MICHAEL SMITH'S BLAND AMBITION
by Dike Blair
For about 25 years Michael Smith has been doing performances, making videotapes, and orchestrating talent and puppet shows, often with collaborators. Most recently he has collaborated with Joshua White, creator of "The Joshua Lightshow," famous for the psychedelic lighting he did for rock performances at Bill Graham's Fillmore East from 1968-71. Central to almost all of Smith's work-solo or collaborative-is his bland, optimistic, clownish, and very low-watt alter ego named "Mike." Mike playing Willie Loman, Mike entering a "real-life" disco contest, or Mike simply choosing a necktie or making a cup of coffee. Smith has often anticipated the direction of comedy, although his packaging hasn't usually been slick enough for entertainment-industry standards. His use of "dead air" and the irony of the unfunny were absorbed by TV in the 80s, and his adult-oriented puppet/kiddie show collaboration with Doug Skinner predated Bevis and Butthead and South Park. Smith doesn't suggest that he invented these tropes, he thinks they were in the air. But Smith has always lampooned the practices and conventions of the entertainment industry as easily as he exposes the pettiness and pretensions of the art world.
I went to see Michael Smith and Joshua White's Musco 1969-1997 installation at the Lauren Wittels Gallery in 1997. Briefly, the installation was a representation of Musco, a failing lighting-effects company. Almost no gallery apparatus was visible and the representation of the company was so highly detailed that the viewer, now cast in the role of would-be customer, may have imagined that Musco's president Mike Smith (who we know from the promotional video tape playing in the showroom) just stepped out for a cup of coffee. If one poked around Musco's cluttered office and looked at the aging light boards, mirrored globes from the disco era, and projection spots in the showroom, there was more than enough evidence that Musco was facing immanent bankruptcy. A miasma of failure and pathos hung in the air-not an ambiance most art galleries strive for.
In 1999, Smith and White installed Open House at the New Museum in Soho. They converted the basement of the museum into a convincing replica of an artist's basement "loft," along with examples of the artist's work, created especially for the show. The artist was Mike. The visitor was presented with a fairly complex portrait of an extremely mediocre conceptual and video artist who was trying to sell his Soho real estate. There were multiple ironies created by the real and fictive play between artist, museum, and Soho real estate. The Mike of Open House also hosted a fictive cable access show, Interstitial, which played in the space and featured cameos by old and new denizens of the very world being parodied. Forget all the Vanity Fair-flavored anecdotal histories of the 80s NY art world. Smith and White's time capsule got it better-especially the pettiness of that world, the egos of its players, and the bitter realities of life in that floating crap game.
When contemplating an artist, who might encompass the Tristesse theme, Michael Smith sprang to mind. There is pathos intrinsic to any clown, and a sense of failure that shadows Smith's Mike character. It's worth noting that Mike maintains an uncompromising optimism in the less than ideal situations his creator places him in. I've known Michael Smith since the mid-70s and I'm a long time fan of his work. But like many old friendships, updates get progressively infrequent. So it was great to catch up with him and we began our conversation talking about the experience of his video retrospective last year at the Magasin, in Grenoble.
Dike Blair: What was the sensation to have a video retrospective at Magasin?
Michael Smith: I was really happy about it. When Yves Aupetillot, the director of Magasin, asked me to show my videos I thought he was proposing a screening, or maybe just a monitor in a corner. I always assume the worst. Not long before meeting Yves, I'd had a survey of my video work at INOVA in Milwaukee. When I arrived for the opening, I found they'd set up a very nice monitor and two Barcelona chairs in front of the door to the women's bathroom. I thought it was very funny. Another artist had an installation piece nearby with the audio cranked up so loud that you couldn't hear my tapes. So we moved my video survey from the toilet to the guard station at the entrance of the museum. So being right on the heels of my survey show by the toilet, when Yves proposed that I show my tapes "within" an installation of a Swiss artist, Fabrice Gygi, I said it didn't seem appropriate. He then offered me a good-sized room to present my video work. I talked it over with Josh, my collaborator on installations, and we were able to provide Magasin with detailed plans for a relatively simple "Mike Tri-plex." It looked fine. They produced a very nice catalog, which is also my first. Yves did a really good job. I'm very grateful.
