Below is an interview with Keene Kopper. I’m a big fan of his work, which lies somewhere between art and architecture. When I sent him a few questions, I was surprised by his answers, including how influential music has been for him. I will also be trying to work “mistake cul-de-sac” into conversations this holiday season, giving him full credit.
Who are you and what do you do?
The first part of that question is funny. When someone does something debatably stupid, I find my self sometimes saying sarcastically out loud: “Who are you?” Its more of a personal joke, but anyway… I consider my self an environmental artist or environmental architect, but I think that when most people hear the word “environment” it makes them think of the ecological environment, which is definitely a canvas for me too. When I refer to the environment though, I am referring to our direct context composed of a space/non-space or volume of space, sound, smell, touch, light, temperature, taste (good or bad) — really anything that sets the scene for a person to have a whole body and mind experience. Those are my tools and the type of content that I express with that set of tools typically revolves around the exploration of the ego itself, or sometimes the exploration of the ego in various contexts, like in politics, relationships or my personal evolution. I find astrology and Buddhism to be a big source of inspiration and I enjoy seeking out and experimenting with overlapping points of theory or belief between the two.”
How did you get interested in architecture/art/design?
I think early on because of my father’s involvement in the music industry, I was surrounded by a lot of really open minded creative types. Music is a really important part of my life, I find a lot of inspiration in it, whether its the lyrics of a Talking Heads or Jim O’Rourke song, or the monotonous tones of La Monte Young or noise of The Hafler Trio or Zoviet France.
In school I actually started off in mechanical engineering but switched my major to architecture because I found that I wanted a job that allowed me to be more expressive. It was a BFA with a concentration in architecture, which was a good balance of a fine arts degree and an architectural design degree. After working at Kohn Pedersen Fox for four years, I got really tired of working in such an intensely corporate environment, and in some ways, I felt that it was really killing my ability to design spontaneously. At that point I didn’t have a lot of free time after work because I was working so much, but in the time that I did have, I made small oil paintings, kinetic wood sculptures, and installations or “party pavilions” for friend’s birthday parties on my rooftop in Brooklyn. I’d say that was when I started to realize that I needed to move further away from engineering towards art, which is really where I am right now.
What projects are you currently working on?
Currently, I’m working on a dance piece for a Pecha Kucha presentation with Brittney Everett under our collaborative pseudonym WNFG. We’re collaborating on the slide images, costume design and choreography. I’m also about to sign a commercial lease on a 2000 square foot, 17 foot tall old concrete manufacturing building space in New Orleans where I’m going to be building out 6-8 artist studios/residencies and gallery. I’m hoping to have that up and running at least partially, in the next few months.
I just thought of this project recently that I’m really excited about executing, but have not found a gallery or funding for it yet: I’m going to ask 6-8 people to grow all of their body hair out for 1 year. In a gallery, there will be 4’x8’ tall pieces of plexi mounted to the wall (as place holders for future images). At the opening there will be just these places holders on the wall and the performers dressed in street clothes, hopefully mingling with guests. At a predetermined, precise time, the 6 or 8 performers will, seemingly spontaneously, stand in front of their respective place-holder-on-the-wall and strip bare naked. Then I’m going to take a pair of sheers and cut compositions out of all of their hair, from head to toe. I’ll take photos and replace the place holders.
The most important thing I have going on right now is my MFA grad school applications, due in January.
What do you appreciate the most about well-designed spaces?
The kinds of spaces that I appreciate are usually what most people might call minimalist, but I consider minimalism to be more about conveying an idea succinctly, rather than just having a minimal form, geometric, organic or what have you. I feel the same way about art; I really don’t like architecture or art that tries to address too many concepts or issues, or on the other hand work that is just an exercise in a particular style or gestural language, void of any conceptual agenda. I’m not totally against things just being beautiful for the sake of being beautiful, but there is a limit in my immediate surroundings to things that are just nice to look at, there has to be a functionality to the object/architecture and that functionality can be to fulfill an architectural program or the art can serve the purpose of conveying an idea, hopefully one at a time. Executing a design or a piece of art is like writing an essay, essays are to address one idea at a time succinctly.
Exploration is good for the notebook, I just don’t think its an economical use of time to be building a massive sculpture when you don’t already have a strong agenda -conceptual or formal- set up already. Some people might be turned off by that and think that that sounds really limiting creatively, but for me, intense forethought and journaling is more free and open to the birth of new ideas than just setting off on the course to build stuff that could get caught in a mistake cul-de-sac. Like most people, I don’t have a lot of time or money, so ending up with an art-object-in-a-cul-de-sac is really a huge waste of resources.
That all being said, that is the lens I use to look through when I’m looking at art/architecture/design; I appreciate good composition, gestural and formal economy (both a collaborative result of material economy), thought provocation and succinctness.
Which architects/artists/designers are seriously overrated or underrated?
I dont think that Hafler Trio is underrated, but few people know him outside his genre. Those who know his work and philosophy have respect for him. He is a really talented musician and music producer who uses contrast compositioning beautifully to evoke basic, instinctual feelings. I think Frank Gehry is overrated. MVRDV is one of my all time favorites, maybe a little underrated and I think they get a lot of respect, but not like OMA, which I have some respect for and wouldn’t consider Rem Koolhaus overrated; there is some really great job-specific design happening there. I read this interview this summer with Urs Fischer that turned me off a little bit, but otherwise I find his work succinctly provocative.
When do you do your best work?
I do my best, most authentic work when I breathe in and out and am not being interrupted by egos, those of others or my own.