As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Geo Wyeth discusses first experience with video in Kitchen Steve Project and examines the relationship between technology and performance.
In his studio, Geo Wyeth shows me a cruddy talking doll named Cricket. He found her in a thrift store and rigged her with a microphone running through effects pedals. Cricket’s mouth moves stiffly, and as Wyeth turns knobs, her chatter becomes menacing. He laughs and looks pleased while I stare, alarmed.
There’s a thread of frenetic experimentation through Wyeth’s work, performance or otherwise. He invents characters played by puppets or himself—one ongoing role, Kitchen Steve, is a neurotic exhibitionist wearing an apron and three-foot stuffed dong. Add Wyeth’s virtuosic piano playing and songwriting, and his events are one-man spectacles that dash from comic, to sinister, to agonizingly serious.
Judith Shimer You just got back from a Yaddo residency a few days ago. What were you working on up there?
Geo Wyeth Mostly Kitchen Steve Project; I made a bunch of videos for him. I made a set in my studio, and a sculptural prosthetic puppet thing for him. I did these improvisational piano exercises that helped me think about my own process and how my background as a piano player and my relationship to the piano has affected my work and why I do what I do.
JS Did they provide you with a piano?
GW Yes, a real one! It was tuned, they brought it in there special for me. I felt like a prince, a weird art prince for a month. I recorded some exercises and I think I’m going to release them as an album. It’s just instrumental, but it really is the origins of my creative life. As a child I played piano, even before I got lessons or knew how, making things up. The way I naturally approach the instrument has informed how I approach anything I encounter, any material or object.
JS Informed in what way?
GW There’s a lot of moving through different ways of expression and means of making things. I used to think there was something wrong with me, that I was unfocused, and I wasn’t doing a good job as an artist at establishing a context for my work, and that was bad.
For the first week at Yaddo, I couldn’t believe they let me in. Most people were much older, much more singular in the way they did things. There were a lot of writers. I mean, they all had their own wacky ways of making things too, like there was one guy who took a lot of baths. But I did think, “I feel so lost all the time, how could anyone ever think I could make anything, really, ever?” I realized while I was there, I still felt lost. I’d think, “I’m gonna play the piano, now I’m gonna take a walk, now I’m gonna pick up this thing, now I’m gonna take it back to my studio, now I’m gonna make these sounds, now I’m gonna put on this costume.”
While I was there I revisited some texts I’ve always liked. Artaud writes about formlessness and how when things become codified or established, they lose what’s urgent and powerful about making art at all. That’s sort of the space I occupy a lot of the time, following a sequence of impulses, being comfortable with the unknown. So I followed. That’s all I could do, because I was alone. There was no Internet in my studio, very little cell phone reception. I was alone with all of these ideas, and no one and nothing to tell me I couldn’t do them. It was amazing.
JS You make a lot of puppets and props for Kitchen Steve. The doll collection has grown since the last time I was here.
GW It has. I have a lot of dolls.
JS Why dolls?
GW If I’m at a thrift store or a garage sale, I always gravitate towards the action figures and dolls. Not the little figurines, more like dolls that move or talk or open and close their eyes. I don’t know why. I could psychoanalyze it, but I have no idea. At first it was always boy toys—some I’ve had for a really long time, they were my toys when I was a kid, like a Ghostbusterstoy from the eighties—but recently I’ve been getting into toys that are marketed for girls. Though of course, they can be for anyone.
There was a moment in college when I was collecting things, and I’d display them in my room. But then I started to feel bad about it. When I graduated I thought, “What’s wrong with me? I have all these little kid toys. It’s creepy.” Then I was single for a moment, and I was like, “What if someone comes back to my room and sees this? They’ll think something’s wrong with me.” So I put them away. But I’ve been trying to be free with myself and follow these desires and impulses and not question why I have them, and pushing myself to go to those places that are strange, but feel very comfortable to me, but also kind of uncomfortable. I love dolls. I love the eight-year-old me. When I was a kid I had Barbies, and I remember being in the bath and switching the heads on Ken and Barbie.
I’m drawn to toys that have a pop-culture reference. I like repurposing these images I was raised around, like Gumby figurines. There’s this Bart Simpson puppet I got in Chapultepec, this park in Mexico City. These guys sell little toys and puppets that have homemade cloth bodies, but the heads are well-known pop culture characters.
JS The Kitchen Steve videos—was that your first time doing video?
GW Yes. I didn’t really want to make videos. Everyone makes videos, and I’m not a video artist. I’m a performer and I like the idea of people coming to my performances and experiencing them. But then a friend of mine said, “Well, what if you thought of the video as a space? Similar to a performance space, but not like the camera is documenting a performance—more like the actual video medium is a space that the character can occupy—what would that feel like?” For some reason that resonated with me, and I constructed this world that could only exist in the video, and then I interacted with the environment and with the camera.
JS I’m glad you’re exploring video because it’s such a great medium; it’s got so much stuff in it.
GW There is so much stuff in it, it’s like a beast. The videos I made aren’t edited at all. There’s kind of a gesture or a suggestion of editing, but I never sat down and put it into Final Cut. I guess I rarely see editing used in a way that I really feel is brave and considered. Obviously there’s Ryan Trecartin, whom I love. I remember the first time I saw one of his videos, it blew my brains out. That’s kind of what I’m talking about when I refer to the different kinds of spaces that a video can occupy. Even just the camera—that’s already a lot to consider. And of course now, with everyone on YouTube posting these personal videos of them in their bedroom, it’s amazing to think of what’s happened to people’s relationship with being looked at, putting themselves on display.
