Q&A with Resident Artist Coby Kennedy
Artist Coby Kennedy has found a city with a kindred spirit. If industrial design and fine arts ever collided geographically, it’s in Detroit. As an industrial designer who turned his attention to the fine arts, Kennedy can see the massive machine dreams that drove the Motor City in designing the streets, the neighborhoods, the people.
“If there’s one thing that has permeated every aspect of Detroit, it’s space,” says Kennedy. “Everything about the city and the culture here seems gargantuan. It’s kind of like the essence of what Detroit became, or the essence of the ideas that industrialists had for the city. They were imagining something very, very big.”
Kennedy can relate. Fresh off receiving his MFA from Columbia University in New York City earlier this year, the 39-year-old artist is accustomed to squeezing large scale artwork out of small NYC studio spaces. He describes his work often “bleeding out” into the hallways and classrooms of Columbia.
At Red Bull House of Art space is an asset, not an issue — and Kennedy is planning to take full advantage. Using mainly concrete, fiberglass and steel, Kennedy is hoping some of his pieces for the residency find their way into the public realm.
“It’s not so much trying something new to go big,” explains Kennedy, “but finally having the freedom to stay big and not shrink stuff down. I spend so much in New York City, I have to shrink down my work to a manageable size that matches the city.”
Kennedy’s multidisciplinary sculptures can feel like functional set pieces pulled from a movie set in a dystopian future that refused to learn lessons from its past. Cinematic and imposing in any medium, Kennedy can make his impact as equally felt on the canvas as via his assault rifle vending machines or New York street signs-turned-makeshift weaponry. There’s contemporary commentary to parse from each piece for sure, but in the way that Kennedy’s body of work is appointing a point system for actions today that will paint a grim future tomorrow.
We spoke with Kennedy during his time at the House of Art to talk about the transition from industrial design to fine arts — and how the two are connected — as well as his hopes for what the audience takes away from his work at the exhibition on November 11.
How did you find yourself wanting to leave the industrial world behind and embrace the fine arts full time?
After quitting industrial design, I wanted to smash my industrial design history and inklings with the practice of fine art and see what comes out of that. That’s almost where everything I’ve done comes from. Most noticeably, that was the assault vending machines that I do and the hypothetical future histories that I’ve given form to.
So many industrial designers that I was around, they wanted to break into something more expressive — where they could express their guts and their thoughts and their feelings. So many industrial designers wanted to be fine artists! One of the problems I saw with so many people trying to do that was that they were making a distinction between industrial and fine art. There isn’t a difference unless you intentionally put one there.
Both of these things are a response to society and culture. In industrial design, we have these goals and these drives that come from the desire to and the need to solve a problem with society or civic culture. People don’t think about this, but you spend more time breaking down the inner workings of contemporary society and predicting the possibilities for future societies than you do drawing pretty pictures and designing stuff. You become more of a sociologist than a maker. That’s something that is right on par with the world of fine art — especially institutionalized fine art — where you spend a lot of your time talking about the ins and outs of societies and pontificating about this or that… and you get into the studio and crank something out that speaks to that. It’s just how you approach it.
How was that translated into your work for House of Art so far?
A lot of my work has a heavy narrative element to it. That comes with being bored with the contemporary world. I’m seeing human nature and pathologies as not really changing so much over time. Seeing the things you see played out right now on a global scale, you can see the exact same things played out throughout history. These kind of narratives are taking that and pushing that conversation forward to see what’s going to happen next. I’m always interested in what’s’ going to happen next. Here, at this residency, I want to expand on those narratives and really kind of bring them into existence in an experiential way. Some of my favorite moments happen when I come face-to-face with something that I wasn’t completely expecting at that time.
How do you hope the audience responds to your work at Red Bull House of Art?
The audience is going to react how they’re going to react (laughs). For the first couple of years [working in fine arts], I was the artist without any artwork — I was just paying attention. I really saw the difference between artists that have a soapbox and preach to the audience and, on the other side, people just want to make pretty pictures. I really like the freedom of just making whatever you want to make without convincing the audience of anything, but also have the power of reaching into someone’s brain and having a conversation with the audience through your work and nothing else.
By Ryan Patrick Hooper