Michael Smith by Rosemary Hochschild

BOMB 2 Winter 1982
002 Fall 1982

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Smith 01

Rosemary Hochschild Should we go on with our interview?

Michael Smith Well, I’m interested in this agent stuff.

RH Oh! You need an agent?

MS I think I want to step out of this downtown scene. It’s too difficult, too much work you have to do yourself.

RH Well, that’s the problem I encountered. I really want to make my money professionally and that’s one of the questions I worked out in my big diary here. When I got an agent I went out and bought this big diary. And the question is—do you support yourself through performing?

MS Now I’m in debt but I have been supporting myself performing. I would like enough money to do productions. Like that show at The Performing Garage—I lost money on it.

RH I also lost money when I performed there. Even so, do you think it is an advisable venue for a performer to run a series in?

MS If you work out the contract with them.

RH But the contract doesn’t favor the performer. It favors The Performing Garage.

MS Right! But if you work something out with them.

RH Is that possible?

MS I think it is. I can re-negotiate it if I want to do something there again because they made money from my performance.

RH The night I saw your performance the house was sold out.

MS There were a couple of nights when I had bad houses—the night when the reviewer came—and I got a very shitty review.

RH I found that I learned more when I was performing for six people because it was far more difficult. Stuart Sherman once said to me when I was complaining about how difficult it was to perform to an empty house, that for him it was like performing for the big sweaty lady sitting in the black void.

MS I hate performing for a few people because I need the laughter and some sort of response. I learnt something, but I don’t want to have a crowd of that few people again. I’m really dependent on the audience.

RH Why are you more dependent on a hundred people’s laughter than six?

MS I need it so that I can hear.

RH And you can’t hear five people laughing? A Zen proverb says something about the sound of one hand clapping.

MS I don’t know. It just feels that I got a certain momentum. You want to please the greatest number, like a politician. I mean, I’m after the laughs, I guess. Obviously there’s something more to what I’m doing, but laughs is where I hear it all.

RH The laugh is the catalyst in your performance?

MS Yeah, my timing is dependent on that. If my timing is on I know that if I do something—just like that—I can get them.

RH Well, maybe that’s where you sometimes fuck up as a performer because if you don’t get the laughs your timing gets thrown off.

MS Sometimes, maybe. I put out a lot of energy. I mean a lot. And I feel like I’m working hard. I want them to sit back and not have to exert themselves too much.

RH So you do place certain demands on your audience?

MS Well, I want them to be entertained, and the only way I’m going to know if they’re being entertained is if they chuckle, or I have to wait for the end, for the applause or something. What’s that? (pointing at the wall)

RH It’s my dust-buster.

MS What is it?

RH It busts the dust on the floors. Maybe you could use it in one of your performances.

MS That’s really ridiculous.

RH Well, you can use it if you like.

MS What does it do? It just picks up the dust?

RH Yes, It picks up dust from the floor.

MS Around a two inch radius around your body.

RH Well, however far you want to crawl on your hands and knees.

MS It doesn’t have a very long cord.

RH Well, you can use an extension.

MS It’s for corners, I guess.

RH You can take it with you.

MS Don’t you use it?

RH Not now. I mean, I’m trying to renovate my loft.

MS No, no, you hold on to it. Aren’t I pretty good at these? (interviews)

RH Yes, you’re really great. I basically wanted to speak about Baby Ikky because he’s my favorite character.

MS Well I don’t think you’ve seen most of my performances, but if you’re interested in the baby, let’s talk about the baby.

RH Well, in terms of Baby Ikky … do you consider yourself a social outcast and does that have anything to do with your choice of Baby Ikky as one of your feature characters?

MS Do I consider him as a feature?

RH Well, okay.

MS I give him cameos.

RH The audience really waits for Baby Ikky.

MS Some do, some don’t. Some don’t like it at all.

RH What part of your performance does the majority of the audience respond to?

MS It depends. Some of them like the Mike character. Some of them like that character a lot. Some of them like the baby. But the baby hasn’t been that frequent in the last year or so. I just started doing it again.

