Everything but Lenin

Nick Naber visits Colby Keller

I spoke with Colby in late May. We discussed a few of his projects that were ending on May 31. Colby is a graduate from MICA with his MFA, and is currently driving around the country.

To find out more information about Everything but Lenin, and Pieces of Eight check out his blog (bigshoediaries.blogspot.com warning NSFW).

Can you tell me a little bit about your experience at MICA?

I went to a program called the Mount Royal School of Art. It’s an interdisciplinary studio-based program.  When I was there I did a lot of sculpture. We were encouraged to work in a lot of different mediums – video, sculpture, and painting.

Now my practice has shifted. I’m still trying to engage with sculpture and painting to a larger extent, but most of my work is more social and performance focused.

Looking at the Big Shoe Diaries, the crossover between your artistic practice and your job in porn is interesting to me; how do you find the confluence between the two?  How do you engage with an audience that is a mixed group, art focused and general public?

Oh most definitely. It’s interesting that we, in the art world, see there as being two different audiences.  I’d like to not see that division exist which is, of course, a weird utopian idea that doesn’t make sense because there is an art audience and an audience that is outside of that.  There is this weird hierarchy that we [the art world] are trying to set. The art world tries to protect the artist from having to engage with that larger audience.  In my work I want to think about engaging people who read my blog, fans that I have and people that access my porn work in a specific way. Often times it might just be masturbatory.  I am thinking about how to use the viewer as a participant in my practice.

In the work Pieces of Eight, you are inviting people to engage with you and tell stories and share with you, correct? [Note: check out his blog to view the projectbigshoediaries.blogspot.com]

Yes, Pieces of Eight came about because I had two big problems with my practice. One was that I wanted to make work as Colby Keller, by that I mean embracing what it means to be a sex worker, not being just an artist, but also having this job in porn. It’s a job that creates a certain social medium that I am working with that engages a certain level of celebrity. James Franco does that in a different way and he tries to think of his role as a celebrity as an artistic medium in some sense. How do I do that? What is an effective way to do that?

The other problem was I was experimenting with is a process that I was jokingly calling totalitarian because I have an interest in the history and trajectory of leftist politics and their relationship to totalitarianism and the philosophical and moral implications. What I am trying to do is to take an object and break-away meaning from it by using a totality of means.  Of course that is impossible; there are many ways to integrate a thing. I could sing a song to it, I could make a sculpture of it, and I could make a painting of it.  That would be a way of pulling meaning off the thing, and once you do that what’s left of the thing, is there any meaning? I wanted to experiment with that process and I didn’t know how to start it, and how do I start it as Colby Keller? Does that mean I need to pick something that is obvious and sexual, is that object a dildo, am I the porn star that sings songs to dildos; do I want to be that guy? 

In the middle of all of this, I was going through an emotionally traumatic break up with a close friend of mine. We were lovers; we were boyfriends at one point in time, and he kind of abruptly stopped talking to me. There was no rationale given and I was hurt by it, and I tried to reach out and he completely rejected me. It was difficult for me to process this; we had kind of broken up as boyfriends a year before that and that wasn’t as difficult as him stopping talking to me as a friend. It was awful and hurtful and it destroyed me and I was going through old love letters he had sent me that he would include little drawings and cartoons.  In one of the letters he sent some drawings that he had done when he was a teenager that he eventually had tattooed on his body, all these tattoos related to a video game that was meaningful to him. Each of them relates to a certain moral value, obviously those things are problematic; I’m interested in that, because it is a unified conceptual project on his body. It felt like one big artwork. I was always curious about it. I found these [drawings] and it was something I need to address because not only did we have a close sexual relationship but we also worked together in porn. This is the object that helps me to identify with the subject as Colby Keller and I can address a drawing a month and interrogate it and its ethically challenged because I obviously asked him to participate but he is refusing to speak to me. I don’t have permission from him to deal with this thing that is about his body but technically it’s not the tattoos I am dealing with I’m addressing the drawings that he gave me that I do have ownership of.

It’s cathartic in a way?

