The Blanton Museum
ICA Philadelphia
21 years later, Mike Kelley continues a discussion with Michael Smith

In 1986, Michael Smith and the artist Mike Kelley published an illuminating interview in Issue 33 of High Performance magazine, called "Mike talks to Mike about "Mike"." We've asked them to pick up the threads of that smart and witty conversation for this catalogue of the exhibition, "Mike's World." Accordingly, Mike and Mike met in Los Angeles in early February 2007, recorded the chat, and continued to trade observations via email through the spring.

MK:   A large percentage of your work centers on the "Mike" character, I'd guess roughly 80 percent?

MS:   That seems right.

MK:   How do you, personally, differentiate the character "Mike" from Michael Smith?

MS:   "Mike" is a vehicle for me. He is kind of an empty shell, so his emotional life is hardly as nuanced as mine. He’s usually not conflicted or ambivalent, feelings I experience fairly often. I used my name, "Mike," because it is one of the most common male names. "Smith" worked for my grandparents, who came from Eastern Europe, so I figured it could work for me. I think there are two instances when I used "Michael Smith" in the work: for a piece in 1994-5 called ITEA (International Trade and Enrichment Association) and for Famous Quotes from Art History (2001/03). "Michael" seemed to command more respect than "Mike." A corporate officer or an arts program host named Mike just doesn't sound right.

MK:   In the installation you did in 1999 at the New Museum in New York, titled Open House - the work that addressed the gentrification of Soho - was the main protagonist, an artist, "Mike" as well?

MS:   Yeah, but maybe more fleshed out as a character because much of it is based on my own personal experience as an artist. He also seems more real than earlier works where my performances were broader. This change probably occurred because I had to respond to other performers and also because I was directed by Joshua White.

MK:   Is that installation in the upcoming exhibition?

MS:   Parts of it. We’re going to show "Mike's" public access cable show, Interstitial, plus the sales tape and some clips of the "Sohoods."-1 At first we were not going to include it at all.

MK:   Because the curator didn't think it was "Mike" enough?

MS:   No, not really, mostly because of the scale of the piece. It takes up an incredible amount of room. The DVD version of Open House-2 was always going to be in the show - so that, with a few important supplemental elements, seemed like a good selection.

MK:   What’s your earliest piece in the show?

MS:   Probably Down in the Rec Room (1979/81). That’s actually the first "Mike" piece - at least the first piece with a clear story line.

MK:   How broad is the show and what are some of the major pieces included in it?

MS:   It covers a lot, actually. We’re putting in all the "Mike" videos from Secret Horror (1980), . . .Rec Room, It Starts at Home (1982), basically all the "Mike" tapes up until the present. We’re also going to show scaled-down versions of the two installations from the early '80s.

MK:   Do these reductions have to do with limitations of space?

MS:   Space limitations, budget, and I no longer have a lot of the materials from the early works.

MK:   I think your installations are a very important part of your oeuvre. You made architecturally-scaled video installation pieces quite early, before it was a common practice in the art world. I'd guess more people are familiar with your single-channel tapes. You're not generally described as a sculptor.

MS:   No.

MK:   I think that limits the understanding of your work - to ignore the presentational aspects of it. Will the videos only be shown on monitors? You said, though, that some of them will be presented in partial sets?

MS:   Yeah there'll be lots of monitors, and a number of tapes will be projected in one of two screening rooms within the show. Two earlier pieces, Mike's House (1982) and The Fallout Shelter (1983), will be shown in scaled down versions of the original installations. ITEA won't be in the show, but MUS-CO (1997) and Quin Quag (2001/02) will both be in in their entireties. We needed to draw the line somewhere, and the installations I made in collaboration with Josh White are pretty much intact. He was very conscientious about making sure we kept key elements, and documented the shows thoroughly, not to mention he kept incredible installation notes and instructions.

MK:   I think, at some point, you need to do an exhibition that focuses on your installations - that addresses your work through its sculptural concerns, and not only through issues of narrative. In my opinion, all of your early installations need to be reconstructed.

MS:   That would be nice. At times it was complicated how to present all of this work for this show. For instance, we delayed the show and increased the size of the gallery considerably, just to accommodate the scope of the work over the past thirty years. And it includes both early projects primarily moved forward by me, and also the work done with Josh.

MK:   Collaborative works can be very problematic in a number of ways, especially in cases where one collaborator is more well-known than the other. For example, I think there is a tendency for many art world viewers to see your collaborative works as being primarily produced by Michael Smith simply because many of your collaborators are not as familiar as you are within the art context. But I know that you think of these works as true collaborations. Perhaps this tendency has to do with the fact that most of these works revolve around your Mike character, and that fact seems to prioritize you as the author of them.

In addition to the works done in collaboration with Joshua White, are the works with Doug Skinner also in the show?

MS:   Yes, we’re showing documentation of the puppet shows and some puppet videos.3
There was never the problem you describe with my work with Doug, but with Josh there was and still is. It is a total drag when he is not mentioned or acknowledged. I go out of my way to say I’m working with him and to stress the collaboration, but much too often people just ignore it.

MK:   I notice that his name is included in the title of this survey, whereas the names of other collaborators are not.

MS:   Yeah, I made a point of that. I wanted him to receive the credit he is due for our past work, and also for the work he'll be doing on co-designing the installation of this exhibition. With Josh I know he will do his best to help flesh out ideas and realize them. Working with him has allowed me to develop and actualize incredibly elaborate pieces.

MK:   The problem is that Joshua White's work in the collaborations is less immediately visible to the viewer because he is not the performer - you are. I think that in works in which there are dual performers, such as the puppet shows with Doug Skinner or The World of Photography video with William Wegman,4 it is easier to recognize the equal weight of the two authors.

