In advance of her upcoming panel discussion with Kirsten Swenson and Erin Stellmon, CACBlog recently sat down with Emily Kennerk to discuss Las Vegas, transience, and her new exhibition America’s #1 Foreclosed City: Las Vegas currently on view at Contemporary Arts Center.
In the press release that accompanies the project, [The installation] casts bright, critical light on the real estate collapse that has transformed our city. As her previous projects have dealt in American preoccupations with being Number One, it is with curiosity, empathy, anxiety, and subtlety that she now examines her new home as the country’s leader in foreclosures. Her installation America’s #1 Foreclosed City: Las Vegas investigates this phenomenon as a transitional space; growing, yes, but also fleeting, transforming, and adapting. We have all lost.
A twenty-two hour-long video projection pays momentary homage to every foreclosed home in the city in 2009. Photographs appropriated from online images are reproduced on sheer textiles at room-size; the interiors (and houses that surround them) unevenly obfuscated, disintegrating, evaporating. A powdered graphite rubbing traces the exterior wall of a vacant home and like rubbings of tombstones, Kennerk’s act of transference and inscription functions here as both memorial and artifact, conflating distances and uniting surfaces. Las Vegas has changed forever, and with Kennerk’s work our collective experience becomes significant, hopeful, and ephemeral.
CACBlog: Do you think Las Vegas is dumb?
That’s a good question. In one respect, you look at…there is an incredible history of city planning and civic structure, but Vegas from it’s inception hasn’t followed any of the proven structures that help a city in improving itself, whether by choice or how fast its city grew, or leadership; for some reason it was not considered.
Are you approaching this narrative as an outsider or insider?
You’re neither. It’s hard to be an insider or an outsider here. It doesn’t follow the norm of community—I’ve refrained from preferencing one…It’s emotionally removed, which probably could only be understood by someone who lives here. It’s an odd emotional state.
In your artist statement, you write that you are “interested in the transitional state of current modernity, the departure from a solid plausibility structure to a liquid one, and how seemingly discarded ideologies operate within current modes of thought”. So my question is, in this exhibition, is the seemingly discarded ideology the American Dream?
It’s funny that the statement was written prior to coming here. I feel like I’m living in the middle of the thing I’ve always set out. Everything is moving. The American Dream has been in the process of being dismantled, it’s been a long time coming. Layer upon layer is being eroded, changed, shifting; the icon of the home, such a charged image.
Responding to the actual works in the exhibition, we’d like to spend some time discussing the rubbing. In that work, different from the others, your level of removal is not as far as in, say, the photographs or projection piece that utilizes found imagery. In the frottage, you were essentially massaging the façade of a building; standing (probably) in the sun, with graphite powder on your hands, tearing sheets, and walking around. Could you describe this process and perhaps how, if at all, it was a different experience for you and ultimately the viewer?
That piece was the hardest for me to do, both conceptually and as a physical artwork.
A return to a form of mark-making and drawing that had been discarded [in my practice]. Difficult to justify. At first, I did 15’, a heavy rubbing, working to get every edge, every crease. Speaking of the way I work, I would have thought it would have been more in line with the work.
It was difficult, starting at 5 am, working until noon, in the sun. I realized it was not working, it looked like a rendering, I thought it was too there. I thought it had lost some of its transparency (like the other works). The next day, I went back out, and picked up whatever got picked up; it was quick, it took a day. I left more up to chance, perhaps like a concrete skimmer; not being attached, not wanting a specific outcome.
With the photographic prints on the textiles, do you see the works responding more to a notion of transience or memory or both or neither? Are they related to sheers, like in so many of the houses you depict (not ours; we’ve got those cheap plastic blinds), or is the fabric a surrogate for something else? Are they hiding or revealing?
Both hiding and revealing. My interest; the images are like “seconds”; like raw data. Not the money shot, but a secondary image, something that only tells you a room is 12’ x 8’. That we believe this, that we do not see the room; we are not actually digesting what the image actually is. I’m interested in taking the image out of its context. Showing them as abstracted planes, very flat. Removing that and blowing that up. One, bringing back dimensionality, playing into space. They become a beautiful lie, like they were in the beginning, yeah? Seeing them as an artist, rather than a homebuyer perhaps. They are sort of like a myth.
How about the pace of the video? It seems surprisingly optimistic when you consider that the images were originally (and are perhaps even now) being used to sell these houses. Can you talk about optimism?
