Brimming with tireless, raw sexuality, NYC artist, Josh Kil’s work is resplendent with a magnetic energy that leaves his audience breathless. Kil’s work is brilliant, evocative, and tremendously quixotic. Prolific in his array of disciplines, Kil possesses a ceaseless vigor that reveals itself in his impressive work. At times Kil’s work is hard to swallow and hard to get a grasp of. His work leaps from peaks of exquisite transcendence to valleys of acrid controversy; and yet Kil never averts his gaze from nurturing his curiosities, shattering perceived boundaries and erecting new frontiers. Kil himself is reminiscent of Barberini’s Faun-- half-man, half-beast, mythological and thoroughly enticing. In a city where the avant-garde art scene can dwindle on repetitive and contrived, Kil injects fantasy in concrete reality while breathing life into an art scene that is often flat and lackluster. Kil took time out to discuss his performance art, his roles in BJ Dini’s, “2018: THEE END of the Human RACE RIOT”, Robert Anton Wilson, androgyny, Tarot, riding a bike backwards and the weight of reality.
Ditte Dennisor: How long have you been living and working in NYC?
Josh Kil: I’ve been living and working in NYC since 1996
DD: You’re from New Mexico but you chose New York City for art school – why did you choose NYC?
JK: I wanted to get away from Albuquerque. There are and were some amazing people there, and the natural landscape is amazing. I think I was already frustrated with the pace and wanted to go large. Not just with my art, but with my lifestyle too.
DD: When you first arrived in NYC what was your take on the art scene?
JK: At first, I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. This was all before I had a computer, Google or social media. The only thing I knew of the contemporary art scene was in book stores. We did have a cool video store back then called “Wavy Brain”, I think, which actually had some of the No Wave films. I remember seeing Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch and other NYC characters. Other than that, I was a fan of Sonic Youth, The Velvet Underground and had a sense or belief in New York’s cool. When I got here and started going to shows, I felt like I had been accepted to an exclusive club. I met people quickly and went to the cool parties. That happened on and off throughout the time that I’ve been here, but never at the level that it happened then. It sort of scattered and splintered. There continued and still continues to be cool scenes, but it’s in pockets.
DD: When did you begin to do performance art?
JK: The first official performance art was in my 4th year at art school. Before that I had played in bands that were sometimes very performative, including one where I dressed in drag and lifted my skirt without underwear. That was around 1995. Around the same time I was in a play where I played both a female and male at UNM [University of New Mexico]. That one actually got written up in the Albuquerque Journal. Now that I think of it, the androgyny thing seems to be an on going subject. After SVA [School of Visual Arts], I was randomly in performances here and there, but mostly focusing on my object-art. Recently I’ve started doing a lot more performance. Not because I necessarily prefer it, but suddenly people were just asking me if I wanted to perform. It came at a time when I didn’t feel like I was getting asked to do very many other shows so I just went with it.
DD: Are you a natural performer? Do you feel that you’re always performing or is it something you can turn on and off?
JK: I do feel that I’m somewhat of a natural performer, but not that it’s something that I’m always doing. I am often subdued in public situations and don’t often get involved in difficult discussions- at least that’s how it feels from my perspective- whereas in a performance I can get involved in whatever I want with fewer repercussions…so far.
DD: Do you see yourself as androgynous? How do you feel about androgyny?
JK: I don’t really, no. I know that I can be if I want, though. Androgyny is pretty cool. I sometimes imagine that we are evolving into a more androgynous species. I imagine us looking like our depictions of aliens in the future, but I imagine lots of things.
DD: How did you establish yourself as an artist within the New York art scene?
JK: I’m still establishing myself as an artist in the New York art scene. My biggest asset thus far has been productivity. I haven’t always had the best attitude about going out there and selling myself, but I’m making peace with this and even applying for stuff. It’s like pulling teeth for me sometimes. I’d rather be in the studio causing little mental hurricanes, but art isn’t completed until it’s seen. Waiting to be discovered while sitting at the studio was taking too much time. I feel like I’ve been a footnote in a lot of other people’s biographies and now it’s time for mine.
