FOUR CURATORS SITTING AROUND TALKING
Following upon this idea of collaboration, and being struck, as one inevitably must be, by the astonishing range of multiple intelligences involved in the crafting of the body of work in “Mike’s World,” I asked three colleagues who have all worked with Michael Smith before to join me in a conversation about his work. Regine Basha, Jay Sanders, Ingrid Schaffner and I all spent a sunny spring afternoon in New York (May 3, 2007) sharing our observations:
Annette: What do you think of when you think of Michael Smith’s work? Quick associations, what are the essential characteristics?
Ingrid: Sweetness and failure
Regine: Productive doubt
Jay: I was thinking of his comic timing.
Ingrid: I’m intrigued by the thresholds that the work lowers but doesn’t cross in expected ways. For instance, there’s grotesque imagery in the work and it often verges on grossness. But then it pulls back to a sweet or sympathetic place. Baby Ikki, no matter how abject or aggressive, is always just that: icky. Weirdly endearing.
Annette: I’ve been trying to articulate my recognition of the rhythms in it, a series of oppositions or contrasts that recur at regular intervals. And this measurement is not just in any given piece, it’s an accumulation within the character over time, aspects distributed over the past thirty years, like it was all scripted out from the beginning. Which of course it wasn’t.
Jay: Mike’s work can disturb but it’s careful to avoid being stylistically “transgressive.” He sets limits and then of course it all builds up in that way that really good comedy does, where you’re not always laughing out loud, but it’s accumulating inside.
Annette: In discussions of early influences, he’s talked about his admiration for Vito Acconci, who’s the person who arguably did transgression the best, at least in the beginning. Maybe Mike decided to change the frame a little bit.
Regine: His use of repetition is very specific. Actually, it’s more his use of redundancy. Those sayings and slogans that get repeated throughout the work are assiduously redundant—it’s like he’s stuck in GroundhogDay and likes it. Maybe that’s where the potential for transgression lies?
Annette: In the recent interview with Mike Kelley for this catalogue, Mike Smith talks about his timing and how there’s a particular timing for live performance and a particular timing for video pieces and how he’s very conscious of controlling the differences, with live performance being much, much slower and, in a sense, emptier. He feels he can physically maneuver that emptiness when he is in a space with a live audience.
Regine: It becomes a sculptural element…
Annette: Exactly! Which in a way is the beginning of, or even at the root of, the installation work. He developed that ability early on in the performance work, then it comes to full expression in his collaborative works with Joshua White, the elaborately conceived installation/video works since 1996.
Jay: Mike let me hear some early audio tapes that were his first steps toward performance and the “Mike” character. In the mid ‘70s he worked with a tape recorder and it’s just hours of him talking, making deadpan observations to himself about radiator noise in his apartment, what he sees outside the window—very very slow, almost catatonic, observational jokes. They definitely seem private but are really funny, too. So much of what they’re actually about seems to be at the level of the utterance—Mike working out his pauses and the speed and pitch of his delivery. It’s really interesting. And then when he moves into the first live performances, it’s that really perfected timing that carries over, along with his sense of repetition providing an ad hoc sense of structure. Taking a few discrete elements or motifs and exploring how to permutate them.
Ingrid: So do you think they’re sort of like drawings, these tapes? Sketches in the comic and pictorial sense of the word? Even from the way you’re describing them, I can see a relationship to Mike’s actual drawings, which give a lot of space to incidentals and utterances.
Jay: I think so. In developing the character, from the audio point, they’re like sketches. And I think they’re very personal for Mike. He told me he can’t watch his own performance tapes, but he’s been going back to them lately, re-visiting this early work. I think his work from this period is all so great, and definitely a bit different than the videos that came later.
Ingrid: Mike was one of the first artists I approached when I started thinking about an exhibition of the imagery of puppets in contemporary art. During the 1990s he and Doug Skinner performed with hand puppets as part of Doug and Mike’s Talent Show. But Mike has always been hesitant to consider the videos of the shows for exhibition. Until last summer, when he said that in preparation for the Blanton exhibition, he started reviewing the material. He was struck by the quality of the tapes, which are definitely more than just documents. Maybe it’s the twinned anachronisms of “video” and “talent show” that makes them so charming.
Annette: Yes, also because of the book of drawings that was just published by Regency Arts Press this past spring, Mike has had to go back through a lot of the other early material, and he has, indeed, been sharing it. It’s been a thrill for me, too, to see the consistency in the character, despite its variety, to see and hear how it really holds together. When viewing the tapes in chronological order you can watch this persona literally evolve and develop over the course of time. Also, another interesting component is that, over 30 years, the character ages, in real time. It’s really subjective and it’s almost impossible to not identify with him.
Ingrid: But also, strangely, the character does not evolve.
Annette: He not-evolves into a more complex persona!
Regine: But on some level, I think that’s the point at which you start to identify. You begin to empathize with his not-evolving; it’s disturbing.
Ingrid: Definitely. It’s not adolescence, but he never moves fully into adulthood, either.
Regine: I’m really interested in how his face is like a mask. And how he’s conscious of its effects, both in live performance and on the screen. It’s very subtle, but the way in which he is able to caricature himself is really remarkable. It’s not really a manipulation but more of a simultaneity of something highly personal and completely anonymous at the same time.
Annette: It is extraordinary. We’ve been playing with that image, figuring out what the cover of the catalogue is going to be, and of course it needs to be Mike’s face, but what version of his face? We started out with a caricature version, and now we’re going back to some of the early photographic material. Josh talks about “That Face” too, almost as if it were a second character.
