Interview with Mary Miss, Artist

Posted November 07, 2011 by Anonymous
Sandra Q. Firmin, Curator, UB Art Gallery
Interview Date: 
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Person Interviewed: 
Mary Miss, Artist
Place of Interview: 
New York City at the studio of Mary Miss.

Interviewer: Sandra Q. Firmin, Curator, UB Art Gallery

Interview Date: June 24, 2009.

Person Interviewed: Mary Miss, Artist.

Place of Interview: New York City at the studio of Mary Miss.

The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Mary Miss that was conducted by Sandra Q. Firmin.  This interview was funded by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).




Mary Miss and Sandra Q. Firmin have each reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License



SANDRA FIRMIN:  So I just have a few questions for you. I was wondering, how did you first respond to the site when you first arrived at Artpark?

MARY MISS: It’s really hard to remember. I must’ve been invited there to look for a site ahead of time. I would presume that that’s what happened, maybe the previous spring. I found this kind of barren plane to be really interesting, but I didn’t know why it was barren at the time. Was Artpark in ’76?

FIRMIN:  ’76.

MISS:  A year earlier, I had done a project with film and a construction called Cut-Off and I was really interested in doing another film. In those early projects, I was straddling different territories; architecture, film, landscape. I liked the landscape because the viewer had to walk through it, as opposed to being confined to a room or an enclosed space; that you had to walk through a space and construct what was happening within that territory through your experience of the elements that you came across in the landscape. And there was a very strong feeling on my part that I did not want to make monolithic objects. I just didn’t get it, these kind of big things that you read more as signs, rather than direct experience. I had been doing a number of projects that were really integrated into the landscape. And so the idea of film was really interesting to me, that you could give somebody the kind of visceral engagement with a situation while at the same time getting rid of the object itself. In the film Cut-Off, a passage and a barrier were created at the same time through a construction process the viewer witnesses. That kind of contradiction between the two was very interesting to me. The Artpark project, I thought, I could once again use film to completely dissolve the physical part of it, and yet be able to give the viewer an absolutely visceral kind of emotional engagement with the situation. The idea was that the viewer could be down in the center of the structure, and slowly rise up to see the surrounding landscape revealed; but then the point of view switches to an aerial view and pulls away. You go from the inside of something to the most distant view of it, where it becomes this target you’re looking at. It was an experience you couldn’t have with a sculpture. It was only possible with film.  I have always thought that if these two things that I was trying to do, film and building things outdoors, weren’t so expensive, I would’ve probably kept doing both of them; but it was beyond my means.

FIRMIN:  So how many films projects did you do?

MISS:  I just did two.

FIRMIN:  Just the two. And how did you do the film in Artpark? Because when it is shot from inside the structure the camera spins very quickly.

MISS:  Michael Blackwood shot it for me. He was up there doing a film about Artpark and one of his cameraman, Seth Schneidman, shot it for me. And how did I know that Michael was going to be there and would do it for me? I don’t remember this part. [laughs]

FIRMIN:  Okay.

MISS:  I think I had met Nancy Rosen, his girlfriend at the time, sometime prior to that, I think that’s how I knew that Michael was going to be there.

FIRMIN:  I’m just going to check this and make sure it is— Okay, great. I recorded Liz Phillips— Well, I did not record Liz Phillips. [laughs] I interviewed Liz Phillips, who was there in 1974. She’s a sound artist, and I didn’t get any of it. [laughs]

MISS:  A sound artist didn’t get any sound.

FIRMIN:  I know, but she actually appreciated it because she said, “You don’t know how many botched sound recordings I have.” [they laugh]  So did you have any idea of what you wanted to do beforehand?

MISS:  Yeah. I mean, I really had to work it out completely. I think that I must have someplace—it’ll surface someday—what I guess a filmmaker would call a story board.  I sketched out what the different shots would be. I remember doing that both with Cut-Off and with this; but I don’t know where it is or what happened to this document. I might look in some early notebooks. There might be something that surfaces in there. One of the things I learned early on when I was doing these outdoor projects (I was doing them myself at the early stage) was that you had to be totally well organized, otherwise, things would never happen. I had to figure out all details before building anything. And in the case of Artpark, that was true, also.