DD: Performance art is meant to be experienced rather than explained- but I want you to try. How would you describe your performance art?
JK: I start by thinking of something that makes me a little bit uncomfortable about myself, or I go out on a limb and play someone who has some kind of power. It’s like therapy in that if you feel uncomfortable than you know you’re on to something. I flail around and try not to simply fall back on humor. If I’m making something that I don’t even know what the hell it is, then I feel I’m going somewhere. If I can’t quite figure it out, then I know the audience is like “What the fuck?” Performance art is a really direct way to test potential meaning and reality. It can also be boring and tedious, but that’s part of how it works sometimes. I’d rather it be challenging than just simply be entertaining. I’m bored with being entertained all the time.
DD: You push boundaries with your art- especially your performance art- and it can sometimes be viewed as shocking or vulgar for the sake of shock value. How do you draw the line between being experimental and stirring a reaction out of your audience and being vulgar and disturbing? Is there a line?
JK: I don’t do anything for the sake of shock value. I could see the value of shock as being useful for a bigger goal, but shock isn’t the goal. Conflict can be a guiding mechanism. To be honest, I don’t think I make people too uncomfortable. If I do, then I think it’s mostly on them because I’m a nice personable type who’s not doing anything wrong. There are artists who I work with sometimes whose work is much more confrontational than mine. Sometimes my bare cock is visible in a performance, but context should cushion that blow to the public’s little constitution. I sometimes forget that penises are so offensive to some people, which is a little offensive to me. People are so used to seeing truly horrific things on television and movies- rape and murder- but they draw the line at a penis! Maybe performance art can help them get over their fear of body parts.
DD: You’re very comfortable with your body and your own body is used in a lot of your work. For you, is the body just a body? Do you approach how you use and access your body in the same way as you would if it was someone else’s body that you’re using for your photography? Were you always comfortable being nude in front a camera?
JK: My body is just a body- whatever that is. I like to think that I have an attractive one. I definitely think the way I use my own body is different than if I were photographing someone. It’s different because it’s part of the content that the body is mine, even if I’m channeling something other. For my performance “Penis Pics” it was totally self-parody; funny and uncomfortable. At the time, I thought it would be awesome to hire an actor to perform it for me, but again, that would be very different.
DD: What does being naked mean to you?
JK: Nudity has been so sexualized in America. I too was brought up this way by movies and the media. Nudity was taboo and this added to the sexualization for me. There is a bit of exhibitionism in me. I try to be thoughtful and respectful enough to keep it where it’s appropriate. On another note, however, after having gone to art school, having visited nude beaches and done nude modeling, I think people need to get over it. It’s not that big of a deal.
DD: You recently took part in BJ Dini’s project “THEE END of The Human Race RIOT” at La Grotta. Can you explain the project a little bit?
JK: I don’t know if trying to explain B.J.’s project is going to do it any justice. On the surface his projects can seem sociopathic. It’s very strange because he is critiquing liberalism and political correctness and getting his typically liberal artist friends to get involved. I’m sure most of the artists who got involved at one point asked themselves, “is B.J. just trying to piss me off?” and “is this racist?” I’ve been assured that it’s not racist, but it is provocative.
DD: What was your part in the project?
JK: I feel that my part was to add to the spirit of complication. In short, I performed a sort of invocation dressed as a little girl and wearing a little girl plastic mask. I danced like a little girl and taped a hexagram on the ground. I then read my invocation in a deep voice as I lifted my skirt. Real drag queens were in the audience and complimented my performance– pretty good for a presumably heterosexual male- but who cares about titles. I would also like to mention that I had a huge part in designing the stage set and general layout. I did the small mirror sculptures and laid out the backdrop paper and mylar.
