The exhibition Kerry Downey: This is a reenactment but this time it will be different was on view February 28 through April 27, 2023, presented by the New Media Artspace at Baruch College and generously sponsored by the Sandra Kahn Wasserman Jewish Studies Center. The exhibition has been archived online. Click here to view it.
"(How) Kerry Downey's Moving Image Works"
"Every artwork is a reenactment, a time machine, a fantasy, something terribly true and spectacularly fictional."
- Kerry Downey1
The New Media Artspace is proud to present Kerry Downey: This is a reenactment but this time it will be different, a solo exhibition of single-channel videos and two-dimensional elements that reflect this New York-based artist's interdisciplinary process. Focusing on reenactment alludes to how performance undergirds Downey's manifold practice, as well as to the genre of historical reenactment by which seemingly fixed hegemonic narratives can be resuscitated and reimagined in the present. Reenactment opens spaces for infiltrating received histories, both personal and political, and for torquing them toward alternate horizons of inclusion and justice. Downey's reenactments veer again and again toward the possibility of something "different." This is a reenactment but this time it will be different brings together videos (in-person and online), prints (online only), and artifacts of their research-intensive practice (in-person only). Across these works, Downey's reenactments inhabit, mimic, and shape the forms and materials of their surround, and their position in relation to them. Immersing themself in abandoned spaces and materials, they queer the relation of form to history and of person to place in matters of political positioning. Their moving images move us between the fictional, the possible, and the true.
The exhibition begins with What we came to see. A voice narrates a pilgrimage to visit a collection of Spomenik, now-dilapidated monuments constructed during Tito's era and commissioned by local towns throughout the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The narrator, we learn, is an artist who "came to see" the derelict monuments after recognizing that a chance encounter with one monument years prior had been a formative experience, resonating with her present-day art practice. The monuments welcome viewers to climb into their architectural forms, rewarding those who do with an otherwise unattainable view of their surroundings. She now strives to recreate the monuments' invitation to inhabit a viewpoint in her own sculptures.
The narrator's voice does not belong to Kerry Downey, but rather to a friend. Nevertheless-and despite not having visited these sites-Downey is an active presence as an editor reconstructing photographic documentation of the trip and their friend's voiceover to develop meaning as the video unfolds. It presents Downey's computer screen intensely zoomed in, obsessively panning the photographic surfaces. In a momentary zoom out, Downey reveals a figure poised aloft in a concrete hole, arms goofily extended to mime the gentle slope of a hilly horizon line. This visitor is reenacting the form of a place in the distance-a place they aren't-as a means of bodily connecting with it. This image does not stay on screen for long; soon overtaken by another zoom, it evaporates into nondescript pixels (until, that is, the image is reenacted in another artwork, Nothing but net, when Downey performs the same gesture to match the contour of a projected abstract shape). Even as Downey's friend recollects their journey, Downey's searching manipulations of the pictures-scrutinizing pixels that remain only pixels-implies a hunger for more than or more to the story. By zooming, panning, scrolling, and repositioning, Downey keeps the still image-and the story that manifests across its surface-restlessly moving.
The narrator offers a clue as to why-or better yet how-we could say "Kerry Downey's moving image works." Unlike many Western political monuments that place viewers at or below the feet of heroic patriarchs, toward whom they can only passively gaze up, these enticing structures solicit participation and embodied involvement. Being bodily in the mix goes beyond reframing the landscape; it also reframes the modality of political participation. If What we came to see suggests a queering of monumentality and political subjecthood, Downey reenacts that queering when they themself get into the image, and get the image moving.
What we came to see offers a cypher for many of the artist's other works. Downey describes their usual process as flowing between two-dimensional printmaking, drawing, and painting, and four-dimensional time-based performance art and video works. For example, the second video in the exhibition, Nothing but net, is staged on and with an overhead projector. The action unfolds on the projector's surface or in its beam, where Downey transforms the basic elements of their practice-ink, paper, their own body-into an otherworldly landscape. The voiceover is a long poem that articulates tensions between being and becoming:
This is a reenactment but this time it will be different.
