Interview with Asher Penn
BAD DAY MAGAZINE
ISSUE 11, JULY, 2011
Over the past two decades, Mike Mills’ quiet, consistent contribution to popular culture is difficult to quantify. Looking over his resumé of music videos and design work, it’s hard not to exclaim, “He did that, too?” The art for Air’s Moon Safari, as well as their music videos; the Washing Machine cover for Sonic Youth; that Supreme logo with the accent over the ‘e’; and all the X-Girl graphics. Constantly evolving, Mills has moved from design to videos to feature films, bringing to these projects a direct sensibility that is disarmingly human. His latest film, Beginners was released this June.
Asher Penn: I read in an interview that when you graduated from Cooper
Union in 1989, you didn’t really want to participate in the art world; that it would be more interesting to infiltrate culture at large. How did you come to that decision?
Mike Mills: Well, it would be unfair for me to just write off the art world. The first thing I do when I go to London is I go to the Tate; when I go to Paris I visit the Pompidou, and I am a museum director’s son. So it’s not like I have disregarded the art world completely, and the few times I do get to have gallery shows I embrace it, I enjoy it. But when I was graduating from Cooper, I was a very good little Hans Haacke student—
Asher: I’ll admit I actually don’t know anything about Hans Haacke.
Mike: [Laughs] That’s good to say. Well, the short of it is he’s a really interesting conceptual artist and really de-materialized the art object. He then became more political and did a lot of work about critiquing art institutions, like museums. He did an amazing piece about this Monet painting about asparagus: he found each person that had owned this painting, and it was a weird index of power through the twentieth century. When I was a student in the late ’80s and it was when Soho was becoming the big art industry gallery place, Haacke’s class was so much about institutional critique, and uncovering the real economic basis of the art world that the art world loves to deny it has.
Mike: And being a museum director’s son I already had a taste of that, and it seemed so much more exciting to work in the public sphere. I was lucky enough to start doing record covers for Sonic Youth and Blues Explosion and I’d see those posters upon Broadway and I’d feel like, “Aw I made it!” I got out of the art world and onto Broadway and it was so exciting, and it still is. I just did a Beastie Boys cover and last night I was driving down Sunset and saw them on all of the bus benches. That’s still the most exciting thing for me.
Asher: I feel like the art world is almost allergic to some of the themes you engage with head-on: vulnerability, emotion, depression and sentimentality. Why do you think that is?
Mike: I never really thought of it like that. The art world definitely doesn’t avoid sadness. Many artists make work about sadness, I think what I do is different because I’m happy to make a poster, or a museum video, or a film. But in truth I try to rely on my real personal world, and believe that there’s enough there to make art about. I think I’ve taken some of the intentions of the big art world and put them into another context.
Asher: Was pursing graphic design a subversive decision for you?
Mike: Slightly. But I also really liked it. My first job was working for M&Co., you know, Tibor Kalman? I was helping him do his speeches with these really elaborate slide shows.
Asher: Wait, what were these lectures?
Mike: My main job was helping Tibor with these very complicated slide-shows he was doing at the time. I helped him write a little bit, but mostly just organized and kept the hundreds of slides going. He was tough back then, a complicated guy, but I learned a lot. He really wasn’t a designer, he was a thinker. He made us present ideas in tiny sketches no bigger than a quarter, partially so that we wouldn’t get caught up in what they looked like; everything lived or died on how good of an idea it was.
Asher: But you did actually study graphic design at Cooper a little.
Mike: I really only took one or two classes, there were a lot of amazing designers there, one of them being Marlene McCarty who was also in Gran Fury at the time. They were the graphic design wing of Act Up. I was sort of like, the little kid wannabe in that group. You know what I mean?I helped them just a couple of times but I greatly admired them and how Act Up was using aesthetics and creative solutions to a very socially engaged condition.
Asher: It was also really direct, right?
