“For me lately, I started to feel like my tentacles were extended beyond the point where I could see them, so I needed to retract and refocus.” -MBD
Mikel Bisbee Durlam was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1977. He received his MFA from the University of South Florida in Tampa in 2006 and his BFA from the University of Northern Iowa in 2000. Since 2000, Mikel has collaborated with Ethan Krusczka as part of the art group The Fluff Constructivists. Mikel and his wife Megan Bisbee Durlam live and work in Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
James caught up with Mikel via IM chat and their conversation stretched out over several days via email. Mikel discusses his artmaking practice, circumventing prescription, and living abroad.
JG: What are you doing in Japan?
MBD: My wife and I are both assistant English teachers, which is one of the more humbling jobs I’ve had these past few years, but we are really here just to experience Japan and living abroad for a longer chunk of time.
JG: How is that influencing your point of view?
MBD: Well, it keeps changing and evolving I guess. We have been here over a year now, and it has gone up and down. Now, I am on a certain high about this culture. I’m really digging into the visuals, food, language, shit like that. There are some fundamental differences that are hard to swallow initially. Some things are so different from the Western individualistic culture.
JG: Like what?
MBD: Nothing happens quickly. No simple question is answered immediately. Groups are made, deliberations happen for very, very small decisions.
JG: Are you making any artwork in Japan?
MBD: Yes, I am. Sculpture, some video stuff. 2D again, after many years of no 2D. A lot of music.
JG: Are you working more on your solo career as an artist or your solo career as a musician?
MBD: Music- yes. art…
JG: Not as much?
MBD: Well, I’ve been collaborating on art projects for 8, 9 years. And now my collaborator Ethan Krusczka and I find ourselves in, I guess, different modes and locations and phases of life, so we are doing more solo thinking and making now. But our collaboration will continue in certain ways.
JG: What is the Fluff Construct?
MBD: it is a name to canopy the various stuff Ethan and I have felt like doing over the years. In a way, we are lightening up on the FC for now because it started to feel dogmatic or too structured, which has never been something either of us enjoy in art making.
JG: Is the name Fluff Constructivists a parody? Is it a take on Dada or Fluxus or some other modern movement with a manifesto?
MBD: Well, it began with interest in the Russian Constructivists, and a desire to, yes, have a small ridiculous movement in an age that really isn’t fitting to have a team or movement. These were initial interests, but we quickly just did our own thing, rather than hone some style-biting from Constructivism, or chip away at some really perfect manifesto. All that seemed really goofy to us. We just made stuff and tried to find exciting things to do.
JG: Describe the Fluff Construct’s work.
MBD: there has been a wide range since we began working together in 2000. Hard to generalize, as we never are ones to enjoy the idea of a shtick coming on. We have our own threads within content, though, that linger through projects, but aesthetics have shifted greatly.
It has been really interesting to spend a lot of my adult life collaborating with another person, especially someone who I consider one of the most righteous artists I’ve ever known. Now, though, it is only natural that new questions need to be figured out, and I think we both need to adjust and re-root our brains in our new environments and our new priorities. So for now, I am always open to new FC projects unfolding, but it is nice to sit with things, without discussion, and refocus.
JG: How much of a purely photographic endeavor is the Fluff’s work?
MBD: Ethan and I would answer his differently, but for me, photo is a part of our work because of the way that artists and art culture need to visually validate work existing. If we set up something in the middle of a street, we take a photo of it also. After the moment is over, it inherently becomes a photo of a moment, but the key idea is that all that effort is now a photo. But because of this, I don’t think we have anything that has been purely photographic. I am not a huge fan of the idea of making art photography. Without the initial gesture and initial audience of that gesture, the project feels too ‘thin’ for me, I guess.
JG: Fluff Construct’s projects seem hypothetical and recyclable. Is any of the Fluff’s output permanent?
MBD: Often just the photos, if we are talking relative permanence. We mentally haven’t been intrigued by the idea of our work living in some massive physical form for decades. We have often wanted to work somewhat large, and it just doesn’t sound interesting to secure homes so we can see the stuff in person again.
I like and hate the awkward moments that Ethan and I create in the moments when our sculptures/installation things exist. That is a success I see in our stuff. It truly connects, in good and bad ways.
