Kean O’Brien (he/they) (b. 1984, Lima, Ohio) is a white trans, chronically ill, disabled, artist, educator, and academic living between Chicago and Madison. As a multimedia artist working interdisciplinarily between photography, painting, found images, installation, and writing, he focuses on the nuance of gendered construction, whiteness, and the body as a landscape for survival, death, grief, and trauma. His academic writing explores the current landscape of higher education from an abolitionist, decolonial lens. He has a longstanding commitment to radical pedagogy, community building, and grassroots organizing. He is called upon to approach his work from a place of solidarity with the communities and environments that hold him, to create a sustainable collective for art and writing to thrive in and to aid in the breaking down of the toxic systems leading marginalized bodies, earth and society to global collapse.
Kean O’Brien received an MA in Education and Leadership in 2022, an MFA from CalArts in 2011, and graduated with a BFA from SAIC in 2008, and is currently a Ph.D. student at University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Recent and upcoming writing publications include The Desire for Ugliness: Queers, Rebels, and Freaks, (part of Vol. 5 Playing Shakespeare's Characters, published by Peter Lang Press).
Home: The Trans Body (FWD: Museum, published by UIC Museum Studies Department and Sister Spit, 2020), Boyle Heights and The Fight Against Gentrification As State Violence (The American Quarterly Journal, published by John Hopkins Press, 2019), The American Culture of Guns and Prisons (FAYN Magazine, 2017), and others.
O’Brien has exhibited, screened, and curated work at Mana Contemporary in Chicago, Geffen Contemporary at MoCA, Rochester Contemporary Art Center, Emory College, Fotografiska Museum, The Gay and Lesbian Canadian Archive, and Czong Institute of Contemporary Art in South Korea, among others. They have also shared their experience as creative educator with various institutions, speaking at University of Illinois, the University of New Mexico, University of Lebanon, Beirut, University of Arizona in Tucson, University of California, Santa Cruz, National Women’s Studies Association Conference in San Francisco, American Studies Conference in Honolulu, and San Francisco Art Institute.
O’Brien is engaging the intersections between body, and environment, and interrogating the ways in which artificial borders have marked a demarcation between the two. There is no way to conceive of the sick body, the trans body, the body that defies borders, and the racialized body, without understanding that these states of being exist in direct opposition to the constructed environment and are the bodies most urgently impacted by the environment collapse. We use the same extractive practices to pillage the Earth for resources that we use to take emotional resources (and, in many cases, life itself) away from people of color, queer people, immigrants, and women. In both cases, we are unconcerned with sustainability and the offering of any system of replenishment.
He considers both the body as landscape and the landscape as a human body. In the midst of a moment when gender is in revolution, race politics are being interrogated and resisted against, where bodies are seen as sites of controversy, they are also deeply linked to the environment that holds them. How can we expand our definition of the environment to imply the humans in it? What does a water crisis in Flint have to do with Blackness, a pipeline going through North Dakota with Indigenous rights, a river revitalization project with the poor Brown community getting gentrified out, the Olympic Village with the lives of Trans women? The answer is, everything. His work spotlights the connections between the collapse of the environment and its direct relationship to the marginalization of voices, thus entering the environmental art space and allowing for its exploration from the inside out.
As a multimedia artist working interdisciplinarily between video, photography, found images, installation, and writing, he focuses on queer strategies of survival in end times, the nuance of gendered construction, whiteness, the body as a landscape for survival, death, grief, and trauma.