This is the pressure of bearing between
moving closer while further away 2
The work begins with something like primordial ooze. Seeping black ink becomes something celestial, uncontrollable, as the sound of breathing emits an aura of perpetual expansion and retraction. Eventually, these liquid forms give way to solid shapes, colored cut paper shapes that reappear in Downey's accompanying print works. Downey themself eventually appears amid the colored shapes, first as hand in shadow and ultimately in a "STAFF" cap lit by the projector's glow. Bathing in image, they point to an excess that cannot be contained by a still image or words alone. This work unfolds, as the voiceover suggests, "where the sense suffers the word."3
As is common for Downey's practice, unique monotype prints accompany this video, and the video itself is produced by projecting through plexiglass plates used to produce the prints. While both arise from the same process, the still images appear self-contained, unlike the moving images that evoke what Downey calls a "tension between the video frame and something that clearly exceeds the frame, like smoke or entropy." 4 Downey's visual language momentarily coheres in these still images, combining symbols, shapes, and abstract compositions. The prints are purposeful, but their meanings remain private. Abstraction enables Downey to build a personal lexicon of shape-symbols that deflect what they call the "violences of being looked at but not seen."5 The danger of being misunderstood or misplaced is acute for Downey as a genderqueer artist. Their bodily vulnerability as a performer in their moving images contrasts with the inscrutable symbolic vernacular of their print works.
For example, in Wormholes, Downey's most recent video work appearing third in the exhibition, Downey shows themself attempting to merge into diverse settings often overflowing with overwhelming quantities of refuse materials or showing signs of neglect. In Wormholes, Downey's reuse of art materials extends to their own previous artworks, and even themself. Wormholes recuts footage from over a decade's work, a project Downey was inspired to undertake when they were struck by similarities across their archive, as though each project reenacts a recurring dynamic. Describing the making of this video, they refer to themself as a material, too. "As I started reconfiguring these videos, I was playing with different experiences of time and cutting up images of myself, past versions of me." 6
Wormholes stitches together moments across time when Downey assimilates themself into a particular setting. They use quotidian techniques of material immersion and camouflage, like hiding, reflecting, disguising, or decorating. In conversation with their therapist, also a queer artist, Downey arrived at the metaphor of a composting worm, working through "decomposition and tunneling" to achieve a queer orientation to its environment. Their therapist uses the phrase "a radical openness to the more-than-human. To materials, sites, elements, to one's own bodily and artistic production" 7 to describe Downey's relationship to their surround.
Unlike the dynamic of separation that supports the distinctions of Western CIS image-making-for example separating figure from ground or spectator (demos) from monument (hero)-the composting worm reprocesses and regurgitates its surroundings, flattening distinctions. Downey refers to the sites of these video performances as "liminal or transitional," but it is worth noting that most (factory, museum, office building, convent) are also institutional sites. So, in digestively meshing with these spaces-infiltrating the apparatus of power with a genderqueer body that defies distinctions-Downey gnaws at their authority and at their capacity to regulate who or what goes where. Downey's reflection that the "composting worm feels very queer to me, my trying to find my way in the world and feeling disoriented, but doing a kind of creative labor that sustains me. I have no idea if it'll provide rich soil for anyone else, but it makes my own life livable" reinforces this dynamic of subversion. 8
It may be that an element of subversion is needed to gnash and mash together the distinctions that define space, and regurgitate it all whole. If the worm's re-masticated world is "where physical and psychological transformations can synch up," 9 the result may be "a third space." In a recent lexicon about their work and longstanding involvement with psychoanalytic process, Downey aligns a "third space" with "that which is neither me nor you but the space in between or beyond, translocation, transitional space, liminality, interstitial space, bathrooms and hallways, dis/orientated spatial relations, queer phenomenology (Ahmed, 2006), how to make space spacious, margins as sites of resistance and radical openness (hooks, 1989)" 10 With this notion, the exhibition concludes with A Third Space, a mostly monochromatic video largely captured from Downey's manipulations of black ink and cut out paper shapes, again on an overhead projector.
