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Art is not politics, according to Kessler, but art carries politically engaged meanings that are capable of deeply question society at all levels. Jon Kessler shows us through his works how artists can address topics like war, surveillance and even digital innovation, stimulating not only viewers’ minds but also their five senses through his immersive installations. Kessler’s signature is represented by the structural complexity of his sculptures and installations. He is a master of the invention, a visionary builder of moving machines, like a contemporary Jean Tinguely, but less onanistic and more grounded into a political reflection over society.

Playing with the concepts of image obsession, technology, and the relation between what is seen and what is unseen, he has reached the highest peaks of the art world and his works have been on show in museums like MoMA, Saatchi Collection and the Whitney Museum, just to name a few.

Your artistic career started in the ‘80s, when technology and digital tools were not as important as today. How has your perspective on art and technology changed throughout the years?
I’ve been making mechanical sculptures since I began in 1983 and at that point I was just using lights and motors; I integrated some computers into the work – handmade computers – from 1985. But the work really shifted after 9/11 and at that point I started integrating video cameras, surveillance cameras, and monitors. So that’s when the work took a dramatic shift: I turned not just on the materials but also on the ideas of the works picking more political and more social. So I’ve always been using hi-tech things like computers, which I mix with very low-tech fence, like simple mechanical apparatuses.
Your sculptures and installations are very complex and full of different elements and media. How do you assemble them and where do you find all the different components that build each work?
Yes, the installations are very complicated. My first installation is from 2005, and it is called Palace at 4 A.M. My studio is large but it’s not large enough to see that work fully put together, so I built the parts but also ordered a lot of them. Now it’s much easier to order things on the Internet, so I got a lot of them online. But back at that day I used to have to go to these electronic stores with my truck and buy all the stuff
Your works often reflect over the subject of image-obsession and its role in society. However visual art is based mainly on images. How do you approach this theme within your practice?
I’ve addressed it in different ways. In some of the works I do, I generate the images myself. Other times I steal images from books or from existing advertisement, so I get in the web with Apple ads, for example. Because I am coupling the cameras and the real with the meaning of them and of the represented, I create an unnerving situation where you don’t completely trust what you are seeing. And I think that that’s the situation where we are now, where you have what’s real right in front of you but you are more comfortable looking at a screen, at image. As if you are looking at images that actually are in some way more comfortable. So I always couple the object with how it’s mediated. And I think I leave the viewers decide for themselves where to look at. Hopefully they are looking at both, because both are completely necessary in my work.

One of your latest installations, The Web, commissioned by the Métamatic Research Initiative in Amsterdam, questions the massive use of smartphones and social media. What kind of reactions and thoughts did you want to produce to the viewers? How do you feel about this massive use of gadgets and social media?
I’m critical of the use of gadgets and at the same time I’m interested in exploiting their use. So I created a phone app that only worked for iPhones, because the work really was about Apple in some ways. And so I created a phone app where, if you take a picture while you are in the show, it will then get used in the installation. I know I can’t stop people from taking selfies, this is just what happens. So I thought: “Ok, this will catalyse on them, this will benefit from it”. So I own now photographs that were taken using my app in my installation, and I’ll do something with them. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but I will use them at some point.
Do you think that the importance of the Internet and the digital devices is going to change the way we use and perceive art in the future?
Yes, I do. I think we are really in a transition point, where virtual reality becomes more viable and successful, and augmented reality becomes more ours. I think it’s going to change the way artists create and make. I still think that paints will get made, I still think that traditional sculpture will get made. But I do think it will expand the artists reach in terms of how to connect with the viewer. I am in the Whitney Biennial right now, and there is a piece on that show that is a virtual reality artwork that is getting a lot of attention, and it’s a very strong piece. So I do, I think we are just beginning to see how it can be used.
The Palace at 4 A.M., with its sixty mechanical sculptures, three hundred video monitors and six miles of cable can be considered your most complex work to date. The references to 9/11, Bush and the hunt for weapons of mass destruction with the consequent invasion of Iraq represent a summary of the topics investigated by your artistic research. What did you want to evoke and suggest to the public through the installation? Would you consider it your masterpiece?
‘Masterpiece’ is a really big word; I don’t know if I would even use it. I always think it’s better for other people to call something that you have done a masterpiece rather than me defining it as so. That is the piece that I consider my ‘Apocalypse Now’. I was trying to come to terms just in a way Coppola did when he made that movie about the insanity of war. His war was the Vietnam one; mine is Iraq’s. I was trying to deal with the progression of events from the election in 2002, the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, the invasion of Iraq, and then even on a national level Hurricane Katrina, which happened under the same president. So I wanted the viewer to come with me along this kind of journey. There wasn’t one road, but many, many ways to see it. Every viewer saw something different and got some part or another of the story. And now there’s a story I am trying to tell from 2000 to 2005.

“Art is not politics. Art is not environmentalism. Art is art. But art is full of ideas, and ideas can be challenging and they can change people’s understandings about culture and the world.”
Ghosts is a project made in collaboration with author Paul Auster. Can you tell us something about this work, how it started and what is it about?
Paul is my brother in law and we decided to make a piece together, and Ghosts has always been one of my favorite books of his. In my wife’s and Paul’s wife family there are four girls, all of them married to guys. So I took the four main characters of the story – Mr. White, Mr. Blue, Mr. Black and Mr. Brown – and we (Paul, me and the other two) became them in the installation.
There are a lot of other details about the installation: the characters are kind of doing what they do in the book – Mr. Blue is the detective and he’s got the binocular, Mr. Black (Paul) is actually sitting on the desk and he’s writing, etc. And then there are pages from the book, writings, monitors, and video cameras moving very slowly along the floor. It’s almost like the book is taken apart. I wanted to give the sense that the book had come alive and you were entering it.
War, surveillance, and politics are topics that are always present in your works. Do you think that artists can play a role in shaping social consciousness and maybe even inspire people to question and change their habits and believes? 
Yes, I do. I think that art can have an incredible effect on the world. Art is not politics. Art is not environmentalism. Art is art. But art is full of ideas, and ideas can be challenging and they can change people’s understandings about culture and the world. I like the idea that I’m working with this very challenging and kind of difficult subject, like surveillance and the use of surveillance to talk about surveillance. I’m exploiting and critiquing at the same time.
What do you have in store for the future? Are you currently working on something new?
I am working on a large installation called Flooding World, and it’s about climate change and about the fact that the water level is arising and we are going to see massive amount of refugees. We are going to see storms like we have never seen before unless we really do something about it; we are going to see environmental disasters and that’s the next large piece I’m working on.

Ilaria Lorio Albarin
Rick Haylor

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