Person Corporatehood: An Interview with Mike Merrill

July 3, 2012 · Print This Article

Person Corporatehood. I said this aloud one day and let it sit for a minute or two, trying to figure out what it meant. I believe in this kind of thinking: create language, see if what it describes is useful, use it, make it. I said this and then I realized that Mike Merrill had made it. He’s a publicly traded person. People own shares in him and vote on matters of import to his life: dietary choices, romantic entanglements, whether or not to have a vasectomy, his professional and civic obligations and affiliations.

As an artist, this highlights a few key elements of what seem to dictate his practice and production. He is compulsively collaborative and instigates projects with varied social reaches and dynamic insider-outsider/collaborator-audience roles for others. He has an interest in how the aesthetics and language of business can be utilized in new forms. And, I think most important in appreciating what he does, he creates systems of rules–games–in which he and others interact, bump up against and work within these strictures.

His projects are manifold–and are not always described as art–but include the internet community/cultural nexus Urban Honking (which he co-founded in the early part of this century with YACHT‘s Jona Bechtolt and States Rights RecordsSteve Schroeder and on which I also have a blog), its internet reality show the Ultimate Blogger (which ran three seasons), Team Video (which produces, as you might expect, TV), Allison Supper Club (site-specific meals) and, of course, KmikeyM, which is him as corporate entity, him as owned by you.

Buy stock in Mike. Have him buy part of your drink. Make a weird rule for yourself and see how it makes things.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Can you tell us a bit about your biography? I recall that you were raised in Alaska. As a late-teen you joined the Army. In 2001 you co-founded Urban Honking. Can you fill us in on the in-betweens?

I grew up all over Alaska. Spent my youth in a place called Coldfoot, AK with very few other humans. Then when I was in 5th grade I finally got to go to school with other kids in Soldotna. In my junior year of High School we moved to Sitka, AK. Even when we were in the same place we moved  around a lot. I don’t really have a “childhood home” and I haven’t been back to Alaska in many years. I’m sure that affected me somehow…

Growing up my Dad was a State Trooper and I thought I wanted to be a cop. I was just around it so much and would read books on pro-active vs. reactive policing, community policing, and all these other things my Dad had around. I really liked the systems and the thinking around those systems. I didn’t realize that there was a difference between that and the average police officer. So after High School I joined the Army as Military Police, thinking I’d do that, then go to college, and then eventually end up in some federal law enforcement agency. But I quickly hit a snag when I realized that to be a good cop you kind of have to be a bit of an asshole… I mean, you have to want to get into people’s business. That’s the job of the police! To place themselves in situations where they are not wanted, and to do so with authority and take control. That was not me. I wanted to read books about supply logistics (there is a lot of supply and logistics happening in the Army!) and play with the computer inventory systems. So I wasn’t a very good MP, and likely I wasn’t a very good soldier, so when I had an opportunity to get out, it seemed like the best option both for me and for the Army. I like to say we split on amicable terms. It was a mistake, but I don’t blame that on the Army, it was my mistake. Anyway, that experience certainly affected me. I joined at 18 and got out at 21. Pretty formative years.

When I got out I didn’t want to go back to Alaska and I had friends who were renting a house in Portland, so I told them to save me a spot and I moved to Portland in 1998. A few years and many projects later I was living with Jona and Steve and we started Urban Honking. God, there is so much more, but I feel like this got long and boring!

The context of this interview is that you are–as you sometimes present yourself–an artist. I don’t think in 2012 we need to have a discussion about why or why not your work can function as art. I am however interested in you talking about the kind of code switching and context-shifting that you present for different projects. What are the advantages of presenting your work as entrepreneurial or as art or as something like a series of goofs by a guy with web savvy?

For me the danger of presenting what I do, or rather, how I live, as art is that it’s too easy to dismiss. “Oh, that’s an art project. It’s not real life.” So while I feel like many of the individual projects can fall under an art category I don’t choose to place being a publicly traded person under that. In Portland I engage with a lot of different people. People who identify primarily as artists, or writers, or designers, or software engineers, or whatever. The beauty of the KmikeyM project is that it hits all those points. I need all those people! So I think the context-shifting actually happens very naturally. I talk code with the software people and concepts of control with the artists… of course, many people around me wear multiple hats, so it all blurs together. But in general I tend to categorize people in my head as how they interface with KmikeyM. The way it’s presented is in a constant state of flux.

