Tom Friedman, 1997
With John Miller
JOHN: Your work sometimes reminds me of a book I grew up: Fun With Next To Nothing. It told you things like how to make an airplane out of popsicle sticks or a wall plaque out of bottle caps.
TOM: Well, that’s not surprising. I like it to have a sense of being at home.
JOHN: Why “home?”
TOM: I like the connection to everyday materials, things just sitting around the house. For me, home just means “being yourself.” You don’t have to go outside to know more; you already have everything you need. I don’t think of learning as an additive process. Instead, your mind rearranges itself in certain ways. It’s interesting to think that all the potential knowledge is already there.
JOHN: That sounds a little bit like Noam Chomsky’s “speech organ,” the idea that because language is so complex it couldn’t have possibly been a human invention. The speech organ implies that the capacity for language is hard-wired into people and not so much the result of a social process.
TOM: I see language as something building on a complex series of reference points. In terms of artwork, no matter what you look at or what you have, the complexity of that experience is the same. Do you know the story about the child who never said anything? Finally, one day when he was sitting at the dinner table, he said, “Please pass the salt.” And his mother said, “How come you haven’t talked in all these years, and now you have finally said something?” And he said, “Well, things aren’t perfect anymore,” or something like that. Once the need starts to make things easier and better, you know, it never ends.
JOHN: There’s something of that in Doug Heubler’s statement that the world is already filled with objects and that, as an artist, he prefers not to add any more. But there’s part of me that says that the world is filled with junk and there’s no way of getting around it. You just have to wade through it and you can’t help adding to it. Even “dematerialized” conceptual pieces ended up generating reams of documentation and commentary. Now, when Heubler talks about his work, someone inevitably will say, “But you said you didn’t want to add any more stuff to the world.” And he’ll say, “I know. I know. I’m sorry I ever said that.” [laughter]. Anyway, I don’t know which is the more realistic approach.
TOM: I think it’s like anything else; there are a lot of way of approaching it, and one is through the desire for simplicity; another is through the desire for complexity and chaos. There’s something that comes out of each of those.
JOHN: Maybe that’s where the story of the little boy is a little deceptive, because it implies an all or nothing situation. If you take the salt, next thing you’re going to be taking crack. [laughter]. One thing leads to another.
TOM: But ideals can still be important in their own way. I did marshal arts for a while. In Tai Kwon Do you learn forms which represent an ideal situation, an ideal fight. And it is important to team that ideal situation with more like real time, when you would spar with somebody. Those two extremes governed the way one would learn, although you would never be in a situation in which the form manifests itself perfectly.
JOHN: It sounds like the marshal arts were more important for your art than your illustration training.
TOM: Well, from where I grew up, no one really became artists.
JOHN: Where did you grow up?
TOM: St. Louis. Art was kind of a foreign thing, I guess, for that environment and that culture. And I knew that I wanted to do something that was artistic. [laughter]. I started by, you know, trying to think practically. So I thought about architecture. Then I decided that that wasn’t it, and then I thought graphic design. Then I thought illustration. Then at least I would be able to get kind of get closer to the more direct activity of making something.
JOHN: Was the image important to you? Because it seems like all your sculpture can be clearly imagined as an image, even if that doesn’t correspond exactly to what you’ve made. Like your spaghetti, for example. I may not be able to envision every twist and turn, but I still have a clear image of that box of spaghetti.
TOM: Do you mean its specificity?
JOHN: Just its vividness as an image.
TOM: Oh, I see what you are saying. I don’t know if that was something that came about through illustration.
JOHN: One of your techniques is to get spectacular results from modest materials. You seem drawn to things that would be discarded or overlooked or taken for granted.
TOM: Well, I try to look for something which seems very clear to me initially and then go from one extreme to another.
JOHN: The commonness of the materials you pick seems designed to deflect mythological readings of them. For example, just how far into a piece of spaghetti or toilet paper can you read?
TOM: You can’t very far, but you can pull something out of them by transforming them in certain ways.
JOHN: Do you ever think about the machine versus your own handiwork? Some engineer somewhere had to have worked very hard to construct a machine that would make a perfectly symmetrical roll of toilet paper every time.
TOM: Well, I think about making myself into a machine in the sense of striving for perfection.
JOHN: Do you ever change your technical approach mid-way through?
TOM: Well, yes. I was working on a piece with pins in a sheet. I started it off by doing it one at a time — which became absurdly monotonous. Then I tried to figure out ways of doing it faster. I constructed this screen so the pins would fall through with their heads all in the same way. Then I had to work out a way to orient the pins, so I could pull out a clump and stick them in. I rigged up a device that consisted of a block and a magnet so I could then stick in a whole bunch at one time.
JOHN: So in a way you came up with a primitive form of mass production.
TOM: Right. I do look for ways to make things easier. My work tends towards this very repetitive labor process for some reason, yet it is not really about that.