Optimism. What is optimism? I don’t see the video as optimism. It’s blunt, raw; nothing beautiful. Data, 1=1; one second equals one home. It’s a very literal piece. You need to stand there for twenty-two hours and nine minutes and that’s a lot. You stop looking. It implodes upon itself. Imploding, but it has no start and no finish.
There was another couple in the room while we were visiting the exhibition that made a point of saying how sad the work was. For us, we felt somewhat betrayed. We are seeing images that are designed for us as consumers, a role that we’re very comfortable with. But when you realize the images are of houses that people have lost, then you become very sad; this change in emotion.
They are consumer images. The images are looped. Thinking of Dan Graham’s Homes for America, first done as a slide show… functioning in the same way as the printed images on the textiles.
The myth again.
Since we’re looking at context, does the cycling of the video have an analogue to gambling, to card counting, to finding patterns in seemingly random images? Is this the most Vegas work?
That’s so dead-on. Yeah. Like Fashion Show Mall. The images flashing on the signage. Keno. Maybe a light pattern of the flickering. Subliminally we’re picking up on this everywhere. Like the story on This American Life.
Would you discuss the notion of distance in your works in the exhibition? In all of your pieces, the distance to/from the viewer is mitigated by significant space(s); photographs and projections both point to a removal from the viewer in both temporal and physical space. In the frottage (rubbing), this space is shrunk, with your hand coming into contact with the paper which in turn is attached–however briefly–to the surface being transposed. Are these spaces and their degrees of removal different for you? Do they function differently in your practice?
With the found images or an icon, it’s a bridge to the viewer. It’s not mediated by me. It’s almost more comforting, or banal. It becomes more of a trigger. The rubbing may become this other thing. I think that one … it is a stand-in. It’s a process. Maybe I’m trying to hint at loss. There is a sweetness, a sentimentality.
In the other ones, the viewer becomes part of the medium.
In line with that, how does the concept of transience appear in the exhibition? The photographs are thinly visible and fluttering, the rubbing is done on site, removed, and transplanted to the gallery, and the images in the video cycle quickly and somewhat erratically. Everything feels like it may have to (or is) in the process of leaving. Are they coming or going?
I find… I wonder if they were ever real in the beginning. Did the structure ever exist? There has always been a shifting, moving. The show lacks so much structure in a way. It almost can’t react, or bounce, or return. It’s a vagueness that permeates. It’s a smell.
Maybe more than a smell, it’s a scent.
Our sense is that this exhibition is not so much a bold statement about the nature of foreclosure as it happens in Vegas as it is another chapter or facet of your response to your new home [Kennerk is a professor at UNLV and has lived in Vegas for two years and one week]. As example, looking back to your project for the Clark County Government Center Rotunda, you seem to be focusing in an extremely sensitive and analytical way on the ways that Las Vegans make their environment their own and the difficulty that comes along with that. Now that the exhibition has been on view, and you’ve gotten the chance to talk to some of the visitors who may be experiencing your projects for the first time, could you describe how those exchanges are influencing your approaches?
This show in particular has a framework that I’ve been working with for the last ten years. America’s #1 was a way for me to approach Vegas. Everywhere else there has been an environment structure. Vegas threw me for a loop.
That framework is still really viable here. The outcomes are so different; the framework still works for me. Some people will approach the work and instantly approach it as a negative press, but I’m not looking at it in that way. It’s not tied to a projected outcome that is negative. It is the material I’ve had to work with.
How do you reconcile this with other #1 works, such as your project America’s #1 Kitchen [at Cranbrook]? There is no doubt from the other projects that you are the insider, the American. In Las Vegas, there is something distant, but foreclosure is something else; it presents another spacing perhaps. In one you are a participant, in the other I’m not sure you are.
In America’s #1, #1 has to be at the top of the food chain. It has to be this thing that—America’s #1, then everything else is secondary. If I hadn’t come to Las Vegas then I’m not sure I would have approached it in this way. It is a way of me being able to deal with this. Maybe it is a coping mechanism for me to enter into this city.
Mid West vs. Out west?
Maybe I’m still believing in the openness, the freedom, the Wild West. But I can’t say I prefer one over the other yet, but it’s more of the essence of THE WEST. Not the Strip. Not nostalgia, but a lure perhaps.
Here’s the trailer for your next project: What happens next (for you) at Donna Beam? We hear there may be a ping-pong table?