Ingrid: Does Mike talk about how he negotiates that? I have heard him say, in sort of passing frustration, that he is “Michael Smith.” The character is “Mike Smith.” And he gets annoyed when people call him Mike, assuming a certain familiarity.
Annette: Yeah, it’s tricky. Everyone calls him Mike, and that’s also the name of the character. His official name as an artist is Michael Smith. Mike (!) himself differentiates, but not consistently, and lately in conversations about the show he does acknowledge a blur, a merge, some occasional confusion between the two.
Regine: It’s just hard to call him Michael. Maybe he needs another name…
Annette: I’ve wondered, when the show is up in Austin, how is he—Michael Smith—going to feel? He lives here, he works on campus. He’s going to be so exposed!
Ingrid: There’s a picture at the “Michael Smith Drawings” exhibition currently on view at Christine Burgin Gallery that’s called Things I Will Never Have. One is a blonde wig. Maybe it’s time…
Regine: He could show up as Warhol for the opening!
Jay: In the 1986 interview with Mike Kelly in High Performance, Mike K. asks him about the character name, and he says that it came out of the early audio tapes. He would be talking to himself and say, “hey, Mike” over and over and it just stuck. I saw a video of Mike’s first performance, in his studio in Chicago, and there he uses a tape recorder too. He has his own voice on it and when he turns it on, the recorded voice tells him what to do. It’s very self-reflexive and he just follows the tape’s instructions. This seems to set the stage for how he uses his voice in many of his later works, where there’s a voiceover by Mike but it feels ambiguous as to whether he’s talking to himself or talking to us.
Ingrid: When you were talking about comic timing, I was thinking Mike and vaudeville… Mike and…
Jay: I’ve asked him about his early influences and he mentioned people like Buster Keaton and William Wegman and Jacques Tati. And also Vito—body artists, though he was interested in things couched more in terms of popular entertainment, as a response to the more severe ‘70s performance he had been seeing. I think he billed himself as a comic early on to change the frame, as Annette mentioned earlier.
Ingrid: In the ‘80s he had a show at Caroline’s Comedy Club where he did standup and improv along with hosted guests from the downtown art world.
Jay: He did a pilot for Cinemax and definitely had forays into commercial media.
Regine: Was it a cable show or a commercial television show?
Annette: Mike’s Talent Show was shot as a pilot for a cable tv series, as well as being performed live, in various iterations, at places like The Bottom Line. As I understand it, he basically tried to encompass and feature some of the regular, ongoing activities of the performance community in ‘80s New York. His character, Mike, was the master of ceremonies. He brought multiple acts in to participate, and they did it off and on from 1985-90.
Jay: With people like Lyle Lovett as guests.
Annette: He was very disappointed when the network didn’t pick it up. He thought he was going to be doing that for some period of time. It took him awhile to come out of that career tailspin. And all of that informs the development of the Mike character, of course. Later, Mike and Josh made a video compilation for Open House—Open House Reel, which included an extraordinary piece called Interstitial—that perfectly captured the notion of that era when everyone could have their own public access program. They had friends in the arts community play characters who were guests on the character Mike’s cable TV program. Mirrors upon mirrors on the way it was. Interstitial is absolutely hilarious—it totally skewers that ‘70s self-involvement, though it seemingly takes place in the ‘80s. Josh had a huge effect on this one—he directed the look and flow of the show, which was pretty impressively obnoxious.
Regine: This makes me think about timing again because not only are his performances very measured, but the overall body of work is somehow precisely out of step. He has this sense of the uncanny, whereas he is able to convey the present as slightly dated. His world is more of a recent past, instead of a past past...as if he’s able to see things as ‘so-five-minutes-ago.’ It’s strange, but in that one step back, maybe he is also ahead of the cultural moment.
Annette: He has this commitment to what is truly mundane, an aesthetic of the mundane. I wonder, if you’re taking the present moment and you’re not wanting to make it sparkly, shiny and exciting, but instead describe it as generic, bland, mundane, does that somehow read as regressive?
Regine: Yes, that’s it, like it’s already over.
Annette: And yet he particularizes and intensifies it in some way, which blurs the line between fact and fiction. I’m thinking of the sort of domestic, suburban aesthetic that most of us have never lived but have received images of through television.
Jay: I re-read the interview he did with Dan Graham for Artforum a few years ago, and Graham brings up that idea of the “just past” and how one can artistically occupy that space, which is really kind of a consumer space, where much of the public often finds itself. That awkward time for culture where things aren’t yet nostalgic, but everything is a little out of date. He saw that as a time zone that Mike consistently works with.
Annette: Remind us of what Mike replied, please? Their interactions are so interesting, both smart and peculiar.
Jay: It was brief. He mentioned that the Mike character is a kind of consumer and that he tends to respond to things that come to him a little bit late.
Annette: Dan just curated a show at Ballroom Marfa called “Deep Humor” that Michael Smith’s and Michael Smith & Joshua White’s work is featured in. What kinds of comedy history does Mike’s work draw upon? You were saying before about old theatrical or burlesque forms of humor. There's been that whole flood of exhibitions recently about comedy and contemporary art, and Michael Smith’s work, or Mike’s and Josh’s work, is part of them all. But his/their work seems to have a really particular flavor within that genre. How does it fit within the traditions of Jewish humor, for instance?