JG: What do you think the temporary work says, if anything, about our culture to people in the future?
MBD: The physical materials are often eco-friendly (like paper mache) so it speaks to me of not being an environmental asshole. It also speaks of staging. Staging is a huge part of how we see art. I like the excitement in the thinking and making and moment.
JG: Have you ever identified yourself as an artist on a tax form?
MBD: I ain’t never made an income from my art or music. My wife and I are excited with the music possibility, and my wife has done far better a job at making an art income, but I have had juvenile hang-ups with making a living off of art, and I have worked through that now. It’s something I hope to do.
JG: You lived in Tampa: from one Iowan who moved to Florida to another: why did we all come here?
MBD: Why do we leave? Why not? When I moved out of Iowa, bound for what I thought was going to be Detroit on the morning of 9/11, 2001, my brother asked me why I wanted to leave. I said: “Why not?”
I left for a few reasons. I spent a few years out of school, and was then in a grad school I hated in New York. In a rush to have a better situation, I went where my collaborator (Ethan) was in school. Grad school was a mixed bag. Grad school in general is a mixed bag for all it seems.
JG: Is the future center of the art world south Asia or is there even a center now?
MBD: I don’t know and I don’t know if I care. That stuff is determined by art publications and gallery fairs. It’s not Japan, though. Japan rules, but Tokyo is not a mythic art paradise. It is cool, but the galleries and contemporary art is scattered and few.
JG: Is it misleading to say that with the web it no longer matters where you live?
MBD: With the web or without, I now know I need at least some people. I am excited when I am back in the states to grow and feed some sense of community again. Here I am both isolated and limited in language.
JG: For you, what is the role of artists in our society?
MBD: Case by case. Generalizations fail when looked at closely. Whatever an artist’s role is designated as, I would want to see the artists who skew or evade or redefine that role. The people subscribing to any given role are making prescribed work, and art is a nice big malleable field for circumventing prescription.
So, I guess I am answering the question. Perhaps at least an “interesting” role is to circumvent prescription.
JG: Is the artist a moral revelator?
MBD: I don’t know. Can be. I don’t think I am. Not a fascination for me. This gets dangerously close to the idea of didactic art making, which I am not really interested in. For me, my process is so often not about exploring a hypothesis, it is about dealing with my own experiences and processing it as I go. and I generally dig other artists who are just processing their own experiences, too, rather than the pseudo science that sometimes happens of, “Here’s my art hypothesis, here are my studies, here are the results.” Sometimes this is valid query, but often it is a guise for creative thought but is really school science projects under a high-art mask.
This then gets dangerously close to my own issues with how many academics think art academia should be…
JG: So why do you continue to want to wake up and make things?
MBD: Good question. Not you or I’s question. Kind of the number one question to ask of anything that can seem arbitrary, like art making often can. It’s not like, ‘why do you wake up and want to eat something?’, you know?
For me, I think the reason is to do something that either the act or the result is going to feel exciting or feel challenging to me. And since art is such an all-encompassing field, this “doing something” can be a doodle, a fake dead squirrel spinning on a motor, a plot for some strange narrative, etc. that is an amazing liberty that isn’t in so many aspects of life- to be able to focus and explore an illogical hunch and mull it out and gain some new insight afterwards. And a lot of things can feel drab and unchallenging compared to art making. Like most jobs. Like watching TV. Like web-surfing. Like buying groceries. etc.
But daily there is that wall of fear to overcome which is self-doubt and criticism, and that wall gets thicker and thicker the longer i spend away from the studio. i think a lot of artists have this experience, especially the ones that drift away from a practice of art making. The fear is too thick. Perhaps this is true for a lot of ‘non-artists’. That fear and criticism got thick when they were still in elementary school. They already pegged themselves as uncreative.
I like thinking of art making as an unessential use of time. I like the embrace of art making as a ridiculous choice, but in choosing to continue making art I might somehow not only learn how to keep challenging my thinking, but also prevent my soul from oozing out of my body and getting dragged under a wave of apathy.
JG: I see you going back in many ways to the basics (pencil drawing and collage) in your newer 2D work. Tell us about switching between video-installation-performance-sound recording-animatronics to more traditional materials.
