Mobile Homestead, what are you? White, semi-permanent structure. Replica (sort of) of Mike Kelley’s suburban home. Planted in the urban environs of Midtown Detroit. Like a starship.
And, like a starship, you can take off. Orbit away from this environment. Taking trips through the city. To The Henry Ford. Taping interviews. Posing for pictures. In front of the train station. On parade in L.A.
When you’re here, you’re encircled by a chain link fence, squared up behind a healthy patch of lawn. That kind of overfertilized green shag grass, carpet-thick, sink your toes into it lawn. When you’re gone, the grass is left behind. The hole in the building. Which is the space formerly taken up by the part of you that’s now on tour. Is covered up with a plastic tarpaulin. No, not like the boardedup, emptiedout buildings you can see here and there and here and there again throughout this place. But like an amusement park ride that’s been shut down. Pardon Our Dust.
You are what you are.
Midtown. Place of becoming. Gelato shop. Expensive Watch. This. Space. Got a fancy look to it now. Sidewalks sparkle. And people and people and people like I’ve never seen before. Coffee shop. Sidled up. To a seven dollar cheese sandwich. And my Mac. Book. Pro.
Suddenly, a bright white ranch house with a detachable edifice doesn’t seem so unreasonable.
The idea for the Mobile Homestead dates back at least as far as 2005-6 (Artangel 2012), when Kelley began discussing his personal desire to purchase the actual property in the Detroit suburb of Westland where he was raised. Sources explain that Kelley’s original desire to buy his childhood home was entirely personal – not a part of an art project per se (Kinney 2012b; Roussel 2012). But, when he discovered he would not be able to buy the actual property (and it has not been established whether the current owner simply refused to sell outright, or whether Kelley would not offer a price at which the owner would sell), with encouragement from Artangel, Kelley’s private interest began to transform into a public art project.
As Tulsa Kinney explains:
Kelley returned to the Detroit suburb of his childhood and tried to buy the house where he grew up, in order to create a site-specific work. But the homeowner wasn't interested, and after exploring other options, Kelley settled for replicating his home (after a fashion)… This had all started as a project that Kelley wanted to do for personal reasons, not for public exhibition. But when Artangel, a London-based arts-funding organization, offered to sponsor the project, along with MOCAD, Kelley made some revisions and compromises and basically found himself doing public art, foregoing the original game plan (Kinney 2012a).
However, as Kelley writes in the 2012 Whitney Biennial catalog, “going public led to a nightmare of complexity, not only in the production of the work but also, personally, in its very meaning for me” (Kelley 2012).
Sifting through the various publications describing Mobile Homestead from the MOCAD, Artangel, and Kelley, himself, one can begin to pick up on the “nightmare of complexity” as Kelley describes it, and the relationship between “going public” and the production of meaning. A press release from the MOCAD interprets Mobile Homestead in the most explicitly geo-political terms:
In a largely disinvested city with many abandoned houses and dilapidated
buildings, Mobile Homestead enacts a reversal of the 'white flight' that
took place in Detroit following the inner city race riots of the 1960s. It
does so at a time when the city is exploring new options of renewal by
assessing its singular post-industrial conditions in an attempt to
articulate a new model for American cities.
The sculpture which almost exactly replicates the vernacular architecture
of working class neighborhoods in the American Midwest, brings the suburbs back into the city, and as it travels – on specific missions – the mobile home performs various kinds of community services, establishing a permanent dialogue with the community that houses it (MOCAD 2014).
The Artangel Press release retains the narrative about “community,” with less investment in Detroit or in the American Midwest specifically, and increased attention on the tension between public and private at work in the project:
Kelley envisioned the ground floor of the homestead functioning as an open space for diverse community activities. At the same time, he designed a labyrinthine basement complex for more covert activities – what he called “private rites of an aesthetic nature.” The completed Mobile Homestead will house these co-existing public and private functions mindful of Kelley’s typically challenging contention that “one always has to hide one’s true desires and beliefs behind a façade of socially acceptable lies (Artangel 2012).
