these signs are not guideposts but actually commodities, or they signal commodities. (The settling of America generally coincides with the development of capitalism so that the structures of inhabitation and daily life as well as commerce here are marked by that system rather than any other traditional values.) Learning in this environment means first knowing how to respond to signs and signals, which is part of a process of adapting to rules of production and consumption. Social behaviour must conform to this regime. In America, freedom, as we know, connotes freedom of choice. Thrown into the marketplace and unhinged from the care and tutelage of tradition, the individual is free but offered no instruction in his or her liberty.
    In passing from a literary to a visual culture, how does one pass on knowledge and transmit cultural inheritance? Or, given this seeming unfettering, how does one use what is left of tradition to maintain authority, either within the family or society? Society usually allocates these multiple roles to the public domain of education. In America, the entertainment industry has assumed the task of education. Returning to a classical ideal, it uses the popular arts to entertain and instruct. Socialization proceeds through seduction. This training contradictorily must repress certain instincts and liberate others for the social or commercial needs that sustain capitalist society.
    A cultural inheritance brought from Europe to America, and transformed in the passage, makes these lessons and losses clear. The transposition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from a Romantic literary text to the 1931 Hollywood movie not only deprives the monster of articulate and reasoned speech, so that he is no more than an inarticulate child. What is lost in this translation is the humanizing project of instruction. The whole of Shelley's Godwinian tract argues against the autodidacticism of the obsessed, isolated individual.[1] Both Victor Frankenstein and the narrator Robert Walton are realized examples of the state that the monster is unhappily born into—that of the outcast. In America, when instruction becomes indoctrination, the outcast is socialized, but isolation is institutionalized. From corporate tower to prison cell, from television screen to hillbilly shack, America is one Skinner Box of behavioural manipulation.
    Shelley's Frankenstein is not yet the psychopathic serial killer his type will become in America where the name is detached from the inventor and given to the monster. In America, Frankenstein and his monster become one: a body-obsessed dismemberer morphs with the child monster. (The plot novelty of the Frankenstein film places the mind of a child in the brain of a criminal in the body of a monster. Such a type is embodied in the monstrous, butchering man-child of Texas Chain Saw Massacre.) Here the quest for knowledge, creating life from death, is reversed. Bodies are not put together, but torn apart.[2]
     Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy take up the project of socializing the individual in America—which perhaps is the American project. At least the immigrant negotiates his or her entry into this culture as an adult, but what happens when one is born into it as a formless child—America's "new man"? Frankenstein's monster represents this dilemma. Seemingly sympathetic to the monster's plight, Kelley and McCarthy actually play all the roles of the scenario. They assume the masks of authority and submission. The artists have been schooled themselves, so to speak, in the transmission and reproduction of society's authority. At the same time dutiful and disobedient sons of this culture, in their collaborative works they practise a twisted pedagogy where teachers tend towards the socio-psychopath and the students are as outcast, unformed and forlorn as Frankenstein's foul offspring.
    In 1987, McCarthy asked Kelley to perform in a videotape with the only instructions "I am the father, you are the son." So perhaps it is no surprise that the tape should take up the theme of the dirty secret of the "family romance." After all, the training for society starts in the family and the subjection to authority begins with the submission of son to father.
    Tellingly entitled Family Tyranny: Modeling and Molding, the videotape opens with the text "The father begat the son. The son begat the father." But this is not only a keyhole peek into the household where the reproduction of authority is replayed and passed on in family (sexual) abuse. The videotape is modelled on a typical 1950s television fix-it, hobby show. (Those instructional programmes reinforced the idea that even recreation is to sustain an obsessive work ethic.) In a wood-panelled television set/basement workshop, the father prepares a white concoction made out of processed foodstuffs. Using a makeshift styrofoam ball on a stick to stand in as a boy's head, he shows how to force the liquid through a funnel down the throat of this mock child, saying "My daddy made me do this; you can do this to your son, too."
    As in Frankenstein's monster's low hovel, the windows of the set allow us to peer, as if through a camera lens, into this "workshop of filthy creation."[3] Architecture is both a hidden site of discipline and a surveillance device. Through the latter, the set and the camera become one, and a means through which society peers into the family, most effectively through the apparatus of television that instructs individuals as to society's dominant values. What is enacted there by Kelley and McCarthy becomes a prototype for their subsequent collaborations.[4]
    If McCarthy's and Kelley's mutual interest in repressive family structures brought them together, their subsequent collaborations extended this focus to society's conditioning of the individual through its institutions and cultural representations. In their installations and videotapes, architecture is used both as a model of these social formations and as a structural framework to incorporate the artists' analyses of contradictory cultural phenomena.
