Kevin B. Lee (Video Essayist, MAVCS 2016)

Visual and Critical Studies
Kevin B. Lee Headshot


A conversation with Kevin B. Lee and Patrick Durgin, February 2021


Patrick: When I first met you, you were already working on the video essay, acknowledging, defining, and innovating the form. We get the word “essay” from the French verb “essayer”: to try, to attempt. What special effort does video make on your behalf?

Kevin: Your question makes me reflect on video essays as a form that has come into its own only in the last 15 years with the rise of online digital media. That’s just a kernel of time compared to the five century history of the essay as a textual form. But in those 15 years one can behold a Cambrian explosion of possibilities for how thoughts can be expressed audiovisually. 

I interpret your question in terms of how a refined literary form as essays can be translated to audiovisual media, but one could ask this question in the other direction. We are in the midst of a major transitional period of human communication where the audiovisual is complementing and even supplanting the textual as a preferred mode of speech, what I call the new audiovisual vernaculars. So for me it’s a question of how to realize the fullest potential of audiovisual expression to express human thinking, analogous to how the text essay evolved from and relates to other forms of literature.

You’re right that the French etymology conveys this quality of openness and exploration, as exemplified in the works of Michel de Montaigne, who coined the term. It’s unfortunate that so much of what gets labeled essays these days - both textual and audiovisual - is more didactic than poetic, more explanatory than exploratory. This is true especially in pedagogical contexts like schools and commercial contexts like YouTube. In both cases essays are used as a way to instill regimes of correct thinking and normalized expression. These are the dominant modes that should be challenged. I owe a lot to my time at SAIC and the VCS program in particular for providing the intellectual resources to do so.


Still from Kevin B. Lee's "Bottled Songs 3 - The Spokesman"

still from Bottled Songs 4 - The Spokesman (2018)


Patrick: The poetic vs. the didactic, that’s a perennial problem. I remember your piece in the Second Annual Festival of Poets Theater here in Chicago. You were doing these real time things, among them, typing with these colorful laser beam rings, which was sort of funny but also compelling and even hypnotic. That combination was a revelation for me. And I remember thinking, this guy would make an excellent teacher. Now, reasonably enough, you co-direct the Master’s program, Research in Art, Design and Media at Merz Akademie. How do you translate the performative aspects of your artistic practice into pedagogy, keeping in mind the risk of didacticism baked into essayistic genres? 

Kevin: Thinking about how performativity, essayism and pedagogy have worked together in the Merz Master’s program, I should acknowledge particular qualities that characterize the cohort. We have a diverse group of students not only in terms of discipline (film, photography, interface design and product design) but culture and language (our sessions switch between English, German and Mandarin). The challenge of communication becomes foregrounded and is as vital as the research project itself. 

In facing this challenge I am greatly indebted to Joseph Grigely. During my MAVCS studies he provoked an expanded, inclusive and resourceful approach to artistic and research practices as a form of language-making. 

Since the question of communicating one’s research is positioned equally to the question of what to research, students are encouraged to experiment with how these two work together. If there is a didactic element to this curriculum, it is: don’t take your presentation method for granted!  Video essays are of course what I know best, and I certainly prefer it to the exhausted power point. 

But video essays are just one option among the broad field of audiovisual vernaculars I mentioned before. Students can make photo essays, maps, data visualizations, or combine pre-recorded and live elements to their presentation. One of the Chinese students used an AI to speak English on his behalf. Each of these options has its own set of performative qualities. So it raises the question of how research works as a mode of social performance, and how research-as-performance then connects to research-as-language-making. But it all does point toward framing research as a social (and society-forming) activity.

Patrick: That is exactly Joseph! Many students come to VCS with a fairly defined set of interests and projects, often because they already encompass research and production, theory and practice. There are other programs in “Visual Studies” or “Visual Culture,” but it sounds like what we’re doing, here in Chicago, which you’ve taken with you to Stuttgart, is almost unique. I see it in your more recent work, too. For example,  “Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox.” I’m struck by the spatial relationships you explore in the film, which illustrate the versatility and perseverance of “social distancing,” long before it was called that or had anything to do with “public health,” except maybe in a eugenic sense.  The generic, junk-space architecture and topography, the stroll through the parking lot, even the shadows are full of echoes. It’s a formalist analysis (of Platoon) but also a personal reckoning. Was there ever an impermeable boundary between auto-theory and “visual culture”? I feel like a lot of people pretended there was, and for a good long time, too.

Kevin: I’m delighted that you see this link between my VCS time at SAIC and the personal mapping of space depicted in “Explosive Paradox.” It’s partly indebted to the psychogeography practices espoused by the likes of Trevor Paglen (SAIC grad!) and Situationism. But your remark also brings to mind this final project video I made for the first semester Intro to VCS seminar, taught at the time by James Elkins. Throughout the semester Jim kept offering these lists, charts, bibliographies and taxonomies he had devised over the years for understanding what VCS is. It was fascinating to behold all his efforts to account for the VCS project; Jim has a tremendous analytical capacity that I’m drawn to. At the same time it was an overwhelming amount of material. Taking it all in I felt this strange urgency, that something very powerful was at the heart of it if I could only see it.

So I spent that finals week processing and distilling all of his charts into a pithy set of “VCS precepts” that I could imagine carrying in my pocket wherever I go. The video ends with this weird POV shot of me walking in Chicago with this schematic I had devised from Jim’s diagrams, arranged almost like a targeting display that fighter pilots wear in their helmets, or something the Terminator or Iron Man would look through. I think that reveals something about what I was desiring from the VCS program: a kind of ideological X-ray vision or super seeing. Watching it today it’s pretty ridiculous, but the proposition of seeing space differently - and as you say, distantly - through a conscious lens of critical studies is something I still believe in. Perhaps what’s changed for me is approaching this less with a conviction in scholarly or objective authority and more honesty to one’s positionality. 


Still from Kevin B. Lee's "Right Now Then Wrong" (2016)

still from Right Now Then Wrong (2016)


Patrick: My own journey through SAIC (as faculty, not a student) has had similar results. Initially based in literature and cultural studies, I moved from the periphery to the center of the VCS program, largely because I saw that the field of “Visual Studies” is much more expansive and responsive in the context of an interdisciplinary art school like ours. I don’t think that attention to the critical force of positionality is leveraged or relied upon as much as it is here. Let’s say it’s contagious and we are able to populate the world with super seers. Do we have the same world with better art, or do we get a better world as well?

Kevin: Be careful what you wish for! I remember fondly that Joseph would say about VCS that the “visual” is the most overrated part of the acronym. And in a present reality of fatigued eyes glued to computer screens, even to inhabit it with super sight may not be enough. If we can have a world that allows us to engage our full set of senses, maybe that’s the new contagion our critical energies could engineer.


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Disclaimer: All work represents the views of the INDIVIDUAL ARTISTS & AUTHORS who created them, and are not those of the school or museum of the Art Institute.