In conversation with Kyle Kouri

by Claudia Vitarelli

photography Arturo Stanig

31 May 2014

A few weeks ago I was set up for a blind date with Kyle Kouri’s artwork. I had last seen Kyle at an art opening months before, where he introduced himself as a writer.

Kyle shapes words, imagining their forms and curves in relation to one another, in a sort of obsessive curatorial process.

Neighborhood bars are his studio. In their bathroom stalls, Kyle hangs his framed short stories. He lets the work simmer in the bathroom, vulnerable to the actions and reactions of the characters populating the space, while monitoring changes at a distance. 

The final work surfaces at about three weeks from its marinating and seasoning process in the bathroom stall, when just about the right amount of graffiti, marks, and tags have covered the surface of the industrial frame the story is installed in. Once finished, the works are meant to be hung and experienced in the regular context of a gallery, and—of course—sold.

Kyle resembles the kind of artist I often encounter these days, whose work is well thought out in every aspect of its creation, interpretation and representation. I am interested in branding,” he said that night, sipping seltzer. The statement struck me, not as original but rather as flag-waving self-awareness. Everything I do is concious. At one point of the conversation, he even told me about a question he was hoping for me to ask, and of course gave himself an answer he was eager to be quoted on. Too bad for the second glass of whiskey he offered me, because I cannot recall what that was.

To him, the notion of being an artist relates to the idea of doing, or—as he more eloquently put it—being fully committed to doing something. For that reason, he seems to be well at ease with the truly contemporary notion of art’s branding, packaging and the self-awareness that comes with it.

Bathroom stalls offer a moment of solitary meditation, even in the dingiest and loudest bars. It is that moment of unawareness, that Kyle seems to be fascinated by. He might have thought out the whole process, but he lusts for that unchecked moment of reaction to his work.

In one of his poems Charles Bukowski writes about a bluebird in my heart that / wants to get out / but I’m too tough for him. Kyle once read that, in a bathroom stall, and it resonated with what he had set his mind to: chasing, through his artwork, the moment you do let go of that bluebird.

This conversation began in Tompkins Square Park and continued though the East Village. 

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Last time we spoke you were writing a book. How did you get into this project and why is this art to you?

It seems to be a number of things. First of all, the whole enterprise of writing and publishing… fuck that. I’ve been writing stuff my whole life, printing it out, reading it to people, handing it to people—and that’s been to me the most genuine way to share my words. Then I got somewhere along the line the idea of sharing it on walls and spaces rather than in publications, and when that idea came to mind I started writing pieces that I knew were gonna exist differently than a piece you could find in a book, or in a magazine. Once that happened it became very important, visually, what these words were saying and how these words were created. It was very important to me that someone could walk by the text and read just one sentence, and that that one sentence could just stick out and exist by itself.

Your process is mostly about narrative and how you experience it. The latter phase is also not arbitrary in your work. So, narrative and experience—what comes first?

The narrative comes first, and then I think about where I want it. It’s always different but, generally, it goes like this: I have an idea, I have the shape of it, I know how it’s gonna happen. I take tons of notes when I’m out at the bar, at work, wherever, and then, at home, I’m just possessed for an hour and a half and I get it all out. 

Does it ever happen under the influence?

I have a friend who’s a writer and he said a very great thing about writing drunk or high: “It only works once.” And then afterwards, you’re done—you gotta get back to the process, you have to really work. 

What’s your process for working?

In an hour and a half I usually finish one of these stories, and then I spend a month rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting. 

It all comes out in one verse, and then it’s reworked endlessly. Sometime it doesn’t look like what I started off with. I guess that’s my process. But sometimes it’s different.

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Once you’re done writing your stories you let them live in another environment. What is your connection to these stories then? 

They’re like my babies, they’re like songs. I like to think of my process as similar to a songwriter’s process. Right now they just exist and I have them, and I can use them in different environments. 

One of the pieces I wrote, “Mistuh Always Indignation,” was for a specific show at the National Arts Club. Afterwards I rewrote it and reshaped it a little bit because I thought it’d be nice for it to exist in the bathrooms as well. 

