+Commissioned by Rhizome.org+
Interview with Tom Moody, by Cory Arcangel
+ Editor's Note: The following is an interview of Tom Moody, conducted by Cory Arcangel, over several emails. Below are their bio's, followed by the interview, which touches upon blogging, fandom, defunct hardware & software, music, code, studio processes, and their shared appreciation for the lo-fi…
Tom Moody is a visual artist based in New York. His low-tech art made with MSPaintbrush, photocopiers, and consumer printers has appeared in solo shows at Derek Eller Gallery and UP&CO and numerous group shows. His weblog at www.digitalmediatree.com/tommoody <http://www.digitalmediatree.com/tommoody >, begun in February 2001, was recently recommended in the Art in America article "Art in the Blogosphere," and his web video "Guitar Solo" made its live audience debut this month in "23 Reasons to Spare New York," curated by Nick Hallett at Galapagos Art Space in Williamsburg, NY.
Cory Arcangel is a computer artist, performer, and curator who lives and works in Brooklyn. His work centers on his love of personal computers, the internet, and popular culture. He is a member of the artist groups BEIGE + R.S.G. His work has shown recently in the Whitney Biennial of American Art, The Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Migros Museum in Zurich, and Team and Deitch Galleries, in New York. Aside from gallery installations, most of his projects can be downloaded with source code from his website… http://www.beigerecords.com/cory/ Future projects include the music group Van Led, a self produced version of MTV cribz, and various assorted computer hacks.
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Cory: One of the things I think is interesting about you is that you seem to have done so many things. From being a fan of your blog over the past couple of years (is there a word for this? blogfan? RSStailgater?….anyway….), I have learned in bits and pieces that at one point or another you were a painter, a DJ, and also a critic for more traditional art magazines. As far as I can tell, you did this all at the same time. Is it possible to connect the dots to give a bit of pre-blog background about yourself, about how you came to each?
Tom: I double-majored in English lit and studio art at the University of Virginia; I DJ'd all four years and was Program Director of the student FM radio station, WTJU, the last two. Painting or being an artist is my main focus, but my original interests are mostly all still going strong. After college and a year of art school at the Corcoran in DC I moved to NY and painted, without a clue of how to access the art scene. I tried to get into SVA but applied too late for the fall semester. If I had gotten in, Keith Haring would have been my classmate (!).
Then I moved to Texas, where I originally grew up. I exhibited work, wrote art reviews for a Dallas zine, and to shorten a long story, that writing eventually led to a Dallas Morning News freelance gig and covering Texas for Artforum. Music took a back seat but one of my regrets was turning down a radio show on KNON-FM–I wanted to but didn't have time. I wrote tunes on the Macintosh but found music too time-intensive to produce at that stage.
I moved back to NY in 1995, had my first solo show here in '98, and wrote regularly for Artforum, which helped me get a sense of what was here. I exhibited at Derek Eller Gallery and Uscha Pohl's UP&CO space and actually sold work during the dot-com era, but by 2000 the first wave of what I'd call viable computer-made art also began to implode. A show I co-organized at Cristinerose Gallery called "Cyber Drawings," which also included Claire Corey's and Marsha Cottrell's work, got enthusiastic press response, but a certain momentum was being lost as potential collectors watched their businesses go south. Around this time Annika Sundvik and John Lavelle, who I met through the gallery world, opened a restaurant in Chinatown called Good World Bar & Grill. I DJ'd there for the better part of 2000. I started the blog in 2001, and started seriously making music again last year.
Cory: Digital Media Tree seems to also have an interesting history. It is a custom-built blog community which has many members of which you are one. Running your blog on custom built software is actually quite rare, so I am curious, how did Digital Media Tree get started?
Tom: Digital Media Tree is the brainchild of Jim Bassett, who wrote the software and has been the low-key, creative, officially-unofficial webmaster since 2000. It is a blog collective and quite active, with all of us commenting on each other's pages and posting to public and private group pages. My invitation to join the group came from artist Bill Schwarz, who has a page at http://www.digitalmediatree.com/schwarz/. There are features at the Tree at I haven't found in other blog packages, such as the ease of configuring pages with "use your own html" options, and the ability to spin off an infinite series of customized pages, as blogs or fixed pages. I'm too lazy to learn CSS, but actually prefer my page's under-designed html look.
Cory: It seems Bill was right-on by inviting you 'cause, looking through your archives, you jumped really quickly into blog format. You were reviewing shows, posting your own work, and even posting political commentary. I am not sure where I am going with this…basically what was your first impression of the blog format? Why didn't you restrict yourself to one topic? And also, what was your motivation in posting your studio process (a traditionally private practice) to the web?
