If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
For a number of years, Daniel McKewen taught a class at the Queensland University of Technology that functioned as a drop-in critique and discussion session for whoever was around at the time. We almost always ended up talking about film and the media, which for a number of years have formed the content of his video-based work. Last summer, sharing a workshop in the subtropics, we worked side-by-side in a steamy tin shed, doors thrown wide to catch whatever breeze there was. As he obsessively polished a bronze sculpture to mirror-finish, he offered his steady and reasoned advice to whoever came knocking. The advice was usually: Keep doing it. At the 2014 Sydney Biennale and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s NEW14 exhibition McKewen showed video-based work focusing on popular media, cinema, and fan culture, but his newer pieces consist of sculpture and drawing. His work, culled from familiar sources, aims for the jolt of recognition before the quotidian is made strange. We spoke about harvesting laugh tracks, the politics of art funding, and his upcoming show at Milani Gallery in Brisbane, which deals with the global financial crisis.
Daniel McKewen Welcome to my spare room-slash-studio.
Madeleine Stack I like that you define it as “the studio.”
DM Well, that way it makes me feel like I need to do work when I’m in here.
MS What are up to at the moment?
DM I’m coming down. I have post-show blues from doing the Biennale and NEW at ACCA, which were both quite hectic.
MS What did you show at ACCA?
DM It’s a new work, a Seinfeld video. Basically, it’s an empty room with the film grain happening so you can tell it’s a video; every now and again the surround soundtrack of an audience laughing plays.
MS Why Seinfeld?
DM I’ve been wanting to do it for a while, not quite knowing how to tackle it exactly, but knowing I needed to do something about it. That’s a normal process for me, where I develop a kind of hunch about something, a gut feeling about where to start. After that, though, it’s not easy to figure out where to go with that most of the time. So, even though the concept seems so simple, it’s taken me about a year to decide what to do. There’s a lot of thinking there that’s hard to pin down, and plenty of watching. Seinfeld intrigued me because there’s not a specific image that comes to mind for it, apart from the show’s set. But I think there’s a lot of ruminating that goes on in the back of my mind while I’m watching things, coming across these things in re-runs and being completely sucked in each time. That’s what kicks off the thinking process, but it’s hard to quantify. You just know that you’re doing it when you’re doing it, and sometimes you don’t even know you’re doing it when you’re doing it!
MS I realized, though, due to the nature of our relationship, that most of the work you’ve seen of mine has been in the early stages, whereas apart from the sculptural works the only digital works I’ve seen of yours have been the final iteration—never the uncooked version, always installed, complete.
DM That’s the thing though, it’s so rare to see the process of contemporary artists. Unless you have a strong drawing practice, where you show those process drawings alongside the other works. But if you could look at my hard drive, my endless folders and drives full of crap and rough Photoshop pictures, weird mock-ups, iPhone note pages that have a single idea on them … all that is the process, that’s where it lives.
MS I was so cranky when I found out about your drawing practice. Like it was some dirty secret—a brilliant drawer who makes video work!
DM It sounds bad to say this, but especially when you’re doing a PhD you don’t want to spend time doing too many different things because you know you’ll just have to write about them afterward. So I have put drawing aside for a number of years. I’m still generating—let’s use “drawing” as a fairly loose term—but I’m always sketching in one form or another, even if it’s digitally.
MS What, then, does your note-taking apparatus look like? Is it all digital?
DM Yeah, now it is. I used to have a Moleskine, the really stereotypical black book that I took everywhere but I would rarely look at things. (laughter) Or I wouldn’t be able to find them again. Whereas on a phone you just type in a note and can search for it in six months.
MS It’s so precarious! That terrifies me for some reason, I know it’s irrational.
DM Oh, well, you’re just not backup savvy.
MS You’ll always be the fairy godmother of backing up—every time I don’t do it I hear your voice in my head, guilting me.
DM Mission accomplished, then.
MS Not that it helps, I still don’t do it.
DM That kind of note-taking process, though, encompasses not only words and text but also folders of images, lists of links that I need to go back to, pictures that will remind me of some thought, mock-ups of Photoshop files. It’s all note-taking, and some of it is what I would call sketching, as well. So, for example, one of the videos I’m working on started life as a two-minute, screen capture Photoshop mock-up more than twelve months ago, and looking at that low-res image I made set about a thinking process that will culminate in a video. So drawing isn’t necessarily this romantic thing of dirty fingers and charcoal but actually more like sketching in whatever form.
MS What happens to that material in twenty years, though? When you’re saying, Oh, I remember in 2012 I had this great idea…
DM Yeah, I don’t know. That’s the big question.
MS Your upcoming show was postponed—
DM Yeah, I guess I underestimated how much work I ended up making for the new show and the Biennale. I re-mastered all of Running Men for the Biennale instead of showing it in its existing form, which is—definitely my own fault! And then, funnily enough, it took longer than I’d thought to harvest every single laugh out of Seinfeld…
MS Was that a fun process?