And I read these constantly… I remember lines, I say lines to myself, I speak them, sing them, I think about other channels that these stories can exist in. The story is just the beginning really, and then it’s what I do with them, where I take them, how else I can share them. 

You are extending the life cycle of these stories.

Exactly. You know, with Bob Dylan you can listen to three different recordings of one of his songs, and he’s changing the lyrics every time! He’s saying different things! I love that. Sometimes I read my stories and say different shit. 

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You refer to music a lot. What’s your connection to it?

When I was a young dude, I wrote songs and played in punk bands. That memory and that formative experience is like home to me. 

Tell me more about the musicality of your stories. 

There’s a rhythm and a melody and a speed to these pieces. I keep going back to this, but they’re songs to me, they have a tempo.

Some I imagine have a slower pace—I read them with a different voice. Some I imagine reading really fucking quick. And like punk rock, sometimes I like an off key note, sometimes I like a little scream, sometimes I like something that doesn’t make any fucking sense, just added there. Introduce a little chaos to the world.

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You seem to be really keen on the punk rock aesthetic, and your pieces relate to that as well. It feels a little nostalgic—the dive bar bathrooms, the tags.

I would argue that it has nothing to do with nostalgia. The aesthetic is there because it works, and it works right now. When it stops working I’ll stop using it. As far as the tags go, to me they are really, really fascinating because they evolve from work to work, to work, and they show the different characters that populate these bathrooms—especially at The Library. This will be the third run that I’ve done here and there are reoccurring tags that happen. 

There’s “Nicole hearts Bird.” Nicole is one of the bartenders whose boyfriend is this guy named Bird, and he does that tag, every time. The first time they started appearing they were simply written—just saying “Nicole hearts Bird”—and then he did over it, more aggressively, in black—“Nicole hearts Bird”—and in the next two that came in here there was a really sort of insane version of that phrase—“Nicole hearts Bird” in pink.

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On the left: The Secret Lives of Men. At The Library, 3/30/14 - 4/20/14, 2014. On the right: The Bathroom. At The Library, 3/30/14 - 4/19/14, 2014.

Do you use the same short stories, or do you change at each new installation?

I change them all the time, but sometimes I reuse the same story in different locations. The audience is very different, and the tags on the works are different because the experience is.

In one of the pieces you added hand written text at the bottom—“completely helpless.”

That’s the work. It’s not a new trick—a lot of writers in their stories add handwriting. This being the third run in the same bar, I wanted to introduce something a little new.

You mentioned how interested you are in how the work is experienced differently depending on which bar it’s in. This adds an element of research and experimentation to your process.

It’s not about the reaction to the work—it’s more about characters. These stories are growing because these people, the characters frequenting the bars, are changing the stories and inventing their own stories. This “Nicole hearts Bird” one I am so fascinated by because there’s something really demented and insane about it. With each work the tag has become more and more aggressive. This guy’s committed. He writes it over and over and over…

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Does he know what you’re doing?

I don’t know, I don’t even know what he looks like. But the fact that he writes every time “Nicole hearts Bird.” That repetition, that commitment…it’s almost insane. 

And there are other characters—there’s a “Handsome Matt.” There’s these two characters, “Daddy and Mommy,” who are these weird perverted lovers that always make vague allusions to fucking each other in sick and destructive but also sort of sexy ways. Adam Payne is another character. He puts the stickers “Your mom fucked your dad” up. There’s stories being built upon stories, upon stories, upon stories… 

The bar’s bathroom is like the unconscious of the bar. It’s just insane—anything goes, and it just layers on. Work on top of work, on top of work, on top of work, which becomes muddled but fantastic at the same time. 

When I take these out of the bar they become unconscious minds, they become fucking chaos. 

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On the left: Drinking With Oscar. At The Library, 3/9/14 - 3/27/14, 2014. On the right: The Vulgar John Show. At The Library, 3/9/14 - 3/27/14, 2014.

