Gillian Sneed in conversation with William Earl Kofmehl III.
William Earl Kofmehl III lives and works in Pittsburgh. His performance piece Lesson 43: Queue was on view at Lombard-Freid Gallery in New York in January.
Gillian Sneed: I know you are probably sick of talking about it, but I have to ask you about the whole “Lobster Boy” fiasco. When I heard about it back in 2002, having known you from before, I thought it was pure genius, and actually quite hilarious.
Basically you became very controversial in your senior year as a BFA student at Carnegie Mellon University because you used a $1000 school grant to fund a performance piece in which you constructed a three-story shack out of scrap wood on campus, lived in it for several months dressed in a lobster suit (a Halloween costume your mom made you as a kid!), made a vow of silence, ate meals consisting mainly of rice, remained tethered to your structure with a yellow cord, and blew into a megaphone every night. The whole endeavor proved quite contentious, and resulted in protests, university accusations of fire hazard, frat boys attacking you, and people denouncing the fact that you used a school grant to fund this whole thing…
So at this point six years afterwards, it seems like it was actually really forward thinking. It seems like it contained some nascent elements of your continuing process today, so I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the whole experience? How did it influence what you are working on now? What do you think of it in retrospect?
William Kofmehl: What you won’t find on Wikipedia or through any excessive Googling, is the “real” story. Ultimately, the experience exemplifies the chasm between news media and events played out within the historical past. Artists, especially performance artists, have always been faced with the dilemma of re-presenting the work in divergent media and contexts. The tool of recontextualization is both powerful and dangerous.
GS: So would you say that the kinds of pieces you were working on back then, such as that piece in particular, but also others you did at that time, relate to your work now? How has your work developed/ or matured?
WK: Since the fifth grade I voluntarily enrolled in various medical research studies as a way to supplement my income. Mowing lawns and shoveling snow seemed lame. Not to mention I would have had to mow three to four football fields to bring home the kind of cash I was making as a test subject. One study in particular involves the reception of a package in the mail every other year containing over three to four thousand questions that I must fill in the appropriate circle with a freshly sharpened number two pencil. I travel to the facility where blood and urine samples are taken and my fat is measured with calipers. I’m fed, and wear a wristband that monitors my movement while sleeping. The ongoing clinical research participation has fed into my work where recently I performed Vicarious Suffering, which attempted to elucidate the development of psychopathological characteristics (dimensionally and categorically) contributing to the risk for substance use disorder with the help of Nathan and Sam. While at CMU I was awarded a research grant to monitor my nighttime utterances for three months while I was engaged in the building of the three-story house on campus. I consciously neglected my vocal organs while recording speech within my sleep through the use of contact microphones on my chest and throat. The recorded sound sampling is used as the dialogue found within a film documenting the construction of the house, which is just a fragment of an overarching narrative.
GS: I remember that even as a freshman you were using family members in your elaborate and enigmatic performance art pieces. In your most recent performance at Lombard-Freid, you employed your father and two brothers-in-law in an instructional workshop, exploring Fair-Trade entrepreneurship, angling, and illiteracy prevention. What is the significance for you of using actual members of your family in your work? What is it about?
WK: Basically, it all goes back to performing Cats with my three older sisters, a show my mother choreographed. I was eight. We wore leopard leotards with fur tails fastened to the rear. I think that’s when I really got a sense for "team unity and spirits," which is something that’s stayed with me since then. As my sisters married, the performance troupe grew in the form of two brothers-in-law, and four nieces, plus, as always, "dear old dad" and "dear old mom." I have been blessed, as well, with an incredible group of friends and collaborators over the years, who I continually work with. My immediate family does however enjoy staking claim as the "founding members."
GS: How do you get ideas for your projects? They are usually so complicated and detailed–what is your process like?
