Dina Kelberman’s Online Curiosities.
Benjamin Andrew interviews Dina Kelberman.
Last month, on November 2, Johns Hopkins University (JHU) played host to a mixed group of academics, artists, and unsuspecting parents (it was parent’s weekend) as three artists from Baltimore’s Wham City arts collective explained what “kept them up at night.” The Wham City umbrella has collected a diverse group of Baltimore artists, and musicians for nearly ten years. On this particular evening, the JHU Digital Media Center invited artist/comedian Ben O’Brian, experimental musician Dan Deacon, and cartoonist/new media artist Dina Kelberman to present their personal research and artistic inspiration. The evening was a head-trip into the minds, archives, and iTunes libraries of these wildly multidisciplinary creators.
Dina Kelberman recently exhibited video collages, gif animations and still images at Nudashank Gallery in Baltimore. Her presentation at JHU included hilarious and provocative finds, including some of the strangest things I’ve ever seen online. Left confused, fascinated, and questioning the boundaries of art, I contacted her for this interview.
Benjamin Andrew: Your artwork frequently mines television and cinema for raw materials, but I was still surprised to see the breadth and obscurity of your personal research. Some of my favorites were the images you collected from the Uline shipping supply catalog. I’m familiar with Uline from various local businesses and universities where I’ve worked. Uline’s endless catalogs of weirdly specific containers, tools, and the like have always fascinated me. Can you describe the images you selected, and what attracted you to them?
Dina Kelberman: I love Uline! Actually I’ve found that a lot of people love Uline. I think there’s something elementary-school-appealing about those images. Similar objects lined up in height order, labeled in primary colors, hands gently holding things for you to see. And maybe the fact that that [the] elementary school mood is combined with these things from an industrial context, like with burly men hoisting them around on forklifts… something about that combination… is just really silly and innocent and nice.
Something I sort of babbled about in my lecture… is how I’m obsessed with visuals made for practical purposes, and that’s definitely 100% what’s up with the Uline catalog. It’s practicality at it’s finest: photos of practical items or parts meant for practical systems, displayed in a catalog in order to plainly sell those items.
I could just look at anything plastic or cardboard all day. I mean every single thing in there is so beautiful.
The whole part with the cardboard boxes and bags is so hilarious and wonderful because they have to put some arbitrary object in there to show the scale, and so someone has chosen these things (again, for practicality), and they’ve accidentally created this story where someone is mailing a pair of boxing gloves in a box or a weird ugly statue in a box or a Uline employee plaque in a box, or they’ve put a big huge fan in a bag for some reason… It’s hilarious to try to think of the circumstances surrounding those things.
In everything with found imagery it’s always about the story the image conjures up and for me, the less I know about that story the better.
I am really into organization so I just want to put everything I own in boxes and bags and strap them together and put them on shelves and label them and color code them.
BA: I feel like the Uline catalog is a window into a secret part of the economy. Things like rubber safety mats or THIS END UP stickers are often overlooked, and we might not think about where they come from. But this is it! This is where they come from! The endless variety of these things is obviously a great resource for artists (including myself) who need industrial materials for sculptures or installations, but your focus on the implied narratives and aesthetics of the catalog itself is very interesting.
Your impulse to label and archive your possessions seems like an echo of Andy Warhol, who regularly archived his belongings and ephemera. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, he wrote: “I just drop everything into the same-size brown cardboard boxes that have a color patch on the side for the month of the year. I really hate nostalgia, though, so deep down I hope they all get lost and I never have to look at them again.”
Warhol was never one for sentimentalism, but in your own research or image-collections like I’m Google or Smoke & Fire, do you think about the permanence of these documents? Permanence seems like part of what is at issue in creating online content, given the constant digitization of life on Facebook, Youtube, or something like Google Books (where I was able to find that Warhol quote within seconds). Will our Youtube videos last forever?
DK: I do think about that and I have mixed feelings about it. I am attempting to archive both those projects, but with electronic media there’s this weird kind of ironic delicacy to it. Smoke and Fire is easier to deal with because it’s all content I’m creating, and a site that I host, but with I’m Google it’s harder because it’s found content, and in the case of the Youtube videos in that project there are already a lot of spots where the videos have been removed from Youtube, so there’s these black spots of missing content.