And yet, in his essay printed in the Whitney Biennial catalog, Kelley expresses such pointed dissatisfaction with Mobile Homestead as an object or idea related to “community” in any meaningful way, that he is forced to assert an outright rejection of public art at-large:
As public art, intended to have some sort of positive effect on the community in proximity to it, [Mobile Homestead] is a total failure. Detroit is a poor city, and I don’t believe that the funding exists to organize the social programs associated with the project or to even cover its operating costs … The failure of the Mobile Homestead project now, after being filtered through the institutions of the art world and community services, is successful as a model of my own belief that public art is always doomed to failure because of its passive-aggressive nature. Public art is a pleasure that is forced upon a public that, in most cases, finds no pleasure in it (Kelley 2012).
On the surface of his critique, it would seem that Kelley is simply aligned with participatory art’s critics, like Claire Bishop, who suggests ‘the better examples of participatory art in recent years … have constituted a critique of participatory art, rather than upholding an un-problematized equation between artistic and political inclusion’ (2012, 283). The MOCAD press release un-problematically situates Mobile Homestead within the broader narrative of revitalization in the city, positing that Kelley’s architectural fragment and its associated performance, in which the sculpture is driven through various parts of the metro Detroit area as an animated version of the ‘reversal of white flight,’ is a model for other American cities interested in projects of renewal, to the extent that Mobile Homestead ‘performs various kinds of community services, establishing a permanent dialogue with the community that houses it.’ Countering this utopian sentiment directly, Kelley suggests not only that Mobile Homestead does not perform any kind of community service, but that any such public art is only ‘doomed to failure.’
The tension between the language of the MOCAD press release and Kelley’s essay in the Biennial catalog, which is mediated but not resolved by the Artangel press release, exposes what Bishop describes as participatory art’s ‘double ontological status:’
it is both an event in the world, and at one remove from it. As such, it has the capacity to communicate on two levels – to participants and to spectators – the paradoxes that are repressed in everyday discourse, and to elicit perverse, disturbing and pleasurable experiences that enlarge our capacity to imagine the world and our relations anew (2012, 284).
But Bishop presents this possibility for participatory art with a caveat: there must be a ‘mediating third term – an object, image, story, film, even a spectacle – that permits this experience to have a purchase on the public imaginary’ (2012, 284).
In the wake of Kelley’s tragic death by suicide in January 2012, before the project was seen to completion, Mobile Homestead and the inherent (and efficacious, we would argue) contradictions in the narratives associated with the project are at risk of becoming neutralized. If Kelley’s partial house and the performances and films associated with Mobile Homestead constitute the archival ‘third terms’ that mediate the experience for participants and spectators, thereby endowing the project with the potential to communicate on multiple levels, Kelley’s passing, and passing prior to the completion of the project, potentially interferes with the inherent complexity associated with the work. In other words, it is only through the maintenance of tension between the Mobile Homestead sculpture, performance ephemera and competing/conflicting institutional narratives which seek to define the meaning of the material and immaterial qualities of the work, that the work’s potential can be fully realized. If the MOCAD narrative comes to dominate and define the parameters of interpretation for Mobile Homestead, the project may simply become the instrument of a rather provincial understanding of “community” or “participatory” art. On the other hand, if Kelley’s mordant essay comes to define the legacy of Mobile Homestead, the project may only be read as a maudlin piece of unresolved nostalgic longing, coupled with a middle-aged artist’s irritation with social practice at large.
