When we have the internet—like we must right now—we find ourselves down any number of world-holes. I just tried to find a concrete answer as to how long after being born a baby can remain unnamed. There are states’ rights and rules about accent marks and banned names (a good enough band name, I think) and one source that says it’s 60 days in Australia and 42 in the UK. I’m typing this in Illinois and thinking both about the specificities of titles and sitting down for a job conversation and staging an argument and what you’re about to read. Dan Miller is relentlessly curious and critical, attuned both to the minutiae of our lived experiences and the systemic forces assigned to buffing them out. Before coming to Chicago in 2014 to attend Northwestern’s MFA program, Dan was living in Melbourne, where that critical curiosity and restless attentiveness began to find form in exhibitions, objects, situations and texts. The most visible component of his practice over the last few years—his ongoing, wildly generative collaboration with Thomas Kong—is finding new publics through a recent (and really excellent) publication with Half Letter Press. There’s a wry sleight of hand continually at play in Dan’s activities—somehow art about art about not art; hard work and hardly work; collaborative and singular. We both talk both about his work and then don’t. We barely mention his garden even though it was one of the things I thought about most when thinking about this, a slow conversation Dan and I had over the last few weeks. The images are all his.
Jesse Malmed: Let’s start somewhere in the middle: what were your cultural interests in your mid- to late-teens? And what would have been the obvious first question in an interview about your practice at that moment?
Dan Miller: I could conveniently bookend that period with two musical experiences: seeing Billy Joel and Elton John in concert as a fourteen-year-old, and seeing the anonymous art-rock band TISM play shortly before my nineteenth birthday. What I learned in those years is reflected in the enormous gap between the family-friendly Anglo-American über-culture and an Australian band who were wasting their university educations on writing vulgar anthems against the establishment. In those years it was music where I encountered ordinary people making things in response to their immediate worlds. This is the kind of culture I’m still interested in today. Back then, I gravitated to musicians and writers who understood our double isolation; suburbia at the “arse end of the world.” I was an enthusiastic spectator, but I completely failed to imagine producing anything other than good grades. If someone had asked me about my ‘practice’ then, I would have assumed they were asking what I was going to do when I finished law school.
JM: Transgressive/aggressive/soft/DIY/DIT/&c musics (and the communities surrounding them) seem to be the gateway for so many artists’ awakenings and interests in making culture. I think part of the ubiquity of this experience is reflected in your answer—conventional music is everywhere, so unconventional music has something obvious to bounce against, to camouflage itself as, to appear in stark relief against—in the way that maybe tens of thousands of people don’t assemble to watch a bloated but weak example of social practice on SPTV and then find their minds blown when they see a really killer sopra group playing in their cousin’s basement. Or maybe that’s what reality tv is. Did you ever play in bands? Are there other obvious or non-obvious ways that impacted your practice?
DM: You’re absolutely right. Although for many would-be artists I think music is the gateway but not the drug. I’ve never admitted this, but I was in a band in high school with a couple of friends for about five minutes. We practiced maybe twice, and we never played a show. Because I couldn’t play any instruments, I was designated as the singer. Because I couldn’t sing, we hit a wall pretty quickly (none of us appreciated the ideology of punk). There is a cassette tape in the bottom of a drawer somewhere that I really hope has been sitting next to a strong magnet this whole time. If anything from this experience influenced me it was the sheer terror of the idea of nakedly attempting to perform a talent in front of an audience. In recent years I’ve avoided repeated feats of virtuosity, and I’ve avoided being ‘on stage’ in various ways. I’ve explicitly shied away from working alone. Art is a place where—if you choose—you can be the singer, the guitarist, the roadie, the sound engineer, the pit photographer, the groupie, and the PR flack, all at the same time, while everyone else looks in every which direction. I love the messiness of this, and the unpredictability of a practice in which the author-spectator binary is abandoned or ignored.
JM: Maybe we could flip the old pedagogical saw and say that “those who can’t play instruments sing and those who can’t sing go on to make art”. I’m curious about how the “author-spectator binary” is contingent on some kind of spectacle (or text, I suppose). What does that relationship (or the breakdown of that binary) look like when there’s nothing else to look at? Or, if that question feels too obvious (or too opaque), could you offer some reflections on your experience in artists’ gardens?