RH So how did the baby originate?

MS I wanted a character that was neutral. I didn’t want a character that had too much gender.

RH I always wondered if it was intended to be male or female,

MS He is a male but he’s more like a baby. I mean, people do think of babies as having sex, but you think of it first as a baby rather …

RH But I find Baby Ikky’s sex very disguised.

MS It is, yes. He’s more like a gorilla than he is like a baby. And people have told me that he looks like a little gorilla. He’s very simian. I guess my features are kind of like that.

RH That’s why I asked you if you consider yourself a social outcast. I mean, do you consider yourself an average, normal-looking person?

MS Aren’t I?

RH I’m asking you.

MS I was obese until I was 13, so obviously I have a fucked-up idea of how I look. So how people see me and how I see myself is very distorted.

RH It is very distorted, but the first time a baby sees himself is when he looks into a mirror and sees his image and says, oh me, or me Rosemary, or me Michael. That’s what I thought when you looked in the mirror and said, oh me Baby Ikky.

MS When did I look into the mirror?

RH I don’t know when you did.

MS No, the baby didn’t, never. No, the baby’s never seen itself. I never had to deal with that.

RH But you play the baby, and you play the baby to an audience that’s seeing you.

MS Right. It’s funny—when I first started doing the baby, I thought about the baby a long time before I even bought a costume or did it. And I had no idea I could do those things. It just happened. I just knew I was going to do this character and then I got on the floor and it just came to me. It sounds really like … but it’s true. I really didn’t know what I was going to do. It was six years ago in Chicago. I wanted to give birth to this character so I had a coming out party where the baby was first presented. I did a performance and the baby came out. It was like the Big Bang theory.

RH The Big Bang theory?

MS Well, I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking but I figure he came out of a lot of muck … he’s sort of grotesque, I mean a big baby. He’s got very infantile timing.

RH Yes. His timing is precise in its infantility.

MS Yes, as a baby. My sister would always get very uncomfortable watching the baby because she’s an occupational therapist and it reminds her of retarded people or she thinks it’s a goof on deformed people, but I’m not doing that.

RH Have your parents seen your Baby Ikky act? And how does your mother respond to it?

MS Well, everything I do my mother likes. (laughter) My mother once tucked the baby in at a performance. In fact my mother baked cakes for the first birthday in Chicago.

RH So when was Baby lkky born?

MS May 10th, 1975.

RH And you were born?

MS March 8th, 1951.

RH When your mother tucked Baby Ikky into bed during the performance was it spontaneous or choreographed?

MS No, I asked her to do it.

RH And she was very proud to do it?

MS She did it. She smiled. I wanted to pull her hair or something but she wouldn’t let me. She gave me a little kiss and tucked me in.

RH Did it make you feel good? Did you chuckle as much as the audience?

MS I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed for both of us. My parents are very supportive of what I do. They’re very good about it. Maybe we’ll submit this to People magazine.

RH That would be good to get you out of the downtown syndrome.

MS That would be a good title for BOMB. “Michael Smith Wants to Get Out of the Downtown Scene.”

RH Yes. We have to use it to your advantage. So, Michael, Baby lkky still speaks in baby talk. He doesn’t have any dialogue.

MS It took him two years to walk.

RH So he was a late starter?

MS He’s obviously sort of slow but I don’t know how to deal with the talking. Once he said “apple” and “horsey” but then I didn’t know how to get beyond that, so I had him regress. So he doesn’t talk at all. He just makes noises.

RH When he managed to say the words “apple” and “horsey,” why did he choose those two words? And why did you force him to regress again?

MS Because I could deal with those two-syllable words but I didn’t know how to do the baby talk. I wasn’t interested to spend the time figuring that out. I needed some coaching.

RH So it was much easier to regress Baby lkky’s growth. Which brings me to another question. Last time I saw Baby Ikky he was driving Le Car out of the garage into Wooster Street.

MS That’s really clown-like. That’s like making a baby keep in the image of a baby but then making it totally ridiculous, adult-like, but cartoon-like.