    It is not for us to allocate authorship of individual components or themes to either of the artists in their ensuing collaborations.[5] In some cases, their association entailed what the artists call a "collaborative compromise." For instance, the installation An Architecture Composed of the Paintings of Richard M. Powers and Francis Picabia (1997) derived from Kelley's interest in American science-fiction illustrator Richard Powers and McCarthy's interest in French Dadaist-Modernist painter Francis Picabia. This conjunction of names and images and the degraded or elevated practices they represent—one mass media, the other museum sanctioned—was a conjecture to be worked out in the resulting art work. We find there that these two artists are in not so secret communication with the seemingly exclusionary tradition the other represents.
    In other cases, the artists recognized a mutual interest, such as in the comic book character Sad Sack that was discovered during their collaboration on the installation Sod and Sodie Sock Comp O.S.O. (1998).[6] Their collaboration, though, means much more than allying the resources of their individual concerns to the ends of an aesthetic hybrid.
    Sod and Sodie Sock Comp O.S.O. is an American army tent compound pitched in a former defeated Nazi country (it was first shown in Vienna). In this work, the artists link American military imperialism to the victorious formalism of the post-war period of American art critic Clement Greenberg and the modernist art he championed. His writings appear in a series of strung together, cut-up texts that are appended to the visual documentation of the catalogue along with those of Wilhelm Reich and Georges Bataille. The artists' use of Reich's and Bataille's writings on the authoritarian ideology of the family and the mass psychology of fascism not only serve to bring the hierarchies of modernist aesthetic ideals down low, they also unite the themes of Kelley and McCarthy's collaborative works—the army camp replicates and reinforces the authoritarian structure of the family where repression originates. More a collusion or a conspiracy whose social dimensions cannot be predetermined at the onset, their collaborations are far-ranging in their critiques.
    The complex interactions that ensue between the artists in the collaborative process, as a dialogical relationship, inform the structure of the works themselves. For instance, the linkage between architecture and the body as mediated through video, the reciprocity between various institutions of culture that nonetheless hierarchically enforce the distinctions between high and low, and the dialogue between Europe and America as carried on in social theory, art practice, and popular cultural memory are dominating themes that recur in their works.

Architecture, Discipline and Instruction

Kelley and McCarthy's first true collaboration, Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone (1992), registers some of the complex contrarieties they force together. Made for exhibition in Vienna, the work—an architectural construction and videotape—bases itself on Joanna Spyri's children's story Heidi with its oppositions of city and country, culture and nature. "We chose to work with the novel Heidi," Kelley wrote, "because it offered many opportunities to work with doublings and polarities which seemed appropriate for a collaborative work."7
    Like cultural anthropologists, the artists examined the structural dichotomies of the novel with its ideological underpinnings of nature standing for health and culture representing sickness.[8] But Kelley and McCarthy exacerbated this opposition by piling on further contrarieties. In one construction they combined the Alpine chalet and city house of Spyri's story. So to the contrasts of country/city, nature/culture, health/sickness, they added that of traditional kitsch/modernist art, since the architecture of Viennese modernist and author of "Ornament and Crime," Adolf Loos, was the model for part of the exterior and the Frankfurt bedroom of the sick girl, Heidi's counterpart. With the incorporation of Loos and his anti-decoration dogma into this scenario, Kelley and McCarthy's Heidi also becomes more obviously "a lesson in aesthetics,"[9] situating itself, like all of their collaborations, in a dialogue with other art movements and works of art.
    Lessons must be learned. With an "insistence on the role of beauty as correctness," we are still in the realm of instruction and, ultimately, discipline.[10] Bodies, as well as art, must be subjected to corrective discipline. As with the stripped-down puritanism of modernism, the tattooed, criminal and degenerate body (Heidi is tattooed in the videotape) must be turned into a functional and disciplined body. According to Loos, ornament is the realm of children, primitives and criminals and must be eliminated from civilization. The tattooed body is a sign of collusion, the outward manifestation of an inward perversity, an imprint on the child that must be erased by another teaching that is reinforced by an ambiguous laying on of hands that cross the line between discipline and abuse.