It’s very cathartic but it is also very problematic and that’s why I wanted to address it.  I wanted to think about what a totality meant and I realized that I needed to ask every person I knew in my life to participate. Part of it for me was when people rip these holes out of us we often ask other people in our lives to fill them. You’re filling it with something else that’s never quite a match and that wound is still there. This is how I tried to heal myself from it, and I am trying to replicate this healing in the piece. This meant asking strangers, family members, my 99-year-old grandmother, I needed everyone because I don’t have the answers, I don’t have the solution, I am sincere in my Marxism that we do need other human beings. As an artist I don’t have all the answers. I want as many people to help contribute to the work as possible. That will only enrich it.

I think it is compelling that you have your art side and your porn side. Is your art practice a combination of the two and in some ways is it one big performance? Is your identity as Colby Keller the porn star and your artistic identity rolled into one and does it becomes one giant performance?

Saying it is one giant performance gives me too much credit as an artist, almost like I had thought the whole thing out years ago.  I started working in porn because I couldn’t find work, the economy was shit and I didn’t have money. I applied everywhere; even McDonalds wouldn’t take me.  Porn was an option I was curious about it. Don’t get me wrong, it was something that had a certain erotic appeal to me. My main motivation was financial.  I depended on porn for utilitarian purposes. It was a challenge as an artist to try and deal with that part of myself.

Honestly, there is a problem in the art world itself where we want to separate what it means to be an artist from the daily lives of the people making art. There is a fantasy especially in the art market where people think that these big art stars make art all day and actually they hire assistants like they are big companies and it seems that is the trend. Anyone can be an artist, including people with real jobs, like porn stars; the power of art can belong to anyone and only if we give it power and only if we give ourselves the power to engage. That’s what I want to accomplish. That’s my goal, to think about my role in this specific economy and how that can inform an art practice.

There is a big shift for artists to use the Internet as a medium. Do you make physical work?  Obviously, Pieces of Eight is physical, but does your work only live on the Internet?

That piece will live in different interesting ways that I cannot control.  Part of asking people to participate in the project relinquishes my control as a maker of work. Some of the work I have made, like paintings and sculpture, all that is being placed somewhere where it will never be seen. That’s necessary for me for moral reasons; I also realize that there is a lot of work that people have made, including an email that I can’t delete, those people own that email. There will always be remnants of the work in the collaborations I have made with other people. I am interested in things like email and Instagram and their dual function. One that is practical and easy to understand, and the other is them being thought of in an art context with layers of meaning attached to them.  I love making things, but I also don’t like making physical things. We live in this capitalist economy and they become these commercial objects and that doesn’t give them the power that I want them to have.  It is less valuable as art for me when they exist.

Can you tell me a little bit about your Instagram collages?

Those are works that are part of Everything But Lenin. I found out last month that I am getting kicked out of the apartment I have lived in for 10 years in Baltimore where I have a terrible slumlord. I realized I couldn’t carry out all of my stuff and I had this great opportunity to let go of things and to make art with regular people.  It’s not really an art audience, but I can say to people,“ You want something for free? You can take it, let’s just agree to call it art.”  There will be a moment at the end of the month where I will be stripped bare and I won’t own a single thing. I will have to have a friend take me to Wal-Mart and buy me some shoes.

Going through all of my things I found crates of porn, some of which I bought when I was a teenager, and some I bought because I was using it for another project. I found some old photos that I had taken and found while I was here in Baltimore. I was going to make simple stupid collages and explore composition and see what funny things could happen when you look through magazines that you cut up. It’s a way of playing with Instagram as a medium.  I’m interested in Instagram because of the people who use it and the types of images that are made.  I want to replicate some of the process to see what they do; this collage project is one of those things.  There is no real collage, they only exist on Instagram, all the magazines and photographs are being thrown away. At the end of the month there will be nothing. It’s an exercise, a sketch, it’s not about the collages it’s about Instagram.

So its completely manipulated with your phone, its not physically made?

I might put a photo on top of another one but that’s all that it is. It only exists as the photograph on Instagram.

[Note: Colby’s Instagram was given to his friend Dena as part of Everything but Lenin, and then shut down, the collages no longer exist]

With this project, you are allowing everything to go except for this plaque of Lenins head?

That’s the only thing. That’s the interesting thing about art and thinking about art in this way. What I realized is I set up projects where there are rules, and how much do I want to break a rule, how do I bend the rule, is there a loophole? One loophole that I am exercising is the name “Lenin,” I bought another hard drive and I’ve renamed it Lenin and copying my old hard drive and putting everything on it so I will have all my digital stuff.