DM: Well, it’s a truism that artists often “hide behind their work,” but I think the separation of artwork and author does little to avoid the extent to which the artist themself is also the thing offered up for consumption. The spectacle/text is all-encompassing. Thomas Pynchon may never give an interview until the day he dies, but we, loyal spectators, will forever be imbibing the Pynchonesque. What a breakdown of the author-spectator roleplay could bring is not necessarily “nothing else to look at,” but maybe “everything else to see.” A theorist whose work has influenced my thinking around this in the past couple of years is Stephen Wright, who argues that we should replace spectatorship with usership. What this implies is that art has to become more useful—perhaps so useful that it is indistinguishable from all the other useful things in the world. We should remember that ‘art’ as we know it is a set of conventions invented only in the last few hundred years. The ancient Greeks surely knew what to do with an oenochoe when they saw one on the dinner table.
JM: Do you remember in earlier days of the internet when email forwards or geocities pages would be filled with either lists of Steven Wright quotes that weren’t his or unattributed jokes that were his under the heading Head-Scratchers to make you go HMMMM? His work became useful in that context and functions pretty well as a voice and institution (let’s not say brand) such that it magnetizes ideas and phrases that feel like they could have been his. I would love to see him do a set of all the various jokes that have been speculatively attributed to him. The other Wright was my introduction to Bernard Brunon and a number of other artists whose practices he described as a kind of dark matter or, at least in my recollection, artists whose work is almost invisible unless you know what to look for. I’m curious about how your own interest in visibility (and in invisibility) deals with usefulness. I think it’s easy for us to see how a vessel can be doubly useful (I see what ewer doing there), but I’m curious about work that may be both useless (as art is sometimes described and proscribed to be) and invisible. We can easily make the argument that no art is truly useless but that its utility is bound up in our intellectual and sensorial experience, in its role as catalyst for thought and feeling—of course. Maybe there’s also something about the space between visibility and legibility that could be interesting to talk through.
DM: I would love to see Stewart Lee, my favorite meta-comedian, circle the wagons around Stephen Wright’s joke-magnetism. Or Yogi Berra’s, for that matter. I don’t know if The Other Wright has a funny bone, but my favorite anecdote of his is attributed to Brunon. Bernard Brunon is of course a very unwellknown artist who ran a house-painting business for 27 years, That’s Painting Productions, that was 100% a functioning house-painting business and 100% an ongoing artwork. I recall Wright mentioning in a talk he delivered to my laptop screen that Brunon often turned down invitations to exhibit in museums and galleries on the basis that he is “too busy working.” This is almost the diametric opposite of Duchamp’s boast that he had never worked a day in his life; that he had “never gotten wet.” Marcel, naturally, loved making the useful useless. If the readymade can said to be work, it is negative work. In the White Box, Duchamp asks “can works be made which are not “of art”?” This reads to me like a challenge that has never really been taken up. Let’s say that it was; would these “works” be invisible? I don’t think so—at least I believe that an artwork that is not visible (this is not to restrict visibility to the visual field alone) is not an artwork at all. But I agree with you that legibility is an important part of this—I’m interested in “works” that are legible as completely viable non-art to some people, and as completely viable art to others.
JM: I was once with a gaggle of artists at a small-town diner and there was curiosity about our presence there. “We’re residents just up the way,” one of us said something like. “Oh—you’re doctors?” they earnestly responded, trying to square our grubbiness with a concept of scrubs-iness. Like that, like practice, let’s shift in thinking about works to working. I’m always interested in how artists’ work impacts their work (and vice versa). An amount of your productive labor is given over to others in various ways. What other work have you done since you began making work? How have these works impacted your work? Are you interested, like Brunon, in fusing your work and your work in that capacity?
DM: Obviously art has an internal language and syntax, but we artists often don’t give non-artists enough credit for understanding what we do—or, worse, we relish the idea that what we do is somehow arcane. The classic “what kind of art do you do?” question can be a genuine invitation to dialogue, rather than eye-roll small-talk. Still, the possibility that a kind of double liberation can come from collocating (physically, conceptually) work and work is incredibly seductive. Ben Kinmont’s Sometimes a nicer sculpture is to be able to provide a living for your family (1998–ongoing) is a major inspiration. It’s no coincidence that many of these kinds of projects—Julia Bryan-Wilson named it ‘occupational realism’—occur at sites of commerce. Outside the work I’ve done in and around the art world, since I became an artist I’ve done all sorts of things for money—I’ve mowed lawns, moved furniture, hosted progressive dinners, ushered concert patrons, mounted televisions in fast food restaurants, and installed christmas decorations in shopping malls. Some of these jobs were fascinating (and many gave me ideas for artworks), but none seemed to offer the kind of structural stability needed for a true work-work fusion. But I keep thinking about it—I even wrote a manifesto last year calling for a group of artists to run a convenience store. This was heavily influenced by seeing Thomas Kong run his store Kim’s Corner Food over the past three years, but also by Chris Kraus’ book Kelly Lake Store, in which she applies (and is rejected) for a Guggenheim Fellowship to re-open a shuttered general store in one of those small Wisconsin towns you know so well.