Tom: I had my own site, and a site devoted to science fiction writer Doris Piserchia (http://www.digitalmediatree.com/dorispiserchia/), up and running a few months before joining the Tree so my basic rules of navigation were already in place: no splash pages, images must load quickly, assume no surfer will stay longer than .5 seconds so you better deliver, etc. The range of my blog content emerged within the first six months. Looking back at the "attack on America" posts from fall 2001, I was still apologizing to an imagined art readership for all the political ranting. By the end of the first year I knew the blog was going to be based on desire, passion, whim, or whatever you want to call it. That I'd post what I felt like and let the content emerge from that process.
Cory: Ok, so let's talk about your work. I did a studio visit a while back, and the work that I remember being the most interesting in person was your inkjet and MSPaint work. What is your fascination with personal computer software and hardware? When did you make the switch from paint-paint to MS paint? Why? Also is it true that your previous job had a role to play in this transition? I remember you mentioning this once to me.
Tom: I started using MSPaintbrush, actually an older version of MSPaint, on my first permatemp job in NY, which had a lot of downtime. The computers we used didn't have Photoshop back then (around '95-'96). Actual painting was giving me health problems–everything from turpentine poisoning to repetitive stress injuries–and over a period of a couple years, I gradually phased it out and started channeling everything I'd been doing previously through this one dumb program. I liked the idea of Paintbrush as a "found art tool"–it seemed genuinely exotic within the still slightly medieval, hand-crafty art world but also didn't buy into the whiz-bang futuristic assumptions I hated about so much computer art. I figured almost everyone had fooled around with one of these early programs and could intuitively get that I was doing something more elaborate with it. That didn't necessarily turn out to be true, but that was the intent.
Cory: I love this post from your blog ( http://www.digitalmediatree.com/tommoody/?28018), talking about your pre-computer work: "I mean, I like the ability of avowedly maximalist work to upset people. Collectors prefer elegant black and white abstractions that fade into the background, and the bad kid in me wants to make something they'll totally hate. And these are bad–there are a lot of degraded, half-finished pin-up girl drawings you can't see in the scanned polaroid, and bug-eyed caricatures, just the worst stuff. I'm compelled to do this kind of work (still) but once it's finished and I step back and look at it, I sometimes wish I hadn't." Do u still agree with this?
Tom: The work I did before moving to NY was packed with imagery, much of it unfiltered and kind of nasty. In the passage immediately prior to that quote I talked about getting "minimalist religion" on moving here, referring to all these studio visits I had with artists who said "You've got to start breaking this down into its parts, figure out what matters to you, open it up…" Otherwise–and I came to agree with this–the content would just be that we all live in a haze of information and conflicting signals, blah blah. The critiques made sense to me, and I ended up isolating the tripped-out, spherical abstractions, slightly pitiful but well-drawn portraits of media babes, and weird cartoons into separate bodies of work, each drawn in Paintbrush and printed out on xerox paper (and later EPSON home printer paper). I guess the point being you don't have to fill up a picture to annoy collectors.
Cory: So, if I am understanding this correctly, all your visual art is done on MSPaint?
Tom: It's actually Paintbrush–I know I'm a nerd on this subject. Paint ships with all Windows-equipped computers now, Paintbrush is the earlier version. It's abandonware but I still use it. I recently emailed the .exe file to drx of Bodenstandig 2000 and he was really happy to get it! I wrote a long blog post about why the earlier version was better before Microsoft "improved" it. Mostly it's in the handling of shading with the "spraycan tool"–you get much richer intermediate values. In answer to your question, it's my main drawing and painting tool. I use Photoshop for resizing and printing but I've never warmed up to painting in it–I like seeing the pixels, especially with a photorealistic rendering; it's literally edgier. Those spheres I do aren't made with a gradient tool, they're all hand-shaded in Paintbrush.
Cory: There is a lot of talk about craft on your blog. You have stated that you started to use MSPaint(brush) primarily because it was exotic and you felt that the process was accessible to a wider art audience. Did the idea of craft ever enter into this transition? What are/ were the various hang-ups, and the advantages of using something like MSPaint in terms of building a craft?