Mike: Super direct. The art world can be sort of a contained theatre of protest, but the ambition was real protest, really involved with some sort of civil destruction.
Asher: What was your student work like?
Mike: A bunch of different stuff. I was doing a lot of sculpture, very geometric stuff about family and relationship and power. Stuff like that.
Asher: When I think about the trajectory of you career, starting from graphic design to music videos to short films to features, it seems totally organic and seamless. Were some of these shifts more of a struggle than that?
Mike: Oh yeah. [Laughs] It wasn’t a clear plan like that. That sounds so easy like this programmed flow. It definitely was anything but easy to keep starting over, it’s always so hard. I got to a certain level as a graphic designer and when I wanted to do music videos, no one thought of me that way; I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t have a reel. So I had to struggle for a long time to get to do music videos, I’d have to do them for free. Eventually, that got me doing ads, and that’s great, you start making money, but then I wanted to do features, so I had to start all over again to get to do feature length stuff. So it would be a misrepresentation to say it was an organic flow. It is sort of like me getting braver and braver, from when I was in my mid-twenties to now. When I was twenty-five I never thought I could make a feature film. It would be like going to the moon, just something so complicated and difficult and big and Hollywood—I didn’t even understand it. But I slowly began to work in a very public atmosphere, an entertainment atmosphere and I just grew and my confidence grew.
Asher: It seems like much of what you do is so much of this negotiation between communication and self-expression. Do you feel like cinema or narrative filmmaking is the ultimate medium for that?
Mike: For me it is. I also think that writing novels would be an amazing space to do that in. And I always envy bands and albums—what they do is so emotional, intimate and personal, it works on such a subliminal level and it’s public. You buy it cheaply, it’s all over the airwaves, it’s very shared, and people dance to it in groups. I would love to work in that context, the music scene has everything I want in one bubble, but I’m not a musician. For me, there’s nothing else I can do that asks
people to sit for 100 minutes and think about what I’m talking about. So just for sheer duration, it’s the most demanding conversation I can have with an audience. I can put in my graphics, drawings, my writing, I can put in my photography, it does become like the biggest box into which I can put everything.
Asher: There’s such a huge contrast between working with an image or an artwork—which is a very insular, personal experience—to working with an actor. Was working with people in this way a skill you had to learn?
Mike Definitely. When you go from working alone as a designer or artist to a crew of twenty to thirty people, it’s the hardest. Even with just time and money constraints, it’s really hard to learn, doing videos really taught me a lot about that. I am a very disciplined, budget-orientated kind of person, and with filmmaking it behooves you to be conscious of all the physical constraints. That took a few years, but once I picked it up I must say I really loved it. I love having this little extended family, and being the captain of the ship, I like being the director. And I love actors. I think as a formerly very, very shy person I am super impressed with actors and their ability to be so un-self-conscious. It’s so fun to be around them, they’re so emotionally juicy and expressive. It’s not unlike when I was in a band in high school, trying to be a good punk rock kid and trying to be free but not being that good at being free, still being quite self-conscious. And here I am meeting all these people that are fucking great at being free. I love being around that and I love collaborating with them on these characters. When I was writing Beginners, I was promoting Thumbsucker (2005), so I was hanging out with Tilda Swinton and Lou Pucci all the time, we were on a press tour. And Lou and Tilda, they would always blow me away with being more wild and free than me. No matter what I do or how old I am, I’m sort of like the perpetual graphic designer boy who is a little shy. You know the party scene in Beginners when she’s got laryngitis?
Mike: That really happened to Lou, he had laryngitis, he met a girl and couldn’t talk, so he was writing on these pads. And it made him have this deeper relationship with her than he would have had otherwise. I sort of think about these kinds of people when I write, and I like self-referential things. I love films that refer to filmmaking, my videos refer to filmmaking, my graphic design refers to graphic design—everytime you do that I just feel like you’re being more honest.
