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[published: September 24, 2008]

The Re-Enchanter

Joe Milutis knows a lot about nothing. He wrote a book about ether and gives tours of parking lots. He shares an excerpt of his latest project, a short film about a dead mall called The Idea of South, and talks with Last Exit about why he is not afraid of boredom.

KH: You have become an expert on guiding people through these empty, decaying, defunct or otherwise blandly corporate American spaces, from the metaphysical tour of the Wal*Mart parking lot to your retracing of William Carlos Williams’ steps in Paterson, New Jersey. So how did you find this one, and at what point did you decide that it deserved its own film?

JM: It was where I was living. I rode past it every day. A lot of it was the strip between where I lived and where I taught. And there’s another part of the film that is not in the clip, which is in a dead mall. The only reason I went there was because there was a really great Indian restaurant that was in the back corner. And in a lot of these places where strip mall culture reigns, you might find these really great interesting places in the heart of this strip mall. There might be an Indian restaurant or a really great place to go salsa dancing, and you have to go find these out.

I think what happened one day is I was looking through all my piles of paper, and I found this old ‘zine, and in this ‘zine was an article about modern primitives. Not the modern primitives that are about scarification and tattoos, but the idea of really exploring space and re-enchanting space in the same way as, say, an Australian aborigine would — by creating song lines and incorporating these elements into your own personal cosmology or your own map. And one of the things I realized is that I hadn’t done that kind of mapping in those spaces, and I was just getting depressed when I moved through them. Since it’s a driving culture, a lot of people move through these spaces very quickly, or they would ignore them, so they were doubly left behind. There was not a lot of pedestrian traffic. I felt that, in order to come to terms with these spaces that were my location, I really had to go and walk there and take pictures and pay attention to the point where I generated my world, instead of ignoring my world, which is what a lot of people would do when they would drive past it very quickly.

There’s the issue when you take on these spaces of being conceived of as a snarky interloper, someone who doesn’t really belong there and who doesn’t really have a say in how these spaces are mapped and seen. And one of the things that people would tell me after they saw this film, is that I was more southern than southerners, because people who had lived in the south for years and years and years wouldn’t even pay attention to this fine texture of this southern landscape. Instead they would get in their SUVs and go rapidly past it and think in their mind that they were southerners, but they wouldn’t have any connection anymore to the actual topography. It’s interesting the question of who can authentically represent their space and how people do that and how people do live in it, if they do at all.

KH: Each of your investigations so far has been in a different format – blog, slide show, book. Why did you choose this film, which itself is kind of a slide lecture, to guide the viewer through this space?

JM:One of the things that I was first attracted to was the particular type of signage that I found in the south. I was just collecting video of that and didn’t quite know what to do with the video. Then I saw Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque, which was a really breakthrough moment. I happened to see it twice that year. The Baltimore Museum had a great show about slides and slide shows, and then the Smithson retrospective at the Whitney. I was really impressed by what he was able to do with just photos and his narration, and his lecture. It gave me a sense of what I could do with the rest of the piece. How I could turn this into a full piece rather than a collection of images. Because I was really hesitant to just give a lecture, probably because in the experimental film world, people have a lot of problems with something that is too wordy. A lot of it has to do with a logophobia endemic to film culture, but it’s also because in the ‘80s there were these really awful films that people were making that were basically just theoretical papers layered over images. It was like going to a bad conference. People didn’t perform well. They didn’t use their orality in interesting ways. And so that’s a liability that people are going to see your film as just a lecture layered over images. And the way that Smithson did it, it was a lecture. And what you are seeing is a reconstruction of a lecture. But what I wanted to do was take those insights I was getting from the Smithson piece and create a more subtle montage, even though it was pictures and still video.

What I start with is, I develop the pictures and I make a stack. I paste them into a notebook and I use a China crayon. I have to get messy. I have to get a glue that smells in an intoxicating way. I have to be there with the book and paper. I can’t sit in front of the computer. The China crayon is really important because it keeps me from writing sentences that are too complex. The only sentences that I can write with a China crayon are ones that can easily be performed, are ones that are going to come off well in a video format like this, are ones that will allow me to look at them while I’m recording and maybe not read them word for word but be able to go with the flow and improvise.

All this came together because I was trying to think of ways to not only narrate different types of Situationist drifts and turn them into a media event, but also use different forms of media to generate the thoughts themselves. I wouldn’t have had these thoughts unless I took a camera to these spaces and spent that time, and some of the thoughts came at the moment that I was focusing the lens on the very small object. So the act of capture actually creates the thought. It’s not like the theory comes before the images or even the images come before the theory, there’s this real generative space between those two things.

