Making Good: Jonathon Keats by Emily Nonko

Keats’ work creates an absurd world that may be uncomfortable to visit, but forces us to examine our own in an entirely new context. Emily Nonko puts the questions to the quester.

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Universes Unlimited (2008) Modernism Gallery, San Francisco, CA

Universes Unlimited is company established to manufacture and sell machinery for making new universes, using technology based on quantum mechanics. This photograph shows Jonathon Keats at a shop counter set up in Modernism Gallery, where he sold universe kits and consulted on the construction of larger-scale universe generators. On the counter can be seen a couple assembled DIY universe kits, many more of which are lined up (unassembled still) on the shelf.

Where to begin with San Francisco based artist Jonathon Keats? I first came across his work on the cover of Opium Magazine: he was the mastermind behind the “Longest Story Ever Told,” a nine word story covered in black ink that will reveal itself gradually over 1000 years. Back in 2000 he spent 24 hours sitting in a chair, jotting down his thoughts, only to sell it as art. He copyrighted his own mind. He purchased real estate property in the extra dimension of space, as theorized by physics, and sold this hypothetical land to whoever wanted to buy it. He attempted to genetically engineer God in the laboratories of UC Berkeley. He’s made porn films for plants.

Keats’ work creates an absurd world that may be uncomfortable to visit, but forces us to examine our own in an entirely new context. What makes Keats’ art exciting to me is that it feeds entirely off the reaction of the spectator; the viewer is as much a part of the work as he is. It forces me to wonder if his work is only as absurd as our own roles within the world he attempts to mimic.

Emily Nonko At what point did you realize you could commit to being a full-time conceptual artist? Was there a moment you realized, This is what I can do for a living?

Jonathon Keats I never realized that I do it for a living, and I don’t know that I ever will be able to. I always supported myself largely on my writing, which is not exactly the most profitable way to go either, but seems to be slightly more marketable in the world today. That has at least subsidized the conceptual art, which now takes care of itself. My writing is the basis for everything I do, financially and it also serves as a foundation conceptually.

EN Do you want to talk about your fiction writing, and The Book of the Unknown? [The book, released this February, is a collection of stories based on Jewish folklore.] Artistically, your work is ultimately conceptual, but with a book you’re always grounded in the material object. How is the work different for you?

JK The differences are immediately apparent, and the similarities are a lot more difficult to discern. What I mean is that the fiction that I write, recently, is of the ‘Once upon a time, long ago and far away’ variety. In one respect it is very traditional, the stories are narrative driven and they are very much stories in having a beginning, middle, and end. The art tends to be perceived as – well, it’s not painting, it’s not sculpture, my mother doesn’t quite get it – that tends to be seen as experimental, avant-garde.

For me, they both seem very similar. The art uses a lot of textual support. With my attempt to genetically engineer God, a large part of it was writing up the results of my research in the form of a research book. The writing is always present. Grammar is something I know sort of well; I don’t have any skills as far as art is concerned. The fiction is a way of asking what if. That seems to be the point of departure for all fiction. My art is engaged with the same sort of question, the difference being that the fiction is taking place in a book, a very comfortable and conventional place for this to happen. It is contained in a way the reader knows they can close the cover and that will be that. The art tends to undertake thought experiment; the what if situation is not nearly so definite or defined. The stories I propose—and really just propose—unfold through the way I interact with people, the story is undefined until we’re all involved in it and none of us can escape it.

They both have different potentials for me pursing what interests me in life, to ask questions in ways that are open-ended and lead to questions that never would have occurred to me if I hadn’t started with the more obvious ones.

EN I wanted to talk about the 1000 year Opium cover. I was surprised there was a lot of negative reaction to the cover, with some people just dismissing it as a stunt. How did you expect that piece to be received? What were your thoughts on the criticism?

JK Well it certainly interests me that the adverse response to writing a story of 1000 years duration was more adverse than my attempts to genetically engineer God. What people get angry about is fascinating in its own right and could well become the focus of another potential art piece; that was not the point here. The works that have infuriated people most are those that seem on the surface the most innocuous. I think what’s most infuriated people is when I created a ring tone that was four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, remixing John Cage’s 4’33. In this case, the silence was digital, other than analogue, therefore it was a more perfect silence that was digital and easy to carry on your cell phone. This was offered free and people got so angry in every imaginable community. I had Alex Ross of the New Yorker commenting that he hoped the Cage estate would sue me.

