John Miller, Mike Kelley Educational Complex, Afterall Books,  London 2015.

The new book in Afterall’s One Work series, John Miller writes about Mike Kelley work Educational Complex (1995). Below two pictures of the work in question.


Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995 (installation view, Full House: Views of the Whitney’s Collection at 75, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2006). Synthetic polymer, latex, foam core, fiberglass, and wood, 146.7 × 488.2 × 244.2 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee  96.50

‘Freud instead encouraged his now fully cognisant patients simply to talk about whatever might occur to them. He called this technique ‘free association’ and likened it to ‘excavating a buried city.’ (quoted from Freud: A life for Our Time, 1988, p. 69, in Educational Complex, p. 89)

The Afterall On Work book Educational Complex excavates a buried city too. John Miller writes a dense, informative 50 page essay about Mike Kelley’s sculptural installation which features several of the schools Kelley went to. Except CalArts all schools are located in Kelley’s home state, Michigan. Below are a few comments, including extended excerpts from the book. I did highlight some parts in Blue that I found particularly relevant for diverse reasons, especially their proximity to some issues I have been concerned with in my In the Museum project.

Educational Complex quite simply interests me because it features a selection of architectural models connected to a discourse that transgresses the architectural, taking the models into a twilight realm of psycho-architectures that can be linked to a diverse range of topics such as education, musing on institutional bodies, types of institutional critique, Freud’s initial ‘discovery’ of the unconscious; and more modern, ever shifting, adapting notions of the unsconsious.

Despite the supposedly personal choice of schools, Educational Complex is one of Kelley’s more impersonal works: ‘With Educational Complex, Kelley’s focus expanded to include, as artefacts, not only generic forms of architecture (…). Via this archaeology of the contemporary, his concerns became more encompassing and more impersonal.’ (Educational Complex, p. 94)

John Miller has been teaching for years in several US art schools and knows the inner workings of the day-to-day educational art complex. ‘Kelley, concerned as he was with projection and misrecognition, grappled with this basic condition of ideology as his primary aesthetic orientation.’ (Educational Complex, p. 61) Miller describes the mid to late 20th century shift towards a more individualised approach of teaching art students, which may lead to a ‘be and do who you are’ doctrine: ‘Kelley: Since I am an artist, it seemed natural to look to my own aesthetic training as the root of my secret indoctrination in perversity and possibly as the site of my own abuse. My education must have been a form of mental abuse, of brainwashing. Educational Complex, p. 28). Another comment by Kelley alludes to the confusion, perhaps a complex confusion, he experienced while being a student: ‘The assignments he gave were so open-ended that I never knew exactly what was expected of me, or even what the aim a particular exercise was. This confusion was part of the point of the class, I suppose: to define our activity as it went along, or, rather, to learn to develop an approach that would elude definition.’ (from Foul Perfection, MIT Press, 2003, p.200, in: Educational Complex, p. 53)

Another important ideology that is part of the educational framework are the high tuition fees in the US. The fees are a crucial point when thinking about the framework supposedly being based on democratic ideas of a general access to higher education: ‘This question is most acute in the United States, whose institutions require such prohibitively high tuition fees. Even though education alone cannot transform existing political economies, universal access to higher education could help foster social equality.’ (Educational Complex, p. 106)

Educational Complex does not really deal with Kelley’s personal trauma or repressed (or not) elements of his particular curriculum vitae. The actual building design is based on photos Kelley used to recreate the individual models. Miller takes a three way approach to reveal the layers that make the Complex: ‘Here, ‘complex’ might mean an architectural configuration, a psychological syndrome or a political apparatus. Kelley exploits these possibilities to test the institution of art as an ideological horizon, linking them to a dialectic between the sublime and the uncanny. This book follows corresponding lines of enquiry: first, by considering the work’s production as an architectural representation; second, by examining it in terms of education and repression; third, by interrogating its implied conflation of conspiracy theory with institutional critique. (…) To do so is somewhat paradoxical because the piece is fundamentally incoherent.’ (Educational Complex, p. 18) 

