Published November 21, 2008
Kirsha Kaechele runs KKProjects, an arts program (though that’s way too square a word for it) located in six previously abandoned structures in the down-but-not-quite-out part of New Orleans where she has lived since 2001 and where Hurricane Katrina did some of its worst damage. The irrepressible inhabitants have bounced back from disaster, along with their neighbor, a kooky 32-year-old curator who is also a philosopher and adventurer. Founded in 2005, Kaechele’s KKProjects invites both international and local artists to create site-specific installations for three-month periods. It’s an extension of the big art world, but it’s also the nexus of a badass neighborhood—and though it seems like the last place in the world you’d look for the cutting edge, this is where art is like, as Peter Tosh might say, a stepping razor . . . dangerous. In a world where art is expected to be fantastic and fictional, Kaechele keeps it real, and many people will discover just how real when “Prospect New Orleans” opens this month—the largest biennial of international art ever organized in the United States. Anne Kennedy, director of Art + Commerce Agency, spoke to Kaechele in New York City about her amazing life and even more amazing work.
ANNE KENNEDY: You’re heading to New Orleans tomorrow, and so is a hurricane. What are your plans?
KIRSHA KAECHELE: Well, we’re having a feast this Saturday, a big seated formal dinner for 100 people, at one table down the center of the block. Just the neighbors. All of our neighbors.
AK: In the Eighth Ward, right?
KK: St. Roch, which is basically a destroyed neighborhood. Houses are standing, but barely. It was destroyed before Hurricane Katrina. The destruction is what happens to a neighborhood that’s abandoned. The houses were falling into the ground from termites and weather. Everything was boarded up and vine-covered.
AK: You arrived in 2001?
KK: Yeah, right into the center of it, without realizing that it was the hot block.
AK: “Hot block” meaning?
KK: The center of drug activity and prostitution—the pulsing heart of the neighborhood.
AK: So how did the gangs, the prostitutes, and the drug dealers welcome you?
KK: They were really great. I was a little nervous, but at the same time really attracted. My first day I was like a typical colonist, claiming my stake. I was painting over the plywood covering the giant gaps that used to be windows [on the structures], because it was so chaotic-looking and covered in graffiti. And some guy called from across the street, “Hey, don’t cover up my artwork!” So I said, “You’re Duke? You’re responsible for this? Come over here right now!” So he did, and he was laughing and said, “Actually, I’m not with that bitch anymore, so go ahead and cover it! But leave r.i.p. lunch.” Lunch was a guy they’d lost to violence.
AK: And the building was a bakery?
KK: It was a bakery in 1908.
AK: How’d you end up on that street in that bakery?
KK: Well, as soon as I arrived in New Orleans, I drove down St. Roch Avenue, which was on the other side of St. Claude Avenue, in the no-pass zone.
AK: “No-pass zone” meaning?
KK: Meaning do not go there.
AK: And that’s the first place you went.
KK: It’s my nature. I had to go there. It’s a glorious oak-lined avenue, and it was beautifully quiet except for the vitality of the people. There was this incredible energy on the street. I thought, I have to live here. I asked my friend Jeff Matson how much it would cost to buy a house there. Now, keep in mind that this is a wild man who goes by the name DJ Strangebone and lives with a giant snake. He said, “Probably about $8,000, but you can’t live here. I mean, you can, but you will probably get killed.” So it took me a year to come to terms with the fact that I was actually going to live there. Matt Vis was my collaborator and boyfriend at the time. Some men take you to Paris, but Matt took me to Marfa [Texas] on a road trip, and I was so turned on by the scene. There was a great installation in an old icehouse—it blew me open. We realized we needed a good space [in New Orleans]. So we just drove around. That’s all we did. That was our life. We went to thrift stores and drove around all day. And between a street named Music and a street named Arts, right between them was the bakery. I got it for $30,000.
AK: I walked in, and there was a bar and library, and then in the next room, your bed and this installation by Chris Sullivan with all these basketballs. And there were children in the gallery, playing basketball, running in and out into the garden. It was such a part of everything, and I thought, What are you doing here in the middle of this? How did it happen?
KK: I think it’s the result of growing up in Guam and living in various parts of the third world and feeling at home, where kids are running in and out of the house and lots of things are happening.
AK: The totally integrated life.
KK: To just be in it—to come to a place where we are actually collaborating with the neighborhood. It took a little time, but it is really great. Now we are being asked to come to dance clubs, and I’m faced with the question, How native do I go?
AK: Well, it seems so integral to your way of thinking and your ideas about how art can live in the world. I don’t know how you would not want to keep going with it, though I guess there is a point where—
KK: It gets really interesting because not only do the beautiful cultural elements become part of your life, but the painful, darker elements of the culture do also. When you are emotionally invested, it really hurts when one of the teenage boys is killed. At this point I am getting to the point where I actually helped raise them.
