"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
During the last month or so, artist Miltos Manetas publicized his big plans for the Whitney Biennial exhibition, which opened March 7 — plans that included Flash animation and 23 U-Haul trucks. This was really going to be something, observers of art said, especially considering that Manetas wasn’t actually selected for inclusion in the show and that his idea was lightheartedly subversive of the contemporary art exhibition. At the Biennial’s opening gala on March 5, however, Manetas’ desire for attention was revealed to be far greater than most people had ever imagined.
The Greek-born Manetas and his cohorts had claimed to be getting 23 U-Hauls ready to display Flash animation pieces by 200 young designers, programmers and assorted digital artists. On the night of the Whitney’s party, the trucks were to drive around and around the museum (which takes up a block on the Upper East Side of Manhattan), diverting the attention of the invitation-only guests.
As it turned out, it was all a hoax. Or rather, “It went great!” as Manetas says. “The trucks were not there, of course. The U-Haul idea was only an advertisement” for what he calls a para-site exhibition of Flash works at www.whitneybiennial.com (not .org), a domain he registered for the purpose. “They were invisible trucks,” he says. “We would have never made them in real life even with the most great sponsoring.”
The Great Whitney U-Haul Scam is only part of what Manetas calls a “worldwide artistic movement” that has been a few years in the making. In 1999 Manetas was one of an increasing number of artists who used software, the Internet and other digital media to make and display — or who used those media as the subject of — their work. Manetas himself had produced traditional oil paintings of wires, cables and computer hardware, created short looped fragments of video games such as “Tomb Raider,” and exhibited computer-generated “screen grabs,” among other things. But he was impatient with critics and curators who had yet to come up with a really good “-ism” for this new generation of creativity.
After securing financial assistance from a nonprofit called the Art Production Fund, Manetas went out and hired Lexicon Branding, a California firm responsible for creating such product names as Powerbook, Pentium, Zima, Swiffer and Dasani. Lexicon’s assignment was to create a name for this new movement.
The word Manetas wanted was “not exclusively about technology in art, but more about the style, about the psychological landscape,” he has explained. “We have two kind of lives now — a real life and a simulated one. I wanted to give a name to this psychology.”
In May 2000, during a packed press conference at the Gagosian Gallery in Manhattan — and a panel of people like Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker ready to provide (tongue-in-cheek) analysis of the term — Manetas unveiled the new word. Actually, it was the squeaky, synthetic voice of a Sony Vaio that made the announcement.
The word was “Neen.”
In his subsequent Neen Manifesto, Manetas declared that the term represented “a still undefined generation of visual artists. Some of them may belong to the contemporary art world; others are software creators, web designers and video game directors or animators.” He later added: “The identity of a NEENSTER is his state of mind. Because he will publish everything on the web, his state of mind reflects on the public taste. NEENSTERS are public personas.”
Since then, the public persona that is Miltos Manetas has been busy, both holding up and working under the Neen umbrella. In the midst of the Napster debate, for instance, he established www.iamgonnacopy.com, described as “a Neen place against intellectual property and copyright.” And last year, in a storefront space in the Los Angeles gallery district on Chung King Road, he set up the so-called Electronic Orphanage, which he says is “a black cube where a large screen is left white for projections.” When galleries on the street have openings, he says, “EO [shows] a piece commissioned for the occasion …. The rest of [the] time, it’s a studio where people (the Orphans) are ‘working’ on Neen and other screen ideas.” He is also planning Electronic Orphanages in Shanghai, China, and in Goa, India.
Full disclosure: This interview was conducted via e-mail over the past couple of weeks, the bulk of it between “work” on the fictional U-Haul trucks before the hoax was revealed. This part of the interview, the vast majority of it, stands as it did before March 5 — the day of the Whitney’s opening gala. Manetas had no scruples about letting the New York Times run with the fake story on March 4, but Salon had a chance to ask some follow-up questions after the opening-night festivities — or lack thereof.
Let’s start with Neen. Is this indeed an art movement, or something else?
Neen is a name to evoke a movement. It’s not only art. It’s also social and philosophical/lifestyle. Actually, there are two names: Neen and Telic.
Hold on! You had a big press conference and you unveiled “Neen.” Everything has been Neen. Please explain.
Here’s some background: Almost two years ago, we commissioned from Lexicon Branding a new word which was supposed to define any artistic experience relative to the computer screen. In fact, they proposed [to] us “Telic,” a very convincing and sophisticated term invented by the human staff of the company. But we decided to acquire, and introduce, a name which their machines coined. This was “Neen,” a palindrome created by a computer program after they [fed] it with words such as “screen” and let it run the different combinations. Neen, which by coincidence in old Greek means “exactly now, not a second later,” was a controversial name. Only a few people felt that it was proper to call themselves Neensters and [call] what they do Neen, and this was because most of us, myself included unfortunately, are still doing a lot of Telic.