Dike Blair: You tend to deconstruct humor by delivering the ingredients out of order...
Michael Smith: Yeah, so much so that you don't laugh.... You know, I'm not sure if it is always intentional or the result of my ass-backwards way of dealing with information. I have difficulty constructing linear narratives. I inflate and deflate humor through repetition. Dumb images with a lot of space around them seen over and over again will build up and collide, and eventually be funny.
Dike Blair: Your pacing is slower or stranger than more traditional comedy.
Michael Smith: Yeah, it is slow, which is odd because my interest in doing comedy was a reaction to sitting through tedious art performances. So what do I do? Something very slow. What was I thinking? I guess being reared on minimalism isn't the best training for rapid-fire comedy. When I was first came up with the Mike character, a.k.a. Blandman, I was reading Beckett. I thought it was great how his characters were preoccupied with such basic, elemental concerns as digestion, while trying to figure their place in the big picture. I also liked how his characters always seemed to slog through mud. That's the kind of pace I can keep up with.
Dike Blair: Who else influenced you?
Michael Smith: Vito Acconci, Buster Keaton, Richard Foreman and William Wegman were my biggest influences. Acconci and Foreman showed me how to explore an interior space and externalize it. They are more extreme and expulsive, and they objectified language in a way that made perfect sense to me. I was never as interested in pushing the envelope as they were. I was more interested in neutrality, which is what attracted me to deadpan. I took in Keaton almost by osmosis: his deadpan and surreal persona worked like a drug on me, even though his context was so different from mine. I think Bill Wegman was my biggest influence. He made me laugh more than anyone else. He took dumbness to new heights. It was like Bob and Ray [a comedy team that started on radio in the 1940s] meets minimalism. The fact that he was doing it in an art context inspired me to try my hand at humor.
Dike Blair: Your Mike character is pathetic, but he retains an absurd optimism. Would you describe yourself as sad or pathetic?
Michael Smith: (Laughs) Hmmm, I'd rather not think of myself as pathetic. Sad maybe, but it's only recently that I could even distinguish depression from anxiety. I rarely get in touch with sadness or with any true emotions in my own life. Originally the Mike character came out of an interest in a particular slow timing and delivery. I was not thinking of him as a fleshed-out character. He was a vehicle made to reflect a deep-seated repression. A lot of art is born from misery, but it's not so simplistic as just that.
Dike Blair: As your fictions become more elaborate, the emotions seem closer in. They feel sadder.
Michael Smith: My original intention was not to make Mike sad. He was supposed to be neutral. Even though his predicaments were always lose-lose situations, he was more baffled than defeated them. But why is it that if someone fails to obtain or achieve something, they immediately become sad? I still don't think of him as sad. I think the climate or environment is what's sad. The props from the performances leave more of a residue of sadness than Mike does. It is true the work has gotten sadder in the past few years. I think that's the result of toning down the irony and going to my personal life for inspiration and material.
Dike Blair: There's also a sense of failure, aging, and death in the more recent work.
Michael Smith: That's definitely true! You can't escape these issues when you reach a certain age. Musco 1969-1997 came about after thinking about the image of a mirrored ball. Aside from fun and abandonment-and dancing-to me it represented death. You can't help but think about that if you've lived through the 70s. The piece was about failure, and definitely had something to do with my personal life. Right before we did the show my Dad's business went under. And for the previous five years, or so, I couldn't get arrested in the art world. Yeah, Musco was a veiled metaphor for my experience in the art world.
Dike Blair: So if it's not sadness that drives the work, what does drive it?
Michael Smith: Well, there's anger: that fuels the humor and keeps me going back to therapy. However, if a comedian allows their anger to come too close to the surface, there's a danger of losing the audience. It is a fine balance. Many jokes are told at someone else's expense of someone else-it helps the humor if someone suffers. But I decided early on that it would be at my own. And it's funnier if the audience doesn't feel responsible or guilty. I think I know something about guilt, since I was raised Jewish. There was always a lot of self-deprecation and absurdity in my house. But it was never delivered in a direct way. There was also the issue of "fitting in." My mother was raised in a foster home by gentiles. She learned she was Jewish when she was 13 years old. Growing up in an anti-Semitic environment, and then finding out you're Jewish, influences how you fit into the world. Some of that got passed along to me. My need to fit in played itself out when I first came to NYC and tried to fit in with hipsters dressed in black and acting like they grew up in the slums of London.
