Poet Tom Healy discusses non-Euclidian navigation of New York City (among many other topics) with monologist Mike Daisey.
This is a transcript of an interview conducted for Creative Time Reports. Listen to it here.
In late November I sat down with monologist Mike Daisey at the historic Clocktower Gallery, in downtown Manhattan, to discuss his work for Creative Time Reports and BOMB. Daisey and I met in the recording studio of Art International Radio, founded and run—like the gallery—by the irrepressible Alanna Heiss, who gave early shows there to Joel Shapiro, Richard Tuttle, Robert Smithson, Lynda Benglis, and countless other great artists from the 1970s to today.
Daisey and I discussed the motivating ethos of his work, from his experience of “non-Euclidean” New York to storytelling after the occupation of Zuccotti Park, down the street from the Clocktower. The radio station and gallery are housed in a lower Manhattan criminal-court building, which also happens to be the place where Occupy Wall Street protesters were “processed.” The experience of discussing the OWS movement in the same site where hundreds of activists have “stood before the judge” led to a conversation about the uncanniness of narration and the political role of the artist that touched on everything from Daisey’s father to Plato.
I deliberately avoided Daisey’s most famous (and controversial) piece, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which details his disputed experiences at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, because others have been there and done that. I wanted to focus on Daisey's larger project of political engagement, especially in light of his recent show American Utopias. It seems to me that the only utopias available to us are those we construct in language, and with that in mind, I wanted to discuss the intersections of metaphor, art, and journalism, and how theater can (if only briefly) be used to create a progressive, engagé utopia uniting performer and audience.
Tom Healy Good morning, this is Tom Healy and you’re listening to Creative Time Reports. I’m in the studio this morning with the great monologist, storyteller, and raconteur Mike Daisey. And I’m just thrilled to have you here with us this morning, Mike, .
Mike Daisey Oh, thanks for having me.
TH So my first question is: can you tell us a story about this morning?
TH What happened this morning?
MD (laughter) This is why editing and working with source materials is so important—because, the funny thing about story is that it’s both ever present and also requires an inordinate amount of editing. So let me think about this morning. Well, you know, I just recently made a decision to stop eating meat, which so far I’m regretting every single moment I’m conscious. (_laughter)
Most of my consciousness is now thinking about meat all the time. This morning, my partner decided to make this sort of egg and potato and asparagus dish in an attempt to not make us think about meat. The problem is I’ve had this dish before with a little bit of sausage in it. It was very, very, good, but it seemed almost like a terrible metaphor for longing in life because I was eating it and I was listening to the radio and I was getting ready for this interview and I was thinking about how little sausage there really was in the dish before. That was my longing: the absence of sausage. (laughter)
TH So, that was this morning. And then you came into this strange building.
TH Criminal Court and the very place where Occupy Wall Street people are booked.
TH On the second floor. And you came up to the actually non-existent 13th floor. If you notice, you get off at 12.
MD I did notice.
TH That’s the end. (laughter) Then you sneak up into the Clocktower where we are. But it’s a strange thing, I think, coming here to do this work in a place where the city is processing—which I always find a strange word—we’re processing people who’ve committed crimes. I’m curious about your thoughts about this place.
MD Well, the fact that we’re on the 13th floor, which doesn’t ostensibly exist. . . . I mean, below us people are being processed for crimes, but to be clear, the crimes are almost always dismissed because there is no crime, because when push comes to shove there’s nothing to actually charge people with. It feels of a kind with sitting on a floor that cannot be named, having a building that’s been full of people who committed no crime, but were required to be here. If you were writing a story those two things would fit well together.
TH You must have some thoughts about this neighborhood because I know you’ve written and, talked about being in Manhattan on 9/11. That’s this neighborhood. Just a few blocks south of here is Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street was, which has occupied our imaginations since, and you’ve written and talked about that. Any stories about this neighborhood and the residents here?
MD Well, you know, the funny thing about this neighborhood is that it’s not my neighborhood. Like so many people in New York, we’re all specialists. We tend to specialize in a neighborhood that we live in and then often we drill down until people are like, Well, I don’t actually understand all of Carroll Gardens, but I really know these two blocks or I really know this corner, until they get it down to a really fine point.