The anger tends to be a sort of outburst by somebody who thinks they don’t get it, like they’re being mocked. That isn’t ever the case. There is never any one point or purpose to my work; I’m not creating a puzzle to be solved. Equally I’m not creating a satirical work that’s out to make fun of anybody, least of all to make fun of those who get so upset about it. Everyone gets it, it’s much simpler than most people are willing to believe people could ever be.

I approach my art with a sort of naïveté, just simply wondering what would happen if I did something. I’d like others to find their way back to the naïve questioning of everything, because to me that is one of the great pleasures in life. At one level, I’m trying to get out the entanglements we get into as advanced thinkers because often advanced thinking is not very clear thinking. I attempt to find clarity through simplicity.

When working on the 1000 year story, two things were going through my mind: one of them was, what was the context? And, what within that context interests me? I was thinking of how we read literary magazines, how we read magazines, in the present day and the way in which everything takes place in an online context that is very, very fast. In order to try and understand how we digest or do not digest what we take in very quickly I decided to look at it from a very distant vantage, creating something that would come too slowly for the mind to take in.

Then there was the question of medium, and I chose the cover and used the materials at hand: paper and ink. I thought about what you can do with paper and ink, and what I know of the printing process, and the problems of the printing process. One of the great problems of print is that it fades. That became a way I could solve this problem, by making a story where the fading process could be reversed. The words weren’t fading from you, they faded to you.

I wanted to create something that could become a cornerstone as we change in time. There’s also the question of what is knowledge, and can knowledge be collective in the sense of being possessed not by any one person but by many people over many generations. Can a mechanism of suspense be maintained, and for how long?

Because I’m letting the nine words of the story come into view out of order, I’m telling multiple stories within the story. The time becomes a factor in the unfolding of the story. When I realized that was possible, I wanted to come up with nine different stories within the story, each one of which appear for that 100 years and then disappear as the next story replaced it by the addition of one more word.

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The God Project (2004) Modernism Gallery, San Francisco, CA.

The God Project was a research venture to determine the scientifically correct placement of God as a species on the tree of life. This is an installation view of the First Congress of the International Association for Divine Taxonomy (IADT). Documentation of IADT experiments on Drosophila (fruit flies) and Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), showing their taxonomic relationship to God, are exhibited together with an apparatus designed to genetically engineer God under a bell jar. The apparatus uses continuous in vitro evolution (a standard scientific procedure for mutating one species into another) to make sample species more godlike, allowing precise phylogenetic comparison.

EN And do you think that for books, literature, and even maybe magazines to survive as we move everything online, we need to be more innovative looking at how a book itself can be artwork, and can be more than just a disposable material object?

JK That’s a good point. It’s again looking at problems as potential solutions. The main problem of the book is that it is this printed object that is an absolute nuisance in terms of producing, distributing, all the things that need to be done that we no longer need to do because digitally you cut out the paper and ink. If you want to preserve the printed book and the experience that comes with it, it’s a matter of looking at the book as something that is not only a story held within the generic container, but as a whole package. The physicality is the key. And publishers can look to creating books that are as much about the object as they are about the material within.

It’s not to say they should become fetish objects, where you don’t read them. We need to look at ways to integrate the physical framework of the book and the intellectual material of the book.

The book is written by one person, designed by this other person. The person who designs the cover is not supposed to communicate with the writer because the writer might have an idea, and that would get in the way of the design. The writer also might object and get in the way of the marketing campaign. Given the marketing campaigns of books don’t really work anyway and given that most book covers seem divorced from the content, I see it’s pedestrian for the most part.

EN I wanted to also talk about how your artwork really grounds conceptual ideas in empirical experiments, real world application. Because by copywriting your mind, or by selling your thoughts as artwork, by putting these things on paper—it’s like you’re simply trying to prove that these things exist.

JK I hope I’m not proving one thing over another, but I am coming out of the tradition of empiricism. The 19th Century Gentlemen Scientist or the 18th century natural philosopher are examples in which I’m interested in, asking big questions that are grounded in small things. These are things I can grasp on my own and that I can invite others into and they can grapple with it as well. There is a way in which science has come a long way but there’s also a problem in which nobody can really do science on their own, or grasp it in a sort of comprehensive way. Big ideas are dealt with by big institutions. But with art we’ve gone into a period where anyone is allowed to do anything. There are no distinct media, no distinct boundaries.

That’s why I wanted to become an artist: much like the Gentlemen Scientist, I could ask the types of questions I learned to ask studying philosophy in college, but I also learned I couldn’t ask those questions beyond that college context. So art is undefined enough where you can get away with just about anything. The problem with art is that art world is a little bit nervous about this—a lot nervous, probably. Most art tends to be, to my eye and my mind, arcane in a way that is self-protective. As a result it does the great disservice of limiting itself and limiting its audience. What I’m striving for in my art is something that is not going to please institutions and is not ever going to be collectible. I’m not really interested in trying to create a mystique around it, rather the opposite. I’m demystifying through the work, I’m demystifying the world.

