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New video exhibit by former Vermont lawmaker offers meditations on grief and art-making

person in grey shirt and glasses watching bubbles rise overhead
Jeanmarie Cross/Courtesy
Three new intermedia art videos created by former Vermont legislator John Killacky are on display in White River Junction.

A man sits silently at a table. Placed on it are a metronome, a violin, a piece of chalk, a matchbox, magnifying glasses, and a bell, among other items. There’s something mesmerizing about how the man in the video slowly engages with these items, one after another. What is he doing — and why?

Well, let’s endeavor to find out by speaking with the man who made this video, called Flux. He’s John Killacky, a former Vermont legislator and former executive director of the Flynn in Burlington, and this video, along with two others are on display at Junction Arts & Media in White River Junction now through the end of the month.

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with John Killacky about his intermedia exhibit at JAM. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: You call this "video art" more specifically, "intermedia art." And, I like to think of the one that I was describing just now in the lede as a kind of antidote to the quick-hit Tiktok videos that are so popular these days. Not that there's anything wrong with those some of them are wonderful. But these videos seem to serve a very different purpose. How would you describe the installment and what you're hoping to communicate with these pieces?

John Killacky: Well, this is sort of my homage to artists in the early 60s, in New York and Europe. They banded together and called themselves Fluxus. They were anti-elitist artists, basically. And they said an idea is as important as a product. They took mundane objects, and they focused on a single gesture around the object. And their thought was, by doing this intentionally, the process becomes the art.

So what I did in my piece is I took 12 of these artists that I love. These people, to me, had been sort of forgotten. I didn't want to recreate what they did. But I wanted to take their versions of what a light, a match, and follow it; or draw a line and follow. I wanted to do that. So it's a 14-minute piece. I don't think anyone needs to understand what Fluxus was, what the intention of that was, I just hope that people can see it's sort of like Zen-like meditation on the process of making art.

The items that you engage with take on a kind of personality, you give them a personality, there's a kind of an intimacy in the way you interact with them. Was that part of the purpose, as well to show that regular objects that we engage in and maybe don't think about much every day, can be used in a way that makes them more intimate?

Every piece in the video is a found object. So the table I'm sitting at, I married some folks on a farm this summer, and they had an old table they were going to throw away after the wedding ceremony, I said, "No, I can use that table." And then I wanted to find an old violin, but I wanted one that was broken to kind of look at it as a violin, or maybe a different kind of instrument. And so I was talking to a friend and a colleague in the Vermont House, Rep. Gabrielle Stebbins, who said, "Oh, I have a violin that has no strings, and it has a crack in it." I said, "Perfect, can I borrow it?"

John Killacky in a grey shirt, holding a violin
Jeanmarie Cross/Courtesy
Scene from John Killacky's film 'Flux'

So each piece in the 12 actions, I had to find them. And that was really fun because if I couldn't find it, I wasn't going to be able to do an action with it. So the whole thing is about a collection of everyday objects that happened in my life. And then taking these sorts of scores, these propositions, these performance actions of these Fluxus artists, what could that mean today for me with these objects?

I want to talk about another video that you can see in this exhibit, called Elegies. Tell me how the death of George Floyd actually works into this.

Well, Eiko Otake and I made this piece in 2019.

John, for those who may not be familiar, tell us briefly who Eiko Otake is?

Yes, Eiko Otake is a choreographer, and she, for many years, worked as a duo with her husband. They were Butoh dancers. They didn't speak. They were very slow, organic movers. She took this duets program where she went to artists in different disciplines, and said, "Let's collaborate to see what that could mean."

I realized that change happens from the fringe.
John Killacky

In Elegies, it's Eiko and I talking to our dead mothers. And so we made it, in a very personal way, about us and our relationships. But in COVID, people were responding to it, because they could not say goodbye to their family, in nursing homes or their uncle or their grandmother or whatever. So it was about loss. And then we were invited to show the work in Minneapolis, the week George Floyd was murdered. And in George Floyd's last words, he called out for his mother. And so for that audience, it was really about George Floyd calling out. You know, we could look at what happened in Memphis a few weeks ago, another Black man calling out to his mother as he’s beaten to death. What's amazing to me is when I make these works, and then the audience defines its meaning.

Watch John Killacky and Eiko Otake's short film from Vermont Public'sMade Here.

You mentioned that it was another Vermont House member who told you about the cracked violin that you could use in the Flux piece. And you did spend four years in the Vermont House of Representatives. I'm wondering how your time as a state legislator informed your art. Or did your art inform your time in the Legislature in some way?

Well, it was a very profound experience on so many levels, Mitch. I had been running the Flynn Center, I had a career in the arts. And I went to the Legislature and I was a beginner again. And that was an extraordinary gift. It also was a huge responsibility. And I sat on General Housing and Military Affairs. And so I found myself drawn to the issues of homelessness and safety net for people. And I realized that I think it's my art that influenced my political life more than my political life influenced my art, because always what I had done as an artist and an arts administrator was work from the fringe, the avant garde like the Fluxus people. But I realized that change happens from the fringe.

And so when I’d be visiting the homeless encampments in Burlington, I thought if I could help solve some of the issues for these people, right now that I'm with, I'm going to solve society's problems as well. And so I think it's that avant garde perspective of the change that informed the way I did stuff in the Legislature.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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