MS:   I think Bill may see The World of Photography as separate from his work. As far as I know, it has never been included in one of his larger survey shows.

MK:   That’s interesting.

MS:   For his Whitney show in the 90s, it was footnoted in the catalogue because of an artists’ project we did for Artforum.5 

MK:   I have, myself, done many collaborative works, with various artists. And I've noticed that some of them do not include collaborations within their main body of work, whereas I do. I consider my collaborative works to be just as important as my solo works. Though I suppose this separation between solo and collaborative work could really be more of a by-product of the influence of the gallery system. Collaborative works are notoriously hard to sell; collectors are confused by them. And if there is a large difference in the economic value of the works of one or the other artist, then it is even a bigger problem. How, then, is the work priced? Even in monographic museum exhibitions, where such economic factors should not be an issue, there is often a prejudice against collaborative works. They are not generally included in retrospective exhibitions. It is interesting that collaboration is one of the main focuses of this survey show.

You have done many different kinds of collaborative works, including projects that rely heavily on other performers. For example, in Mike's Talent Show (1985), the Mike character is not the primary focus of the event, he is more a master of ceremonies for a series of discrete performances by a wide variety of quite well-known performance artists and entertainers. Yet the Mike persona is used to frame all these diverse activities. I find this work particularly interesting because the Mike character tinges every performance in the show even though he doesn't really do that much as I recall.

MS:   Well, it was Mike’s Talent Show, however on that show I worked with Steve Paul as co-producer.6

MK:   Describe, a bit, your interest in collaboration.

MS:   First of all, it’s practical. I’m not a technical guy. When I did solo performance, I did everything myself. The early work was all about revealing the mechanisms and the process, so it was important that I do everything and it be visible. After I got into video, I became more interested in producing slicker pieces and quickening the pace. I could never have done any of those large productions by myself. I also am not that good at keeping track of the big picture, so collaborators help pull me back from the details and keep me focused on the initial concept or narrative.

MK:   Yet, as I've pointed out, the fact that most of these projects focus on your creation, the persona "Mike," your authorship is front and center.

MS:   In almost all of the projects I'm involved with there's been one constant, and that’s "Mike." Seeing that I am the guy who is responsible for "Mike," I say what is appropriate for him. I guess this gives me unfair leverage but it gives me some sense of security. I know my interests will be represented. At the same time it puts pressure on me, whether it has to do with figuring things out or performing. I know at a certain point you didn’t want to perform anymore. That happened to me too; it was a combination of not getting enough back from it and finding the process to be completely enervating. Unfortunately, this can happen as well when producing; instead of it being a routine operation, it becomes an obstacle. The great thing about collaborating with Josh is that he offers solutions and I know if he says he is going to take care of something, he does it, and he'll do it incredibly well - probably way beyond what I am capable of doing. When I was wearing a couple of hats - like being in front of the camera, and trying to think about what was going on behind the camera - it split my focus. Working with Josh, I have more time to focus on my performance and on where the piece may be going.

MK:   In order to accomplish that you are willing to hand some creative decision-making over to him.

MS:   Definitely. I might come up with an idea that seems impractical, but in a good collaboration it becomes a possibility. A really good collaborator will say, "We can’t do it that way, but maybe this way." Josh helps flesh out a story or a concept. And Doug was very clear about character and story development. Doug has an incredible sense of humor and is also a very talented musician and composer. Our shows did not demand much tech. We just went behind the puppet stage and created everything with puppets. I liked that. Actually, that is when I first started working with Josh. He helped Doug and me with our kiddie and puppet shows. I had a lot of fun working with Doug. We laughed a lot.

Nowadays I guess the most fun thing for me is making drawings - away from everybody. I don't have to answer to anyone except myself, which is another complicated story.

MK:   I was going to ask you about your drawings because a book of them, Drawings: Simple, Obscure and Obtuse, -7 just came out. I know that drawing is a very important part of your practice, that you use it to develop your ideas. In fact, you drew or wrote, live, in some of your earliest performances.8 I saw vestiges of such things pinned to the wall in your studio in Chicago when I first visited you in the late 70s. Yet you have rarely revealed these drawings.

MS:   I’ve shown them infrequently. Chris Dercon showed a group of them about 20 years ago in Brussels.9 I don’t think anyone saw that - no catalogue - nothing. And there have been a few in some group shows over the past few years in New York City.10 I never took them that seriously. In fact, I was embarrassed by them.

MK:   Looking through the book, there are many that I would expect to find: production drawings for performances or installations, quick notes and sketches related to ideas, but there are some drawings that were far less familiar to me. These were more self-contained, and certain themes reoccur. One image that comes up again and again is men's boxer shorts. This theme seems to have been present in your work from the very beginning.

MS:   Boxer shorts, for me, represented a certain stage one gets to where you don’t change. You know, when you’re older you need a little more comfort, or something. Boxer shorts represent a kind of plateau - you’ve arrived.

MK:   That’s a whole discussion, the politics of boxer shorts versus briefs. The two styles seem to go in and out of fashion in a regular cycle. Right now, boxer shorts are definitely considered more hip - more youthful.

MS:   When I started with the boxers, I don’t think they were hip.

MK:   They were old men’s underwear - and now they’re young men's underwear. Briefs are considered un-sexy. Anyway, during the period of your early performance work boxer shorts were considered to be old men's underwear. In such early works as Down in the Rec Room and Secret Horror, "Mike" is often wearing only his boxer shorts.