Tell me about how you developed your dialectic around this project. 

These are things I’m thinking about all the time. When I answer your questions it’s not just Kyle the artist, or the creator, answering the question, it’s just another guy experiencing the work and coming up with his own interpretation. I become my own viewer and my own audience. 

The works take on their own life—they just exist. I wanted to do it, and now that I’ve done it I have all the time in the word to think about it, and think about what it means to me, or to other people, or how it can exist, and what it is really. 

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The concepts of control and experimentation are two sides of any project, any endeavor. They are forces, really, that you implement more or less consciously throughout a process. In this case, you are in control of your work the whole time—you write the story, frame it, place it strategically in a location—except for a brief period of time, when you allow other people to come in and add to the piece before getting back in control of it. 

Yes. You know, I think filmmaking is a really good comparison. A guy like Stanley Kubrick curates and designs all of his sets—from the color of the walls, to the can of soup and the cabinet, to the way the dress is cut, to the buttons that are opened, to the number on the door, to the specific orientation of the fucking door handle…

Have you watched the documentary Room 237? That’s a perfect example of how far you can read into things. In the beginning you’d think the people interviewed make total sense, and realize how much control Kubrick had when making The Shining. But at the end of it you find out how his control in fact allowed others to read so much into the film. The people in the documentary end up coming off as slightly insane. The point is—he was balancing his control masterfully.

In that sense, you are allowing people in your work in a way they aren’t even aware of. They think that they’re reading into you, when in fact you are just giving their thoughts a platform.

That’s absolutely correct. I can only aspire to have that masterful balance that Kubrick had. In filmmaking the director picks the location and the actors in the movie. He has control but there’s also an element of experimentation in this. Jack Nicholson is going to be Jack no matter what.

That’s what I have in mind when picking locations: the characters they’re gonna have, and their involvement, and what they’re gonna bring to the table. Outside of my control.

I’m also just totally winging it… I’m coming up with ideas as we talk. I don’t premeditate everything. And in fact, it doesn’t fucking matter. I could say whatever I want about these works. Who cares what I have to say about them? Someone could say, ‘No, I don’t care that he’s the fucking artist, that’s not what it means at all, not to me at least.’ 

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How do you decide when the pieces are done? Tell me about your finished works.

It was interesting. The first round, it took about three and a half weeks. There were lapses when nothing would happen for a week, and then suddenly three days would go by and it’d just be insanity. The second time though, it started from the minute they were in. I only had them in the bathrooms for three weeks, and knew that it was time to get them out.

These places have a community of regulars, so they probably start to know what’s going on, and the response gets more immediate and conscious. Did you think of changing locations after a couple rounds of works?

Yeah, this is the last round I’m gonna do in here—at least for some time. The characters that are going to exist on these works have almost exhausted, their stories have been told. The people are getting bored.

The Library bar was also the first one, so it was more of your trial phase. 

Yes.

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Above: Untitled (Mad Writer), 2013.

Do you see yourself continuing with this project? 

Yeah, I love this project. I can continue doing this forever. But I want to move on to other things too—stairways, subway platforms. I’m hoping to be in a show this summer where I want to install a piece on the outside of a building, almost like a movie poster. I also want the stories to get really fucking big. Twelve, fifteen foot stories. I don’t want the tags and the whole graffiti thing to take over the scope of the work. 

What is the scope of the work? 

It’s just, well…that I don’t know. 

Some dude once said, "One you start doing something well, once you’ve figured it out, then fucking stop doing it." What I wrote in the piece “Mistuh Always Indignation” is “I grow by terrorizing my peace. Everyday I create a new name.” Every day is a new phase. I might stop writing. I kind of want to start acting actually, and performing. I’m going to start making films.

But language will always be the most important thing to me—it is the dearest thing in my life.

You mean language as communication?

