Robert Gober Untitled
Robert Gober
Untitled 1989–92

Following Mike Kelley’s exhibition The Uncanny at Tate Liverpool, the artist and Jeffrey Sconce talk about Freud, the power of hidden memory and techno-shamanism

Jeffrey Sconce
In the popular imagination, the uncanny has become a synonym for the paranormal, but your exhibition at Tate Liverpool referred to the more classically Freudian tradition of the uncanny as being linked to issues of home, family, trauma and repressed memory. What would you have liked someone unfamiliar with Freud’s work to know when going to your show?

Mike Kelley
Primarily, that there is a relationship between the uncanny and the familiar. The show that I mounted originally in 1993 was meant to address the re-emergence of polychrome figurative sculpture in the 1980s and early 1990s. This was a sculptural mode that had been repressed during the Modernist period. I was interested in presenting this ‘Postmodernist’ aesthetic recuperation of traditional sculptural form as a Freudian ‘return of the repressed’ – as a familiar thing that had returned in unfamiliar form. As I wrote in my essay for the exhibition, in the 1980s any work about the body was seen in terms of aids, and evoked human mortality and the body’s material reality. Sculpture was the only place this was discussed since almost all other art of the period was approached through the Baudrillardian language of simulation.

I wanted the exhibition to address the theme of the uncanny in two ways. It would be a traditional museum show of figurative sculpture that would evoke uncanny bodily associations, but at the same time, I would link this sculpture to a very different form of the uncanny – the impulse to collect. Freud discusses how dolls, waxworks and other doubles evoke the uncanny, but he was also interested in the uncanny as a fear of being taken over by forces external to the body that could in turn be confused with one’s sense of self. I feel that the impulse to collect, like other compulsions, seems to emanate from outside the self, as if one were controlled by outside forces. Freud quotes Ernst Jentsch not only about statues that appear ‘alive’, but also the uncanny experience of witnessing an epileptic seizure – that sense of an unknown force taking control of the body. This impulse to collect was represented in the exhibition not only through the collection of sculptures, but also by a large group of collections of my own that were shown in a separate room. These spanned my entire lifetime and ranged from a childhood rock collection to every spoon that is currently in my home. The exhibition was then presented as an example of a re-emergence of the compulsion to collect within myself – as simply a more adult version of childhood marble collecting.

Jeffrey Sconce
The link being that any phenomenon that throws our accepted ideas about the relationship of body, volition and consciousness into question evokes the uncanny, whether it be a disarmingly ‘real’ statue or the seeming intrusion of a disruptive force.

Mike Kelley
And of course that seems closely related to your writing on communications technology – the way a disruption, or a sense of disembodiment in electronic technologies produces an uncanny response.

Jeffrey Sconce
Definitely. In my book Haunted Media I was extremely interested in how electricity’s status as both a scientific and metaphysical entity put electrical phenomena at the centre of an uncanny imagination, especially in relation to emerging technologies such as the telegraph and wireless. There’s a relation here to Freud as well, who was trained originally in a mechanistic tradition that saw all psychic dysfunction as a bio-electrical phenomenon. One of Freud’s first important interventions was to break with this model. And yet the logic of these superstitions now returns in much of the current fascination with ‘cyborg culture’ – the giddy feeling that forces and technologies external to the body will invade, merge and take control.

Mike Kelley
Which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein anticipated almost 200 years ago. Not only was the monster a composite being and an uncanny double, but it was also animated by exterior forces that at the time were still not completely understood.

Jeffrey Sconce
You made explicit reference to Freud in the exhibition. Is his work a direct influence, or is it more a critical tool you find useful to explain certain aspects of your work?

Mike Kelley
Perhaps this positions me as a child of Postmodernism, but my relation to texts has always been a fictive one. I don’t see psychology or psychoanalysis as a ‘science’. As a theorist, Freud is obviously a great thinker, but I keep going back to him again and again because of the beautiful quality of his writing. He is always rooting things back in the world, back into family relationships, back into object relationships – a concern that becomes more and more distant in the subsequent work of Lacan, or Deleuze and Guattari. Their theories are so abstract, so disconnected, that I find as an artist there’s very little there for me. As a person who works with materials, I appreciate how Freud, even when he gets way out there with his ideas about the ‘primal horde’, creates an elaborate mythology that he still attempts to link to daily life. And beyond that, I find so much of his work resonates with my own experience.

Jeffrey Sconce
I think Freud’s work has been taken up in such a way that we often forget his original intentions were therapeutic, and that he did want to intervene meaningfully in people’s psychic health. As far as the poetry of his writing goes, I agree he tells a much more compelling story than many of his successors.

Mike Kelley
Yes, and one that really captured a lot of the troubling foundations of the family and society at that time.

Jeffrey Sconce
Educational Complex 1995 is another interesting piece in terms of the uncanny. It is an architectural model that reconstructs all the buildings where you were educated, from kindergarten to graduate art school. I’m wondering if part of the motivation for it arose from trying to capture that unnerving sense of temporal and spatial distortion one feels when returning to a home or school after ten or twenty years. Also, did you deliberately avoid these old institutions as you completed the work?

Mike Kelley
Former homes and schools do have a strange way of conflating time. I didn’t revisit any of them while producing the piece. But later I was shocked when I did return to these schools, because I had almost no memory of them. I could remember one or two rooms, but the rest was a blank. And these were structures I was in everyday for years and years. But when I first decided to make the building it was all an exercise in memory. A lot of my work from the past six or eight years has been about “repressed memory syndrome”, which I think has become the new religion.

Jeffrey Sconce
It’s definitely been a dominant preoccupation in recent popular culture, from the Satanist scares to the X-Files.

