Oh, Detroit. Has it been two years already?! It seems but a day since I took my first Michigan left and brought my Subaru to a stop in the center of your simultaneously horrifying and humbling splendor. From those early moments, I knew our relationship would be as tenuous as your gloriously rusted patina. I came equipped with my New York Times-fueled expectations and, to my 21st century grand narrative, you countered with the arresting reality of day-to-day life in an urban center lacking in infrastructure, population, and amenities. From you, I experienced the creativity that emerges from near lawlessness; I witnessed the ingenuity required to survive and, indeed, thrive in urban wilderness; and I was charmed by the entrepreneurial spirit that nurtured makers, doers, and hackers alongside BYO basement strip clubs and speakeasy-style soul food joints. What resonates with me still is the unwavering commitment to a locality where life is a unique brand of struggle but, even so, there is palpable energy created around cumulative gestures of grassroots transformation. Detroit is a truly contemporary American cityâ€”engaged with the potential of the presentâ€”sending up smoke signals to the future while building on the recently razed past.
So Detroit, itâ€™s been real, but a working girl has got to eat, (specifically, sheâ€™s got to eat fresh produce other than the lemons and limes purchased at liquor stores), so this B@S blogger is moving on!
In September, I accepted a position in Portland and, beginning next Wednesday, I will be continuing my correspondence from the Pacific Northwestâ€™s veritable hipster haven notorious for crafting, composting, and pre-retirement. Despite its bicycle riding, NPR listening, backyard chicken tending demographic, not all of Portland is steeped in clichÃ©. Surprisingly, this city holds remarkable likeness to the Dirty D. There are hardcore, ambidextrous makers hereâ€”creative entrepreneurs who have eschewed the traditional a-list urban locale to continue canning, woodworking, and weaving from the comfort of a spacious home studio. A spirit of resourcefulness and resilience abounds. Like Detroit, the stability of full-time employment is hard to come by, but within this piece-meal existence, comes a freedom that facilitates forging alternative ways of living, working, and remaining creatively and culturally fulfilled. Portlandâ€™s got some hustle too, B@S!
Thanks largely to Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, Portland has become the subject of popular myth and, Iâ€™ll admit, there is something about this city beyond the grunge and facial hair that begs the question: â€œDo you remember the 90s?â€ From what Iâ€™ve seen so far, much of the cultural work produced in Portland does bear the vague glimmer of an outstretched Clinton-thumb. Far from the 90s articulated by Jeff Koons and new genre public art, the Portlandia version is defined by expressions of optimism and imagination that often leverage the space of art and exhibitions as sites to launch fantastical alternatives.
Consider the work of Wayne Bund, Portland-based photographer recently featured at Cock Gallery, whose riveting portraiture explores sexual identity through the incarnation of fantasyâ€”a veritable feast of cinematic unconscious that is as compelling as it is uncanny.
On view at the Henry Gallery is Like a Valentine, a solo-exhibition of Seattle-based ceramist Jeffry Mitchell, that features an other world of playful flora and fauna whose irresistible sweetness is perforated by gilded glory holes.
And just last weekend, I had the opportunity to experience an installation by Patrick Rock, visual artist and director of rocksbox, whose practice in studio and art space is notorious for combining blithe humor with biting art world irreverence. Â Requiem combined a room-scale bouncy playground with light effects, Mozart, and Dumbo, in a space resembling a church-y community center that would be hosting a pancake breakfast the next morning. The experience was cacophonous and disorienting… But I liked it.
Conversations with these three folks forthcoming, but first, an interview with MK Guth, an artist whose multifaceted practice includes sculpture, performance, image making, and Fluxus-style game playing. Not to reveal too much, but our conversation explored the logistics of participatory art: engaging various publics, embracing the unknown, and looping the experience back by transforming a collective process into a compelling art object. Stay tuned: MK Guth, next Wednesday 12/19, B@S blog!
This week: Duncan, Brian, Abigail Satinsky and special guest host Jacob Wick (MFA candidate in social practice at CCA in SF, he has a hot dog stand and it’s art….kidding….kidding) talk to Sean Joseph Patrick Carney about @socialmalpractice, Fuck James Franco and more more more! Everyone gets silly, editing was exciting. After that Richard and Max report live from the Chicago Toy and Game Fair. Max thinks the Star Wars nerds from the 501st are scary as hell.