I have years of iTunes, which has given me an idea for a project where I would have a cam site, in a plain room, and people could prepay for an allotted amount of time, where I dance everyday 8-5.  I would only do it though if the time were bought ahead of time. It would go song by song through my hard drive until my hard drive is done, it might go on indefinitely. The piece would be about how we hoard this media and how we never process it. This would be a way to slow it down and listen to all the music.  This Lenin is a loophole and a bridge to another project.

What is your process in creating these projects? What is your studio time like?

It’s interesting that you talk about studio, actually I think a lot about that.  I didn’t care what the cost of grad school was. I wanted to experience two years of uninterrupted studio time, that was the only reason I went. Then I got out of grad school and said, “well shit I just spent two years learning how to have a studio practice and now I don’t have a studio.” At the time I was making work that could only be made in a studio.  I took a hiatus for a year and a half to figure out how is it possible to make work in my apartment, or garage, what kind of space do I need to make the work I want to make? At the same time I realized that I rarely had enough time because I was constantly traveling and always in hotels. I thought about how could I make a hotel a studio space? Can I continue to make work while I am on the road making money as a porn performer?  How can I think of those as generative creative studio spaces? I think a lot about physical space and how it informs the ability of artists to work.  Certain work can be made in certain space. For me with the collage project only an empty apartment can facilitate this work right now. With Pieces of Eight at the end of every month I go to a hotel in Baltimore and purposefully think of that space as a studio and try to think of the type of work and type of projects that can happen in that space. I want to think of lots of spaces as studio spaces. It’s a conceptual trick, it’s a way of telling myself it’s a special place to make art. It actually does change your relationship to that space.

What have you been reading? What is currently on your book list?

I don’t have any books right now because people have taken them from Everything but Lenin.   This is a good example of loop holing, I had thousands of books beautiful art books that fans have given me over the years. That was the hardest thing for me to get rid of. I had this big party anyone could come to the apartment and take whatever they wanted and a lot of people took books, people would walk away with armfuls of books. Then I’d look at the bookshelves and say “Jesus Christ I’m never going to get rid of all these books.”  I put one crate of theory books to the side and I thought I could put a lid on this box, I could hide it and then I could give it to a friend who could give it back, because I’m going to have to rebuy these books.  I told myself no that’s wrong, I’m going to be faithful to the project, if people take books they take them. At the end of the day these three beautiful people walked in all dressed in black from New York and they work with the Contemporary in Baltimore, and they went straight for the theory books and declared it theirs. They said, “We’re going to get a van and take everything,” it was beautiful. They said they really wanted an art book library.  I couldn’t have asked for a better home for all those books. They’ll all be together as a library.

What is it like being an artist in Baltimore? What is the scene there? Do you have a lot of other artists that you hang out with?

Honestly, I am very shy. When I came to grad school I was especially shy. I didn’t talk to anybody. I didn’t engage in discussion.  I wasn’t prepared for grad school at that time in my life. I didn’t do enough work to nurture those relationships.  When the program ended I didn’t have those relationships. I felt alienated from my practice and stopped making work and concentrated on getting porn work. I didn’t take advantage of the art community that Baltimore offered.

I chose Baltimore for utilitarian reasons, it is close to New York and all that New York has to offer, but I am able to live in a cheap apartment and the cost of living is relatively low. Those were all pluses. I have opened myself up recently with my projects and made these great friends. A lot of them go to MICA and we have collaborated on these projects and started making these friends and now it’s right before I leave.

You’re planning to road trip, are you going to buy a car or are you hitching?

I don’t have a ton of money; I have enough to buy an old junker. I’ve considered doing a fundraising campaign to get a van. My fantasy is to get a black cargo van, put a mattress in the back and get a cheap camera and drive around the country fucking hot boys and making my own porn. Making a low-fi porn site in relation to this road trip. That would require a lot of funding.

It might be that I just buy a junker and find a place on a map and go there and make a go of it.

I won’t be hitching. I love being by myself and going on road trips!

You have no specific place in mind?

It’s a weird joke, but I have Albuquerque in mind because I like the name of the city. It’s like the Western version of Baltimore.

Youre going to be Agnes Martin.

I love Agnes Martin; I could never be as good as her. The desert is spiritually energizing, and I think I need that for now. To refocus my attention to the good. I feel like this relationship and this project (Pieces of Eight) have brought up a lot of awful things, and require time to refocus in a different direction when it ends.