What can the work of Mike Kelley teach us about the media landscape of today? Artist and critic John Miller explores Kelley’s manifesto A Stopgap Measure, the rise of Trump and the politics of our over-saturated image culture.
“THE GREATEST TRAGEDY OF PRESIDENT CLINTON’S ADMINISTRATION” screams the headline of Mike Kelley’s 1999 manifesto, A Stopgap Measure. It goes on to decry “…a popular culture industry that bombards us continually with a pantheon of fantasy figures of desire. This elite, comprised of movie and television actors, porn stars, pop singers, rock musicians, athletes, super models and the pampered children of the wealthy, is the object of our masturbatory dreams.” It cites sexual repression and dysfunction as part of a national health care crisis and proposes that members of this elite “be required by law” to serve as sex workers (augmented by a corps of volunteers willing to undergo plastic surgery to become celebrity clones). Once sexual gratification is available to all, “a ritualized arena of spectacular fantasy figures will serve no cultural purpose. People will construct their own desire free from the effect of any prefabricated standard.”
Kelley printed his manifesto on a yellow and red poster, framed in black. In the centre is a drawing of a smiling, cartoon dinosaur. This refers to Meet John Doe, another text by Kelley, printed on the reverse side. This is a compilation of press clips concerning a 1998 legal case in which former body builder Jonathan Norman received a twenty-five year prison sentence for stalking Steven Spielberg. Police found Norman outside Spielberg’s home with “a rape kit” consisting of handcuffs, duct tape and a box cutter; Norman later confessed he planned to rape Spielberg. According to the defendant’s companion, Chuck Markovich, Norman fantasised that he was the baby Tyrannosaurus Rex in Spielberg’s film, The Lost World, and that Spielberg and David Geffen were his dinosaur mother and father. After Norman’s indictment, Judge John Reid took the unusual step of substituting “John Doe” for Spielberg’s name in the court documents. As Mike Kelley noted in his essay Meet John Doe, the evidence for this case remained sealed until the Los Angeles Times challenged this exceptional secrecy. Here, the court’s initial lack of transparency raised questions as to whether celebrities receive special treatment.
In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, A Stopgap Measure resonates differently than it did seventeen years ago. Still, it is eerily prophetic. Compared to today’s incessant pulse of Twitter, Instagram, smart phones and reality TV, the media bombardment Kelley referred to seventeen years ago now seems mild. Nonetheless, mediation constitutes the crux of Stopgap. Kelley takes the romantic characterisation of Hollywood as a dream factory, logically interprets its dream output from the standpoint of Freudian wish fulfilment and proceeds to reduce it to purely libidinal drives. Stopgap clearly echoes Jonathan Swift’s social satire A Modest Proposal (1729) that recommended that poor Irish families sell their children as food to the rich. Yet, in drafting his manifesto, Kelley also drew off the activist work of Wilhelm Reich who traced neurosis to both sexual and socio-economic conditions and who treated working-class patients from his mobile clinic in Vienna. This admixture of the preposterous with social consciousness gives Kelley’s satire its force. And this made the Spielberg vs. Norman case a perfect vehicle for him.
Rhetorically, the combination of “greatest tragedy” and “President Clinton’s administration” at first sounds farcical, but Kelley’s assertion about health care ultimately rings true. In 1992, Bill Clinton had campaigned heavily on health care reform and immediately after taking office put forward the Health Security Act designed to offer universal health care to all Americans. He also controversially appointed his wife Hillary Clinton to lead the task force. Opponents of the act dubbed it “Hillarycare.” The plan failed to pass in Congress, largely because the Clintons, not yet experienced in Washington politics, had failed to build an adequate coalition before attempting to push it through. It would be sixteen years before Democrats could enact another plan, the Affordable Health Care Act, aka, Obamacare. The repeal of this plan served as a central proposal in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign of 2016. With Meet John Doe, Kelley suggests that Spielberg vs. Norman, bizarre as it is, is proof of the need for universal health care. Yet, according to Markovich, Norman did not intend to rape Spielberg but rather planned to act out a play before a security camera in front of Spielberg’s house. Spielberg, after seeing the footage and realizing Norman’s talent, then would offer to produce his work. Regardless of which account of the defendant’ putative intentions is right, both bespeak mental illness. Meet John Doe concludes with the criminologist Mike Rustigan who argues that celebrity stalking is a symptom of a media obsessed culture and that Norman’s intent to rape Spielberg represented a desire to punish and to humiliate him.