Regine: I think that was one of my initial questions when I first got to know the work. There is a self-deprecating humor that seems to be finessed from traditional Jewish humor, more of the deadpan kind, but in a way that may not be obvious.
Annette: And who was the comic you were talking about, Jay—Jackie Vernon? I think of him as one of the leading Jewish comics of the post-war television generation, when ethnic identity was acknowledged through personal cliche—a certain way of speaking, a certain kind of ribbing—but Vernon was especially subtle.
Jay: We did this evening at Anthology Film Archives a couple years ago where Mike and I put together a collection of video clips that related to his work in different ways. He really wanted to show this one Jackie Vernon routine where Vernon acts like he’s showing the audience a slideshow of photos from a recent trip.
Vernon has a clicker but the “slides” are just the empty white stage spotlight. They’re all blank and Vernon is recounting in a deadpan voice, “this is me here and this is happening,” but it’s so flat because there is no image. Mike told me that this bit was really important to him because of the abstraction that it opens up in the language, paired with the really flat, dull visual gag.
Annette: You know, not to speak in stereotypes, but Mike is from Chicago and a flat, broad delivery used to equal a Midwestern twang to most people. (Nowadays all regional accents are disappearing.) So he—and the character he performs—express a slight regional dialect although Mike has been located in New York for all of these years—in other words, he’s still representing this Midwestern persona. The setting of the works is not necessarily New York, though it may be generated there, but it definitely feels like the character is from Middle America, wherever that is. Do you hear it that way?
Regine: Well, maybe New York brought his Midwestern-ness into contrast and only there was he was able to sharpen the edges.
Ingrid: He may have made it to New York, the city of ambition, success, skyscrapers. But to go to Mike’s place is to enter suburbia.
Annette: So what do you think of the fact that Michael Smith’s work emerged in New York in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, which was such a difficult time of urban stress, yet the character is so sweet and continually self-propelling, in sharp contrast to his surrounding environment?
Ingrid: It stands so strangely in relation to, and outside of its time. Mike wants to go into a sort of 1950s suburban-sphere, complete with the threat of nuclear bombs and holocaust. It’s an idealization of the past that accounts for present dangers.
Regine: Yes, but a large part of the popular culture in the ‘80s commemorated the ‘50s—especially in TV, music, and fashion. Think of shows like Happy Days or Laverne & Shirley, or bands like the GoGo’s and The Stray Cats—at one point, even Rockabilly hairstyles came back. I could never quite put my finger on it specifically, but generally it had to do with Reaganomics and pumping up a celebration of American prosperity and values to mask its failures. So it would make sense for Mike to aspire to this bogus version of the ‘50s—it allows him more room to fail.
Ingrid: And Mike’s suburbia is pretty dingy; it’s thrift-store 1950s.
Annette: Yes, it’s not conventional, well regulated suburbia, it’s a suburbia you could afford to put together on limited means by yourself. Not the television images from the ‘50s, where everyone was upper middle class, with a white-collar job and a lovely home. Mike’s 1950s isn’t working class, but it’s like what you do in your first 10 years out of school. What you can throw together on a shoestring or without refined tastes, it’s that contingent kind of “this is how I’m going to define myself,” the first stage of being an adult, which is especially odd given that the actor playing the character is a mature man.
Jay: That puts it on us watching him to see how it is all such an awkward fit. We can feel the dissonance much more than his character expresses it. He’s so good at staging that, letting you feel that. Conflating the different time periods he references, updating things, yet still letting his character have an ideology that’s maybe not appropriate for the time.
Ingrid: You know, in thinking about Mike’s work in the context of the 1970s, I was thinking about feminism: Mike as a feminist artist.
Regine: Oh my god I just wrote that same thought down, isn’t that interesting? Yes, a feminist, great…
Ingrid: By eschewing the masculine identity of the heroic artist, the blue-collar working man, Mike offers the homemaker--and becomes the baby, too!
Jay: In his videos he often has a list of household tasks to care of.
Ingrid: Yeah, a “to-do” list of household chores, that itemize failure. Since it’s not even such domestic goddess chores as “pick up the kids, take dog to vet, cook dinner for husband.” It’s lonely guy stuff like: “pick up the laundry and get the mail.” And there’s the sense that if he can even get to the end of that list it will be a miracle.
Annette: You’re right though, he’s like the mother, father, baby, the whole family unit rolled up into different aspects of a single character.
Ingrid: He’s not the father though.
Annette: Well, he’s the father when the business is not going well…
Ingrid: Yes, I suppose he’s the father of the QuinQuag enterprise. But even that’s about a kind of home-making. I’m thinking about the format of the early videos that take place in a living room, with Mike’s friends dropping by. Like he’s either Mom or Mr. Rogers. His world is very insular and self-reflexive in a comforting way. When he has a cooking show at one point, he’s teaching viewers how to use the leftovers in Mike’s refrigerator--the leftovers being broccoli and broccoli water! Cut to two ladies in their suburban living room, watching the show on daytime TV, “Oh I love that Mike, he’s such a good cook.”
Annette: So should we consider Mike’s work a crazy kind of precursor to cooking shows on TV?!
Ingrid: I just saw the show at Christine Burgin Gallery, where there’s a drawing in which Mike simply states, “I should’ve been a suburban upper middle-class housewife.” In this context his “to-do” list is a calendar that is mostly empty with whole days in between “luncheon plans with Barbara and friend,” “theatre tics,” “boss and wife dinner party here.” There’s a trip to the Bahamas, which the kids are apparently not part of since they are dropped off somewhere a day prior to departure. After the trip, there’s a dentist appointment, then the plumber comes to fix the basement faucet. My favorite: “Start diet, day one carrots, day two celery, day three carrots, day four an apple.” Friday is a big day: one glass of wine. The following week there’s yoga. Even as I read these notes, I can see where this would sound a little mean. But it’s so clearly not the intention.
