PSFK Talks to NOLA’s Kirsha Kaechele of KK Projects

Arts & Culture
Piers Fawkes, PSFK
  • 13 march 2009

When we were in New Orleans recently, PSFK met probably the most important person setting the avant garde agenda in the NOLA art scene. By buying up abandoned homes in the St Roch neighborhood and converting them into galleries, Kirsha has built one of the most exciting art spaces in the country, if not the world. We spoke to her about her work at the New Orleans Biennial, her plans for her gallery and the importance of supporting New Orleans.

Recently you supported the Biennial where you trolleyed tourists and art lovers around some of the most desolate parts of New Orleans and showed them juxtaposed works from over thirty artists. Quite an impact – what drove you to do this?

Insanity. And if I wasn’t already insane it certainly led me to be! I am only emerging from two-months staring into falling snow (I retired to upstate New York). This aside, I have always been lit up by the departure of art from the realm of the expected into spaces where it doesn’t belong, and better, where its viewers think they don’t belong. It creates an opening not only for the artwork, which rediscovers itself through engagement with an unusual site, but for the viewer who, through their experience of the site itself, finds vacation from normal life and thought patterns. Art can do this on its own, but I enjoy the additional layer of discovering the world.

You’ve bought a number of houses in the St Roch neighborhood and turned them into art spaces. What are you trying to achieve with these buildings?

Nothing anymore. Every time I try to achieve something I fail miserably! In fact, that I am even in these spaces at all is the result of a miserable failure. I tried to open a pristine, minimalist art “temple” in the middle of the warehouse district, a real Tate Modern meets Marfa kind of place, and when I couldn’t raise the millions of dollars necessary, discovered that my unconscious had steadily been acquiring derelict properties in the New Orleans ghetto. It was just Fortune that my failure turned into a path, or as a particular Tasmanian scientist would put it, Survivor Bias. Everything shifted when I realized these falling houses made more interesting art space than the white box of my original vision. The collapsing nature of the houses requires a living-moment relationship with Reality. It is impossible to fall asleep when every plan must navigate the unexpected. Imminent structural collapse, determined city demolition crews, thieves and vandals, all expand our understanding of art from something tenuous and dependent, into something indestructible. An infinite, very powerful message comes through work that sustains such hopelessness, and either through the embracing of its own destruction, or through heroic battle with natural forces- the latter of which is pretty comedic- something extraordinary emerges.

St Roch is a poor neighborhood – how do the art-illiterate population relate to your avant-garde and often abstract pieces?

This is such a Whitie question …I wonder if in this question there is a gentle touch upon the issue of the appropriateness of creating art, which traditionally attracts wealthy and educated clientele, in a poverty-stricken area… This is a question that opens a wide field of thought- as soon as you get beyond it (the question, that is). Let me just say this: there is no issue. And you will love it when I explain why, but first I must say that I don’t see St Roch as being poor. St Roch is full of gun fighting and prostitution, AIDS and drug abuse and we see beautiful people suffer and die. This said my neighbors still seem somehow better off. They certainly have less money (except for the Ballers – holla’ at mi boy, Duke!) than the residents of most neighborhoods in the US. They are richer in that they, for a change, actually have meaningful relationships with their families and friends. Their ties are so loving and deep, and furthermore, are grounded in the physical intimacy of a neighborhood. This is so rare in our culture that really, it defines a new model of luxury. Add to this the unanticipated benefit of joblessness- an abundance of time- and it begins to get very interesting. By nature of being so disenfranchised, my neighbors are in an ideal position to foster something the world has not seen. Provided channels to mobilize these assets, my neighbors are situated to take over as innovators and world leaders- with a refreshing message at that. I am in no position to state an outcome, more to watch in awe as things evolve. And, I do realize this was not your question…

As for the Exhibitions: There seems to be a very natural connection between my neighbors and the art. From the beginning our installations have acted as a unifier, engaging curiosity and delight between classes. I see little difference in the potency of experience for the gangsters on the block or the visiting academics. In fact everyone is awed and confounded by what is new to them- the neighbors by the art and visitors, the visitors by the art, setting and the discovery that these at first very scary-looking people are actually tremendously cool. And we ourselves are awestruck as the whole theatre unfolds, how it challenges, opens, surprises and delights us. This is what I love about the project.

