Thursday, April 28, 2011

In Memoriam: Keith Aoki

Keith Aoki, panel from "Pictures within Pictures," Ohio North University Law Review 36, 2010

Through a Facebook post by fellow Kresge Fellow Glida Snowden, I learned of the untimely passing of Keith Aoki on April 26 at age 55. At the time of his death, Aoki was Professor of Law at University of California-Davis. But those in the Detroit art community of a certain vintage (i.e., kinda old like me) will remember him as a talented young multi-media artist. Aoki was part of what I call the "Lost Generation" of Detroit art, a cadre of conceptual, performance, and video artists who worked in the city between the so-called first and second generations of the Cass Corridor art movement. The Lost Generation also includes Jim Hart, Diane Spodarek, Joe Banish, Lynn Farnsworth, and Jim Pallas, among others. One of Aoki's paintings from his days in Detroit is part of the James Duffy bequest to the WSU art and art history department, and it was on view during a show of the collection there a couple of years back.

I have special memories of Aoki's performance piece "Wings over Nudetown," a send-up of Cass Corridor hagiography which was part of a series of exhibitions put on at the DIA during the time John Hallmark Neff was curator of contemporary art. A comic strip documentation of it was published in The Detroit Artists Monthly, a magazine put out at the time primarily by Spodarek. (Click here to see a PDF of the comic posted by Jim Pallas on his website.)

After graduating with his BFA from Wayne, Aoki moved to New York where he received an MA in art at Hunter College. Besides being a damn fine draftsman, Aoki was a really smart guy. And at some point his interest turned to the law, and so he got a JD from Harvard and embarked on an academic career. But he often combined the two disciplines, legal scholarship and art, using his considerable drawing talents to illustrate his academic work. In this sense, he was also a pioneer of the new pedagogy that uses pop culture for didactic purposes.

Aoki went on to become a significant scholar in cultural studies and intellectual property law. Perhaps his most well-known work, though, is the graphic-novel format treatise on the creative commons Bound by Law, co-authored by another important copyright law scholar James Boyle. He also had his graphic work published in The Nation. But my favorite Aoki effort in this vein is actually the legal legwork he did for the underground rock band Negitivland (who among other things are generally credited with coining the term "culture jamming") for their 1997 CD DisPepsi, a satire of consumer culture consisting of cola-commercial sound collages, a classic work of cultural production in the creative commons.

Click here to read James Boyle's appreciation of Aoki. And click here to download the entire text and images of "Pictures within Pictures" from the Social Science Research Network.


  1. Thanks for this Vince. Wish I'd known him.

  2. Aside from having some great conversations with Keith when we were showing in the same exhibitions, my most fond memory of him is in the interest he had toward collaboration, given his formidale talents. I recorded with him on a Dangerous Diane 45 (vinyl/single). It was in the early 80's - punk, New wave - yet Keith came in with a violin, played classical riffs, and it all made sense. My best moments with him were when we sat down and worked our respective solos out. With regard to the "Lost Generation:" Jim Pallas kept on keeping on - not sure he'd agree about that 'Lost Generation' tag - and he and and I are collaborating on a new work. He's the artist. I'm the guy who would probably be considered marketing consultant. Nice post, Vince.

  3. Nick, As I think I said via email, couldn't help but think of you in writing about Keith. I think you two would have gotten on.

    Tom, When I say "Lost," what I mean by that is that period is generally glossed over when talking about the "Detroit" aesthetic. I forgot that Keith was part of the Dinettes. BTW, that 45 rpm single is up to $125 on E-Bay.

  4. Hello Vince,

    I came across an old exhibit catalogue from back in the day and saw Keith's work, which led me to a Google search where I discovered Keith's passing. Very sad for all of us, but I really felt good about what he did with his life and all of the good feelings that were directed his way. I hope his family is in good shape. We still have a sculpture that Keith gave us.

    We really enjoyed our time in that crazy Detroit art scene and still miss the comradery (and competition!).

    We would really enjoy hearing from any of you.

    All the best,

    Bill Graham and Rosa Patino Graham

  5. Hi,
    I remember coming to your house for dinner with Keith, we had a great time. I also sang on the Dinettes record mentioned above. Is the catalogue that you mention the one from the DIA exhibit? I am wondering what art works might have been in there if it was. I recently donated a work of Keith's to Wayne State University and they have it posted as picture of the week.
    I wish that there was a site to post photos of his art since it would be great to see it all together.

    Melanie McKinzie

    1. Melanie,
      If you got the images, I got the site.