Interview It Yourself: Art Podcasts, Part One

Left to right, Richard Holland, Duncan MacKenzie, and Lisa Melandri during Bad at Sports' exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, 2013. Photo Constantino Schillebeeckx.

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In 2005—four years before stand-up comedian Marc Maron started “WTF,” which would become the most famous DIY interview podcast—artists Duncan MacKenzie and Richard Holland sat down in their garage with a few beers to mic their friend Chris Cook, then curator at the Sioux City Art Center, and discuss the dynamics of bringing the work of Minimalist sculptor Fred Sandback to unsuspecting Iowans. This 35-minute chat, “Chris Cook and the Minimal Truth/Mr T,” ended up being the first episode of 651 (and counting) for “Bad at Sports.” The interviewing consortium now lists sixteen members and has more than delivered on its tagline promise to bring listeners “contemporary art without the ego.” Interestingly, that first encounter presaged the distinguishing features not only of “Bad at Sports,” but of the art podcast genre overall. A long overture of self-referential banter followed by a friendly and informative conversation formed a template for what are now thousands and thousands of episodes scattered across Stitcher, Soundcloud, iTunes, and . . . “wherever you get your podcasts.”

Listening to the episode now, more than a decade after it was recorded, I was impressed with how seamlessly Cook and his hosts pulled out of the beery back-and-forth of the opening minutes into the relative seriousness of the Sandback conundrum. Cook eloquently explained that a lot of small-city Midwesterners get interested in phenomenologically beguiling yarn sculptures if those artworks are presented directly and unpretentiously, rather than as part of some refined art-historical narrative. The ease with which the three friends settled into the topic made clear that they each had a real stake in the issue of bringing art to the people. Of course, that hope of communicating was why they were making a podcast in the first place.

Thirteen years on, podcasting has become a surprisingly widespread form, rivaling even streaming television for binge consumption, as screen-weary commuters choose to take in their infotainment through their ears. Among the most downloaded culture podcasts are “Cocaine and Rhinestones,” a carefully researched recounting of country music history; “The Joe Rogan Experience,” a freewheeling hip-hop talk show; and “You Must Remember This,” an essayistic audio tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age. Perhaps because I teach in an arts journalism program, people often ask me for recommendations of art podcasts that match these other shows’ creativity and reach.  I don’t have a ready answer for them, which made me start to wonder where art podcasts sit in the media landscape.

The truth is, many of them have stayed within the territory staked out by “Bad at Sports.” There are podcasts with a geographic focus such as “The First Stop” (about artists in New Haven), ones that pair visual art with adjacent concerns, as “Humor and the Abject” and “Sound and Vision” both do,  and ones with a more political focus, such as “Explain Me.” But in terms of format, almost all of them have stuck to interviews–long, casual, friendly interviews. The common approach isn’t entirely bad. It has undoubtedly given us a massive archive that other outlets haven’t provided. When I listened to Kerry James Marshall on “Bad at Sports,” for example, I realized that America’s most important artists are not invited to shows like NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. Likewise, when I listen to a less famous figure—like LoViD’s Tali Hinkis, who appered on an episode of “Explain Me” to talk about what it’s like being a mid-career artist without support from the commercial market—I think about how this, too, fills a journalistic gap. The audio interview provides pleasures that written ones don’t. Robert Storr’s dismissals of his fellow critics—he calls Jerry Saltz a “clown,” says Dave Hickey is “a tea-partier, basically,” and asserts that Hal Foster and Benjamin Buchloh “know very little art history”—on a 2015 episode of Brainard Carey’s “Yale Radio” ring in your ears as the transcript never will. I appreciate hearing the voices of Facebook “friends” I’ve never actually met. One motivation for listening to Pastiche Lumumba’s interview on “Humor and the Abject” was that I wanted to hear if he was as funny in that format as he is in his razor-sharp memes. He’s softer in front of the mic. I love listening to artists go off track, as Senga Nengudi does when telling Tyler Green of “Modern Art Notes” about how she decided to become a sculptor after sitting in the lap of a life-sized Jesus statue in the basement of a DC restaurant as a child. Nengudi graciously suggests that Green can cut the digression if he wants, but he knows enough to leave the magical anecdote in.