Asher: When I was watching the movie, there were all of these creative moments where characters did these things that almost function likesmaller art works; creative acts that in a different context could be your art, or something that you made. What happens when you put that creative output into a fictional character’s narrative?
Mike: Yeah, that’s the first time I did that and I have to say I really enjoyed it, it was really interesting. To have me make graphics for this character named Oliver, to make that in this fictional film, actually somehow was really fitting to me. It didn’t feel as foreign as one might think, to put my art into this narrative and have these different people do it in different places.
Asher: At the same time I’m curious—you know how much you can
actually learn about somebody through a self-portrait; which parts are you adding in, and what are you taking out?
Mike: Well when you have a dream all the people that you put in your dream are really you, right? When you write something, every character is some kind of expression of you. Sometimes you know you’re showing a part of yourself, sometimes you don’t know how much you’re showing. That portrait about my dad and myself is really subjective, or just one version, or me playing around with both of our characters. So it’s not at all a memoir or anything like that, but I tried to put a lot of me in it. Beginners is a huge self-portrait, people ask me all the time, “How much is it all about you?” Clearly there’s a lot of my art in it, my dad really did come out, I really had trouble believing in love and all that. At the same time, if you just saw the film and met me, the longer you got to know me the more you would be disappointed. [Laughs] It’s just pieces of me.
Asher: I was wondering if I could list some of your old graphic design works and you could make some kind of comment about them.
Asher: Let’s start with TG-170.
Mike: What do I say?
Mike: I used to live right around the corner from there in the Lower East Side—Terry’s an old friend of mine. I did it for free or little money, and I love those kinds of projects. I feel like I’m still doing them, when I do my wife’s book cover or something, that’s the best kind of design work. You get so integrated with the clients and the audience they’re trying to reach, it ends up coming from a very natural place.
Asher: Okay, next: Supreme.
Mike: With Supreme, when I did the shirts and stuff, it was using one of my favourite strategies. You associate skateboarding with the street, especially with punk or hip-hop or underground culture, and everything I did with them was very over-ground looking, mainstream looking. That was what made it, hopefully, interesting. I sort of did the same thing with Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine, which I did around the same time. It’s taking on a corporate, industrial, kind of Swiss looking design language and putting it onto this supposedly subversive, rough, culture. Doing
the wrong visual solution, I love that strategy.
Asher: Marc Jacobs.
Mike: Which? I did a lot for him.
Asher: The early stuff, with the lips.
Mike: I remember Marc was obsessed with Fiorucci, and that was kind of great because that wasn’t my taste at all. One great thing about being a graphic designer and working with people who aren’t graphic designers, is their taste breaks all the
taste rules of the graphic design world. At the time Fiorucci wasn’t hip at all, but I also remember Marc talking about lips and I said, “Oh lips! But that’s so cliché,” and Marc said, “Cliché’s are great! Clichés are powerful. Clichés are what we all share.” That was the first time I had ever heard anybody say that.
• 10 May 2012 • View comments
Image: Puerto Williams, Chile; The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003–2006.
Interview with Pablo Helguera
by Bad At Sports
from Art Practical
The following is an abridged transcript from an interview at the Open Engagement conference, which took place from May 13 to 15, 2011, at Portland State University (PSU). Open Engagement is an initiative of PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program that encourages discussion on various perspectives in social practice. In this conversation, Bad at Sports contributors Bryce Dwyer, Christine Hill, Abigail Satinsky, Duncan MacKenzie, and Brian Andrews speak with Pablo Helguera, who was a featured presenter at this year’s conference.
This presentation of the interview is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art Practical. You can listen to the full conversation on an upcoming episode of Bad at Sports.
Bryce Dwyer: I’m here with Pablo Helguera, who is one of the keynote speakers at Open Engagement this year and is an artist and arts educator. Welcome. I’ll just start off with a question. Interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary exists as this ideal for a social practice artist, but the actual qualities of the disciplines from which artists are approaching [social practice] get lost in this concept of being involved in all of them. The qualities of each specialization get lost in the idea of the artist who has a hand in everything. So maybe you could talk generally to begin with about this idea of the interdisciplinary as it relates to teaching artists how to be good MFAs in social practice.