My In the Museum trilogy depicts a museum walk by Christopher Walken that starts in an imaginary institution. In the second part, artworks become more animated and begin to form a red portal which Walken enters. While resting, he descends into a museal unconscious structure which will be featured in the upcoming third part. In the Museum muses on an unconscious museum located underground, in psychospherical proximity and interdependence to the ‘real’ museum. In a Jungian sense, it can signify the shadow partner of the physical institution; a shadow formation that includes inner workings, concerns, desires, repressions, substitute actions, uncanny aspects, hidden aspirations, wider contexts and implications of the institution above ground.

With these ideas of an institutional unconscious zone in mind, I was particularly looking for how Kelley and Miller would describe such psycho-zones. Miller: ‘Kelley took special care to expose the CalArts sublevel by cutting a hole in he approximate centre of the platform and placing a mattress for viewers below it, likening the perspective to ‘looking up a skirt’. Because the underground can represent the unconscious, this particular view inflects all the others.’ (Educational Complex, p. 24). The halls of any institution are filled with minds and thoughts, adding strange life to the architectural shell. An institution is a container for social elements: ‘Only through the production of social space can political economy materially produce and reproduce value. It cannot be done in the abstract. Schools engage in a form of knowledge production that is both material and abstract.’ (Educational Complex, p. 31) Some of this constantly produced and reproduced ‘value’ must leave traces and a shadow institution could be the container of remainders, queer marks, hauntings.

Kelley gives an account of the eeriness, the twilight zones that an institution can produce: ‘My father was … in charge of the maintenance for the entire public school system, so I was able to see the hidden underbellies of all the schools in the area. I was taken down into the boiler rooms, and into these kind of secret spaces; and then, on the weekends, when nobody was there, we’d go swimming in the high school pool. Exploring these public buildings when they were empty seemed a weird, creepy, secret thing to do, and I wanted to reclaim that sensation, and make it more sensuous. (Mike Kelley in Minor Histories, MIT Press 2004, pp. 332-33, in: Educational Complex, p. 51) Antony Vidler, in his ‘The Architectural Uncanny’, writes about these hauntings: ‘The ‘uncanny’ is not a property of space itself nor can it be provoked by any particular spatial conformation; it is, in its aesthetic dimension, a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal in order to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming. (Anthony Vidler in The Architectural Uncanny, p. 11, in: Educational Complex, p. 83) ‘Value’, the ‘Social’; human interaction seems to produce side effects that brings the uncanny into being.

Kelley is clearly fascinated by the moments when the uncanny enters, as it has a special, subversive potential: ‘This accords the uncanny a special, subversive power. Because it never permanently transforms reality, it remains always in potential. This allows it to be a constant yet always latent force. Kelley adopts it precisely for these qualities. Understanding the uncanny as a specific kind of meditation, Vidler invokes the words of Theodor Adorno: ‘Estrangement from the world is the moment of art’ (from Aesthetic Theory, 1984, p. 262, in: Educational Complex, p. 86)

A few passage on repression, history and democracy could have been more precise. With regards to liberal democracy, Miller writes: ‘Introducing such intractable, conspirational elements may at first seem like a wild card, but the gesture nonetheless points to fundamental contradictions in the historical construction of liberal democracy. In this way, as a work based on vanished experience, Educational Complex maintains a significant yet precarious relationship to the central argument of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’ (‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, 1940): that the unrealised aspirations of the repressed constitute a latent, yet real, historical force.’ (Educational Complex, p. 105) and, ‘In these narrations, while secret societies such as the Freemasons and the Illuminati initiate new modes of sociability and new concepts of emancipation, democracy is finally forged through the Jacobin Terror. (Educational Complex, p. 105) and: ‘In this vein, historian Cornel Zwierlein further argues that since democracy claims to represent everyone but cannot, it revolves around a vacuum at the centre, especial compared to monarchies that embody power in a discrete, corporeal figure.’ (Educational Complex, p. 106).