RH So his regression is located only in terms of his language but he does do very adult actions. He drives a car. So do you think Baby Ikky will always remain a baby or will he grow up and start to encounter the various pains of adolescence?

MS That should be interesting. It would be nice.

RH I mean, would he progress to the point where he started to play dr-dr?

MS Maybe. I would actually like other people to script for the baby.

RH So the baby needs a mother.

MS Maybe that’s it, a teacher.

RH Someone to mold him.

MS To help him, yeah. Give him an idea. Not mold him but give him some sort of framework.

RH I’ve seen Baby Ikky do fantastic things, where the fuse in his light blew and he jump-started the light from the motor car. That’s very intelligent.

MS He didn’t do that.

RH Oh, yes he did.

MS That was the Mike character. He’s got a few years on the baby.

RH So there must be a very close connection between Baby Ikky and Mike.

MS What would it be? I have a certain reverence for Mike.

RH I’m interested in the connection, which I think is very relevant, between Baby Ikky and the middle-class executive wig which Mike wears.

MS Possibly when I put that wig on it gives me that corporate-type look, Mike (without the wig) is naive. The baby is just ignorant. Ikky in his directness is more like the executive, a more aggressive character, whereas Mike muddles around a lot more. He is a lot more deliberate. Baby Ikky is more impulsive. The baby just goes for it.

RH The baby still goes for it, but you yourself reprimand and repress the baby?

MS Yeah!

RH Which is strange, because when a baby does something wrong he is reprimanded but still allowed the freedom to experiment and get away with a lot more than Mike in his adult naiveté.

MS The baby can look to the audience for approval, whereas Mike is in his own little world. He doesn’t look to the audience for approval. He looks at himself whereas the baby looks out and all he looks at are the things around him. He is not very reflexive about what he is doing. What is he doing in that room? He is just in the room, whereas Mike thinks about why he is there even though he deals with the most banal things. He still thinks about himself in relationship to those things, whereas the baby just plays with these things. I don’t think about the baby much.

RH So when the baby’s performing he doesn’t care a fuck whether the audience likes him or not?

MS Oh, no. I do. I obviously do.

RH But you’re the baby? Or does Michael Smith stand apart from the baby? Are they separated when they perform?

MS The thing that depresses me about the baby is that after a certain point I realized that the baby did certain things and I wasn’t going beyond those certain things. Like I got to an impasse with the talking. I saw the baby just repeating itself, going up to things and just squishing them or looking up at the ceiling and doing stock things. It was depressing. It was boring for me to do it even though I’m very good at doing those things. I’ve got the baby down. The first year and a half I got better at it and got to the point where I walked more.

RH So maybe Baby lkky is just a retarded gorilla.

MS It’s possible. Baby Ikky also has a lot of tension in its body. When I do the baby I tense up everything. I’m stiff as it is, but everything becomes really stiff. Like my hand becomes a claw with the baby. In real life, when I answer the phone, if it’s a short conversation my hands sweat and I grip the phone like a fucking baby. Yes, I have a grip like a baby. I sleep like a baby and I land up in these strange positions. And I perch. Like I’ll be sitting at a table and my hands will be like this, perched like that. Because I’m very double-jointed I get into these baby positions.

RH I find it very interesting because your physicality in Baby Ikky is superb. His movements are extremely precise and a baby’s movements originate out of mimicking. As a baby you mime; and to go back to that point where you can actually see a baby and then re-mime being a baby, that brings me back to your physicality which allows you to do that very well. If you were six foot tall and were thin you couldn’t play Baby Ikky, could you?

MS I don’t think so. I’ve seen other people do babies like old comics and none of them really do it physically. They just do the kind of bullshit like Dada and clap their hands. Who knows why?

RH So it’s almost like Baby Ikky is stuck in his physicality and can’t enter into language.

MS Yeah, that’s why I’d like someone to script it for me, to see the baby develop too. Because I could always go back and have the baby turn into some snotty-nosed kid with pants up to here. I think it would look like those comics trying to do babies.