    On the model of the misshapen body of the child, behaviour needs "orthopaedic" correction. Heidi's Alm Mountain setting, representing nature itself, offers this curative power. But in the videotape Heidi, a sometimes irrational discipline must be imposed by the familial representative of authority, the grandfather. One segment of the videotape is called, as a play on Loos's title, "ornament and education." Here it is the children Heidi and Peter, of course, who need remedial instruction and rehabilitation. Peter endures more correction as he seems to be the degenerate product of inbreeding. But Grandfather and Heidi, as well, have need of family counselling for some undisclosed but suspected perversion. So Loos's admonition of criminal degeneration rather seems applied to the family unit itself as if proof that the ornate Alpine chalet was a disguised hillbilly shack. Its decorative exterior hides unwholesome and lewd behaviour—beatings, scopophilia, implied incest and bestiality.
    The degeneration of ideals as they travel from the Alps to Appalachia is a theme that passes through the installation and videotape as Kelley and McCarthy's Heidi traces the vestiges of the Old World in American popular culture. These may take the shape of Disneyland's Matterhorn or Hollywood's Frankenstein. Yet, rather than memory, Heidi stages the fabrications of myth—here of childhood innocence—as nostalgic idealism sundered from and tainted by the shameful reality of the present. A knickknack Hummel kitschiness is the image of the child imported from Europe to America. But the child in America, like Frankenstein, has become an untutored monster. "Heidi becomes Americanized in a sort of dysfunctional horror film," McCarthy confirms.[11] Through reference to the horror genre, particularly to Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the European origins of this ideal of childhood innocence are displaced to the nightmare of an American dysfunctional family.
    This dialogue between Europe and America (as a still servile obeisance to authority, that is, of a persisting submission of son to father elevated to an ideal) continues in An Architecture Composed of the Paintings of Richard M. Powers and Francis Picabia and Sod and Sodie Sock. If the former asserts the hierarchies of Old World aesthetics over New World commercial illustration, the avant-garde militarism of the latter forcibly reverses that authority in its army occupation of a European cultural capital. Yet, this vanguard of American culture is undermined by its own low forms of debased corporeity, which the artists use against the essentialist core of European idealism enduring in American arts.

Architecture, Optics and the Body

Architecture is not only a test site for cultural diagnostics, it is a metaphor for the human body, as well. An Architecture's labyrinthine construction, built of stretched canvases, where painting functions as architecture and architecture as set, is a mindscape which the body of the spectator moves through. Picabia's abstractions and girlie paintings and Power's biomorphic, futuristic landscapes destined for book covers have been rendered in billboard scale by a Los Angeles billboard painter, [name]. Both artists treat the body, one pornographically, the other displacing it metaphorically into the landscape. Yet, An Architecture intentionally reproduces a hierarchy between the two. One walks through the corridors of Power's landscape dioramas to reach the main event of Picabia's soft-core porn palace.
     If Picabia figurative oil paintings deny their photographic mass media magazine sources, Kelley and McCarthy expose their origins by juxtaposing Picabia's practice to that of the illustrator Powers, whose images were destined for mechanical reproduction. (Kelley and McCarthy's employment of a sign painter is a reminder of, and rejoinder to, Picabia's anti-hand-of-the-artist Dadaist origins, denied in his figure paintings.) This hiding of sources, so necessary to the sublimations of creativity and the hierarchies of art, is reinforced by the location of the nudes in an inner sanctum. Although we must get there by means of our bodies, once there we obey a scopic regime. The ideals of art have their origins in this loss of bodyliness, while they maintain a sublimated eroticism that Power's landscape also embody.
    The sequestering of the body, yet one still destined for the pornographic gaze, appears as well in the videotape Fresh Acconci (1995). Here in a Hollywood Hills mansion, typically used in the pornography industry, a cast of nude Hollywood actors reenacts a number of Vito Acconci video performances from the early 1970s. Kelley and McCarthy's videotape weds the genre of haunted house films to soft-core porn art direction while addressing the then renewed interest in the (nude) body in performance art. According to the artists, "Fresh Acconci postulates that the body-art of today [such as that found in the work of Matthew Barney and Vanessa Beecroft] performs the function of a specialized sub-cultural erotica for the artworld despite its deconstructive pretensions."[12] Thus the substitution of the buff bodies of Hollywood actors for that of the uncomely Acconci seems to reinforce the elevation of art over the degraded genres of horror and porn. Yet the mis-en-scène's translation of Acconci's performances into what we might take at first as strange erotic practices only equates art and pornography.