AK: Do they get involved in the making of art?
KK: Yeah. Louise Riley came from London to do a piece for the last exhibition. She was looking at some nude photographs and embroidering from the photographs onto a mattress. So the boys came in and wanted to help. Louise set them up with some paper, put the photograph up, and essentially taught a nude drawing class in the space. And the boys were fantastic-they were so into it in a sincere way.
AK: So they’re all for you.
KK: Oh, yes. It’s pure love. And I feel protected. Losh was the first guy in the neighborhood to come and protect me.
KK: Yeah, Losh. For years I thought it was Loach, and I only recently found out that it was Losh because he died and I had misspelled it on a dedication. His relatives said, “It’s not Loach, it’s Losh.” I said, “Where does that come from?” And they said, “You know, Losh, like lotion, because he was just that smooth.” Oh, Losh! Losh and I were madly in love, but we could never cross the cultural divide and actually consummate our relationship. He was on my doorstep, selling crack, and I was this traveling white girl. I had the honor of being at his deathbed.
AK: Was he killed?
KK: He wasn’t killed. He died of hep C. At the age of 52. But I thought he was almost 70.
AK: He wasn’t a gangster?
KK: Oh, he was a gangster. He was the original gangster. And that’s why I was in such good hands.
AK: Like a gun-toting gangster?
KK: He didn’t need to tote the gun anymore. He was beyond the gun. He had earned his position—no one was going to mess with him. In that culture, once you reach a certain age, you’ve earned your position. It’s the young guys who are killing each other.
AK: What did the uptown types think about all this?
KK: They definitely thought I was crazy. I’ve always had this contrasting parallel life. I’d spend my days at the bakery, then my uptown friends would pick me up at 7:30 and we would go out for a beautiful dinner. Kind of the opposite of Oscar Wilde with his panther-hunting.
AK: Were those worlds ever really integrated?
KK: Absolutely not. My uptown friends would not set foot in the neighborhood until the first opening, several months after the hurricane.
AK: Were you there during Katrina?
KK: I left the night before and came back three months later. Everything was totally destroyed. The entire neighborhood was a wreck. It was completely empty.
AK: What happened to the neighbors?
KK: The neighborhood looks so horrifying from the outside, but as you develop relationships you realize that everyone is related either by blood or by deep friendship. This is the most integrated neighborhood I’ve known. So during the flooding, everyone found a way to stay together. They all moved into the same building in Houston.
AK: So when everyone came back, how did the art space open?
KK: It was really time to have a party, so we had a beautiful party and drank champagne out of angel’s trumpets [flowers]. Everything surrounding us was a wreck. It was a beautiful party in the middle of complete destruction. It was so inspiring, and that created momentum. Part of what made the project such a success was this perception that it was a symbol of the rebirth, a.k.a. the colonization of these ghetto neighborhoods by bright, young white people. I think that was the dark read on the project.
AK: “Bright, young white people” means at some point you’re going to have to become a preservationist for the people in the neighborhood. That fits in with your life in the third world, but were you born in the U.S.?
KK: I was born into a fabricated native environment in Topanga Canyon, in L.A. We all ran around naked and ate from the land-back to nature with strong Eastern philosophical roots. Then, when I was 5 years old, we moved to Guam, into a real native environment. But the Catholics had been there for a while, so we couldn’t run around naked anymore.
AK: What was the concept, besides love of nature and distaste for clothing?
KK: People didn’t have to work to live in Topanga Canyon at that time. Now it’s a privileged lifestyle there, but then people were living in caves. It was a dropout culture. The currency wasn’t money-it was trade and sharing. My mother is a wild, glamorous painter. But my father was a scientist. He was an astrophysicist in the think tank at the Rand Corporation.
AK: The evil empire.
KK: Yeah, he worked there until the late ’50s, when Oscar Janiger waltzed in and said, “I’d like to see the effects of this new substance on intellectuals.” The whole think tank volunteered for LSD. After the LSD, a majority of the think tank walked out. They said, “Wow. What are we doing? We don’t want any part of this.” With the exception of Herman Kahn [the Cold War strategist and author of On Thermonuclear War].
AK: Herman Kahn didn’t take LSD?
KK: He let everybody else take it first. Then finally he decided to take it. Herman spread out on the floor and lay there for hours just saying, “Wow, wow, wow.” Everyone else there was thinking, Oh, Herman’s having a spiritual experience. When Herman came out of it, they said, “How did it go? Did you find God?” And he said, “Actually, I had these incredible breakthroughs on war strategy.”
AK: So then your father departed?