My experiences on 9/11: It’s funny because I was a stranger to this city at that time. I had just moved here that summer and so I was having that experience all the time where the streets seemed alien to me, where you would walk around and you would lose yourself in the city. I still don’t recognize these neighborhoods. I’ve never spent that much time here, even in all the years since. Not consistent, day-to-day time, because of the way the rhythms of my life go. You know, I travel to a lot of different places, but I don’t spend huge amounts of time in any one place if it’s not my own home neighborhood or a theater where I’m performing. One of the funniest things to me, though, is that in the months that followed 9/11, I discovered that I’d lost the ability to get lost in the city. That experience belongs to my first summer here and I haven’t actually ever been lost in that same way where it almost feels non-Euclidian, where you start to feel like there are streets that you’ll never find again. I’ve been back to these streets to try to recreate what it felt like just walking around on 9/11 and the days that followed, and I’ve never been able to find those streets again in quite the same way.
TH You do travel an immense amount. I want to talk to you about a couple things. One is the idea of the stranger, but just also to follow up on what you’ve been saying, where’s the place you’ve been lost most recently? What city or place did you wonderfully find yourself lost in?
MD You know, probably the most recent place where I got really lost was in India. I got thoroughly lost in Mumbai when we were there touring. We were performing in five cities across India and we were on kind of a breakneck tour. We were coming to a city and we were doing a show and we usually had one day. I was teaching and then I was on to the next city. The amount of tumult meant that there was no ability to actually get used to a place—you could walk not very far from where you were staying at the hotel and feel yourself get lost in the streets. And somewhat of a different experience—I was just going across Europe in the spring trying to recreate a version of Orient Express by traveling by rail from Paris to Istanbul. And a similar schedule, where we were in each city such a brief amount of time that instead of feeling as though you were visiting a city, you’re really visiting way stations for just 48, 72 hours along this path. They’re all European cities, but they’re shifting as you move further and further east. But they resemble each other enough that the shadows of the last city influence the next one. You start to feel as though you’ve been somewhere before but where you’ve really been is the same sort of street but in Paris or the same sort of street in Prague. That is another kind of getting lost.
TH Well, that sense of the uncanny almost feels as if we’re about to jump into an Agatha Christie story—were there any murders on the train track? (laughter)
MD There were no murders, fortunately. (laughter)
TH Speaking of Mumbai, last night Katherine Boo won the National Book Award for her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Have you had a chance to read that book?
MD No, I haven’t.
TH It’s about a slum that is hidden from many of the downtown hotels in Mumbai by a giant billboard that is strategically placed to hide the slum so that if you’re in the Taj Hotel you can’t see the slum behind it. This particular billboard that she gets the title of her book from is the Beautiful Forevers and it’s the life of your dreams on these beautiful mattresses that you can buy. It’s the subject’s life behind that billboard. But Mumbai is easily a city you can get lost in if you if you don’t dehydrate and collapse in the 120 degree heat.
MD Well, there is that.
You know, that’s actually quite beautiful. I was staying at the Taj. That’s where I’ve been put up on a tour and I can very easily visualize that and riding in cars from the airport. The scale of the slums in Mumbai is staggering. Even compared to the other cities in India that I went to.
TH Let’s pick up on that idea of being a stranger because, again, you travel an immense amount and you’ve written a lot about being, sometimes you call it the ugly American, or the guy in the Hawaiian shirt. Tell me about that experience. How important is it to find yourself as a stranger in a place and be obviously discomforted by your surroundings? Is that a way of learning, that you get to a place where you’re looking to create something?
MD As the years have gone by I think it has to do with trying to construct some kind of authentic authority. When I come to people and I talk about a place, I didn’t live in the place, I’m not of the place, you know. There are very few places on earth that I actually have enough authority to speak about. Very, very few. I mean, like I was saying earlier, really just a couple of blocks, maybe, around where my apartment is. And even then, my whole neighborhood is one of those neighborhoods in transition where there’s an old way of life fading away. No matter how long I stay I will always be an outsider who just showed up. In large part I’ve always sort of seen myself, I think, as an outsider. I think that that’s a good position for a narrator to be in. Your job as the narrator is that you are always, in a sense, outside the action. And there’s also something really valuable, like if I go into an environment that’s alien to me, it is not likely that my observations are going to be useful and provocative in a deep way if I see them as a substitution for the voice and the lens of the people who are there. On the other hand, there is real value to being a stranger in a strange land. There’s real value if you’re able to capture the feeling of seeing something new, if you do it the right way, I’ve found. I’m always very frightened of this. I’m always very scared that I’ve done it poorly. But I know from experience that when you’re performing live year after year, people come to you afterwards and you talk to them. the goal often for me is to capture what the place feels and looks like from the outside, so that even the people who live and have sort of ownership of that place, that when they see it they will recognize themselves in it. Because the alternative, where instead you . . . well, it’s really sort of the 19th century British empirical model, like, I have discovered this place! I don’t think it’s viable and also I don’t think it’s nearly as interesting. So I don’t know in real life if I am as much a stranger in every place as when I . . . when I lens the pieces, I find that those elements rise up, you know? Like stories of comfort, of when I’m comfortable in a place are rarely interesting. As a consequence . . . if one follows the entirety of my travelogues, you’d be like, I don’t know why this person travels at all. He should stay home.