How to grasp the cultural condition of media over-saturation? The Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser conceived of the social function of media as a historical process unfolding in three epochs: the pre-historic, dominated by images before the invention of writing; the historic, dominated by writing; and the post-historic, dominated by technical images, i.e., what would largely be characterised now as forms of mass media. Each of these forms is supposed to decode the world but, as they become hardened through convention, they obscure it. People then mistake images or writing for reality. Flusser calls these conditions idolatry or textolatry. In other words, these are cyclical instances of media over-saturation that prompt new forms to break the spell. Flusser, however, pessimistically implies that each new form ultimately inserts an additional screen between people and the world per se. Conversely, the term “media” derives from the Latin word “medium” or middle. While media might isolate us, they are also by definition immersive; they place us in the middle. This raises the question of a political economy of information, coupled with an amoral dissociation from its effects, from FoMO (fear of missing out) to high frequency trading. Notably, a concern with the confusion of representation with reality runs throughout Kelley’s oeuvre from early on, initially keyed to classical narratives such as the allegory of Plato’s cave [“Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile” (1985)] or the story of a deranged Ajax slaughtering sheep he imagines to be Achaean leaders [“Ajax” (1984)]. Stopgap’s “pantheon of fantasy figures of desire” too is a screen and the macabre prospect of producing a therapeutic army of celebrity clones through plastic surgery suggests further conflation of image and reality. Nonetheless, Kelley avers this would then clear the air once and for all, “People will construct their own desire free from the effect of any prefabricated standard.”
Reality, such as it is, proves to be far less tractable. Celebrity developer, reality TV star and now president-elect Donald Trump complained throughout his campaign that “the system is rigged.” As outlandish as that claim might seem, it is not entirely untrue. Pundits and pollsters predicted his defeat in the election – and they were wrong. They took their metrics for reality. But this does not mean that Trump and his supporters have a firmer grasp on reality. Rather, for Trump reality is malleable. He could lie, make outlandish proclamations, then take it all back, moment by moment. The pretence of playing himself – sometimes as a buffoon, sometimes as playboy, sometimes as cad – granted him extremely wide berth. Within our new, ever more cybernetic media-scape, experts misunderstood the semiotics of his popularity. Trump’s career as a real estate developer effectively ended in the early 90s. After that, he turned to branding and hosting “The Apprentice” television franchise. In this capacity, he persisted for fourteen seasons as a household name in middle America. As a brand, his name is supposed to connote luxury. In it, consumers and voters see the promise of upward mobility. As a television personality, he became familiar to television audiences. “The Apprentice,” like many other reality TV shows, constructed reality as a zero sum game. Trump’s viewers not only came to subscribe to this worldview but also to regard him as a potent authority who holds the promise of prosperity. They vicariously embraced his greed as a gateway for their own desires for wealth, power and recognition. As such, Trump’s game show persona has become inextricably interwoven with his image as a politician. The viewership cathects this image and its emotional charge seems to confirm its veracity. If the pundits and pollsters missed the lumpen proletariat in their statistical analysis, they missed the lumpen middle class and the lumpen bourgeoisie as well.
Much has changed since the presidential election of 2012; reality TV and social media have become prime conduits of politics and political dissent. Take Omar Mateen, who shot and killed 49 people in Orlando, Florida’s Pulse nightclub. In the midst of his murderous rampage, he regularly checked his Facebook page for “likes” to gauge the impact of what he was doing. What’s shocking about this twist in the story is that the image of the atrocity supersedes what it is supposed to represent. Like it or not, images now function as realities-in-themselves; we must see them dialectically, both as part of the world and as representations of it.
John Miller's and Richard Hoeck's exhibition Mannequin Death is on Meliksetian Briggs from December 3rd to January 7th 2017.
References  Eva Meyer-Mermann and Lisa Gabrielle Mark (eds.), Mike Kelley. (Munich, London and New York: Delmonico Books and Prestel Verlag, 2013) p. 213.  Mike Kelley's “Orgone Shed” (1992) referenced a later – and more questionable – phase of Reich’s work.  Mike Kelley, “Meet John Doe,” Minor Histories, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press) pp.296-304.The scenario curiously resembles Martin Scorsese’s film, The King of Comedy. Given Kelley’s scenario, it’s worth noting that, at the very least, film directors are not typically the kind of stars that fans lust after.  Vilém Flusser, “The Image,” trans. Anthony Matthews, Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), pp. 9-13.