JM: There’s something especially excellent about the convenience store as the site for these conceptual and physical experiments, as it relates to our earlier mention of usefulness and uselessness. Convenience stores have in their bones the understanding that you might be able to find a better selection or a better price or a better match elsewhere, but that there’s enough here, it’s not too expensive and what could be a better match than you and it being in the same place at the same time? They are eminently useful and in their relative predictability reveal their differences more immediately than other species of spaces. Did you know about Thomas Kong’s work before visited Kim’s or did you stumble upon that store just looking for a snack or something to drink? Do you remember your first conversations with him?
DM: I didn’t know anything about Thomas’ work before I met him in his store, although certainly a few other artists in Chicago had been aware of him for a while. The ironic thing is that I was walking home from the grocery store when I first noticed Kim’s Corner Food—I’m much more inclined to go the extra distance to avoid paying above retail (although there are a lot of surprising bargains at Kim’s). But you’ve absolutely nailed it when it comes to ‘convenience’—there is something irrepressible about it. If there’s a convenience store on your block, not even an Amazon drone could deliver you a cold Pepsi faster than you could put on your slippers and shuffle down the street. So what is this thing called ‘convenience’ we’re all so willing to shell out for? Perhaps it’s a kind of surplus value—maybe the surplus value that some people claim art produces. Fundamentally, though, it’s the use of this revenue-generating peculiarity to create time and space for other things that interests me. Some of the best jobs I’ve ever had have been inside the galleries of art museums, working in pseudo-security guard roles. I was always good at my job, but I also got a lot of thinking done and even conceived a bunch of artworks while making sure visitors didn’t touch the expensive paintings. One thing is for sure: the museums never docked my pay for thinking.
JM: I tried a form of active Cartesian splitting once while doing a cater-waiter gig in which I actively kept my mind occupied by a specific art problem that I had while I was dropping dinners and refilling glasses. I found that it was easier for me to be doing two kinds of work at once (at least something like that, with specific rhythms and relatively low agency) if I was focused in my mind-wandering. I also held one of those museum non-guard jobs before and thought often of this line from a David Berman piece about that kind of position: After guarding masterpieces for weeks, it feels good to stand in my dentist’s office before this cheap painting of a ship. Now, re-reading that piece I remember another line that I love: What Duchamp did with the urinal no longer surprises me, what surprises me is the idea that they had urinals back then. I was thinking yesterday about a class clown alone and home from school or wondering how if your work was doing your work would you daydream about washing dishes and populating spreadsheets. The you/r there is everyone/’s. I’m in rural Vermont as we type and two days ago a few of us walked a few miles to the General Store, which is mostly germane to this moment because of the name. There’s also been an uptick in an urban/e, curated “General Store” that strikes me now as being very much a Specific Store. Should interviews have questions at the end of each paragraph?
DM: Wow, that David Berman piece brought back a lot of memories for me. The anecdote about the guard placing asbestos fragments on the floor is brilliant—being sent home with pay is pretty much the ultimate work fantasy. To answer your non-question, if my work was doing my work (let’s say I was sent home with pay forever), I have a feeling I would still be washing dishes and populating spreadsheets, since they seem to be two fairly essential parts of living these days. I certainly wouldn’t be fantasizing about them. Do you daydream about writing grants when you’re in the studio? I recently got to see a piece of antique furniture called a dry sink, from the days before running water. Wasn’t a urinal without water just a pan? What would a dry spreadsheet look like? I’m not a luddite since I think being a reactionary is the surest way to misery, but I do enjoy inconvenience. Doing things the hard way is part of my DNA. Despite the idiosyncrasy of the space of the convenience store, some part of me thinks being an artist should mean being against convenience. Or maybe just against standardization. Where I live now, my nearest ‘convenience store’ is one of those monolithic chains that practically owns all of us. When Žižek first came to America, he was famously shocked by the condition of the toilets. Me, I was shocked to discover that businesses readily sell postage stamps for more than their face value. Still, I wouldn’t hold gouging like that against a mom-and-pop hardware store/pharmacy/tobacconist if they had some exotic plants in the window and a few handmade signs behind the counter.