MS:   I used underwear for various reasons. When I first started trying to figure out the Mike character I was uncomfortable placing him in a specific class, so if I introduced him in underwear his class relationship wasn't immediately clear, even though it soon became clear he was middle class. Also, when I started using the boxers I was only doing live performances; if "Mike" is in his underwear, it indicates a certain kind of private moment - someone very much inside the private space of their home.

MK:   There is a drawing included in the Regency Arts Press book (and in the exhibition) titled A Horde in Underwear: Series of Plateaus Where All Activity Takes Place in One’s Underwear Outdoors, and another one titled Bad Day in Underwear/Good Day in Underwear with Coupons.

MS:   A lot of these drawings are about searching for ideas, like sitting in front of the blank canvas or starting a new project, trying to come up with new ideas. The first drawing you mention was made when I was trying to figure out the Take off your Pants! (2005) project and thinking about a board game. Starting out in your underwear, to me, indicates a beginning of sorts - a fresh start. What’s going to happen to the character during the day ahead? Once he puts on his clothes, you get a better sense who he is and what he might be doing.

MK:   He reveals his public persona?

MS:   Yes.

MK:   It’s true that in the videos or performances when "Mike" is shown in his underwear that it is clearly intended to read as a private moment. This puts the viewer in the position of voyeur spying on "Mike." It makes the Mike character seem vulnerable, powerless.

MS:   I think people are more likely to empathize with the character when he’s perceived as vulnerable.

MK:   Being in a public place in one’s underwear and feeling embarrassed and powerless is a very common dream. And the comedic trope of having a man's pants fall down in public, making him foolish, is equally common. And yet, in some of these drawings, unlike these embarrassing situations, the act of being in one's underwear in public is, instead, rendered as a kind of empowerment. The image of someone walking around in the open in one's underwear is utopian.

MS:   Good, that is what I was after. Take Off Your Pants! is related to the internet and the notion of its being a kind of utopian space.

MK:   I understood that piece as a kind of baby-steps approach to the establishment of a free sex politic.

MS:   We can only hope.

MK:   Talk about that piece.

MS:   I was thinking about the Internet and all this talk about interactivity and I realized I’d become incredibly inactive. I don't get much mail or do many errands anymore. Most of my correspondence and business is done via the Internet. And because I live in a couple of different places, I’m dependent on it - that and my cell phone. It's funny, I’m moving around more than ever, but it feels like I am the most inactive I’ve ever been. I’m in my underwear a lot and I realized that it’s not unlike "Mike," who starts out many an adventure in underwear and sometimes never gets dressed. So I'm online - going from place to place to place, you know, in my head and on-line, and I'm still in my underwear, so I imagined lots of other people in their underwear doing the same thing. Then I got wrapped up in the idea of children on the Internet, and attempts to patrol them. How do you control that? Then came the idea for a children’s board game called Take Off Your Pants! There is no shame in the land of TOYP; it’s about embracing and celebrating being in one's underpants.

I was trying to explain this to Josh. I never showed him my drawings because I was not clear what I was after. The only thing I was clear about was making an old-style commercial for a game called Take off your Pants. Then he said, “We’ll do Take Off Your Pants!.” At one point, in passing, I mentioned a kiosk. Then he said, “Okay, kiosk.” And he came up with the design for the installation. If he didn't move it forward I'd still be in my underwear with this one.

MK:   The piece has a Sesame Street feel about it - that kind of feel-good-about-yourself message.

MS:   Yeah, that’s how he directed it. Plus, Will Sellari and Carter Arrington did a great job with the music. Josh pointed me in the direction of the Disney ride, It’s a Small World After All. The music seemed totally appropriate to talk about the Internet. It has an incessant, saccharine quality to it that gives it an especially creepy feel.

MK:   Weren't you afraid of the Disney Corporation? They sue anyone who touches their material, even preschools that paint Disney cartoon figures on their walls.

MS:   We only started with it. Then Will and Carter decided to use the Valleydale Hotdog commercial as a model. It became more of a march. It helped to have professional singers, Ivey Austin and Alice Playten, doing all the kids' voices. It really worked out.

MK:   It’s a very loaded piece because, despite the fact that it is upbeat and silly and has a "positive" message, the social milieu we are living in at the moment is steeped in fear of child abuse. Something extolling the notion that children should "take off your pants" could be perceived by some in a very negative way.

MS:   That was never talked about.

MK:   I'm surprised.

MS:   Except somebody wrote, in a blog, “Mike Smith, what was he thinking?”11

MK:   I know this exhibition focuses on "Mike," but since we're talking about children,
maybe this is a good place to segue into a discussion about your Baby IKKI character.
"The Baby" has been there since the beginning as well, 12 and I think its meaning has changed
over time as social conditions in America have changed. At one time, you described the
character to me as being a response to the gender considerations raised by Feminist art - that
"the Baby," because it was a pre-genital character, could somehow be genderless.

MS:   That’s how I saw it.

MK:   "The Baby," much more so than "Mike," was, initially at least, almost a purely comedic figure. "The Baby" is, perhaps, less comedic now and has taken on a more pathetic air - probably simply because you are older. The sight of a middle-aged man in diapers intimates the sad image of adult senility. Perhaps, because of this more pathetic reading of "the Baby," I once suggested that you position the character in the framework of the infantilist scene. For those readers who don't know what infantilism is, it is a "perversion" whereby adults dress and act like infants. It is generally not overtly sexual in nature, but often involves being mothered by a mommy figure or engaging in such pre-genital activities as cuddling. You were very much against my suggestion however - of having "the Baby" being framed through the perversion of infantilism.

MS:   I was in denial then - total denial.

MK:   Now you seem more willing to consider this idea.

MS:   Well, if I want to get more out of the character or a situation, I have to. Let’s face it, adult baby is the subject. It’s real. Even if I’m not into that, it’s real. I can’t deny it.

