Kevin Killian, the Allen Ginsberg Fellow: The Colors in Darkness
Interview by Caroline Swanson
Caroline Swanson: Hello, Kevin. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me for Something on Paper about your lecture as visiting Allen Ginsberg Visiting Fellow, Colors in Darkness. Why don’t you start off by telling us how the concept for this lecture developed?
Kevin Killian: Well, Dodie and I were collaborating with Raymond Pettibon. We were going to create a text and he the art (he’s a really successful graphic artist living in L.A. who created the Black Flag logo) for a children’s book. So he sent a stack of drawings to us to try and work with; many, many objects of all kinds. Among them was this rather gory, pulpy looking drawing of male genitalia that he had torn from a nude drawing he was dissatisfied with. The lot of them ended up on this tall filing cabinet we have at the house, and because I’m too short to see them, they sort of got pushed out of mind until one day an artist friend was at the house—a tall guy—and he just grabbed it, held it over his crotch with a look of excitement. I thought it was a funny, cute picture, snapped it, and it sort of became a thing I did with visitors to the house before they left. But it’s also good to have multiple projects going on behind the bigger stuff, for curation, should someone inquire into what you’re working on. So when a curator asked about the project, I showed him the project and he just ripped me to shreds.
CS: What was his critique of your work?
KK: He just shot it down, said that it was a cute idea, but the lighting was all wrong, the compositions were off. I had not perfected the image. There was no progression or improvement through the series, unlike Vermeer, for example, who, overtime, honed in on what was conveyed in his portraiture. I got the advice to get more depth from the photographs by interposing the amateur photos with more interesting ones achieved by giving the subjects a challenge, by moving toward the camera in some way, or by taking off their clothes and posing in some way.
It wasn’t until we were hosting a party for a young MFA stud from NYC, Alex Dimitrov, and George Kuchar showed up, who was incredibly famous and talented all over. When Alex left, I got the idea to ask George to pose with the drawing: nude! At first he wanted to draw up a release, but there was just something about the serendipity of his random appearance at the party, I just felt I had to get it that night. I suggested we go into the kitchen, where no one was and wasn’t going to go, and just take it now and do paperwork later. He agreed. March this happened, August he died. He was sick with cancer when I took this picture, but he didn’t know it yet. At his memorial service in New York they used this photo and the article I wrote up for it in the program. But once I got George involved in the project, it really took off. It was like people saw that I was trying to do more than just take pervy pictures of these guys who came to my house.
CS: Did you have any sort of gaze in mind?
KK: There are so many ways to direct: Stand. Lie down. Like in a surrealist age, in this tech age, a cock is like a badge of identification. After years of experience, you take pride in having one, but still it remains hidden, which is conflicted. The whole thing isn’t what it used to be with things like advanced medicine and online dating. The body has become modular. And that is the common thread of these photos, that the models are treating the cock drawing as an expressive, yet detached part of themselves. So if he’s wearing the cock, it’s Freudian determination.
CS: The idea of phallic over-determining seems to run parallel to the concept of overlay and how you use the term adjacency in your talk to describe Ginsberg’s photography and his photographs’ distinctiveness. Considering this is also the inspiration for the title of your lecture, “Colors In Darkness,” can you tell us what adjacency is?
KK: Sure. Like, adjacent, to be next to. In science, black is a bonding of all the colors. Along the lines where colors bleed in, you start to see the color if you’re working with black and white. It can happen, for example, when you reach the end of the film and two images end up transposed at the points of different exposure.
CS: It makes me think of how one can use aperture in writing and photography; what you choose to capture and in what light and what else that might expose. Were there any moments in particular where you felt this was happening?
KK: I had one series where I gave models the work of Forrest Bess, who most people have heard of and tried to become, like Tiresias, to experience male and female in an occult sense. The models tried to act out the mutilation with this cock. There was another series where we were trying to recreate the KOFF calendar. In Jack Spicer’s tomb, you can enter the chamber where he was buried indigent with many others. You can go where there’s strange lighting. Strange energy in there.
CS: Much like writing, the impetus and inspiration for photography is fleeting and must be captured in that moment, which is so intimate, yet also strange in its removal from it. It is elegiac and yet happens in a series of moments, like what occurs in les petites morts. Each time the lens shuts, it snuffs out the image before it for a new one to be made; a cycling through until the larger picture is finally had.
KK: The idea is the photograph is dead in the moment it is created. Like in the photograph of Jack Spicer taking the relief of his own head and holding it to look at. There are not many pictures of him. It was rarely done. He hated his own image. But in this picture there is a Frankenstein moment. He sees himself in the stream where you realize you are something in the world. Who is in charge of the pictures?
Maybe it’s how I work with the models. I’ve turned into more of a top. I think it’s fine when I show up in the photo. I’ve been doing this for years and when a show comes up, the models will either say “yea” or “nay” to having their pictures shown, like I did with the Naropa lecture. Most of the models are artists of some kind so working with them was easy. They had a sense of where to reach in that Frankensteinian mirror.
CS: So it’s more about male ownership over their own genitalia? Were there times when they wanted to use female genitalia or when women posed with the cock?
KK: Yeah. Ray made a version of female genitalia. There was one woman who wanted to be shot with the male. My job became a lot of seeing people and where they fit in with the project and how they want to use the cock. The object itself is a fetish. A lot of them want to put their junk on it. The gay boys are actually a lot harder because they are always thinking of angle of best presentation. Straight men are less inhibited this way. It was also good to have wives and girlfriends there. The straight men were more performative then, plus I had help with holding lights and opinions on the best shot to take. At first I was going for comical, but then I tried to make them attractive.
CS: You said that you had some Radical Faeries as your models.
KK: They were the ones most ready to say yes. I suppose being in a queer men’s group they were more comfortable with exhibiting their sexual personas.
I give the models power to delete. So many of the straight guys have never really seen their body. I would start off with them in a sleep trance where the genitals are affixed, but then move. Let the cock locate itself.
CS: Moves from something static to something expressive?
KK: Well, another way I gave conflict was by giving the cock to a couple of guys to see how they negotiated it.
CS: What sort of situations would be rendered by this kind of conflict?
KK: One guy, about a year after we took his picture, told me he started questioning his sexuality, like going on dates with men, never doing anything, actually. But I wondered if something like taking his picture might trigger something like this.
CS: So, are you going to use the photographs for a story? What stage of processing is “Colors In Darkness” at now?
KK: Not really. I made a photo novella that I wanted to make into a comic book. Never finished that project. I also want to collaborate with other artists. I show them and see what they might say or do. I incorporate new technologies by leaning on someone. I think when we’re young we look at authorship as an absolute. As much as possible I like to give up some sovereignty. In Philly they had blown up the pictures, and other artists manipulated them. Posadas was a Mexican revolutionary who was the subject of propaganda posters. One artist screened one of those posters with one of my photos.
CS: And what turn to language does your series take if the cock piece acts as the “male signature”?
KK: I let people take a copy of their own photo and sign it. I asked Rob Halpern if he would write an essay, model, and write from the experience. What would it be like to be in a position of self-display? It’s what I’m doing with another curator. He is doing it, too. He’ll write an essay; it’s just become more natural asking people. I’ve turned shameless about it.
CS: What a satisfying process. Thank you for discussing maleness, modularity, sexuality, and gaze with me. It has definitely given shape to the “Colors in Darkness.”
KK: My pleasure.
Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics presents Kevin Killian as the Allen Ginsberg Visiting Fellow. The fellowship is made possible by the generous support of the Committee on Poetry, founded by the late Allen Ginsberg. Interview based Killian’s lecture in February 2015.