JOHN: It is and it isn’t. When I look at one of your pieces, I wonder how could such a thing be done, and buried in that, I think, is a whole hierarchy of labor processes. In most cases, the disappearance of the hand makes something more attractive — unless you flip back into an Arts and Crafts esthetic which values something for its archaic qualities.
TOM: That’s something you’ve mentioned quite a few times.
JOHN: That’s because the machine qualifies what it is to do something by hand in this day and age. It plays out in a lot of different ways. Warhol said, “I want to be a machine,” but that was very romantic, a romanticization of the mechanical.
TOM: I always interpreted that statement as striving to reveal the human element by denying it.
JOHN: By falling short of perfection?
TOM: Yes. Striving for that machineness might show the residue of what is human, and that always interested me: the absurdity of wanting to be a machine.
JOHN: David Robbins has referred to you as “the Manzoni of the ’90s.” Manzoni’s canned shit and his pedestal for the earth — like a lot of his other work — both have a lot to do with how one orients oneself. I think of your inverted map: looking at the world from the North Pole. Then, of course, there’s your speck of shit versus his can.
TOM: What I know of his work seems to emanate from thoughts about his self in relation to … the world, I guess.
JOHN: Yeah, but also in relation to the readymade. His pedestal claims the earth as a readymade and the canned shit claims the results of an involuntary, physiological process. In your work, everything you start out with remains the same. The spaghetti is still spaghetti, the pins are still pins, the map is still a map …
TOM: I try to establish a logical connection between what a material is, how it is transformed and what it becomes. It retains its identity, but as symbolic material. It becomes symbolic because you are looking at it.
JOHN: Does the scale and fragility of your work ever create storage or transportation problems? Take
your bubblegum piece, for instance.
TOM: The bubblegum just goes in a box and that’s it.
JOHN: The one that stretches from floor to ceiling?
TOM: Oh, that one. I thought you were talking about the bubblegum. [laughter]. Yes, a very long box!
JOHN: So you just make it again every time.
TOM: Well, I’ve only shown it twice. Once at Feature, and then once in a show curated by Ivan Moscowitz. And he installed it.
JOHN: Oh really? He must have had a lot of patience.
TOM: I had very specific instructions. They had to be incredibly detailed. Well, not incredibly detailed but … you know, second by second. The first thing was that I had to figure out a way of making it more predictable. I found this stuff called Friendly Plastic and I mixed a small amount of that into the bubblegum. It made the mixture slightly harder when it was stretched, and so it wouldn’t sag — which is something I was concerned about. But the Friendly Plastic actually complicated the installation because you have to boil it, then you have to wait exactly the right amount of time for it to cool off before you stick it on the ceiling and stretch it to the floor. So when it came down to shipping, it all just went into a small box, a slide box. Other things just get thrown away, like the piece I did with laundry detergent. That just got swept up. The toothpaste — I did a piece with toothpaste on a wall — that just gets scraped off and thrown away.
JOHN: So a collector ends up purchasing instructions?
TOM: Yes — and a lifetime supply of bubblegum. [laughter].
JOHN: If something runs out, do you resupply them?
TOM: Right. I have to purchase stuff in bulk because I’ve had trouble with things going out of stock.
JOHN: It’s funny, you always think generic stuff will be around forever. I’ve heard that the kind of fluorescent tubes Dan Flavin uses are supposed to be going out of production, so that he’s had to purchase crates of them.
TOM: That’s happened to me in the course of working on a single piece — which sometimes takes several years.
JOHN: What about things getting damaged in shipment?
TOM: I’ve been lucky. I also have to strategize about the type of crate I’ll use and so on.
JOHN: Louise Lawler should do a photo of one of your pieces in storage. Wouldn’t it be great to have your tiny ball of excrement waiting in the wings, unnoticed?
TOM: There was a photo sent to me from a gallery where that piece was being show. They had to put a plastic cup over the shit because a fly was buzzing around it.
JOHN: I guess it must have still been big enough for a fly to get something out of it. [laughter]. It would be great to have a photo of just the fly buzzing over the pedestal.
TOM: Well, a fly could take it and fly off with it, I think.
JOHN: Oh really? (laughter).
JOHN: If you were to construct an interview like one of your pieces, how would you do it?
TOM: I would ask ten questions. I would try to find something out about the person I interviewed, but not ask too much.
JOHN: I’d expected you to boil it down to one exchange:
“How are you?”
TOM: I’d considered that but it seemed too obvious. I’d want to get a sense of the person’s sense of absurdity … maybe reasons for living. I don’t know. Maybe I would ask them to draw a diagram. Things like that. The written word is always so absolute. It’s potentially so defining and limiting.
JOHN: Writing always becomes absolute. I have to confess it’s sometimes a reason I enjoy reading. But it’s intriguing that you would want to preserve some sense of sanctity or privacy of the person being interviewed. That runs counter to the usual “telling all.”
TOM: Yes. That’s an absurd sort of endeavor. I just find it dangerous. I don’t know.