TH That’s funny. (laughter)
MD He seems miserable.
TH Most good travel writing is that same way. Nobody wants to hear what the easy part of it was.
MD No, no.
TH But bring that question of intimacy or strangeness into the theater space itself. I’ve seen eight to ten of your monologues and so, in one sense, I feel I know Mike Daisey. Since much of your work—well, all of your work—is autobiographical to some extent, so I feel I know you. Obviously, I don’t—I know this performance of this person. Tell me about that. Is it that true that the audience doesn’t know you and you don’t know them? What is that dynamic of engaging with an audience like? What’s revealed and what is the mask of performance?
MD Well, we have a very Western lensing of performance where we often do see it as a mask. We sort of perceive that there’s a mask and there’s the face. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I think that duality is part of why in the West we often don’t actually understand performance in our culture. A more accurate metaphor would be like to say there is the mask and the mask and the mask and the mask and the mask. That there is a series of masks, which I would argue is very much what it is in real life as well. We wear a series of masks and each mask, each layer, informs the other layers that exist. But in an even more complicated sense they are not completely linear. Like many masks are called roles and they’re situational even of where and when we are. So the question of whether anyone can know someone on stage is actually really the question, Does anyone know anyone else at all? I mean, they’re really the same question. There’s no difference between those two questions, especially when you’re talking about someone who is a monologist. My job on stage is to make the attempt to tell the truth, to shine a light through myself and to try to create a version of myself that an audience of people can connect with and interact with almost as though a light were shining through me and casting shadows on a wall. And that wall . . . that . . . that . . . that light that you see on the wall would, by it’s nature of metaphor, be larger than me and the fissures and cracks of my psyche would be larger. Many things would be much, much larger than they are inside my own mind because the scale that your problems exist in is entirely relative, you know. Within my own mind the thing I’m most concerned with right now might be a bunion on my right foot. I’m not even present in this interview, but I’m just thinking about the bunion.
MD You would have no idea, but that would not make the bunion any less important to my lens, nor would it make this conversation any less authentic. So when I perform, what I’m trying to do is be as authentically present as possible in this median space of being with people. What we often say, my partner and I, and I think this is true, is that the self that is on stage is me speaking to five hundred people at a time because there are natural shifts that happen when we speak to large groups of people. I’m speaking in the charged space and environment of the theater with the light collecting on the stage. When we bring the lights up we use all these tools of theater. But fundamentally, I’m very present and one of the reasons for that is the absence of a script. So to some degree I actually have to think the words as I speak them.
TH I think you’d have Plato frightened right now, terribly. He didn’t like artists to be in the city to begin with, but you’ve just, you know, elaborated on the metaphor of the cave.
TH I want to do a little bit more on this issue of your being on the stage there. First of all, I want to know about your hands. Your hands have, I find, a kind of Zen-like character on stage. You often smooth the table in front of you and when you do turn a page, which is a very elegant gesture, then there’s a sense, if you’re in the audience, that your hands have helped orchestrate our emotions. There’s a sense of a pause and then there’s a kind of sense of . . . it’s a minimal gesture. You’re not an an extravagant person talking with your hands. But it’s hard not to be mesmerized. I don’t know if you’re self-conscious of that. What happens with your hands?
MD Well, I’m a very kinesthetic performer, which surprises some people, especially if they’ve never seen me perform live. Because it is true that, you know, I speak at a table, seated. But that’s not what it feels like for me. If you were actually watching me closely, like you were able to see me from the inside—what people don’t realize is that when I’m performing I’m actually, um, in like a high state of tension.
TH You sit on the edge of your seat.
MD I do.
TH You really do.
