Studio, Gallery, and Cloud

December 27, 2014   •   By Lainey Racah

The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: The Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course, was printed this fall and mailed to subscribing LARB members. Click here to get your subscription today.


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In early August, I caught up with Devin Kenny while he was in Los Angeles to do a performance, titled In the Cloud / On the Ground, as part of his body of work for the Made in L.A. biennial at the Hammer Museum. We met at the live-work studio space he was staying in on Jefferson Boulevard to discuss his practice, the internet, and his newly released record, Alone We Play.

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LAINEY RACAH: So, describe Studio Workout — what it is, and why it has that name.

DEVIN KENNY: Sure. On the one hand, the name is a play on the rap or trap trope of “moving work,” when people talk about “work,” but “work” is cocaine. Or, it’s a play on stuff like “coming out the gym” or “getting your weight up,” and other fitness-related references in trap music. Also, people talk about “work” in the art world. So, Studio Workout was a project that I made which was trying to make sense of why my peers in Bushwick were making paintings while listening to trap music — this was around 2010. I thought: what does trap or the experience of selling drugs have to do with the spirit you want while you’re making art? So, I went about trying to make a trap mixtape, except instead of talking about selling pills or selling cocaine or kush or whatever, I would just replace all the drug references with another commodity — art objects. So it’s about a guy who sells paintings. He’s basically the same self-aggrandizing, somewhat misogynistic, super self-confident kind of figure as a rapper, except he doesn’t talk about selling drugs. It’s a different industrial complex entirely. I don’t really sell paintings, so it was also kind of a joke on how rappers talk about killing people or selling drugs when they don’t actually do that. It was replacing one component with another to try to talk about the larger system or structure. I made it as a Tumblr [http://studioworkout.tumblr.com], so I would put out a song every day for a month. I put out photos, drawings, text, and songs, but it was primarily made as a vehicle for these songs.

Studio Workout was a forerunner to my most recent record, Alone We Play, which is a concept album dealing with internet ennui, and the currency of a strong social network following, as well as aspects of the online experience not often addressed, like net-based gangbanging and outsourcing labor through Amazon, et cetera. There are still several moments of humor and cheekiness, but where Studio Workout was made as a long-form mixtape you could make art to, Alone We Play is an album that is a bit like a window with a bunch of open tabs.

How does writing play a role in your practice? Do you write by hand, on your computer, or both?

Wow, writing plays a really big role in my practice. I have tons and tons of notebooks, small pocket-sized notebooks, and larger notebooks which I write down ideas in. My sketchbooks are mostly full of text nowadays. There are certain times where I’ll have an idea that is specifically visual and I’ll sketch it out, but oftentimes I’ll just describe the thing I that want and go back to use the text as a trigger for a visual memory. So yeah, writing has a big role in my practice. I also have a loose poetry background — while I was starting to think about pursuing art, I was doing a lot of spoken word, written poetry, and experimental theater writing in Chicago. That has been a thing that has continued throughout my projects; I do a lot of text-based projects as well. I write on my cell phone, and I write in notebooks, and I write on backs of party flyers, and I write on napkins, so it’s kind of all over the place. Sometimes I write on my body, like on my arm or something.

Anywhere.

Yeah.

In your installation at Made in L.A., some of the work was interactive, or at least was easily accessible — like on a table with options to look or touch or take — and a large portion of the scheduled time for your performance/lecture was for discussion with the audience. How important is the viewer, the listener, the audience to how your work functions? Their participation?

I try to make work that puts seemingly disparate communities in a place to spark conversation. So sometimes that makes itself manifest through having things that people can physically alter or take away, and other times it is more like “Oh, this is an autonomous art object that is just sitting there,” and then people may speak to one another or have an internal dialogue about it.

I don’t want to say I don’t think about the audience or participant, because I do, but I guess it depends on the work. There are certain pieces which fall more into the autonomous art zone, and then there are other things that are made to be activated, or people can handle them. It obviously gives a different experience, but it also colors the content of the work. Like if you have a copy of a cookbook or something under glass, versus one that you can touch, versus one where the pages are blown up on a tapestry that you can lay under. That changes what it is, even if it’s the same turkey tetrazzini, you know what I mean?

How do you think modes of online sharing, like links to Facebook and Tumblr reblogging, have affected the art world, and your art practice?