I did do the piece Playground with Seth Price where we referenced adult baby web sites.13 I mean, it wasn't only about that, but we used them as a model.

MK:   You and I have been talking about a collaborative work between us in which the Baby character is introduced into that world, among others. Personally, I think it would be very interesting to see the difference between your usage of a baby character, one that is linked to art practice, in contrast with these infantilist groups, where the focus is more on pleasure I suppose. It would be an interesting collision of worlds.

MS:   It’d be a challenge. This is another instance in which collaboration would force me to consider something new. You and I have worked together in the past and have been talking about doing so again. It could be fun too.

It’s interesting that the same person, me, is both "Baby IKKI" and "Mike." I’m a bit repressed, and that’s part of "Mike’s" character, but I also rein "the Baby" in. He’s 18 months old so it’s not as apparent. Maybe it’s time to let it loose. I don’t know how much longer I can continue to do "the Baby." It may have a shelf life, whereas the Mike character - I think I could grow old with him.

MK:   I don't know. Why should the Baby character be retired because of your age? Think of Merce Cunningham, who continued to dance, himself, as he got older. He didn't replace himself with a younger dancer. He incorporated the reality of his aging into his work. I find that extremely interesting.

MS:   Let’s propose a really extreme situation - say I became physically impaired, have a stroke or something. Maybe the Mike character could pull it off. It would be more natural. But "the Baby"?

MK:   It seems odd that you would say that. It's already obvious to everyone that "the Baby" isn’t 18 months old.

MS:   You are right, but it would lose its comedic potential.

MK:   That's what I'm suggesting. Let it become tragic and work with it.

MS:   I would have to think hard about that one.

MK:   In Playground you show "the Baby" wandering around in a cabin-like space all by himself - like an infant version of a latch-key kid. That tape has a very melancholy, introspective quality that I like. And the shots of the empty children's playgrounds have an Antonioni-like existential feel. That project already presents "the Baby" in an un-comedic way, unlike any previous treatment of him.

MS:   You're right - it’s actually close, in this wandering, to the actions of the Mike character in my newest tape, Portal Excursion (2007), where I wander through MIT.

MK:   How is "Mike" framed in that situation? I have not seen the video, but you described it to me as being somewhat ambient.

MS:   "Mike" is looking back and assessing his life. He's going through a mid-life crisis and is trying to find his way out through distance learning.

MK:   What does that mean, "distance learning"?

MS:   On-line courses or programs where you don’t have to be physically present. "Mike" is once again a mid-level office type, but now with an interest in mnemonics. He’s trying to apply this to distance learning. He devised this specious method to memorize words but it’s not really clear what he does with it, it’s like a hobby. At one point, "Mike" reminisces and goes back to when he was a child.

MK:   As part of this "looking back," do you employ filmic devices such as flashbacks?

MS:   We do it using a sequence of pictures of me as a child, but there are no flashbacks. There are many references, including the Eames’ film, Powers of Ten, 14 Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor.15 I started with the site of the Infinite Corridor at MIT 16 and worked from there. Somehow I got onto mnemonics after learning about MIT’s Open Course Ware, a free online educational resource. What originally started out as an allegorical tale about the Internet turned into a convoluted journey about middle age, deep space, and mnemonics.

MK:   That’s a very complicated set of associations. This associative complexity reminds me of the structuring of some of your earlier performance works.

MS:   It's like Secret Horror. It doesn’t necessarily resolve - it's a ten-minute journey.

MK:   Sometimes in your work you toy with evocations of the sublime. Secret Horror is a good example; it's a supernatural narrative in which the strange is constantly returned to the bland quotidian world of daily life. Then again, it has this existential quality. It's somewhat reminiscent of the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd, but you foreground the comedic.

MS:   Samuel Beckett was a big influence. That’s probably why I started performing in underwear, too. All his characters seem to be loaded down. I wanted to a do a character that was loaded down, but wasn't wearing it – hmmm, maybe I can attribute the underwear to my minimalist upbringing?

MK:   Speaking of Beckett, it reminds me of when he contracted Buster Keaton to be in a film project. Keaton didn't get Beckett's work at all; he didn't find it funny. This seems relevant to what we were just talking about, relative to "the Baby," about the close link between the comedic and the pathetic. Buster Keaton obviously embraces pathos in his stone-faced character, nevertheless, producing laughter was his primary goal - whereas Beckett's work, even though it is absurd, foregrounds the tragic.

Let's talk about how you "foreground" meaning in your work. The Mike character is a constant element. "Mike" can be either clownish, or a sad and tragic figure, yet he has consistent qualities: blandness, ineptitude, naivety. Nevertheless, despite the constant presence of this character, and its somewhat consistent qualities, your work is amazingly broad in its themes and affects. "Mike" is not utilized toward a consistent aesthetic goal. Your work is very responsive to changes in the social and political climate, trends in the art world, and the evolving social meaning of art. When I look at your work over the last, almost, 30 years it becomes very clear that it is responsive to such changes, and comments on them. I could say that "Mike" functions, for you, as a kind of grounding device. But he can be used toward many different ends. Let's talk about some specific examples. In your performance, Bill Loman: Master Salesman (1983), a kind of re-working of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, "Mike" was used, I believe, to comment on the rising effect of market mentality on art production at that time. How do you think the Mike character functioned in that particular work?

MS:   Hmm, That's interesting. I was not thinking specifically about the art world. But I was situating "Mike" in relation to Reaganomics, both in Bill Loman … and Keeping Up with the 80s (1987). 17

MK:   Those works seem to be less about "Mike" and his quirks, and more about surrounding economic conditions. And that theme is really brought to the fore in the piece about Soho gentrification, Open House, which I can read as an allegory of the failure of the avant-garde tradition in art. Earlier works much more often reference art, for example Minimalist aesthetics are often alluded to in your earliest performances.