Are you now saying that choosing “Neen” was a mistake?
No!!! Our times are Telic. But we want to see more Neen happen.
What’s the difference? How do you define Telic?
Telic is [related to] the tools which help us design the world and see things in a perspective. Telic is constructive: Anything related with a job is Telic. People [who] are busy with aesthetics, but who also have jobs and clients, are Telic. But sometimes these Telics produce very important Neen. It’s usually a small detail which they hide inside the nightmare of their job. Telic is serious: It makes sense or it’s a “sense wannabe.” People recognize it easily and trust it.
Neen, instead, is Telic that went nuts: You wouldn’t believe that it’s possible and even [those] who [make] it cannot easily repeat it. But Neen looks great. There are a few 100 percent Neensters, people without a specific profession who linger around us. Telic is Giacometti, Neen is Fontana. Nature is Telic and miracles are Neen. [But] miracles which have a purpose become Telic.
Can you show me a few examples of Neen?
Neen is Telic that went wrong. Unpredictable Telic. A thing you cannot decide if it’s worth it or not but it impresses you anyway and you cannot live without it. [Here's an] egomaniac who made a round Explorer window and put himself in the center of the net-world. Boyinstatic.com has a gold frame. It’s a Neen color when you see it on the Web. Biribiri.com is a computer which says “Whoops” like somebody who gets surprised. The screen blinks. This is the guy who designed whitneybiennial.com. [He's] 21 years old: a Neenster. Also: lonliness.org, lostpixel.com, magicrobot.org, maiueda.com, mikecalvert.org, whitetrash.nl and uncontrol. This is looking in real time directly inside the public subconscious. A window. It’s the most cool public project I have ever seen. They should install it permanently in Times Square!
How about some examples of Telic stuff?
[It's] intellectual and aesthetic stuff related with the computer screen. The best of those. Serious and focused. Professional. These people — gratisdesign.com, jetset.nl, futurefarmers.com, ourmachine.com — are doing great stuff, but they have a profession and their things seem destined to respond to a demand. This ruins the Neen in them and lets Telic prevail. Also, some of them are using a lot of references of ’70s design and déjà-vu: That’s Telic. Golan Levin [does] music and Neen [which equals] Telic. But he is one of the best artists around anyway. We love his Telic! Turux.org could be Neen, maybe they are. But they look somehow Telic.
Is the Neen stuff better than the Telic stuff?
Definitely. We should all try to be more Neen than Telic. But Telic is important. This interview is Telic, Neen doesn’t really speak.
So, you aspire to Neen?
Yes, because I like surprises and disorder.
Are you the leader of this movement? You came up — or hired someone to come up — with a name for it after all.
I see myself more as the cleaning lady of the movement instead of a leader.
But you are spearheading the activities related to Neen — or Telic.
Yes: In our age, cleaning ladies also do propaganda.
What is the objective of the propaganda?
To change [the] situation and be useful, in a non-useful way. Glory is the simulation of such a strange usefulness.
Since a few years ago, when you hired Lexicon Branding to find the right word for this stuff, people wondered if this wasn’t a big conceptual piece or, alternatively, a big joke. Are you the Andy Kaufman of the art world?
If you say so …
Let me put it another way: Are you serious about all this?
I am never serious or not serious. And all this is not conceptual: It’s life in progress. Also, I detest jokes: They are ’90s art.
I can only partly understand that, because while I know what it’s like to be neither, most of the time I am either serious or I am not serious. And I’m afraid that this makes me both un-Telic and un-Neen. What do you say? Are people Neen or Telic?
Of course they are. It’s a matter of style. There is a simple factor for somebody to be Neen: He should not have a job. It’s not enough, but it’s a beginning. But he should not live a miserable life either.
Well, what about the un-Telic or un-Neen things out there? You don’t just dismiss them do you?
There is UnNeen and UnTelic stuff that interests me. The New Yorker for example.
Are there perhaps thousands of such things you like? It’s a big world.
Yeah: really a lot. There is a whole “Beigë” culture which includes fashion, Muslim people, sports, post-Marxism and a lot of art that we like for different reasons, such as Alex Katz and many others.
I don’t think I will go down the “Beigë” road. Let’s go back and get some background for a minute. You were born in Greece?
Tell me briefly about your childhood and how you got to this point?
