Q&A: Kyle Kessler On Aliases, Pop Marketing Conspiracies, And Being Visited By Demons While Performing
The word "grinding" means different things to different people. For video-game enthusiasts, it represents the expository dead stretches where no action is happening. In drug-dealing culture, it signifies a never-ending hustle. In youth club culture, it's the dance style formerly known as "freaking." For skaters, grinding involves sliding the base of a skateboard over an obstacle while remaining upright. And grinding isvery literally, in the traditional sense of the wordwhat New York musician Kyle Kessler does best; she twists fluorescent bulbs and adjusts dials on soundboards connected to speakers and unleashes clashing, granite waves of noise. In her hands, tones turn centrifugal, collide, rattle and clank. Rollercoaster cars click forebodingly along corroded tracks. Yellowjacket-piqued and buzzing, this is rough, industrial-strength stuff: deeply impressionistic bleatings electronically filleted and flagellated miles beyond the bounds of decipherability, until there's nothing left but franticly rhythmic fodder; depleted-battery smoke-detector psychosis; poks and pops uncannily similar to the sound of woodpeckers attacking trees; heaving, distended beats and tea-kettle screech frequency-scrambling capable of driving even the most indoctrinated of Lasse Marhaug disciples to smash their speakers if caught in the wrong mood. Kessler does unforgiving metal-tooth comb drill-nausea; she can bring emergency Broadcast System null-drone like nobody's business.
Yet as 2009's pulsating Beyond the Meniscus (Trepanner) demonstrates, she's also capable of utilizing noise, feedback, and oscillation as framing devices for Omni chord-borne introspection and languor, bending and twisting and hammering keys until iridescent rainbow fusillades spiral free in loops. Sound of the City emailed with Kesslerformerly known as Kyle Clyde and Olympia Zadora, now performing as Penny Royaleabout pop music, the media course she's teaching this winter, and how she wound up making noise.
How did you start out making music?
I started experimenting with found sound and poetics in college. These were "just for fun" experiments, and I never had any intention of performing any of it live, although I did end up producing one guitar/radio noise sculpture which was "played" for a live audience on two occasions.
Once I graduated, I found myself in a situation many visual artists find themselves in: I had no studio, no supplies, and no audience. So I started talking my way onto different indie bills, playing as Olympia Zadora. At that time, I still referred to myself as a spoken-word or performance artist. I didn't start calling what I did "music" until 2008.
In 2008, my work became less visual and more sound-heavy. Plus, I had performed in a couple of awkward performance art festivals and had become disillusioned with the medium. Overall, performance art has become less and less about improv action and studio experimentation: the things which drew me to the ephemeral art form in the first place. The underground music scene still has some of that spirit, so I am here making music.
Would you say, then, that the performance art medium has become predictable or rote?
I wouldn't say that the ideas driving New Performance Art are always predictable, but there is definitely a trend towards high concept, heavily-rehearsed work--probably the trickle down influence of artists like Vanessa Beecroft or Matthew Barney. Live performance poses a greater social risk than, say, a performative video. Producing experimental performance takes a certain type of curator and institution who must be willing to take risks and put their faith in the hands of the artist. Supporters of this type of work exist, but they are rare gems so chance-driven live work often stays within the realm of DIY subculture.
Where did you go to college, and what were you concentrating on, academically?
The Cooper Union. I took a lot of video and "special projects" courses--there were no sound art, performance, or new media art classes offered at that time. Most of what I know about experimental music, outsider film, and improv performance was self-taught.
Are you originally from New York?