More often, however, I wish the stories had been edited. It may be, as many people have told me, that the primary function of these rambling conversations, which often run over ninety minutes, is to keep artists company as they complete lonely, labor-intensive tasks in the studio. I don’t want to deny these hypothetical artists their audio companionship, but could there not also be shorter mixes for the rest of us? If pressing record and seeing what happens is part of a punk ethos, when will we get to post-punk, or glam? Why can’t “do-it-yourself” extend to rigorous editing?

The lack of editing is most evident when an episode goes badly. Boring tangents consume nervous hosts. Names are carelessly mispronounced. Messy thoughts never resolve. Dreaming of listeners, the hosts seem to forget those dreams might come true. Most of us hate to hear ourselves talking, but for some, the record button seems to boost self-regard—nowhere more, in my experience, than on “The Jealous Curator: Art for Your Ear.” Granted, I only ever listened to one episode, but it was the episode where the Jealous Curator herself, Danielle Krysa, and Ekaterina Popova, who has her own podcast, “Art and Cocktails,” interview each other—was there ever a lazier, more confusing format?—while drinking. The only thing I learned is that they both felt misunderstood in art school, which in their view was too structured. The rest of the deeply unstructured episode includes all the meandering biographical detail of an interview with an important artist, except that neither person involved, it pains me to say, is an important artist. The whole thing came off as a soundtrack for the most self-promoting and self-deluding aspects of Instagram culture, and I never listened again.

But even with dependably decent shows, I listen for the interviewee, not the interviewer. Sure, I like some hosts more than others: Amy Beecher, of The Amy Beecher Show, is admirably candid; Tyler Green is well-prepared; Brainard Carey improvises nicely. But I only listen when I want to hear a specific guest. When I’m asked for recommendations, I say there are no great shows, only great episodes. This is especially true because the structure of each show is so similar.

Why is the super-experimental visual-art realm so unadventurous when it comes to podcasts? Perhaps the form is seen as a documentary tool and not a creative endeavor in its own right.  Furthermore, these shows depend on the goodwill of their guests, who appear for free and have their own promotional motivations. Nobody brings out the knives. The audiences aren’t big enough to make a disagreement or a grilling worth the effort. This is good insofar as guests feel comfortable and speak freely, adding more value to the recording as a resource. But how much friendly primary material do need? Maybe we are listening to a very long dress rehearsal, for a second, more complex, more critical, more rewarding phase of podcasting.

What might this next phase involve? What are the options for self-funding art podcasters who want to move beyond the interview?

Sara Demeuse’s “Dos” is the only structurally innovative art podcast I know of. As the title suggests, it starts with two people recording a conversation. Crucially, this is not an interview but rather a discussion of an exhibition that neither of the interlocutors are involved in as artist or curator, and this fact alone eliminates a lot of navel-gazing. But then, instead of releasing this initial audio as a finished show, Demeuse makes a transcript of it, which two other people read and record.

This may sound like a convoluted procedure, or a gimmick, but when the personnel are up to it—as Dan Byers and Ariana Reines were, playing the parts of Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy and Angie Keefer as they visited the Mierle Laderman Ukeles retrospective at the Queens Museum—the extra layer of filtering and self-consciousness is oddly effective. Demeuse’s script readers aren’t actors, but there is an undeniable theatricality to the project. The two-part structure highlights the fact of an audience. First, the conversationalists are tasked with saying something intelligible as they experience the artworks, knowing their words will be transcribed. Then the readers who receive those words are tasked with conveying their content. Even when the readers aren’t quite up to task, they at least short-circuit the narcissistic loop of two art-world personalities listening to themselves talk. Demeuse has only released six episodes so far, and although the results have been somewhat uneven, “Dos” demonstrates that the art-podcast field needs much more of this kind—and other kinds—of experimentation.