This week, I’m is pleased to announce Design Satellite’s collaboration with the lovely and inspiring folks at The Field Guide including Allison Fogarty, our first guest writer. Thanks to the inimitable Kirsha Kaechele, who generously offered her time with me at MONA, continuing my love affair with all things Apple Isle.
Kirsha Kaechele on heavy metals, gun-toting gangsters and cyber-hacking
It’s a day of depressed skies, drizzle and biting wind in Melbourne. I’m sheltering inside a quiet inner city bar waiting for artist and curator Kirsha Kaechele to arrive. A celebrated contemporary artist in America, Kaechele relocated to Tasmania in 2011 after being “swept away” by her husband David Walsh – founder of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). As businessmen file into the bar – suit stiff and eager to sneak an early pinot before they return to their portfolios, I’m starting to worry this joint might be too pedestrian for Kaechele who exists on the razor edge of cool. My doubts dissolve when she quietly enters, smiles warmly and confesses, “I hope I give you a good interview – I’m pregnant so I won’t be drunk.”
I’ve come to interview Kaechele about her transition from the ‘hot block’ of crime and dysfunction in St Roch, New Orleans where she lived from 2001 to the rather sedate streets of Hobart. Since arriving four years ago Kaechele has created some of Tasmania’s most recognizable and innovative art projects. In 2012 she launched the hugely popular MoMa – a subversive take on the traditional community market that invites you to ‘quaff delicious rainbow unicorn urine cocktails’ while browsing a curated mix of local produce and design wares. Most recently she has attracted national attention for The Heavy Metals Project – a collaboration between scientists, artists and architects to try to cleanse the Derwent River of toxic heavy metals; an awful legacy of Hobart’s 20th century industrial practices.
Her work has been labelled ‘life art’ and Kaechele describes it as “an expression of a living philosophy… that exists outside consumer culture.” I ask does she approve of the term ‘life artist’? “It sounds really cheesy and horrible but it’s kind of true, I mean I don’t think there’s a better way to describe the medium – the medium is life. My idea of art is controversial, a lot of people would say it’s not art – David and I debate that all the time.”
A recent $100,000 gun-buy-back program Kaechele launched in her old New Orleans neighbourhood is one work that purists have questioned. The project uses capitalism to create an unofficial gun law without the need for government intervention, which sits comfortably with Kaechele self-confessed “libertarian leanings”. Kaechele collaborated with No Limits Records rapper Mr. Serv On and a group of artists to convert a local car wash into a free recording studio called ‘The Embassy’ where hard-core gangsters are offered cash and record deals in return for their weapons. “For me it is absolutely an art project, the whole idea of using a libertarian value to solve a problem of libertarianism is conceptual art, but a lot of people would argue that it’s just social work.”
She manages the project remotely from Tasmania but still flies over twice a year to work with her New Orleans collaborators. So how does she go reassimilating back into island life? “Occasionally I struggle – we landed in the airport recently and I’d been out of the country for a month… I’m waiting for my luggage and I look around and think my god the fashion is horrible – there is no sense of style, it’s all Patagonia fleeces and I felt suicidal for a moment. But then you get to the city and you see all this new energy and the trade off is that there’s this genuine sincerity in Tasmania, a real closeness to the land and farming that creates this wonderful produce.
Apart from the prevalence of polar fleece, Kaechele also finds the morality of locals baffling: “When I first arrived I would purposely leave my purse on tables and shopping trolleys and walk away, because I just could not believe how safe it is – no one ever took anything!”
Today Kaechele revels in the community atmosphere of the city and is excited by Hobart’s new hip swagger: “It’s refreshing because when you’re living in New York for example, you find the hipster scene so distasteful because you can’t get away from it, but in Hobart it’s the opposite – I welcome every hipster and every new hipster business”.
The isolation of the island Kaechele suggests has cultivated a unique arts scene that should be envied by its mainland counterparts: “everybody I’ve approached to collaborate with has had a ‘yes attitude’. You just don’t see this negative, competitive mode that I’ve seen in other cities. People really support each other – the only cut throat thing about Hobart is it’s past”.