DM Well actually I didn’t anticipate it being as lonely as it was. It was an odd process; it made me think much more about the work being about loneliness. It got pretty existential, harvesting that laugh track.
MS How was the work displayed at ACCA and the Biennale?
DM Well, with ACCA, the main idea of NEW is that it’s an opportunity for early- and mid-career artists to have a budget, an install crew, and a space that they may not have had up until this point in their career. So it was amazing because the work was so simple—in one sense—that I felt like I could ask a lot from the install crew! They built this fantastic floating screen according to my specifications; they built a whole wall so we could change the size and shape of the space and put in the surround sound system. So there were these two couches in a room with a projection, but as with all installation, it was the small details that you don’t get a chance to have without an entirely purpose-built space. The Biennale is obviously a different story. You get a space, and it is what it is. You have your equipment and have to figure out how best to negotiate the space. Especially with something like that work, where I had these five portrait-mounted screens on floor stands—they just hovered in the dark space by themselves. Then finding an arrangement becomes the central issue, so that spatially the viewer could walk among them as well as stand back and see the whole thing. We ended up painting some walls black at the last minute, and a whole other ballgame was figuring out how it would work best with the other spaces—these cubicle spaces next to it. It turned out well in the end, though. When you’ve got a giant show like that, you always have to compromise and find ways to make do with the space.
MS There was a lot of controversy about the Biennale for a minute there. What are your thoughts on that, now that the media attention has died down somewhat and it’s no longer such a fraught topic?
DM Not necessarily, no—the problem is still ongoing. But the Biennale divested themselves of Transfield’s interests, so that changes the discussion somewhat. I definitely don’t think of it as a victory. All I did was add my signature to a letter because, as a human, I responded to a situation. What blew up after that, I certainly didn’t anticipate happening. Maybe I was somewhat naive about that. At the time I had my head buried in finishing the work, so I didn’t really think long and hard about signing that letter that asked the Biennale to divest their interests. Then it really erupted. So I did have very mixed feelings about it. Certainly the press didn’t make it any easier. Press coverage on any issue like that is going to be reductive; there ends up being a total oversimplification that isn’t helpful to the issue at hand, nor is it helpful to the larger issue. As people rightly pointed out, there are existing levels of compromise on behalf of the artists and the Biennale—as well as arts organizations in general—in all different cases, not just the Biennale. It’s actually a really important topic, still, that I think we’re trying to ignore. The Australian government wants more corporate and private philanthropy to be involved in arts funding so that they don’t have to fund it. But what that’s going to mean is that ethical questions about where the money comes from, and what “clean money” looks like—if it even exists—those questions are only going to become more pressing as time goes on, especially in Australia. We don’t have as much of a history of that kind of private philanthropy as somewhere like the US, so it’s only the beginning of this discussion, I would think. After the blow-up, did you see Attorney-General George Brandis talking about the Australia Council needing to rewrite their policy on rejection of funds?
MS He suggested that the Australia Council should reject applications for public funds by those organizations that had refused private support: “If the Sydney Biennale doesn’t need Transfield’s money, why should they be asking for ours?”
MS I did really see only the media side of it, from reading the news here. At that moment, I was at a lecture at NYU on whether painting can be political…
DM (laughter) Can it?
MS Well, nobody seemed very optimistic. There was a lot of blame laid on the market for the way things are. It was slightly depressing. You know painters. But then this woman at the end piped up during question time and said something like, Oh, but in some parts of the world—like Australia—artists still have souls, and they’re making this big political statement regardless of consequences. It was a very sweet moment… (laughter)
DM That may be overstating things slightly!
MS Well, yeah, of course. It did make us come off like some beautiful utopia where artists still hold themselves to lofty ideals, which I thought was funny. To be fair, at that point nothing much had happened yet, so there was still the possibility of some transformative moment.
DM Political painting, huh?
MS I know. I forgot until I got into the lecture how much I hate painting, and then there I was, stuck in the middle of this theater with no possibility of escape.
DM I just don’t know anything about painting.
MS Every artist I’ve met here is a painter, without exception. That may say something about my social life though, not the New York City art world.
DM I guess they want to have a career, is that the idea? That sounds really pejorative, but you know what I mean—
MS Perhaps this exists everywhere, and I’m being overdramatic, but I feel like there’s this gang of young men, who make these enormous beige canvases, and they are so immensely successful, selling for huge amounts of money. Speaking of money—the last time we talked, it was about your upcoming show, which, in some way, deals with the financial crisis.
DM Yes. But I’ve realized in working on it that it’s less about the financial crisis specifically and more about the personalities of people who work in the finance industry. This idea of being outside of it, and looking in. I think what I’m actually doing is exactly the same thing as before—it’s just that it happens to be about finance instead of Hollywood. So I’m interested in the weird stories that come out of the whole business, or the experiences of looking at that from an outsider’s perspective. So, finding stories like the plaque you saw me working on in the studio.