Pablo Helguera: It’s actually very easy to see that this issue has always been present in the arts, and it’s been present in debates around reconfiguration of the art school curriculum. Because what you have historically is the academy model, which relies on a set of skills that you teach to people. Plaster casting and doing a nice still life and the human anatomy and all that. Then comes the Bauhaus model, which really relies on the whole notion of technique, but not simply maintaining some nineteenth-century model of craft. It’s craft in a more expanded sense. Technology as the craft.
Then we have the new reconfigured model, which is criticized as basically dismantling everything else, and then supposedly it doesn’t make you a specialist in anything. The difficulty with the programs that emphasize knowledge of a particular craft is that there’s a problem with development of a particular craft. Maybe you have heard this famous phrase by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes ten thousand hours to become an expert in anything.
The problem with art is that when you become such a specialist in a particular thing, you become a purist—let’s say, of photography or in bookmaking—and you start having a difficult critical distance from that particular medium. A photographic purist will say to an artist working with photography, but not a photographer by training, “You know nothing about photography. Under my standards, you’re nothing.”
BD: Like a virtuoso model.
PH: Yeah, like classical music, it applies very specifically because there is this form of art making that relies heavily on virtuosity. But in art, it’s a combination of being able to understand how a medium works and maintain a critical detachment to it. So the solution is not simply to emphasize a craft of any kind, but in my view, to teach the ways in which a variety of crafts or disciplines function. An architect is not required to understand all the specifics of plumbing or be an expert in welding. An orchestra conductor does not play all the instruments of the orchestra, or at least not play them as a virtuoso. There are many disciplines that don’t require you to completely master them in order to gain a certain kind of understanding of how they work.
This is where social practice finds itself right now. Where you are engaging with a variety of topics or areas of knowledge, and your challenge is to really understand how they behave to a certain extent and understand how people behave. There are disciplines that are particularly relevant to what we do, and it’s very useful to gain understanding of their tools and mechanisms. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to become professional sociologists or ethnographers or anthropologists to do what we do, but these kinds of expertise that we are developing [provide] some understanding of how they behave in the social realm, and how to utilize them. It’s like becoming a good orchestrator of these particular things that are constantly moving.
BD: In your talk, you staged that amateur position, not as a pejorative, but as something to be valued. The ability of the amateur to see a discipline in a different light than a practitioner.
PH: Paolo Freire said, “I’m an expert at not being an expert. I’m not claiming an expertise.” Meaning that for him, the core of education was to acknowledge a degree of ignorance in a variety of things, and that degree of ignorance was an acknowledgement of humanity. But I do know this amount of stuff, and I can communicate that. I can create a structure and you can come to the realization of your own knowledge. When I say I am a professor or a teacher, I’m not claiming that I know who you are or I know what you are, but I’m actually providing the tools for you to come to your own realizations about who you are. And there is a term, conscientization, which just means awareness when you reached that kind of knowledge. So it’s a combination of acknowledging your own limitations, but at the same time, acknowledging your responsibility in structuring a space where you can allow others to attain those awarenesses or realizations.
BD: I’ve been reading this book called Arts of Living [by Kurt Spellmeyer] that critiques what’s happened to the humanities since the Second World War, in which they’ve become more about specialization, in becoming an expert in whatever obscure text and reading it in a close and theoretical way. The argument of the book is that the humanities should be the space between all the other disciplines, the position from which you can view all the different relationships between the disciplines. It should also try and find a way to be more relevant to ordinary life in general, in the same way that philosophy shouldn’t just be solving analytical problems, but give ordinary people some way to navigate their way through their everyday lives. It seems that art as social practice is in certain situations aiming to be at this vantage point, where you can see all these different things and make the connections between them, and use expertise from these different fields to comment on all of them.