Mobile Homestead already lives in the long shadow of being Kelley’s ‘last artwork’ (Rimanelli 2012, 271). Even critics aware of Kelley’s essay are, in the face of the profound sadness associated with his untimely death, inclined to collapse the complexity of the interpretation of Mobile Homestead into sentimentality, as Amy Taubin illustrates in her ArtForum review of the documentary films associated with the project, shown at the Biennial:
The movies are a study of depression economics and of a nearly stereotypical midwestern resilience in the face of loss. They are also landscape, cityscape, and skyscape movies, amazing to behold. Kelley intended the Mobile Homestead to be not merely a traveling public artwork but a means of bringing social services to communities in need. As he wrote in his heartbreakingly pessimistic essay for the Biennial catalogue, however, he never expected that there would be sufficient funding to support the social aspects of the project or even the operating cost of the vehicle. "The work could become just another ruin in a city full of ruins. . . . Turning my childhood home into an 'art gallery/community center' was simply a sign of social concern, performed in bad faith." There is no evidence of bad faith in this clear-sighted moving-picture trilogy, guaranteed to triumph in any of the circumstances in which it has and, one hopes, will again appear. No other film in the Biennial had the complexity and gravity of Mike Kelley's Mobile Homestead movies (Taubin 2012).
Ultimately, though critics will be inclined to read this project in any number of ways as Kelley is eulogized and his oeuvre is situated in art historical terms, Mobile Homestead, as that piece which can never be fully resolved, never fully reconciled – if for no other reason than that it was never completed – offers an extended meditation on puzzlement. To return to Bishop, participatory art is a ‘form of experimental activity overlapping with the world’ (Bishop 2012, 284, emphasis ours). To this extent, Kelley’s project – which will now be “finished,” presumably, by an anonymous set of others, thereby working within a new dimension of “participatory art” – offers a different kind of problematized artistic encounter with the city of Detroit, while also serving as an emblematic example of Kelley’s praxis of art making.
If, as we suggest, there exists a substantial, unresolved rift between the language that the MOCAD uses to describe Mobile Homestead and the language that Kelley himself used to describe the project, what might be the basis of the difference? Presumably, the MOCAD would wish to represent Kelley’s intentions to the best of their ability – contrarian though they may be. And yet the dissident strain in Kelley’s narrative is all but missing in the MOCAD materials published about Mobile Homestead – the space, instead, filled with platitudes about the enactment of a reversal of white flight, the return of the suburbs to the city, and the project’s contribution to urban renewal. At the opening of the permanent installation of Mobile Homestead at the MOCAD in May of 2013, Artangel Co-director James Lingwood was at least able to suggest that Kelley was interested in “helping the community ironically,” and yet any sense of irony is missing in the MOCAD’s framing of the project. Furthermore, Lingwood’s suggestion that – in spite of, or in conversation with the irony of the work – the project was nonetheless still helping the community points to the persistence of the ameliorative lens through which all analysis of the work is forced to pass.
In her exploration of community engagement in art, Shannon Jackson explains the way in which art, as a social practice, is simultaneously ambitious and evasive:
[T]he term “social practice” is resolutely imprecise. It joins other unwieldy vocabularies coined as catch-alls to help us understand a variety of “post-studio” practices in contemporary visual art … Compounding the polyphonic nature of these interactions, and the varying implicit expectations vis a vis art, experience and community that are attendant to these interactions, are an underlying, unresolved set of assumptions about the relationship between creative practice and “politics.” (2011, 13)
Among artists and arts organizations interested in social practice, for a long while it was Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics that offered facile affirmation of the significance and possibilities associated with artistic citizenry. Without much attention to the complex power dynamics at work in the art of social practice, Bourriaud sums up the nature of the exchanges that take place in social practice art:
Producing a form is to invent possible encounters; receiving a form is to create the conditions for an exchange, the way you return a service in a game of tennis … It is the horizon based on which the image may have a meaning, by pointing to a desired world, which the beholder thus becomes capable of discussing, and based on which his own desire can rebound. This exchange can be summed up by a binomial: someone shows something to someone who returns it as he sees fit (1998, 23).