Sean Joseph Patrick Carney is an artist, educator and writer living and working in Portland, Oregon. He has exhibited original work and performances nationally and internationally in New York, San Francisco, and Amsterdam, amongst others. Carney’s interdisciplinary art practice includes stand-up comedy, sculpture, performance, sound, critical writing, satire, and public happenings. He is the founder and director of Social Malpractice Publishing, an artist book distributor. In 2011, he co-founded the Conceptual Oregon Performance School (C.O.P.S.), a free, artist-run summer institute focused on contemporary performance strategies and critical theory. Carney earned a BFA in Printmaking with a Minor in Secondary Education from Arizona State University in 2004, and an MFA in Visual Studies from Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2009 where he now works as an arts administrator in the Graduate Studies Department and as a faculty member in Intermedia.
This week: Live from Expo Chicago 2012 we talk to Sun Foot!
Sun Foot is a Portland/Los Angeles 3 piece who play low volume tunes through small amps and a drum set that consists of a hand drum, cymbal, pan lids, and electronic drum pad, all three singing, playing random cheap electronic keyboards maybe, and switching of instruments probably. Good to listen to if you are interested in the sun and tired of negativity. Sun Foot (Ron Burns [Smog, Hot Spit Dancers, Swell], Chris Johanson [the painter, The Deep Throats, Tina Age 13], and Brian Mumford [Dragging an Ox through Water, Jackie-O Motherfucker, Thicket, Jewelry Rash]) has a website with relevant information at http://j.mp/sunfootrbc .
Julie Perini is endlessly curious. Her practice revolves around moving images, but utilizes a full quiver of strategies toward an equally far-ranging set of goals. The work–like Julie herself–is smart and funny, willing to try new things and thoughtfully self-aware. Even as she becomes more established in her role as a maker, organizer and writer, her curiosity and restlessness of form push her into new and challenging situations.
Graciously and unexpectedly, her responses in this interview touch upon several ideas I have been thinking through recently: the perceived mind/body split, the role of one’s hands in the realm of the digital and how to align the political, personal and aesthetic in ways that open up experience instead of closing it down.
Where do you come from? Specifically, how many parts of New York have you lived in and what initially keyed your interest in making art? Making videos in your basement? DIY shows in other people’s basements? An aggrieved political sense from infancy?
I moved around New York State from birth until age 29 in the following order: Poughkeepsie, Ithaca, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Oswego. Â There were brief stints in Florence, Italy and Juneau, Alaska in there too. I was a quiet kid and a voracious reader of books. Â As soon as I was able, I was writing my own stories and poems. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I was also a musician in various high school ensembles and in bands with friends and yes, the late 90s independent music phenomenon was a big eye-opener for a disaffected youth like me in the suburbs. What little interest I had in the type of music I was learning in school disappeared when I realized other kids like me were making music in their bedrooms with friends that didnâ€™t have to be perfect and you could sing about stuff that was funny or actually mattered to you. I also made videos with friends using clunky VHS equipment my early adopter parents had, often for school assignments, like the hour-long docu-drama Nam: The Homefront, 1964-69.
Also I went to the public library often and took out VHS tapes of classic Hollywood films. I loved the clever banter between people like Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey; those movies were so much better than the junk Hollywood was offering up in the 80s and 90s. I went off to college at age 18, wandered into a campus screening of The Red Shoes, had my socks knocked off, and keep going to see odd films at Cornell Cinema like work by Sadie Benning and Jennifer Reeves. I was hooked. At that time, Cornell only had two 16mm film classes that you had to sit on a wait list to get into, so I went to Ithacaâ€™s public access station to learn how to use analog video editing equipment. Iâ€™ve been teaching myself how to use whatever equipment is available ever since.
You mention that some of your interest in engaging with community-oriented and more overtly political work stems from your own experiences with the FBI in Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble‘s investigation. I know about this from reading things at the time and later seeing Lynn Hershman Leeson’s interesting film about the same. Can you detail your experiences a bit more and discuss how they impacted your making?
Lynn interviewed me for that film (Strange Culture) but I didnâ€™t make the final cut. Itâ€™s a long story, but for now I can tell you this: In the summer of 2004 after my first year of graduate school at the University of Buffalo, the FBI issued me a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury to testify as a witness for the bio-terrosism investigation of Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). My part in this story is particularly amusing because the main reason that I can see the authorities called me in was because they found a note Iâ€™d written Steve that contained a line that said, â€œState smashers need to stick together.â€ So I explained what state smashers are to a Grand Jury. In an effort to understand why the community of artists around me in Buffalo was being scrutinized in this way, I read a lot of books about the history of the FBI, like Ward Churchillâ€™s Agents of Repression, and this quickly led me to other resources about state repression of dissidents in the US. The FBI has been successful at halting the development of progressive groups like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the American Indian Movement for example; these are facts that are well documented and well known. So this research provided me with a context for understanding why the government found CAEâ€™s work so threatening. This wasnâ€™t anything new.
