Niklas von Bartha: Conspiracy Transcended, 2019 is a seminal work you first exhibited at Cecilia Hillström Gallery in 2019 as part of an exhibition entitled ‘... out of my hands’, could you share with us how this piece fits into the broader narrative of your recent works and where it originated?
Clay Ketter: My more recent works, say from the past 5-10 years or so, stem more and more from my writings, and readings, rather than from preceding works at large, aesthetically. These works circulate around a number of subjects, existential considerations focused on the contemporary, the now, albeit informed by historical and anthropological considerations. I question the validity of the contemporary. The contemporary is a subjective, projected point anywhere within what I call the ”then and then”, the past and the future. The ”then”, encompassing both, is for me more tangible than the present… the now, or the contemporary. I want my works to not only pose questions but even elevate these questions to the status of the object, the work itself, rather than grant explanation or anything else conclusive. Most of these works are made by altering a found or given image, or, in the case of Conspiracy Transcended, text-based material. My Symmetric Settlements and Anthroglyphs (2008-present) are actual places stolen from satellite imagery, manipulated digitally, and in some cases with painted-upon deletion of information. Conspiracy Transcended is a painted-upon deletion of all the text-based information on a well-known conspiracy theory chart, leaving only the circlings and arrows of the diagram. I find the remaining patterns on this field together with the painted surface very pleasing. Pleasing by default. I did not deem the textual content of the conspiracy theory to be true or false, nor did I question the purported relationships between the entries. I did not consider the content at all. I transcended the content. Honestly, I think these works, which are aimed at transcending intended content, suggest that this transcendence as a form of self-defence against information pollution.
NvB: Isn’t this piece made in relation to a broader context of our civilisation’s use of diagrams as a means to legitimise groundless notions?
CK: Absolutely, but I am not interested in fighting the good fight here – I don’t care enough to engage in some earnest polemic (or any polemic, for that matter). This shit is going to continue rolling over us forever. We can either get lost in it, get anxious over it… or transcend it. These groundless notions are someone else’s problem, and our dignity is diminished as soon as we open that door. (We don’t choose to listen to music which we find irritating, unless we are masochists...) In terms of these diagrams’ formal qualities signaling some kind of legitimacy… it’s unfortunate that individuals are so anaesthetized that they fall for the ruse. No armour, no chance in hell. No filter, no integrity. No critical thinking, no civilization.
NvB: Indeed, that’s why it may be interesting to observe the use of diagrams to distil complex information into a series of simple and curated thought processes and assumptions? These are often laid out to prioritise and structure the intended meaning in a seemingly democratic manner. Are you interested in this inherent paradox?
CK: The important thing for me pertaining to the gesture of this work is that we don’t have to gain an understanding of the purported prevailing world order, or and any other purported past, present or future world order, in order to navigate the world in which we live, and partake in its development towards some sustainable future. Conspiracy theories are gossip. Gossip is trash. Superstition is trash. Source-critique is not rocket science, and should at this time in history be second nature. The authors of these conspiracy theories and consequent mappings lack source-critical interest, let alone skill, but they also lack an understanding of the rhizomatic (non)-structure of the phenomena, and especially the relationships between these phenomena, which are in direct contradiction to their purported pattern-making. Their attempt at sense-making makes no sense.
NvB: The artistic process is often described as a series of more or less intended coincidences, whereas the conspiracy theories thrive on the idea that there are no coincidences and that somehow everything is connected and follows a strict logic. Are you attracted by this absolutist notion?
CK: Only critically and philosophically, that is, antithetically. Otherwise, it is a most unattractive premise. Nothing is connected and fills a strict logic. These models based upon idea-conception towards consequent manifestation are all doomed to fail simple tests of legitimacy. The new normal is to, in the face of failed legitimacy, ordain the existence of a parallel reality with its own standard for legitimation (i.e. flat earth movement). Here I am uncomfortable, forming an argument instead of transcending the nonsense.
Constructed from several layers, the work combines an enlarged photographic reproduction of a diagram, mounted on a sheet of clear-acrylic, onto which you then painted with white oil paint. In many of your earlier paintings, you incorporated an element of abstraction, which encourages the viewer to inspect the work more closely, was this a consideration here too?
CK: I wanted this media to serve as a painting, and a painting is for me not legal-size–it is in relation to the body.I like the idea of printed information in large scale. The acrylic sheet face allows for a shadow-effect which stimulates the curiosity of the viewer towards a closer look. The over-painted “information” is there, nonetheless. The size, this depth effect, and the meticulous quality of the overpainting are all part of the transformative process. I often think of art-making in terms of alchemy. Successful alchemy, where junk is transformed into something of contextual and formal value.
NvB: The terminology of 'contextual and formal value' intrigues me, particularly if we consider this work in the context of the exhibition in which you first presented the piece, where the work very much stood out but also tied the installation together. It is as if the piece dictated the conceptual framework within which the other works were developed? Also, you previously describe your practice as approaching culture with either a macro lens or from afar, a scale of sorts, where does Conspiracy Transcended fall on such a scale?
CK: The piece stands out in the “...out of my hands” production because it was the only painting in the show. Most of the show is appropriated mass culture, in particular mass culture that I have a personal connection to. You may say that I had already appropriated these things a long time ago. In some cases (the two pieces made from my LP collection, a marching band drum that played itself) I considered the viability of the term “self-appropriation”. I enjoy the notion of an anthropology of one’s own culture, and self appropriation is an extension of that. I think it did tie the show together, mostly because it was the most quiet and pensive piece, playing the same game, but quietly.
The term anthropological gaze is important for me in my process, especially as a means of determining the distance one takes from the subject. This distancing is manifested quite literally in many pieces where I use the observer/spectator as a zoom. From a distance, a totality can be experienced, both contextually and physically. Moving closer, one picks up on revealing details. I like to think that the perception of the piece changes during this physical zoom. This happens with “Conspiracy Transcended”. Upon close examination one sees that information has been buried, but one cannot read it.