KK: He met Ida Rolf and was in the first group of rolfers. They were at the Esalen Institute, and she would just look at your hands and say, “You’re a rolfer.” He rolfed me every day from the day I was born. He later became the president of the Rolf Guild and got involved in this scene around Topanga with Betty Eisner and Les McCann and a whole group of people who were taking LSD and experimenting with far-out ideas-for example, confront whatever your fear is. That was one of the ideals I was raised with, and they took it to the extreme. If you have jealous tendencies, you have to just go right into that situation, create your worst nightmare, and then just feel it, experience it, and get over it.
AK: Did that mean they had to cheat on each other?
KK: Yes, but it was all prearranged. Betty Eisner was the leader of this group and she chose dates for married couples to go on. She had my father experimenting with being gay, since he was so turned off by the idea. It got pretty weird, and in the end my father said, “I’m out of here,” and Betty sent one of the members to beat him up. It was your typical scenario of an organized structure losing sight of its original message.
AK: You’ve lived a new age-fairy tale.
KK: The thing is, I was raised very separate from that culture. It happened well before I came into the picture.
AK: Nonetheless, it was clearly an influence. Did you also go out into that world?
KK: I was always fascinated by hallucinogens, but I had a real reverence for them, so I was a little afraid to take that step. My father said, “Whenever you want to do them, we can do them together.” But he died before I came to that. After he died, I immediately went out and explored. Within months of leaving home, I met Oscar Janiger [a psychiatrist known for LSD research] and his friends, just randomly at a party in Hawaii. These people ended up taking me under their wing. They took me to Europe and we met Albert Hofmann [the scientist who synthesized LSD], and then we traveled to the south of France and met the Biospherians. That is where I learned you could mix this kind of living with the finer things. And that was really my world. Then on the street one day in Santa Cruz [California], I met a guy named Tamarac, and he said, “We’re going to have this ritual tonight, if you’d like to join in.” And I just liked his energy, so I said, “Sure.” I showed up at his house, and we all drank ayahuasca. Well, I had never heard of ayahuasca . . . I had no idea about it. I just liked the people involved, so I figured it was fine. And it was a good scene. Although later Tamarac went completely mad. In any event, we drank the ayahuasca, and that proved to be a pretty powerful experience. As a result I ended up in Peru. In fact, at that point I had completely left conventional life and decided to go study with the shamans. I had no interest in any kind of popular or mainstream Western culture.
AK: Were you interested in art then?
KK: Art was a last, desperate attempt for me to be able to exist in the world after trying very hard not to exist in the world and realizing that it was just my lot to be a person and to live in the world. See, the normal world dissolves in these experiences, and you realize that it is just an illusion. But, inevitably, I just kept landing back in the middle of it.
AK: So if you’re here you might as well—
KK: It’s not “You might as well,”-it’s that art was the only option. My last ayahuasca -vision was a very clear vision that I had to go back to the world. I’d been having these extreme jungle-based visions-having my bones cleaned by shaman spirits, being eaten by alligators or consumed by the earth and insects-basically unifying with all things through consumption by jungle creatures. Then my last vision was of getting on a plane and heading back to the West and just dealing with it.
AK: Did you go back to school?
KK: Here’s how I went back to school: I went to South Dakota for a vision quest. You spend four days and nights on a mountain in a very small space, and you suffer, and you face everything. Your friends sit at the base and do sweat lodges and sing to you every night so you know you are not actually going to die. We really took it to the edge. And during that experience I had this understanding that I should not join the Biospherians on their ship in Oman as planned, but I should go back to school.
AK: You went back to school and started a sustainable-architecture program. All these things are tied so closely to what you do in New Orleans: the complex systems and living within a fundamental local culture.
KK: None of it could have happened unless I had become disillusioned with alternative and native cultures.
KK: I had very romantic ideas about untouched native culture, so I went to a truly remote village to see an ayahuascero shaman. I wandered in after a long canoe ride down the Amazon. Towering above the tiny thatched huts were these enormous solar-powered streetlights—I’d been beaten there by the missionaries. Then I had my first meeting with the shaman. He walked out to greet me—I swear he knew I was coming—and he led me into his hut and handed me a leaf-covered branch and motioned for me to shake it over some fevered body. He then took out a dried snake’s head, shaved a few flakes from it, and blew them on me. I thought, This is really great. He then busted out a bottle of Eternity perfume and started spraying me! I was crushed. That was the perfume I wore every morning in junior high school, and the old fool thought it was sacred. It was the sudden intrusion of everything I had rejected, the completely banal coming to taint my pure, exotic experience.
AK: I like that sense of facing your fears. The idea of moving into that neighborhood in New Orleans—that was an unusual step. But in the context of this way of thinking, it makes a great deal of sense. And out of that you built this extraordinary thing with these projects and this community, with artists coming from all over the world, feeding the local culture in a way that’s not talking at the people.