“Bourriaud,” Jackson writes, “proposes a relationality that is perpetually revisable” (2011, 46). On the surface of these practices, this “perpetual revisability” is very appealing, very popular, and also very marketable. But Jackson interrogates Bourriaud’s proposal:
The tennis game analogy, like other moments through the book, seems to be drawn in a frictionless environment, unencumbered by the claims of responsibility. While Bourriaud makes an important intervention in the discourse on ethics in art practice, it is still hard to imagine that this playful exchange could occur without other responsible (or servile) parties. If sociality is a tennis game, do players call the lines themselves? Do they pick up their own tennis balls? Or are relational players in fact relying implicitly on a crew of ball-boys and umpires to keep the exchange both just and aloft? (2011, 46)
In fact, as Grant Kester explains, “Bourriaud relies on a dated caricature of activist art (as co-extensive with the worst traditions of agitprop) to legitimize the work he endorses” (2011, 59). Claire Bishop further dismantles Bourriaud’s argument when she writes that “the relations set up by relational aesthetics are not intrinsically democratic, as Bourriaud suggests, since they rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as whole and of community as immanent togetherness” (2004, 67).
Jacques Rancière, and most notably his work The Emancipated Spectator, is another theorist “ubiquitously invoked by contemporary art critics and artists” (Jackson 2011, 52), an “art world favorite … because his work provides theoretical validation for an already cherished set of beliefs about the “political” function of the artwork” (Kester 2011, 61). Rancière, who is interested in “moments of categorical crisis that no longer uphold social hierarchies, on the one hand, or aesthetic divisions, on the other” (Jackson 2011, 52), with The Emancipated Spectator “attempts to transcend the false opposition between an immersive notion of theatre (in which the viewer passively consumes the material presented on stage) and a theater that seeks to ‘active’ the spectator by collapsing the barrier between stage and audience” (Kester 2011, 102).
But Kester notes that Rancière also falls into a trap: “the Manichean juxtaposition of two equally untenable positions:”
Conventional ‘immersive’ theater, which seeks only to manipulate viewers and render them docile, is contrasted with an experimental theater that claims to activate the viewer on behalf of some naively metaphysical notion of “community.” Rancière’s resolution to this impasse takes the form of a “third way” that “invalidates the opposition between activity and passivity … and the communitarian idea of theater that … makes it an allegory of inequality” (2011, 104).
In this sense, although Rancière’s formulation is useful insofar as it moves the discussion out of the poles established by Bourriaud and Bishop, it nonetheless still relies on those poles as a mechanism to propose an alternative, “third way,” which, although “helpful in expanding our understanding of cognitive movement,” is “oddly dependent on an oppositional system of meaning in which certain static functions or states of being … are presumed to exist in order to justify a particular notion of transgression” (Kester 2011, 104).
Kester’s critique of Rancière is thus founded, in part, on the seemingly linear nature of his construction of transgression. A better model to illustrate the complex power relations involved in social practice Kester finds in Bataille’s The Accursed Share, in which he:
advocates a liberating play between submission and transgression. Law as such is inevitable, according to Bataille, and any attempt to challenge it directly only leads to a new set of interdictions… Instead of seeking to overturn the law, we should use it for our own purposes, transforming the pain of punishment into the pleasure of a subversive jouissance (Kester 2011, 101-2).
With this in mind, we turn to a specific discussion of Kelley’s “negative aesthetic,” which we believe knowingly, mindfully engages with such a “liberating play between submission and transgression.” Kelley’s rendering of artistic citizenship is therefore multidimensional and (per Kester) productively indeterminate.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (and more recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, borrowing from the MOCAD) mobilizes a particular rhetoric of artistic citizenship when it claims that Mobile Homestead not only “enacts a reversal of the 'white flight' that took place in Detroit following the inner city uprisings of the 1960s” but also “brings the suburbs back into the city… as it travels – on specific missions” to perform “various kinds of community services, establishing a permanent dialogue with the community that houses it.” By animating and anthropomorphizing the Mobile Homestead in this way, the MOCAD is implicitly positing that this art object operates as a citizen, to the extent that it has the wherewithal and agency to cultivate particular types of interactions between artists and museum visitors that are emblematic of a citizenship of “urban renewal” that is part of the development of a “new model for American cities.”