Tom: Hmmm, it sounds like I contradicted myself. When I said using that particular computer program was exotic I meant in the sense that the art world only just embraced *photography* as a legitimate medium, after decades of resistance to it as a lesser art form. The computer still has the shock of the new, or the shock of the bad in some cases. Art world folks know painting, photo, and printmaking lore, but are less secure–myself included–knowing what constitutes talent on the computer as opposed to some easy-to-do technical trick. I thought because everyone had Paint or the equivalent on their computer and had at least made a mark or spritzed the spraycan, they could see that I was doing something more ambitious with it. I was thinking of this guy in New Mexico who made perfect perspective drawings using an Etch a Sketch. If I could draw La Femme Nikita from scratch on this toy program and actually have people (well, guys) say she's hot, then a landmark would be achieved for both Paintbrush and the computer. The problem is I drew her so realistically people assumed I was running a photo though a pixelating filter.
When I talk about craft on the blog, just to make it clear, I'm not talking about drawing ability but things like mosaics and needlepoints that relate to the computer on a much more fundamental image-making level, the grid level. I love the cross-stitch patterns and beadwork you can find online based on MSPaint drawings. In the late '90s I was impressed by the writing of cyberfeminist Sadie Plant, who opened up for me a whole organic, non-analytical way of looking at computation. She traces digital equipment back to one of its earliest uses, as punchcards for looms, and talks of the internet as a distributed collaborative artwork akin to traditionally feminine craft projects At the time I was drawing and printing hundreds of spheres at work and bringing them home, cutting polygons around them, and then taping the polygons back together in enormous paper quilts. In my press release for the Derek Eller show we called it "corporate tramp art."
Cory: Lets talk about what you are working on now….. recently you (and I) were included in the Fuzzy Logic show of the Futuresonic festival. What did you show there?
Tom: One of those quilts, which I'm still making. That body of work has been shown quite a bit over the years but the Fuzzy Logic show was the first where a surrounding dialogue perfectly fit it. Plant attended Futuresonic as a speaker, and co-curator Jackie Passmore wrote about the art show: "the artists…trade between the tools of handcraft and computer programming indiscriminately, highlighting the oft-overlooked correlation between the lo-fi art of handcraft and knitting and its digital descendant, the computer. Fuzzy Logic celebrates the art of the microprocess: knitting numbers, aligning loom and logic, weaving program and pattern." The quilt I had in Fuzzy Logic was a little different in that I made a big Buckyball from a scan of an old painting and hand pieced an Op art pattern drawn in Paintbrush around it. What did you show?
Cory: Well, at Futuresonic, I showed an "Infinite Fill Blanket." People may or may not remember that about a year ago, my sister and I put together a show, at the gallery Foxy Production, all based around the paint patterns in Mac Paint (called Infinite Fill patterns). It was a group show, and in the end we had 93 people. Basically we let anyone in who submitted stuff that was black and white and had patterns. So yeah, for this, at one point I wanted to make Infinite Fill clothes. So Jamie went and bought this big piece of fabric, and took it to the silkscreeners www.kayrock.org<http://www.kayrock.org>and they silkscreened a pattern on the fabric. So to make a long story short, the fabric never ended up getting to a fashion designer and became a blanket, which I (for some reason) brought to Liverpool when I was in residency @ the FACT center. From there it ended up in the show!
Speaking of the "Infinite Fill Show," you submitted a piece for it, which was an animated gif similar to the gifs on your blog. I was interested in knowing how having the blog has changed your art? For example, much of the earlier work you posted to the blog was documentation, but now I am seeing finished pieces, or "end files," meaning the file you post IS the art. I would consider your mp3's in that category also….
Tom: The "Infinite Fill Show" also featured that "MacPaint meets repeating pattern meets craft" theme that hardly existed in the late '90s. At least in the gallery environment. The show felt new and fresh to me and I went a little crazy writing about it on the weblog. Over the course of a few weeks I did about 20 posts, with photos and some attempt to articulate a theory ( http://www.digitalmediatree.com/tommoody/?search=infinite+fill). Artnet.com's review referenced psychedelia and goth but I wanted it clear that, as you said, the operative buzz words were "Op Art" and "geek." I like that you made it open call–that gave it some of the energy of Jim Shaw's "Thrift Store Paintings" show at Metro Pictures in the '90s, combined with what's out there now on the amateur web.
You are right about the change in my own work on the weblog. At a certain point, if you know a few people are checking out the page it's tempting to make work specifically for that setting. I try to balance different types of writing and art, because the web screams for dynamic change. Animated GIFs punch up the page, or annoy, depending on how you see them, just as they do on the commercial web. The music has really taken off in the last year and I've been pleased with the stats and supportive comments. After my early experiments with MusicWorks on the Macintosh in the '80s, I've been blown away to discover what you can do on a home computer now.
