‘With the internet there is no final cut’
Irish artist duo Kennedy Browne talk about how their work has been shaped by free-market triumphalism in the decades since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, plane-spotting at Shannon airport – and Mark Zuckerberg’s lightsaber
Published 16/12/2014, Studio International. <link to online article>
By A. WILL BROWN
Kennedy Browne is an artist duo made up of Gareth Kennedy and Sarah Browne. While both have individual artistic practices, the two have worked together for almost 10 years on collaborations that include films, videos, performances, lectures, sculptures and multidisciplinary installations. Kennedy Browne engages history, site-specificity, politics and economic and cultural systems to create and expose fictional narratives that reside precipitously close to reality.
A Will Brown: Gareth and Sarah, can you give me the brief history of Kennedy Browne. When did you start working together, and why? How did you develop your shared practice? What was your first project?
Kennedy Browne: We started working together in 2005, and named our practice Kennedy Browne in 2009. This followed our time studying at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, in the sculpture department. Our first works were made while living and researching in Thailand. These were video works made in what we described as readymade sets or micro-environments, where we appeared in front of the camera ourselves. After those early works, we started to adopt some of the strategies of participation and collaboration from our respective solo practices in Kennedy Browne’s work, particularly in relation to film-making as a framework.
AWB: What kinds of projects interest you most and what unites your work, particularly as your work takes place across a number of platforms and media?
KB: Kennedy Browne seeks to address the supposedly eternal narrative of neoliberal capitalism as a fiction, and to do so by generating other, competing fictions in order to cultivate new economic and political imaginaries of difference. We describe these fictions as being developed from existing, marginalised materials from within the plot of global capitalism. The use of readymade material in combination with a collaborative method of scripting ensures that Kennedy Browne’s fictions are networked to a variety of referents rather than tied to a singular author. Location is also a considered factor – we are interested in exploring the phenomenon of Ireland being halfway between Boston and Berlin – this is what our politicians keep impressing upon us. Having said that, we are not bound to location. Since Ireland is so networked globally, it serves as an excellent departure point.
These concerns are related but distinctive with our solo practices. They are developed from very different materials and have different manifestations.
AWB: Ireland is Good For You* is an intriguing work. Can you tell me what is at the heart of the project?
KB: This is a work produced out of Troubling Ireland: a cross-borders think tank for artists and curators engaged in social change, in which Danish Curator collective Kuratorisk Aktion were invited to Ireland to work with an assembled group of socially engaged Irish artists. Firestation Artist Studios in Dublin was the host organisation. This was right in the epicentre of the Irish recession – Ireland received a bailout from the so-called Troika [the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission] shortly after our inaugural meeting.
The outcomes of this process were manifold, but one instance was a poster campaign in inner-city Dublin. Each practice was invited to develop a poster to embody their research trajectory within this matrix. Ireland is Good For You*is Kennedy Browne’s response to research into the concentration of multinational pharmaceutical companies based in Ireland and, in particular, the “blockbuster” drugs made there. We were interested in tracing the social, cultural and economic biographies of these drugs, with particular respect to their off-label uses [where they are used for a condition, or in a dosage or form of administration for which they are not specifically licensed], their myriad side-effects and unexpected combinations with other substances.
Kennedy Browne was interested in these drugs as vectors in bio-capitalism, their marketing, and also unusual effects, consequences and, sometimes oblique, relationships to macro-political situations – for example, the use of certain antipsychotic drugs to treat post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] in military personnel in lieu of proper counselling and the selective use of antidepressants. We realised one work out of this particular instance, related to the use of Shannon airport in Ireland for the transport of US military personnel: The Special Relationship. We still sit on a large body of research regarding this, which we are pretty sure we will return to, or that will inform other things.
AWB: What specifically makes up The Special Relationship? Please tell me a bit more about that work?