MBD: Well, I know I will continue bouncing between mediums, probably for the rest of my life. I have had hang-ups in the past about what felt like my scattered oeuvre, but I’ve come to realize how common this is. A lot of us are all over the place, at least materially. This makes sense. Our interests and incoming influences are all over the place. And individual artists have been all over the place this entire past century (Duchamp as an early example.)
For me lately, I started to feel like my tentacles were extended beyond the point where I could see them, so I needed to retract and refocus. This means some smaller projects, working on drawings and paintings, reorganizing my thoughts. I think being in Japan, also, has made me feel more introspective, rather than as anal-explosive as my ideal art-making state might be.
JG: Do you work with similar ideas when you switch between media?
MBD: Yes. A professor of mine firmly believed that all artists have only 2 or 3 primary interests or ‘problems’, and we just keep trying to hash these problems out over the course of our lives. I agree with this, so far.
JG: The tendency is for contemporary artists to work across several media. This has changed the nature of the art we’re seeing now as opposed to say thirty years ago when we were much more rooted in the Modern ideal of purity (a painter paints, a sculptor sculpts.) Where do you stand?
MBD: I am okay with this, as long as it comes out of sincerity. If there are pushes for a single-track output for better gallery scene marketing, this seems sad. And the inverse, if there is a bit of video art and a bit of collage and a bit of sculpture to somehow give an evasive yet compelling contemporary ‘look’ to someone’s output, this seems sad. But it seems really natural for a lot of us to be multi-faceted with materials. We grow up learning about older generations that have made amazing work in any medium they see fit, and we are encouraged in our art schooling to try everything. I am more perplexed and strangely in awe of the people who naturally and sincerely gravitate to one specific medium. It seems like it would be so easy to be that way, but i can’t feel okay with it for myself. I’ve tried.
Also, the contemporary tendency is not only to work across several mediums, but also to be art critic, art historian, theorist, linguist, and an exceptional writer. I think this is good for a lot of people, but perhaps it can backfire. What is lost in this degree of analysis? How much does this contribute to the scary probability that most art students stop making work soon after graduation? Not that being undereducated is the solution, but is there something incredibly daunting about most art graduates having more art analytical skills than actual material / studio experience? I don’t know.
JG: When you work across several media, what is lost? What is gained?
MBD: What is lost? Often, it can be a depth to the content. it is easy to avoid digging in to the necessary degree when one moment your thought process is a little sculpture, and the next it is a watercolor. And, a lack of the necessary push of a medium that only comes with ongoing experience in that medium.
What is gained? For me, I think it can be a quicker processing of the little hunches and content that is floating around in my head. Often when I am working in various mediums in a short span of time I am closer to keeping up with the pace that things are going in my head.
JG: You mention a fear of death as the prime mover in your creative process. Maybe we’re re-treading some ground here, but is your need to create as simple as living on after death?
MBD: My ongoing connection with thoughts of death are afterthoughts in my work. I don’t like to start a project with a firm conceptual purpose. This often seems rigid and forced. But yes, after time has passed, a lot of things I make connect to my own fears of certain people now dead or dying, but not always in the mortal sense. Dying as in shutting off, becoming apathetic. Tragedy in general, really. Tragedy is such a powerful thing.
I honestly don’t feel much about my own death. But friends, family, even sad tragic news stories, these deaths feel really important. The oddity of thinking about the people now alive that mean so much to me are someday not going to exist. That is wild.
The easy solution for it all would be for me to become religious. Start a life of only carving a certain image out of a certain kind of wood all to exalt some higher power, and an added bonus would surely be some concrete faith in an afterlife that would automatically quell the ‘everyone dies’ issue.
JG: Is the Japanese scene or artist culture more conservative than ours?
MBD: The Japanese art scene SEEMS more conservative but there are roles within this conservative society that, in a sense, excuse a Japanese person from abiding by many rules. I think Artist is one of those. There definitely are crazy great art people here. it just seems like the society is even more interested in polish and marketing, and that is true with how they might handle most art made.
JG: The Fluff Construct’s “Motion Picture” project is based on the notion that the big-city avant-garde is boring and predictable, while places out in the sticks, (Anchorage Alaska, Thornton, Iowa) are unpredictable and exciting, correct?
