Don't miss "Myopia," MCA Denver retrospective show of Mothersbaugh's art, on display through April 2015.
For 40 years, your DEVO alter-ego has been the man-child Booji Boy. I'm curious what your childhood was like.
I grew up in Akron, Ohio, and I had severe myopia that went undiagnosed until the second grade. My teachers would say things to me like, "Read what it says on the board," and I'd ask, "What's a board?" or I'd make a joke because I couldn't see anything. I was legally blind. So I was always getting in trouble. I would always get spanked or told to go sit in the corner. My second-grade teacher disciplined me almost every day.
When my sight issues were finally diagnosed, I remember I was in the car with my dad coming back from getting my first pair of glasses. We came over a hill, and I saw smoke coming out of chimneys. I saw clouds. I saw telephone lines. I saw the tops of trees. Before then I had only known the bottom part — the part that I ran into. I remember telling my dad everything that I was seeing. I saw birds flying, and I saw the sun for the first time, and I just went, "Holy crap!"
I showed up at school with glasses, and I started drawing pictures. And my teacher said, "Hey, you draw better than me." It was the first time a teacher hadn't either spanked me or put me in a corner, and I knew then that I wanted to be an artist.
How did things change for you when you got to Kent State?
Kent State was an amazing situation for me. All of a sudden there were all sorts of people wearing all kinds of clothes, and they weren't getting sent home or spanked or stabbed with forks or punched or having their hair cut off by other students.
I got into printmaking accidentally in an introductory course in my first semester at school, and I fell totally in love with it. At first I loved everything. I loved stone lithography, still photography, and copperplate etchings. But silk-screen printing became my preferred style. It was the times: Andy Warhol did it.
My teachers said that I could use the printmaking studio at night as long as I cleaned up after myself. So I would go in at night, and I would burn all the screens for a piece of artwork over the course of an evening. I would make prints of things like a grid of cows. The first color would be drying while I started the next one, so I could clean up and go to the next screen and put out a whole piece of art overnight.
My printmaking teacher Ian Short was very encouraging. He was definitely a mentor for me, though he was probably thinking, "This kid isn't even old enough to be a grad student, but he spends all day and night in the studio." He would arrive in the morning, wake me up, and I'd go off to English class. By my sophomore year, Jerry [Gerald Casale] helped me enroll in graduate-level art classes.
Adapted excerpt from the book Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia by Adam Lerner, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2014.
Tell more about the kind of art you were making.
Graffiti was nothing at all like it is now. I was making screen prints and putting them up around campus. I would make stickers and water-release decals. I was prompted by the posters that sororities and fraternities put up that said something like "Come to our sock hop" or the posters the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] put up that said things like "Help us get out of Vietnam." I started putting up my own things that were more ambiguous. I put stickers up all over school of astronauts holding potatoes or people throwing up in front of pictures of the moon. Those were the things that made Jerry want to work with me.
So before the two of you were making music together, you were making visual art together?
Yeah. In one collaboration he took pictures from his high school yearbook and I printed potato people for him and he put them on glass on top of the photos, so that there would be a girl with two or three potato people hanging off her face.
So you really saw yourself as heading on a path to being a visual artist, not a musician?
At the time for me it was hard to separate the two. I was really impressed by people like Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, who were working in many different media. I really loved the idea that these people were mixing things up. I wasn't sure what I was doing yet, but then when the Kent State shootings happened, I identified with the protesters.
Is that how DEVO began?
We didn't perform as DEVO until a little later, but Jerry and I started talking together about what we saw going on around us and in the world, and we — along with some other kids we knew who played instruments—came up with this idea that we were observing devolution, not evolution.
I was pissed off at humans. I felt like, humans are making all these technological and scientific developments, but when you see the reality of what is happening on the planet, it isn't so great. People are not created equally. People are created unequally, and it isn't fair to most people. I was angry about it, and the idea of devolution gave me focus.
Ian Short gave me a 1920s pamphlet he found called Jocko-Homo Heavenbound by Reverend Shadduck from Ohio. It was a big rant against evolution, how evolution was bullshit, science was bullshit. It also talked about Christianity, but I didn't even have to bother reading those parts because I'd been an organist at my family's church when I was younger so I had all that stuff memorized. The pamphlet was great because this guy had a really angry take against science—and I loved it.
Did being in DEVO change your art?
Starting around 1976 or 1977, I was traveling with DEVO all the time, and at a certain point, I didn't have an apartment anymore. I certainly didn't have a studio. I basically lived in a Ford Econoline.
So that's when you started focusing on postcard-size drawings. Can you tell me about that body of work?
Up until very, very recently, I was probably the only person who had seen the majority of them. I only did them for myself. Except, when I was on tour with DEVO, I would show them to the band to make everybody laugh. Some of that stuff was just being naughty, but most of it was stream of consciousness. It was my own version of speaking in tongues.
You are interested in absurdity and stream of consciousness, but many of your works are about repetition and order.
That's right. I remember being out in the yard at my parents' house when I was in the third or fourth grade, just studying what was in the lawn and in the garden, having this desire to organize all of the stones and all of the twigs and getting a feeling of satisfaction after I could line up two or three or four dozen stones into a grid.
Repetition is a big part of the postcard diaries. You did about twenty postcards of just a showerhead in various forms. There's something about them that's so elegant and sweet and strange.