MS:   Down in the Rec Room, in my mind, was a comment on the art band movement in New York, amateurism, and artists' relationship to avant-garde strategies. It’s not really that clear in that piece, but that’s how it came about.

MK:   That’s another issue I want to talk about with you, in relation to how you structure works: obscurity. Some of your pieces are much more overt in what they’re "about" than other pieces. But we'll come back to that.

I want to try to stay on the line of inquiry about how the singular figure of "Mike" can function toward different ends. Let's use the example of a monochrome painter, because I know you started off as an abstract painter. Monochrome painting, on the surface, traffics in consistency; meaning lies in the details. I guess that’s the point I’m trying to make - that I can understand the Mike character as a similar kind of restriction for you. But, of course, your work is incredibly divergent in a way that a monochrome painter's could never be. Sometimes it addresses sociopolitical concerns, sometime formal aesthetic ones; it can be poetic or comedic. And, as I proposed relative to Bill Loman, Master Salesman, the focus is on economics, which was a huge issue in the '80s when the notion of art as commodity became commonplace. I could understand Bill Loman, Master Salesman as your comment on the "commodity art" movement of the '80s.

MS:   I appreciate you putting it in relation to that context, but with the Bill Loman piece one could also talk about it in relation to yuppies and disposable income.

MK:   I don't know if I see that much difference between those references.

Such economic considerations are expanded on later in the ITEA piece, which is more about
global corporate economics.

MS:   One thing that many of these pieces have in common is that they come from personal experiences, which in turn inform my responses to specific situations. In the case of ITEA, I was presented with the opportunity to do an installation for an international group show titled Heart of Darkness, inspired by the Conrad novella. 18 At that time I couldn't get arrested, so I thought, "I’m looking for an opportunity - I’ll be the American colonialist." That led me to develop ITEA, a piece relating to colonialism, global trade, and art. After I did ITEA, I wasn't that interested in talking about global corporate concerns anymore, but I still wasn't finished with my struggle to get a foothold in the art world - thus, MUS-CO and Open House.

MK:   . . . works that also draw on your own experience, especially Open House, which directly relates to your experience of living in New York City and seeing the complete gentrification of it first hand.

MS:   Right. Many of the details that went into the story behind MUS-CO were informed by Josh White's history, his light shows in the '60s and '70s. The piece, however, initially was inspired by the sad, pathetic image of a lone, creaking, spinning disco ball in an empty room. When thinking about disco, I always think about death, rather than raves. MUS-CO paralleled my father's failing business, my art career at the time, and the small manufacturers in Soho who were forced out, and it just so happened that disco was having a resurgence. For me, disco balls always connote something sad and tragic.

MK:   Why?

MS:   Because I associate disco with AIDS.

MK:   MUS-CO strikes me as addressing planned obsolescence. The failed shop, with its heap
of out-of-date lighting effects, functions as an allegory of every random shift in fashion - and is
the mirror of an art market, just like every other market, where one disposable trend constantly replaces another.

MS:   "Mike's" business is built on using other people’s ideas and products. His timing is so wrong. He takes their products, claims to have made some modifications, and then put his own label on it.

MK:   Just like "appropriation art."

MS:   "Mike" just adds his label, hardly an improvement. Yes, I was thinking about that in relationship to appropriation in the art world - just shifting it to another context.

MK:   Appropriation art was generally viewed, at the time, as a critique of notions of authorship, but within the art market it functioned as a way to make old products fresh again by giving them new authorship.

MS:   According to Josh, back when he was doing light shows, people in the art world looked down on what was being done in the commercial world. And when the climate changed, there was an intersection of the two. The title of the project, MUS-CO, reflects this confluence of two different worlds.

MK:   Most current art viewers would probably not be familiar with Josh White's work as an auteur in the underground psychedelic light show world of the '60s. This art form isn't generally included in the history of contemporary art.

MS:   It’s having a renaissance.

MK:   This is a perfect example of the kind of cultural planned obsolescence I was talking about.
Light art was a respected form at a certain point; then it wasn’t accepted as art anymore - now it is again because of rave culture. Light shows have come back into vogue and are finding their way into the art context. I've noticed that there have been several museum shows focused on psychedelia in recent years.19

MUS-CO is a play on USCO, right?

MS:   Right. Mike took his initial and added it to USCO, a well-known counterculture collective that did light shows in the '60s.

As you pointed out, a lot of my work develops in response to period trends, but some are directly related to a site and context. Open House, which was presented at the New Museum when it was still in Soho, is all about that neighborhood and community.

MK:   Open House is a great, ironic version of the art world success story. "Mike" is a mediocre artist struggling to make it, working through a variety of stylistic trends, and finally succeeds simply because of gentrification.

MS:   Because he owns a loft.

MK:   He capitalizes on his real estate holdings; that’s his success. Open House might be the only work in which "Mike" is a success - even though he fails in his chosen profession as an artist. The show was so perfectly timed, right at the moment when the Soho art scene finally collapsed and the galleries moved to Chelsea. Gentrification led to the death of an entire arts community that had existed for almost 50 years.

MS:   It really did. It led to the death of what appeared to be a thriving community. Some of it moved to Brooklyn, but it became very dispersed.

MK:   Mike’s Talent Show is also a kind of portrait of a community; it is very much a picture of the East Village at a certain moment in time. This was a very different art scene than that associated with Soho. There was a desire to produce populist art - that could cross over to mass culture - that could expand out of the art world.