Cory: Yes, I have been quite interested in the music…. It seems, right now, the web is perfectly geared towards this… I mean u can basically sit at home, upload some music, and because your blog has a built-in audience, basically get that music out the door right away. About one of them ( http://tommoody.us/audio/aug05/Cock_of_the_Walk_Siege_Mix.mp3): Talk to me about those weird techno synth pads that come in a pitch shift all over the place! Awesome.
Tom: They come from a software synthesizer called Absynth; I find most of its presets kind of arty but that one is too lush not to use. It has some kind of gating effect that changes it depending on what's playing in the "foreground."
Cory: What are your influences for this music? They sound quite studied, actually. They make me think of my first rave experiences. Do u know what you are going for, or do you just play around until you get something you like? They are also quite a bit more advanced than even I remember when you started, which is amazing. Are you interested in the idea that people can basically hear you develop your sound?
Tom: That first work you heard was done with my old Mac SE, lock grooves, beats from turntables, etc. I'm doing almost everything on the PC now, and have learned quite a few new tricks in the past year with a sequencer (Cubase SE) and various softsynths. I'm not too conscious of the evolution, glad to hear it, but I'm obviously not self-conscious about trying out things in public. Knowing there's an audience, however small, means I'll put in that extra twelve hours to make the thing as tight as I can get it.
One thing I omitted from my bio was that, in my "tweener" years, I traveled around Texas with a boys choir, performing Benjamin Britten carols, mostly to church audiences. At age eleven I sang the countertenor in Britten's "Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac": I sucked as Isaac but I learned it. I've been involved with music my whole life but never particularly cared about playing it; what I'm doing now is composing and letting the machines do the manual part. Fortunately, electronic music provides an arena where you're *expected* to be both composer and performer. In my college DJ years I was airing Can, Ralf and Florian, Tony Williams Lifetime, Iggy Pop's The Idiot, etc. My jaw dropped, in the early '90s, when I first heard breakbeat 'ardkore rave stuff. I couldn't believe how good it was–it was like all my influences grew up (and sped up).
Cory: I like this one (http://tommoody.us/audio/jul05/1987.mp3): Where is the drum machine from? What is the name of that eerie piano sound? That sound is great and got lost in the post-rave era. Where are the drum samples from? (Sorry for everyone reading this to get so technical, but after studying music for so many years, I no longer have the ability to talk about music normally.)
Tom: The drum beats are from the Vermona DRM1, a German-made beatbox from the late '80s. I downloaded a demo with individual hits and snipped the .wav files to make a kit, which plays in the drum sampler Battery. Every two bars, the drumming speeds up: that's a Cubase effect called "midi echoes." The eerie piano is a "house pad" that ships with another softsampler, Kompakt–it is really pretty and definitely has that rave sound. I have no problem using presets as long as the surrounding context shows some thought. Sampling opens up a whole historical dimension in music, it's a pity we have to use licensed materials now or get our brains sued out, but that's another interview.
Cory: So yeah, basically, even doing this interview was hard for me, cause u do so much. i mean, you are a critic, have a visual art practice which is somewhere between real and virtual, and also u are constantly making music. So, i mean, woah, you are all over the place. I think my practice is similar, and recently when i lecture about my work, the whole point of my lectures is trying to have people see the thread that holds it all together. Does a similar thread exist for you?
Tom: Well, there's good "all over the place" as well as bad. When I got to New York I had some interesting studio discussions with artists about forcing yourself to do one thing. Obviously it makes for a smoother ride in the art world, which still seems to have only one model–the driven Mondrian or Pollock working toward a signature style, which, surprise, surprise, fits into the market's need for a streamlined identifiable product. Despite all the curatorial talk about cross-disciplinary practices, the monomaniacs have an easier time of it. A painter I talked to quite a bit, in the '90s, is a terrific cartoonist, musician, musicologist, and writer, and at a certain point he made the conscious decision to begin channeling his energy and interests through his painting, trusting that all his content would come out through that one activity. And it worked for him–he's had a great career.
But there are different ways to be a monomaniac. The artists I admire most are all multiple stylists: Polke, Kippenberger, Picabia. For all my supposed diversity, I cycle back again and again to certain things: the lo-fi, the love/hate relationship with technology, some kind of squirmy vortex image (or sound), an arrested-adolescent eroticism… I'm for the irrational and against narratives, despite my use of them as a critic. My abstract work is quite focused, paradoxical as that sounds, and is getting more so, but these other activities may be increasing the noise-to-signal ratio in the short term. Sometimes it feels like the only thread is the urge not to have a thread; I take it on faith there's an overall direction even I might not be aware of.
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+++++ http://www.beigerecords.com/cory/ +++++
Interview with Tom Moody by Cory Arcangel