But I ask, is it hard to stay connected to the creative hot houses of Melbourne and Sydney? “In my opinion no – being disconnected from the trends is great because you’re more likely to set the trends. Soon everyone will be wearing polar fleece.”
Inspired by Black Mountain College in the US – a liberal arts school that pioneered an interdisciplinary approach to education, Kaechele forged a new path in Australia when she merged the worlds of art and science and launched The Heavy Metals Project late 2013. The provocative and playful artworks that have evolved from the collaboration so far include the ‘Oyster Pontoon’ that harnesses oysters ability to accumulate heavy metals from the river and the ‘Retaining Wall’ a kind of mausoleum that entombs the oysters at the end of their life cycle. As part of the work visitors can also feast on healthy oysters harvested from the Huon channel:
“Originally I wanted people to eat the toxic oysters with the idea of the mithridatism where you consume a tiny bit of the poison to strengthen you against it, or serve the poison with the antidote – a little coriander to pull the metal from your blood, but the legal department at MONA didn’t like that idea very much, so we went with the clean oysters”.
This keen interest in ecology stems from an unconventional childhood, where Kaechele spent large tracts of time growing up on the remote island of Guam, in Micronesia. Influenced by her artist mother “I was raised in the world of art but definitely not the Art World” and her father who was an early adopter of ecology, Kaechele was exposed to the 60’s and 70’s counterculture that espoused self-sufficiency, ecology and alternative education.
“My father wouldn’t allow any interference with the garden wherever we lived. It was just whatever the native landscape was, that was his idea of beautiful. He was pretty extreme – he would never change his car and would drive it until plants were growing out of the rust holes and you could see the street through the floor. I reacted in two ways to that – one was to be way more materialistic and enjoy the good things in life and two was to care about ecology.”
A fascination with ecosystems also led to the development of ‘Eat the problem’ an ongoing art project based at MONA that aims to rid Australia of invasive biological species by eating them. Inspired by American folk popsicle stick art, Kaechele constructed a series of tepees made from Cupressus macrocarpa, a designated weed in Tasmania to act as “primitive factories for processing invasive species”. During MoMa visitors can enter the teepees and sample ecological pests like sea urchin or see how a rabbit is skinned. Kaechele even threatened in an essay for the Griffith review that cats may end up on the menu which would really “freak David out”.
Rather than shy away from controversy, Kaechele seems to relish it. When artist Natalie Jeremijenko asked Kaechele to speak to a group of her students at New York University, Kaechele told them bluntly that the way to fund a non-profit arts project was through sex and drugs:
“It was post 2008 after the economic collapse and funding was a disaster. I had actually decided to start my own marijuana farm in California to fund the New Orleans project. I thought fuck it I’m going to tell the truth and said to get funding you need to entertain slime balls (you don’t have to actually sleep with them) and you need to become a drug dealer.” Rather than being banned for life from NYU the students decided to dedicate their next fundraiser to Kaechele’s project.
Kaechele’s plan for 2015 is to open a cyber-hacking school in the underprivileged area of Glenorchy. The idea ties back into the gun-buy-back project in New Orleans: “The original reasoning behind gun freedom in the US is to protect people should the government turn tyrannical, but guns are no longer a viable tool. The government has drones and bigger guns. Hacking is the new gun”.
The cyber-hacking school will empower disadvantaged youth by creating a space where “all the little David’s” can come and use their mathematical skills to learn computer coding as a way out of poverty: “In those neighbourhoods so far it’s been all about learning to be a car mechanic or a plumber which is great but I would like to see people go from zero to six figure jobs, and well how do you do that – technology jobs. I certainly shouldn’t teach them to be artists” (laughs).
Despite her distaste for ‘do-gooders’ and projects with fixative goals this is another work that will have a positive ending for the disenfranchised:
“It’s funny because I’ve always hated and publicly stated how much I hate art with a mission, I really hate political art, and yet here I am creating it. What can I say? You become what you hate. But for me that would be a part of life art; observing that process in myself is the revelation that becomes art itself.”