MS:   People of my generation were involved in that, and then a slightly younger scene in the East Village continued and built up clubs and followings. I was lucky to be able to take advantage of this phenomenon and developed Mike’s Talent Show almost over night. Perhaps I provided an opportunity for younger performers to work with more established ones, but it felt like I was taking advantage of a venue and context, and insinuating myself into it.

MK:   Again, "Mike" is used as a framing device. But this is a particularly interesting case because, unlike most of your work, "Mike" is operating in the performative space of the nightclub, and not in a fictional world. "Mike" is interacting with real people, even if they are performers as well.

MS:   We (Michael Smith and Steve Paul) mixed Downtown art types and mainstream performers but as it continued it became more weighted to the mainstream.

MK:   This parallels your own exploration, at the time, with taking "Mike" into mainstream media. For example, your short "Mike commercial" for Saturday Night Live and your Cinemax special.20

Maybe now I can get to the issue of ambiguity that I raised earlier. It strikes me that in some recent works, such as Portal Excursion, you are returning to the Beckett-like openness of meaning I associate with your earlier works - which were far more abstract and evolved from more associative thinking. You told me recently that you want to re-explore this aspect of your work.

MS:   I would like to try and go back to this older way of putting things together. Even though I enjoy it, it creates a tension in me. I've been working with models taken from popular culture, like television, for some time now. I get some satisfaction working with the kinds of resolution and closure offered by borrowed formats. Unfortunately, I think more through images and broken narratives.

It is a good thing that there is an art context that has the patience to consider my work. I never know where to place it exactly. Maybe it relates to what you said about what I decide to foreground. There are some works I was never comfortable with. It took me many years before I could consider re-looking at the Fallout Shelter piece. Now it feels fresh. When I made it I thought I should be dealing more with the nuclear issue, but now, years later, it feels right as a poetic piece with nods toward television and the threat of nuclear attack.

MK:   One of my favorite performances of yours was Let’s See What’s in the Refrigerator (1977). 21

MS:   It’s strange.

MK:   I don't remember it having any recognizable subject. When I was watching it I could not make any traditional sense out of it; I didn't know what was going on. The pathos of the Mike character was not there. I could not define the character.

MS:   "Mike" didn't exist then.

MK:   How did you think about character in that performance?

MS:   There are three characters, but basically it’s the same guy putting on different hats.

MK:   I do not think it a failure that these characters were not quite recognizable. I found the performance fascinating in its ambiguity. It was like seeing a mime and not being able to tell what they’re miming. I’ve always been fascinated by poor mimes. I like when the illustrational meanings of their movements fail to read and the actions fall into some in-between zone of representation/non-representation. At certain points in that performance you, as a performer, seemed equal to the objects on stage.

MS:   Right. There’s definitely no hierarchy, I am a kind of glorified stagehand. The focus was meant to be on props and process. Everything is treated the same. I was more a hat rack than a defined character with a particular hat. There’s a rawness to those pieces that, at the time I was doing them, was very exciting, but also confusing for me. It made me feel kind of naked, vulnerable. I was clear on the process but it conflicted with my desire to make a simple story. Instead of continuing to feel naked, I guess I just started my performances in my underwear. There’s a lot of work going on now in the art world where it’s unclear what the meaning is. Perhaps my older work might fit right in. I learned that it may be OK to be confusing after collaborating with Seth Price. When we were working on "the Baby" I'd say, “Well, babies wouldn’t do that.” And he looked at me, and say, “You’re not a baby; what are you talking about? Why does it have to make any sense?” And I said, “But, but...” Those early pieces didn’t really make any sense. I look back at the drawings of that period, and they look good to me. It's the same with some of those performances. I recently unearthed documentation of those old early performances.

MK:   That’s great. You should show those pieces. People have not seen them.

Getting back to the idea of the Mike character as a grounding device for different kinds of explorations, I am starting to think of him, not so much as a character, but as a kind of tone. He inflects meaning, but he is not meaning.

MS:   Well, "Mike" definitely developed out of a particular timing, a certain cadence. However, before he was "Mike," he was "Blandman." He was modeled more after some demographic figures than a real person. I had the idea for a totally bland character, so I wrote people asking what or who they thought Blandman was. Most responses had to do with tasteless doughy food. That didn’t help me much, so I focused on my voice and delivery. Both definitely dictated how he would move through space and react to a situation.

MK:   In the history of comedy there are many comics whose work isn’t so much about their subject matter, but their delivery.

MS:   Would you consider me a comic?

MK:   No, but there were times when I felt you wanted me to think of you as a comic. You
definitely make overt reference to the tropes of comedic performance in your work. I find it
easier to talk about your work through comedy than body art or dance, for example.

MS:   But I borrow from them, too.

MK:   That's true. And in terms of the structure of your work it would probably be more enlightening to talk about it through those forms. I'm just talking about the surface qualities of your work. Maybe it's because the issue of self-representation is so important in your work: the "Mike"/Michael Smith relationship. This relationship is more clearly separated in actors, and it is not much of an issue in dance - whereas with comics this confusion between stage persona and private persona is not so uncommon. Also, in your staging, at least in your early performances, there are similarities to the tropes of stand-up comedy: they were primarily solo performances, with stripped-down staging, and prop usage. Of course, this is not so much the case in your recent work. But the question of persona is still present. I was thinking of a performer like Jack Benny. He is defined as a comic, yet he is not really a joke-teller, it almost doesn’t matter what he says - it's all about how he says it.

Using the Mike character, you produce many different kinds of work, yet all inflected by a certain kind of delivery. This delivery is generally read symbolically - as pathos. But maybe, instead, it should be considered more abstractly, as a kind of musicality. As you were saying before, "Mike" developed out of a kind of...