Well, maybe it’s affected me a little differently, because when I began thinking about pursuing art as a discipline, for my life, or a field of study, I was online a lot already. I was engaged in more sub-cultural stuff, a lot of which came from communities or groups that I had been participating in online, different forums and chatrooms and websites from skateboarding and graffiti, to anime and manga fans. It was a pretty fluid transition for me. It wasn’t: “Ah! Now I really need to start thinking about, like, my web presence —”

[Laughs] My brand

Yeah, it wasn’t like that at all. Because it had kind of developed with me, so I wasn’t even conscious of it. But now, looking back, I’ve been trying to interrogate that, as more and more people have become interested in things like personal branding. Actually, not saying that particular phrase was my New Year’s resolution, so I just broke my thing, but it’s almost as if there are quotes around it, so it’s not like I’m saying it saying it.

I’m also interested in how it’s changed people’s perception of the art world — people reblogging pictures of old paintings and thinking, "Oh, my blog has Van Gogh paintings on it, what does that make me look like?" — how people are learning about art or being exposed to art in different ways.

Right. I think it’s interesting that there’s no Art subcategory on YouTube. There’s Health, Beauty, Comedy, Music, Home Improvement, you know, Automobiles … there are all these different subcategories for content, but there’s no Art subcategory. There’s Arts and Entertainment, but that’s not the same at all. And I think that says a lot. At first I thought, “Oh, why isn't there? Why don’t they make it easy so we know this is the Art section?” But it actually allows for more interdisciplinary approaches, because you have to use some of the signifiers of the thing that you’re going inside of and twist it in some way. Or, just make something that completely has nothing to do with it. Like rappers putting up their promos might put it in the Style Tips category, even though it’s not actually about that.

But the question is “how does it affect the way people view the art world?” I would say that a lot of the stuff online is part of the art world. I mean, Contemporary Art Daily is the art world. There are a lot of art Tumblrs. There are artist pages on social networking platforms. There is a certain way in which the ease of producing and sharing content has allowed people to grasp things that signify the art world. For a while I was interested in Tumblr because [on their blogs] people would have like a black painting, and then a classical sculpture, and then a particular kind of potted plant. You know what I’m talking about.

I do.

A lot of people would circulate these very specific, “artsy” looking images, and these are images that, before this era, would look hideous, just terrible, and it made Art look really bad. Maybe it was because they were bad scans of photos that were reproduced in books. This was also before people had easy access to digital cameras, in the early 2000s, so seeing art online was a totally different thing. Like you said, someone might have a Van Gogh jpeg on their blog and you might think, “Oh, this person is really out of touch.” But now, just because the overall quality and overall access to representations of all sorts is so much higher, I think it’s easier to have good experiences online while looking at mediated representations of art, even looking at art that’s made online, and art that’s made for online audiences, which was a lot more difficult in the net art time period, with Jodi [net-art collective] and all these other net-art artists that Rhizome had previously been one of the few bastions of support for. That’s a really big question!

I know. But it’s also really interesting to think about, because people’s blogs become representations of themselves. It’s almost as if they are collecting these images of art to form their own aesthetic, which is a really interesting appropriation that’s only made possible by that kind of medium and would never have been possible before.

Totally, and there’s a way in which you can create a kind of mind-space online. A person who may have a picture of a Tadao Ando building on their Tumblr might not have a poster of one of those buildings in their room or house, or might not have a coffee table book. Their day to day life may be very distinct from the kind of projection of self that is produced on their social media. But there’s a kind of richness that is possible now online for creating those kinds of environments, versus in the pre-“web 2.0” era.

One more question: Is the internet a landscape or a tool?

Ooh, oh. The answer is yes. It’s really both. As you know, landscapes can be instrumentalized in particular ways, like when we exploit something for its resources. I think it’s both — you can use it as a tool, and it is used as a tool upon us, usually for extracting information that can later be used for selling us consumer products. But I guess whether it’s a tool or not depends on how you use it. People continually come up to me after I talk about projects or different reads on the current landscape of the internet that I navigate, and they talk to me about lurkers. So, to me, on the internet, there is a way in which the lurker and the explorer are collapsed. Because they’re traveling through things that have been produced, but aren’t necessarily making concrete contributions other than their traffic. And also, when I say “explorer,” I don’t mean someone who is paid by a kingdom to look at land to figure out how it can be conquered. I just mean someone who is walking through terrain casually or for their own pleasure. It’s weird because even foot traffic can impact landscapes. There will be certain caves, you know, and you can’t go to the caves because having people inside makes it erode faster, or the amount of carbon dioxide that people produce changes the physical environment of the space somehow. I feel like that might be a stretch to make it 1:1, but I do feel like there’s a relationship there. So yeah. It’s both.

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Lainey Racah is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles.