• The Action is in the Questions: An Interview with Matt Kenny

    Matt Kenny was born in 1979 in Kansas City and raised in New Jersey. He studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. After graduating, Kenny moved to New York in the first week of September 2001, just prior to the terror attack on the World Trade Center. Since 2013 Kenny has exhibited work with Halsey McKay Gallery and The National Exemplar, along with projects at 55 Gansevoort and Cooper Cole Gallery in Toronto. This past September, his first book of poems Coercive Beliefs was published along with a two-part show of landscape paintings revolving around the World Trade Center.


    ROBERT WOOD: You studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and worked in a range of media with a focus on conceptual art. More recently, you have shifted to concentrate on painting and poetry. What did you you read growing up?

    MATT KENNY: Writing was always there. Growing up, my brother and I constantly gamed out ideas for movies and comic books. We were news junkies. We loved history. We spent a lot of time pitching stories to each other with the idea that they could be movies or comics. Literally anything could be repurposed to provide the base for a story.  I think these brainstorming sessions with my brother framed out how I think about work whether it is writing or painting.

    I guess that attentiveness to the intermedia, to cross-pollination, to fertilizing one’s own practice matters for the work you do now. How did poetry fit in here?

    I was exposed to poetry through friends. One of my best friends going back to high school, Greg Carlock, is a poet. Through college Greg and I collaborated on paintings and poems. We would drive around the suburbs, photographing homes and office buildings. We got a lot of mileage out of the old surrealist games, exquisite corpses and “if, then” poems with the psychic landscape of New Jersey as the primary subject. Our activities back then closely parallel what I’m up to these days. It is startling to think about how little the practice has changed. I began mounting our poems on foamcore and hanging them on the wall. This was my youthful way of trying to engage with what I thought was contemporary. It actually looked very ’60s and I was reaching for that era’s ethos of experimentation.

    Can you see how these interests have extended into now? Has the experimental research become applied research, or is it still in development?

    I’ve always sought to address content, and my return to painting had to do with simply getting ideas for paintings. I get ideas from research. The poems and the paintings follow the content rather than the other way around. In recent years I’ve tried to address the psychic and political landscape after the 9/11 attacks. I’ve put myself in a position where this could mean a landscape painting of the new World Trade Center from a construction site in New Jersey, or a long-form poem about the rise of al-Qaeda at the end of the Cold War. I’m moving back and forth because neither form satisfies all of my desires for the source material. I really started writing Coercive Beliefs after my first World Trade Center paintings to get at the stories that can’t fit in paintings. My work is a long-running experiment with content.

    Can you provide us with an overview of what Coercive Beliefs is about?

    Coercive Beliefs is a collection of interrelated stories focused on the rise and decline of al-Qaeda. Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Blind Sheikh, is our guide across several continents and decades of political violence. Abdel-Rahman was a charismatic reactionary Egyptian cleric who is most famous in the States for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Abdel-Rahman’s imprisonment in the United States was a preoccupation of al-Qaeda throughout the 1990s because he is one of the godfathers of the modern salafist jihad movement. In 1998 Osama bin Laden held a press conference declaring war on the United States while Abdel-Rahman’s sons were handing out a declaration written by their father justifying the war. During the Arab Spring there was a resurgence in interest in the Blind Sheikh when his old enemy, Hosni Mubarak, fell from power. So, there was an enormous opportunity with Abdel-Rahman to speak to the scope and complexity of al Qaeda’s story.

    Abdel-Rahman’s story determined the shape of the poem but the individuals I cover can be as disparate as Terry Jones, an American pastor who made a media spectacle of burning the Koran on YouTube in 2011, or Egyptian President Anwar Sadat envisioning himself as the statesman who would bring peace and prosperity to Egypt in the 1970s. Coercive Beliefs, whether it is addressing Abdel-Rahman or Ronald Reagan, is about the poetic imagination that drives each these individuals to see themselves as an embattled hero in a war for their way of life.

    It has roots then in a personal experience of being in New York during the attacks, but also in a craft, in a library, in genre too.

    Coercive Beliefs has roots in True Crime literature. The growing body of literature on the War on Terror has a different tenor than classical True Crime, and it is a blend of current affairs lit, espionage, and serial killer genres. Coercive Beliefs is about crimes, criminals and their context. There is an anecdote in a book called What Cops Know that has been important to me for years. An off-duty cop was driving around Chicago with his wife: he’ll say, “See this building? We had a guy with his throat cut here. or see that building? We had a woman stabbed to death there.” And his wife will say, “Listen, I don’t want to hear any more of this. Don’t you realize this isn’t how most people see the city?” I have never forgotten this sliver of What Cops Know and it haunts most of my work, Coercive Beliefs especially. How do we see the city? How do we see our history? There is nothing like examining a crime in a specific landscape to throw a society’s features in stark relief. I hope to offer an alternate view of a familiar landscape.

    I know there is a story to how you wrote it — we have spoken about your extensive library and the research that went into making this book. What was involved in the lead up to writing this? What kind of investigation did you have to do and how did you research Coercive Beliefs?

    I was activated politically by George W. Bush’s use of the 9/11 attacks to justify the invasion of Iraq. I wanted to have a real grasp of what happened on 9/11 and what led to it. I wanted to have an accurate definition of al-Qaeda — its true size, intentions, and personnel. These intentions sound measured and rational but at the time I was completely prone to conspiratorial thinking. I became an avid consumer of current events literature, Cold War history, the oil industry, drug trafficking, political assassination — anything that could fill out a view of the broad landscape that events were unfolding in. I came to believe that in order to understand the road to 9/11 you had to understand the ’73 oil crisis, the rise and fall of Anwar Sadat and return of clandestine warfare under Ronald Reagan, the American relationship with the Saudi Royal family, and so on. The result, over the course of a decade, is a highly fetishized library that is a rich, deep pool of source material. Coercive Beliefs is basically a reflection of my library. The bibliography is an important part of the book for me. It wasn’t just the books, diving into contemporary news coverage of these events was a blast. The New York Times coverage of Abdel-Rahman’s trial, for example, was as dramatic and thorough as any of the books.

    The book is framed as poetry, yet it retains a kind of documentary exposition, an explanation of these events and the moment in history, which is somewhat detached. Rather than lyricism, it has an everyday speech to it where one can see the traces of the newspaper articles that you combed through. Yet as poetry it feels decidedly post-conceptual in so far as it is not uncreative. Can you speak about framing this as poetry as opposed to investigative journalism? And what kind of poetry is it?

    There are a couple of reasons the language landed where it did. Every character in this book views themselves as a hero and I wanted readers to be able to access that internal vision on one level or another. By assuming a remote tone the book is hopefully more able to humanize the fanatics and politicians who are also repulsive. I want the reader to understand the subject’s intent. I also felt that getting lyrical with sensitive subjects, Mohamed Bouaziz’s self-immolation for example, struck me as crass. Coercive Beliefs is about political violence and I put myself in the tricky position of having to describe Political Islam in context of emphasizing its radical fringe – jihadi political violence – so I tried to proceed as thoughtfully as I could. I wanted the reader to have agency in terms of coming to conclusions about the material. Coercive Beliefs is political art that is not propaganda.

    How did that fit in with a public, because this is a knowledge that relies on a public, on audience, on creating an imagined community through rhetoric and discourse?

    It was when I started reading in public that my approach to writing Coercive Beliefs firmed up significantly. For whatever reason, I have real difficulty reading aloud from print, so I wrote the text out in marker on index cards. It became important to me that each index card carry its own weight — that reading one card would be interesting in and of itself. The aspiration to clarify complicated events found its organizing principle in index cards. This is where the stanzas came from. Up to then it was written out as prose. Stretching out the text into stanzas slowed the content down and supplied breathing space. One takes the information in differently than one does a newspaper article. Doing readings was when I shifted from trying to craft a definition of al-Qaeda to telling a story of al-Qaeda. I wanted the texture of these personalities and events to land with the reader or listener.

    Coercive Beliefs exists in the art world as much as the poetry world. For example, your gallerist in Soho sells it and you have given readings at poetry booksellers. How do you see these two worlds and what is their relationship? What is the ideological and political differences that matter between them and for people who occupy similar positions?

    Unfortunately, the two zones of poetry and art are pretty separate. From what I’ve seen at the readings I’ve gone to, the poetry scene appears to be a warm, intimate, and somewhat insular social environment. It’s sort of the same in the art world. I tend to chalk it up to the economics of time in New York. There is no concrete art world. You sort of build your own “art world” and then plug into other “art worlds” as things move along. Those of us who are occasional border crossers pop up for guest appearances rather than becoming dual citizens. When I’ve done readings, the audience tends to be artists. Coercive Beliefs exists in the art world because that’s where I’ve hung my hat. Border-crossers between poetry and art are on the move in search of alternate sources of nourishment. I went to poetry curious to see how the content of today was being dealt with.

    Although the art world has enjoyed a long, reasonably permissive atmosphere with no reigning ideology it also began to feel a tad reasonable. Trump has really jolted this self-satisfied atmosphere. Are we seeing the possibility of a resurgent counter-culture? Maybe. The outrage is there. There has been a noticeable rise in authoritarian political expression across the ideological spectrum including some voices in the art world. The rise of illiberal language from progressive quarters is an interesting sign. With Trump as the pied piper we might be seeing an American left emerge from its collegiate safe spaces and mirror the right-wing tradition that has flourished for so long. I think everyone is concerned about the direction culture is taking with a new sense of urgency.

    My point is that I think this political environment might bring the two worlds closer together. A few weeks ago, I went to a reading organized by poet Jen Fisher at an art Miquel Abreu. Eileen Myles read recently at Bridget Donahue. Fiona Duncan’s Hard-to Read project has set up a program at Jeffery Stark Gallery selling books and showing videos of readings. Hard-to-Read had a reading at the gallery in January that had a hefty turn out. So it seems as though things are moving towards more of a crossover.

    I think that is an interesting way to frame the sociology of the fields that we call “art world” and “poetry world.” It also situates Coercive Beliefs as a history of the contemporary. But you yourself seem to cross borders quite ably. Can you speak now about how Coercive Beliefs engages with your other art making? I know you have had a long engagement with depicting the World Trade Center — speak to us about its role in your practice, your imagination, and your place here in New York. Where does the book fit in with this interest?

    The two parts, art making and writing are inseparable compulsions. They feed each other. My true home is in painting. I didn’t paint for about nine months while finishing Coercive Beliefs and returning to painting was like crawling into bed after months of camping in the woods. It was a tremendous relief. Writing is stressful. That said, I see the activities as two sides of the same coin. I’m trying to corral my subject over several projects in several media. The analysis is the driver. The landscape paintings are loaded up with implied content. I’ve been making paintings of an evolving construction site in front of the Goya distribution center in Secaucus with the World Trade Center in the distance. For me, One World Trade Center implies the Twin Towers and as a result the landscapes are saddled with our collective memory of New York’s landscape in passing time. The poetry, which is willfully didactic, fills out that implied landscape of the paintings with the characters that shaped it. Coercive Beliefs, like the paintings, consistently implies events that are outside the book itself. The establishment of Centcom, the US military command for the Middle East was planted in the book implying not only the first Gulf War but the subsequent Wars for the Middle East. Centcom was Chekhov’s gun that goes off outside of the story. I don’t describe the World Trade Center attacks in Coercive Beliefs, but the attack looms over the book. The work ought to bleed into the world. The 20th century saw an enormous expansion in the tools available to the arts and as a beneficiary of these gifts I imagine that the future of these expanded languages lay with using them to engage our circumstances. I believe that it will be pioneering the frontiers of content, rather than form, that will produce forward momentum in culture.

    What is the intersection between poetry and politics for you, between poetry and ideology, between poetry and action?

    Hopefully, poetry can test our politics, ideology and actions. Certainly, writing this book has challenged my political instincts. I’ve grown sensitive to the fact that so many of our desires for the future imply a turning back of the clock, of fantastical levels of reversal. I’m not referring just to luddites or libertarians but to conventional liberalism and conservatism. This nostalgia is actually a turn towards fiction. It is not just politicians that gaslight us, we’re gaslighting ourselves. We live in times that privilege mythology, moralism, and artifice. I’m arguing here for observation and specificity. The action is in the questions. I long for a revolution in critical thinking.


    Image via Purple Diary