PRINT May 2004


IF ONE STORY OF ART DURING THE 1990s was the ever-increasing awareness of its relationship to entertainment—and a corollary interest in social and participatory models of artmaking—then a compelling shadow figure in this narrative is Michael Smith, who joins artist Dan Graham in the second installment of Artforum’s series “In Conversation.”

Based in New York during the 1970s and ’80s, Smith began his career in video and performance alongside the artists of the Pictures generation. Like them, he pursued appropriation, but rather than static media such as magazine photography, his source material was television. In the early video It Starts at Home, 1982, for example, the artist (working in collaboration with Mark Fischer) adopts all the formal hallmarks of situation comedy—the anonymous domestic setting, the instantly recognizable (i.e., barely developed) character types who regularly enter and exit the scene, the elementary editing style of hard jump cuts—but leaves them stranded on-screen as empty conventions, since little, if any, energy is invested in plot. Smith’s artistic alter ego, “Mike,” has cable installed in his home and, due to a technical snafu, becomes the star of his own real-time public-access program—leaving audiences watching the utterly mundane life of a man who, never venturing from home, is continually confronted with the image of himself on television. Poker-faced parodies like this evoke multiple contexts, speaking to developments in both mass culture and fine art. On the one hand, they reflect ’70s and ’80s television’s deadpan spoofs on the variety shows of yesteryear (think of Saturday Night Live skits versus those of The Ed Sullivan Show); and, on the other, they play on the long-duration performances and reflexive closed-circuit video works made by Smith’s contemporaries (Graham, for example, readily acknowledges that his time-delay pieces are composed of the same “dead air” as Smith’s DOA narratives).

Smith’s Home scenario seems prescient enough today, conjuring the cultivated banality of Big Brother or MTV’s Real World as well as the appropriations of Pierre Huyghe in his video installation The Third Memory, 1999. But perhaps a more provocative point for consideration is the fact that Smith emerged at a moment when the worlds of art and popular entertainment not only negotiated an exchange of formal attributes but were marked by a living proximity in New York City. His performances took place both at avant-garde venues like the Kitchen and at such mainstream clubs as the Bottom Line; and his videos, which often revolved around the figure of Mike, inspired interest from emerging cable outlets like HBO. And so Smith’s approach is informed by an acute awareness of audience (or what some call a “demographic”), as he repeatedly manages to reveal social values and conventions—subtly disrupting their seamless sheen of “taste” by introducing outmoded or shopworn motifs and genres, often (and most satisfyingly) to embarrassing effect.

In this regard, it’s significant that Smith’s practice during the past decade has had incarnations both private and public. His puppet shows (made with Doug Skinner) have appeared at such venues as a party given by his friend Mike Kelley. At the same time, Smith has created numerous museum installations, like International Trade and Enrichment Association, 1994–95, a booth laden with promotional materials riffing on the concept that artists would be tomorrow’s “content providers”—an idea familiar to anyone who followed the dotcom industry in the ’90s. Another piece, MUSCO: 1969–1997, 1997, made with longtime collaborator Joshua White, transformed an entire gallery into a fictional lighting company, replete with a salesroom and a back office littered with receipts. Interestingly, such installations have a distinctly televisual feel, seeming at once fictional and disconcertingly real. Perhaps this “virtual” effect reflects a time when so much of everyday American life is in a sense unreal—tailored for imaginary individuals whose qualities are the aggregate of innumerable focus groups.

It is this kind of flatline humor, used to inspire a double take when it comes to looking at mainstream America, that Smith shares most clearly with Graham. Indeed, one easily imagines the bland character Mike sitting on the couch in one of Graham’s Homes for America. And one can easily understand why Graham, whose projects and writings over the years have taken up mass-cultural models and matters—from corporate architecture to Dean Martin—calls himself a longtime admirer of Smith’s work. (It was Graham, in fact, who proposed interviewing Smith in these pages.) Both artists locate their art in real culture, and, even in passing conversation, they continually underscore the ways in which the conventions of community create meaning.

Tim Griffin


DAN GRAHAM: I love two things about television, that you deal with. First, the producer, who is something like a conceptual artist—someone like Norman Lear, who did Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, or Allen Funt, who did Candid Camera. And then I love the stand-up comic on TV, who is also sometimes a conceptual artist, like Andy Kaufman.