Dike Blair: You're talking about the New York art world of the 70s?
Michael Smith: Yeah. My reaction to all the postures and posing of the late 70s and 80s was a mixture of fear, ignorance, and disdain. I hated all those clubs with their stupid door policies. I'd like to say I hated them because of their snobbery, but they scared me. When I finally got to perform at the Mudd Club, for some big party, I felt I had arrived. I got $500 in cash and a dressing room with a garbage can full of beer. I performed for a packed house. I killed 'em as they say in the biz. To this day I meet people who tell me they saw me perform that night and how great it was. What they didn't know is that no one came to my dressing room after the show to share a beer with me. They were all upstairs at another party.
Dike Blair: Your last two installations are collaborations with Josh White. How does that work?
Michael Smith: The pieces are totally equal collaborations. In general, I come up with an idea and then we talk about it for a long time and make adjustments. Then he comes up with a design and we go through more adjustments. Eventually we agree on things and produce it. Josh is better skilled at producing the physical stuff for the show. I deal with a lot of the content. For the videos we work together: he directs and I produce. But we work at different paces, so it causes problems every time.
Dike Blair: Traditionally, comedy teams, like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, don't get along too well off-stage or off-camera.
Michael Smith: Josh and I are friends but we're really different. Right now we hate each other. He feels that I always hold things back on him and then bring it out at the last minute. It's not that I'm withholding ideas, I just don't have them yet. I do tend to do things at the last minute, but I know he'll fix it (laughter).
Dike Blair: Before working with Josh, you did the puppet show with Doug Skinner. Did you guys get along?
Michael Smith: We got along so long as both of us weren't angry and bitter at the same time. We had an unspoken pact: at any given time, only one of us could be unhappy about the inequities of life. Feeling marginalized both bonded us and supplied material for our shows. But by 1996 I was starting to show in the art world again, I was teaching a lot and, to be honest, I just didn't want to schlep that stupid puppet stage around any more. I really liked working with Doug. I learned a lot from him.
Dike Blair: One of the funny things about the puppet show was that it was being staged by two adults who seemed like they once had higher aspirations.
Michael Smith: We really liked the low-end look of the puppet shows and knew there was a definite charm to impoverished productions. But the reality of our financial and professional situations was, at times, depressing.
Dike Blair: You've always worked the line between entertainment and art, between professionalism and amateurism.
Michael Smith: When I was first performing in the art world you didn't have to do much to be entertaining, a little bit went a long way. Many artists liked to think of each performance as a unique experience that could not be repeated. After sitting through countless shapeless events I knew I didn't want to go down that road. There was also the punk, amateur aesthetic, which for me was as alienating and exclusive as the "art performance" experience. I reacted against both and looked to the world of entertainment as a model. I was interested in accessibility and thought of my performances as "an act," something that I could repeat and improve. It then becomes a matter of practicality and efficiency to polish your act, so to speak. I've worn a few different hats. I've been in the art, video, performance, puppet, and comedy worlds. And it's possible that while negotiating these different arenas I've been sidetracked by polish and professionalism, and lost touch with the rawness and chaotic quality of my very early work.
Dike Blair: Open House revealed the insignificance and impotence of art compared to the power of real estate. It was depressing, yet grander and more pure than entertainment.
Michael Smith: I'm glad you were moved, even if you found it depressing. I wonder if someone outside the art world would understand it. It was featured in an article in the real estate section of The New York Times. Figure that out. Open House may not have been as coherent as Musco but reflected the confusion in an artist's life a lot better. I'm really glad that people still find it meaningful. I think I've been doing my best work these last few years. And it seems to operate best in the art world. Maybe I'm lazy but I've always let the context define the work. Recently my livelihood has been based on teaching art and not the world of entertainment. All I can say is that I am grateful there is employment for people like me who basically pass on useless information to help others lead richer, fuller lives.