Michael Stipe has remained busy in the years since R.E.M. called it quits in 2011—and this year promises a fount of activity from him. He co-wrote and co-produced the forthcoming Fischerspooner album, which he calls "brilliant" and should see release later this year; he has a book collecting some of his visual art over the years, too, coming out in October.
Before all that, though, he'll premiere a multimedia installation at this year's Moogfest, which takes place on May 18-21 in Durham, North Carolina. The installation is an audiovisual piece featuring late Athens artist Jeremy Ayers, who passed away in October of last year and was a longtime friend of Stipe's; along with Ayers' dancing, the piece also features an original piece of music composed by Stipe that is also his first solo composition released to date—a brittle, bare-bones electronic track that fits in quite nicely with Moogfest's electronically-focused programming.
Read on for a conversation with Stipe on the piece, Ayers' legacy, visual art, and the perils of social media in the modern age:
NOISEY: When did you shoot the footage with Jeremy that's in this piece?
Michael Stipe: I did a stint at NYU as a visiting professor teaching an art class with Jonathan Berger in 2014. I had the space at Washington Square East, where the gallery is. I called in Jeremy and another friend of mine, Casey Legler, who's an artist and a model.
What kind of figure did Jeremy represent in your life?
He was really a mentor for me. I met him when I was a teenager. He was someone who really had it together and had a very powerful, beautiful, almost childish curiosity about the world. He was highly intelligent with a brilliant sense of humor, very into taste and eccentricities. He knew about every part of the world that I was interested in learning about—literature, music, performance art, dance, contemporary and modern art, history. He was this fantastic touchstone. He mentored me as a young man. He had been spending a lot of time in New York in the last five years, shooting Occupy Wall Street as a photographer and doing portraiture on the streets of people that he'd meet. He happened to be in the city when I was doing this dance performance with Casey, so I asked him if he'd like to participate and he said yes.
Was he someone you were in touch with regularly around this time as well?
No, we'd been in pretty much constant contact. He was a very close friend.
What did you learn most about life from Jeremy?
[Laughs] That's a rather broad question, Larry. He had a broad curiosity about all different aspects of life, including art. He was always discovering some new thing that he was very excited about and wanted to share with everyone around him—more recently, his interest in the Occupy movement and documenting that as a photographer.
At the last year of his life, I went over to his house in Athens and, in the time he had been gone since I'd seen him, he'd developed this maniacal interest in smell and sense. He had collected all these different smells—some from this place in the West Village. He gave me this thyme that he was very excited about. It was the very end of the bottle, and he said, "The next time you're in the West Village, make sure you stop by this place. They have this very particular type of thyme." I haven't actually made it by there yet [Laughs], but I held on to the bottle. It was just out of the blue—suddenly, he was this world expert on sense drawn from nature. He had bought all these books and was reading all about it, it just came out of nowhere. That indicates the type of curiosity and interest he had in the world and in life. His interest in sharing that with the world around him was profound.
What does Jeremy mean to Athens? What is his legacy?
He's someone who anyone in the arts community in Athens would say was one of the leaders or touchstones of the Athens arts community. His influence is very broad here. I think it actually extends beyond Athens. He spent a lot of time in New York as a young man, and later in life, too. He had a group of friends there who he also inspired and pushed. To be as curious as him was a difficult hill to climb, but it was something to look up to.
The track I gave him to dance to was very basic. I wanted it to be classic disco—120 BPM, but very stripped down to allow him and Casey and the other people I'd done this with to create their own atmosphere and environment. I shot with three cameras, but [the piece] is one camera, unedited. It's really awkward in some places, which I really like. There's a beautiful awkwardness to his performance, which I also like. There's humor, and then there's a moment where he becomes kind of bored, and he's staring down the barrel of the camera and has a smirk on his face.
The piece was inspired by something that I did around 2011, where I filmed poet and artist John Giorno and actress Kirsten Dunst for [the video for R.E.M.'s "We All Go Back to Where We Belong"]. Those video portraits were the inspiration for these pieces. I wanted to expand on this idea of putting someone in a room and having them respond and react to a camera. In the case of Jeremy and Casey and the other people I've done these dance portraits with, it was to a beat—knowing that I'm going to take whatever raw footage I have and compose it into a portrait.
What about working in the visual medium speaks to you as an artist? How do you find ways to express yourself through this medium?
Coming from a musical background, music is such a powerful medium. It touches a different part of our heart and spirit than other mediums. I think I best express myself outside of music through photography and photo-based work and video. Rather than depending on still images, moving images help me capture the awkwardness of the dance, or the grace and beauty.
I think that we're at a really significant point in visual history where the question is being called on a daily basis of what is a still image, and what does that mean in 2017. We all have the capacity, with our pocket gadgets, to do a live image and choose a still from that. The still image becomes a very different thing than what it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. If you look at Blade Runner or The Expanse, [they have] some futuristic idea of what a newspaper is—you have holographic images that are moving that you can rewind, pause, or zoom in on. We're basically there, and there's an acceptance of that and a beautiful awkwardness where we're neither fish nor foul at this point. We're cherrypicking from the best of analog and the best of digital, and we're piecing it together.
Have you ever made a GIF?
Yeah, I participated in a thing where I made 20 or 30 of them and then threw them out into the world. I have a Tumblr page that was at one point quite active. I like having moving images and GIFs on that.
Why did you stop using Tumblr?
After you've used it for a while, it's like Instagram—you grow wary of it, step away, and then you either come back or you don't.
Other artists have mentioned to me that they believe Instagram is the purest form of artistic expression, when it comes to social media.
I've avoided Facebook since the beginning. I find myself increasingly in a world where people are roiled up or excited or angry and upset about something and I have no idea what it is—so now I say, "That's a Facebook thing." I'm able to place it in that category. Statistically, I think 1 in 3 people are communicating with each other via Facebook. I find that to be quite dilettantish. I don't think that's a very good thing. It seems like a rather shallow echo chamber. With that as an example, my interest in Twitter is about null, and my interest in Facebook is also null. Instagram is more visual, and I'm more of a visual learner. I like to look at pictures. Within that spectrum, I think it is probably the most direct and interesting [social media platform]—but the second you say that, something else comes along and takes over.
Stipe's installation will be on display in front of the the American Underground building on West Main Street throughout Moogfest. Passholders can also witness it inside the building during the following hours:
May 18: 7 pm - Midnight
May 19: 6 pm - Midnight
May 20: 6 pm - Midnight
May 21: Noon - 6 pm
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