July 25, 2012

I wrote Michael Stipe to tell him that his tumblr may be the best I’d ever seen. Would he be interested in an interview? The remarkable thing about Stipe’s tumblr isn’t its originality, but its lack of. He uses tumblr as it’s best used, or rather, for its ability to do something better than any other medium, which is bring visual information together.

Stipe’s tumblr is called Confessions of a Michael Stipe and I have a confession to make: when I first lost myself in the infinite scroll of his tumblr, I didn’t know the man by name. He could have been anyone, any dedicated tumblr-er (two hours in and I only made it back one year in posts, will I ever hit bottom?), any visually attuned member of this internet society whose interests happened to align with mine—early 20th century comic strips, rock and roll icons, Blade Runner, classical male nudes.

But he isn’t just anyone. One quick Google search (sorry, Michael, I default to Google; see below) and the songs came flooding back to me. Never a dedicated fan, still, I realized I knew most of the lyrics to all of R.E.M.’s greatest hits. That’s what I call “cultural osmosis,” or what Stipe might call “etherwork,” which is and has always been his vocation, “a solution-based collective unconscious” (again, see below).

So, he’s Michael Fucking Stipe and I’m sure that makes his tumblr more interesting for many of you. Stipe or not, it’s beautiful. It’s three continuous columns of images occasionally punctuated with text. Stipe will find a point of interest, say, the work of Joseph Beuys, and amass a visual inventory on that subject. And so we get something like Michael Stipe’s internet dérive, where Patti Smith transitions to bunker architecture, which moves through miscellanea into Andrej Pejic and other androgynous fashion icons, which cuts to the sculptures of Brancusi and on and on ad infinitum. Will I ever hit bottom?

Your tumblr is called “Confessions of a Michael Stipe.” How it is confessional and what’s with the “A”?
It’s not confessional at all. I just like to tunnel. Initially the idea was to present a version of myself that might not be the person that people think they know. So it’s a little bit of a play on my being a public figure for as long as I have been.

Would you say your tumblr is kind of like a map, or timeline, of your mind?
It might be a bit of an introduction to the way I visually interpret the world. I work visually, and this is essentially an electronic scrapbook, that’s what tumblr’s good for.  You know, it’s like a stamp collection, but everyone’s allowed to cull from each other’s collection.

Do you revisit your archive ever and do you see things differently?
Yeah, I do. There’s another website called Michaelstipe.com; it’s made up of screen grabs that I took throughout 2009. I think it loops itself back after 22 minutes; ten thousand or so still images animated to create a moving image. Confessions of a Michael Stipe is a bit of an extension of that piece.

How does your tumblr reflect your real-life art practice, those things you make in 3D? Are they interconnected?
Yeah. A lot of the stuff that I do is what I call “etherwork,” which is to say that it’s kind of floating around in the ether and these ideas land on a bunch of people at the same time, and I’m one of those people. There’s nothing special about it. It’s maybe a solution-based collective unconscious, whatever that means. tumblr provides a way to kind of position myself as, “Oh, here’s something I’m thinking about, and I’m sure x-thousand or hundreds of thousand of other people are thinking about it too.”

Recently, your tumblr looks like a record of your Google Image searches. You’ll have a topic of interest and you’ll collect a series of images of that topic. I love that you were into Krazy Kat recently.
Number one: I don’t like Google, their policies, like Facebook, are offensive. So I search through Yahoo or Bing. And you’ll see pages that I’ve—actually, that hasn’t happened yet, that’ll happen today. I will search something on Yahoo and I’ll take a screen grab of the page. I’ve also, from time to time, taken a screengrab of my own tumblr page. It gets a bit meta-meta, picture of a picture of a picture-blah blah… but we can laugh at ourselves, right?  Oh, and 2 of my 3 tattoos are of Krazy Kat.

The most buzzed topic—what comes up when you Google your tumblr—is the brief cock shot in that art video you posted of your getting dressed. What was your reaction to the internet’s focus on your penis almost exclusively?
That was the same year, 2009. Again, it’s exactly like MichaelStipe.com—I took a bunch of still images and put them together and created a moving film that again, loops on itself. I mean, I guess, there was a little more chatter about it than I expected. I looked at it as an art piece. Of course I knew that people might freeze frame, but if people want to look at my penis, I don’t have a problem with that. [Laughs.]

It raises a kind of more interesting question, which is where we are right now in terms of what the still image has become. We’re at this very fascinating moment in the history of photography and representation, where the still image is disappearing and becoming something very different, that is, a moving image that we will now be able to freeze frame. That’s what gifs represent in a primitive way. If Susan Sontag were alive, or Marshall McLuhan, they’d have a lot to say about where we are, and where this is all going.

Over 100 years the photograph went from being this amazing thing that seemed impossible, to being something that was positive proof of an event occuring; and then we realized images could be manipulated to the point that now, with new technologies, everything is manipulatable and the still image is beginning to—like many other things, with the advent of digital and existing technologies—disappear. Our idea of what a still image is has now becoming very different. It’s almost like a scene in Blade Runner where they zoom in on a certain part of a photograph or, I think there’s another scene, where we’re looking at a still image and it moves slightly. Now I’m starting to sound like a science fiction geek…

Science fiction geeks are great. It’s interesting too because a lot of the flat images we are looking at are on a screen which has a dynamism to it.

Yeah, backlit, and you are in control as to how you interact with it. When you go to one of those pages that are largely gifs and you’re looking at, say, 80 images with each of them moving, how does your mind and your eye and your memory regard those single images? Are they to be seen as a still image that happens to be moving? How does a 12 year old, who is younger than the technology that we’re talking about, and has lived with it their entire life, view that? That’s what we’re talking about.

Do you think there are any theorists who are dealing with this now in the way that Susan Sontag, if she were with us, might have been a good mind to approach it?

I mean, there are people who have been talking about it forever. Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan, William Gibson. They’ve been talking about this stuff for decades. We’re just now seeing it in this very clunky, primitive way, which is what this technology is right now. We’re seeing the possibilities. We’re seeing things change so dramatically that we are all really just lost in it. And there’s a real beauty in that, because we look at the mistakes and adapt and change accordingly, and if there’s any belief in this universe, that’s where God is. I find that to be fascinating. My job now is to kind of record it.

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