Regine: But I mean isn’t this his hero? It’s endearing that he embodies the housewife as a way of celebrating the heroine.
Ingrid:...inhabiting his domestic space with purpose.
Annette: What you’re saying is if you give the work a feminist reach—not that the housewife is a typical representation of feminism, but it’s one option, and that’s the point—Mike is being somewhat radical and certainly ahead of his time by saying that role is heroic?
Ingrid: And kids have an important role in the work, too.
Regine: The appearance of kids is somewhat creepy in his work, no?
Annette: The Mike character is a kindred soul with the kids, he recognizes that, and it’s both adorable and disturbing.
Jay: Like in the Take Off Your Pants! installation?
Regine: I think it’s the sound of a group of kids singing that makes it creepy.
Annette: Very “Children of the Corn” somehow…
Regine: It’s as if they are about to make fun of him...the only grown man outnumbered by children.
Ingrid: But there’s something really joyful about it, too. He kind of whips the kids up into this frenzy, made all the more fantastic because it comes with adult permission. You can almost feel the kids’ delight at being in collusion with Mike, and, at the same time, being a little wary and indulgent of him, too.
Jay: And it’s a safe feeling because it occurs in such a familiar media space. It’s a faux boardgame TV ad with kids running around cheering, giving off those signals of media-advertised “fun.” The look of it is so compressed and white. And this exemplifies one of Mike’s masterful abilities, to occupy a space like that which is so hyper and coarse, but then to be very subtle about how he uses and manipulates it.
Annette: Mike and I grew up in the ‘50s—and Josh is just a bit older. Back then, television was more or less just beginning, and what we as children got access to were the programs that pre-dated Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street (which are sophisticated children’s programming created in consultation with child psychologists for child audiences). Our shows, which were apparently created to make adults laugh and help moms take care of their kids, had hosts like “Captain Kangaroo,” “Miss Diane” of Romper Room, and Art Linkletter, who had bleachers full of well behaved kids who followed all the prompts. These shows were filmed in small, classroom-type or domestic-type spaces that you knew were TV studios but they had made a nominal attempt to resemble attractive, controlled environments where kids could be directed to do things, celebrate, and express joy and humor along the way. And the makers of the programs and their sponsors presumed the kids at home were doing their own individual solo versions of the same activities. (I doubt we all were!) Clearly this informs some of Mike’s work. In addition, Josh, of course, draws on all those years as a television director, when he clearly knew all about media space.
Ingrid: There’s an early work with a group of kids—a precursor perhaps to Take Off Your Pants!—that seems like vintage early television treacle. It involves Mike and a pear, and he and the kids are being incited to “make believe with all your might” a party with all your friends, like Little Bo Peep, Little Jack Horner, Santa Claus. What the heck, bring them all! It’s completely over-saturated, like a Mike Kelley or Paul McCarthy zone of reference.
Regine: Funny, I completely related a part of his work to these other shows from the late ‘70s, like Electric Company and Zoom, specifically with Take Off Your Pants!. Those shows were more absurd and appeared to occupy a more psychological space because they would freely go back and forth between live sets and flat media space. They also incorporated lo-fi technology (well, at the time it was probably very hi-fi). It was always this performative—sometimes even psychedelic—educational experience. If you think of it, all of Mike’s work refers to the earnestness of following these new-fangled instructional modes: You watch TV, you learn something; you’re on the Internet to learn something; a tape recorder is going to tell you what to do.
Annette:Portal Excursion is brilliant in that respect, Mike totally picked up on that self-learning, instructional video idea that John Cleese and others in the entertainment or comedic realm took over and raised to another level—like Christopher Guest and his mockumentaries. Portal Excursion carries all of that satire, and intensifies themes from the earlier Mike performances as well.
Jay: Going back to one of his earliest videos, Secret Horror, which was the first one with a highly-constructed set, made as a video, not an extension of the performances, I don’t know any other artist at that time who had the foresight to spoof that late night cable TV feeling. Everytime I watch that tape I find it so astonishing how it’s combining these modes but it feels like it really opens a new media space of its own. He made this piece that looks like cable access TV, or a sitcom set, it’s super bright. Then he slows it way down and makes it even more spaced out and builds a narrative from strange illogical associations. It takes from commercial media but it’s not at all a straight spoof or satire. He did something so original with those early videos.
Annette: Like when the camera turns on him without his knowing it. Again, there was so much cable access TV where regular people filmed their lives because they could. It predated reality TV…
Ingrid: “What’s my toilet doing on TV?”
Annette: So when you look back over time and see what it all adds up to, the body of work is a phenomenal cultural critique, in addition to being really pungent, psychologically charged individual expression. That reminds me that Mike watched a performance at our museum a couple weeks ago and his reading of it was very psychological, which I found really interesting. It made me realize he never loses that sort of straightforward Freudian analysis in his own work either. And again, Freudian analysis was the given psychology of the early baby boomers, so it could be seen as another reflection of post-war American society.
Ingrid:What would Freud have to say about a body of work that makes its fetish objects the disco ball and the toilet? Because I think you will find one or both of these in every one of Mike’s works!