KH: Smithson is one of those artists who is associated really strongly with a specific place – Passaic, New Jersey — which he gazes at in much the same way as you gaze at this dead mall space. But he chooses to name his space, and I was really curious why you chose not to name yours.

JM: Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North, which the name kind of plays on, is about Canada to a certain extent, but it’s about also the north as a metaphysical concept, as something that we all deal with, what is this idea of north. It could have emotional, it could have intellectual resonances. And people have pointed out to me that these strip mall places are everywhere. So some people have asked the opposite of what you’re asking – not why didn’t you name it, but why did you name it? Why is this the south and not somewhere in Michigan?

I think the United States is locked in a war between the idea of south and the idea of Seattle, Washington, where I am right now. On the one hand, there is Seattle — liberal bastion, where there is this civic mindedness, attention to space, all sort of mechanisms in place that support workers rights and human rights and very hip in that way. And then there’s the south. South Carolina is anti-union, it’s highly Christian. The economy is a mess. There’s rampant racism that’s institutionalized. And so that to me was part of both placing it but not really placing it. The fact that the south could rise again, in a sense.

I felt for a long time that I couldn’t do a project about the south unless I had that kind of prideful sentimentality. So when I saw Smithson’s Hotel Palenque piece, what was interesting about that was that he had just the right amount of comic detachment. He was there in this rundown hotel in Mexico, and he was kind of making light of it, he was saying that you can see the whole history of Western architecture in this funny little rundown Mexican hotel. But yet he was allowing you to see that hotel in a way that you wouldn’t before. Yet he wasn’t being colonialist. He wasn’t like some aristocrat coming in and saying rude things about this hotel. He was using the comic mode as a way to get you to pay attention to this, and to use it as a mirror for something more cosmic. And of course Smithson is always interested in the concept of the mirror, and these mirrors that are not really exactly mirrors. Not the narcissistic mirror, but the challenging mirror. So that gave me license to be to have the attitude that I thought was appropriate to these spaces.

KH: The attitude is important. One of the things that I liked best about the film was that, during the introductory scene, when you and the delivery man notice none of the same things about the same stretch of highway. What I liked is that you didn’t suggest that you saw any more than he saw, just that you saw completely different things. And presumably there is another south existing within the one that you show us in the film that you can’t even see. Does one need to shut out this other dimension, the one attuned to places like Burger King and Auto Zone, in order to see the one that you are showing us?

JM: That’s the problem with deciding to have one voice narrating it. I could have had many voices narrating it, but then it would just be some sort of simulation, I wouldn’t be fessing up to those blind spots that you’re pointing out. What that introduction points to is that I literally wasn’t seeing them. They had become so much a part of the landscape that they no longer existed as markers for me, since they are ubiquitous.

What I was looking for when I first moved there was that cliché of the south, that cliché of southern ruins, so I was only seeing these particular rundown businesses, these very down home type businesses. So it took a while for me to realize that maybe, and I think what you get by the end of the film, maybe my paying attention to those particular buildings was another form of southern nostalgia in the same way that if you go to historic plantations that’s a form of southern nostalgia.

As with my piece on Wal*Mart that’s online, as you see there, there’s an infinity of experience and detail and different even in something like a Wal*Mart parking lot, you have to just seek it out. It’s like anything in pop culture. We imagine these things as monolithic entities, but the dynamic of pop culture is that people make of these entities what they will. For example, when I did the live version of the Wal*Mart piece, we thought we would be seen as these malcontents in the parking lot because we were sitting there around this big van and having this art event, but it turns out that on a Friday night, that’s what people do in Wal*Mart parking lots. They go out there, they congregate, they do pop-a -wheelies on their motorcycles, it becomes this kind of carnivalesque space. Or at least in the Wal*Mart where I did that particular performance. So you see how something that is seemingly unhospitable to public space, is perhaps the only public space we have.

KH: That’s really interesting, especially in light of the role that these big brands play in this project, as something to be passed over or something inherently boring because they are ubiquitous really. Burger King is everywhere, so it’s understandable why you wouldn’t see it. And the focus on the run down things, I interpreted that as being somewhat informed by a fear that they would pass away into a world where there was nothing but Burger Kings.

JM: Yeah, and this always happens to me when I grow attached to something enough to make a video of it. Within two years, all those places were not gone, but people had misguided ideas about how to refurbish them. So they became miserable-looking. The Barefoot Appliance building had so many different manifestations. They tried to fancy it up. They put film posters in it. They did something weird to the facade. It was just as bad because they didn’t realize what a beautiful building they had in the first place and all they needed to do was respect its original form and they would have had a really great space. The pharmacy, which was a great building too, they just tore that down and they put up this monstrosity of another mini-mall, which I just don’t get. I don’t get the rationale for that. These are things that will be going because of the way that people think about real estate salability, and probably if I owned those buildings and I looked at the numbers I might not be sentimental about them either. I might just say, plow it down, and I’ll sell you the land. You’re in a different position when you actually own real estate and you are trying to make back your vestment and you are an artists who is warming himself in the glow of and mediating upon their ancientness and patina age and their sense of time and history. To many people that’s a luxury.