When I was a kid I used to watch late night TV, and they’d play these local access TV shows of some person in a room with a green screen—preachers, or talk shows, people interviewing other people. You get the sense of their budget, limited funds, limited space. This is before YouTube. People used to make a whole production, a set, even if it looked so busted. It’s like when you see old portraits where people got all dressed up, like if you were going to get in front of a camera, you had to prepare. And now it’s the opposite. Everyone has a camera on their cell phone, your life in its “natural” state is being captured. I’m not saying it’s not okay, it just brings up all these questions. In my mind, if the camera is there, you’re on display. Even if you pretend you’re being real, it’s not real.
There’s this YouTube video of a girl putting her makeup on drunk. She gets wasted and then puts makeup on. And it’s funny, but also ridiculous. Like a lot of Internet comedy videos, there are all these quick camera cuts, mid-sentence, and that automatically makes things funny.
JS The Jenna Marbles style.
GW That’s how they tell the story—constant shifting. That’s how you move through these sonic and visual spaces, through the mechanism of the camera. Because there’s actually nothing happening! You can make drama out of nothing based on these simple tools. So I was counting. I honestly wasn’t even doing it to prove a point, I was just doing it obsessively. It’s a weird world, TV.
JS The shift in focus from trying to make do pretending you have a budget, and now trying to make it seem like you don’t have any budget—I noticed that in music first, with the Garage Band revolution.
GW It’s the democratization of all of these tools. Anyone can use them. I think that’s great, I love it. I’m not saying, “This is bullshit, you have to go to school and pay lots of money.” No, I’m pleased. I think people should follow whatever impulses they have—I mean, I’m making sculptures.
But I do think it’s completely changed the nature of process. So much of how I’ve learned to make things is how my body moves, and the things our bodies do inform who we are. Other people I know who feel this way are painters and sculptors, people who work with materials. There’s a sense of building something in time, and your body changing as it learns how to do something. But now you don’t have to. When I worked at the Apple store and I’d teach people how to make a song in Garage Band, it was easy for them, but they didn’t actually learn anything. There’s no embodied identification with what they’re making. At least, I don’t feel one. I need to have something physical, even if it’s a keyboard with a button.
There’s something about the computer that makes me feel drained. I don’t feel like I’ve retained the information. Also, it turns the process of making music into something ocular-centric. There’s a visual interface, everything is extremely visual, but there are so many other different ways to transmit information, and artists know this. There’s information through touch and movement and hearing things and smelling things and being around something. The sensory deprivation of the computer takes the process away. The process is you click on this thing and it makes a sound, and you don’t know why or how or where it comes from.
JS Are you talking about electronic performers, the way some noise performers only move their hands?
GW Not quite. Noise music is about the sculptural impact of sound, and sound as a medium that you can feel. I’m doing a noise band project now, and a lot of the Kitchen Steve stuff is made when I record a noise performance. But I think it’s the screen that takes you away. When you have a screen, it removes everyone and the performer. I’d rather see someone twiddle a knob than touch a screen. But I don’t want to sound nostalgic—I’m excited for what all this stuff means, but maybe I’m not advanced enough. Actually, the iPad is cooler to me than a laptop, because of its intuitive interface. I can’t wait ‘til there’s a 3D iPad the size of this room.
JS Minority Report style.
GW But I’m interested in mechanics. I often take things apart and look at how they work. In those virtual environments, you can’t do that. There’s a cognitive dissonance. If I show you the inside of Cricket, its gears and fans, simple mechanisms you can figure out. There’s a cause and effect relationship. The electrical signal comes out of the batteries, you can follow its path. With the computer, I click here and I learn about Ferdinand the Great on Wikipedia. And then I click here, and I’m also clicking in Garage Band, and I’m also clicking in YouTube. The same action translates for all these different outcomes, so there’s no physical cause and effect relationship to what you’re doing on the screen. I can’t wait for it to be more of a whole body experience.
JS It’s like they’re designed to be an extension of your brain, but of course they’re not a real extension of your brain—the illusion keeps you from realizing it’s separate from yourself.
GW It tricks you… It’s funny, but every time I’ve done an interview it’s always been about technology. It must obviously be an interest of mine.
JS Well, it fits: technology, ease of use, spectacle, performance, being present, interpersonal stuff.
GW Performance is a technology. It’s a way we communicate, and share—I only just thought of that, and it’s so obvious. Language is a technology. Every technology is just a means of communication, a tool. You know, I love that movie Napoleon Dynamite—I’d never even heard of it ‘til recently. A friend of mine showed it to me. They even prepped me, like, “Some people were really offended by this film.” And I can see that, it’s kind of harping on some stereotypes. But I love the song about technology at the end. And the way he sings it, it’s so right. The execution is technologically low and dysfunctional, but there’s this very pure love of technology.
Geo Wyeth is an artist and musician from New York. His upcoming exhibition People, now that we’re alone will run June 18-21 at Kate Werble Gallery in Soho, with performances at 8 p.m. nightly. You can also listen to Wyeth’s music here.
Judith Shimer is a feminist artist and musician living in Brooklyn.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.