I recently went through the whole site and downloaded all the videos so that if I wanted to I could rebuild the whole thing at some point and include videos that were taken down… but in a way that’s just an inherent part of the piece as well—that it’s not my content and that I’m not in total control of it. In case you couldn’t tell by my work, I’m kind of a control freak, but I’m actually that way in an attempt to deal with the fact that I’ve been a slob my whole life, so it’s like this weird dichotomy within myself that I also feel about the work. I want to be able to control it all but I also know it’s this thing I’ve created that I specifically can’t control.
BA: That sense of control seems especially intriguing with your projects using found images and video clips. It seems like some of the videos you shared at Hopkins haven’t yet worked their way into your art, but at this point are just results of your own research into the curiosities of the web. How did you discover the videos of, say, people carefully stepping on food products? Those videos, along with the ones of people manipulating inflatables or wearing masks, are ostensibly fetish porn, but their distance from traditional sexuality invites us to view them in more art-like terms. What is it about these videos that interests you?
DK: I am having this thing lately where I’m just finding these videos all the time and just constantly having my mind blown by all this stuff on Youtube, to the point that I just can’t imagine art ever being as moving as these things people are making for non-art purposes and putting online. There’s just so much crazy shit out there. People are into the most specific and weird things; people are so different from each other, and everyone is passionate about something, and so many of those things would never in a million years occur to me [as something] a group of people would be collectively passionate about or turned on by. It’s great! In terms of the fetish stuff, it’s just so awesome to watch a video that seems so innocuous or boring and know that someone (or many someones) are wildly turned on by the image. That’s so great. I mean you can probably look at any video and someone has jerked off to it, and that’s just fantastic. What a wonderful world!!
I don’t know how I found those videos, I just search things and look for what seems like the most “boring” thumbnail… and then [follow] the related videos from that. You keep going and going, you end up somewhere just totally insane. I mean I think it happens to everyone. It’s the magic of the Internet.
BA: The fact that you’ve discovered these fantastic videos by following “boring” video searches is very refreshing. I’m increasingly bothered by sites like Buzzfeed fishing for clicks with lists, shock-statements, and the like. So, it’s good to know that the real gems you’ve found out there are somewhat hidden from the big online content machines.
I’m thinking about the possibility that these found documents are stranger or more aesthetically engaging than “real” art, and it feels like a familiar debate. Outsider art by children, by craftspeople, or by the mentally ill has always brought up thorny issues of authorship and intent. Is Outsider or Visionary art a separate category of expression, or can something become high art if it’s compelling enough, even if the maker didn’t intend for it to be collected or fall into certain art histories? Do powerful aesthetic experiences demand to be shared with audiences, and art contexts are simply the best suited for considering and defining these curiosities? These are kind of rhetorical questions, but maybe you can share your own thoughts on defining art. Do you view online videos you find much like works in a gallery?
DK: I don’t think I watch Youtube videos in the same way that I look at [objects] in a gallery. I mean, you can’t; it’s a different context and no matter how much you try to ignore that it’s going to affect things somehow. Also, one of the things that’s so fascinating about these Youtube videos or any found or Outsider stuff is the context, like the fact that these videos are being put online for the world to see. Often the assumed [mass] audience is referred to in the video, like these videos with [only] two views that start “hi guys” as if tons of people are watching, or the fetish stuff that makes it onto Youtube without getting flagged as pornography because it’s such innocuous content but it is porn to some people. Those are a huge part of the story that makes these things so interesting. Honestly it’s more anthropological than anything else… I guess there’s this resemblance between videos made as art and these [other] videos that result from weird obsessions that someone might make for totally other reasons…
In terms of defining art though, I am basically into as loose a definition of art as I can get. I think the intention to place something in an art context makes it art, and then it’s just a matter of if it’s interesting or not. But I think most things people do are art… To me, art is an individual person’s [interpretation of] the world and how they choose to manifest that. So that’s why I like art or non-art-things the best [when they] seem like the most direct lines between a person’s true self and whatever means of communication into the universe they’ve chosen. Youtube video, clothes, a sign left on someone’s car, a series of drawings, a blog… however people just have to let it out of themselves, their most pure compulsions. That’s the best stuff.
Benjamin Andrew is an interdisciplinary artist who is also strongly drawn to archives. He teaches part time at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and works at the Johns Hopkins Digital Media Center. For What Weekly, he has written about art criticism, artist Rodolpe Delaunay, and artist Zoe Friedman with the music group Peals. Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin is the art criticism column editor.