I hope people use some of the techniques I do, which are not my own and belong to anyone who wants them. The open source approach to technology is incredibly fruitful in terms of thinking about intellectual property in general and certainly that underlies my approach to my art.

The demystification is both the means and the ends of what I do. This is why I will never make a living making conceptual art, but if I had to lose that to make a good living making conceptual art I would never do it. It would simply become something for the museum, a commodity for people’s walls or more likely their closets.

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The God Project (2004) Modernism Gallery, San Francisco, CA

Close-up of the apparatus used to genetically engineer God from other species. In this image, a clonal strain of a Cyanobacteria species known as Fremyella diplosiphon is subjected to continuous in vitro evolution by exposing flasks of live Fremyella cells to seven days of recorded prayer. Incipient omnipresence (in the form of accelerated population growth) is expected if the Cyanobacteria can mutate in a godlike way, allowing the organism to metabolize worship. In a second experiment using the same set-up, continuous in vitro evolution was applied to the Oregon-R strain of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Comparison of population growth between Cyanobacteria and Drosophila is used as a preliminary measure of God’s place on the phylogenetic tree, informing future IADT research.

EN What are your feelings on art as commodity?

JK Well, art is only as useful as to the extent that it is useless. The uselessness that is the means towards the ends of usefulness is what gets it into all sorts of trouble in terms of the mechanisms within society in which people can make money. Unless you’re willing to become a part of some organized system where uselessness is given a formal packaging of usefulness—maybe it’s the betterment of culture, or enlargement of the wallet of a collector—unless you’re willing to become a part of these things, it’s very difficult to persuade anybody that what you’re doing has any worth.

I’m trying to reach people through creating something that doesn’t exist in a single identifiable object, but exists through many different things that are expendable. To me this is a way of letting the art seep out of the art world, therefore giving it more potential for meaning. The meaning can be what other people give it as they interact with it; the artwork becomes a discussion.

EN But when you sell your own thoughts, or you copyright your brain, aren’t you almost commidifying yourself? You’re creating an untraditional commodity, but it’s still there.

JK Of course it is. My projects involve money, exchange, commodities, and they do so because these are all part of our culture. I’m particularly fascinated by the main byways of our culture—one being money, the other religion. In exploring a commodity culture, I need to actually do what is done in the culture. In doing what I’ve done I’m able to probe, but I do so in a way that is fabulistic, that is not quite right.

I got into the real estate business by selling real estate you can never encounter in the extra dimension of space. It’s curled up so tightly not even an atom can encounter this space. You’re buying the space purely on the faith you have in the scientific edifice that has given us technology in which we can tame the land. But the process is sincere — it’s legit, but the process is still not quite right. It allows you to reflect back on what you contact on an everyday basis. You can apply the strangeness to things that seem normal to you.

There’s the question of getting people involved in a work, and money is a very good way to do so. The amount of money is generally insignificant for someone to be involved. The cheapest real estate I sold was nine cents, but the act of spending was crucial for the experience that person has. That person is entailed to be a part of the work in a really visceral way.

If the work that I do has no commodities involved, it’s annoying of course to a gallery. In those projects, like making pornography for plants, there will be no mechanism for making money. I can’t charge people admissions because the pornography isn’t made for people, it’s made for plants. It might make sense for me to charge the plants their fruit, but it would not be okay to charge people if they’re not the audience.

EN So with your thought experiments, which are, as you explained, a little off or not quite right, do you feel like people dismiss your work in their own discomfort with it? Do you have this reaction in mind when you conceptualize a piece?

JK I’m generally very optimistic. The work is an absurd mirror world of the world in which we live. I want to take this parallel world and I want to live in it, and I want people to live in it with me. That act of living can be used to look on our own world.

The optimism, the leap of faith I take, enlarges into the idea that anybody can well understand what I do. People will find their way to it, and I won’t force anybody into it. If they want to fight it, they can fight it all they want. I have an optimism that people who encounter the work will come around to it even if they never admit it to themselves. So the work is there.

Through what I do, and because my work is absurd, it becomes a way to draw people into the biggest question of all—the question of what do I do with my life.

‘The Longest Story Ever Told,’ featured in Opium Magazine, was released this June. Jonathon is also an art critic for San Francisco Magazine.

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