Kean O’Brien (he/they) is a white trans, chronically ill, disabled, artist, educator and academic living between Chicago and Los Angeles. As a multimedia artist working interdisciplinarily between photography, painting, found images, installation and writing, he focuses on the nuance of gendered construction, whiteness, the body as 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 aid in the breaking down of the toxic systems leading marginalized bodies, earth and society to global collapse.
Recent writing publications include 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), Intersectional Practices (Issues #2. Vol. 2., edited by Sarah Faith Gottesdiener), and Nicole Killian (published by Print Matter, 2016)
Recent and upcoming exhibitions include In.Finite Space (Installation for the City of West Hollywood), Mapping A Genocide (Art Center Highland Park, 2021), Mapping A Genocide (Summer Open with Aperture Foundation at Fotografiska NYC, 2020), Beyond Subjectivity (PhotoLA, 2020), FTM Searching (Czong Institute of Contemporary Art, South Korea, 2019) and UnFunction (Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts, 2018). In 2018 they attended Marble House Project Artist Residency funded by the National Endowment For The Arts.
He has lectured all over the country, including Emory College (2015), California State University, Long Beach (2015), California College for The Arts (2016), University of Illinois, Chicago (2017), School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2017), National Women's Studies Association Conference (2019), American Studies Association (2019), University of California, Santa Cruz (2019), American University in Beirut, Lebanon (2020), University of Arizona, Tucson (2020).
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, 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 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.
With O’Brien’s archival project “Mapping A Genocide,” he attempts to develop a theoretical bridge between environmental and social justice. This body of work interrogates historical movements in the archive, binary systems, and bodies that fall outside what is socially constructed as productive and viable. It also considers colonialism and capitalism as two pillars of social and environmental collapse. The bodies who do not produce under capitalism are rendered invisible and ultimately disposable. These are the bodies whose deaths and disappearances are erased from history and washed away from local archives. This archive of images traces trauma on two levels — the individual, by writing the trauma of the person killed onto the physical location of their killing; and the communal, by creating a collective memory of the transgender family we have lost to senseless violence. These images are created by searching headlines for transgender murders and then searching for news and crime reports that lead me to a specific address or intersection of where the murder took place. I then find the location in google maps, screen capture it, and then take it into photoshop to edit out all text and google advertising. Using google maps and co-opting this technology becomes a way of queering a tool used by the state to perpetuate other calculated forms of violence against marginalized communities. Our lack of protection for black life is on the backs of every non-Black person and is our responsibility as white people to dismantle white supremacy and kill this disease we are benefiting from.
Chronic Perspective focuses on the tension and trauma that I hold in my queer, trans, chronically sick, white, disabled body. This work uses photographic imagery from an iPhone that I then turn into paint-by-number canvases. These photographic paintings speak to form, medium, and constitution and unintentionally begin to explore a history in which cisgender ableist subjectivity has dominated. I push up against traditional painting techniques and hold space for these to be seen beyond the trajectory of painting but rather of that of image making. Through taking these photographs, which due to the nature of being hospitalized and experiencing trauma, I do not remember taking, I offer a new self-narrative as I meticulously paint each image. My body becomes the subject of my own narrative, somehow objectifying my own body and point of view. My genderless body and perspective in each of these images show the disconnected nature of being hospitalized and concepts of time, loss, erasure of self, and the vulnerability that a body has within this positionality.
There is repetitiveness in recreating these images into paintings that offer a deep reflection and metaphor to how trauma affects the mind and body. Additionally, paint-by-numbers is historically seen as a craft and I am using this form as means to an end and a way to challenge expected artistic ideals. These paintings become a voice for myself to claim agency in my own historic experiences, regardless of my ability to remember the moments they occurred.
“Tracing Trauma”, a project that holds space for the way trauma traces upon the body, upon O’Brien’s own body. Using sculptures and photos, he creates an index of the trauma that is both positive and negative. It does not insist on a presence; it insists an absence. Just like for a photograph a negative must first be made to get a positive. The glove is an index for the trauma. O’Brien creates traces of a medical glove and then, through the casting process, marks the fading of this trace. It is possible to hold open a space between the index and its object by acknowledging the index as a species of sign, and so, inevitably caught up in a network of signs that you can’t see yourself out of. The index harbors a fullness, an excessiveness of detail that is always supplemental to meaning or intention.The skin in these images can be read as a landscape and the glove a subject/object. The photographs are literal investigations and places of formality that exists as a means to erase the traces of trauma through nurture.
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 contruction, whiteness, the body as landscape for survival, death, grief and trauma.