RH I think it would be very interesting, as I said before, if Baby Ikky would go through the pains of growing up.

MS I don’t want to do that myself. I don’t think I would want to repeat that time of my life. I don’t think I was real happy.

RH Why does Baby Ikky wear sunglasses?

MS To give me distance. First of all it gave the character a little more dress. It removes me. It removes the character, makes it much more cartoon-like.

RH And it’s also much easier to perform behind sunglasses because then you have no direct eye contact with the audience.

MS I like direct eye contact when I perform but with the baby I don’t want it. I really can’t see that well with them on. I would be a man without the glasses.

RH Exactly, because your eyes tell your age, so if you disguise the eyes they become compatible with the rest of the disguised body.

MS My eyebrows are very expressive and with the baby the glasses cover them up a bit, although you can still see them.

RH Maybe we can send baby to a psychoanalyst.

MS Urgh! I went to one of those and I hated him. He was a schmuck.

RH When you were a baby? Don’t bite your nails or my recording will be distorted.

MS This one is the only one I bite. Maybe baby can go and see the feet of an analyst.

RH You dance a lot in your performances, but the baby never has dances.

MS Once but it was horrible.

RH Do you see a distinction between performance, screen acting, and drama?

MS What’s drama?

RH The theater.

MS Okay. Performing is different from drama. In my earlier performances there was a lot more thinking out loud. I don’t think out loud too much when I perform now. I’m not that kind of performer. I like to know what I’m doing. I’ll vary it, and maybe improvise a gesture or timing but I like to know exactly what I’m doing. I’m more interested in getting a feeling across to somebody than an idea. I was interested in getting ideas across when I first started performing but I’m not too interested in that now.

RH You don’t necessarily have to clarify or justify what you’re doing; you’re just working within a process.

MS When I first started to perform I actually wasn’t that interested in the performing end of it. It was only after my first performance that I realized I had some ability to do that. I realized I could spend time developing rather than trying to figure out what I was doing. They were artsy kind of pieces.

RH When did you first start performing?

MS About six and a half years ago.

RH What did you do before that?

MS I was a painter.

RH What made you become a performer?

MS I don’t know. I’d stopped painting. I just sort of dried up. I wasn’t inspired enough to paint and then I started reading and writing limericks and little pieces. I had a lot of time on my hands,

RH You didn’t read when you were painting?

MS I did but it didn’t feed my work. Now I don’t read at all, very little.

RH Do you watch TV?

MS I watch a little, but not much. I watched a little last week, and I enjoyed it.

RH I watch a lot of TV but Michael threw my TV set out the window and broke my only means of communication with anything.

MS I watched a lot of TV when I was little. I think it really got me in the formative years. That’s another thing, my attention span is pretty short.

RH That’s not true. You perform an hour straight.

MS I mean when I watch other things my attention span is pretty short.

RH So you’re self-involved?

MS Very. You’re very astute.

RH Is that maybe why you became a performer—because of your weird physicality?

MS It’s possible. I didn’t think of it in that way. I mean I don’t think of myself as being terribly short. Am I short?

RH Oh, you’re terribly short. Are you shorter than me?

MS How tall are you?

RH Five foot three and a half.

MS Well, I’m taller than you. You’ve got those fucking heels on. I’m five foot four.

RH Well, maybe you should start being a transsexual and you can wear those fucking heels too. Maybe baby can become a transsexual.

MS That’s possible. Anything is possible for him.

RH I mean, you’ve regressed the baby, you wear a wig, so you might as well start growing breasts.

MS But when my hair gets to a certain length you can’t tell it from the wig.

RH But you still wear the wig.

MS Yeah, just to try and change it a bit. The baby is very cute.

RH Oh, he is so cute. I love the baby. Because he is cute he can get away with a lot of shit. You can shit on stage, throw it at the audience, or smear it on Le Car, or eat it like babies do and the audience wouldn’t be offended, because babies get away with things like that. But Mike couldn’t shit on stage or do anything that the baby can.