MICHAEL SMITH: Well, in the book Comic Visions [1989], David Marc makes a case for the TV auteur: people who have control over the creative process in almost all phases of production. Since television is always viewed as a monolithic machine, this idea is sometimes overlooked. Desi Arnaz did a lot more than control his crazy wife and lead a Latin band. He also ran a production company and invented the three-camera sitcom shooting style for TV. Kaufman was totally great, but he didn’t get many chances to produce television programs. No wonder. He constantly kept his audience in the dark by confusing his private and public personas. It is amazing how much he was able to do on network TV, because I am sure the execs did not see him as a team player.

DG: TV’s a group phenomenon.

MS: I enjoy the process. But the auteur idea in television is one of people who have visions and “do ’em.” I hardly qualify, but my persona, Mike, who is kind of a Candide character, is the perfect vehicle for that kind of working. You can throw him into any kind of situation.

DG: My favorite video is Mike. Mike wakes up and has a morning, but just the beginning of a morning. He puts on his pants with a big “Mike” belt buckle, and that’s it.

MS: That was actually commissioned by Saturday Night Live in 1987. It was kind of an advertisement for Mike. I used a Calvin Klein Obsession ad as the model for the piece. A lot of TV commercials at that time were starting to have the look of experimental films. Madison Avenue was mining downtown for ideas. The ’80s art world had already fascinated Page Six with its celebrity status, so it was no shock to see.

DG: I think the ’70s were a horrible time, because the communalism of the hippie period was ending and the public got into this magazine called Self. They were interested in “self.” And many artists at the end of that decade wanted to leave behind artist’s videos and performances and go into entertainment as such—remember Eric Bogosian? He was basically creating a stand-up comedy skit situation in his work. I think Dara Birnbaum later did something with MTV. It was very important to do this then. But when I did Rock My Religion [1982–84] it was anti-MTV.

MS: The late ’70s were really a curious period. It was a mixture of idealism, naïveté, and ambition. A lot of us were interested in expanding our audiences. Bogosian and Laurie Anderson were two artists who successfully made the transition. There were also artists who made public-access programs and were interested in reaching out to the community. I was never clear what that community was. All I know is that it went to bed very late. Then there were those who wanted to deconstruct TV but who had ambitions of making hit TV shows. But there really wasn’t much room for artist’s television. When Dara produced material for MTV, it had been determined by the network and cable executives that the only way artists were going to see the airwaves was through interstitial programming, basically bumpers between the long-format shows.

DG: Wasn’t there still an idea about community in it? Like cable access. The reason I was so into music in the ’70s was that artists like Robert Longo and Richard Prince had rock groups. We wanted something more communal, since we were losing something in the art world as it became more about business and sales. I think you used alternative or artist’s spaces to do entertainment that was communal—something about the art world but also about mass media.

MS: Richard and Robert were the reasons you got into music? I liked the community but I wasn’t convinced by everything they offered. When I first started performing in the mid-’70s I was reacting against a lot of performances that weren’t really engaging me—tedious, long-endurance things. I wanted to put a little polish to my schtick. So I looked to stand-up. It was an interesting model, in terms of the non sequitur. It had this timing where you could just segue into something else without explanation. I was interested in the kind of short attention span of television and also maybe in drugs, you know. In “Open House,” my show at the New Museum in 1999, my collaborator Joshua White and I modeled Mike after artists from that time who thought of public-access video as their artwork and a link to the community. Mike was very proud of his cable-access show Interstitial. Unfortunately it wasn’t that good. The irony is that what Mike really got from all of his social involvement during the ’80s is a valuable piece of property, a loft in SoHo.

DG: I think two things were happening on television in the early ’80s that related to non sequitur. Stand-up comedy of the variety-show era was dead. That made it interesting to send up for Second City TV in Toronto, which was comedy reflecting on itself and television reflecting on itself. But I think there’s another aspect of television you picked up on—the work of Ed McMahon with Publishers Clearing House. You know the Publishers Clearing House?

MS: I’ve entered many times.

DG: You’ve entered many times?

MS: Yeah. But didn’t win.

DG: So anyway, McMahon presented the million-dollar award to the unsuspecting winner. This kind of vacuous TV obviously interests you.

MS: I should mention that before there was Mike, there was the concept of Blandman, which developed out of my interest in trying to locate a completely bland character. A “silent majority” type who would meet all the statistics of a Procter & Gamble focus-group participant. Although I never gave McMahon much thought, he was the perfect spokesperson for a large, bland demographic. My interest in blandness and my need to develop my own delivery got translated into a very slow, plodding timing.

DG: I would call it dreamy. It’s a kind of a dream time. But it’s also a dream time of desires that would not be exactly fulfilled.