JM: There’s a very specific handwriting that I associate with that scale of capitalism. My grandfather—Poppa Clown—who ran a vacuum store, produced his own special rug shampoo and sold bric and brac at the Cloverdale Swap Meet in greater Vancouver, had a style of writing that I still see in bodegas and on occasional telephone poles. When I just googled “my grandfather’s handwriting” I felt class anxiety that apparently he wasn’t a member of the quill-squiggling epistolarati. I’d like to switch gears a little bit—though I could type about handwriting for days—to ask you about Plinth Projects. I am, of course, very interested in platformist projects and outré curatorial conceits. This one has particular resonance for me in this moment because of the on-going conversations about the removal of Confederate monuments in this country. Perhaps you could share with us a bit about that project and how it has or hasn’t impacted your own thinking surrounding monuments here and in Australia and beyond.
DM: That’s a timely question. In the past few weeks that there has been renewed focus on monuments in Australia that celebrate colonial victories and ‘heroes,’ as rallying points for ongoing work by indigenous activists and their non-indigenous allies. Monuments are excellent things around which to focus people’s attention in a time of struggle, but they also allow us to see the absurdity and cruelty of the nation-state and its myths. Plinth Projects took an empty pedestal in Edinburgh Gardens, a popular park in Melbourne, as a site for a series of public art interventions in 2013 and 2014. The original statue, of Queen Victoria, had gone missing some time in the early 1900s, and as an empty pedestal it was actually very beautiful—it seemed to suggest, “we don’t make those kinds of myths here any more.” It had an empowering quality. My first real experience of the plinth was standing on top of it and making out with a date, not long after I moved to Melbourne in around 2009. A group of friends who used to meet for picnics in the park referred to it as the “statue without a statue.” In 2011 some traditionalist members of the otherwise left-wing local city council proposed erecting a new statue of Queen Victoria, a harebrained idea that was scuttled on the basis that it would be too expensive. So when we came along in 2012 and suggested mounting a series of con/temporary art projects on the plinth for a fraction of the cost, they were very glad to take us up on it. I do regret that we didn’t work with any indigenous artists, but I would at least suggest that our efforts, and those of the artists we commissioned, were deliberately anti-monumental. Art is almost never able to enact change at a political level, but I hope that it can at least present propositions for different ways to work against the status quo.
JM: Just a bit away from where I grew up there was an interesting response to a newly erected monument to sadistic conquistador Juan de Oñate y Salazar: indigenous activists chopped the statue’s foot off in mirroring recompense to his own brutality four centuries prior. This is a different but related manner. In the span of a week I was reacquainted with Laszlo and Lazlo Toth. The former is the geologist who attacked Michelangelo’s The Pietà in 1972 and the latter is the nom de plume of Don Novello (better known as a whole other character, Father Guido Sarducci) which he’s used for any number of wonderfully frustrating and deflating epistolary relationships with corporations, politicians and other loci of power. I’ve been thinking about this in part because I’m interested in characters like Sarducci because through their persistence of being as they move from show to show to movie to newspaper to show they stitch together diegeses and reveal them as a (speculatively) unified universe. Considering how fictions overlap might seem like an academic or obtuse response to our ever-worsening political climate. I obviously don’t advocate for what Toth did to The Pietà, but there’s something striking about how easily, if we were inclined, we could damage art. As a culture we have such respect for these objects that I won’t even consider touching a commercially-produced and friend-designated sculpture’s plinth without clearance. But they’re very vulnerable in real terms. Have you ever used a pseudonym?