DD: “THEE End Of The Human Race RIOT" is loosely based on Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. It features portrayals of Martin and Zimmerman in hoods versus hoodies which could very well upset people, be misinterpreted and be seen as misguided or racist. Did it piss you off? Did you at times think it was bordering on racism?
JK: I didn’t think it was racist actually, though it was obviously playing to people’s assumptions that it was racist. It was a provocative gesture. Some people think it’s more helpful to simplify matters while others lean towards complication, and B.J. is one who leans towards complication. On the surface, it is necessarily bordering on racism. It is literally playing a balancing act. It probably offends some people, but it’s gutsy. It’s way more than I myself would be comfortable with pursuing, but I was comfortable enough to be a part of the event. Really, it’s playing with the signifiers of racism. There are politically correct ways of talking about things. One of B.J.’s interests is “who decides what’s the politically correct way to talk about things, and whom does it benefit?” At B.J.’s events, there are often more black people than white. His events are probably something more than one would expect by looking at his invites and Facebook posts. Let me say that though B.J. is a bit weird, I do consider him a vanguard individual and a friend. He’s unique and for real, but he does take some very circuitous routes to get wherever he is going.
DD: A lot of your work injects themes of the occult. Do you consider yourself an occultist? And why is the occult such a large part of your work?
JK: I haven’t received my membership card yet, but yes. I am an occultist. It feels funny saying it, but it is fitting. I perform rituals. I read books on mysticism, psychedelics, and magik. I don’t, however, think of it as a belief system. If you asked me; “yes or no, do you ‘believe’ in the occult?” I would answer “no.”
DD: How long have you been studying it?
JK: I started studying the Tarot seriously around 2010 or 2011. If I dug out my magic diaries I could tell you the exact date.
DD: Why did you start studying Tarot?
JK: It started as an inquiry into meaning and to learn the language of symbolism and the unconscious. I have kept a journal daily since I started in which I do a card reading, draw the cards, include a banishing and invocation ritual and finally write a segment that flows from the mentioned activities. How it does or doesn’t relate to the past or the future is complicated. Human superstition is a huge factor, whether a tarot reading works or not. I never initially did tarot for divinatory purposes and would only give readings to friends while drinking or something. Last year, however, I started reading at The Tarot Society in Bushwick. I like it. I have a unique style and I’m getting good at it. It’s very collaborative between myself and the querant. It’s an interesting way to arrive at meaning that is specific to the individual getting the reading.
DD: When did you come up with the idea to give free tattoos and hold free tattoo parties? Why did you decide to start holding tattoo parties?
JK: At one point I was trying to work towards being a tattoo artist in shops. For one reason or another my attention shifted. The parties give me the opportunity to continually get better at the craft, and it’s awesome to give them for free. I am always pressured by people around me to make money on my pursuits and it can really kill the enthusiasm. I have anarchist friends who do a free store, and I like the sentiment because so much of the world has such a raging capitalism boner.
DD: On average, how many people attend your tattoo parties? On average, how many people attend your tattoo parties?
JK: Between 3 and 20 people. It depends on the weather.
DD: How has the experience of giving out free tattoos been for you? Are you enjoying it?
JK: I enjoy it. Some tattoos are difficult. Some people’s skin is difficult, but the overall experience is fun. I like to have a task, even at a party.
DD: Have you received any backlash?
JK: The most negativity that I experienced was from peoples comments online. There was a nice article written about me on DNAinfo.com and there were a bunch of people who have no idea about me talking shit. That’s what people do, though right? I didn’t respond because the comments were so stupid. Some assumed that I was doing them for free because I was rich, or that if you get a tattoo for free that you’re also going to contract hepatitis. They didn’t know what they were talking about. Of course the needles are clean. They’re all one use disposable needles and tubes.
DD: Does anyone sign a consent or release form before you tattoo them? Do you use you own tattooing equipment?