FIRMIN:  So what were the sources for Blind? Were there any literary or—

MISS:  It’s hard to remember specifically, but I think at that time I was reading Borges, and I was really interested in these situations that would be presented in his stories. But I can’t say that there was a specific text. I was always reading a lot and kind of interested in the conceptual framework of things. But particularly, I wanted that visceral experience: there is a physical, emotional engagement with the situation that keeps you from just turning your head and walking away. I think a good example of this would be— You know, when I talk about things being kind of integrated in the landscape—as I was saying, kind of thinned out earlier—the 1973 project, where a series of 5 ‘billboards’ with circles cut out were aligned. It really didn’t make sense until you stood in front of it. It’s just these flimsy boards but then you saw a column of air descending into the ground. So everything about it was anti-monumental, anti-monolithic. Or in another project at Oberlin College, you didn’t really see it until you walked up to the edge of it; and then it’s like a trap, but it’s kind of humorous because it’s just this flimsy wood. It’s only three feet deep. But the question arises: Does it extend all the way under the ground that you just walked across? Later with Perimeters/Pavilions/Decoys I used this same approach again on a larger scale. There was this underground structure where the ground that you walked across may be undermined, you don’t know how far back.

FIRMIN:  Do you know approximately how long you were there for?

MISS:  I think probably a couple weeks or something like that.

FIRMIN:  And I know as part of the artist contract, the artists were required to be on the site, like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Like from four to five. Was that not part of—

MISS:  I don’t remember. I just remember working all the time, you know?

FIRMIN:  Do you have a sense of the sort of interactions that you had with the public?

MISS:  I don’t think I had much interaction. I think I was out there working, and it was out in the middle of that hot field and people didn’t want to walk out there. [Firmin laughs] I don’t remember there being that many people around, actually.

FIRMIN:  Do you remember, did you see anybody interacting with the work, or—? Because I can just imagine it would be really fun to descend those—

MISS:  At a certain point, I remember going out there and there were these three snakes in the bottom of it and this kid had found these snakes and was kind of, “Oh, there’s snakes down there.” It was kind of scary. Robert Longo helped me build that. He was one of my assistants there.

FIRMIN:  No, I didn’t. 

MISS:  And it was very funny to have him surface a number of years later, as this very cool guy, because he had these long pigtails and it was different— I remember years later he walked into a gallery where I was and had a pompadour ducktail. I was, “Whoa, this guy’s cool.” [they laugh]. Not the person I remember. But he was very nice young artist.

FIRMIN:  I think they had a pretty good internship program, where they paid the interns during the summer a modest amount and they could get college credit, too. What other— I’m curious about the process, as far as hiring technicians or machine operators.

MISS:  You know, I just don’t remember. I don’t remember who fabricated the steel rings. I remember them being delivered. But I just know I would have had to have it all figured out ahead of time and have everything constructed and ready to be installed.

FIRMIN:  It was thirty-three years ago. [laughs] How did the atmosphere at Artpark differ from other experiences you’ve had working outdoors, as far as the environment and the support you got?

MISS:  It was just great to get the support to be able to do something like this. I feel like one of the reasons there is less experimentation going on, and that everything’s been much more market driven, is that there are fewer and fewer resources that support this kind of work. The NEA no longer gives grants directly to artists. There were many more opportunities to do experimental work that were really great. And I think that that allowed this rethinking to go on. What is it to make a sculpture? What is it to work in the natural environment? How does the public engage with that place, how does an individual viewer interact with a project? For me, the whole interest in using film was really thinking about that viewer. As time has gone on, it’s been more specific to the people who use a place, this community, the particular public. But at that time, it was more of an interest in an unidentified viewer, trying to find a means of engagement.

