Interview: Interview Telephone

by Wendy Vogel

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      Lady Gaga
      Still from the music video Telephone, 2010

      For this issue’s interview section, I decided to riff on the childhood game of Telephone. My goal was to create a collective and performative interview format that implicates participants on both sides of the Q&A. The rules of the game were simple: I emailed an artist three questions about his work and asked him to continue the chain by sending three new questions to a performance artist of his choosing, and so on. The results, often funny, sharp and poignant, are below.

      WENDY VOGEL TO JAMES SHAM

      WV: Part of the inspiration for this interview format came from your use of the telephone game in your video work. Can you describe how you have used Telephone, and its conceptual promises and pitfalls?

      JS: Sure thing. Telephone, as most people will remember, is the children’s game where a message is secretly passed from one person to the next. When the message has finally made its way around the circle, the evidence of miscommunication is revealed. I always enjoyed this game as a child (and as an adult, as well, although I’ve not admitted to growing up yet.) There’s this moment during Telephone when you’ve got to make a decision whether to be on the side of fact or fiction. Someone passes you a message, and because the format of the game is structured for mistranslation, everybody presumes collective failure. At this point, you can either:

      A) put your best foot forward expecting that everybody else will do the same,
      B) put your best foot forward expecting the system to produce the failure, or
      C) anticipate failure and turn the act of translation into an act of fiction.

      My feeling is that A is boring, B is inevitable and C is indulgent. If everybody chooses C, there’s nothing but noise; each message bears no necessary causal relation to the next. If everybody chooses B, the game becomes predictable. If everybody chooses A, we wouldn’t call it a game. This is precisely what I love about this structure—it requires heterogeneity to function as a game.

      WV: A lot of your work focuses on the idea of cultural assimilation and degradation of information. Is there such a thing as cultural authenticity today? If so, how does it get communicated? If not, what replaces it?

      JS: It is really difficult to say whether there is such a thing as cultural authenticity. My first reaction is to say no, there isn’t; there’s simply a word or placeholder in our minds labeled “cultural authenticity” against which we view ourselves. But if I were to actually draw or write or express what it looks like in my mind when I use this concept, I would be honestly embarrassed by the simplicity of even my own image. I don’t see how it’s possible to appeal to cultural authenticity without also appealing to some prototypical stand-in for a history, people, etc.

      That said, I think that my view is largely influenced by the North American perspective that the group can always be reduced to the set of individuals in it. I can imagine several situations (e.g. post-war rebuilding efforts, situations of survival, natural disaster relief and even revolution) where it may be much more functional and organizational to have a notion of cultural authenticity. While these situations may be functional or necessary, the question you pose still seems to be how I think authenticity operates in reality. I think it’s as authentic as the neurons producing the notions of self-perception and identity in our brains. These notions may or may not correlate to someone else’s reality, but it’s all we got. At the end of the day, performing “cultural authenticity” is best done by a method actor.

      WV: How do you respond to the labeling of your work as performative or identity-based?

      JS: I respond with massive hives, my tongue gets swollen and I can’t breathe. There’s some nausea and lightheadedness, but it usually doesn’t get out of control because I carry an EpiPen at all times, just in case.

      JAMES SHAM TO COLIN McMULLAN

      JS: First of all, why do you operate under a pseudonym and what superpowers do you gain when you become “Emcee C.M., Master of None”? What can he do that Colin McMullan can’t?

      CM: I use the name Emcee C.M., Master of None because I am uncomfortable in my relation to the market economy and to the complicated identities that artists construct in order to show their work, sell their work and/or build their resumes. My intention was to create an alternate entity that could be my public face, so that I could retain at least an illusion of having a pure and separate personal life. It's complicated.

      To me, Emcee C.M. is powerless, has no authority, tells no one what to do, stakes no claim to real estate or intellectual property, has no possessions, spends and earns no money, and essentially is blameless and free in every way. He can do no wrong to another soul on Earth. I, on the other hand, am flawed in so many ways; I am proud, egotistical, stubborn, controlling, career-driven, narrow-minded, etc. So maybe Emcee C.M. is my ideal self, and the reality is what Colin McMullan has to go through in order for Emcee C.M. to even have an imagined/contrived existence in this wicked world.