TH And it’s part . . . you have a look that looks almost as if you’ve been startled. There is a sense of “we are about to go.”
TH Like a take-off moment, and it’s impossible not to feel that in the audience.
MD Yeah. That’s very true. I’m under a lot of tension, in the performance, physically. The movements are really important and they are chosen and have a very specific sort of way that they’re constructed and shape themselves. Often they grow organically out of the piece and often the words will be shifting more than the movements and often a movement will attach itself to some part of the piece. You know, it will attach itself so that every time I’m speaking—it’s not conscious—we observe it again and again. And often that attachment is stronger than individual work linkages. This is part of what I so treasure about performing this way. We begin to forget that the creation of words used to be a kinesthetic act.
MD We’ve often neglected that because we’ve shifted to writing.
TH Well, I wanted to bring that up because in an interview you said once that writing is not thinking. I’m curious what you mean about how thinking and writing are separate from one another. You’re so well known for only having notes and there is this extemporaneous urgency to every performance: Are you thinking while you’re performing? So is there a difference between thinking, writing and performing? How do they work out in the preparation and then creation of your work?
MD Well, you know, it’s interesting because people understand extemporaneous performance better than they think they do, and then they teach themselves that they don’t. For instance, you and I are engaging in an elaborate extemporaneous performance right now. The listeners may not be aware of this, but we are not working from a script. I see that you have a number of notes written down, but they’re clearly just notes.
MD I have no notes at all. Yet, we are able to maintain a conversation and the people listening would say, “Well, of course you’re able to. You’re talking, you’re having a conversation.” But if you look at the number of things I’m talking about, if you look at the speed with which I’m making points and the things we’re talking about, it is not possible for the human consciousness to construct language as quickly as people often speak it when they are in an interview, when they’re in a conversation, when people are teaching students at a good clip, when people are preaching, when people are making arguments in front of a court. That is because I believe that the way in which oratory functions operate is that the conscious mind is sort of the conductor and stands in front of or upsets the time and the meter, makes large-scale decisions about direction, but the subconscious is the orchestra and far outnumbers the conscious mind. While the conductor can begin a session or decide we’re going to go in this direction, it’s the subconscious that is actually doing the heavy lifting. And people actually understand this gap between thinking and writing, but we deceive ourselves constantly. When I was 21, 22, I would drink a lot of bourbon and I would get very drunk. And when I was very drunk I would rail about the tyranny of the written word. I mean, I’d rail about it. I’d get very, very furious about it. And that’s because, even though I’d been a writer up to that point and beyond, I really felt like there was something wrong with us, that we were carved off from it. We really do start to believe that in order to think of something we must have written it down first and then the act of writing becomes thinking. If you’re able to see how you think, which is an almost impossible act, but if you even speculate for a moment, if you just sit back from yourself and think about how you constructed the last series of thoughts you had, it’s entirely wordless. There is not a ticker tape running in our head with the words on them. Even if you are a fabulously literary person, it doesn’t function that way. There’s a deeper, more primal level. And so I believe it’s really, fundamentally very interesting to be in touch and in communication with that and I believe that’s the root out of which both narrative and consciousness constructs itself and that’s why I work in this form.
TH So a question: Is it possible, then, when things are extemporaneous in this way, for you to feel that you’ve made a mistake in your work? Obviously, you’ve written about things that can fail. There might not have been a connection with the audience. Who knows, maybe you’re even feeling physically sick one day or something. But is it possible, in your own mind, of how a performance goes that there was a mistake that you would need to correct about how you thought through something?
MD Oh yeah, that happens all the time.
TH Can you give me an example of what something like that is?
MD Oh, my goodness. It happens all the time. There are sort of tactical decision errors. You know, you tell a story and you get to the end of it and you realize that you didn’t tell the best story you could have. That happens constantly. That happens to all of us, I think. You get to the end of an answer in an interview and you realize, Oh, that was a bit verbose; I wish I’d been more succinct.
MD I wish so many things. Um, yeah, I feel . . . I see that all the time and that’s why, you know. Just because we acknowledge the presence and the power of the subconscious doesn’t cut short the role—
TH That it plays.