MBD: I would change it slightly to less cynicism- big-city art and thought and happening is true and always will be, and this is good. Small obscure locations are also valid for having magic, too. and it is perhaps a less dissected scenario, which is more appealing. NYC is sweet. And I like it that it clusters people, which makes it more interesting to visit. I want my own location, though.
JG: Me too. JAX could easily be it, but art community-building is hard going here. We’re making it work. But we’re really spread out.
MBD: JAX sounds surreal. A good place, though?
JG: Yes and no. More yes. By far more yes. The web is taking on the role of a scene, in some ways. Tell me, is the internet where you get most of your art coverage?
MBD: Contemporary art- yes. But galleries in Tokyo and museums in various places in Japan always fill up a lot of my notebook pages. Especially the national museums. Good to see old Japanese art in person.
JG: What else are you seeing in Japan that you’ve never seen anywhere else?
MBD: A lot. I’ve been lucky to do some traveling stuff in Europe, and I am glad that being in Japan really feels different. It makes Europe feel even more like a sibling to the US than I might have thought before. Our local landscape here in the mountains is amazing. It is huge and confining simultaneously. It has vertical space. Villages that are basically above other villages, and I am able to get lost on obscure trails that are in my neighborhood/on my mountainside, and most trails eventually wind past little shrines or larger temples of some kind. And animals. Wild monkeys, wild hairy goats called kamoshikas (or serows in English), tanukis (raccoon-dogs)…and plants.
JG: Can you recommend some Japanese artists we should know?
MBD: Makoto Aida, Akira Yamaguchi, Kenji Yanobe, Yasuyuki Nishio, Keiichi Tanaami. Musically, I wish more bands would take cues from Afrirampo or the Boredoms or Melt Banana or Kiiiiiii. If you don’t already know them, search for live videos. They are bold.
JG: How is the economic downturn in the US affecting those in Japan?
MBD: The exchange rate is awesome. But, the Japanese economy is so intertwined with the U.S., and I have gathered that if the U.S. economy crashes, Japan will largely go down with it (as well as a lot of other countries…)
JG: How are the Japanese reacting to the US electing Barack Obama? How are you reacting to that?
MBD: Japan and I love it. My students thought Obama WAS the president long before the election. Everyone here knew Obama’s name, and if you asked them who McCain was, most folks wouldn’t have a clue. A lot of people here assume, though, that the Iraq war will now come to a magical screeching halt because Bush = War and Obama = Peace.
JG: Where can we see your art?
MBD: Well, online. I will be doing a certain project out and about here in Japan, but that will be for the pedestrians to stumble on (and then live on as, yes, images).
There is a video/light group show thing in Tampa that the Fluff Construct are a part of. Aside from that, I kind of like the idea of taking time to figure some new things out.
JG: Where can we hear your music?
MBD: On my website, www.mikelbisbeedurlam.com or www.thefluffconstruct.com there are various links. And live, I am playing a show this weekend as The Telepathics, and in Tokyo Jan 17th. Music has been strange for me. it always had a backburner role, and now I finally see it as equal importance to my art making. A lot of my old music is difficult for me because i can hear how so much of it was made in order to learn about making music (rather than some really tight, cohesive album), but I am glad it exists. i am more excited about my new stuff, for sure.
Performing is also way more terrifying than any crit I’ve had, so i enjoy the way music rattles me in ways art making doesn’t. The risks are different, and since music is more unknown to me, the risks are greater, which is a good thing.
JG: What else can you share with us about your experiences abroad?
MBD: The ex-guitarist of Megadeth, Marty Friedman, is huge in Japan. A real expert on J-Pop (Japanese Pop music.) And apparently not in a rocker burn-out seeking success in Japan sort of way. He genuinely loves it. That is bold. A near Duchampian turnabout.
Also, I’d recommend this for any artist: move abroad for a while. I am lucky that I am here with my wife Megan, who is a righteous artist [www.oknosleeping.com], so we have our own microartcommunity, but it is good being over here and out of our natural context for a while.
JG: Mikel, thanks for doing this.
MBD: Thank you, James. It’s fun to get the art discussion opportunity, perhaps especially since my daily life can often be as conversationally in-depth as asking, ‘what’s in this soup?’