Meet a NYFA Artist: Joseph Keckler
Joseph Keckler photographed by Michael Sharkey
NYFA speaks with 2012 Interdisciplinary Work Fellow Joseph Keckler
NYFA: Hi Joseph, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on and what’s coming up for you?
JK: It’s my honor and pleasure. Thank you. Right now I’m working on a project called I am an Opera, which is a performance piece, or an ongoing series of performance pieces. It is an opportunity for me to play formally. In part, I’m representing minute details from my own quotidian existence through use of opera, an art form that is often perceived as being intense, beautiful, high-class, exquisitely– or embarrassingly– artificial, exotic, and antiquated. The impulse is to marry contemporary content to classical form in an interesting way. (And also to do the opposite, to mix classical content with contemporary form.) I’m working from this idea that opera is a form that somehow persists, despite its often being pronounced dead. Zizek describes such a condition as “zombie-like.” But I think I’m approaching opera less as a zombie and more as a ghost. A zombie is a body with no mind that ambles around gnawing away at the intelligence of others. A ghost, on the other hand, is a mind with no body. And if opera is a ghost in my schema, then I can be a medium who channels it! Becoming a medium has always been one of my fantasies.
NYFA: When and how did you begin performing?
JK: I performed as a child, in some ways that many children perform. I staged tricycle accidents on the front lawn. I enjoyed clipping clothespins to various parts of my body and also dressing up as a corpulent-bird person in a Michigan sweatshirt. I became a nine-year-old Cab Calloway impersonator. I earned and squandered social currency by performing funereal and flashy blues songs in the annual junior high talent show. Later I began wearing ankle-length dashikis, rotary phone cords, and pet supplies to school.
NYFA: Can you tell us a bit about how you’ve arrived within your current practice?
JK: As a student, I trained in painting and classical voice. At the same time, I studied performance and writing under Holly Hughes (NYFA Fellow, Performance Art/Multidisciplinary Work, 1990 and Playwriting/Screenwriting, 1994). Through working with Holly I began to develop my own literary voice. I wrote stories, essays, and monologues. This was within the context of an art college, so writing was approached in a loose way that related not only to literature, but to text-based performance, conceptual art, and oral traditions. Connections were drawn between practices of autobiography and body-based art. The scope of possibilities felt broad. I love to paint, but at a certain point I decided that I didn’t have anything relevant to say in that medium. I was working in a range of styles, but hovering around figurative expressionism, while incorporating some “conceptual” elements. Living with objects that I’ve made has always been difficult. They get on my nerves. I’ve grown to favor the immediacy of performance. By the time a performance is done, a performance is gone! Having your work be ephemeral is anguishing, of course, but it’s also a relief. When I came to New York a few years ago, I began writing full-length performance pieces, both independently and collaboratively. I also built my performance skills by appearing in some operatic roles and acting in other people’s work, and performing constantly in music venues, galleries, and clubs; I’ve continued all along to work on my voice. It’s taken me a lot of time and work to be able to successfully integrate or synthesize music, text (and some media). I’d like to be ten times better but I think I’m getting there. I’m currently interested in staging conversations between different art forms. And I’ve always been attracted to the blur between art and life. As I continue to perform my own work live, I’m attempting to somehow embody that conversation, and to embody that blur.
NYFA: What role does autobiography play in your current work?
JK: In my songs and narratives I’ve always used a lot of found text and borrowed text– internet chat dialogues, excerpts of film scripts, Shakespeare sonnets, and snippets of a guard dog training manual, for instance. I seem to regard my own life as a ‘found text’ as well. “Well, here it is”, I’ve often thought. “Let’s do something with it!” I’ve consistently experimented formally with autobiography (by defining multiple selves, and by incorporating a lot of abstraction and absurdity, for example.) The “I” in much of my autobiographical work has frequently figured as more of an observer, or as an absorber of the goings-on around him, rather than as a motivator of action. In the past I’ve made pieces that drew on experience and that dealt with trauma, identity (crisis), and failure– some usual thematic suspects. I had an emotional need to write those pieces. For better or worse, the inclusion of experience-based episodes in my current work is motivated purely by the impish desire to see what happens when opera and autobiography are poured into the same kettle.
NYFA: Your show that premiered in Amsterdam last year, A Voice and Nothing More, has a very weighty title that alludes to Derrida, Lacan, and Plutarch. Do you have a “theory of voice”? Do you think singing is its own “layer” of thought?
JK: I intended to make those allusions but on second thought, maybe I should have just called the show “Jukebox Joseph.” I don’t have a theory of the voice yet, just certain attractions to it, as well as a practice involving it. The voice appeals to me because it can be felt but cannot be seen. When I perform I like shaping my voice into different sounds and characters, both in singing and speech. I base certain voices on people I’ve known and others on people I imagine– I’m the opposite of a celebrity-impersonator, I’m an obscurity-impersonator. Yes, maybe singing is its own layer of thought; sometimes we experience it as being an entity unto itself– often a singer will talk about his/her voice as though it is a different person. You hear us complaining, “my voice doesn’t want to go there today” and “my voice is still asleep” and– my favorite– “my voice is mad at me.”
NYFA: What other artists or other individuals most influence you?
JK: I love many living artists, but today let’s stick to a few dead popular ones who I looked up to from an early age. I’ve always been pulled in by artists such as Nina Simone and Odetta, who trained in classical music at a time when that field, in this country, was not very open to African-Americans. Both of them were able to call on elements of that training and sensibility in their channeling of folk, blues, and jazz– in a politicized and stylistically hybridized, idiosyncratic way. Jean Cocteau always fascinated, moved, and comforted me. He concocted an aesthetic that he managed to infuse into writing, film, drawing, and even his own image. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “put the whammy on me” too, with his macabre, campy, and transcendent oeuvre. As a teen I read a lot of Shirley Jackson, whose humorous autobiographical chronicles of daily life and claustrophobic gothic fiction may have had some effect on me.
NYFA: You perform for radically diverse audiences in a wide variety of different contexts. What are some characteristics of your ideal audience?
JK: It’s true that I recently performed the same short pieces within some gallery contexts, in theaters, dingy nightclubs, rock venues, art benefits for millionaires, on contemporary classical/new music line-ups, on a TV pilot, and even in an unexpected smattering of alt-comedy gigs. I’m happy when I perform at a museum and the security guards like the show.
NYFA: Are there particular reactions you hope to invoke in those who experience your work?
JK: Surprise. I like performing for strangers because they’re the easiest to surprise.
NYFA: How has receiving a Fellowship this year (2012) affected you?
JK: It happened so recently that it’s impossible to name all the ways that being awarded this Fellowship will affect me and my work. Being recognized and supported in this way has certainly filled me with gratitude and has boosted my morale. I was stunned with joy when I received the news. The grant will enable me to complete work that has been in limbo and will give me the resources to realize my new opera more rapidly and properly than I’ve been able to realize any full-length piece to date. I am thrilled.
NYFA: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Joseph!
Click here to watch a video of the artist.
For more information on Joseph Keckler, visit his website.