At the time, this experience impacted my practice by making it difficult to focus on anything except the case and keeping my professor out of prison. In an effort to push past this creative block, I began shooting video with a small DV camera throughout the day in an unplanned, uncensored way. I followed most whims that I had and ended up making a lot of performance videos and diary material. I was inspired by people Iâ€™d been reading about from the Civil Rights Movement and resistance movements in the 60s and 70s like Assata Shakur, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so on. I figured that if they do what they did in their efforts to change their worlds (endure torture, ridicule, solitary confinement, etc.), I could push past my own personal boundaries and dance in public or whatever it was I had set my mind to do. After a few months, I reviewed a lot of this material and either used it to make finished short pieces or re-created some of what I had shot to make finished pieces. This became my graduate school thesis, Experiments in Immediacy. And this is still the main way that I make work â€“ I follow whims, experiment a lot, and then review the resultant documentation and fashion it into finished works. I have an artist talk that I do called â€œShoot First & Ask Questions Laterâ€ that discusses this approach.
Part of what would seem to distinguish Relational Filmmaking from other filmmaking practices is an emphasis on process over the final product. I think this is a commonality throughout your work: you are very overt in your direct communication with viewers. You speak and write directly to the viewer in many of your pieces and the way your materially-invested films are titled and presented very plainly addresses the process of their making at the outset. I’m hoping you might talk a bit about whether you conceive of these works as, on some level, being documents of the process of their making and about the relative directness of your speech/text throughout your work. Is clarity an important condition of Relational Filmmaking? Of politically-engaged art more broadly?
I am glad you picked up on this and asked about it. All of my work tries to strike a balance between process and product. Sometimes I feel like I hit a sweet spot with that balance and at other times I feel like things lean bit too much to one side. So I wouldnâ€™t say that I prioritize the process over the product since I am invested in creating careful and considered experiences for viewers as well as designing meaningful processes. Yes, I do conceive of much of my work as being a document of its own making, or a record of its own making (thanks Peter Gidal). The handmade films in particular seem like records of what happened to them as they came into being. And yet, much of the processes that made those films are not recorded; a viewer wouldnâ€™t know for how long Iâ€™d left Collaboration with the Earth in the ground, for example. This leads us to the titles and text. I decided to use text to tell quick stories at the beginning of each film, narrating the process behind each production. I think of this way of presenting material as a kind of Joseph Kosuth or Martha Rosler move, where I show viewers the same process in two different representational systems. This phase Iâ€™m describing is where one of the great joys of moving-image-making lies for me: looking at the results from experiments and figuring out how to shape them into something for someone else to view. I have to make decisions about the extent to which I let people in on the process and the extent to which I allow narrative or formal considerations to influence the final piece. I rely on text a lot to do that but I am always trying to find new ways strike that balance. Installation is pretty exciting to me right now because objects and materials communicate in an entirely different way from verbal language.
In terms of direct address, that partly comes from some of my earliest experiments with 16mm film in the late 90s. At that time what I thought was the most fascinating thing about film was that it could make a viewer feel something physically or even do something unconsciously. Horror films for example, make me cover my eyes with my hands during super scary parts; I canâ€™t control it. Some really gross films make me vomit a tiny bit in my mouth. Amazing. So in the 90s I made short horror films, usually about people who had a vexed relationship to food. For example, in one film food inappropriately comes out of a characterâ€™s body parts like his ears and nipples. I am still interested in creating a sense of reaching out through the screen and directly touching a viewer. A lot of documentary filmmaking does that and so does advertising. I think of my use of direct address, which is mainly through text/titles and sometimes through a subject talking directly to the camera (usually me), as a way to openly acknowledge the relationship between the art object (the video, the film) and the viewer. Mainly to acknowledge that the relationship is there, itâ€™s happening. There is something immediately funny to me about being this explicit.
Who are other Relational Filmmakers? Do you feel that this constitutes a “movement” or is the purpose of your manifesto a way to clarify your thinking on your own work?
The purpose of the manifesto was mainly to clarify my own way of working. I do not think itâ€™s a movement although I bet we could find enough makers out there whose work isnâ€™t adequately described by Bill Nichols to write an essay that argues thereâ€™s a trend towards relational work. Lately I have wanted to keep the tenets of the manifesto but change the name. The â€œrelationalâ€ term seems to float fine in filmmaking circles but other types of artists and art people recoil; it seems to carry with it a lot of late 90s baggage that I donâ€™t really need. Iâ€™ll get back to you when I find a better name.
What can Social Practitioners teach filmmakers and vice versa?