Mike Kelley
I think it’s the first time that schizo-theory has found such popular expression. These pathologies have become so prevalent that they are now the norm. Repressed memory syndrome, stories of satanic abuse and ufo abduction scenarios all relate to that sense of having to distrust personal experience. What I’m doing now with Educational Complex is trying to fill in the blank spaces with videotapes of traumatic or melodramatic episodes.

Jeffrey Sconce
From personal memory of these spaces?

Mike Kelley
Well, these are spaces I do not remember, but my ‘recovered memories’ of them are a mixture of actual biographical details and recollections of media events – movies, cartoons, or books. So the whole project is playing with a mix of real and mediated memory.

Jeffrey Sconce
Given our mutual interest in uncanny technologies, and thinking about some of your earliest work from the 1970s, such as The Poltergeist, Spirit Voices and Spirit Collector, I’m curious how you developed an interest in Spiritualist photography, as well as Konstantin Raudive’s later experiments in recording the voices of the dead on audiotape. I’m also wondering if you felt the devices you built might actually achieve some form of paranormal contact.

Mike Kelley
I don’t remember having any hopes of making actual contact with spirits. My earliest interest in those technologies came through music. I saw Raudive’s tape experiments in the 1970s as a type of musique concrete, and found his work intriguing very much in the same way as I did the minimalist compositions of Lamonte Young and others. There’s a projective aspect in Raudive’s recordings, much like minimalist or trance music. So, even though I wouldn’t describe the physical effects of trance music as paranormal, it definitely produces a psychic effect. I was using Raudive as a folk example of certain trends in the avant-garde at the time.

With Poltergeist, I was using the thematics of the poltergeist not only to play with the conventions of documentary photography, but also to explore the relationship of these photographs to sexual repression. In the 1970s, spirit photography still did not figure in most histories of the medium. With the rise of the fictive photography associated with Conceptualism, however, I felt Spiritualist photography was an important part of a lost history of artists attempting to destroy the photograph’s connection to the ‘real’. I wanted to play with that, but I was also interested in this photography because of its obvious sexual imagery. The ectoplasm photographs really look more like cum shots. And the poltergeist story, with its emphasis on young girls and adolescent sexuality, seemed to me to be a transformation of puberty into a metaphysic. So there were a number of interests coming together in those pieces.

Jeffrey Sconce
I definitely agree with you about the overall historical repression of Spiritualism. One almost never learns about it in traditional history classes, even though it was an incredibly important religious and philosophical movement in the nineteenth century. It was the fastest growing religion of that era, at least in the United States. Lincoln had seances in the White House, the editor of the New York Herald was a Spiritualist, as was the Governor of Wisconsin. It’s fascinating that this whole era has been erased from popular history.

Mike Kelley
A lot of this is starting to come back. You’ve probably noticed in the art world over the past few years the number of works that focus on early Spiritualism – but often in very ahistorical terms. And it’s recently been revived in the electronica music scene.

Jeffrey Sconce
There’s also been a real interest in uncanny phenomena in recent electronic art, but it seems very different from your view of the uncanny as a function of bodies and objects in physical space.

Mike Kelley
Yes, you see that everywhere. It’s a kind of techno-shamanism coming out of Donna Haraway’s writing on cyborgs.

Jeffrey Sconce
The entire reason I wrote Haunted Media was because I felt surrounded by what had formerly been very sober, materialist cultural critics suddenly flocking to cyber-discourse as this unbelievably shameless, revolutionary utopianism. It was really driving me crazy.

Mike Kelley
I agree that the worst aspects of McLuhanism have been resurrected in this techno-tribalism. In one sense I understand it completely. As media become so much a part of everyday life, an environment is created where people increasingly think of media as akin to nature, so it all starts to be theorised that way. I think that’s very lazy and sloppy.

Jeffrey Sconce
It’s also strange to see artists and academics replicating the exact same marketing discourses of the telecommunications companies. This whole occult fascination with disembodied presence and telematics is such a major part of the promotional campaigns for these media. But let’s face it, the majority of applications for new media are incredibly banal and even spirit-crushing, as in finding new ways to make telemarketing and information surveillance more efficient. To buy into these fantasies so unproblematically seems a bit deluded.

Mike Kelley
I simply don’t understand it, because everyone knows that all these technologies date so quickly, and as they do, the utopian pretensions aligned with them go into the dustbin. And with the internet – haven’t we heard all of this before with the telegraph and the telephone?

Jeffrey Sconce
My favourite technophiles are those waiting for the day we can download consciousness into the mainframe. A lot of it is the cult of William Gibson. One of the things I imagine must be incredibly frustrating for him is the way Neuromancer, despite its extremely dystopic and conflicted portrait of cyber-technology has been taken up as a bible of some desirable or inevitable future.

Mike Kelley
And I don’t see much difference between this utopian tech-speak and televangelism.

Jeffrey Sconce
Yes. Television and radio preachers have been hucksters of telepresence for years, especially when they place their hands on the screen and ask the viewer to make healing contact. Perhaps we should reconsider them now as pioneering electronic artists and media theorists?

Mike Kelley
Your book approaches these issues in terms of cultural history, but it strikes me that so much of the Postmodern discourse on spectacle, disembodiment and the loss of history might be approached through Freud’s concept of the ‘death instinct’. This fascination with the death of embodied consciousness, as well as these ahistorical notions of the loss of the real, might ultimately lead back to the death instinct and a desire to return to some form of embryonic consciousness.

Jeffrey Sconce
There certainly seems to be some mechanism, psychic or otherwise, that makes these electronic fantasies so appealing and enduring. And as your exhibition captured so well, the uncanny qualities of doubles and externalised impulses are no less unnerving now than they were 100 years ago. As an historian, I’m always reluctant to use any theory as a transhistorical explanation, but there’s little doubt Freud’s narratives capture something very compelling about our mental lives over the past century.