I’ve had two experiences on the questioner end of the “artist interview”, separated by 15 years.
One afternoon back in 1998, I walked over from Hope Street to Ainslie Street to meet up with Mike Sarff and Tim Whidden of MTAA. I’d borrowed a tape recorder and had a few questions written on a notecard, with the intent to write something about what was going on with people who were making net art. Back then Rhizome was still an email mailing list populated by anonymous cranks, digital freaks and plain vanilla artists like myself looking for discourse, and anybody could post anything to that small community and have it feel like an unregulated frontier - unlike, say, Facebook art discourse today.
Mike and Tim were both in my social network back when that didn’t mean Facebook. Mike was a Cranbrook grad too, and when I first moved to Brooklyn and was helping build out the 57hope space in ‘94, I borrowed Mike's typewriter to type cover letters for jobs, and showered at Ainslie Street too, since we had no shower yet.
Mike and Tim had started collaborating under a pair of aliases - M. River and T. Whid - first with large paintings and then, as the internet started to surface, doing web projects. It was the beginning of a long occasional collaboration that has spanned over a decade.
Fifteen years later I got involved with the Publication Study Group for the Citywide Philly book that’s coming out very soon (I just saw the physical thing at Vox yesterday), and that got me into a reflective mood about talking with other artists about what we do and why we do it. And especially why we collaborate; Citywide was nothing if not a giant collaboration, and I think we’re all still trying to work out the lessons learned. Cindy Stockton Moore has a great essay on that at Title Magazine, here.
The Citywide publication is being mailed out to the Kickstarter supporters who gave at the $25 level now, and the laser cut sleeve version will go out later this spring. There’s a launch party in May.
But for now I thought I’d repost that interview with Mike and Tim here. It also lives on in the Rhizome archives here.
They're sort of like seed packets"--Colin Keefe interviews MT Art
Associates (Part I)
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Cary Peppermint's Real Audio interview with T. Whid:
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(This is Part One of a two part series. In the interest of moving this
more toward a dialogue/list format, Part Two will consist of a series of
lovingly crafted questions for the list from MT Art Associates.)
MT Art Associates produced "The Direct to Your Home Art Project" and
"Buying Time: The Nostalgia-Free History Sale", both of which were
lo-fi, high-impact participatory projects publicized (and operated) here
on RHIZOME, as well as elsewhere. I sat down with M. River and T. Whid
last Sunday to talk about the work they've been organizing over the past
two years, and, elliptically, their perspective on the state of new
Colin: I just wanted to start off by asking about how you two guys got
started, working as a collaborative, where that began.
T. Whid: Well, as I remember it, I wanted to do some painting, and I was
doing some comics at the time. And I said to M., um...do you want to do
a painting? And he said, "yeah, I have a canvas, come on over!"
(laughter) That's basically how - and then, we did it and we kind of
liked how it turned out, and we did a couple more paintings after that,
and then just went from there. (turns to M.) Right? That how you
M. River: Well, yeah, I was interested in what T. was doing. He was
self-publishing a magazine called Burger and he had done some work in
World War III and a couple of other magazines. He was working
collaboratively with a woman writer out in San Francisco. I wasn't
painting; it wasn't what I was doing, but um -
C: - but you had a canvas, anyway -
M: - yeah - so we worked on a couple of paintings together, which were
sort of narrative landscapes with figurative figures like Johnny
Appleseed, Rip Van Winkle, Annie Oakely. And we would set them into
spaces, and try to add as much information into them as possible.
Somewhere in there, we were also doing some other stuff, but Carol
Stakenas from Creative Time asked us - because she knew that we were
interested in public spaces, and history - she asked to do a piece for
the Port(?) show at MIT through Pseudo. There was a guy named G.H. who
had a program called Art Dirt at the time, and he was curated into the
show. He approached Carol about if (Creative Time) had anything they
wanted to put in. So they asked us to build this piece called Time.
T: That's pretty much how the online stuff started to happen, I mean,
we didn't even have a computer at the time, and we didn't really know
anything about any digital stuff at all. But we just wanted to get
ourselves out into whatever medium we could. So we came up with this
idea of "Buying Time", and it was kind of like, um, well - it's on the
website, you can check it out. We were going to sell people their
moment of purchase back to them, and it had to do with being able to
videoconference cheaply. And then we took those images, and then, being
artists, turned them into art and then sent them back to the people.
C: So, but there's a difference between the painting that you started
off with, and Buying Time. I mean...Buying Time...that's the first
instance where you become a commercial enterprise. What made you want
to deal with the buying and selling of the work, the transaction?
T: Well, right before we did that, we were really into the idea of
commodifying history. We had been up to North Tarrytown(?), which is
where Sleepy Hollow was, and the town wanted to change its name to
Sleepy Hollow, to maximize their "market potential". (laughter). You
know? And so we were really into this idea of taking your history and
making something sellable out of it; that was another aspect of Time.