Good question. Filmmakers can teach social practitioners what theyâ€™ve learned over the past 100+ years about the ethics of working with human subjects as well as some techniques for effectively assembling and presenting visual/audio documentation of events. Social practitioners can remind filmmakers about the importance of being present and aware when creating an artwork with other people.
Will you talk a bit aboutÂ 34 Years of Whiteness: Race & Ethnicity in the Work of Julie Perini? Why whiteness instead of womanness? Why whiteness instead of educatedness? Why whiteness instead of Americanness? Does whiteness in this context convey all those other types of privilege?
The WhitenessÂ talk is a lecture I did a few months ago at the close of a show I had up at Place Gallery in Portland. It was inspired by an artist talk I had been at this past fall by a Native American woman. She talked about the use of family stories, tribal traditions, and indigenous language in her painting, sculpture, and installation. She both explained what motivated her to make work in the first place â€“ preserving and celebrating her heritage â€“ and she unpacked the symbols that recur throughout the work. I had this aha moment while I was sitting there: â€œWhy donâ€™t I ever give a talk like this? One where I talk about the influence of my family, my race, etc.? I give artist talks all the time and they are usually about some new process Iâ€™ve developed or some formal boundary Iâ€™m pushing here or there.â€ Then it all started to flood quickly into my consciousness, what a talk about race in my work would look like. In a moment I pretty much reviewed my entire creative output and reframed it through a racial lens. It was a big moment.
Think about it â€“ the reason I had never given a talk about race in my work the way this Native American artist was doing was simple: I am a member of the dominant racial group in the US. Here, white people are just people: we are the standard, the norm, the universal. Our race is invisible. The lecture was an attempt to make whiteness more visible by pointing out the ways that my previous work constructed images of whiteness, of white people, of the white race, of white privilege. Since whiteness is invisible, particularly to white people, I needed a lot of help to see it and several friends of mine who are people of color graciously helped me out. You can imagine how awkward, beautiful, and hilarious these conversations were. â€œSo, um, I am sure that this video I made shows some stuff about what it means to be white but Iâ€™m not sure exactly how it does it. Would you mind looking at this for meâ€¦?â€ I believe that our identity is expressed in all of the work we make, whether we intend it to be there or not. Art does more than merely express identity, but identity is in there every time.
The Whiteness talk was one of the best things I have done in years. The audience who came was filled with people interested in talking about identity in and around art. We had a great conversation. People want to talk about things like race; there just arenâ€™t a whole lot of spaces where it seems safe to do that. All of my work is about heightening my own awareness in some way and now this Whiteness lecture is helping me to be more aware of myself as a white person. And while I am certainly informed about and interested in ideas about intersectionality, right now I have a lot of work to do to understand the more nuanced histories of white people and white art in the United States. I think it would be great to have a whole series of talks like you mention in your question â€“ Gender in the Work of Julie Perini, Nationality in the Work of Julie Perini, Classâ€¦, Abilityâ€¦, and someday: All Axes of Identity in the Work of Julie Perini. Great idea!
Your day job is as an Assistant Professor at Portland State University. Can you talk a bit about how teaching has impacted your practice?
When Iâ€™ve got a good group, an awesome class meeting makes me want to run out into the street, or home, or to my studio, to make stuff.
You have a new project your raising funds for now. I’m hoping (first) you might take this moment of pixel megaphone, blog soap box to turn readers into donors and (second) I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about crowdsourced fund-raising. Will Kickstarter endure or will we joke about it in five years? Is it a key component of new relational art? Should we resent the middlemen? What is this project about?
Sure! The Gentleman Bank Robber: The Life Story of Rita Bo Brown is going to be a short portrait documentary of Bo Brown, one of the members of the George Jackson Brigade. The GJB was a revolutionary group from Seattle in the 1970s that carried out a lot of militant actions â€“ ie; bombings â€“ to protest the Vietnam war, to show solidarity with workers on strike, and so on. The group often robbed banks to fund their activities, and Bo became known as â€œThe Gentleman Bank Robberâ€ because she demanded funds from bank tellers in a polite manner. She dressed so butch that the authorities were looking for a man for a long time before they figured out they should be looking for Bo. Eventually the GJB all did prison time for their actions but now they are all out. The GJB were like The Weather Underground but unlike the Weatherman who were mostly white, the GJB was a mixed sexuality, mixed race, and mixed gender group. I met Bo through a friend of mine here in Portland, Lydia Bartholow. Lydia has wanted to record Boâ€™s life story for a long time, to have more documentation of radical history from working class butch dykes like Bo. I am more than happy to help out with that project, so here we are. Our friend Erin McNamara is also working on the project. We are running a kickstarter campaign right now to raise money to fund our travel to Oakland, CA where Bo lives. We want to spend a week with her, interviewing her and her friends, documenting her life, and so on. I canâ€™t say right now what the final product will look like but it may be more straightforward than most of my other work. Bo is so awesome, super down-to-earth and sweet but also hard as nails and brilliant, that I am psyched to be able to spend a week with her like this. We are about halfway to our fundraising goal â€“ please feel free to support The Gentleman Bank Robber!
