Mike Kelley, The Ignition Point
To travel down the fragmented landscape of Michigan Avenue, a route that stretches across the city of Detroit and into the surrounding outskirts, is to experience erratically frenetic shifts in public space. Stalled projects from corporate bureaucracy, pockets of blossoming community endeavors, economic fallout, thriving domestic neighborhoods, and vacant desolate patches of land, punctuate the terrain in manic shifts that move like a flickering slide show of extremes.
For Dutch artists, Inge Nabuurs & Erwin VanDoorn, the interest and reverie for this specific location began with two pieces created by the late artist Mike Kelley: A film by the title of “Going West on Michigan Avenue from Westland to Downtown Detroit and Going East on Michigan Avenue from Downtown Detroit to Westland”, and “A Minor History: Categorical Imperative and Morgue“.
Mike Kelley, was born to a working class family on the outskirts of Detroit in the suburb, Westland. Rebellious and angsty in his formative years, he went on to produce artworks spanning the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. In his pieces he confronted American classism, pop culture, and anarchist counterculture. It was in his work that he studied, assessed, assigned, and imposed titles on the different cultural pockets of American culture.
His categorization of social dynamics was illustrated most clearly in “A Minor History: Categorical Imperative and Morgue“, where he created 40 collages using imagery from World History books that he had collected over a broad range of years. He assembled these fragments from history books into 40 separate categories outlining his personal notions of American society and arbitrary whims. During his undergraduate years he became involved in left-wing political movements and the underground punk rock music scene. While attending the prestigious University of Michigan, he founded a noise band by the name of Destroy All Monsters – which is still exists to this day under another eponym. During his graduate studies, while inspired by the avant-garde works of artists like Laurie Anderson and John Baldessari, he also formed his own experimental performance band called the Poetics. He was motivated to do this because it challenged the categorization that was imposed upon artistic pursuits by the fine art world. Whether knowingly or not, it was also this process of categorization that became a central tool for him in his work as well. Throughout his career he was both, operationally institutional, and ardently anti-institutional as he battled his inner demons, always trying to make attempts to revolt against the art-world, yet simultaneously trying to have it both ways, and accepting institutional funding.
Mike Kelley tragically met his tumultuous demise on his own terms, when he ended his life by self-electrocution on the 31st of January 2012.
Like dormant regalia in a tomb, his pieces lay inactive, but are now resurrected by their involvement in an entirely new project named “Zwischenlandschaften: The Game Piece,” created by the artist collective Inge Nabuurs & Erwin Van Doorn. They chose these aforementioned pieces by Mike Kelley as an ignition points to inspire their recent works because of the commonalities they share with Mike Kelley’s work- a concern for repressed memories in society’s collective consciousness, and their fascination in how perspectives are constructed.
Initially working as activists in the late 2000s, Nabuurs & Van Doorn became disillusioned from the power-hierarchies they found to be inescapable in the circles that claimed to want to eradicate them. Still with an interest in the dynamics of society, and their inquisitive tendencies, they moved forward with their investigations into human memory and site-specific history. These investigations took them to untouched archives, forlorn and forgotten characters, and locations haunted with the memories of past trauma. In these projects they developed complex methodologies that researched and layered assorted aspects of human consciousness, which eventually developed into laborious projects intended to function as a mirror reflecting humanity, or the lack there of it. As artists it is their toilsome body of research that they use to compose installations, videos, imagery, writings, and performance.
For their most recent project, a connection to Detroit in the form of a research residency tied them serendipitously to Mike Kelley’s work and native area. They were approached by Kerstin Niemann, founder of FILTER Detroit, a research residency based in Detroit, to conduct their investigation into Mike Kelley’s locally-based works, and the location surrounding them. Niemann, being familiar with the obsessive practices of Nabuurs & Van Doorn, was interested in what they could discover there. With intensely complex methodologies closer to that of investigative journalists than traditional artists, Nabuurs and Van Doorn consult the past to inform a future they hope to exist – a future where participation and inclusion is activated by a universally accessible language.
By using Mike Kelley’s work as an ignition point, Nabuurs and Van Doorn have created such a performance language based off of this specific landscape. The most recent version of this performance language came to fruition in the “ZLS3 feat. >Mike Kelley</(Franz West)?” exhibition at the Villa Empain in Brussels. Long meticulously drawn out geometric symbols derived from the landscape’s cartographic elements lined metal forms that housed the active performers themselves. Two performers, an experimental dancer from Greece by name of Eleni Ploumi, and Kjell de Raes, a classically trained percussionist from Belgium, were the first participants in the second installment of this ongoing project. The next segment of this project will go on show at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven in mid-January, along side the original Morgue collages by Kelley. The project is slated to continue until its’ sixth installment, finally reaching its culmination in an undetermined location in Detroit.
During these showcases, each performer is fed a separate string of code via a projection that displays the symbols for their viewing. These modern-day hieroglyphics, are symbols based initially on aspects of Michigan Avenue when surveyed by Nabuurs & Van Doorn. However, in this instance the symbols’ relationship to the physical world becomes arbitrary, and the main purpose of this code shifts strictly to a utilitarian purpose – a code that is merely a vessel for the performers to imbue with their own choices.
Initially, the events could be perceived as a cacophony of chaos over the course of the 40 minute-long event. As time proceeds a trancelike exchange starts to occur. Whether or not the viewer can even recognize an organized code has been intravenously fed to the performers, there is both sensed cohesion and fragility within the space and time.
By divorcing the original meaning of the code to landscape, and removing all traces of tangible connection, it then becomes a force that transcends a physical space, and moves towards pure humanistic participation. Reality becomes warped and convoluted. The code exists more as a heartbeat in the background, and the performers’ autonomy is the highlight. It becomes clear that beyond the tangible art that houses the performers, the true intended product of these artistic efforts is the crystallized moment in which this collective experience exists. Mike Kelley, a master of splitting apart the threads of society and reconstructing them into a more human-centered vision, still holding relevance, would hopefully find solidarity in this current pursuit. A kind of solidarity that still holds true, joining the frayed strands from his 90s works, twisting and binding them with the new fabric of the Zwischenlandschaften project.