DM: Late last winter I walked into an exhibition opening at an artist-run space in Chicago, having just hopped off my bike and carrying a large backpack of stuff. The entrance to the exhibition space was narrowed by an inexplicably-placed empty pedestal, and just as I had squeezed past I turned to hug a friend and swiftly wiped—with my backpack—a small sculpture off a shelf on the opposite wall. It didn’t break, but the gasps were audible, and everybody turned to stare at me. Someone from the gallery came over to ‘handle’ me. Most people there continued to give me the side-eye for the rest of the evening, as though my presence as a human in the space was worth less than the artwork I had accidentally assaulted. I was puzzled by the reaction. Somehow it never occurred to me that the artwork might have value beyond its role as a prop for our gathering there. Or, to look at it another way, it was our gathering there that was the thing that gave the object meaning. I feel the same way about monuments and other objects that aspire to permanence—they are just taking up space until people decide that they have meaning in their moment. This is the difference between making history and receiving history. Personally, I am not someone who cares a lot for objects (my favorite kinds of pseudonymous public performances are more along the lines of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping), but I appreciate the role of icons because without them there could be no iconoclasm. And no, I’ve never used a pseudonym, but I have such a common name that it happily often functions like one.
JM: We hear often about art “starting a conversation” or, as you just described it, as a prop for our gathering (I’ve found the idea and phrase MacGuffin useful too). Like any good octopus, I’m both seduced by this idea and can easily summon another seven counter- and comple-example of how I experience art both in public and private. I’m curious maybe to hear more about the types of sociality and conversation you’re thinking about both with your work and the work that most appeals to you. I’ve spent 93.5% of this conversation thinking about it in terms of the constraints we’ve laid out and what I want to read and write about than about its eventual (and not circumstantial) public-ness. This is a very specific type of public-ness and of conversation. The inanity of the questions on talk shows is forgettable if not forgivable because we seem to want to hear about a celebrity’s vacation or their co-star’s pranks. In this process I am trying to write to you as if we were just writing to each other but there are also moments when I have a sense of your answer or, even, when I’m curious what that answer looks like as we type from our cheated-out talk show chairs. I want also to interject now briefly with one of part of that Toth thing that I think is an interesting historical footnote: apparently the first person to subdue Toth after his attack was a young Bob Cassilly, the artist who later created St. Louis’ City Museum. What is the best painting to have a conversation in front of? Have we ever seen a social practice work built around conversation that ended up yielding objects because people were so talked out they just wanted to spend their social time more materially? Someone told me recently that someone less recently had told them that when orchestrating large events everyone benefits from a small but irritating shared experience—like a quick rainstorm—to bond over otherwise they’ll seek that same antagonism from something more integral to the occasion itself—the dreary groom or the bad wine—which event planners generally try to avoid. How many times has the word “iconoclastic” been engraved into a monument?
DM: I’m not arguing that art’s main function is to “start a conversation.” That is the kind of cliché we see used all the time in defense of the indefensible—witness the responses of multiple US institutions in the past year to outcries over their exhibition of racially offensive artworks. What I mean is that the public presentation of artwork—even if distributed privately—is always an attempt to engender a public of some kind. But your question about paintings is a good place to start. For me, the best paintings to converse in front of are anti-authoritarian and dark and delightful and often vulgar. To return for a moment to my home country, I think of paintings by artists like Juan Davila, Gordon Hookey, Helen Johnson, or Janenne Eaton. But when I think of the conversations that could be had in their presence, I imagine viewers who share something with the artist (a community, an inclination, a grudge, a species) and see that thing affirmed or tested in some way. With artworks like this, you could say that the social both precedes and follows the artwork.
I’ve never understood the idea of a social practice that was somehow divorced from material practice—like you suggest, I see plenty of so-called social practice that generates objects. But I also see plenty of material practices that generate sociality. Bob Cassilly is actually a fine example of a kind of social practice artist who was motivated by a fierce allegiance to the material world. I had a chance to visit his unfinished opus Cementland while in St. Louis earlier this year, and I have been haunted ever since by the mystery of how he imagined his audiences moving and conversing through that space. There are also great examples of artworks that acknowledge the co-dependence of the social and the material while not privileging ‘art’ as an unimpeachable realm of experience. I’m thinking here of much of Group Material’s work, in particular their project Democracy (1988-89). For me, even something as frivolous as having a cuppa in the ‘tea break’ room in Jeremy Deller’s British Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale was completely moving and concretely social. I like your pop-sociological hand-me-down fable about bonding with strangers. I am for an art that can be a “small but irritating shared experience,” but we shouldn’t forget that any shared experience is completely dependent on other previous mutual experiences. A quick rainstorm feels like it does because we all know what it’s like to wear clothes, move through public space, and be struck by falling water.
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