Thinking Aloud: Interview with Mary Reid and Patrick Kelly
Andrea: The first thing I have to say is that I think your work is absolutely brilliant and unique. I would like to ask about your collaboration with Patrick. I am curious how that came about. Was it organic?
Mary Reid Kelley: We've been together since 2002, but we didn't start working together until 2008. We've been collaborating together for ten years, so it's been a slow roll towards this full collaboration together. When we started making films together it was just under my name, but gradually Pat's involvement became much more significant and we started crediting him over the years.
Patrick Kelley: It's evolved a lot over time. It’s been very organic because we're always talking about ideas. When we were first together I was teaching full time, and when Mary decided to shift into video, I was there to help out. I eventually stopped teaching and we gradually built up how much and how early I was involved in the projects.
Mary: I guess your question is about what it’s like to share an artistic practice and also be romantically partnered.
Andrea: I haven't interviewed a lot of partners, but I've noticed that the the times I have it took a while to acknowledge the other partner. Why did Patrick begin to participate more and how much did it have to do with trust in the relationship.
Mary: I think we've always had a lot of trust in our relationship, and I think we always had a lot of admiration for each other's individual practice, which was a big part in driving us together, and our romantic attraction to each other, which is the essential bond between us. But I think I had to totally redefine what it meant and what it felt like to have an artistic practice; normally you think things out yourself, in your head. Now I don't think solely in my own head. I also think aloud with Pat and that's a type of trust. When you haven't made a decision yet and you are like, "Well I'm thinking about this, but also this." You're giving a lot of power to whomever you talk to even though it might seem casual.
Andrea: Why do you feel that Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha, which you used for source material, is relevant now?
Mary: I initially looked at the poem because I wanted to learn more about the unusual meter it's written in, which is trochaic tetrameter. It's what makes the poem sound so distinctive. That's why I even thought to look at Hiawatha, because I wanted to write the script for In The Body of The Sturgeon in trochaic tetrameter, because it's kind of a clanky mechanical sounding meter and the Sturgeon is a submarine. I considered it as forcibly rearranging Hiawatha to make a new narrative for new purposes. It's not an entirely respectful treatment, but Hiawatha isn't just a classic example of noble savage literature or cultural appropriation. It’s also very interesting to look at the text and ask, "In what way is Hiawatha racist?" When Longfellow was writing the poem in 1855, he was making an attempt to shape the way 19th century Americans thought about Native Americans who were very much in their midst and engaged in a desperate battle for survival. They’re presented as essentially childlike creatures, whose sustainability in the new industrial modernizing 19th century is tragically doomed. It's a white supremacy narrative. I think it's incredibly important to go back and query these kinds of grand monuments to white supremacy.
Andrea: I love how you make a political statement in such an original way. When working on your Lightbox series, in the gallery now, why did you choose lightboxes?
Patrick: The lightboxes started with the exhibition we had at the Hammer in 2015. They showed The Minotaur Trilogy and they have a courtyard with these old, large window spaces that were originally for movie posters in the old movie theaters. When we did the show, the Hammer commissioned new work for those windows, and that catalyzed the idea of making these large lightbox portraits of the characters from our films, in the tradition of movie posters. We did those, we really liked them, and we wanted them to be really high resolution. The new boxes are stand-alone lit panels with large prints that are full or actually larger-than-life portraits for the characters.
Andrea: They look fantastic!
Patrick: We really liked how it turned out. We would usually shoot that character's lightbox portrait on the same day as their scenes in the film just to be efficient. We would set up a pose and some green screen and I would shoot them almost like a panorama. We would take seven or eight photos up and down and piece them together so that we would end up with a really high-resolution total image.
Andrea: Mary, is that you in every photograph?
Patrick: Every different character.
Andrea: The reason why I'm asking is you mentioned in previous interviews that you play all your roles because you were initially too embarrassed to let anyone else act and say the lines. Is that true in In The Body of The Sturgeon? Because there were some sculptures or figures where they had a few heads. Is one Patrick, or is it just edited that way?
Mary: In the films, with some exceptions, I play every role. But for the sculptures, what you're seeing is an assemblage of objects that are either from the film or painted and constructed in the same style as the film. The faces you’re referring to are masks that I've painted in the same way that I painted my own face for Sturgeon. We made extensive use of masks for the Minotaur Trilogy because it was an ancient or classically themed piece, and masks and tragedy and drama were at the forefront of the things we were looking at to add that human facial presence to the sculptural works.