MS:   ...timing, right. No, people don’t talk about that. Timing and tone have always been extremely important for me and that influences all aspects of my work. It was always difficult to balance my timing in live performance with the timing in my videos. In my performances I was more comfortable with a lot of dead air, but with video I find that difficult to maintain. Perhaps this has more to do with what is appropriate to a particular medium. To have moments of abstraction in my work that are not accompanied by a particular tone or timing is also uncomfortable for me. Maybe that is why I work with music so often. I feel the need for accompaniment in case there are not enough layers. As you can see, I’m conflicted about the process, form, and presentation of my work.

MK:   But I think that’s part of what makes your work interesting. If your work didn’t have such conflicts it would be boring - it really would be mainstream comedy. But it’s not.

I keep saying this over and over again, but the analysis of visual art operates on a much cruder level than say, literature, for example. The comedic in literature is not held in lower regard than other themes, because structure is taken into account. Yet, in the art world, the comedic is simply written off as low and unintelligent.

MS:   I wanted to mention something about the show's title. I initially proposed "Mike" as the title of the exhibition and the museum's PR department responded, “We can’t advertise Mike. It’s not a clear concept. How about Mike’s World?," which I later learned is the phrase the curator kept using to describe the space or design of the exhibition.

MK:   Like Christina’s World and Wayne’s World.22

MS:   Or Disney World. I was fine with it. It allows me to focus on that idea: Mike’s World. "There’s a world of Mike . . . okay, I'll inhabit it." The show will be one big installation, like a presidential library or museum.

MK:   What led to that decision?

MS:   The LBJ Library-23 happens to be on the University of Texas campus. I am pretty familiar with it and I really like visiting. It’s great - one of the best presidential museums, and I have been to most of them. Anyhow, I realized that many of the elements in the show were similar to what you’d find in a presidential museum. Everything revolves around one person and is linked to their life and their accomplishments, and all is realized with sets and installations, timelines, costumes, lots of films and videos, and usually display cases filled with kitschy gifts. This led to thinking about Mike’s World as one large installation. Josh and I then decided to produce an orientation film for the exhibition, so we're hiring a professional familiar with the genre to write the script.

MK:   An orientation film? Will it be short?

MS:   Five minutes.

MK:   So it's a super-encapsulated introduction to "Mike."

MS:   Dense. I think it's a good thing to open with - then spit the viewers out into the show where they can just circulate.

MK:   I think it’s a very good idea; I have never heard of an orientation film for an art show.
I know many art viewers would appreciate something like that. Most of them feel they are
missing something. You can pump everybody up and get them excited, like a pre-game football
rally. They'll go into the show really primed to participate.

MS:   People who don’t know "Mike" can get a sense of who he is. It will contextualize him and possibly historicize my work. We’re also going to create a "Mike" timeline that incorporates props and photographs.

MK:   A timeline painted on the wall, like those included in educational exhibitions?

MS:   It will be a case containing props and pictures related to "Mike" and, maybe, a timeline with key dates linked to cultural events: the introduction of cable, the internet - as well as political events: Reagan's presidency, etc.

MK:   Oh, you must include the timeline of cultural events. Then people can see how many of your works predate the mass-culture versions. Like how It Starts at Home predates The Truman Show, etc. 24

MS:   And how Doug and Mike's dirty children's comedy predates Beavis and Butthead, South Park .. 25

MK:   You will be revealed as the innovator that you are. The viewers will be incredibly impressed by how much you have influenced the culture at large.

MS:   I don’t claim this stuff; it was in the air...

MK:   Why not claim it? Everyone else does.


1) "Sohoods" - derived from Soho, a district of downtown NYC once noted for its art galleries and artists' lofts. The Sohoods were a fictional group that came out of my personal experience with the artist collective, Colab, from 1977-1980. The Sohood's big cause was protesting the gentrification of Soho, even though it was well under way by the time they moved to the area. "Interstitial" was a term bantered around the video community in the early '80s. Short clips seemed to offer an opportunity for media artists to infiltrate the commercial airwaves. (MS)

2) The Open House DVD (2006) was produced by Michael Smith and Joshua White with Michael Owen at Owen Electric Pictures in NYC. An interactive DVD seemed to them like the ideal medium to convey the scale and complexity of the original installation at the New Museum. It was made possible with funding from a UT Faculty Research Grant and Summer Research Assignment from UT.

3) Smith and Doug Skinner first met when Mike's Talent Show was active in the mid-1980s. They continued working together on Mike's Kiddie Show in 1990-1991, when both came to the conclusion that they were not interested in entertaining children, but doing juvenile humor for adults. It was the height of the culture wars and identity politics in the U.S. and Skinner and Smith entered the fray with their puppet show, Doug and Mike's Adult Entertainment, which appeared briefly at Caroline's Comedy Club, and regularly at various Downtown venues including Dixon Place, The Drawing Center, Jay Gorney Gallery and at three International Puppet Festivals sponsored by the Henson Foundation. Smith and Skinner's last performance was in 1998 at MOCA in LA, as part of the Visitors' Gallery Series of the Out Of Actions exhibition. That series was curated by Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy.

4) The World of Photography took a few years to produce, and was finally completed in 1986 after the CAT FUND and PBS put more money into the project and guaranteed to air it on their "Alive from Off Center" series. The piece was inspired by "How to Draw," a short videotape Wegman made in collaboration with Mark Magill in 1983.

5) Michael Smith and William Wegman, “The World of Photography: A Project for Artforum,” Artforum, March 1986.