Sure, I like speaking as a way of communicating ideas. That’s why I like the bars environment…when you’re at the bar drinking with a friend, you get to talking, and have more and more drinks, and the weirdest ideas come to you, and your voice changes, it gets raspy, and you get a little bit crazy… I almost feel like I wanna record every conversation I have in a bar. So I’ll be at the bar, and then I come home and start writing shit down.

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There is an element of history in each piece. Every tag added onto the piece layers with the other ones, and altogether they create a history of that artwork. Each finished work becomes descriptive of a specific point in time and space—like a little monument to May 2014 at The Library bar. 

Exactly, well that’s the title of each work! It does record a specific moment in time. The places I pick, too, are rich with history. Take The Library bar, this place’s been around for a long fucking time. At least I think it has. And KGB Bar too…

All of your pieces so far have been installed in downtown bars except for one, which is in the gallery Garis & Hahn on Bowery. Tell me about this one, how did the different environment present itself on the work?

That one is very clean, it just has one little tag at the bottom. When I saw that tag I thought, "It doesn’t need anything else." It is very true to that environment as well—the gallery bathroom.

Are you interested in the setting, the scene?

Yeah. Whenever I install a piece I’ll take a photo of the room. I love thinking about the room. Even where the toilet paper is, that’s important. 

One of my favorite things about Melville is that if while reading a book he saw a paragraph he didn’t like, he’d cross the entire paragraph out and be like, "Now I like the book better, now it’s a better book."

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Above: Art Dealer, 2013.

Tell me about your earlier work, Art Dealer, 2013.

This piece is the first one that came after I had the idea about the bathroom series—it’s like the prototype. So all the tags are by me.

You can tell it’s the first one because it doesn’t show the same comfort about messing up the artwork as much as more recent ones do. You’re very much conscious about what you’re doing there. 

It was a daunting experience! I mean… I paid for that frame! But I’m pretty happy with the tags. The "What are you doing?" one could be from anything, really, but I got that from the Cohen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis. There’s this guitar player in the 60s who’s real down and out—he’s totally broke, totally lost, he’s couch surfing and he’s out-welcomed all of his stays. So he hitches a ride to Chicago, in a last hope of meeting with this producer to play him some of his songs. Maybe he’ll finally make it. It’s the most miserable road trip of all time, and he’s at this roadside joint to rest up in the middle of the night. He goes to the bathroom and sits down, and on the wall it just says ‘What are you doing?’ And he just looks at it, shakes his head in a ‘I have no fucking idea’ way.

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That’s a place I also would like to set up works—motels and gas stations… My sister is an artist. She thought of the gas stations first.

The common denominator about these places—dive bars’ bathrooms, motels, and gas stations—is that they facilitate people’s interaction with their surrounding. In a corporate environment, for example, there is a set of strict social rules through which people interact with each other and their surrounding. In a bar’s bathroom however these rules are lessened, if existent at all. 

The interaction with the environment is facilitated in a non socially constricted setting. In return, the physical environment itself becomes part of the social interaction. 

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In the places you’ve chosen, the reaction to the work happens because it’s resulting from the confluence of social interaction and interaction with the environment...

Yeah, they become a living thing man! 

… An environment that is the sum of all the personalities populating it. These works are the manifestation of that.

That’s totally it. That’s what I love. These works have now been dipped in the heart of the space, and taken out.

Last time we met you mentioned exactly that—you consider your studio to be the location where the work is in. The work “simmers” in there until you deem it ready to go.

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Above: Conversation With a Poet, 2014.

The other commonality has again to do with history. All the places you’ve chosen for the works, as your studios, have a rich and long history, with a community of regulars. It brings back to the idea of comfort and freedom in taking ownership of the environment, and acting upon it. 

In one of his books Henry Miller goes, “I don’t care about living, all I care about is expressing myself.” Henry Miller’s books all end shittily, but it’s all about movement into something else. I don’t think he is a novelist, I think he is just a voice, a voice that could go on indefinitely. 

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Part of the reason why I am getting out of books and putting stuff on walls, is because the words become an ongoing voice that doesn’t need to stop. 

That’s just something else.

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Above: Progress, 2014.

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