Franklin Melendez:  Since 2010, the two of you, Kerstin Brätsch and Debo Eilers. have produced work under the rubric of KAYA—a name taken from Kaya Serene, the daughter of a friend, who entered the fold as an originary “third term” at the age of 13. Never quite ossifying into a formal collaboration, the project has evolved as its own rogue consciousness: nebulous, independent, always adapting to new sites and scenarios. It has drawn others into the mix, a charismatic poltergeist that materializes in increasingly complex configurations, most recently at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I like the Whitney’s description of the KAYA enterprise as a “third consciousness”—something rooted in but independent of your individual practices. It also seems like an apt descriptor of this particular juncture, when the project—like its namesake Kaya Serene—has matured and reached “adulthood,” or at least become a free agent.  What do you make of the “maturing” of KAYA? Is this something that you’ve worked against or given yourselves over to freely?

KAYA:  Maturing is something that we all had to do in that situation. To allow Kaya to mature, we had to be more mature in our relationship to her: dispose of our fascination with her age and act our own age. You could say we’ve given ourselves over too freely in the process. For our first show at an American museum, we used our studio in Greenpoint and its environment as a starting point. Since the works didn’t have to travel too far, we wanted to take advantage of the situation and go extreme with the opportunity to overdo or ridicule our own studio practices. We made works that could hardly move out of the studio, an attempt to abstract our body of work and push it towards an uncanniness that results from the strange familiarity of the objects.

Could KAYA ever become formalized? For instance, the solidifying of certain visual idioms into more recognizable forms and spatial gestures—is this something even worth fretting about?

Although the output of KAYA reaches in many different directions, we don’t have a romantic idea of our work existing beyond a framework (or becoming “formalized”). Because every iteration is a comment on the last, certain details and methods appear again and again, and we are unafraid of them being interpreted as a “formalized” trope within our practice. We don’t necessarily view it as negative.

I know origin myths are somewhat tedious, and perhaps also anathema to the project, but I’m curious anyways. Do you recall how the two of you started collaborating in the first place, perhaps even before it was geared towards a public platform?

Kerstin and I went to school together at Columbia. I remember during the first or second week of the program, we each had to show everyone else our work in an open crit. I remember one night after one of these crit days, I was hanging out in Brooklyn at my friend’s Mike’s apartment with my friend Jake, eating Indian food and getting stoned. Because I lived at Columbia at the time, I was transferring from the L to the 1 train at 6th Ave, walking down the long hallway that stretches an avenue underground. I ran into Kerstin there; she was wearing an Adidas tracksuit (exactly how I imagined all German artists dressed at the time) and was heading back to her place in Williamsburg. She was stressing out about how all the American artists’ works were funny and her paintings were not. I remembered her paintings from earlier in the day and thought that they were the best paintings I had ever seen. I remember this all really clearly, because I feel as if our dynamic hasn’t changed that much from that time: Kerstin being really stressed out and me just really stoned.

As you noted, Kaya Serene, the original third term for the project, was initially enlisted as a “variable” or free radical. She set the template for a long list of others, among them Daniel Chew in drag for KAYA III (2013), the graffiti artist N.O. Madski for KAYA V (2016), the ritual attendants in KLUB KAYA (2015). What is the allure of these tertiary creative forces? Often, they’re drawn from an intimate orbit (friends, family, students), but still remain “external.” Is the choice always intuitive, serendipitous or a combination of both?

We would describe our choices as being intuitive rather than serendipitous. KAYA hovers above Debo and Kerstin like a drone without a remote control, out of our control in some ways. It alerts us to the situations we are given and guides us towards the creation of some place else. 



Do you still enlist Kaya Serene’s input on projects? Or has she evolved into her own artistic voice?

Kaya for sure has her own sense of being in the world. We are working on projects constantly, and there is an open invitation to her to be involved and she knows that. She takes it if she wants to and it fits into her schedule.

The idea of performance and performativity are a key undercurrent to the KAYA output with staged rituals and collaborative gatherings punctuating most iterations—for instance, the inaugural performance at 179 Canal, KAMP KAYA at Kunsthaus Bregenz, as well as the six-day workshop that will take place in Museo Madre, Naples as KAYA Napoli, inside and among KAYA’s House, culminating in a procession through the town.  For you, what is the relationship between performance and ritual? What types of spaces or states of mind do they open up?

We engage with ritual in our performances because it allows us to include in our endeavors an unforeseeable and unknown force into our process. Where once this was focused on the figure of Kaya, it has transformed to include anything from the infrastructure of a foreign city to Kerstin’s students from the German academies in Munich or Hamburg. These performances, often staged within well-known institutional structures, work to open these spaces up toward a more organic process and to invite a different mode of production and discourse around the project.

Are there particular modes of ritual that you draw from—for instance, Kerstin has referenced occult symbology in her own practice—or is it largely improvised? 