These last two passages left me slightly puzzled. Why Miller suddenly uses the very general  term ‘democracy’, when he at other times focuses on the US context (with regards to student fees)? There are many different types of democracies in the world and to my view, Zwierlein’s notion of democracy revolving around an empty centre crumbles when compared to the emptiness of monarchic male chauvinism – however ‘corporeal’ they may be. Also, when Miller mentions how ‘democracy was forged through the Jacobin Terror’, I wonder which system is not based on some form of violence. In these examples on democracy I missed the otherwise precise rendering of an argument. Democracy and monarchies can be uncanny in their swirling around an empty centre or uncanny in their gravitation towards the corporate and aristocratic elites present in both systems (again, the Finnish and US versions of democracy vary greatly). 

Freud’s notion of the uncanny is intrinsically connected to the homely (more evident in the German duo heimlich – unheimlich). Public and private institutions are perfect places where the uncanny finds a home and playground. Not just the architectural and mental spaces, the Educational Complex as such might be uncanny: despite the call for exploring their individualities, the students are supposed to go through an educational system without destabilising or disturbing the overall working of the institution. From this more detached perspective, the students are lifeless puppets mechanically moving (or softly being pushed) through the curriculum. ‘In a curious parallel, many of Kaprow’s post-happenings performances treat habitual behaviours as readymades. They likewise involved perversely automated going-through-the-motions.’ (Educational Complex, p. 59) The school becomes an uncanny factory, a master puppeteer that winks bodies through (while collecting the student fees). Where, then, is the ‘humanity’ within an educational master body, education in general? ‘Yet Mike Kelley, in one of his last essays, maintained that ‘art (and that term would include the products of the critic) is still somehow invested in utopia’ (in John Miller, The Ruin of Exchange, 2012, p. 10) This possibility continues to haunt the otherwise humdrum collection of buildings he assembled in model form for Educational Complex. (…) As far-fetched as this call might seem (particularly in a US context), it targets social inequality directly, especially education.’ (Educational Complex, p. 106)

Miller, on the last page, makes two intriguing points. He dismisses the shown buildings in Educational Complex, yet he pays attention to a notion perhaps locatable in a fourth sublevel  which Educational Complex hints at.

Miller simply reconsiders what Educational Complex appears to be: a grouping of educational buildings in white, presented on a table. What does it mean to go through these buildings, as a human subject? How does someone learn to think and reflect while passing through these buildings, these educational rites of passages? And who can go through a series of buildings, what economical background is required? From Kelley’s personal educational curriculum, to the impersonal sculpture Educational Complex, Miller traces a story that ends in again personal, philosophical musings on the wider educational, and  politico-economical system. Miller’s book, ultimately, unravels these self-reflective germs within Educational Complex.  

‘(…) This question is germane to Educational Complex, not only because it is bound to the ambiguity between imaginary and real, but also because it entail steadily shifting models of subjective experience and continuously revised mappings of the unconscious. From this standpoint, not only subjectivity is at stake, but also the very framework for comprehending it. This forms its critical self-reflexivity.’ (Educational Complex, p. 86)

‘Educational Complex marks a turning point not only in Mike Kelley’s oeuvre, but also in broader critical discourse, especially that of institutional critique. By considering education, Kelley mounted a self-reflexive investigation into how artworks are bound to present-day principles of social hierarchy. This relationship is keyed to political economy, reflected both in the decline of industrialisation and in the ascendancy of the information age. Here, education, artwork and economics combine to triangulate a version of postmodern subjectivity. With remarkable concision, Educational Complex engages these factors to overturn the presumptive relationship between individual and institution, pitting contemporary subject formation against the incalculability of sublime and uncanny experience.’ (Educational Complex, pp. 93-94)

John Miller

John Miller playing, Independent 2010.