Interview by Lenny Farrell
Editor’s Note: A retrospective of John R. Killacky’s videos will be on view Jan. 19 through Feb. 16, 2018 at the Champlain College Art Gallery. Killacky, executive director of the Flynn Center, has made numerous films and videos in his hybrid career.
The opening reception with the artist will be Friday, Jan. 26 at 5:00 p.m. Included will be three AIDS-related works from the ‘90s, three disability-themed pieces from the 2000’s, and two recent video collaborations with Vermont artists Todd R. Lockwood and Art Bell.
The Champlain College Center for Publishing and the Champlain College Art Gallery collaborated to produce an Artist’s Catalog for this exhibit, and Professional Writing Student Lenny Farrell ’18 interviewed Killacky about the show.
Lenny Farrell: I wanted to begin with an introductory piece for people who do not know anything about you or the exhibit. What do you want people to take away from it?
John Killacky: When I was invited to do this, it gave me an opportunity to look at my past videos. These are agitprop works, politically engaged narratives that I was doing in response to what I was experiencing. The early works are about AIDS. It was in the early ‘90s, still early in the AIDS crisis, a different era than it is now. People were not living with AIDS; they were dying. It was a carnage. I started making those early videos as a way to grapple with the immense loss of so many people and commemorate friends, and hold them dearly.
I had to embrace bodies. The body was so feared back then in the ’90s. People were afraid of people with AIDS. Medical staff did not want to handle them. They were wearing gloves and masks. It was very frightening. In these three AIDS pieces, it was about claiming the sacredness of the body. In the works, others and I are nude reclaiming the body. It is not to be feared.
Then I had surgery that went very badly in 1996, where I was paralyzed from the neck down. It took some months to learn how to walk again. Suddenly I had a new relationship with the world. I had to reorient my own perspective, so I began to make video works about my reality. Again, I went back to the body.
The disabled body is something that society does not want to look at. I found myself again drawn to the body and saying to myself, “Okay, I have to celebrate these bodies to revere them, to hold them sacred.”
When people come into the exhibition, they will be looking at time capsules of what I was dealing with in the ‘90s and in the 2000’s. Last year, here in this gallery, Todd R. Lockwood worked with me to adapt one of the disability-related videos for his exhibition Portraiture Reimagined. I include this work, along with a new piece, which I see as a cleansing ritual, a purification, a coda for the entire exhibition.
In preparing, I realized the gallery experience is very different from screening videos. Few people are going to spend thirty minutes sitting in front of each monitor, listening to every single piece. Therefore, I organized them visually, imagining that people are only going to spend about ten minutes in the space. I created an audio loop with excerpts from all the pieces for people to hear. I hope that it draws the viewer experientially into my world. It was fun to reconceive these works as more of a visual and audio collage. I hope people engage with Embodied Voice.
LF: You transformed what was already there into something more cathartic to watch, to experience.
JK: I hope so. People have told me these works have been cathartic for them, so it will be interesting to see if people are willing to sit with the individual works. I recently read that in museum galleries the average time someone spends looking at something is 27 seconds. We are painting the walls gray and have three monitors in a darkened room. People enter through a dark curtain, thrown into my psyche in a disorienting way. If I can startle misperceptions of the viewer, I will be very happy.
LF: How would you say that your process has evolved or changed through this work?
JK: I continued making other kinds of films as well: an hour-long PBS concert video, Janis Ian: Live from Grand Center, and my husband Larry Connolly and I did a 30-minute documentary Holding On featuring three couples dealing with disability, shown on Vermont PBS. I also have a blast on YouTube with the little pony videos, because I have a Shetland pony, making lots of those silly little things. Those are much more light-hearted.
The works in the exhibition are political pieces. If there is an organizing principle, it is agitprop. I hope to startle people’s misconceptions. It is important; there is a history of AIDS activism that is not being remembered. In the early ‘90s, artists were picking up any tool they can, to rage against the government, rage against the medical establishment, and rage against families who were just throwing their children aside. This kind of an activism also infused my disability work, bringing forward issues, misconceptions, and fear. People feared people with AIDS. People feared people with disabilities. I hope I can break down some of that fear.
LF: Do you plan continuing your activism after you have retired from the Flynn in 2018?
JK: I used to bifurcate my identities as an arts administrator and as an artist. Once I was at the Harvard Film Archives showing one of my AIDS-related works. At that time, I was working at the Walker Art Center. Someone afterwards raised their hand and said, “Do you ever get confused with that guy with the same name who works at the Walker?”
I used to think, “People will think I am a less-serious arts administrator if I’m also an artist. And people will think I’m a less-serious artist if I’m an administrator.” Since then, I integrate both identities.
I do ongoing commentaries at Vermont Public Radio (VPR) and VTDigger and occasional op-ed pieces for the Burlington Free Press. Therefore, I would say my political activism has remained in print form.
LF: Do you have any other plans or goals moving forward in 2018?
JK: In June, I will be stepping down as the Executive Director here at the Flynn, after eight years. I still have a more than full-time job running the place and I am trying not to figure out what I am going to do next. Next summer, I want to spend time figuring out what my service is going to be. My entire career has been in service to artists, to support artists, to make it possible for them to make their work, for them to share it with audiences, so part of that I hope will remain. In addition, in the ‘90s, I did a lot of hospice work, when my friends were dying from AIDS. I may do some of that work again; however, I am not going to determine it now. I plan to wait, give myself some space, and hopefully the universe will provide.
The Champlain College Art Gallery is located at the Center for Communication and Creative Media, 2nd Floor, 375 Maple St., Burlington, VT 05401. For more information, call (802) 865-8980 or visit http://artgallery.champlain.edu/.