MD —of the conscious. Yes, they work together. And I think one of the biggest issues I have with Western creativity is that I really think we have this strange top down vision that creativity is a conscious act. That there are some of us who are inordinately gifted and gifted with a capital G and we’re gifts in the sort of very western way, like we think really intelligent thoughts all the time. And then, because we are so intelligent . . . it’s always intelligence, right? It’s not wisdom or empathy, it’s intelligence. Because we’re so intelligent, you know, we just one day sit down and we’re . . . and that also means everything takes time. So a piece of theater that takes five years to make is obviously better than a piece of theater that takes two years to make. Or, God forbid, a piece of theater that forges itself—
MD —in the moment of its creation.
TH Right. Which, of course, was being made through all your life experience, so it did take all that time.
TH So I want to change the subject entirely here. We’re actually in a fairly small room right now and you’ve written about or are doing a show now on American utopias and places. I’ve noticed that this week you’re actually going to be doing a performance on solitary confinement. And I was hoping you maybe could talk to us a little bit about that, about this whole issue, what engaged you with it and what you’re planning to do.
MD I was approached by Lawrence Weschler of NYU’s Humanities Program because they were gonna’ have this symposium about solitary confinement, which is an issue that I’ve been really interested in for a very long time. You know, as a monologist you spend a lot of your time in an interesting kind of solitary confinement because, while you have the intense public connection to audiences; arguably, in a sense, it’s also very isolating. Like you spend hours and hours performing in the darkness, speaking, raving sometimes, into the darkness. And then when you’re done there is no cast with you. Like there’s a very solitary aspect to the framing of it. And this event that we’re going to do, it’s myself, Tony Kushner, the Yes Men, a whole series of people, are going to try to visualize what solitary would be like and, more specifically, techniques for dealing with solitary confinement. And so it’s an interesting sort of example of using both fantasy and reality because we will construct arguments and techniques, what you could do perhaps, but none of us have spent time in solitary. And then immediately after we speak, a number of people who’ve spent years and years in solitary confinement will disabuse us of the notions of which of these devices will actually be effective. I’m fascinated by it.
TH So how do you prepare for something like that?
MD Oh, that’s an excellent question. I read. I’ve read a number of long articles, a really wonderful article by Shane Bauer in Mother Jones this last month about solitary confinement in America. I’ve read a number of really great things. And then I’ve thought about a number of things. And then I . . . I . . . (laughter) I did something that uh . . . or I’m planning to do something that I haven’t done before. I’m actually going to sit in my cellar. I have a cellar in this apartment building that I’m in. The cellar had a rat problem at one point before we arrived, and so they cleaned the entire cellar out so it’s actually very, very spare. There’s nothing down there. And so my plan is to go into the cellar and to sit in the cellar for a time and think. I’d like to acknowledge, like I will be acknowledging both the piece and . . . these are poor substitutes for solitary confinement. I mean, putting myself into the cellar. The cellar is far larger than anyone’s cell is in solitary but that’s the point of fantasy. Fantasy is always, in a sense, a poor substitute for reality. It was always designed that that is the sense . . . that’s the heart of theater, you know. All theater is a poor substitute for reality in the sense that it always, viewed through the right light, just looks like stage dress and prompts and foolishness. But that’s also part of what gives it its magic. So I’ll be doing those things.
TH And it also fits with Lawrence’s whole idea of one of his most famous books, Wonder Cabinet, of the idea that in this effort on solitary confinement, bringing attention to it is in some way pulling the curtain back on that wonder cabinet, but it is a cabinet of horrors in some sense—what that has to be like and to get a public to engage in it. And I wanted to ask you a little bit about that phenomenon of what I think of, from my childhood, as a the chocolate-milk problem. I think it’s kind of a fundamental aspect of modernity that people don’t know where anything comes from or goes to anymore. And you’ve addressed this in a number of you monologues, most certainly the Steve Jobs . . .
MD Mmm hmm.
TH What’s the history of the technology we use? And I’d say, as from childhood, we were told, well, chocolate milk must come from a brown cow or a chocolate—
MD Right, right.
TH —cow. And, you know, we don’t know where the things are made or that we eat and consume. We don’t know where our sewage goes or our waste and . . . and the rest. So what happens in this idea of needing to pull people into a kind of awareness they didn’t have?. Is that a goal of yours to take on this chocolate-milk problem that is contemporary culture?