Annette:Well, the disco ball is thanks to Josh White, I think. Mike’s major collaborator, Joshua White, was a light artist, with tons of experience inventing light shows that used new, psychedelic-looking techniques in the ‘60s and ‘70s as backdrops for rock concerts and club environments. But of course those kinds of multimedia spectacles fell out of style eventually. (And have recently come back into vogue.) Kind of fantasy and failure merged into one. Michael and Josh layered the Mike character onto one fictional version of that history and created Mike as a not-very-good businessman in MUS-CO, a disco-lighting company about to go bankrupt. Later Mike is featured in Quin Quag, which is yet another extension of the character as a corporate entrepreneur…with indubitably unrealistic dreams. These richly layered scenarios were created by Mike and Josh working as a team.
Ingrid: So that’s Josh’s story, going to Fillmore East and becoming the lighting technician who realized the fantasies of the psychedelic generation?
Annette: Yes, in a way. Josh has a theater background, and it was due to his lighting expertise and artistic experimentation that he and his group, The Joshua Light Show, were invited to be resident artists at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. They were among the first and best creators of these multimedia lightshows that were radically exciting and brand-new aspects of ‘60s youth culture. Josh and Mike isolated the iconic aspect of those later years, the disco ball, then they built this whole world around it—they “Mike-ified” it. And achieved total obsolescence!
Ingrid: So that started in 1979 with the disco contest?
Annette: Well, disco was ending then, but the fictional MUS-CO scenario—and the Mike & Josh collaboration—were created much later. The disco work from 1979 is Michael Smith’s alone. Of course, Michael Smith dances all the way through his career…
Regine:You know he always does this dance…I just have to bring it up, it also appears in the dream scene from The Big Lebowski? (does the move) ALL LAUGH. Anyway, the disco reference brings to mind the years when ‘Disco Sucks’ was the ubiquitous anti-disco adage. At a certain time, it was everywhere...t-shirts, bumper stickers…it made it embarrassing to like disco. It’s interesting, because disco was the bridge from the collective love of the ‘70s to the narcissistic individualism of the ‘80s. And there’s Mike trying to catch that bus...
Jay:It’s so great that he would decide to use disco as a trope at the most horrible time. When everyone’s into punk and art rock, and he goes back to to disco.
Annette:I’m always struck by his incredible physical adeptness and the naturalness with which he layers that onto this unlikely character—it’s so surprising. And the images of all the people who entered the disco contest with him are very specific and yet you get all of these reflections—oh god, can I say it?—like on a disco ball! Who were these people?
Ingrid:Okay, so I’ve got to ask: Was the disco contest real? Did Michael Smith really enter a disco contest?
Jay:I think it was definitely real. But really, it would work fine whether it was fact or fiction.
Annette: And our uncertainty, once again, effectively confuses the lines between the two.
Ingrid: Like in Portal Excursion, where he’s attending technology fairs, the line between fact and fabrication in these works is very destabilizing.
Jay:There’s one shot in that where he’s walking down the aisle of what looks like a trade show, having an unguarded moment in the crowd, and this brief look on his face is so horrifying. Yikes.
Ingrid: In Outstanding Young Men in America, Mike learns that he has been nominated for an achievement award and decides this calls for a party. (He hasn’t read the fine print that the award is for boys under the age of something like fifteen years old.) He goes to the attic to retrieve his old party clothes, which he squeezes into, then hangs up the old disco ball and steps outside to wait for his guests, who, of course, fail to materialize. The camera pulls back and Mike is standing alone in the universe—the disco ball but briefly eclipsed by the full moon. What a great emblem of Mike’s world.
Annette: So in a way this is all a huge speculation about, or fantasy of, What Men Do. Let’s go back to the feminist analysis, the heroicization of the domestic, of what would more typically be the woman’s situation. But the alternate question that the work raises is what do men do?, where do they go all day?, all of this time spent in empty moments, alone even when accompanied, jobless or employed. Might it be an incisive portrait of Men, even more profound than the portrait of the very timeless, sweet funny slightly pathetic Mike character? He’s Everyman.
Regine: Annette, your question, “What does a man do?,”also brings to mind, “What does an artist do?” Or how does an artist spend empty time? How does he/she confront empty space? It recalls a lot of the early ‘70s video work of artists like Bruce Nauman, who chose to walk around the perimeters of a room in an exaggerated manner as a way of filling time or fulfilling tasks. Like tasks for the sake of tasks or action for the sake of action.
Ingrid: Yes, and the idea of the space of the studio as an alternative place of business, where the artist as “failed” professional goes to work—or not to work—everyday. I suppose this is a traditional American ethic. For instance, at ICA we just presented a show of hundreds of drawings by the Swiss artist John Armleder. The very volume of which, combined with their great lightness of touch, implied a distinction between European dilettantism as a form of accomplishment and American amateurism as simply failure. We tend to be suspicious of those who don’t go to work! Though that seems to be changing.
Regine:He really caught on to this early on, didn’t he? The idea of honoring the amateur pursuit has become very mainstream now...
Ingrid:True, we have entered the age of the amateur. In Portal Excursion, when Mike decides to apply himself to writing dictionary definitions, or as he says “to fill in the blanks of knowledge,” he’s basically doing “Wikipedia.” The web is full of amateur expertise, which seems to reflect a distrust of experts in general. It will be interesting to see how this field of subjectivity shapes culture at large.
