Malcolm McLaren

Malcolm Mclaren talks about “Shallow”

Left: Malcolm McLaren, Shallow 1, 2007, still from a color video, 5 minutes. Right: Malcolm McLaren, Shallow 19 (detail), 2008, still from a color video, 4 minutes 35 seconds.

The artist, musician, designer, and impresario Malcolm McLaren is perhaps best known for his role as the manager of the Sex Pistols and Bow Wow Wow and for the mercurial clothing store on Kings Road that he founded in 1971 with Vivienne Westwood. From now through mid-August, Creative Time is presenting McLaren’s multimedia project “Shallow,” a series of “musical paintings,” on MTV’s HD screen in Times Square. McLaren is currently at work on a Broadway musical about the rise of Christian Dior’s fashion house and the emergence of pop culture after World War II.

LAST FALL, some contemporary artists invited me to participate in a show at I-20 Gallery titled “Shallow.” I probably would have turned them down had the invitation occurred in Paris or London, but for some reason—and probably no one else would ever say this—the idea of doing an art project in New York sounded very romantic to me. The project I came up with is a multimedia work. I call the pieces musical paintings. (I wanted to steer them away from movies or videos.) They’re very slow-moving portraits of people thinking about, desiring, wanting, wishing for, and imagining having sex. The series features original musical “cut-ups” done by me—that’s not “mash-ups,” but rather wholesale grabs from the entire history of pop culture set to new grooves. (They’re loosely inspired by William Burroughs in that regard.) The result is a hypnotic look at this moment in some people’s lives that I compare to the moment you first, having reached puberty, heard a pop record, a rock ’n’ roll record; that moment of liberation, if you like—of the potential for unbridled sex. (Not that you were necessarily ever gonna get it. More often than not, you didn’t.)

I ended up making twenty-one of them in all, and the series was first shown in its entirety at Art Basel. I was trying to produce—not to sound pretentious—something that navigates what I’m obsessed by: the look of music and the sound of fashion. I suspect my next project will be what these people look like after they’ve had sex. That will definitely be accompanied by a very different kind of sound track, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

I did all the music first. (The launching point was actually “About Her,” an earlier cut-up of mine Quentin Tarantino used in Kill Bill.) I sat in the studio, worked for twelve weeks. Every day, I would go back down to those awful record stores, and I’d troll around and I’d bring back fifty to sixty CDs and go through them all and nitpick and cut ’em up and stick them together and bash on some simple groove that I’d grabbed from some piece of software and cut them up again until I thought: “That works, day’s ended. I’ve done one.” I ended up with about thirty pieces, of which I’ve used, obviously, twenty-one.

Left: Malcolm McLaren, Shallow 17 (detail), 2008, still from a color video, 3 minutes 20 seconds. Right: Malcolm McLaren, Shallow 21, 2008, still from a color video, 4 minutes 8 seconds.

I cut the movies separate from the music. I didn’t want them to connect in that way; I wanted them to be somewhat disconnected. That’s why sometimes the music is longer than the picture, and sometimes the picture is longer than the music. It didn’t matter. When I’d finished all the movies, I just stuck the music on. Though I didn’t choose it originally, the word “Shallow” stuck with me. I thought, well, everybody accuses pop culture of being nothing short of shallow, of having shallow feelings, and in many respects, that’s right. But often where something is shallow, there’s also something much deeper.

I took the shallowest movies, which are these sex movies with charming little preambles, pre–1972–73—the kind of movies I remember projecting on 8 mm in my squats with other art students when we were bored and cold on those winter nights. They’d write these shabby little stories, ten-minute intros, just to give the movie some integrity beyond a bonking session. For this project, I watched something like five hundred intros from between 1962 and 1972, because in 1972 or thereabouts, that part of the movie industry changed radically and became just pure bonking. When the earlier movies were made, porn stars didn’t really exist, and a lot of those people might have been students, or just ordinary people having fun, or wannabe actors or actresses. There’s a fabulous naïveté to them that is very revealing, especially when you slow them down.

Today, we’re so used to being stuffed with eye candy, with fast food, fast art, fast culture, that to take something really simple and just slow it down is the opposite of how we live. I think our culture today can be summed up by two words: authenticity and karaoke. They can both fit together, but you’ve got to be a bloody magician to make that happen, you’ve got to be some extraordinary alchemist. And some of these contemporary artists are. Many contemporary artists spend their days trying very hard to authenticate a karaoke culture.