Boring environment, no [relationship to art]. Just decided in 1985, after I saw a Jackson Pollock book, to do art because it seemed easy. I left to go to Italy in 1986, came to New York in 1995. Started painting. Started work with video games — to find art subjects — in 1995. I was the first artist to paint a laptop and Lara Croft, according to The [London] Guardian. I made enough [of a] career, [was] bored, went to L.A., opened the Electronic Orphanage, started adventures, Neen, and here I am.
Yes, the Electronic Orphanage. Please explain it and why you’re doing it?
Until today, there is not any great way to show digital art. In galleries and museums it seems pathetic, and on the Internet it does not affect the majority of the public, which doesn’t know how to click well yet. I decided to create the [least] worse [thing], a physical space where people can spy over the shoulders of the creators and get an idea [of it]. It’s on a road which hosts many art galleries, so there is a public which is looking for amazing visual stuff available already — you don’t have to invite the people. It’s like installing a Web site in the actual city.
It’s also a club where people can meet and realize projects and conspiracies — aesthetic ones. We are now preparing an E.O. in Goa, India, and another in Shanghai, China. Then, people [will be able to] move from one to the other, it becomes a network. I see E.O. as a very specialized search engine, a Google which checks for geniuses.
And now you’re doing this project with the U-Haul trucks and WhitneyBiennial.com. Why?
Because the domain was available. It was the official show’s unconscious desire. I see all this as a commission by them. Like a Coca-Cola advertisement where they left a little window open: You can put your mark there.
What kind of people have you invited to do work for this project? Are they better or more interesting than the artists chosen for the “real” Biennial?
I invited of course many who I consider great. The best of them are not in the W.B., but this is not the point. The point is to collect many little different voices and start a new song.
Why Flash animation?
Because it’s easy and everywhere. Like oil painting in the past.
How does the Whitney feel about your dot-com biennial?
Apparently they are cool. I don’t know, I don’t really care. They haven’t sent me any lawyers yet …
What’s the matter with the Biennial? People love to complain about it. But there’s a lot of digital and new media work in it, some of which must be Telic or Neen. Isn’t it any good?
I love the Whitney Biennial: They always have great works there. They are family. I am not against them. I just want to use them.
Use them for what?
For propaganda … free [access to the] public. We have to learn to use institutions in an alternative way. It’s not fun anymore to do things with them. Of course we will keep doing [something] because they give us money. But every time they do something, [we should] try to open them to unknown factors. Deviate their intentions. We don’t only live anymore in the “Society of the Spectacle,” we are spectacle.
So it’s fair to say this is about getting attention?
Of course it is for attention! Why else [would] a person like me set up a show? I am not a curator … But I also want to see a beautiful experiment happen and give a reason to my friends to do beautiful stuff.
Is “art” a bad word these days? Is trying to create “art” a bad, or dull, or old idea?
Art is OK: It’s classic.
Well, what is art? And do you try to create it?
I don’t try: I do. I don’t really want to, because I am lazy, but that’s life …
How does the iamgonnacopy.com fit in to the Neen or Telic view of things? You’d like to see copyright eliminated? Why?
Copyright and intellectual property are some of the most urgent social [issues]. People don’t realize it but we live now in a time where images and ideas are replacing nature: We should be able to move freely inside this nature, and the main reason is that a part of it is inside ourselves. We are made up of logos and pictures, books and music. The images of paintings, once published, belong to everybody and the same is true for the songs by Beatles or the Coca-Cola logo. If I have a dream which is a collage of all that, I should have the right to do whatever I want with them.
Isn’t it more complicated than that?
I believe that copyright and intellectual property are really black and white issues. It’s like slavery: Either you consider that all people should be born free, or you want some of them under the control of others. Information is like people: It has its own life, separated by its creator. Nobody should own his/her information, at least after he/she made it public and therefore he/she exchanged it with fame and other bonuses.
So I assume Neen is not copyrighted? And I can do anything I want with it?
I don’t know, suppose I headed an organization of homicidal maniacs or neo-Nazis, and we decided we liked Neen as our new brand name, and we stole it and made huge money off of Neen T-shirts that supported our ability to kill people, wouldn’t you want the legal power to stop us from using it?
Of course not. It’s part of the game: Words bring us to an unpredictable version of reality. They are cultural software, not Yellow cabs.
On one hand, you seem like a fan of commercial culture. On the other, you seem to be against some of the things that drive it. How do you see it?
There is no such a thing as commercial culture. All culture is commercial and a few commercial objects are culture. I am interested only in those, wherever they come from.
What kind of system of government would you prefer?
I don’t care as long as it respects the freedom of the Internet. If they start to limit it, I will just move to another country. The Internet is like drugs: We should not lose a second chance to experiment freely and methodically with our inner self.
Through Neen and the Electronic Orphanage, you’re working with a lot of young people. What’s the best quality they share?