Annette: And it also refracts that dichotomy between success and failure. An amateur is neither successful nor failed. It’s the deliberate stance of neutrality between those two states, a refusal to resolve, a commitment to perennially becoming. Remaining somewhere in between.
Regine: Yes, like ‘it’s ok to be me and have my own quirky opinions!’
Jay: And this picks up on a thread running through Mike’s work of exactly these kinds of seemingly-accessible outlets for people to become producers of cultural content—whether it’s television, becoming an artist, opening a business, or redefining reality via the internet. He’s not shy about showing the pathetic aspirations in all of these pursuits. Now more than ever this impulse is very much indicative of our contemporary reality. Do It talks about artists barely having enough time to sleep as they become “the content providers for the future.” It’s all so prescient, whether we’re talking about YouTube and MySpace or world affairs.
Ingrid:I love that moment in Portal Excursion when Mike realizes there might be a supply-and-demand problem in filling himself up with knowledge and then just putting it out there like raw material. What is he actually doing? Nothing.
Jay: This cultural shift of the Internet and having all of this information potentially accessible means you don’t have to actually absorb it because it’s always very near you, waiting to be immediately accessed. And I think that can be both comforting and also create a lot of anxiety because something is being left behind. Our mental reality is becoming a very different reality and Mike manages to articulate some of this quite effectively, which is not easy to do.
Annette:The Mike character also is constantly trying to acquire new skills, it’s as if he’s never satisfied. He’s a pathetic character in some respects, but he’s continually working on himself. He’s consistently looking for new sources of expertise and new activity even though he’s inclined to be lazy. He manifests the tension between productivity and lack of productivity.
Regine:I think that’s what makes his character so quintessentially American and familiar.
Ingrid:What does he call himself in Portal Excursion, a “designated self-learner”?
Regine:The part I loved from Portal Excursion was his seeking “an undertaking that can keep me profoundly busy for an indefinite period of time.”
Annette: When you talked about extremism before, Baby Ikki is the extreme version of that, where you’re watching this grown man inhabit the role of and behave like a baby and he’s having a fine time, he’s completely absorbed in that world, there’s no apparent end to it. There’s so much range between those characters—Mike and Baby Ikki—and yet there are real similarities, too.
Jay:In the 1986 Mike Kelly interview, Mike K. says something about how he thought typical avant garde practices embody working class ideology and ethos—like with punk music, etc. Whereas Mike Smith takes on the middle class, which is much more awkward. It’s not a common “radical” strategy, nor does it clearly identify itself as such. He doesn’t take subculture as a point of reference at all, which I think ironically makes his work harder to follow and to deal with. Whereas if Paul McCarthy does something, it’s in a way much easier to read because at least it goes totally haywire.
Ingrid:He’s really in it, you can’t find the edge of his world. That’s another one of its very destabilizing aspects, I suppose.
Jay:But I really like this about Mike’s work because it makes it all the more challenging. Portal Excursion is one of his videos that builds up a more complicated dynamic for the character to respond to, like in the earlier Mike Builds a Shelter. He can really activate the odd superimpositions that are always happening in his work between reality and fiction, critique and empathy, self-disclosure and advertising. The longer narrative works have that ebb and flow of plot development which propel them beyond settling into a strong single image or tone and instead make them a little more kaleidoscopic.
Ingrid:I wonder, do you think of Mike as an insider’s artist? The Mike character is so hard to explain to someone outside of the art world. As straightforward as the work is, it’s tricky to bring people in on.
Annette: Yes, I’ve been grappling with that! This exhibition is going to be a huge experiment. Will the audience get all the layers of the character or will they only get the superficial, most entertaining aspects? Will they understand, not just the storylines, but also the cultural references that provide essential context? Will they appreciate the attitudes and the value of Michael Smith the artist—and now, for the past decade, Josh White as well--devoting much of a life’s work to creating this persona? Will they see how it may relate to their own lives and how it makes insightful observations about American culture?
Jay:”Mike” is both the medium and the message.
Ingrid: A lot of the persona is about the relationship an artist has to the non-art world. Mike seems to be negotiating that in the work from within the art world: grow up, get a job, stop going to school.
Regine:He recently referred to his work as “an avant-garde performance transformed into a domestic task,” which means that one needs to consider his work from the vantage point of avant-garde history to get the humor more precisely.
Jay:I think comedy is tricky because you get a response, but sometimes people just stop there. He uses comedy so that it’s funny, but the work actually is really poignant and complex in the ways it communicates. On the one hand, if you laugh, you’re getting it, but there’s much more there, too, behind all of that.
Annette: Comedy depends on shared cultural values and what we’re saying is there’s a huge complexity to the attitudes he embodies as the character. Will people see both the poignancy and irony and understand how they could co-exist? The questions I’m struggling with now have to do with how much we should tell them, to what degree do we make it explicit and “introduce” it all. We’ve actually made a commitment not to do any interpretation in the show. This is literally “Mike’s” world, so once you’ve crossed the threshold into the exhibition space, you’re in it, like it or not, get it or not. Michael and Josh are doing an “orientation tape” similar to the films that you see in presidential libraries. They sort of lay out the character and the character’s achievements, and also provide a cultural timeline that contextualizes the life of the character. It won’t read like a presidential library presentation per se, but that method by which a museum takes a character who is always front and center and orients people to the story through films and objects and dioramas—that’s the central design concept of this show. Then we’ll have to see if people understand that they’re agreeing to be part of this quasi-theatrical performance by entering the orientation room. There won’t be anything like a curator to intervene and speak to the viewer through labels or text of any kind. It’ll all be direct experience or immersion into the character’s alternate world. I fully expect people to, like a week later, kind of “get it,” you know? They’ll have something in their lives go parallel and realize, “Oh, I get it now.” I don’t know if they’re going to get it during the experience in the galleries. The art world will get it, no question, but there are only 300 of us…
Jay:I was thinking about this too, about other artists, either of Mike’s generation or a little older, whether it’s Mike Kelley or Dan Graham or Richard Prince. There’s the corollary of a writing practice which is concurrent with their artmaking. These artists have produced formidable artist writings which have heavily shaped the ways their work is considered. They are able to inform and can step outside of the work and do what we’re doing now. Michael Smith doesn’t do that. He presents himself in a different way because he’s physically in so much of his work, but he doesn’t provide that extra, more detached commentary.