JK: After the article I started having people sign release forms.. Honestly, I didn’t need publicity for the parties. They were already busy enough with just friends and friends of friends. I didn’t need the general public involved. I guess I was flattered that someone wanted to write about it.
DD: How do you sterilize your equipment?
JK: I clean my equipment and surfaces with alcohol and matacide.
DD: You’re influenced and inspired by Robert Anton Wilson. When I think of this Wilson quote, “I don’t believe anything but I have many suspicions” I think of your work. I think of your videos where you refer to your agnosticism– at least I think you refer to it. Either that or it’s implied and you achieved connecting with your audiences subconscious or somehow influencing it. Would you consider yourself an agnostic of life with your own suspicions of reality?
JK: I often refer to myself as an agnostic. Part of my issue is that I think the word “believe” is the wrong word. It’s some kind of Christian hiccup where everything is oversimplified to being either/or, black or white, good or evil. In a sense, I believe what Terence McKenna says about the beings within a DMT [dimethyltryptamine] trip. In the same sense I also believe what he said about 2012, even though it’s come and gone presumably. In a sense, I believe in Christopher Hitchens’ atheist arguments even though that seems at odds with Terence McKenna’s. There’s not a right or wrong answer to any of this, but people will get red in the face arguing about this stuff. I feel violated when I get sucked into those arguments too. It’s like having an argument over Obamacare.
DD: Why do you feel violated?
JK: I feel violated when I get drawn into an argument over something that is totally aside from the point. There’s always someone in a group who brings up something totally irrelevant, but because they are so loud and speak with such insistence, they drag the whole group into talking about something stupid. My main point was really that getting hung up on a discussion of what one believes or doesn’t believe, can be a waste of time and a deviation from what could otherwise be interesting and productive. It’s awesome to have a discussion with someone who believes in elves or something and not fuck it up by being like, “wait, you don’t don’t really believe in elves do you? Because Jesus doesn’t want you to believe in elves or Darwin either.” I am a huge fan of Robert Anton Wilson. He is very inspiring because he doesn’t just settle for the simplest common sense explanations of things. He finds the ambiguities that can’t be explained by science or philosophy and he inserts some clever and sometimes ridiculous options. I think it’s a beautiful way to look at things even if it seems absurd. He also takes on subjects that are taboo to the average liberal intellectual member of the intelligentsia such as conspiracies, UFO’s and fringe science. Like Robert Anton Wilson, I suspect that reality is weirder than we think, and that there’s very little control that our conscious minds have over it. Maneuvering has a lot to do with balance. You can feel reality by riding a bike– even more so if you learn to do it backwards. I think people get sidetracked on comment threads arguing over whether riding a bike is good or not. I’m trying to think in terms of questions like, “what does my weight mean?” and “how hard is the concrete?”, rather than statements like “If you wreck on your bike it’s gonna hurt”. I have to keep my mind open.
DD: How do you keep your mind open?
JK: It goes back to childhood issues that lead me to not trusting authority that would tell me that “that’s just the way it is”. Simply deciding to be open minded goes along way, though. I try not to automatically decide whether or not I like something before I ask myself why the thing is whatever it is. Controlling one’s emotions helps. I almost feel uncomfortable saying that because I have a fear of sounding preachy- but you asked!
DD: I’m very interested in why you decided to learn how to ride a bike backwards. How did that come about?
JK: For some reason I’m motivated to learn and do things like that. I like tricks. There is a performative aspect to almost all of my artwork. It’s how I get to my special place; feeling the balance and the mind warp effect. I feel like I should elaborate more on what I’m trying to say here, but in any case, it somehow has to do with how I am trying to do my art. It has to do with keeping one’s mind open enough to see the problem from as many possible angles; from the meaning previously attributed to the subject, to trying to find the meaning that the direction of the planet has in relation to an artwork. I’m looking for things that I wasn’t previously expecting in my art, whether it’s via magic, God, the unconscious or someone else’s daydream.