MD I think it is a big part of what I do because it’s fruitful. You know, I’m fundamentally this fusion. I’m very interested in doing things that are intellectual and provocative to me, the things that satisfy me intellectually and sate the things I’m most obsessed with. But I also am very conscious of like what my culture is not talking about. By definition, things that are behind that curtain are not getting talked about. So when I look at sort of the collision point where my obsessions collide with things I feel like my culture isn’t speaking about . . . very often it’s things that actually are right in front of us if we just pulled the curtain back or we looked at them through a slightly different light. So in a very natural way I think that many of the things that I’m obsessed with run along those lines. I’ve been lately really . . . it’s . . . it’s funny, I’m in my late 30s and I’m going through an assessment where I’m looking at the work I’ve been doing and it’s really clear to me that there are exceptions, but like an inordinate amount of my work is about very few topics. Like I’m fundamentally obsessed with labor and with corporatism. Like this very specific . . . and including monologues that seem very light, but then you actually look at them through that light and you’re like, Oh, this also was about labor and corporatism. And that’s because I think those things are huge topics that don’t get discussed. I find I have these moments when I’m listening to National Public Radio, I’ll be listening to the radio and I’ll be thinking . . . you know, we have a marketplace report, we have a business report, we do not have a labor report. Like we have no report that actually is a half an hour about working, which is a universal human phenomenon that everyone is doing, Yet, somehow, there is not a program about labor. How did that happen? How did that happen? That’s actually a huge omission. Things like that are really . . . I find myself thinking about those things often.
TH Take us back to your boyhood and your dad because I want to talk about something you said that I found very moving and hard to forget, about labor. You said that often the kids you grew up with, their fathers worked in a mill and that when their dads got laid off, it was devastating to the family. That’s where the drinking and the violence and the destruction of the family often began. And your dad counseled veterans from the Vietnam War. And you, at one point, saw these vets were getting older and older and wondered: What if my father runs out of veterans to talk to and then he won’t have a job like all these kids I know who’ve been devastated. I was devastated by that story because, of course, your father said, “Oh no, Michael, I mean, I’m not running out of veterans.”
MD Yeah. That was very . . . it was a very moving story for me, too, truthfully. The look on his face. He was so sort of world-weary and wise there. “No, no, we’re never going to run out of veterans.” He was really clear about that. And he was right. And, in fact, it’s funny because I’m actually working on a monologue right now about that. My father just retired at long last from working with the Veterans Administration as a counselor. He counseled veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder for many years and, of course, he stayed on past normal retirement age because, as he said, the sort of apotheosis—the whole reason he went into this, you know, happened with both Afghanistan and Iraq. My father went to Vietnam and came back with post-traumatic stress disorder. And so in a lot of ways his construction of the universe mirrors. . . . You know, we have very different issues and different people, but there is a similarity in that I think I tell stories as a way of trying to construct the shape of the universe. It’s the path that allows me to make sense of the world around me; and I think my father treats veterans, you know, to give back but also because it helps make sense of his own world. And I’m working on a monologue now that is about those veterans that he treated and [who] I grew up with in that world in Maine. It’s also about the privatization of war and the commodification of war and the shift, this massive shift where, even in my youth, war . . . the selective service still existed. And while the draft wasn’t in effect there was still this idea of, What if war were to happen? The first Gulf War happened while I was in high school; the idea that you could be called to serve meant something. And that has clearly changed. Until now I never believed I would be able to live in a world where there would be two wars in two countries on the other side of the world and that I would live a decade of my life and that it would have no impact on my life or the lives of people around me.
TH Literally the longest war in American history.
TH The Afghan war.
MD And I look back at them, the community I’m from and I talk to my father. He’s having this wildly other experience because in the place I come from more people join the military than go to college. And so, you know, he actually found it staggering, as I said, that it had no effect on my life. He . . . he laughed. You know, it’s the only thing that’s had an effect on . . . on his life, which makes sense because he works in it. But it’s these stark divides, you know, that really make me question if the . . . one of the central theses of this new work that I’m trying to build. . . . It’s a thesis, so I don’t know if it’s proven yet, but the thesis would be that the worst thing the progressive movement ever did was to win its war to abolish the draft. That by doing that it carved us off from a connection, a direct real connection, investment, in foreign policy. And that change opened the door to everything that’s followed.
TH Right. I think that’s powerful. It does seem related to a lot of other things you’re doing and what I glibly described as a “chocolate-milk” phenomenon at large—the sense that we are so disconnected from either the people who do the work, from the real source and consequences of the way we live, and how we conduct war, create violence.
A last question for you here and a big vague question. It does seem we are in a dark time of an increasing divide. We certainly don’t seem to be in a time where those divisions are reduced and people are closer to the source of connections and responsibility; whether it’s foreign policy or the technology they use. What’s the role of art in that? And how optimistic are you that other artists are working in that gap? And does that matter?