Annette:The new dialogue with Mike Kelley in the catalogue is where we get Michael Smith’s voice in there, talking from a more analytical perspective about the work he’s done, and it’s great, really smart, but of course you have to read the catalogue to get that experience.
Jay: He never plays it straight. I mean it’s very straight but not all the way, when he rejoins us in the audience to talk us through what’s going on. I think one other tension point here is between entertainment—liking to perform and being naturally a good performer—and then working in a serious manner as a conceptual artist. The more natural performance side makes him a little different than artists who “perform,” but everything is heavily in quotation marks. He really did come close to crossing into the commercial entertainment sphere and did his puppet show for many years, too. It’s a complicated balance. Again, Mike himself, his character and the artist, is a contradictory site where two trajectories of contemporary culture collide—comedy, whether the flatly observational Steven Wright or the more anti-comedic Andy Kaufman, and a highly critical, media-savvy form of conceptual art.
Annette: No question there are lots of layers. And I certainly don’t feel he’s ever tried to pare it down to make it more clear. If anything, the collaborations with other artists, in many media, complicate the readings even more, add particular variations that can be unexpected, even to the Mike “scholar.”
Ingrid: It might be interesting to draw a map of the artworld through Mike’s collaborators. It’s an interesting range of artists, a lot of whom have themselves moved pretty freely in their work across various contexts: Carole Ann Klonarides, Eric Fischl, Tim Maul, Alex Pearlstein, Aura Rosenberg, Dike Blair, the Yonemotos… Maybe this goes back to the discussion of the early ‘80s art world where you had a community of artists bridging music, performance, painting. These are the constituents of “Mike’s World.”
Regine: Yes, if you look at his credits, it’s often an unlikely group. You would never think these particular artists or people would get together to collaborate. Certainly they were all active individual artists, like April Gornik and Eric Bogosian, for instance, but as a whole, they don’t construct a scene really. They were just hanging out at the time.
Ingrid: Maybe that’s also the “sweet dream” part of the saga, the dream of success that would be creating a haven for all of your friends. That certainly links to the collaborative aspect of the work—its generosity of spirit—involving friends in forms of performance and play, often play at being an artist, within the haven of Mike’s world. Perhaps this is also what makes it hard for Mike’s work to transmit outside of the art world.
Jay: In Interstitial alone there are so many people...
Ingrid: And they’re all in on the joke of being an artist. Alex Pearlstein plays an artist named Zandra, whom Mike interviews after watching a mock series video. And Mike says, “I thought I saw that piece earlier and it was called Flying.” And she says, “Yes, but now that I’ve evolved it, it’s called Soaring.”
Regine: Spoofing the artist is a big part of it, isn’t it ? Spoofing the so-called “creative process.” I love that they include a character named Michel Tremblay for the commentator on QuinQuag. There’s actually a famous French playwright in Quebec named Michel Tremblay and he appears on TV all the time endorsing this or that….I don’t know if Mike or Josh were aware of that, but their use of it here is just unbelievably effective—because it is after all in upstate New York.
Ingrid:That’s just so Mike-like, to have the voice of cultural authority be a mumbling French guy.
Regine: No, a French Canadian! Like a failed French guy (sorry!).
Ingrid: It’s like the technology. Mike doesn’t shop at Hammacher Schlemmer. He shops at those discount places where you never know what you will find: truckloads of the really off, off-brands: the QuinQuag computer system, the Depot disco ball, bad coffee mugs.
Annette: Anticipating PeeWee’s Playhouse, and referencing the old ‘50s shows, like Captain Kangaroo, his friends are always like the mailman and the people who, for their own reasons, have to come by everyday. They didn’t choose Mike, they were sort of thrown into Mike’s world.
Ingrid: Something about men in blue uniforms, a policemen, the plumber, the postman, it gets to where every man is wearing a blue uniform.
Jay:But he usually ends up all alone, which feels like Samuel Beckett or Tati territory. And their characters never really seem adequately connected, like they’re always in front of reality, but not fully within it.
Ingrid: Then they themselves never connect. The mailman stops by and he’s just sitting there on the couch with Mike, who gets a phone call, in the midst of which, the mailman quietly gets up and leaves. “I guess I’m going to go now.” It’s so sad.
Annette: He does his laundry in Mike’s washing machine but he’s not really paying attention, because Mike’s dyeing something pink. The one moment you never see is when the mailman gets his laundry and everything must be pink! There’s no examination moment, no examination ever.
Jay: I haven’t seen so many of his gallery and museum shows in person, I’m interested to know how his aesthetic translates into installations, how they feel.