Calle 9 de julio, Ushuaia, Argentina; The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003–2006. Courtesy of the Artist.
PH: You know, in truth, it’s not a new thing that social practice suddenly discovered. What I think is happening is an extreme reaction against modern and postmodern notions of the artist as this demigod who comes and reveals the truth to the world and becomes this kind of cult figure. So many people who are working in this realm of socially based work renounced that to the extent that nothing associated with that idea can possibly be admissible.
But this is what I was going to say: What happened is that we started treating social practice as something that’s not even art. Now, we don’t even say the word art. We say, “I’m a social practitioner.” I think it’s very meaningful that we have done that. We are trying to detach from the whole thing. We’re trying to turn it into a technique or maybe into a profession.
That’s a very contradictory thing, because on the one hand, we’re saying we’re amateurs, and on the other hand, we’re saying we’re professionals. The problem is that art just can’t be professionalized that way. Because art has a degree of ambiguity that cannot possibly be pinned down, ever.
PH (con’t): Whatever you do, what’s powerful about art is that it’s ambiguous. It’s something that has multiple values in different moments and contexts. I always remember what Matthew Barney said once, that “everything that I do, there’s a degree that I don’t want to know about.” I always leave a blank section of questionable aspects of the work that even I don’t understand—that viable room for not making it completely didactic, or completely spelling out exactly what it is.
And that’s a very important thing to preserve, and that is the one thing that no other scientific disciplines have. You don’t do physics just for free expression! The scientific approach is trying to prove something and going through these processes, but in art, you can just say, “I’m going to do this crazy stuff, and nobody knows what it means and it’s okay.”
Christine Hill: I think people keep going around and around a familiar problem, which is that nobody wants to have an MFA in Futility. I think sometimes it’s as if everyone is trying to find a way to feel useful, or that what they’re doing has use.
PH: I don’t know how this applies in Europe, but I feel that in American education, we still have a very consumerist approach, in which we feel that we are purchasing an education as a consumer. We don’t put ourselves in the role of “I’m constructing something for myself,” but more like, “I’m the buyer, and this is product, and you have to fill me with knowledge, and if I don’t have a real product coming out of it then this was a scam.” The most common MFA questions are, “Am I going to get in a gallery? Am I going to survive in the art world? Am I going to sell the artwork after I get this diploma?” They want to see concrete products out of these things.
CH: Look at how websites of some of the best art schools look. Who is the consumer—the student or the parent? They inundate you with pictures of techy looking labs and stuff that looks like your child is going to learn some hardcore stuff here. That’s not accidental.
PH: Yes, they’re selling. They’re definitely presenting themselves as businesses. Selling it like some sort of experience or that afterward, you’re going to become a member of an elite club with rewards.
Abigal Satinsky: I thought it was interesting when you laid out in your talk the uncomfortable position in which social practice artists now exist, that they’re struggling over the idea of authorship. So if we’re talking about how we’re not making things in particular, then what is it that we’re actually producing? This is the conundrum that everyone’s struggling with. I’d like to hear you talk more about that complex authorship position, maybe through The School of Panamerican Unrest, as well as about your own methodology, about the position in which you’re approaching your community, the position in which you’re negotiating with institutions, and how all these things come to be, and where you’ve placed yourself as an artist. You mentioned this idea of a stealth art practice.
PH: What I said about authorship is that essentially, among the many artists that do social practice, some create this sense they are not really doing it—that they are not being anything other than a facilitator. They are disowning themselves to create a situation and let it exist on its own. I say that’s impossible. I say an artist can never really disappear by the same principle that you alter anything that you actually come into, just by nature of entering it. You have to acknowledge that, and by the same token, you cannot renounce authorship away. We’re not talking about authorship in the sense of coming to sign the landscape; it is about assuming the accountability of what you are actually doing.