Well, the image came from a catalog. I was trying to fix a leaky nozzle in my apartment at the time. In the catalog, it vaguely looked like a spacecraft.
It looks a little bit like an ordinary showerhead, and a bit like a spacecraft, but it also looks a little bit like a DEVO hat, an energy dome.
Oh yeah, that's funny. I probably would've been the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters. I definitely would've volunteered if aliens with a spaceship showed up looking for somebody who wanted to go for a ride. I would've said, "I'll give it a shot."
I'm sure. There are also various characters wearing gas masks in your drawings and prints. Where does that come from?
I was always fascinated by the gas mask. It is protective, but it is also aggressive. It allows you to breathe, but it also controls you. It is also not unlike the raven's beaks you see characters wearing in Romeo and Juliet. It turns human beings into something animalistic.
It's like our version of something that traditional cultures would carve out of wood. Or, rather, it's like the stripes that people in primitive cultures might have painted on their faces to make them look fearsome.
You're really interested in the way that humans and monsters interrelate, how humans become monsters. In many ways the gas mask is part of that.
It's a visual representation of the fact that humans are a pretty scary species. John Heartfield [a German artist (1891–1968) known for his absurdist, antiwar, and anti-Nazi imagery] manages to capture that in his collages. Although I love all Dada art, I think Heartfield's collages are my favorite for that reason.
That's interesting, because most of the people who know DEVO think of it as entirely controlled, but really there are both mechanized and organic elements to it, just like in your individual work. You have your stream-of-consciousness drawing but also your Beautiful Mutants, a series of very controlled mirror-image photographs.
Early in DEVO we were making a film, and we had mirrors in the room. I remember playing for a long time with the fact that you could put your hand and your face on the edge of the mirror and create this other head, or a floating, two-handed arm.
Then, when I started using a computer in my art back in the early 1990s, I discovered that you could do mirror images fairly simply. It became a perverse thing that I did every night when I got home from work: sit at my computer and make mirrored images. When I started setting them up at home, I'd put twenty or thirty of them up in a room at one time, and I just really liked it.
Well, the mirror combines the two opposing elements in your work. It gives you order through symmetry but also creates unexpected mutations.
When I was younger, I was fascinated with the myth that human beings are bilateral, because when you actually look at humans, you realize very few of us are. I bought old surgical books at flea markets, following the shocking information that our being symmetrical is pretty much a lie. We aren't very symmetric.
Most of your art, even your sculpture, is based on drawing—at least, after your early collage work. But recently you've been working on orchestrions, or machines that play music. Can you tell me a little bit about where the orchestrions are coming from?
My connection to music has always involved an appreciation of alternative instruments. A piano is pretty universal. I like using alternative controllers because they help you think beyond the tyranny of an organ or a piano keyboard. It's like going through the art supply store and looking for different colors to paint with. I used toys on the first three or four DEVO records. Even on the last one I used a refurbished calculator with an oscillator inserted into it to play solo on a couple of songs.
But I really became motivated to build my most recent instruments when I was writing music for [Wes Anderson's 2012 film] Moonrise Kingdom. It takes place in the woods in Rhode Island. In the early edits I saw of the film, they didn't have any sound effects yet, so the woods were quiet. It didn't have the rustle of leaves or the noise of twigs crunching under the characters' feet. There were no birds yet.
It was weird without the birds, and it made me think about the birdcalls I'd been collecting for about twenty years now. I had 150 to 200 birdcalls, some of them maybe 120 years old. So I started experimenting with transforming these birdcalls into music. I forgot about the possibility of doing it for the film. It just became a project for me, where instead of making the birdcalls sound like birds in the woods, I was trying to organize them in a human fashion so they would sound more like the human concept of music.
So this is you organizing the rocks in your garden again.
That's right. But sampling the birdcalls and playing recorded sounds with a keyboard wasn't what I was looking for, because that just repeated sounds exactly. Whereas if I could play the birdcalls in real time, it would become a more genuine, flowing performance. I had to make a device that would blow air into a whistle or move the slider or tap the leather pouch or shake the rubber hose to make each unique birdcall work. And each time it happened it would be happening in real time. That's why I built that machine.
It captures perfectly your very divided relationship with technology. It is mechanized, but it also allows for mutations.
I think technology has a tendency to become revered and in control over artists. In DEVO, we were into modifying everything, screwing with everything just a little bit. Sometimes something would break on my synthesizer, like when I hit one note and I got two notes going in different directions. And I'd say to my younger brother, "Jim, I don't know what happened to this but don't let it get fixed." So he'd figure out what was wrong with it. He'd come on tour with the band, even when he wasn't in the band anymore, to make sure my synthesizers still functioned the way I wanted them to.
In the early days of DEVO, Jim, who was our first drummer, had a lot to do with helping me push the sound of DEVO away from generic guitar/drums. We made a conscious effort to look for sounds that were more like what we were hearing on TV when footage from Vietnam was scaring the crap out of us with Huey helicopters bringing body bags onto an aircraft carrier or machine guns making these dull, thuddy sounds, which were part of the culture at the time.
You call the studio where you do all this work Mutato Muzika. Obviously the mutant concept remains important for you.
The word is actually a contraction of mutant and potato. And I think mutations are interesting because that's how things change from one to the next.
Mark Mothersbaugh and Adam Lerner