FIRMIN:  Do you think Artpark differed from other places? You had an opportunity to work outdoors in a number of instances, whether at the Nassau County Museum of Art, Lake Placid, or Dayton. You were doing a lot of work outdoors and getting smaller public commissions at that time. But I’m wondering if Artpark had a different environment. Or was it pretty much similar to the other experiences you’ve had? 

MISS:  It was different because there were more artists around doing things. All the things that I did until the early eighties were temporary things. But I think this is one of the few places that I can remember, where there were really a good number of other artists. Richard Fleischner was doing something there that summer. George Trakas was building a great piece; Ree Morton may have been there.

FIRMIN:  Yeah, Ree Morton was there. Did you have interactions with the artists?

MISS:  I just remember working very hard and being there with the guys delivering steel or with the concrete truck arriving. So it was a real work situation. Was George [Trakas] there that same summer?


MISS:  I think so.

FIRMIN:  Yeah, 1976.

MISS:  Yeah, and George had a little hut that he built himself and was kind of living in over there.

FIRMIN:  I think at the bottom, yeah.

MISS:  And was doing a very beautiful project of taking people along the edge of the cliff.

FIRMIN:  It was amazing.

MISS:  Yeah. There was this interest in kind of trying to reveal things to people in a different way, that I think George and I shared then; and probably we still share that.

FIRMIN:  I think one of the differences—and I would love to have you again comment about working in the seventies versus working now—was that what George did would never have been allowed because it was dangerous.

MISS:  Right.

FIRMIN:  I mean, it was very narrow, it was very high.

MISS:  And what I did wouldn’t be allowed, you know, because it’s a hole in the ground. Somebody could fall in.

FIRMIN:  Exactly.

MISS:  I think of the seventies as being a time to experiment. You can’t say enough about that. We weren’t on people’s radar yet, as we went out into the landscape to do our projects. It was possible for George to do that walkway or for me to do this hole in the ground, and nobody was going to see if you were meeting this requirement or that safety code. You just got to build the things. And it allowed a freedom of investigation that was really compelling. We didn’t worry about whether this was engineering or landscape architecture, art or filmmaking? I was just kind of layering things as I wished; crossing over. And that really formed the basis of my work, in the years and decades to come, this idea that you didn’t have to stay in strict boundaries, this idea of going into the expanded field. There’s this famous essay that Rosalind Krauss wrote “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” But I don’t think she really ever got the implication of the concept; that when you go into this expanded field, it’s really taking on the issues of the world as you step out there. And I think this territory has offered such compelling opportunities. I can’t say enough about how great it was to have that ability to experiment, to cross over, to not stay in your designated place of, not worrying whether a dealer is going to put it on the wall in the gallery space, whether it’s going to get sold.

FIRMIN:  So it feels like people went back and stayed in their studios again?

MISS:  Yeah, yeah. I can remember really being disappointed, as time when on. I felt that we were kind of redefining how artists could function. So now looking at a recent initiative I have been working on the City as Living Laboratory, once again I am looking at how artists are seen, what their role is, what my role is in the world. But we started doing this back then. Who knew we were going to end up going in this slow motion, or maybe not slow motion, retrograde direction of the arts being seen as a total threat, the culture wars. Instead of an expanded role for artists it seems like it has become increasingly confined. Yes, more public art programs, but the role of the artist has become more limited.

FIRMIN:  And there is not as much engagement.

MISS:  Right. So I think that is what was special about something like Artpark is that there was this opportunity to work in a laboratory and to see other people working in the laboratory, to see what George was doing or Richard Fleischner or Ree [Morton] or whoever else was around. But to be able to try something out, to do a film of a project, was really great.

FIRMIN:  Right. I’d be really curious about the experience of encountering your work. You can really sit and be in the space. With Richard Fleischner’s, it was a very strict path that you followed, staying on the move.

MISS:  Right.

FIRMIN:  And even with George Trakas’ project you kept moving at you went down to the river. Your work seemed to afford different opportunities and layerings of exploration. I’d be really curious— I haven’t found any pictures of people. I have a great picture of you in it, actually. [they laugh] But I don’t have any other pictures.