Andrea: I love it. Mary, do you ever find yourself slipping into the role of your characters when you're not orchestrating a performance?
Mary: Really? (Laughs)
Patrick: I mean, there are occasions when we're quoting things to each other; if there's some stupid line in the news or something that reminds us of a line you wrote. I guess that's not really falling into character.
Mary: We love wordplay and bad puns, all good puns are bad. We do that constantly. But I don't consider myself at all professionalized as an actor and so I'm never tempted to slip into a character.
Patrick: That makes me think of how sometimes when we go somewhere and are meeting someone for the first time for shows and then someone is so surprised to meet Mary. Like, "Wow, you are not at all what I expected."
Andrea: When you did the poem from Thomas Hood, that was something that I could see somebody living with day to day because it's depression and suicide. How did that affect you day to day, and how did it affect you when you were writing?
Mary: Yeah, the content does affect me. It's impossible not to because with something like This Is Offal, the theme was suicide and self-deception and this constant dividing of the self, and self-versus-self. Hating yourself, which requires a certain amount of talking to yourself and then, of course, trying to counteract those voices. The self is so fractured. The thing about making a film about suicide is that suicide has affected so many people, indirectly or directly. That's a tragedy that spares very few people. It’s been sobering.
Patrick: With the recent one too, the submarine with the lives of the soldiers.
Mary: Oh, doing the research for the submarine piece was so sad.
Andrea: What was your most challenging project, the one that you felt was the biggest risk you took for a project?
Mary: There are different types of risks. This Is Offal was genuinely difficult because it required me personally, I think Pat too, to draw on our own feelings of self-castigation, self-doubt, self-contempt; those personal lows that a lot of people feel and we're not exceptions to that. There is always that extra bit when you're using yourself as source material; you can suffer from it at times. But then there's also a more externalized risk of when you take up a subject that people are going to find alienating or difficult to grasp. And for us, I think that project was probably the mythology-based project, because I think we're undergoing a major reassessment and shift in how people think about time in the past.
Patrick: And we've gotten this from the very beginning. When we were doing material about World War 1, we had many people ask, "Why World War I?" as if we were nuts. Well, think, look into it and you'll see how utterly important it is. But then overall, just having history as a project is a way to reject this provincialism of the present that Mary mentioned. Without stepping outside that, you can never feel aware of your own cognitive framework on reality, which can be so automatic and so normalized in your mind. It does good for our imagination to try to step outside and imagine how people saw the world differently in the past. Not just what happened in the past, but how did people engage with reality and how is that different now?
Andrea: Would you say that your work is activism?
Mary: Yeah, because I think any time you have someone attempting to be a free thinker in public that's activism.
Andrea: What kind of advice would you give to younger artists who struggle to get into the worlds that you are in?
Patrick: Work on your attention.
Andrea: Mary, you talk about wordplay a lot and how it morphs into other things. Do you think you'll ever do something with rap?
Mary: I think that rap absolutely belongs to the oldest category of oral/written culture that we have. You know the Iliad and the Odyssey are epic oral tales; they were performed as Pat said. And I think that rap is absolutely part of this ancient human tradition, and even particular aspects of rap like the kind of extreme effort to define the self and to make a praiseworthy image of the self and to surround the self with objects of desire is entirely what happens in Beowulf and the Iliad with the spoils of war and people bragging about their exploits. It's not just a category that rap and epic poetry share. I would say that our work is also in this broad category, partly because as the composer of the words and the speaker of the words, there is a kinship with rap artists because genre conventions ask the performer of the lyric to be the writer of the lyric, which we don't ask of pop stars but we do ask of rap artists. We also ask that of comedians; if a stand-up comedian gets up then the conventions of the genre dictate that Sarah Silverman or Chris Rock be the person who wrote these words and that these are their ideas. And so I consider my writing and performance of my writing to be akin to that as well. I've also made portraits of rap artists that I've been influenced by and really admire; Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj, and made portraits of them along with poets that I admire and I include them because they're essentially in the same broad category of endeavor.
This interview has been condensed and edited. You can read the full interview on the Kellys’ work in our latest issue RISK.