      I have come to understand how the pseudonym functions like a brand. That was not my original intention, but it has benefited my artistic career in some ways. It's easier to remember than just another person's name, simply because it's something different and maybe clever-sounding. So ironically, the pseudonym serves to give me more of what it would seem to suggest I don't want and don't think the world needs (fame, fortune, prestige, competition, etc.) I don't know what to do next about that. I’m stumped, honestly. No exit. I haven't made anything I really feel good about in a long time, and I think this conundrum has something to do with it. Any ideas?

      JS: In Haiku format, can you explain the underlying ethic of your work?

      CM: No. I tried. Sorry.
      I wish I could. But I can't.
      I can't do it short.

      JS: In your work, you often create very romantic images and moments via social interaction. You seem to be doing a service for the public most of the time in a very sincere manner. What do you get out of it and how are you served? Are you ever afraid of being cheesy?

      CM: It's a kind of narcissistic altruism, I suppose. That sounds bad. Maybe I practice just plain old altruism. All the same, when I do a service act for which there is no immediately discernible exchange or benefit, I do often get something concrete from it later. For example, I might document the action and use that documentation to apply for a grant or a residency, which either gives me income, serves to advance my career, or both. There's nothing mysterious in that. But I wouldn't say those are my reasons for doing the action; they are more byproducts of it.

      The imaginative, engaged moment when I decide to do a certain service act has some connection to desiring a sense of well being for the entire world. I mean, I want the world to feel a particular way, and when it doesn't I sometimes put my energy into making moments that will feel that way for me, and perhaps for others. Even if I'm not the random observer coming across this romantic, imaginative moment, I am still a definite part of the experience. It can still feel real to me, even though I was responsible for making it happen. I suppose it’s gratifying in that way: I can step outside of myself to view the situation from the outside. From there, it is possible to reflect on the way I navigate the surrounding situation and the effects I have upon it. It’s as if I can see it from the random observer’s point of view using empathy. So when a participant or observer seems engaged or excited by the action, I can take a share of the person's pleasure in that moment. Maybe that means I just like imagining the way others must see me, which sounds narcissistic. But of course plenty of people who see these actions don't give a shit about them or think they're stupid or ridiculous, so I have those negative reactions to balance out the equation. It seems to be working for the most part.

      Cheesy? Yes, I am afraid of that. I know the work is cheesy and cute and everything. But I like bad jokes and silly people. I think of it like dad humor: cheesy but endearing. And it's so much better than taking things seriously; that could never hold my interest.

      COLIN McMULLAN TO DIANE DWYER

      CM: How do you feel about pseudonyms and constructed/alternate identities? For example, what makes you happy about the fact that Diane the American Swimmer or Diane the Clown exist in the world? And Diane Dwyer?

      DD: Asking me how I feel makes this question complicated for me.

      When discussing my work, I foreground my interest in how technology has shaped our understandings of place and identity. I sometimes write about my interest in how we relate to the constructed identities we encounter in our mediated world. Of course, I am also curious about the histories connected to masking and revealing. Sometimes when you are masked you can reveal the most.

      There may be other ways to address these issues that don’t involve creating personae. I just like to dress up. So whether or not it is obvious in the pieces I make, my process is about having fun. What makes me happy are the unexpected outcomes that may come from play.

      CM: What is it all about in seven syllables or less?

      DD: You have a brain in your gut.

      CM: There is a dark humor, a pathos, in your world. Do you put all of that pathos in your work or do you keep some of it for yourself?

      DD: That question implies a decisive command over my bleak pit of despair. I am not sure I have that kind of control.

      JAMES SHAM TO LINDA MOLENAAR

      JS: You recently surrogated a chicken by hatching an egg with your own body heat and raising the bird as your own. In domesticated life and industrial farming, the chicken tends to be treated as one of the most “disposable” animals that we eat. Why did you choose this particular chicken to mother, and where is that chicken now?

      LM: You hit it right on the spot. Because we are so familiar with the chicken, I wanted to take it out of a disposable position and look at it like humans treat a pet. We certainly slowly developed some kind of family contact. He (it was a male) would listen to my voice as I called him, and I could understand his emotions through different sounds and behavior. To become a surrogate mother of an animal that hatches from an egg is also the most practical solution, as compared, for instance, with a rabbit. I remember once looking at a chicken and thinking, “You are an animal, and if I'm hungry you are food!” The chicken died of heart disease and is in the freezer. He is going to be stuffed. We both wear a golden ring.

      JS: Many of the animals you work with in your performances are domesticated and are on the “tamer” side of the animal kingdom. Why is that? Do you see the human species as being on the tamer or wilder side of the food chain?