Luminous Rorschach-like shapes in flux are informed and reformed by a voice-over that intelligently fuses psychoanalytic modes of association. Pouring fluid on a projector, Downey reenacts the processes of making their still image work. It seems a still image is always first a moving image. Or, as in the two monumentally scaled heads that accompany What we came to see, a still image doesn't arrest motion, but rather is revealed by movement, like Downey's abrasions that expose outlines of statuesque heads with obsessive sanding. Yet the process of sanding fuses "closeness" with "erosion," 11 so like liquid on a projector, the sanded image emerges out of a state of flux and eventual disappearance.
The overhead projector is among Downey's quintessential tools. On the one hand, a projector is an almost too-perfect decoy for their investments in psychoanalysis. On the other, even if its obsolescence suggests regression, it is immediately recognizable as a didactic aid. It evokes classroom learning and the dissemination of cultural "truths" or norms, when teachers reenact standardized lessons at the helm of a class. As a long-term art educator in museum settings, Downey is aware of the problematic nature of these forms of reenactment that reproduce cultural hegemonies. Yet, as in A Third Space, reenactment is also a tool for prizing apart the stranglehold such hegemonies have over our self-determination. This involves remaking our relationship of self to surround, how we position ourselves in spaces and places, and how we learn and "un/learn" together. As Downey elaborates, "For me making art is also the making and unmaking of parts of myself. Un/learning is kinesthetic, requiring an embodied approach to play, a certain amount of truth in the nonsense." 12
For Downey, this nonsensical logic of reenactment is summed up in Gertrude Stein's insistence that there is no such thing as repetition, only difference.13 "This is a reenactment but this time it will be different" is a paradoxically true statement because as reenactments, Downey's artworks offer experiences of difference. They enact material transformations and offer viewers an opportunity to witness change.
- Katherine Behar
Kerry Downey (b.1979, Ft. Lauderdale) is a genderqueer artist and educator based in New York. Downey's interdisciplinary practice explores embodied forms of resistance and transformation. They use experimental strategies to draw connections between interior worlds and sociopolitical landscapes. Downey's lifelong experiences in queer and artist collectives, their work with people with dementia and other disabilities, and the close overlaps between their art practice and teaching, have all utilized art as a strategy for engagement and care.
Downey's first major publication, We collect together in a net, was published by Wendy's Subway in 2019. They have exhibited at the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division (New York, NY); Queens Museum (Flushing, NY); Bard CCS / Hessel Museum (Annandale, NY); Danspace Project (New York, NY); Knockdown Center (Maspeth, NY); Kate Werble (New York, NY); Cooper Cole (Toronto, CA); CAVE (Detroit, MI); and Taylor Macklin (Zurich, CH). Downey is a recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation Emerging Artist Grant and Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant. Artist-in-residencies include Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Madison, ME; Triangle Arts Association, Brooklyn, NY; SHIFT at EFA Project Space, New York, NY; the Drawing Center's Open Sessions, New York, NY; and the Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, VT. Downey participated in the Queer|Art|Mentorship program in 2013 (paired with Angela Dufresne). Their work has been in Artforum, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Washington Post.
Downey spent over a decade running community-based arts programs at The Museum of Modern Art; they have recently taught in the at Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons/The New School, City College, and at Hunter College. They are a 2022-23 visiting critic/artist in the Art Department at Williams College.
This exhibition is generously sponsored by the Sandra Kahn Wasserman Jewish Studies Center under the directorship of Dean Jessica Lang.
Kerry Downey: This is a reenactment but this time it will be different is curated by Katherine Behar, Associate Professor in the Fine and Performing Arts Department in the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, Baruch College, CUNY and is produced by the New Media Artspace Student Docent Team. The exhibition is made possible further by support from the Baruch Computing and Technology Center (BCTC), the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, and the Newman Library. All images appear courtesy of the artist.
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The New Media Artspace is a teaching exhibition space in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Baruch College, CUNY. Housed in the Newman Library, the New Media Artspace showcases curated experimental media and interdisciplinary artworks by international artists, students, alumni, and faculty.
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