    What appears as a joke on both Acconci and contemporary performance art thus has another "deconstructive" aim. Throughout Kelley and McCarthy's collaborative work, the body that has been occluded from modernism resurfaces in all its unruly rudeness from society's contraints and art's sanitized representations. The disciplined and abject body of Family Tyranny; the disciplined,  fragmented, fetishized body of the scopic regime of Heidi; the eroticized bodies of Fresh Acconci and An Architecture that are purveyed through art; are all enlisted in Sod and Sodie Sock Comp O.S.O. The body is not freed there; rather, it submits itself more fully to a sadistic regime of discipline and indoctrination to authority. The military, like the monastery, is a model of bodily regimentation.[13] In the ongoing social conditioning of the individual, the military initiates the rite of passage from adolescence to manhood.
    Kelley and McCarthy's mock-up of military life in Sod and Sodie Sock joins their "myth analysis" of the abject comic book anti-hero Sad Sack [14] to a degraded body regime regulated by the strict order and hierarchy of the army. But what by "nature" escapes this regime is also that which undermines the order of art as well. Kelley and McCarthy recover the theme of ineptness exemplified in the genre of military comedy of such television shows as "Hogan's Heros" and "Mash." By the fact of their presentation of the installation in Vienna, the artists ally American art to military occupation and play upon notions of a homogenous post-World War II male culture common to men's magazines and Abstract Expressionism. Military and aesthetic heroics are subverted by Sad Sackism as a symbolic opposition between the vertical and the horizontal figured as phallus and anus.
    What the artists see as the phallic monumentality of the modernist sculptural tradition is brought low in the comic servility of the Sad Sack character.15 Monolithic verticality, represented by the sculpture of the European Brancusi and the American David Smith (their anthropometric sculptures are reproduced in the Sod & Sodie Sock catalogue along with Greenberg's texts on them) and pardodied in the guard tower, is opposed to the horizontal disposition of the lowly actions, centered on the body, that are performed within the tent compound and subsequently edited for the videotape. Pryings abound in the compound's specialized enclosures: from transsexual shower scenes to the alien anal probes conducted in the infirmary.
    Not surprisingly, the child resurfaces in the character of Sad Sack. With the child, the pedagogic theme returns as one of the elements of Sod and Sodie Sock. However, now the hierarchical relation between teacher and student is displaced to art education. The art school seminar is parodied as studio regression to children's art therapy. Activities are appropriately located in a mess tent where an enlisted group of art students make mock heroic monuments from oatmeal.
    Through this symbol of military occupation, Kelley and McCarthy carry the debate started in Heidi back to Europe. The experimental communities of America reappear in the authoritarian hierarchies of an army compound. The issue of a transplanted experiment returns as alien spawn to its source. In this figure of formlessness, the eponymous sack, an American Frankenstein comes back to haunt the Old World.[16] 


    1. Mary Shelley text derives its social theories from the writings of her parents William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. For Godwin, "all forms of social institutions represent a corruption of the citizen and pervert his ability to form judgements, because they create prejudices....The central tragedy of human existence consists in the solitude that prejudices call forth, a solitude making it impossible to enjoy the happiness of friendship. For Godwin man is naturally good and potentially perfectible....What Mary borrows from her mother's text is the idea that the evil and the desire to destroy is not innate but rather only engendered once a basically good creature is expelled from his family and his society." Elisabeth Bronfen, "Rewriting the Family: Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' in its Biographical/Textual Context," Stephen Bann, ed., Frankenstein, Creation and Monstrosity (London: Reaktion Books, 1994), 25, 34.
    2. The serial killer's segmentation of body parts is akin to capitalist breakdown of units of production in the commodity process which also extends to the worker's body. A contemporary twist to the body-tinkerer is America's obsession with alien abductions and probes, in themselves screen images for real-life scenarios of sexual abuse or fears of the alien racial other.
    3. Such is Mary Shelley's description of the monster's birthplace.
    4. In Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone and Sod and Sodie Sock Comp O.S.O., architecture functions as a set in which a performance is improvised over a period of time, recorded and then edited as a videotape. The video accompanies the architectural installation, although not necessarily in the same space.
    A couple of stand-alone videotapes, Fresh Acconci  (1995) and the double projection Out O' Actions (1998), more directly relate to performance history. Out O'Actions  chronicles the artists' commissioned response to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979. Thinking that the exhibition excluded real-time events by concentrating on performance residue, they devised an artist-run alternative space adjacent to the exhibition and invited other performance artists to exhibit. Produced subsequent to the MoCA exhibition, the videotape documents Kelley and McCarthy's navigation through the bureaucracy of the museum. The footage is edited according to Viennese film artist Kurt Kren's documentation of Viennese performance artist Otto Muehl's action Mama und Papa from 1964.