KB: The Special Relationship is a short video work consisting of 18 photographs taken at Shannon airport of planes used by the US military for the transport of military personnel, many to theatres of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This slideshow is accompanied by a voiceover. Since Ireland is a neutral country, this use of the airport as a stop-off point has been very controversial for the past 13 years, with many activists and citizens identifying it as being unconstitutional. The planes featured include military aircraft, chartered airliners, prime contractors, shell companies and aircraft from other operating companies employed by the US military and intelligence agencies. One of the planes featured has also shown up in extraordinary rendition flights.
Working exclusively with an Irish-based aviation photo website, Kennedy Browne created an archive of every plane with links to the US military or intelligence agencies photographed at Shannon by aviation enthusiasts and photographers. Images date from 7 October 2001 to 8 October 2013, an approximately 12-year timespan of US conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. We extracted a total of 177 images by 15 amateur and professional photographers. This is an informal and unexpected archive. We then approached each photographer to negotiate the use of their images and to explain our motivations for the project:
(The following is an extract from Kennedy Browne’s email to aviation photographers):
“The images of aircraft will be matched with a voiceover which tries to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, and issues around memory, traumatic flashbacks and unsettled feelings. This aims to obliquely reflect on 10+ years of volunteer US armies being involved in the Middle East and Afghanistan: again the approach is not judgmental … this is a very real and terrible condition affecting thousands of ex-service men and women, many of whom would have passed through Shannon. We endeavour to be sensitive and critical here. As such, the work is a marker in time.”
The female voiceover for the script is adapted from the 17-point PTSD Symptom Scale Interview (Foa, Riggs, Dancu and Rothbaum, 1993). This is one method used in identifying PTSD in ex-service men and women. The reading of this is then matched to aircraft from our “archive”.
The photographers behind the JPEGs, turned out, of course, to be very diverse personalities: life-long aviation enthusiasts, airport employees, public sector workers, a war photographer, company managers, people from Shannon … Some were supportive of the project, some were adamant that their images were not used in the project. For others, it was a simple matter of how much we would pay. Kennedy Browne is interested in this kind of negotiation and dialogue in crafting such a work.
AWB: What projects are you working on now in the studio, and what exhibitions and projects do you have coming up?
KB: We’re developing the final part of a trilogy of film works we began in 2010. The first instalment, How Capital Moves (2010) was commissioned for the Lodz Biennale, Poland, and was made in response to a US computer factory in Limerick, Ireland, moving to Lodz in 2009. The work features a script crafted from an unofficial IT workers’ blog where disenfranchised employees would generate a kind of online solidarity. This was translated and performed in Polish by a single actor. If How Capital Moves was concerned with precarious labour and manufacturing in early-21st-century capitalism, then The Myth of the Many in the One (2012) explored mythical origins of the technological entrepreneur and visionary leader we identify as being of central importance to the narrative of neoliberalism. It focuses on boyhood tales of protagonists from the Silicon Valley story. From a corpus of business biographies, including such icons as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, we composed a single redacted narrative to be performed in a mythic, pre-Silicon Valley peach orchard. This work was developed and shot in the Bay Area of California with support from the San FranciscoKadist Art Foundation. Both works have been exhibited and screened widely since. Affiliated with this film work is a series of objects entitled The Wonder Years. This is a collection of objects of critical significance to the childhood years of the boy avatar in The Myth of the Many in the One. These objects include: Bob Noyce’s glider from 1937; Dave Packard’s pipe bomb and Bill Hewlett’s brass doorknob grenade from 1923 and 1924; Bill Gates’s rocking horse from 1956; and Mark Zuckerberg’s bar mitzvah lightsaber from 1997.
These boyhood artefacts were carefully reconstructed, primarily using resources such as online fabrication services and auction sites (eBay). They are then displayed together as mythic relics related to the genesis of the digital age.
