Interview/ Stanya Kahn

Cornerhouse Visual Art Programme Manager Bren O’Callaghan spoke to artist Stanya Kahn ahead of her new exhibition. This edited extract comes from Stanya Kahn: It’s Cool, I’m Good, the Cornerhouse Publications book which accompanies the show.

LA video artist Stanya Kahn appears at Cornerhouse in her first European solo show which features seven new and recent video works alongside selected drawings and a new commission. Variously described as funny, lovely, violent and bleak, Kahn’s video work borrows strategies from more traditional filmmaking (‘characters’ take roving trips through strange landscapes) and yet, they’re not meant to be taken entirely literally. They are almost always part metaphor, allegory or poem.

B O’C Although you explore the in-between areas of language and action, a viewer will still try to establish poles of reference. Is there an Alpha and Omega to the alphabet of your work?

S K “Each video uses images, sound, dialogue, camera movement, framing and edits as “texts,” to establish itself and its content. For example, the opening scene of It’s Cool, I’m Good sets up the logic for the whole piece: I’m at the Salton Sea (an accidental “lake” created when the Colorado River flooded its banks. Once a resort, it’s now a dead zone, polluted by agricultural pesticide run-off). Photographed from behind at close range, under a searing, bright sun, flies buzz around me. I’m bandaged and vulnerable in a hospital gown open in the back. I turn and ask the camera person/nurse if I can borrow a pair of sunglasses. ‘Do I look like the invisible man? That’s not supposed to be a trick question.’ Sound, picture, location, camera proximity and the irony of the joke work to cue the viewer: this is intimate, but the landscape is overwhelming. This person might die. But they’re not alone. This is funny, this is yucky, this is sad, this is fake, this is real. This is not going to be simple.”

B O’C  The theme for the Abandon Normal Devices Festival during the year of the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games is success. Being an edgier, punked-up cousin of the Cultural Olympiad, this is interpreted by participating artists to be as much about failure and the gradations, ambiguities and anomalies to be encountered along a peak-and-dip spectrum of ambition.

The choice of Who Do You Think You Are as a new presentation could not be more pertinent. What does the subject of Kellie represent to you and to what extent does your own practice pursue a personal goal?

S K “For me, Kellie represents this acute dialectic between ideas about success and failure and the problematic spectrum we use to measure these,” explains Kahn. “I’m always looking for vulnerability and tenacity in my subjects, and I edited what was a two hour interview down to nine minutes in order to foreground the kinetic relationship between the two. I set out to interview people I found on Craigslist who had created their own jobs. Kellie was the first person I met. Capitalism sustains us in an ethereal entropy between poles of elusive values. Kellie was like a glowing moth caught so brightly in this, her positioning was easier to map and use as a symbol (than say my own.)

“Sporting events like the Olympics seem to increase this false opposition between some stark and knowable success/failure barometer. The Olympics is so overshadowed by rabid nationalism, however, it’s difficult to locate traces of the original celebration of athletic perseverance, performance, skill, strength. All those things are there, but when ‘the agony of defeat’ is part of the Olympic sloganeering (it has been for decades now), and is wed to national identity, I’m further alienated. But I’m a lousy spectator: I often root for whoever’s at bat in a ballgame.”

B O’C  There’s a strong sense of both stand-up comedy and improvisation in this and earlier work. There’s a saying, too much laughing turns to crying… would you agree? Can it work in reverse?

S K “As a performer, I realised early on that both of these things can be true. I think our ability to laugh at a thing is connected to our ability to cry about a thing. Humour requires a certain amount of empathy (or as Freud would argue, embarrassment and shame.) I learned quickly that if you give an audience permission to laugh right up front, they become more open to heavier material later.

“When pathos and humour come together, an alchemical kind of comprehension is possible for me; it’s psychic, visceral and intellectual all at once. It’s the most powerful and poignant way I’m able to understand the world.

“Improvisation is like another chemical element. Improvisation is where we dip into a more unconscious place while being intently present. It’s the trap door that can open and let in the unknown. And when the viewer/audience know it’s unplanned, another layer of bonding happens: we’re all in this together.

“This isn’t all purely cerebral and calculated. That’s the thing about comedy. You’re either funny or you’re not. Like Jerry Lewis said, you either have funny bones or you don’t. I move through the world finding humour in situations and that helps me manage shitty-ness, and also gives me a lot of pleasure.”

Stanya Kahn: It’s Cool, I’m Good runs until Sun 16 Sept 2012.

The exhibition publication is available at the special on-site rate of £12.00 (RRP £18.00) in Cornerhouse bookshop. Including video stills, drawings, interview with the artist and essays by Sarah Perks, Henriette Huldisch and Glenn Phillips.