In regards to crowd-sourced fundraising, this is the first online fundraising campaign I have ever done. It seems like it is good for a few reasons: (1) you can raise funds very quickly, (2) you generate excitement about your project and build a community around it before you even make it, and (3) you can get funds from people who donâ€™t live near you. The first two were true before the internet and the third was true but more cumbersome to pull off. The main drawback seems to be that itâ€™s just plain annoying; I probably receive several kickstarter requests every week. I do not know what the future holds for crowdsourcing like this. I think we should ask Canadians what they think. Artists there seem to have an easier time accessing state funding to support their work. I heard that Kickstarter now channels more funding to the arts in the United States than the NEA does. That is not a good sign.
This relates as much to your own practice as it does to my interest in how artists conceive of their careers and the infrastructures they use to bolster their work. You’ve recently gone through a number of residencies (and have just begun another at Yaddo). How do these specific spaces and contexts inform your work? Does the Relational Filmmaker’s Manifesto dictate this kind of site-specificity?Â
In one way, this relates to your teaching question. I have a humanities/social science background, so teaching in art departments and art schools for the past several years has been like going to school all over again. I did not recognize it at the time, but during my undergraduate years there was this subtle idea in the air that thinking was what was difficult, important, and valuable; thatâ€™s what we did at school. Making was this base thing that happened someplace else. It was a manifestation of the unfortunate but common mind/body split we see everywhere in our culture. Iâ€™ve been unlearning that lesson slowly. And after several residencies where Iâ€™ve been able to have some heart-to-hearts with people who work with clay, paint, textiles, language, sound, and so on, my respect for artists and appreciation for what all artists do has grown tremendously. Artists practice fusing their minds and bodies so that they can act in creative, expressive, and investigative ways with materials, tools, forms, and ideas. Incredible.
I want you to talk about your (recent) interest in the materiality of film. This seems like a relatively late discovery considering how long you’ve been making images move. I’m interested in howÂ this more hands-on, process-engaged work has opened you up to new ideas. Part of what’s also interesting is that you bruise and beat the film such that–correct me if I’m wrong–the only time it’s ever actually projected, as such, is when it’s being transferred to a digital copy. How does film–as a physical thing–come to bear in other parts of your practice? What does it mean to be engaged in this specific form at this point in history? Have you taken an interest in the “materiality” of digital video, in its ones and zeroes?
Mingling with painters and sculptors for the past several years has made me way more open to both (1) working with materials with my hands and (2) seriously exploring formal elements. I learned about handmade film techniques through a workshop Pam Minty teaches at the Northwest Film Center and I immediately started to wonder what my usual repertoire of questions and strategies would look like as cameraless films.
I have taken an interest in the materiality of digital video, and analog video for that matter. I am constantly aware that these are all very different media created and transmitted through completely different means. I have not yet taken that fact to be the subject of a work but I appreciate that other folks like Evan Meaney are doing that, although he is doing that and much more.
What is the difference between creative activism (falling into something like living and acting politically as form) and political art? To me, one of the fundamental issues surrounding political art as well as documentary as a broader practice. How important are clarity, succinctness and overtness to communicating political ideas? Is there room for genuinely innovative and formally expressive work that is still oriented toward conveying a political idea? Compare, say, Frontline documentaries with those ofÂ Jackie GossÂ or Craig BaldwinÂ or evenÂ Ken Jacobs, if the goal of a politically-engaged film is to convey a political idea, maybe formal innovation can get in the way? And if creating a complicated space in which a multiplicity of ideas and feelings and interpretations can flourish is a goal of much of contemporary practice, how does this muddle political meanings?Â
These are all useful questions youâ€™re hitting on here, ones that have been considered for a long time either consciously or unconsciously by people with power and by people who want power. I think that Jen-Luc Godard quote makes sense here: â€œThe problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically.â€
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 socialÂ 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 Records‘ Steve 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.
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 Â 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 somehowâ€¦
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 assholeâ€¦ 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 artistsâ€¦ 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 rankâ€¦ 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 thingâ€¦ 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 fromÂ 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 radioâ€¦ 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 Â 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 peopleâ€¦ 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 realityâ€¦ 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.