Can you talk a bit about your time in the military? What elements of that experience have shaped your life as a maker/project-person?

Being in the Army taught me how to adapt to systems. The Army is very well regulated. There are rules for every single thing. A few of us more rebellious types realized at some point that the true power in a system like that isn’t rank… it’s the rules! The rules exist for everyone so even when it was not in our own best interest we’d bring up these rules about the things we were doing, just as a way to exert some sort of control. I think that experience was the start of this idea that social systems could be “hacked” just like computer systems. It’s the same thing… you just find ways to exploit the rules.


Where did the idea to become a publicly traded individual come from? What have some of the surprises of this project been?

I didn’t want to be the publicly traded person. I wanted to invest in the publicly traded person! The original idea came from etoy.com. They use a shareholder model but there is no market, which as a shareholder of etoy I found sort of frustrating when I saw the stock price go up! I wanted to sell and cash out! I talked about the idea for years before I met someone who had the skills and interest to make it happen, at which point I couldn’t say no.

A huge part of what makes your project so interesting is to watch you–as a human being with your own feelings, ideas and context–work up against the way you are required to by your share-holders and the rules of the elaborate game you’ve created. You are a registered Republican now but also have seemed to struggle within these confines, even endorsing Barack Obama’s reelection (while supporting Republicans for Obama). Can you talk about this decision, and, using this as an entry into this part of your life, discuss other instances in which you’ve been challenged by your shareholders’ decisions? How many of your shareholders are also friends?

Part of becoming a republican was certainly just to “mess with the system”. I find it pretty silly that something as polarizing in our culture as political party is determined by a form you get from the post office. You just check a box and off it goes… BOOM! Registered Republican. But then the reality sinks in… I’m a Republican. There is a history to it that’s pretty interesting and while the current version of Republican is pretty broken, the core of it is still solid. Right now I’m not a very good Republican, but I’m also pretty new at it! I’m learning more and getting better and working on finding ways to incorporate my new political beliefs into my life and projects. It’s a no brainer to support Obama and join Republican For Obama. He’s the best candidate. The idea of being party-loyal over nation-loyal is why politics is broken. Republicans supporting Obama is a sign that the current leadership isn’t pushing the right agenda.

As far as other challenges it’s not so much direct actions as it is an overriding sense that I need to keep things moving. I have a responsibility to them. It’s a relationship I’ve come to value more than most personal relationships (not all, not yet). It certainly helps that most of the people I personally care about are shareholders. That allows me to apply the love I have for my friends to the rest of the shareholders. These are people who chose to get invested in me. That’s huge! Who has that? I am incredibly lucky to have a community that supports me and pushes for me to be my best.

Why aren’t there more Republican artists?

Republicans don’t make art, they make money. It’s hard for me to talk about my party. We’re in a bad place right now. I’ve embraced the values of the Republican Party but I feel like my fellow Republicans are much too busy opposing the ideas of Democrats and so they ignore our true agenda. Plus religion got all wrapped up in Republicanism and that isn’t helping. We’re in a dark and confused place right now, but I think the fact that the best we could do was Romney is a sign we’re close to hitting bottom. At least I hope so. Republicans need to ignore Democrats and focus on being good Republicans. This is a bit of a tangent, but I think it’s related. Art is about creation and right now the Republican party is more focused on destruction of their opponents than creation of their own ideals.

Looking back, I think the first way that I first engaged with (you and) Urban Honking was through the Ultimate Blogger contest/show. My friend and sometime roommate Tim Donovan was a contestant on the second season and ended up doing quite well (I think he was either second or third). I loved that project. I’m also surprised in looking back at how much the internet has grown and how different a project like this would be now. Not only would it seem absurd–since “blogger” no longer even sounds like a funny word–but it’d be on Hulu or something. This kind of project exemplified something exciting about “cyberspace” that certainly still exists in large quantities but is not the dominant way “users” interact with “content.” The dream of streaming video for many was a citizen-created media–something like YouTube but without the TV clips and without the targeted advertising. How did Ultimate Blogger come about? What kind of lessons were learned from that project? What were some of its surprise consequences?

