Emi Fontana: A Voyage of Growth and Discovery is a collaborative work with Mike Kelley, but actually it is not the first collaboration you did with him. Can you talk about this?
Michael Smith: Yes it was the second collaboration I did with Mike. The first was not that successful but we did do a satellite TV performance in the early 1980s that became an experiment in image processing more than a performance working from two different coasts employing a common theme. If I remember correctly we started working with the idea of leftovers. Maybe that was what I was working with and Mike was working with detritus. I need to re-listen to his recording to refresh my memory.
EF: You and Mike K. were really good friends since long time… If I remember correctly it was Mike K. idea to send the Baby at BM…
What is your recollection of how everything started on this second collaboration?
MS: As I mentioned previously I was interested in offering up the baby to other artists. Mike saw the piece I made with Seth Price, which opened up a discussion about collaboration. We got together a couple of weekends over consecutive summers; we'd would watch movies and cartoons and toss around ideas. It was a good excuse to spend some time together. Eventually Mike came up with the idea of the baby at a rave. He wanted to set up rave, using a rough script with other performers. A lot of it would be improvised. To be honest I was not that comfortable with that idea. I do not think of myself as an improviser and the thought of basing our collaboration on a large group improv was intimidating for me. That's when he suggested the idea of Burning Man. Here was a ready-made rave and all we had to do was get the baby and a crew there. Mike and I worked out a shot list and an outline, which we followed as best we could at the festival in the desert.
EF: Mike K. didn’t come to BM, The Baby went alone with his crew and I followed. I was really impressed by the fact that you were able to be in character basically all the time for one week. The extreme heat and the dust storms… I think you delivered an incredible piece of endurance… can you talk about this a bit?
MS: Mike was not the best traveler. It was probably best he didn't come to Burning Man. Our crew was bare bones; Me and two others, plus another person who drove the RV to and from San Francisco. The woman who shot it, Gabrielle Penabz, also organized the entire shoot. She was great. She had been to about 8 BM editions, prior to the one we attended, so she knew it really well, where to go and who to talk to about organizing scenes.
As for my experience at Burning Man, well… it was work. It was a working trip. I was there to make sure we got what we needed and we only had one chance to get it. I guess I pushed our crew. We worked our butts off.
I do not know if I feel comfortable placing it in the context of endurance performance. Basically it was a grueling film shoot. Film crews are familiar with this kind of work. They may not like it but they eventually get the job done. I did not get to experience Burning Man like the majority of people attending. To sum it up, it was not my beach.
EF: One of the big unknown of the trip was how the “burners” would have react to Baby Ikki. Baby Ikki is kind of a freak creature and BM is full of freaks or at least people for one week a year live out fantasies about themselves…
MS: Seeing that neither Mike nor I had ever been to Burning Man we had no idea how people would respond to the baby. When I am performing the baby in what I think of as straightforward audience/performer situations, like at a gallery or museum or theater, the baby usually elicits the same range of responses, mild amusement to surprise to mild disgust. At the Burn, it was different; he was often ignored and met with total indifference. There were thousands of people totally into themselves. The baby was almost invisible to them. Occasionally there were some people that took the time to interact. There were times when it was different. I vividly remember one day when the baby was hanging out by this playground slide and some woman came up to him/me, embraced me and whispered in my ear, in a soft seductive voice, “baby, I am so hot… I'm lactating.” I really did not know what to do with that and it immediately turned into cue for the baby to move on, to the next slide, party tent or nurturing bosom.
EF: Can you talk about the shift between what was the initial plan and how it was adjusted to accommodate the actual shooting situation?
MS: The shooting plan was basically a general outline with a bullet point wish list of specific shots. Most of them we got, at least I think we got them. It would have been interesting to go back and look at the notes at some point. The general plan was to get scenes of the baby at the festival, long tracking shots, long establishing shots, scenes of the baby at the festival, plus shots going to and leaving the festival. One thing that was very important for both of us was the length of time given to each shot. We wanted it to move slowly.
Mike wanted me to do the baby at gas stations and public rest stops, to and from the festival. I was reluctant to do much outside of the festival. Fortunately the one public roadside rest stop where we did some shooting was very empty. One thing that was very important for us was the long take. We wanted to get the look and feel of an Antonioni film; slow pans of the landscape and the baby, alone on the horizon. I am sure you can recall the first half-day of shooting before Gabrielle understood what we meant by a long, slow take. At first she thought if she held a shot for 4 seconds that would be enough time. I kind of freaked out. You were much cooler about it and helped to lighten up the situation when looking at the material. I was thankful to have you there to both corroborate what was talked about prior to shooting, but also to help defuse the tension. After that initial miscommunication, shooting went fine.
EF: One of the reason I really like the movie is because it goes against the grain in terms of what is thought as filmic time today by what was the MTV generation that now is the YouTube generation. The editing actually suggests the idea of circular time rather then linear that seems more appropriate for what in the end was an existential journey. Mike Kelley’s touch of adding the poem This Is It by James Broughton, as leitmotif, sounds like a statement to me. Broughton, who has been called “the grand classic master of independent cinema,” was a Zen master. After the trip you ended up with almost twelve hours of shooting; the main narrative outline for the editing was simply night and day; the ones who have been to BM know what a dramatic shift happen there at sunset...
MS: Yeah Mike came up with that very simple structure to organize all the material. It solved a lot of problems. It was great. I am sure I would have made it much more complicated and not nearly as effective.