MS: I’m not surprised they were dreamy, seeing that my influences were Tati, Keaton, Richard Foreman, Acconci, Wegman, and Beckett filtered through the construction of stand-up. But I had no experience writing scripts, so my early videos were assembled more like collages. The scripts were concerned equally with watching someone move through a space as they were about telling a story. Down in the Rec Room [1979], where Mike tries to throw a party but forgets to send invitations, was meant as a kind of dig at a lot of performance happening at that time. It had a kind of Mickey and Judy attitude: Anyone with some energy and an idea can go put on a show. The rec room also has a very middle-class Mike feel to it.

DG: Many of your sets are from the suburbs.

MS: A lot of the models for my early sets came from sitcoms. I grew up in Chicago, so I learned about the suburbs from television. It was exotic to me. That’s another reason why they are so dreamy and odd. They have the look of TV, they just don’t deliver the content. In most of the installations the TV is treated like furniture, not as a sculptural material, the same way it was treated in my household—something you sat in front of and looked into. But, you know, the suburbs are an easy target.

DG: I think they are a cliché. When I did Homes for America [1966–67] it was a fake think piece about how a magazine like Esquire would often have a leading sociologist and a good photographer work together on a story. But my project actually wasn’t about sociology. It was like Flaubert: It’s a cliché. And it was supposed to be humorous, flat-footed humor. I think the thing we have to consider is that you deal, as TV does, in clichés.

MS: I guess I try to deal with them indirectly through Mike. For example, I’m amazed by the language of business. I’m impressed by the doublespeak where they talk about nothing. It’s about some sort of widget, yet they construct a huge narrative around it and sell it with a certain kind of conviction.

DG: We’re inundated by clichés. But in the ’90s, you got into another kind of business, the Wellness Center, the QuinQuag Colony, which had a lot to do with New Age salesmanship and the failure of the dot-com industry.

MS: The QuinQuag project began when I started thinking about turning fifty and, I don’t know, being put out to pasture. I was thinking about retirement: Where do you go? Of course, in my head I went to a dystopian place—a retirement colony for artists, named QuinQuag. Eventually the story was filtered through Josh’s experience working for a dot-com business that went under. We took the inflated language of that kind of American business and applied it to Mike’s venture. In this scenario, Mike has some money he made in the dot-com business and wants to do something meaningful—so he comes up with the idea of “wellness.” But QuinQuag epitomizes to me something about nothing. I mean, even less than Seinfeld.

DG: I remember when artists first went to these colonies in the summer. Barbara Ess used to go to a colony. After the hippie period artists got disgusted. And when the cities were dying, they would move to Woodstock and other areas like that.

MS: There’s no mystery why artists would want to get out of New York City in the summer.

DG: Like Jenny Holzer did.

MS: The list is long.

DG: Or Sonic Youth.

MS: The list is long, okay? I spent a lot of time in the Catskills in the ’80s. It has always been an artist’s dream to have a summer retreat. QuinQuag was modeled after artist’s colonies made up of people who were resourceful and figured out how to escape the city.

DG: Don’t you think the work has something to do with the communal quality of the art world in New York? I think a lot of performance work in the ’60s was about the art world as a community.

MS: I’ve dealt with that, but I’ve always looked at it as an outsider.

DG: I think Pierre Huyghe and Thomas Hirschhorn have this leftist fantasy about community, which I don’t agree with: the idea that you can go in and make change, particularly if it’s a community that’s antithetic to elitism. I don’t think that can happen. And I think Mike also realizes he doesn’t have any answers. It’s not political, your work.

MS: I try to stay away from the topical.

DG: Your work is about culture; it’s humor. I think the great art is always about humor. Often parody, like Claes Oldenburg. Or Lichtenstein’s deadpan humor. And I think humor is about culture, right?

MS: It can be, yes.

DG: Well, as an American artist I realize the real enemy and challenge is the Disneyfication of everything. So I think most great art is about humor. I know that Pop art was doing parody. I know my best work is about parody. And I think such humor is always related to entertainment. We always have to deal with entertainment in order to deal with the stereotypes that you and the audience have grown up with.

MS: I won’t go out on a limb and say that great art should be humorous. I mean, I do respond to work that’s humorous. But it’s interesting how quickly the entertainment aspect became commonplace in a lot of work. I think this idea of “entertainment” in the art world has to do with trying to figure out the community, and more specifically how to bring it in. One way to bring in your community, I think, is to entertain them. So you have blockbuster shows and community programs.

I happened to be at the right place at the right time in the late ’70s, in terms of funding for video, because there was a reaction against a lot of that kind of Porta-Pak work that was thirty minutes or sixty minutes long and wasn’t really considering an audience. It was confusing: Was it documentation? What was this thing? So these funders had to have some sort of directive or idea of where this work was going and who it was going to—and the idea of entertainment made sense and seemed quantifiable. Maybe it was Wegman who said that when he heard people laugh, he knew there was a response to the work. And I think artists also know that they’re getting at something when people are being entertained. You know, like Matthew Barney, bringing out the audience.