MISS:  I often talk about the visceral experience I would like to build in my work. In this project you could sit down in that lowest level of the ring of the pit. You were underground. It was quiet. And then as you kind of stood up out of that, and you start to see out those troughs, almost like sight lines or something— And here are a couple trees here, here’s a highway there. And then the noise increases just in that little bit, in a few feet. But it was like coming to a different place, coming to the world, so to speak.

FIRMIN:  Do you remember—because it was the spoils pile—did you have any trouble with the unearthing of the material? Like, did you run into chemicals or—

MISS:  Well, unfortunately I didn’t know what the area was at the time, that it was contaminated soil. This innocent thing of thinking that it was a recently leveled area. I hate to think what Robert Longo and I and everybody else who was working there were breathing…
we were out there at least for a couple of weeks, with the dust blowing. We just had no idea where we were or what the situation was.

FIRMIN:  And there was no evidence of the contamination?

MISS:  No. I mean, we didn’t come across containers or have rashes. [laughs]

FIRMIN:  A couple of people did projects where they grew things. And I just hope they didn’t eat them. [laughs] Agnes Denes did a rice field and I think she knew the ground was toxic. And so I hope none of the rice was actually eaten. That’s another reason, I think, that definitely would not be allowed today.

MISS:  I hope.  [they laugh]

FIRMIN:  Great. Well, do you have anything else to add that may be—

MISS:  Well, I would like to emphasize the important role that a place like Artpark had, as far as allowing experimentation to happen.

FIRMIN:  Have you worked with any institutions that are carrying on with this kind of situation, in Europe?

MISS:  I don’t know. I think there are probably always sculpture parks where things get done, but I’m always disappointed in what they’re like. Over the years, I came to view places like that as kind of zoos for artists. What has become more interesting to me is dealing with real situations within cities, for instance taking on pieces of infrastructure, repurposing a sewage treatment plan for instance. If Artpark functioned as a certain kind of laboratory, what I would rather see now is the whole city as a laboratory. Let artists have access, take on a city, a neighborhood, or a community. I would love to see the kind of support structure that allows artists to look at specific issues: for instance food – where it comes from, where does the waste go. Public art has evolved into this really bureaucratic infrastructure imbedded across the country— And there are many good things about it. All my projects have been done over the years through percent projects, for the most part. But one of the things that is really missing is the artist’s ability to select what they’re interested in. We’re just a few blocks from the World Trade Center,  and my windows were open and the dust had just blown through. My assistants and I were cleaning this place, which you can see has stuff everywhere, so it was no easy task. But after that, there was just this kind of compelling need to try and deal with the situation we were confronting in some way. And so worked to develop what we called the ‘Moving Perimeter’, which was intended as a temporary memorial to Ground Zero. At this time the boundary of the site was not yet set. It was at Chambers Street for a long time, and then it moved down a few blocks. But we wanted that edge to be able to move and contract as the site became more specific. But the intention was to create a place where people could mourn. People were coming to the site in droves. They were turned into voyeurs looking at a spectacle. But people were no necessarily coming as voyeurs, but there was no way for them to be anything else.


MISS:  So I was really interested in how they could participate in some way. So we made these open topped units of pipes strung together to replace the sawhorse-like barriers that the police usually use. The intention was that people could bring flowers and that everybody could become a participant and mourn, in a way. You still see people flocking down there. And yes, they want to see what’s there and what’s happening—which they can’t, for the most part; there’s almost nothing visible when you get downtown. But what if they could pay their respect in some way. After I did this project, I realized I really want to do things that I am really interested in. And sometimes I’m more successful than others. Could I look at the history of this place? Or can I deal with this issue or that? I think maybe one reason a lot of them didn’t happen is that I was being requested to put something at the entranceway of a building. One project was this thirty-acre sewage treatment plant, and I was interested in how to diagram a sewage treatment plant and make it a public space? How can people drive by and begin to get a sense of what’s happening there and get curious enough to come and visit a place? What happened at Artpark was that you could go and do what you wanted to do, what you were interested in. But now, could there be a similar situations in cities with the idea of a city being a laboratory, where artists take on the issue that are compelling to them, whether it’s climate change or the history of the place. But the other thing that I would say, though, is that in these early explorations, collaboration was always really important to me. And it set the stage for me to continue that in all of my work that I did after that.