KH: I want to go back to a topic we discussed earlier, the distinction between driving and walking. How much of that sentimentality do you think comes from that luxury of being able to walk? How much of people’s way of seeing is informed by the fact that they are in their cars?

JM: Oh yeah. That’s huge. I was just reading an article about Critical Mass, somebody in New York got clipped by a cop, just randomly. So there was an article about how this was this new form of class warfare where these scruffy bicyclists are basically the aristocrats who the working class cops are feeling — there’s this tension and animosity between the culture who can afford the real estate that’s close enough to their workplace so that they can ride their bike, and the culture that can’t afford that real estate, and has to live out in the exurbs and has to drive. That’s really important to think about. There is a big luxury, and this is why people are starting to question the popularity of different Situationist modes of engagement. Who has time to be the flaneur in the city when we are not the modernist city anymore? Who has time to just ride their bike randomly about and discover the magic in the forgotten corners of the urban world? Well, one could say that it is certain educated elite. However, I am always suspicious of those arguments. And it’s the same argument that people will give you about certain forms of theoretical discourse, that it’s only a kind of Ivy League elitist practice. But really this is the consciousness of any form of survival that one is going to have in the city, whether you are the elite, or you are homeless, or without means, or just if you are in, for example, my situation, where I was feeling unconnected and depressed and couldn’t find my center. It’s a mode of survival that’s important, and we can’t say it only belongs to the educated elite and then disregard it. And say, get over yourself and buy a car and be American. These modes of engagement with the world are important across the board, regardless of where you are coming from.

The instinct to walk and to discover your space is sometimes forgotten and yes, if you are somebody who has kids and has to work a lot, you sometimes forget that. But if you don’t remember that, you are not going to be able to survive in the world itself. There are so many people out there whose unhappiness stems precisely from a kind of disconnect with the world. They are living in a space that doesn’t exist. They don’t have ownership over it. One of the things about walking and bike riding and exploring in that way is you start to have some kind of imaginative ownership of the space. You might not own the space. You might be constantly alienated by these condos and skyscrapers that you might never have a space in, but there is an element of making a place your own that happens on this more primitive level of just being able to map it for yourself.

KH: As you know, this is for our boredom issue. And as you are something of an expert on nothing and things that other people might consider boring, I’ve got to ask you, what bores you?

JM: I was thinking this morning about in the heyday of Semiotext(e) magazine and journal. You might not remember this because you might have been too young and in Indiana, but Semiotext(e) put out these really great anthologies in the ‘80s and one of them was this Semiotext(e) USA anthology. And I was remembering that the tagline from the back of the book was “We are not bored.” And in fact, when I Googled it this morning to look for the piece of copy and I found it, I realized that they were kind of doing their own version of Situationist psychogeography. They were calling it psychotopography. They were trying to make their own brand version of this type of experience. And so, I don’t know, I mean maybe that’s something, am I bored? I think that when you look into areas not found in the general …when you look into new areas, when you explore new territories, there is both this feeling that, as the Semiotext(e) people said, that we are amazed and there is all this potential and there is so much great stuff. But in order to be an explorer, you have to be comfortable with boredom. And I’m doing this project now on South Dakota, which is another type of nothing place. It is a very strange, off-the-map place. And because of that, there’s a history of — I’m reading this novel of immigration in South Dakota. The Norwegians coming and going out in the middle of nowhere and setting up society. And on one hand, they are like oh wow, this is great, this is amazing, we are creating our new culture, we are becoming our own kings, and we are going to rule our own community here, and then there is this undercurrent of insanity and dissatisfaction, like why did you bring us here. There is nothing here. So in order to be anything exciting like an entrepreneur or and adventurer or an artist, you have to be prepared for the fact that because of the fact that the territory is not mapped, there is going to be this thing that we might call boredom, because of the fact that you are working in a blank. And you might not know what to do, or even if you know what to do, the time between your starting what you do and figuring out what you are doing, might be immense. I don’t know if I am bored, but I embrace the possibility of boredom.

Copyright Last Exit 2008


Reader Comments [1]

  1. 1.  

    I never considered boredom an issue.

    Keach hagey rules

    luthor · Sep 25, 04:49 AM ·#

Comments closed