What we’re interested is the tension between the public and the private aspects of the Mobile Homestead as an art-object-citizen, with a particular focus on the multiplicity of meanings that it produces. Grant Kester points out that such place-based, community-engaged art practices are often naïvely interpreted solely in terms of their instrumental value. In the face of such simplistic readings of Mobile Homestead, we seek instead to examine what Kester describes as the “productive indeterminacy” (2011, 103) of this work. Existing descriptions of the project suggest that Mobile Homestead performs an ameliorative, corrective function within the distressed landscape of Detroit. However, Kester points out that such readings are “oddly dependent on an oppositional system of meaning in which certain static functions or states of being … are presumed to exist in order to justify a particular notion of transgression” (2011, 104). This approach promotes:
a tendency among artists … to project generic theoretical postulates onto a given context, situation, or site: to treat site as an opportunity to ‘discover’ these ostensibly hidden structures … as if they were ideological subtexts buried in a Victorian novel, only in order to reveal them to the astonished reader. As a result, art practice rehearses the same revelatory gesture, the same disclosure of contingency and structural determination, in an almost compulsive manner (Kester 2011, 104).
As an art-object-citizen, Mobile Homestead, we think, is more appropriately interpreted in terms of its abject and perverse qualities, which are ultimately:
founded on the inability to apprehend the other qua object of desire in his or her unique totality as a person, to grasp the other in any but a discontinuous way: the other is transformed into the paradigm of various eroticized parts of the body, a single one of which becomes the focus of objectification. (Baudrillard 2009, 56)
Rather than simply cultivating a bucolic “sense of place” governed by a somewhat amnesic notion of urban renewal, Mobile Homestead instead reveals the ongoing displacement associated with projects of renewal and the associated exclusionary tactics that sharply demarcate the boundaries of citizenship in the city of Detroit.
Kelley’s implicit understanding of the complexities of his own subjectivity and the way that this is made manifest in his art is summarized in his description of his ‘negative aesthetic:’
I think that’s the joyfulness of it. But then it’s a black humor. It’s a mean humor. So, it’s a critical joy. It’s, you know, it’s negative joy. (laughs) But that’s art. I think, you know, for me. That’s what separates it from the folk art that I’m going to. I still think the social function of art is that negative aesthetic. Otherwise there’s no social function for it (Kelley 2005).
John Miller supports the interpretation of Kelley as harboring a sophisticated understanding of the way that his work interacts with popular culture and institutional power when he writes that ‘the casualness of Mike’s observations belies his trenchant critique.… there is no outside to the apparatus… Nonetheless, this apparatus is what bonds us’ (Miller 2012).
Kelley’s interviews and writings about his work reveal that he is invested in – fascinated with – processes of manipulation when it comes to the production of meaning in art. Furthermore, over the course of his career, Kelley demonstrates an increasing self-awareness of his own complex subjectivity, which is, in part, informed by his own position as an instrument of the art market and its corresponding narratives and value systems, even as he remains committed to the weird/undefined possibilities within the making of and interpretation of art. Kelley actively draws upon various artifacts of cultural production, intentionally manipulating viewers’ expectations, which demonstrates his understanding of the relationship between knowledge, power, and art’s role in simultaneously producing and “refusing” established systems of knowledge and power. He incorporates and absorbs inherent conflicts within his work and in interviews, takes opportunities to make transparent the conflicts that exist within his body of work, as well as the conflicts that exist within the narratives he has produced about his work.
Revisiting Kelley’s Mobile Homestead essay for the Whitney Biennial, we return to his statement that ‘going public led to a nightmare of complexity, not only in the production of the work but also, personally, in its very meaning for me’ (Kelley 2012, 161). This stands in stark contrast to Kelley’s discussion of his earlier works – his early performance works, for instance, and More Love Hours – in which we hear Kelley delighting in the missed signals and missed interpretations that characterize the public reception of his work. Indeed, these are formative experiences which contribute to the forging of his “negative aesthetic,” which actively toys with a kind of receptive antagonism – anticipating what the public might think and then manipulating expectations accordingly. This is a part of his game – this is a part of his refusal – and this, in some respects, remains consistent as he pursues his Mobile Homestead project. Kester, writing about Rancière’s use of Roland Barthes’ idea of the “writerly text,” notes:
The text, the “mediating third” that both links and bifurcates author and reader, viewer and work, self and other, is necessary to guard against the objectification and instrumentalization that is the inevitable consequence of any attempt to achieve a more direct relationship to others… Authority as such is not dissolved or questioned, but simply displaced (2011, 103).