Most of our performances start with a very simple action: dragging, burying, signing. This is our invitation to others and whatever happens after is in response to what our collaborators bring to the action. It is always a group effort and the energy can be directed this way or that depending on who pushes it towards what they want to do with it. Our instructions act as a first step to get somewhere else and as a basis on which to build the rest of the performance.

In a weird way, this gets me to the 1970s and conversations around secondary practices that foster and open up communal spaces. I’m thinking of exercises like Gordon Matta-Clark’s artist-run restaurant, Food, which provided a platform for a different kind of creative sociability. Do you look at all at these types of precedents or do you prefer to remove yourselves from any direct art historical narratives?

We are definitely aware of the art historical precedents to the type of gestures that we are making, but we are careful not to use anything too much as a direct reference, or else it can turn into a trap. Most of the time we are allowing things to happen on their own, and it would put a sort of stoppage on the energy if we had some preformed narrative in mind. Listening to drunk people in the park outside the studio window or the school kids discussing their latest smartphone apps is where we find that desperate energy that we are striving for.

In practical terms, given the over-determination of the art world today, it seems that exploring these types of imaginative and physical spaces is particularly necessary, perhaps urgent. Does KAYA provide a model for attaining a certain level of freedom (even if temporary)?

Not a model, but definitely an attempt.

Speaking of the art world, I have to say I find KAYA particularly art-world-savvy; the project plays with so many of the mores and clichés of the art world and also the market: negating the idea of authorship; foregrounding thematics of exchange and value; underscoring the circulation of signatures as a type of liquid currency. How did this dimension come into play in your thinking, or has it seeped in more organically?

These things seeped in more organically, maybe because we both went to art school in New York, or maybe because we struck the right combination of being a European woman and an American man. The very literal interpretation of this in our work (the coin) showed up because we were offered a show through an institution and then immediately put into a sticky situation. It was our way of dealing with the bureaucracy of the institution and still making work in the way that they had agreed on. We poured liquid into molds for our signature currency to make giant coins. Only through a retrospective gaze did it become clear what had happened: in reacting to the institution, we were at the same time reading it. In that situation (and many others), we have learned through experience to strip bare, rather than hide these aspects of how art works. One time somebody told us that “collectives don’t sell”—and they don’t. But brands do.

I also bring this up because rarely do artists engage directly with the nitty-gritty of art economics. But for KAYA, the first iteration was a response to an economic need: a fund raising event for rent for what was then the artist-run 179 Canal.  Why do you think the art structure is so reticent to directly address concerns over basic sustainability?

It was just so obvious to us and had so much potential. For 179 Canal, we also wanted the show and thought, if the space didn’t exist, it could never happen, so we needed to take action fast. It was an efficient way for us to do two things at the same time: plan our show and make sure the space continues for that to happen, taking the cake and eating it too. With a space like 179, there was flexibility and a community built into its foundation, so it was a lot easier to ask for help from the community to keep things running for another couple of weeks.



Speaking of, in the third KAYA iteration, you offered an interesting solution: engaging not in a gift economy, but rather an alternate exchange economy based on a gambling game. At the opening, the winner scored a work from the show for $90, and the rest of the funds were allotted for Kaya Serene’s college fund. Something about this offered a glimpse into alternate ways the art market could function. Is this possible, or must our art currencies always remain fixed? 

As we mentioned before, this was an attempt at something—we don’t know if it worked out for us. You could call it a gamble. Most gambles lose to the house, and while we were trying to function as the house, the real house itself still won. What we want to be transparent about is the fact that the rest of the work in that show was up for sale at a “normal” art price and that we were also fully engaged with that part of the art market. Also, if you look closely at the situation this alternative functioning of the market was predicated on the artists’ self-flagellating. If we could get the market to do the same, it would be amazing.

The body is another key axis to the KAYA output—from the “body bags,” which function as free-standing structures, partitions and also corporeal stand-ins filled with so much matter, to different casts taken over the years of Kaya Serene, which are then incorporated into other structures; even the suspended coins have been described as “tumors” or “growths.” Tell me about the function of the bodily in your work.

When we first started making the body bags, we were interested in capturing or embodying the third consciousness that we discussed earlier. How do we imagine such a form and how do we allow for the other energies to show up and play around in our work. What resulted was something grotesque, misshapen and bumpy, and we didn’t fight against that—we actively pushed it towards it. To us, it represented very accurately the surplus of personalities and hands and sweat that went into the making of the work. It allowed us to look at the artwork as a product of the community effort it entailed, a mix of voices blended together into a whole, but not one that was ever symmetrical or seamless.

Finally, tell me a little bit about the portfolio that accompanies this interview.

The portfolio was constructed in the same way that we make all our other artworks: by taking elements from past works and forcing them to crash up against each other. Everyone leaves a mark somehow. At points beautiful, but also very ugly and grotesque. Harsh. Handcrafted, but overworked so much as to hide the hand behind the din of activity happening all around. Our portraits show up at different points in the portfolio, a type of glamour shot suited to such an environment.

Image courtesy of the artist