It was called the "nostalgia-free history sale" - we're taking someone's
recent past, and turning it into a product that we then sell to them.
That was kind of the idea of it. And we went over a lot of ways of how
we could do that over the net. We kind of played up the idea of all the
hype surrounding the internet; I mean, there's still lots of hype around
it, but that was back in late 96. It was, like, serious hypeville.
C: And what struck me about it was, you know, at that time - you, know,
even now - you know, ecommerce, nobody makes any money off of it.
What's the first enterprise that actually has a valid transaction model?
And it's from MTAA.
M: We actually went to Boston, to MIT, to see the site. This was a show
that was streamed into a site in a gallery - and we were this very
obscure subdivision in the show. We wanted to see the physical space,
and when we got up there, we met the director of the show, and sort of
introduced ourselves to this guy, Remo, and explained what we were
doing. And we were talking about wanting to do this commercial piece,
and that we thought that it was a good way of talking about the internet
at that time. He thought that it was "crass", and used that word.
(laughter) He said, "Why would you want to make work that involves the
lowest common denominator of the internet?"
T: Yeah, he said it was crass. Cause we surrounded the whole thing
with this marketing, sales jargon -
C: Yeah - "I want my TIME" -
T: Yeah, you know, like, seeing cheap ads, like "BUY NOW", you know,
like you'd see in a cheap infomercial.
M: Which was one of our first moments we realized that the artwork
that's made on the net's going to be different than the work we did,
that we're approaching it from maybe a different set, a different
T: I always had a feeling that from, you know, a lot of the people,
computer nerds, or whatever, that were first on the net, of the net,
that really made it happen, they're all very like - even though people
in Silicon Valley make tons of money, they kind of have this meritocracy
thing, and they don't like the idea of these salesmen. I don't know,
that's kind what I thought it was. That was the feeling I got.
M: Out of that show we met someone that we, we became interested in his
work - Cary Peppermint. We actually met him online through a
performance of his, and in the end, he participated in our pieces as
well. And we've luckily enough ended up in the same neighborhood, and
done some other work with him for his performances.
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C: Should we talk about the announcement slides?
T: Well the name of that, actually, is "Art Film Slide Advertisements",
and "After the Film Slides" kind of goes with that.
C: So, so describe how it works. Well, first off, it's at Four Walls
(an art space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn).
T: That's, well, every time we've shown it has been at Four Walls.
Yeah. And what that was, was, I guess we knew Mike Ballou from Four
Walls, M. knew him, and I guess he asked us to do some stuff. And we
just came up with idea of doing slide advertisements, like when you go
to the cineplex they show slides before the movie, to advertise whatever
- everything from opticians to popcorn. And so we did these slides, and
we had these little trivia questions, and scrambles. But since it's
specifically marketed toward people who want to advertise to that
audience, it all had to do with art. The questions and scrambles all
had to do with art and artists. And we advertised some of our own
projects, like Time and Direct to Your Home Art Projects, Cary
Peppermint's website, we advertised another project called Carpet
Rollers, which is Dave Brown and Standard & Poor. The thing I really
like about that is that it exists in different contexts, you know, it's
art, it's a piece, kind of like a performance in of itself. But then we
also advertise - when we showed at the Anchorage, some businesses in
Brooklyn sponsored Four Walls to do it, so we made ads for them. Like,
Teddy's, you know -
C: So it's real marketing -
T: Yeah, so it's real ads, for real people. Teddy's, Planeat Thailand,
C: Have you guys heard of that, there's like these two guys who do this
red carpet project -
T: Yeah, that's Carpet Rollers! Yeah, we advertise them.
C: It's very similar work.
T: Yeah, that's why I really wanted to advertise them, cause it's like,
their piece goes from art to business and back. You know, when they do
their performance, and they say they're a business, and they really are,
you know, and when they actually get a job, to do the business, is it
art then...it's kind of cool, the way it flows between different
contexts. And that's what I really like about the slide ads. It's that
they really were ads, but they also weren't, you know? They go back and
M: You know perhaps you should explain in the article that - you know,
Four Walls basically is a group of people that meet once a month and
show films. And artists making films - One night we were curated into a
show about the personal at Art In General (alt. art space in Manhattan)
and we built a different piece , which was...we emailed out over the net
saying that we were going to do personal ads at Art In General before
the films; if you email us your personal ad we will show them to this
venue and this type of person.
T: I think that was called "MT Print Personals".
M: So people are entering the venue before the event actually starts,
and these slides are up on the screen and moving by ambiently; they're
ignored and paid attention to in the same way you would in a cineplex.
We're thinking about putting that also onto the net as well -
T: On our website.