MD The role of art is that it can be that which generates empathy. And, remember, for me, my art is woven and integrally bound to story and to dramatization, so that it lives in the space. So we bring people physically together and we physically tell them a story and we share the space for a time; those things are like woven into it. So ideals like community, sharing, being together—they’re inextricable. There are definitely, I’m sure, artists who have different agendas, different visions that they’re enacting in the world. For me it’s empathy. Like we have all the data. We have huge amounts of data. Our problem today, most people agree, is that we don’t know how to analyze the data. How do we sift through? We have access to so much. How do we determine what is important and what is not? And in that grading and ranking of those systems that have been largely built by corporate entities like Google and Microsoft, who is helping us mediate this new landscape, empathy, aesthetics, the human heart? These things are not actually part of these algorithms. I don’t mean because that’s impossible, I mean because we, as people who have designed these systems, don’t feel that they are. That’s the hierarchy that’s been created. And so I actually think that art is in a position right now to be a very provocative force because the language . . . the language of what we’re talking about when we talk about public policy and about the shape of the world, the spread of corporatism and whether labor even matters—all of these things, I feel, are disconnected because they are not wired in to empathy anymore, to care. I mean, look at most people and ask them, “Does it matter what a person does for a living? Does it matter whether they can feed their children? Does it matter whether they have to work 80 or 100 hours a week?” Most human beings would say, Yes, those things do matter! But we have a way when we start viewing them in aggregate as masses of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, on the other side of the world . . .
MD We start to perceive them as not to matter. They’re not real anymore. And so for me, I think that generating empathy is a huge part of that, but I think that’s it’s important to say that there’s a traditional side when people hear this phrase, generating empathy. You sort of imagine that what it means is that you tell stories where there are gonna be lots of ponies and everyone’s—
MD —got all these sparkle ponies and everyone . . . everyone gets a lollipop.
TH That doesn’t generate empathy; that’s just kitsch.
MD (laughter) But you could use it for empathy; but it mostly makes kitsch. What I’m interested in for me is humor as a weapon. Like I’m very interested in the way that humor is an anthropological reaction that people can use to exploit so then they become stars of stage and screen because they make people laugh. What I’m interested in is that when I make people laugh I can feel that they’re open and when they are open, when they are actually receptive, when they’re laughing, that is a moment when you can actually strike. You can actually strike into that moment and speak to them, not to tell them what to think, but to invite them to think. Like there’s actually an opportunity to open the exchange. And so for me a lot of the monologues are constructed that way.
TH It’s a dangerous moment.
MD Yes, it is.
TH It’s a moment so dangerous that some people need to literally obliterate the words they were using from it. Someone would actually come up on stage and put water on your script as he leaves.
MD Yes, yes. And it does cause a degree of provocation and maybe that’s inevitable in a sense. If you make the decision to work with charged materials and then you make the decision to work in charged spaces and you try to look for the most provocative things, which is different than tickling or poking for no reason. But to truly provoke because then to try to arouse a response, a human response from people who often it may feel like are sleeping—if you are successful, people wake up. I don’t know what you’re like when you wake up, but when people wake up, it’s not pretty, you know?
MD It’s not always gonna work out.
TH It ain’t pretty. (laughter)
MD And so for me, humor is a huge part of that. Humor is the key and the source . . . like we’re talking here, like many conversations, about many weighty things. We’ve done a good job, you know, varying it a bit. But it’s important to understand that the humor is so integral. It’s as important as every day that I do research; it’s as important as all the interviews. It’s as important as the journey; the humor is there because that is what in real time creates the connection. So without that then we could have just gone to a lecture or I could have recorded it on YouTube and left it there as a video.
TH Okay. Well, thank you, Mike. It seems perfect to have Mike Daisey have the last laugh on this. So thanks so much for joining us today, Mike, it’s been a real privilege.
MD Thank you so much.
TH This is Tom Healy for Creative Time Reports. (Recorded at Art on Air Radio at the Clocktower in downtown New York City). Well, there we go. That was fun.
Tom Healy’s new book of poems, Animal Spirits, a collaboration with the artist Duke Riley, will be out in 2013. Healy is a visiting professor at the New School. He was appointed by President Obama to the Fulbright Scholarship Board, where he serves as chairman.