WK: …Within my practice of "making," no distinct idea can be formed without a concrete real-to-life application functioning as the context and presupposition for it. For instance, when I visited the Temple of Apollo in Greece and voluntarily launched my body off the ground, arms and legs fully extended, landing abruptly on the earth’s floor, I may have been a tourist who accidentally tripped on an ancient antiquity. Or was my bodily gesture drawing reference to the sport of volleyball and the act of “diving” for the ball or “source”? The “diver” is a person who simply dives. Diving suggests submersion, plunging oneself into the depths of a new gaseous envelope. I may argue the duality of the diver from a metaphorical stance, equating submersion with transcendence.
Using John Dunnill’s strong words suggesting the polarity within all religious systems concerning the attraction and repulsion of “divinity,” I affirm the conjunctive act of diving through the lens of Christology. It is not my intention to argue the dive as an actual means of transcendence within the physical world we live, rather the dive is revered as a poetic gesture proceeding the historical roots of sacrifice and attempting to draw attention to the notion of God as sacrificed and sacrificer. The dive is a return to the body. To dive is to take delight in the physicality of flesh soaring through space and time preceding a graceful plunge into the earth…
GS: Often times your work is perceived as funny. How much does humor and irony play a role in your work? Are you actually trying to be funny, or are you dead serious?
WK: The primary aim is to generate reciprocity between the viewer and the work. The aforementioned “dive,” in this case, is the performative work. One of my approaches toward performance is self-deprecation, allowing the viewer to feel empowered and invited into the work. This empowerment enables the viewer to transition from voyeur to participant.
Unexpectedly during a “dive” sequence at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., what would have typically been read as an abnormal act became normalized due to current applause toward social delinquency found in Jack Ass, the television show. A group of excited middle school guys and gals on tour convinced themselves that I was conducting an audition tape for Jack Ass.
Contrasting the normalization of the dive at the Lincoln Memorial, was a dive executed in front of the Parthenon in Greece. Rather than a warm greeting from a bunch of overzealous middle school students, I received immediate dismissal from an armed guard who escorted me to police headquarters for questioning. The contrasting results of two identical gestures, similar in both form and technique may be understood by carefully noting the current social climate surrounding each dive. The dive in Washington, DC was pre-9/11 while the series of dives in Greece occurred literally one and two days following 9/11.
GS: Well I guess, humor is also obviously so culturally-based. Do you think Americans laugh at your work more, and Europeans take it more seriously?
WK: If I was a humor prognosticator and observant of stereotypical American/European schisms, while conducting let’s say hypothetically speaking, a scatological method of making, I would declare an alliance of jocularity. After all, studies exist surrounding chimpanzees utilizing American Sign Language during contact play expressing themes of humor consistent in humans such as dominance, scatology, aggression, and flap doodling.
GS: Speaking of Europe, last year you went to France to teach at an artist’s residency program, and I believe you are planning to return. What kind of work did you develop there?
WK: While living and teaching in France, I made trips to Berlin, Madrid, and Bilbao, and converted my hotel room within each of those locations into a photographic darkroom. While eating the finest assortment of cheese, chocolate and desired beverage of the day, I restricted myself to the making of various pinhole cameras from the materials present within my suite. The result is a body of work documenting my indulging of the European Flavor.
GS: What projects are you working on now?
WK: I believe real estate is an excellent venture for visual artists. Whenever I make large sums of money at erratic intervals, I invest in real estate. Years back, I bought a four-bedroom house with the stipend I was awarded during my fifth year scholarship at CMU. I lived there with a friend who helped pay my entire monthly bank loan while I was building equity and storing all my stuff for free. I have a lot of stuff. Years later, I had collected even more stuff and was fortunate enough to sell some work through Lombard Freid Projects and purchase a former Synagogue. Real estate is not for the faint-hearted and neither is the act of carving out a career as an artist. Both require forethought, the ability to think long term, risk taking, physical, mental, and emotional muscle (i.e. construction/implementation, negotiation/networking, uncertainty/gentrification) and maybe a little flare and pizzazz. The result can be truly empowering or leave you in a quagmire of hurt and sadness. Let’s hope for the former.