Back and Forth: Mike Kelley’s Psychedelic Pedagogy


  • Mary Anderson Wayne State University
  • Richard Haley Wayne State University


Analysis of the work of Mike Kelley (1954-2012) reveals a career-long investigation of the performative relationship between artist and audience. Characterized as “antagonistic” (Diederichsen 2014) towards his audience, critics have described him as a “master provocateur” (Roussel 2012) who “abused his audience on account of ideas it had not yet voiced and perhaps not even considered” (Miller 2015, 17). These characterizations are based on the presuppositions that Kelley harbored a fundamental mistrust of the viewer and held a concomitant fear that his work would be misinterpreted and devalued because of arbitrary biases. Departing from the master narratives on Kelley-as-antagonist, we suggest that a more robust interpretation of the artist’s work comes from the premise that his entire oeuvre is organized around a dynamic pedagogical game that invites the viewer to co-produce a conflicting set of meanings that change over time. Analyzing the totality of Kelley’s production as a series of interrelated performances – including his actual performances, his sculptures and installations, his films, essays, and even the speech acts contained in interviews about his practice – opens up a reversal of the existing narrative about Kelley. Instead of the “clever master” revealing didactic truths to an ignorant audience, Kelley is, in fact, fascinated with the multiplicity of interpretations that his works elicit and is ultimately dependent on these modes of exchange to produce his works. We will examine the extent to which Kelley’s promotion of a “back and forth” relationship between artist and audience cultivates and performs a form of interdependency that invites spatial and structural shifts in knowledge transfer. 

Author Biographies

Mary Anderson, Wayne State University

Associate Professor, Theatre & Dance

Richard Haley, Wayne State University

Lecturer, Art & Art History