6) Steve Paul was the owner and manager of Steve Paul's Scene, a famous NYC music club at its height in the late 1960s. After that Paul went into management and producing. Over the years he worked with various artists including Edgar and Johnny Winters, David Johanson, Tiny Tim, and in 1985 he started working with Smith. Together they produced Mike's Talent Show, a pilot for Manhattan Cable's OverNight TV. After MCTV viewed the videotape, in particular Harry Kipper's performance, they retracted their offer for a series. In 1987 MTS started up again at The Bottom Line, a well known night club in downtown Manhattan, and over the next two years it was a regular show on the club schedule. In 1988 Smith and Paul started producing an additional show called Mike's Big TV Show at Caroline's Comedy Club. Smith and Paul then went on to produce a one hour special of Mike's Talent Show for the Cinemax Channel which aired nationally the same summer of 1989.

7) MICHAEL SMITH Drawings: Simple, Obscure and Obtuse (NewYork: Regency Arts Press, 2007). Regency Arts Press is run by Lauren Wittels, the former director of the Lauren Wittels Gallery in New York City, who showed the original MUS-CO installation in 1997.

8) In my first performance, Comedy Routine, performed before an audience at my Chicago studio in 1975, I used a blackboard to illustrate many of the of the sections, bits or jokes, as I preferred to call them, that made up the performance. (MS)

9) Drawings, Notebooks, and Storyboards was curated by Chris Dercon in 1986 for a gallery space attached to Atelier Ste. Anne, an experimental theatre in Brussels, Belgium.

10) My drawings have rarely been exhibited in NYC. The first time I showed some was at Pierogi 2000 in 1996, a solo show based on my video and performance piece, Outstanding Young Men of America. In 1999, Gregory Williams included a few of my credit card drawings in Arrested Ambition, a group show he curated for Apex Art in NYC, and in 2005, several watercolors were shown in Hunch and Flail, a group show at Artists Space curated by Amy Sillman. (MS)

11) Appeared in a blog by Roy Stanfield Blog sometime in 2005 when TOYP was at Christine Burgin Gallery.

12) The idea for the baby character, IKKI (pronounced icky), developed in reaction to discussions around gender politics in the early '70s. I was looking for something gender neutral. What I came up with was an infant. At the time I was reading UBU the King by Alfred Jarry, which influenced the name, IKKI. No matter how you look at it, forward or backward, it is always IKKI. (MS)

13) I met Seth when he was working at EAI as an editor. I enjoyed working with him and also thought he was both smart and talented. An opportunity came up to do a project at CAN in Neuchatel, Switzerland and also at Galleria Emi Fontana in Milan so I asked Seth if he would like to work with me on a new project. (MS)

14) The Powers of 10 (1968), a short film by Ray and Charles Eames.

15) Shock Corridor, a film by Sam Fuller produced in 1963.

16) Infinite Corridor
I was asked by the Center for Advanced Visual Studies @ MIT to submit a proposal to develop a project for their 2005 - 2006 fellowship program. When I did a site visit and saw the Infinite Corridor, I knew I wanted to use it as a location for a new videotape. I was so impressed with its scale that it soon became the central focus of the piece in its development, both visually and symbolically. (MS)

17) I think of Bill Loman... and Keeping Up... as kind of bookends.When Reaganonics was at its height, I thought it appropriate to evoke and pay homage to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. I tried getting rights to use the title "Death of a Salesman II," but was denied. The following fall Death... opened on Broadway with Dustin Hoffman. Keeping Up... was put on at the end of the Reaganomics era. I thought it ironically appropriate to celebrate the end of the '80s with a musical featuring child actors playing young yuppies looking forward to the '90s as Mike struggles to keep up. The one-act musical was co-written with music critic Howard Mandel; music was composed by A. Leroy with Mark Bingham; and the choreography was by Maria Lakis. (MS)

18) Heart of Darkness was a large international group exhibition curated by Marianne Brouwer with Corinne Diserens for the Kroller-Muller [umlauts over both vowels, pls, steve] Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands, For the show I founded ITEA, an association that promoted dialogue and exchange between artists and corporations, and appointed Mike/Michael A. Smith as its director. In collaboration with graphic designer Jim Hinchee, I produced three unique brochures displayed in a standard trade show booth situated at the entrance of the museum. One brochure outlined ITEA's mission statement (succinctly expressed in its slogan, "Elevation Through Association"), another offered up the museum for rental to the corporate community, and the third served as the checklist/map for the exhibition. (MS)

19) The exhibitions Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, organized by Tate Liverpool in 2005 and on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in summer 2007, and Visual Music, organized by the Hirshhorn Museum in 2005, both featured works by Joshua White.

20) After producing the PBS piece with Wegman, a door was opened and with my manager, Steve Paul's, help and persistence I was asked to submit ideas for a short film to John Head of SNL. The first piece I proposed was the coffee routine that was in Mike Builds a Shelter. I actually performed the piece, or auditioned, so to speak, in Lorne Michael's office. John did not choose that routine and eventually signed off on the "Mike Commercial" proposal. It was never aired but some people claimed they saw it on the show. (MS)

21) Let's See What's in the Refrigerator was originally performed at the Kitchen in NYC around 1978. The title for the performance came about when I had a deadline to meet at the Kitchen. I realized that I was spending more time at the fridge than at my desk, and seeing the performance was at the Kitchen, I felt it appropriate. I brought in my old refrigerator for the show. (MS)

22) Christina's World, 1948, by Andrew Wyeth, in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Wayne's World, a 1992 film that grew out of a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live.

23) The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

24) The Truman Show, a 1998 film starring Jim Carrey.

25) Beavis and Butt-head by Mike Judge (1993-97) and South Park by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (1997-continuing), two groundbreaking animated television comedies.