MS No, the baby doesn’t deal with cars at all. People sometimes say that he does have that look like he just has shit in his pants. I haven’t quite figured out what the look is but they say I have that very pleased look like there is something very warm with me. A lot of older women like the baby too, the ones that have babies, they relate to the baby. It’s a real crowd pleaser.

RH But it doesn’t please you. It confronts you with a lot of problems.

MS What to do with it, yes. The baby can’t say, I wonder what I’ll do today, whereas Mike can say that, and that’s pretty open ended.

RH Do you want to talk about the book you’re publishing?

MS Yeah, sure you can buy the book for eight dollars. It’s a photo-novel. I wear my wig in it. It’s called The Big Relay Race.

RH Do you mean running relays?

MS Did you see the book?

RH No, but I used to run relay races in my primary school and I used to come last. Is the book selling?

MS It hasn’t been.

RH You’d better tell people where they can buy it.

MS You can get it at the bookstores—Jaap Rietman, New Morning, Castelli. You can buy a limited edition of the book too, with a print of Mike at a desk. I’ve been spending most of my time working on this videotape.

RH So you are more into videotape now?

MS I still like to perform.

RH But perform in terms of video maybe?

MS I’d like to be able to combine them. Anyway, we were doing a project this year at Squat and we made it look like a very middle-class house inside. It was very nice. We carpeted it. We used the front windows. Put a very nice black and white photostat in it. It looked very real. I think it’s going to be pretty funny. It’s got a theme song. Mike is the main character. There are probably 15 people involved in the writing. We just have to finish the editing.

I’m going to be in someone’s film next week, a guy named Dan Walworth, I’m going to play one half of a gay couple. And we play white middle- class homosexuals. I looked through the script. I don’t have a complete grasp of it. We are supposed to give our impressions of Central America.

RH Which you have to write yourself?

MS No, I just take it from the script. Yeah, I didn’t want to think at all but it could be kind of interesting.

How was I in Karyn Kay’s film?

RH You were extremely ninny and the audience really laughs when you run out of the toilet.

MS Another toilet. I love those toilet jokes.

RH Just give me one toilet joke before you leave.

MS I can’t remember jokes right now.

RH You have to.

MS Too embarrassing.

RH Please, just one.

MS The worst one. Okay. Let me think. Oh, well, this is very disgusting. This guy goes into a bar and he goes up to the bartender and he says, “Give me a bowl of …” Disgusting enough for you?

RH No. I think it’s really bad.

MS Well, let me think of a better one. I bet you’re going to start the interview with this joke.

RH On that note we’ll end this interview,

MS There’s something very perverse about this?

RH About me?

MS Not about you. About the fact that I’m setting myself up like this.

RH But you’re enjoying it.  

Mike's World: Michael Smith and Joshua White (and other collaborators) by Nell McClister
Smith 7 Copy Body
Kembra Pfahler by Brienne Walsh
Kembra Pfahler Bomb 1

Kembra Pfahler is a downtown legend: a punk rocker, screen goddess, curator, and performance artist who moved from Los Angeles to the East Village in the early 1980s. Over the course of her time in New York, she’s modeled for Calvin Klein, sang lead in the death punk metal band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, and founded a performance art movement known as “Availabilism.”

Ieva Misevičiūtė by Melanie Bonajo
Ieva Miseviciute Bomb Magazine 01

A performance artist who grew up in the circus uses clowning, street dance, and butoh in playful and provocative combinations.

Morgan Bassichis by Katherine Brewer Ball
Morgan Bassichis Bomb 1

“What’s the point of being queer, or an artist, or a radical, if you don’t veer?”

Originally published in

BOMB 2, Winter 1982

Tim Burns & Jim Jarmusch, ABC No Rio, Charles Ludlam & Christopher Scott, Jacki Ochs, Michael Smith, Mirielle Cervenka, Gary Indiana, Sonia Delauney, and Phillipe Demontaut.

Read the issue
002 Fall 1982