The fact that they absolutely ignore the heroes of the past century. I was speaking with a Japanese girl and I said something about Karl Marx and she asked me, “Who is he?”
“You don’t know K.M.?” I said. “What about Lenin?”
She said, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about him. Isn’t he a friend of Che Guevara?”
Now, this girl is a very smart one and I am sure that she will collect the info she needs about all those people, if she needs it. Not like myself and my friends who know about Marx but we never read any of his books.
What’s the worst shared quality?
There is nothing bad about them which [wasn't bad about] the generations before. They are an upgrade and upgrades are always better.
But aren’t we bringing kids up in a more superficial world and aren’t they themselves more superficial in some ways?
The world is superficial even if you live in a forest. You receive all information via your senses, which are a bad translation, an illusion. Your question is like a movie hero, who while he is playing on the fake set of the “Titanic,” is wondering if there is a danger [of drowning]. There are not any seas around his boat, and in the same way, there is not any absolute reality in our world. The only reality is our theories about reality.
What’s your vision of the future?
There are all possible versions of the future and according to quantum physics all of them will be realized. I don’t understand what future you are talking about. There is a version where 23 U-Hauls will surround the Whitney next week and a version where nothing like that will happen. We don’t really know in which one we will participate, we can only envision the possibilities.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
All right. It’s now Wednesday, March 6, and I just found out that the U-Hauls were a hoax! People who expected to see these trucks with screens driving around the Whitney were seriously fooled. I was fooled! Tell me what you have to say about it.
It went great! The trucks were not there of course. The U-Haul idea was only an advertisement for the [online] show. They were invisible trucks. We would have never made them in real life even with the most great sponsoring. I don’t believe in such ’80s and ’90s art. I believe in the Internet. The real U-hauls are the Web sites where the exhibition can be found. But people loved the trucks, so we diffused [this] news to give them something to visualize.
And I assume you view this — the evening, duping me and others — as a success?
The event went great. Many people showed up at the museum. We were there to explain to them that the U-Hauls were invisible and I was helping them to enter the Gala, where you were not welcome without an invitation. Inside the museum, many people were talking about the U-Hauls as if they had seen them! It was amazing! People would walk out to check for them. Also, most of the artists of the show liked the fact that the U-Hauls where invisible.
Other than playing on the idea of contemporary art and the emperor’s new clothes, will you elaborate on the purpose?
We have to create new ways to show art. The real space is not so important anymore. The new, really international space for the arts, accessible by everyone, is indeed the Internet. But we should also create new urban legends to support us. The invisible trucks was one of these urban legends.
Are you sure it wasn’t that you just couldn’t make the U-Haul idea happen?
I never tried. I hate art made with everyday objects. I like classic forms. I got inspired for the tactics that I used in the promotion of this show, from the film “When We Were Kings” about Mohammed Ali. If you have to battle with something bigger and more powerful than you are — the museum establishment — you’d better let your adversary believe that you will use techniques which he can understand, and then simply do nothing, just let him collapse under his own weight.
Earlier you said jokes were ’90s art. Wasn’t this a joke of a kind?
It was not a joke at all. It was a powerful new way to invert the situations. Because of the Internet, some of the importance of real estate and what real estate represents — to the Whitney Museum and to any museum — is passed to the online estate, the dot-com. The old world, art dealers, media, etc., are terrified by this new condition at least as much Europe was terrified by the progress of America, but ultimately it will be a positive charge for both worlds.
There is nothing ironic [about] the invisible U-Hauls; they were there, because the Internet pages that host my show are everywhere. Just imagine a building full of screens with all the works of my show on it and you get the picture: a lot more interesting than the official show. Made out of nothing but pure creative spirit and collaboration, with budget [of] zero, in less than a month. It’s a good show just because it could not be bad; the official show is not even bad, it’s just a regular show, some bureaucratic extravaganza which will feed a small and tired art world for the next two years and then it will repeat itself.
Did you ever have any doubts or misgivings about essentially lying to the press?
I don’t feel that I lied: I gave them what they wanted to hear. The press is not an objective observer; it’s just another producer of simulation. They wanted the “U-Haul Manetas” and that’s what I gave them, but there was no reason to actually do the U-Hauls. Just declaring it to the press was enough.
The invisible U-Haul idea seems like it operates in a much larger realm than the online show of Flash animation works it was intended to promote. Are you sure that digital tools are your main medium? Perhaps you are really a conceptual artist after all.
Digital is not a tool; it a landscape. In the case of WhitneyBiennial.com, the best way to visualize this landscape was to surround the museum with 23 invisible U-Hauls. So, I did it. Sorry.
John Glassie is a writer in New York.More John Glassie.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)