FIRMIN:  As far as, like working with Michael Blackwood, or—

MISS:  It was great working with the filmmakers. What did I know about film making? I really needed to learn from them—even though this was my second film. And when I talk about the City as a Living Laboratory, where artists could do projects of their choice, the intention is that it is a collaboration with somebody who really knows about that thing. If you’re looking at flood levels, as I’ve looked at, or history, I’m always relying on somebody who is the expert: a hydrologist, an ecologist, the person who really has that content at hand, so that it’s not just me doing a riff on something.

FIRMIN:  Well, and I think as far as Artpark, like the machine operators that would come in and— that level of collaboration, too…

MISS:  Yeah, absolutely.

FIRMIN:  That allows for a certain dialogue to ensue. I met with Alice Adams and she was talking about how— I guess a back hoe operator. And he was moving a piece of string, a plumb line just from one section, and he was just sort of showing off how he could take these big gigantic jaws and move it from here to here. [laughs] And it was just sort of like this beautiful moment of interaction.

MISS:  Absolutely.

FIRMIN:  And he didn’t necessarily have to get it. And that’s kind of— I think that’s what’s so beautiful about your work is that you can go into the pit or you can be a child and find snakes, but— And you don’t have to realize, like you know, this is art proper.

MISS:  Right. But I think that was one of the important things that was happening in a place like Artpark, and also the Nassau County Museum, where I did a project a couple of years later. There was the possibility of engagement with a public that would never go to a museum; that would have no interest. That kind of visceral situation that you could set up, that it was possible to engage people who knew nothing about contemporary art was so compelling to me. So even though I’m very vague on the details of my time there, I do remember becoming really conscious of this means of engagement that you could have by putting things just out there, where people came across them. And I think after that, my intention was to try and make sure that they got in places that more people would come across them. Rather than Nassau County Museum, which was an estate, or Artpark, I was interested in what it’s like when you can get the work out on the street, not an isolated space. So, really important things came out of that experience of a place like Artpark, understanding how to function differently, how to go into that expanded field, so to speak.

FIRMIN:  Well that’s wonderful. Well, thank you so much.

MISS:  Thank you.

FIRMIN:  This is a lot of good material. I do feel that Artpark, it burned really brightly, and in 1979, it switched gears. I think the institution—the staff changed; there was sort of a regime change, and they purposely invited fewer artists to do larger projects. And I think the artists worked more in isolation. But then I also think that Artpark kind of had to die. [laughs] It was relevant for a period—and extremely relevant—but then it sort of stopped being so. And the paradigm changed. And I think that your ideas of why really hit the nail on the head.

MISS:  So when did it start?

FIRMIN:  1974.

MISS:  Because I was thinking that I was probably the second year.

FIRMIN:  Third year. 1974 was pretty disorganized, from what I understand. Did you have any sense of it being disorganized?

MISS:  I don’t recall that, no.

FIRMIN:  I think they’d pretty much got their act together with the second two years. And then in 1978, there was a run in with the public and artists. There was a bonfire, I hear, and artists smoking pot, I think, [they laugh] and complaints. And they just— they changed staff. And the visual arts, director Rae Tyson, left at that point.

MISS:  That’s a name I haven’t heard for a long time.
FIRMIN:  He was a high school teacher, [a] local from Lewiston, and was recruited, by I think Dale McConathy, who was no longer there when you were there, as the visual arts coordinator.

MISS:  Well, it was really a great situation, you know. And I think the thing that it really offers is a reminder of the importance of giving artists breathing space and that chance to think in a different way.

FIRMIN:  Well, thank you.

MISS:  Yeah.