One installation, by architects Mike + Liz McKay, involved a vast room full of filament and sparkling silver beads, together plotting out in real scale the furniture of Mike’s childhood room- a piano, a sofa, a chair. My neighbors spent countless hours staring into the piece. It was a hit. Then a woman who hangs out on the corner came over and said, “Girl, I got to spend some real time in here. I just gonna come in, be in here and think about my dead brother.”- a real compliment to the artist.

When we met you showed us the front of one of your houses – a new piece in development by Mel Chin. The safe door at the front of a house that contained $300 million in hand painted bills. Can you tell us more?

Sure. Mel Chin took one of our houses, previously The White House, and transformed it into a giant vault. The entire face of the house swings open, rotates and locks. The idea is that it protects the investment of the thousands of children making fake 100 dollar bills- Fundred Dollar Bills. Mel is interested in soil remediation, and in the case of New Orleans specifically, rendering lead inert. He worked with a team of scientists to calculate how much it will cost to treat all the lead in New Orleans’ soil and they came up with $300 million. He said, “I can’t raise that much but I can make it.” And so we have Operation Paydirt in which the bills are made and stored in the SafeHouse. Eventually, they will be delivered by vegetable-powered, armored vehicle to Congress to request a trade-in of the original artworks- the fake bills- for real cash.

Why New Orleans? Why now?

I fell in love with New Orleans before I came to the city. I met some people at a restaurant in New York and was so captivated by their spirit that I decided I would move to whatever city they were from. And of course that was New Orleans. I caught a train a couple of days later landing, hilariously, in the middle of Mardi Gras without the slightest clue of what was going on. The first day I was presented with a Zulu coconut and I thought, “What is this, what is going on here?!” New Orleans is immediately captivating- I dare you to come down and leave. It is a universe away from the rest of the country, more like the Caribbean in that Old World Europe fuses with African culture, and the result is an emphasis on living. Life in New Orleans is measured through good times and relationships rather than what you have accomplished or achieved, and enjoying the moment is a virtue.

This said it is also fascinating for people riddled with ambition and drive in that, having been completely destructed, New Orleans is an empty slate for visionaries, enterprisers and builders of dreams.

What’s next?

Well, the continuum of our mission as Life is Art Foundation, which is the union of art and the good life. As always, I am interested in large scale, site-specific installations in unexpected settings, but we are now marrying artwork with direct life enhancers like an urban farm, a slowfoods restaurant, a traditional bathhouse. We want to take the best of what we know combined with our neighbors’ exhilarating approach, and create the good life in St Roch- a new definition of luxury. We will grow beautiful food and recreate the University of Ancient Greece- or to cite a more recent incarnation, Black Mountain College. The greatest minds will hang out, and in the tradition of the philosopher’s tubs, engage the highest knowledge with the highest creative thought- while sitting in the sauna. Meanwhile, all of this exists through installations. I don’t want to be too strict on curatorial parameters, but everything becomes medium for the making of art.

At the same time, we have a whole generation of brilliant kids from the neighborhood whom I expect to see taking the world stage as culture makers and entrepreneurs. I am not kidding when I say that the next groundbreaking media company is coming out of St Roch. We have a core group of ten year-old girls who are learning film and photography thanks to a kind patron. With their very fresh perspective- one which rarely departs a smaller context- they will blast out and take over the scene. This is all possible through the mixing of social, economic, and cultural worlds.

Thanks Kirsha!

KKProjects | Life is Art Foundation
2448 North Villere Street
New Orleans | LA

[First image: Elliott Coon’s Watch Your Eyes at KKProjects in the Brickyard, a space donated by developer Sean Cummings; third image: Ricki Hill’s Cocoons in The Dirt House at KK Projects]

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