In the concluding part of the trilogy, we are focusing on issues of entitlement, privilege and inheritance. Narcissus and His Brothers (our working title) examines the roots of contemporary neoliberal economics and politics, and the attendant inequalities that have dominated recent discourse. We are investigating the psychological effects of wealth and privilege, questioning ideas of entitlement and predestined inheritance. As a focus, we will explore the pseudo-Greek, homosocial culture of American university fraternity houses, their mechanisms of exclusion and privilege, and their ties to big business, Wall Street firms and high-level politics. Such fraternities are rife with sexual assault, ritualised violence and initiation rites (hazing). Our intention is to develop the project in American universities in Greece, forming a chorus to create an original performance to camera. This film work will draw on the structure, language and conventions of Greek tragedy: traditionally held on the feast of Dionysus, god of wine. As before, we need to develop this work through a responsive research method that will build support structures as it grows. We will visit Greece early in 2015 to set this in motion.
AWB: Your work originally commissioned for Irish Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennial, Milton Friedman on the Wonder of the Free Market Pencil, 2009, feels continually more relevant and interesting. Can you talk about how some of these issues persist for you in your work? How have the work and the great reception to it changed your other work?
KB: Kennedy Browne’s field of reference and enquiry for the most part covers the decades since our birth. Kennedy was born two months after Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK. Browne was born later, in the year that Ronald Reagan became president. Friedman’s highly influential Free to Choose,in which his theoryof the free-market pencil was first introduced, was published the year in between, in 1980. Now these are just points of reference and they by no means define us, but Kennedy Browne grew up during this radical shift towards a neoliberal supremacy and market triumphalism after the fall of the Soviet Union. Coupled with the advent of the internet and its invasion of our attention spans and everyday life, these are the massive shifts in economy, the social, the public and the private, which define our time. For Kennedy Browne, the internet is not an innocent or neutral infrastructure, and we are interested in using this as our framework and domain of enquiry for generating cultural studies of early-21st-century capitalism. Memory and its fabrication or erasure are key interests here: with the internet there is no final cut – hence the “Chinese whisper” of translating Friedman’s pencil theory through all 37 languages then available on Google Translate with a curious outcome. We may well return to this work – Google now facilitates 80 languages …
Auspiciously, the Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco acquired the free-market pencil work, and it was this relationship that partly enabled our residency with Kadist in San Francisco. This was an invaluable support in developing our project The Myth of the Many in the One.
AWB: What have you been reading recently?
KB: Some of the books we have been reading in our respective studios recently include Testo Junkie by Beatriz Preciado, Caliban and the Witchby Silvia Federici, and Modern Ireland 1600-1972 by Roy Foster. Thomas Pinketty’s tome Capital in the Twenty-first Century is sitting on the metaphorical desk between us.
AWB: What kind of artwork do you want to see being made, not just by you, but by other artists?
KB: Whatever the form, art needs to retain a sense of urgency, intent and ramifications beyond just itself.
AWB: What kinds of exhibitions do you want to see being made?
KB: Exhibitions that realise and enable the above.
AWB: How do your individual art practices play into your group practice? What are some of the key differences for you between the two?
KB: We could talk all day about this. There are parallels, crossovers, comparisons and contrasts that can be made and quickly retracted. What is critical is that Kennedy Browne is a distinctive entity. It is not a muddle of bits and pieces from our respective practices. It is, by definition, an (im)personal politics of friendship, collaboration, dialogue and antagonism that unfolds in the space between Kennedy and Browne and is displaced by, or perhaps even sublimated into, the artworks produced.
AWB: What memorable exhibitions have you seen recently? Where do you usually see compelling artwork? What new work, or old work you have just encountered, have you seen and felt strongly about recently?
KB: We both very much valued Duncan Campbell’s extensive presentation of his film works at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and also Soleil politique. The museum between light and shadow, a truly remarkable exhibition curated by Pierre Bal-Blanc at Museion in Bolzano, northern Italy (seen by Kennedy only).