Kelley’s artistic citizenship, then, is one intentionally founded upon displacement. He exposes the vulnerability of all of these assigned roles by intentionally highlighting the displacing effects of all such artistic interventions. Mobile Homestead is designed not to work, he claims in the Whitney Biennial catalog, it has no hope of making manifest the kind of social transformation that the MOCAD and other institutions might claim. And yet, for Kelley, in spite of the absurdity of these insurmountable odds, and the hubris of these organizational aspirations, the Mobile Homestead had to be made, had to be presented, as a “mediating third” text which could most effectively illustrate the distance, the dissonance and displacement between “author and reader, viewer and work, self and other:” between city and suburbs.
Michael Smith’s obituary for Kelley in ArtForum continues to probe into the artist’s unusual, unstable relationship as a moderator or mediator of culture:
Mike was a control freak in life, and he continued to be one even after his death. He stipulated that there be no funeral, no public memorial, and that his ashes be spread over a national park. He didn't want much hoopla, but he did let it be known that friends and family should toast him with Vernors ginger ale while listening to the MC5's "Starship":
Starship, starship take me
Take me where I wanna go
Out there among the planets
Let a billion suns cast my shadow
Starship, starship take me
Stretch your legs in time and space
It was a bittersweet good-bye from Mike, who was reminding us one last time that he hailed from Detroit - but this time doing it with a wink delivered through the man on the Vernors can, as we toasted Mike's memory and reconciled our complicated feelings about someone we loved, respected, and will miss terribly for a long time. I can hear Mike screaming, "LIBERAL MAINSTREAM BULLSHIT!" (Smith 2012: 244-5)
Artangel. 2012. “Mike Kelley: Mobile Homestead.” Accessed September 29.
Baudrillard, Jean. 2009. “Subjective Discourse or the Non-Functional System of Objects.” In The Object Studies Reader, edited by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins, 41-63. London and New York: Routledge.
Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London and Brooklyn: Verso Books.
___. 2004. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October 110: 51-79.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. 1998. Relational Aesthetics. Trans. Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods with Mathieu Copeland.Dijon: Les Presses de Réel.
Jackson, Shannon. 2011. Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. New York: Routledge.
Kelley, Mike. 2012. “Mobile Homestead.” In Whitney Biennial 2012. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 158-161.
Kelley, Mike. 2005. “Memory.” Art 21, Accessed September 29, 2012.
Kester, Grant. 2011. The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Kinney, Tulsa. 2012a. “Straight Outta Detroit.” Artillery. Accessed September 29.
Kinney, Tulsa. 2012b. Conversation on September 19.
Miller, John. 2012. “Mike Kelley (1954-2012) – From My Institution to Yours – A Personal Remembrance.” Art Agenda, Accessed September 29.
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. 2014. “Mike Kelley: Mobile Homestead,” Accessed February 24.
Rimanelli, David. 2012. “A Room of Their Own – Three Views on the Whitney Biennial.” ArtForum 50.9: 271-279.
Roussel, Noellie. 2012. Conversation on September 19, 2012.
Smith, Michael (2012) ‘Image of the People – Mike Kelley (1954-2012)’, ArtForum 50.9, 244-5.
Taubin, Amy. 2012. “A Room of Their Own – Three Views on the Whitney Biennial.” ArtForum 50.9: 271-279.
*This essay contains excerpts from a longer work written by the authors, “Going Home: Mike Kelley, Mobile Rhetoric and Detroit,” which appeared in Body, Space & Technology 11.2: http://www.bstjournal.com/vol1102/maryanderson/home.html