      LM: In my art I like to keep it clear. Animals that we consider “tamer,” as you say, are closer to our personal memory, as we probably encountered them at some point in our lives. So they are closer to our direct understanding and inspire unconscious wonder, fear, closeness and surprise when we experience them. I don’t have much more to say about a cheetah than documentary television programs. Most of my performances are about animals we eat or keep because they are close with us, beside or inside us. I think that we as humans are untamed and aggressive by comparison. Taking personal care of and being confronted with animals we eat helps to rebuild our respect for food.

      JS: Let’s talk about Spirit Animals. If you were a Zeedonk, which current world leader would keep you as a spiritual guide? Why? Who would it be if you were a Platypus?

      LM: That's a hard bone to pick. The question is so strange that it makes my answers strange! I love to see how animals in certain situations (for instance, in a zoo) become close friends with different species even if they are not related at all in the animal kingdom. Like a cow and a bird, they can truly fall in love. The Platypus is a very interesting animal because he breaches the distinction between mammals and birds! He lays an egg and then breastfeeds the young. I think my spirit animal is a squirrel (the red one): always busy, nervous, has extra food, energetic, pretty tail, flexible, sweet, tough, has hiding places, small, smart and not afraid to fall from great heights.

      LINDA MOLENAAR TO MIGUEL ANGEL MELGARES

      LM: You are from Spain and live in Holland now. In your practice you work with the Dutch landscape. What was your reason to come to Holland? Does it bring you closer to the Dutch, or do you feel more Spanish being in this country?

      MAM: I’m a romantic in the most basic sense. What first brought me here was the romantic idea I had about Holland as a cultural paradise. Who doesn’t want to live in paradise? I do. But in fact, the artistic path that I had been following previously went temporarily into stasis due to the challenges of living in a new place. I started to work as a cook in a Spanish restaurant making tapas. The dishes were far from resembling the things my mother used to cook in the village.

      Beside those starting difficulties, I felt in love with this country bit by bit. For me, loving the places where I’ve lived is the only way to live. It makes me happier. :)

      My boyfriend (a Dutch man) used to tell me I am more Dutch than he is. I think this is because it is easy to “connect” here. The water is a great energy conductor, and here there is a lot of water. We are living on the water. Even when you cannot see it, I like to be aware that just few centimeters below the surface you can find water. I didn’t know until the day I tried to make a hole in my garden. Around thirty centimetres below “dry” sand I reached water. It makes me dream of a floating country.

      LM: Could you also look at your own country (or any other country) with a personal view and translation?

      MAM: Spain is a dry country. But somehow, due the new condition of being a foreigner, a deeper sense of my Spanish identity grew inside me.

      I was struck by the realization that as a Spanish person I was considered “exotic.” Lifestyle, social behavior, traditions and folklore, and gastronomy all form the exotic image of Spain and the Spanish for outsiders. The romantic images of my country make Spain exotic for the foreigner. Flamenco, bullfighters, gypsies, and mainly the Muslim culture form a remarkable Oriental romantic vision of Spain, reflecting an international picture of a country without middle ground.

      There are so many things to discover. I really would like to be a tourist all my life. A tourist is a person that opens his eyes wide to grab as much information as possible and loves to be amazed by the simple everyday events around him. I need to fight to keep a tourist’s energy level. It’s not always an easy task.

      The harder question becomes translating what we have seen. In contemporary art there are many strategies of creation, such as collecting, assembling or producing destructive events. But my predilection is the translation. It is when the magic happens.

      LM: Is it the aestheticized beauty of a place that you are drawn to, or do you prefer to see it as it is? Could you create a work for a country that does not exist?

      MAM: I think we are always trying to search for an imaginary place where things “work” as everything thing should work, an ideal place. This idealism is what moves me to continue being an artist, what moves me to fight for an idea. But I’m afraid that this ideal cannot be found in a particular location. I’m also afraid there won’t ever be a country of new, ideal dimensions. Maybe that is why we need to keep working here: to try to change, or perhaps to catalyze the ideal places we dream about.

      MIGUEL ANGEL MELGARES TO MARIA KEFIROVA

      MAM: When did start to fly?

      MK: When I first took a plane.



      MAM: If someone grabs one of your wings, will you bite his or her hands?

      MK: More likely, I will bite my wing that is still free.



      MAM: What could make you fold your wings and become a human again?

      MK: Nothing.

      Wendy Vogel is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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