T: If anyone wants to send us a personal, feel free!
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C: So, do want to talk about DYHAP, what that is?
T: The first posting, we posted on RHIZOME, and (sent to) the people we
knew, who were on our mailing list. And we were totally flabbergasted
that we got a response. (laughter). Cause I remember, we were
like...you know, you just send this thing out to no one, really, and
then something actually came back. And it was great, and we were like,
okay, cool, let's keep doing it.
M: That project, though, was interesting; like Time, which is building
this project and then trying to solicit a response, the DYHAP sort of
operated in the same way, in that we would set up a structure and send
out some information. And then the response that we got manipulated the
first set of instructions. It was a little more satisfying, because
people were a little more willing to do it. And that kind of structure,
a sort of call and response, seems like a way for us to work and a way
for it to make sense doing it on the internet, where you have an
audience that is willing to participate, on the net and on the web,
speaking back and forth, or speaking in quotation marks, or
participating back and forth was something that was already a structure
that was built. That's the way the net operates. So it was satisfying
because we took what Time was and manipulated it in a different way,
sort of set it on a different course.
T: Yeah. A good part of both those pieces - originally we were going
to sell videos of you, and we were going to sell them for $19.97. And
not many people were into that idea, so then we went down to just a hard
print copy for two dollars. (laughter) And the Direct to Your Home Art
Projects were free, so that's been part of our thing too, is, um (pause)
selling really cheap art. (laughter) And you know, Direct to Your Home
Art Projects started out as this kind of community service - you know,
we want to give away free art, and who wants it? All you have to do is
fabricate it, tell us that you did it, basically, and it's yours.
M: The instructions - I don't think it ever says on the site - but one
of our criteria was that any information we received back from our
instructions was deemed correct. So we said, people that just emailed
us and said "I did the project", was a correct way of doing it. We sort
of just let their end of the project be their end of the project. And
it was great because it got a little wider play in what we received
T: Yeah, we got a good response from people. I was kind of surprised.
Josh...Roston, is that his name, he sent us a couple. Carol Stakenas,
she sent us one. (laughter)
C: An ongoing supporter?
T: Yeah, but Carol's cool, man!
M: Carol works at Creative Time and is very interested in public art.
(lights cigarette) And in what it means to be a public artist on the
web. She does an interesting project every year - she does the Day
Without Art Web Action; she also supports a lot of people that are using
technology. And one of the reasons she asked us to do this thing at MIT
without us really being digital artists is that at that time she was
interested in really getting more people involved in what online art
might be, and not just people who already had sophisticated computers.
Which is kind of another thing that we think about, is that we're not
really trying to make sophisticated -
T: - technically sophisticated -
M: - technically sophisticated work because the net is a wide - the web
is a wide thing, but you know, a lot of it is inaccessible.
T: For some stuff we see on the web, it just seems like a lot of
gadgetry. And it's kind of formal, you know, like formal art. It's like
an abstract expressionist painting or something, it's just about the
painting, you know? And, I don't know, I've just never been that
interested in formal art, since my early college days, you know? It
just bugs me. We like to have some sort of *content* other than just
the medium itself. I mean people were talking about "browser art" and I
was just like, "throw that stuff in the trash, man!" Makes no sense to
me at all. (pause) That was my feeling.
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C: You guys want to talk about VTAV?
M: Well, again, its a sort of call and response. We came up with an idea
that we would like to do some kind of minimalist, very stripped down
piece for a year, after ending the DYHAP. What we decided to do was to
create a venue for something called visual text, which - we're not
really sure what it is, but people who actually send us work will define
it. So, again, it's something where the information we receive back
will build the piece. And also with this we advertise (VTAV) in real
spaces. We have announcement cards at the Abrons Art Center announcing
this site, and we kind of consider that as part of the work.
T: Yeah, well, like with that show, we basically consider that an
advertisement, but it's hanging in an art gallery - I guess comes from
the Art Film Slides - 'cause that's another thing we're interested in,
is work that can be in different contexts, but function not as art
within a different context, but still function in that context. We
could hang that (work) you know, in a hallway, in a school or an office
and it would just be advertising. It might be art, it might be
advertising at the same time. It just is what it is.
M: We plan to do it for a year, and we plan to have group shows, and
individual shows. We're trying to get people involved who don't do net
C: Do you have anything planned past VTAV, in the pipeline?
M: Right now we just built a piece that we're still forming, called
Site Unseen, and Website Unseen. Basically they're sister pieces. On
is a list of a hundred titles of works; and, presenting these in the
same kind of way the VTAV ads are, we present this list, and say that we
will build these pieces, and we will build it anywhere for a hundred
bucks. The sister piece is , we have a list of a hundred website that
we will build upon receiving a hundred dollars commission. They're sort
of like seed packets.
(end Part I)