DG: I think there was a period in the ’70s when artists were interested in performance because we had communities face us. I think my work came out of dissecting Joseph Beuys, who had the idea of the artist as performer-politician. I was interested in the stupidity of political argument.

MS: By the time I got on the scene, the nonprofits were an active system for younger artists. There was a dedicated audience, so I didn’t see it as an alternative; I saw it as the main event. Perhaps this is why I reacted so strongly to what I saw happen at “The Times Square Show” [1980]. I guess it stoked a cynicism that I nurtured after a brief phase of ’60s idealism and activism. Did you go to that?

DG: I wasn’t as social as you, Mike. I was afraid.

MS: I think for five years I’d spot you in rock clubs with a tape recorder over your head. Anyway, the opening of “The Times Square Show,” for me, was very interesting, because here was Colab and all these politically conscious groups of people taking over a place in Times Square—and I saw more dealers at that opening than I’ve ever seen anywhere. “The Times Square Show” was a reaction to the alternative spaces becoming institutionalized, but then it became a platform to go into SoHo. I did a performance using the disco song “We Are Family.” I guess I was poking fun at what I saw as disingenuous motives, sort of indirectly making fun of what appeared to me as a false commitment to community.

DG: You were ambivalent about disco culture, I remember.

MS: Yeah. I brought Mike into disco culture in 1979, when downtown was already frowning upon it. “Disco Sucks” signs were already up. I found this invitation for a disco competition at the Copacabana, and I thought, This seems like something Mike could do. This was right when Mike was becoming a defined character for me. I thought, I’ll enter this contest, and even if I don’t do well, it will look cool on my résumé that I performed at the Copacabana.

DG: You brought all that disco culture back in Outstanding Young Men of America [1996].

MS: That was me trying to use all my old props and clothes that didn’t fit anymore. Trying to go back. Now that’s nostalgia and loss.

DG: The sound tracks for your videos are significant in this regard, too: You get a kind of tragicomedy from pop music. Even though the music is celebrating something, underneath everything is actually some kind of tragic depression. The way you use Neil Diamond and Brian Wilson is absolutely amazing.

MS: Neil knows how to deliver a hook. He is a master of the punchy bland hit. I first paid homage to him in 1980 when I used “Forever in Blue Jeans” in Secret Horror. Brian Wilson came to me later in life, when I did Outstanding Young Men. When I was a kid the Beach Boys were an incredible threat to me: That blond surfer thing was so fuckin’ intimidating. It was something I knew I would never have. And then I saw these movies about Brian and you find out that he was an incredible depressive.

DG: I think Mike is deeply related to this horrible thing we have in America—it’s both good and bad—called “individualism,” which leaves people very alone. What I especially loved about this sound track was Wilson’s song “The Warmth of the Sun,” which is about how beautiful the sun is and how it’s enough for him because he’s a surfer in California. But, in fact, his girlfriend’s left him forever. So your work tunes in to these mixed messages that we have in the media: The fact is that most of us are losers, even though we pretend to be winners. And America’s about winners, so it’s important that artists deal with the fact that most people here are turned into losers.

MS: Failure. I guess I don’t want that to become the standard approach to everything about Mike. But I do deal with the fact that life can be a struggle, and the work is about trying to cope. I admire Mike for his can-do approach. It’s also my reaction to things I see in culture that don’t quite fit together that I may have comments about. Of course, I don’t have answers; I just have criticism. I try to make humor in the process, too.

DG: I thought Outstanding Young Men was hilarious. You were reviving ’80s disco culture, but it was a ridiculous revival. I think it’s very important to look at how ridiculous the “just past” is.

MS: The what?

DG: The just past: Walter Benjamin said the just past is very important—it’s a little like “Yesterday’s Papers” by the Rolling Stones. They ask, “Who wants yesterday’s papers?” Nobody. Nobody wants to look at the just past. People almost always look to a few decades before instead. And every time you have a neo-’60s or a neo-’70s, like we’re seeing now among artists, you’re canceling out the just past. I was trying to get at the just past in the Dia Art Foundation roof piece, for example, combining the corporate atrium of the ’80s and the alternative space of the ’70s.

MS: I’m thinking that the “just past” is always Mike’s present. It’s fresh for him, since he’s always behind the times. Everything has been absorbed and digested before Mike even considers a taste.