Kelly O

Your latest project, a "Graphic-Tele-Novella," is called Cutie Beauty & the Trailer of Doom. It stars you as Cutie Beauty, is performed live but also filmed by several cameras at once to be put on YouTube in episodes, and includes music and comics and the character Bear-Sometimes-Man, played by emeritus UW photo professor Paul Berger. It's sort of Cindy Sherman meets Adbusters, the Kardashians, and experimental film. What exactly is it? It's like this living thing that's becoming its own organism. It started with a collaboration between me and Paul Berger. I had been teaching his spring classes while he was on sabbatical. Then I was taking students to Spain, and he asked me, "What work are you going to be doing in Spain? Are you working with another persona? Are you taking all of your wigs?"

I said, "Yeah, I want to be this persona who delivers soliloquies, because I'm going to be teaching all day, and I'll have no time to myself except when I wake up in the morning and when I go to bed at night." I wanted to be like the Log Lady, who says these prophetic things, but nonsensical.

I decided I would let my students decide who she is. They each wrote down character traits. They had a brunch and read the traits into a confessional camera hidden in the refrigerator. When I edited the episode footage later, I was able to learn who my character was: Cutie Beauty is always late. Cutie Beauty has daddy issues. Cutie Beauty has a secret husband in prison. Cutie Beauty lives in a camper trailer. Now I write scripts, but I have to honor her character traits. And people are still writing them.

Like who? Anyone I give a prompt to. Prompts are based on various things. Like these cards. You can have that one. [Pulls a Rhymo Dominoes card with the words and pictures for a ram and a dinner plate out of her bag and pushes it across the table.] You can do anything. Write anything. Cutie Beauty is defined by the people around her.

Why? I don't know, other than I am really interested in how society shapes us. I'm kind of a chameleon in some ways. It's partly because I'm a middle child, and my sister was made fun of because she had really bowed legs, and I would take that role of trying to defend her but make people like her. It was really hard for her, growing up in a small town. We were in Newcastle, Wyoming. One stoplight. Everyone is ranchers, coal miners, or they work in the oil fields. It's a place where everyone is the same for the most part, so one little abnormality makes you a total outcast.

Music, movies, art—what's the biggest influence? Cinema more than anything. David Lynch. Have you seen the HBO show Carnivàle? Terry Gilliam. But musicians, too, like PJ Harvey. I love her. I would become her in my bedroom. The Pixies I couldn't help, because I love Kim Deal. Some of my favorite filmmakers are Jeunet and Caro; they did Delicatessen.

What do they have in common, the common thread? It's just a feeling. Feeling alive and feeling haunted, feeling empowered to activate the senses and not be afraid of them. I think I'm more into the dark, the subversive, the sadcore—it inspires my visual field in some way. And my first photography teacher was a feminist, and I really responded. I was like, yes, just let it all out, who cares? I can photograph penises and do what I want with them.

Did you do that? Yes [laughs]. I photographed my boyfriend at the time's penis. It's so embarrassing. This is art school, so tampon in the teacup is okay, right? I went to the cemetery and decorated the statues with leopard-print panties and photographed them, and then the central statue—I put the penis on a pedestal. I had five panels. The biggest was 16 by 20.

Five panels for one penis? For one penis. It was a great penis, though. People were like, "Whoa, really?" And I was like, "How do you know? It's out of context." It was taller than me. I'm five foot three, and it was a hundred inches.

My video of the lap dance—this is when I figured out what I wanted to do. [The video is a loop of a woman's white-cable-knit-stockinged feet dancing on a man's lap as an erection repeatedly appears under his gray slacks.] It played on a small TV. You put this dress over your head to watch it, like a peep show, with mirrors so it was reflected infinitely.

Is Cutie Beauty cute and beautiful at the same time? Can something be? I think of beauty as being where empathy is. I mean, things that are ugly can be beautiful. And then, there's something also to the cute and the innocent, the small and the tangible. My husband recently got me this little dog from a bubble-gum machine, and I can't even explain how fucking cute this thing is, and it's so dumb. I put it on my dashboard, and we were driving up to get on the ferry, and I'm looking at this cute little dog, and I almost drove us off the road. What the hell is that?

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Then there's the whole thing about how the eyes of a baby are placed in a certain place on the head so you think it's cute and don't abandon it—well, that's cute, but it's empathy, it's beauty, too. It's survival. recommended

Keeara Rhoades shares her photography, video, and music at keeararhoades.com, where there's a link to episodes of Cutie Beauty & the Trailer of Doom. On Valentine's Day, Cutie Beauty will be performing her instructional video live on how to do the Bear-Sometimes-Man walk. Participation is encouraged. The theme song for B-S-M is posted at prettyfences.bandcamp.com.