New York

Michael Smith and Joshua White

Lauren Wittels

In this exhaustively detailed, tragicomic installation, collaborators Michael Smith and Joshua White transformed the gallery into an office and showroom for MUSCO (pronounced “muse-co”), a once-thriving lighting business now headed for Chapter II. As explained in a promotional video running continuously on the “sales floor,” the fictional company supplied equipment for psychedelic light shows in the ’60s, “responded to the needs of the burgeoning disco culture” in the ’70s, then adapted its products to the corporate setting in the ’80s. Sadly, items such as the “loft lamp” and “interior/exterior architectural track lighting” failed to take off, and when the viewer encountered the installation, boxes and trash bags were piled up in the lobby, accompanied by signs explaining that the company was “reorganizing.”

Despite its imminent collapse, the business was chock-a-block with merchandise (the artists spent three years on the project, and the amount of stuff they hauled into the gallery was mind-boggling). In addition to display cases full of cheesy products tailored especially for the show—“Mood Tube” table lamps, satin Disco-Time vests—the installation featured an illuminated “stretch sign,” a Velcro wall of bulbs, and a fully equipped disco showroom with revolving mirror ball, ’70s dance music, and a host of low-rent lighting effects. Most poignant was the MUSCO “office,” a convincing replica of those often found in small, struggling businesses, complete with grimy fax machine, threadbare carpet, and years’ worth of ephemera crowding shelves, desktops, and bulletin boards (much of it acquired from actual lighting companies, including White’s own, the short-lived Sensefex). Within this glut of detail, one could trace the history of the imaginary business’ decline, with concert posters and pinned-up business cards gradually giving way to an empty Four Month Planner and a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? lying open on the desk.

Failure is an ongoing theme for Smith, whose video-and-performance alter ego Mike appeared in the company’s promotional materials as “Mike Smith, President and Founder of MUSCO.” With his sad features and unflagging optimism, Mike personifies the small businessman who is unaware that the greatest obstacle he faces is his own deeply ingrained mediocrity. The products he developed for MUSCO cut corners imaginatively as well as financially—for example, a “video wall” of fake monitors slapped over a washed-out, rear-projected image—and he lacks the vision to see the techno/rave scene as his salvation in the ’90s (according to Smith, alter ego Mike is aware of the trend but just doesn’t connect with it).

The installation became more complex when one realized that Smith’s collaborator, Joshua White, is the real-life creator of the Joshua Light Show at the Fillmore East in the ’60s. In the MUSCO fiction Joshua and White are partners (a doctored photo shows them shaking hands, ca. 1969), but in reality White got out of the light-show business in the early ’70s and became a successful television director, shooting everything from National Geographic Explorer to Seinfeld. Although he appears from his résumé to be a newcomer to installation, his inside knowledge of the lighting business—and life, at least to a point—brought layers of authenticity to Smith’s typical, total-immersion environment. One wonders what perverse instinct prompted White to envision a twenty-five-year partnership with a fictional loser (morphed into his past like a low-tech Forrest Gump), but in any event, the collaboration worked, fusing the decline of ’60s idealism and the downside of the American dream into a spectacle at once depressing and hilarious.

Tom Moody