It’s funny to think back about that project. We were creating video on the web before YouTube existed! I was never part of the DIY music scene of the northwest but I think this was my version of that. After we made Urban Honking it because clear that the internet allowed us to compete on the media sphere with major corporations. Jona could design things that looked better than most media companies! We started to imagine not just this little web magazine but a whole media empire. And eventually we created that empire, but instead of slowly expanding we just created each new piece one after the other. So we got into blogs, then TV, then radio… We never made any money and it was never a business, it was about creating these things. Ultimate Blogger worked so well because Steve and Jona and I each contributed to it. It was  great collaboration and the most intense and fun thing I’ve ever done. We did three seasons and each time it almost ruined our friendships! It got pretty intense, but we kept doing it again. Being able to lose yourself in something that big is pretty addictive.

Can you talk about the social aspect of your work? Urban Honking is a web community, Allison Supper Club and Whiskey Friends are real life social clubs–themed hangouts, let’s say–that have online components. KmikeyM offers your friends and investors a chance to make decisions about your life in a social environment. A number of your projects are also collaborative. Do you conceive of your role in these as an instigator?

I don’t think it’s quite instigator, but that’s probably close enough to true. Most of these things were created because I wanted to do them and no one else was creating them, and it would be my dream to hand them off and have someone else run them. But they are collaborations and they work best when everyone is involved. I’m more collaborator than instigator. Or maybe I’d say reluctant instigator. Which isn’t to say I don’t like it, but I sometimes worry about coming off as a bit of an asshole when I’m telling everyone what to do all the time.

A lot of the plot of the third season of Ultimate Blogger 3 is about your relationship with Steve Schroeder and your characters’ divisive feelings (“like the Three Stooges always fighting and stuff–but there are only two of them”) as they relate capitalism, corporate sponsorship and “selling out.”

These themes persist in your work and seem to be better and better honed as you grow and work through them. This is vast, but will you describe your relationship with capitalism? How has it shifted over the years? How has constructing economic matters into projects altered these relationships? What can other artists learn from markets?

First off, capitalism isn’t bad. The reason we see so much bad shit happening in capitalism is because people are violating the rules and we’re overly obsessed with short term profits above all else. That’s a poor formula for success. I think we’re post “selling out” and I’m glad because that was a boring argument. Economics is the dominant system, so for me it makes sense to start playing around and replicating that system. There is an element of real danger in dealing with people’s actual money. People have to trust me with their money, and that’s hard for some people. But I think it’s more fun when the stakes are real. I’m not sure yet if there are lessons for other people… well, that’s not exactly true. I have an idea for a short e-book I want to sell about doubling your money and tripling your happiness. I can’t really spill the beans here or no one will pay for my e-book.

Going through your old videos, there are the internet remnants of a project called 7×7 in which you and some friends/collaborators each limited your diet to seven foods/drinks. As the contest wears on, you are seen sabotaging your competition by bringing their favorite (and forbidden) consumables. You discuss (to us, to you) the necessity of agonism, how unless tested and reified through temptation and debate.

You say that being good without the presence of bad is meaningless. And, further, being good without being tempted to be “bad” is meaningless. Does this still impact your work? How do you think of provocation as it relates to your work?

You can’t have good without evil! I think that is true. Or I guess, you wouldn’t know what good is without evil. This is especially true in a story. Plus, I like being the villain. I’m good at it. The “heel” as it’s called in professional wrestling. A hero is only as strong as his nemesis. Batman has the Joker, Kennedy had Nixon, and God has the Devil. I’ve long thought I need my own nemesis, but I haven’t found anyone yet…

How is art like a game? How does thinking of the world in terms of rules (which may be bent or exploited) shift your behavior and your social expectations? Do you think of the constraints and rules of these games in similar terms to how a poet or artist may make constraint-based works? Can rules be freeing?

