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)
+ + +
MTAA website: http://www.spacelab.net/~twhid
Cary Peppermint's Real Audio interview with T. Whid: http://www.artnetweb.com/peppermint/peek/v2_5_1.html
+ + +
(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 media.
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 remember it?
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 parameter.
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.
+ + +
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, Creative Time.
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 forth.
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!
+ + +
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 back.
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.
+ + +
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 art.
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)