    5. For instance, we can follow McCarthy's interest in family instruction and parental conditioning in his performance works that have their source in children's television programmes, and in his sculptural works Cultural Gothic (1992) and The Garden (1991-92). Television or movie sets figure in his performance-based videotapes or films such as Bossy Burger (1991), Painter (1995) and Saloon (1996). See McCarthy's comments on the relationship between masks, architecture and the camera in "Kristine Stiles in conversation with Paul McCarthy," Ralph Rugoff, Kristine Stiles, and Giancinto Di Pietrantonio, Paul McCarthy (London: Phaidon Press, 1996), 16-17.
    The themes of repressed, or false, memory syndrome and childhood sexual abuse, pursued through the screen of architecture and art education, appear in such varied works of Kelley's as Educational Complex (1995), Timeless/Authorless (1995), We Communicate Only Through Our Shared Dismissal of the Prelinguistic (1995), and Sublevel (1998). Also see his texts "The Alien Among Us," World Art (November 1997): 48-53, revised as "Thoughts on the Aesthetics of Ufology," John C. Welchman, Isabelle Graw, and Anthony Vidler, Mike Kelley (London: Phaidon Press, 1999), 138-141, and "Goin' Home, Goin' Home," Thirteen Seasons (Heavy on the Winter) (Cologne: Jablonka Gallery, 1995).
    6. "We both had interest in 'Sad Sack'. But our interests are actually quite different. Mine had to do with the 'Sad Sack' book that was published in the Forties which is a compilation of comic strips done for GI's during World War II. I saw in it a revealing of American racism and imperialism. Mike's interest had to do with thecharacters' transformation into a model of the family, for kids in the Sixties. There, the stories began to refer more to relationships in patriarchal family structures. We didn't realize that we had similar interests, and all of a sudden we were working with the same material butfrom different points of view." Paul McCarthy, typescript of panel discussion at Secession, Vienna, September 23, 1998.
    "To me the Sad Sack comics are fascinating because they are a model for the family. It's related to the hierarchy of the military, because in those stories it's obvious that the general is the absent father, the sergeant is the mother, and Sad Sack is the baby. Sad Sack is always being asked to do something and always fucks it up. And because you are the child reader, it makes you feel good to see someone more inept than you." "An Interview with Mike Kelley," Art in America 82: 6 (June 1994): 91.
    7. Mike Kelley in Mike Kelley, 130. This is an excerpt from Kelley, "Playing with Dead Things," The Uncanny (Arnhem: Sonsbeck 93 and Gemeentemuseum Arnhem, and Los Angeles: Fred Hoffman, 1993), 4.
    8. This structural analysis also involves the collection and classification of images, which in Heidi, was displayed n three billboards. "Heidi was the first work were we combined architecture, sculpture, videotape., the collection and categrization of images and the appropriation of a figure from popular culture. We have established this as a kind of methodology—the construction of video-architecture and the collection and categorization of found images." Paul McCarthy, typescript of panel discussion at Secession.
    9. Paul McCarthy's notes on Heidi are published in Paul McCarthy, 126.
    10. Paul McCarthy, 126. The disciplinary regimes of correct training with the body as object are examined in Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
    11. Paul McCarthy, 130. With its reliance on props, doublings, and reversals and inversions of roles, the videotape Heidi is itself a hybrid monster. Body parts are manipulated in the videotape as much as editing cuts compose it.
    12. Unpublished manuscript by the artists.
    13. "The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power, and in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible....These 'observatories' had an almost ideal model: the military camp...The camp was to the rather shameful art of surveillance what the dark room was to the great science of optics." Discipline and Punish, 170-71, 172.
    14. These take place through series of independent drawings by Kelley and McCarthy.
    15. In McCarthy's mythical world of Sad Sack revealed in his drawings, phallus and asshole are opposed as the erect to the formless; but the penis is also shit. The eye is a penis as well as a camera. In the installation, the combination latrine-guard tower symbolically unites phallus and anus in a scopic surveillance apparatus. In Kelley's drawings ...
    16. One of Kelley's drawings from the series Sod and Sodie Sock 1-12 (1998) which renders Sad Sack as Frankenstein and an alien, Sad Sack is also labelled "the walking dead."


NOTE: This text may not correspond exactly to its published form.