Yes. Absolutely! You can’t create something without rules. The first rule is a purpose. You can’t take meaningful action without purpose, and once you define a purpose you have a measure to judge your actions. Does it take you closer to the purpose or further from the purpose? It’s more fun when the rules are set by someone else, because then you can start to push the edges and find the holes. Videogames are a good example of this. There is no cheating in a videogame. Even “cheat codes” aren’t cheating because they exist in the game! They were programmed in! They are part of the rule set. It’s not that different in real life. Everything is “allowed” but there are consequences. You can lie to everyone you meet, but in the long term that’s not going to pay off. You can punch someone in the face, but then it’s going to be hard to be friends with them later (plus you might go to jail). So we ease back from those extremes and we think about ways to accomplish our goals in a longer term way. And then you realize that there is really no positive outcome for you in punching that asshole in the face or even starting a year long campaign to ruin them. As much as I like to play the villain the logical conclusion is that there is no future in villainy. If you are smart enough to be a good criminal you are smart enough to know not to be one. Long term planning makes everyone play nice. God, that was quite a tangent..

You only wear Brooks Brothers. This makes you relatively immune to the whims of fashion, gives people another thing to say about you and keeps you looking sharp. You’ve also written recently about your loyalty to other brands. In so doing, you’re building the Mike Merrill brand. You’re more identifiable now than ever and you’re theoretically freed to spend your time in ways other than deciding which socks to buy and which stocks to sell. Will you discuss these branding strategies, how this is impacted by your personal corporatehood and, perhaps, how these relate to the concept of the “profile” and identity?

It’s frustrating to me that you have these amazing designers for the web or visually creative people who put so much time in their work but don’t think about their own “personal CSS”. Dressing better has been a goal for a long time, and for the KmikeyM brand that is a suit and tie. I’m a corporate person and there is a uniform to that look. Going head to toe Brooks Brothers was a way to inoculate myself to fashion (though it’s also given me a greater appreciation for it). Also, being on the west coast, and especially in Portland, it does set me apart and while that was initially difficult I’ve learned to enjoy it. My philosophy isn’t that everyone should dress in suits (but c’mon, that would be amazing!) but rather everyone should dress with purpose. Wearing a suit is a strange thing to get accustomed with. Normal dress these days is jeans and t-shirt. The jeans are heavy and the t-shirt is light. A suit reverses this. The suit pants are light and the shirt, tie, and jacket are the weight. So people feel uncomfortable in suits because it distributes the weight opposite of what we’re normally wearing. But eventually you adjust and find yourself feeling weird when you aren’t wearing a tie. And then you get bored with normal ties and figure out how to tie a bowtie… and it continues from there. The look evolves, but the rules help maintain a certain consistency. Brand loyalty is problem solving. You create a rule for yourself that says when it’s time to buy X, I’ll buy it from Y. No more thinking about the best X. That problem is solved. We create systems for problems we don’t want to think about.

You and Alex Mahan organize a project called Guerrilla Happy Hour in which you and Alex station yourselves at bars that don’t have happy hours (all of them in Chicago, incidentally) and offer any friend who buys a drink a dollar (of your own money). How did this come about and what are your goals in this project? How do you square this with your “pay what it costs” philosophy?

Guerrilla Happy Hour came about because Alex and I work downtown and often get a drink together. Drinking is a social activity, and the more people involved the more fun it is. GHH creates an event out of it. It’s like a party and people want to come to a party. For us it’s pretty cheap… $25 each in dollar coins. No big deal. If you think about it in terms of throwing a party then $25 is pretty cheap! And that’s an investment. Great ideas come from drinking with smart people. Alcohol loosens lips and soon you find yourself planning great epic projects together! Also, it’s a great way to meet girls.

For the past four years, you’ve co-authored the 2020 tumblr, which takes as its scope the future and the way science, technology and society in these speculative futures are (re)presented. Let’s pretend you’re creating these studies and grand claims instead of circulating them. What do you see for 2020? How will our relationships with each other and with commerce shift?

Being an optimist I look forward to the future. If anything, I lament being born too soon because I know I’m going to miss out on some amazing shit! The thing about 2020 is that the year was chosen based on the cyberpunk genre. It’s this idea that the near-future is all mega-corporations and augmented humans and science basically moving too fast and creating a whole new reality… while at the same time it’s the same old story of the haves and have nots. My vision of 2020, or 2050, or whatever, is that it will be totally normal. Only the past is alien, because you start to think, “How did they live without plumbing? Or cars? Or the internet?” The future normalizes everything. We have these major breakthroughs happening all the time and no one pays attention to them because they aren’t yet products we can buy. And once they are products we crave them, so they aren’t scary anymore.

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