Annette: There’s always a video presentation. And then, thanks in large part to Josh, there’s an elaboration of the character through his “stuff.” I haven’t seen MUS-CO yet myself…
Regine: I did. When it was at Lauren Wittels Gallery it was the first time I’d seen anything by Mike and Josh, and it blew me away.
Annette:Open House at the New Museum was that experience for me. It’s been gratifying that there has been more critical conversation lately acknowledging Mike’s and Josh’s roles as installation artists, as an influential source for a younger generation of artists. We were throwing around an early description of the show, when we only referred to Michael Smith as a “performance artist,” and now we’re saying “performance/video/installation artist” because he’s seeing himself that way, at last. And thanks to the Regency Arts Press book, he’s also seeing himself as someone who makes real drawings, and he didn’t before. Of course he’s drawn the whole time but didn’t regard them as legitimate works of art until he started working on the book and now the drawing show at Christine’s is just the next iteration of that identity.
Regine: You know when I first saw MUS-CO, I guess it was the mid ‘90s, and I remember how it took the idea of ‘installation’ and rendered it into ‘props’ of an installation—though it wasn’t very clear until long after you saw the show. It was still incredibly real, almost too real for it to have an immediate effect as art. You could easily walk away thinking that the gallery had rented out its space to a lighting company. The props were like proxy objects to a performance, which was very different from most installation work at the time. It completely revised my idea of what installation could do and forced me to leave behind my usual criteria because it didn’t really apply in this case. In that sense, it was really a form of institutional critique.
Annette: I think that’s because of the collaboration with Josh. He and Mike conceptualize and design together and it comes out synthesized and coherent with roots in both disciplines—visual art and theater— and that’s the skill of it, it’s so smart and so seamless. The same with his work with composers. Actually, what we’re getting at is that Mike is a very able and gifted collaborator and he can carry through the threads of his own expression and work together with people of radically different sensibilities, and it all merges into this new, very coherent and organized form.
Regine: Yes, and in his “world” he is able to generate opportunities, create mission statements and strategic plans…
Ingrid: Ah, yes, the shrewd politician! One of Mike’s campaign refrains in Go For It Mike is: “Some people are born to win. Some people are born to lose. Then there are people like me and you.” Whether this is an assuring message to the general populace, I’m not sure. But it definitely reminded me of a quote from Mr. Rogers that crops up in another of the drawings in the Christine Burgin show: “The very same people who are bad sometimes are the very same people who are good sometimes. It’s funny but it’s true, they’re just like me and you.” However alienated Mike’s characters seem to be, they draw incredible empathy. That Baby Ikki video shot in downtown Manhattan is one of the most distressing things I have ever seen, with Mike inching out into the traffic, crawling on his hands and knees, then teetering delicately up on his tiptoes, dressed in a diaper. GENERAL AGREEMENT And yet that moment when the policeman catches himself trying to gently usher Mike back to the sidewalk is so triumphantly amusing. A whole sidewalk of by-standers looks horrified at the cop when he starts shoving and dragging Baby Ikki, who starts bawling and crying. The cop has been reduced to a man in a blue uniform just as everyone who finds themselves sharing the pavement with a man in a diaper starts to think maybe this isn’t so amusing after all. Not knowing what to make of the candidacy of Mike’s disclosures is definitely part of the work’s engaging intrigue. For instance, in the Christine Burgin show, there was a vitrine full of Michael Smith’s childhood report cards.
Annette:The only thing he ever failed was art! It was like a 2nd grade report card and all four terms he failed art. The definition of art was something like “Self-expression” and he got an F.
Ingrid: Nor did his “Social Habits” conform to school regulations, according to the card’s scoring system.
Regine: But they didn’t see that as self-expression?
Ingrid: He did very well in composition!
Regine: It’s funny that you bring up the school evaluations because later on, didn’t he make a print of one of his own student’s bad evaluations of him?
Ingrid: Mike did a print for White Columns based on one of his student’s evaluations of his teaching. To paraphrase, the student wrote of being disappointed with Mike’s classroom critiques: “Instead of being constructive, Mike would call the work ‘crap’ or the persona an ‘idiot.’ This course was a waste of my money.”
Regine: It all comes together, doesn’t it? Going back to the idea of installation and all the ‘stuff’ that accumulates. Not that I think that Mike is comically close to Steve Martin, but I can’t help thinking of the movie, The Jerk. It’s all about the heights of success and pitfalls of failure but, at the end of the day, it becomes all about the “stuff.” He’s a jerk, left holding onto the remains of random stuff.
Annette: It’s America, it always comes down to “the stuff.” Let’s hope “Mike’s World” can elevate the discussion...
Regine Basha is an independent curator and writer working between Austin and New York. Her most recent survey exhibition with the artist Daniel Bozhkov, 'Cantata for Twelve Choirs and Several Salamanders,' is currently traveling. She collaborated with Michael Smith on hosting the yearly video program, “Pics n' Clips,” at Arthouse, Austin where she has been Adjunct Curator for the past four years. Recently, as a participant of unitednationsplaza, an experimental art school based in Berlin, she organized a screening of early Michael Smith videos.
Jay Sanders is a curator and writer, and a Director at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York. He collaborated with Michael Smith on a presentation of the artist's work for PERFORMA 05 and continues to work with Smith on archiving and collecting his performance documentation.
Ingrid Schaffner is Senior Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, which will present Mike's World in spring 2008. She is currently working on The Puppet Show, which includes work by Michael Smith and Douglas Skinner.
Copyright Blanton Museum of Art 2007