And also, it’s not very productive to demonize the art market when you are making a project, because, let’s be honest, we exist within the art market, even if you are not selling anything. There are other kinds of economies. There’s a reputational economy. Maybe you’ll give everyone a gift, and that’s your project, and then that’s a piece. You can say that it’s not an artwork because [you] didn’t sell anything, but no, it was actually an investment in your reputation. Because then, you are famous because you gave everybody a gift. That’s why I like very ambiguous things that are not really discussed. You might as well acknowledge that they exist and then see how you operate within them in an integral and decent way.
In doing the School of Panamerican Unrest project, I never really thought about what it was going to be. I’m still not sure what it should be in its final product. I think it’s going to be an archive. [These collages] emerged from the project that were personal and like a diary, but could be sold and collected or whatever. I don’t see any conflict with that and doing a social practice project.
You might call this accessorizing, and there are issues within that, but it’s not intrinsically a conflict by definition. I think it is possible to create a work as an artist that might have the components of sociability or ephemerality, and at the same time do something else that exists in a more conventional form.
Pablo Helguera, The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003–2006. Courtesy of the Artist.
BD: I found your talk incredibly refreshing, in part because you dealt with questions such as responsibility for authorship, and noted that when we do these things, we are actually accountable to them and we are ethically responsible. You were sketching out a position that [acknowledges] the social practice side of things always wants to see itself as somehow off to the side, as not participating in your dirty money scene. People like Dave Hickey sketch out a far more cynical way of looking at it, which is to say that, “No, you are; you’re just making yourself available through a museum and not directly to the collector. This is just an alternative art economy, and it actually works really well for the museum, because the museum needs to collect things that collectors can’t collect by themselves.”
PH: Yes, tell me of a single recognized artist who does this kind of work who has not had any relationships with museums or foundations that have funded their work. Practically everybody who is here has done major projects for museums, for biennials, for foundations. They have received grants. You simply become a different kind of agent in the same system. There are biennial artists, there are gallery artists, there are public art artists who just create public sculptures for parks, and that’s how they make a living. Performance artists exist in another circuit of performance venues.
BD: I want to drag that back to ethical responsibility. Because it’s one of the things that you highlighted in your talk, and it was one of the things that I left last year’s conference with really mixed emotions about: the role social practice takes on ethically, and what ethics does it really represent.
PH: Well, that’s very hairy territory, you know? As you might have already guessed. You can get into really deep extremes. You can get righteous and have to ask everyone’s permission to do everything and you have to really go to all lengths—if you did that, probably nothing would ever get done. Because art by consensus is like death by committee, you know? Let’s just make the most boring art possible so that no one will be offended, and that is really the kiss of death for an artist. And that’s exactly what you see in most public art. Because when you actually propose a public art project for the city of New York or for [wherever], it has to go through committees of people who know nothing about art, whose concerns are so remote from what a possible art project may be that you end up presenting completely bland, horrible projects. They’re better not to be done than done the way that they are done.
So we must not forget that there has to be a degree of respect that also includes a level of challenging the audience. This is another thing I’ve learned from education; again, if you consider education as this service thing—educate me, give me this, give me that, as if you were a fast food restaurant. It does not work that way. The way it works is saying, “Yes, I’ll give you this, but you have to also reply to me.” It’s a dialogue. It’s an exchange situation. So audiences get something, but they also have to give something back, and that implies a kind of engagement that can be challenging. To me, any great art has the ability of giving you something, but at the same time hurting you a little bit. Like pissing you off a little bit, or putting you in a very strange place that maybe is not that comfortable.
We need to learn how to figure out a way to retain a certain degree of integrity in the way that we make works, but without becoming subservient to any sort of regulations that anyone might impose on us. That’s an unworkable situation. You cannot do it. Or you do it, and you will end up doing those community murals that are very pleasing and nice to the eye.
• 6 January 2012 • 2 notes • View comments