KK: Yes, and there is also the agenda of the do-gooder. And that’s one that doesn’t work. Agendas in general don’t work. The agenda is a thing that is perpetually destroyed. But through that destruction, something really interesting comes up. I don’t even know what this project is, really, but it is a way to continue with this practice of expanding, of going into your fear and not languishing in comfort while creating some semblance of an ordered life, and a life’s work. But now the next frontier seems to be the uptown elite.
AK: Yes, to be able to continue what you’re doing, you need to figure out how to engage them without being destroyed by them.
KK: Yes. I need to stand steady in that fire.
AK: Most art I’m seeing nowadays is grounded in the 1960s—it’s pop or minimalism or conceptualism. But it seems you’ve connected to another strand-more rooted in the Beats, in hallucinogens, in the culture that preceded pop culture-that seems to have been the road not taken in American art.
KK: I can see that. There’s no question that’s the culture I was born into and whose values I continue to embrace. But really it is about something timeless. I’m exploring what’s been grappled with for thousands of years by basically everybody—the Greek philosophers, the ancient Chinese. So, yes, the project is a continuum of the Beats, but it is also a postmodern Elysian fields. My interest is in ideas that preexist consumer culture.
AK: I love the way your artists are taking over abandoned houses with a new kind of life that didn’t exist pre-Katrina. What are they up to this fall?
KK: They originally came to us by, shall we say, non-standard curatorial methods. I needed a carpenter to hang a door in preparation for an installation by a visiting Norwegian artist-this was before I came to terms with the fact that there is no point having doors on the buildings. Anyway, I went off to Art Basel and came back to find a whole crew working in the space, and the door was indeed on. I thought, “This is great! The Norwegian brought a whole crew!” So I walked in, gave them a key to my front door, and said, “Make yourselves at home, the wine is in the fridge.” They did, and they worked all night, and I was really impressed. Then, the next day, I get a call from our New York City curator saying, “Someone needs to go pick up Anne Katrine Senstad—the Norwegian—from the airport.” I thought, “Shit! Who are those people?” So I go in and find this incredible installation and the very nervous carpenter and his crew. It was such a fantastic piece that I couldn’t kick them out, so we included them in the show. They are now our featured artists.
AK: So what will they be doing for the biennial?
KK: Well, I don’t know. That is the way they work.
AK: You’re taking the Duchampian idea of chance from the making of art and moving it into the curatorial process.
KK: The entire project is chance. You can call it Duchampian, but it is really an ancient method.
AK: You don’t really try to impose a curatorial authority—you just let the project evolve by itself.
KK. Well, sometimes I try very hard to impose a curatorial authority, but that generally ends in disaster.
AK: The work you show has a disregard for the possibility of art’s being a consumer item. Is your project opposed to the commodification of art?
KK: Only if that culture is behind the idea that one’s work and one’s activities should result in profit, because it is certainly 100 percent antithetical to that.
AK: Are you embracing the prospect of financial collapse, like the rest of America is at the moment?
KK: I’m embracing financial ruin, because it is such a delightful experience to watch this project unfold that I’m unscathed by the self-sacrifice. I’m too drunk on process to notice that I’m burning at the stake.
AK: So the real struggle is how to keep the lights on and the marshals away from the door?
KK: Lately, we’ve had to come to terms with the likelihood of the marshals at the door. We had the city trying to demolish two of our exhibition spaces, which was at first pretty disturbing. But following the freak-out is the realization that an attachment to any kind of form is pointless. Forgive me if I seem like a complete nihilist, but if the demolition trucks show up and the buildings come down, then that just presents a new setting in which an artist can work. The real challenge is trying to conceal my delight in the process. I don’t want to end up institutionalized.
AK: Is this a new way of creating art as a force for changing a community?
KK: Well, I’m not really interested in changing the community. I guess that’s pretty different.
AK: So you like the community the way it is?
KK: The community is fantastic the way it is. It’s not without its problems, of course. It suffers from all the typical afflictions of drug addiction and prostitution.
AK: Do you want to stop the drugs and prostitution?
KK: Well, I wouldn’t want to be so presumptuous as to suggest what my neighbors should or shouldn’t do. Great insights might come out of drug dealing and prostitution. I’m not qualified to say. Not that I would promote those practices. I just respect the complexity of their cultural ecosystem and think it would be pretty lame, not to mention fruitless, to waltz in with some kind of reformative agenda.
AK: This probably makes the traditional funding set a bit nervous.
KK: That’s possible. I deeply believe in freedom, and they can smell it.
AK: What role does the art play then?
KK: I love art. But I love it because it is the expression of a living philosophy. It’s the leftovers. Art is what’s left over from life.
AK: Why then just not have a community center?
KK: Because art is the way to do it. Art doesn’t have the stench of a community program. It’s transcendent. It is transcendent of morality and transcendent of political position. It is absolutely free. It is the community center.