Chamber of Public Secrets


I caught up with Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky a few weeks back via email. After several back and forth emails we decided it would be best to first conduct a less formal interview via Twitter, which is searchable and archived via #SpookyVenice13. This interview took place via email between February 17th – 22nd, 2013.

DORIAN BATYCKA (DB): Where did the impetus of your idea for Tides and Tariffs and your project relating to the Maldives Pavilion for the 55th Venice Biennale come from…

PAUL MILLER (PM): At this point in the 20th century, its becoming more and more clear that basically, data will be the main conduit for how human beings interpret the world around them. That’s not good or bad – its just the way it is. I wanted find some ideas that link to the issue of artificial versus natural foundations for how human beings exist in this hyper networked world. Main issue here – the tension between how we think about the foundations of our global society and the real issues that we have unleashed that are seemingly beyond our control. The ocean is the most powerful thing on this planet. If you think about tidal power – it can generate electricity to power most of our civilization, and the only thing more powerful is air, and sunlight. That’s how powerful the resource is. I thought that by making an art project about the currents that are the main cause of the Maldives being under environmental catastrophe, it would help raise awareness, and create a forum to discuss these incredibly urgent issues.

DB: What’s the deal, does your music seed your art or does your art seed your music? Or do you conceive them as one and the same, as a sort of vertical and horizontal rhizomatic becoming?

PM: I’m all about reflexivity. Nothing stands alone, and every concept is linked to ideas that are based on other ideas. If there is one thing I’ve learned from the “idea” of nature, it’s that complexity is the basis of everything. You can’t simplify any thing. I’m influenced by writers like Anna Held Audette with her book The Blank Canvas, Deleuze and Guattari, philosophers like Manuel Delanda, Frantz Fanon, and more recent additions to contemporary thinking like Anthony Appiah with his concept of cosmopolitanism. When we see an entire nation vanish like what is happening to the Maldives, it really forces one to think “how could we have come to this?” That’s what my project is about. It asks questions. So I guess music and art, just aren’t separate.

DB: You told me a few years back you taught William Burroughs how to DJ, how did that go down?

PM: It’s all about metaphors…

DB: One of your recent projects, the Nauru Elegies (link), takes as a point of departure the ongoing ecological crisis faced by the small island nation state in light of issues relating to economics and resource exploitation, how important do you think the study and understanding of political economy is relative to art making and the field of contemporary art?

PM: I like to think of the Nauru Elegies project as a kind of ethnology of the way we have lost track of the ways our financial fictions have multiple realities. The way the networks of global finance operate is that they really don’t need physical space. They are hyper nomadic in a way that Deleuze and Guattari could have only dreamed about. I wanted to make compositions that reflect the same sense if unease with physical versus geo-financial space.

DB: One of my favourite McLuhan quotes was when he wrote in The Gutenberg Galaxy: “Heidegger surfboards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode on the mechanical wave,” a very poignant and well articulated bit on how artists, thinkers and philosophers are responsive to their technological environment. How would you characterize our present technological environment? What “wave” are we riding now and where is it taking us?

PM: Heidegger and McLuhan are cool. But the themes that resonate in my work are all about the post North/South divide and the realignment of power that is going on between the post Enlightenment scene of the West, and the rise of a multi-polar world. When I was a kid – the main event was the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the tumult that erupted from the collapse of the Soviet Union. So much art of the 20th Century dealt with the Cold War – Warhol, Kandinsky, even Mondrian and Pollock… Then you had Afro-Diaspora artists like Wilfredo Lam and Romare Bearden etc… What happens when the geopolitical tensions of the era are a reflection of hyper consumerism? That’s what makes islands so interesting – they act as ciphers – off shore banking, fragmentation, narrative isolation… These themes really don’t play out in hyper social places like Jamaica or Vanuatu. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at architecture on places like Nauru, Vanuatu, Tasmania… Etc it all comes back to import/export scenarios – ideas and currencies… Its still the same remix. Its neither waves or particles – just a massive sense that “realism” is in crisis. Maybe we can think of all this as a search for new fonts… Typographic flow in hyper real contexts. Or something like that….

DB: I often conceive of your work as a kind of multi media gesamtkunstwerk, or a synthesis of seemingly discursive forms, ideas, meta narratives, identities, materials, and so on, working together and crystallizing into thresholds of varying intensities and creative possibilities. Where do you most often cull your inspiration from?

PM: Reality is my record collection.

DB: A “cargo cult” is a religious and spiritual practice that emerged amongst tribal peoples in response to large cargo planes full of material goods that arrived into the South Pacific region during and immediately following World War II. Cult members believed that the wealth brought in large part by American military cargo planes was intended for them by their deities and ancestors.  In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and faux radio equipment out of bamboo or whatever materials they had at hand, and mimicking the behavior that they had observed of the military personnel in operation there. In your prospectus for Tides and Tariffs, you write about the connection between the “idea” of islands with that of networks, architecture, finance and offshore economies. Further, you also have a project and artist residency you are building on Vanuatu, where the John Frum Cargo Cult developed on Tanna Island. Do you think there is any link (metaphorical or otherwise) between “Cargo Cults” and the consumptionist mythology promoted by Western capitalism?

PM: Cargo cults are a culture grounded in ‘realism’ facing an American imperialism and the concept of ‘total war’ – the South Pacific was a theater of atomic bomb tests and encrypted hyper abstract financial services. Both represented some of the most powerful themes of the 20th century. Cargo culture is a kind of functional surrealism applied to a tenuous sense of time and space. Fun!

DB: Universal Grammar is a theory in linguistics developed by Noam Chomsky which asserts that the ability to learn and distinguish grammatical data is hard wired into the brain. Relating to sound and linguistics, or lingusitics unbound: Where do you think sound fits into the grammatical micro assemblage of language?

PM: Its all about islands as a ‘universal grammar.’

DB: Lastly, green tea or red wine?

PM: Green tea. Definitely.