MS That was the formula for—
DM It was a formula devised with the intention to measure very specific kinds of risk in the financial market. For example, the risk that one party would default on a mortgage if another party in the same area had already defaulted on their loan or mortgage. But after David X. Li published this formula, which was never intended to be used under any other circumstances, people started to use it whenever they felt like it, which, of course, meant they were measuring risk in very inaccurate ways. So, arguably, that ended up being one of the contributing factors to this outsized sense of safety that people were working with during the bubble. So I guess I’m more interested in the people and their need to control—their need to understand or ignore problems, or my need to understand how those people ignored evident problems. Because it’s still in progress, I haven’t yet nailed down how to talk about it exactly, but it feels like the same wheelhouse for me; it’s just a different topic. The methodology is the same, the practice is the same. It will just look very different, being sculptures and drawings as opposed to video.
MS How different is it to work with your hands, to be doing manual labor in a workshop as opposed to mental labor in front of a computer? Does it change any part of your feeling toward the work?
DM It’s not particularly different. I learn other skills, sure, and maybe cut my hands more often, but when, say, I was harvesting all the laughter out of Seinfeld, my back still ached and I got really sore. I still got a sense of the medium in the same way as when I’m working with wood or bronze. So—and maybe this sounds really pompous—I think that they’re the same!
MS What, then, is the ideal situation for you in terms of an audience? If it’s a durational work, a loop, where nothing really happens, what’s the ideal for somebody encountering that work for the first time?
DM To be honest, when I’m testing the work and showing it to people in the beginning stages and watching them watch it, I’m constantly thinking about trying to make allowances for as many different kinds of experience as possible. It sounds like a cop-out, but when it comes to time-based work, it’s about really mastering your medium to a point where you’re making space for multiple kinds of engagement. Of course I did spy a little on people watching the Seinfeld work, Zarathustra’s Cave, in Melbourne. Some people walk in, sit down, and give it a chance for, say, ten minutes. Another person will walk in, shuffle to the back, try to avoid being seen by anyone, and watch for thirty seconds before leaving again. Allowances have to be made for those reactions as well as anything in between. In the case of that work, the allowance is in how often the laugh happens on the soundtrack. Sometimes there are tiny gaps, other times there are long spaces between laughs, and depending on when the person walks in, they’re going to have quite a different experience from that of someone who has had the same length of exposure at a different point. I was very aware, though, that even if the viewer stays for thirty seconds, they’re going to see Seinfeld again at some point in their lives. That set is in every episode. So there’s going to be this kind of weird thing that occurs, where they might not realize it, but it shifts somewhat. What happens when they have that visual recognition the next time they see that set?
MS I think the viewing patterns you mention—the commitment for a reasonable period or the breeze through—occur with all work. I don’t know if there’s any way to avoid that, even if you adhere to a traditional cinematic structure—if it’s in a gallery setting, people are already set in a pattern of reacting to these works.
DM I don’t know if I could make a video that asked a specific engagement of a viewer, that says, This is ten minutes long, and you’ve got to watch the whole thing or you won’t get it. I don’t know if I’d want to do that. When making time-based work—just like making images or objects—you have to be aware of people’s free will and that their reaction isn’t dependent on you as the artist, how amazing the work is. The best you can hope for is to maximize the potential of what you’re working with. That’s why almost everything I make is an infinite loop, so it doesn’t ask for a specific level of engagement. It will tell you, fairly quickly, what it’s doing, and then you can stay or go. You will have a different experience depending on what you choose.
MS I meant to ask you about precarity in terms of the connection between figures in the financial world and celebrities. Top Ten Box Office Blockbusters of All Time, in Dollars has a sort of insanity to it as you see the numbers flash by—the same sort of horror one feels hearing about the choices made by those in charge during the financial crisis.
DM I think, regarding precarity, that like my other work this new piece partly functions as an attempt to “make sense” of systems and structures and our experiences of them. Be that the incredible influence of cultural forms and figures, or of the less well-known managers of hedge funds that profit from bad practice and capitalize on the suffering of others. This is reductionist, as I’m also interested in the potentially obfuscatory systems that might be part of this problem.
MS And what is more precarious than deciding to be an artist?
DM (laughter) I do often wonder why everyone goes to art school. I went because I tried not to, and that was even worse.
MS I went because I thought I wanted to be a writer, and teen me figured that artists are more interesting than writers, so I would meet people to write about in art school. Not to mention, they’re far better looking! (laughter)
DM And that’s worked! Hasn’t it, so far?
MS Extremely well.
DM You know what those journalism people do—ugh! Wouldn’t you rather have had art school than writing school?
MS Of course. I’m very impressed with my sixteen-year-old self for making such wise choices.
DM See, it took me until I was twenty-two, or something, to have the guts to go in for that.
You can find more on Daniel McKewen’s work by visiting the Milani Gallery website.
Madeleine Stack is an artist and writer from Brisbane, Australia. She is currently based in New York.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.