What if, when life flashes before your eyes, you see not the moments you’ve experienced but the content you’ve consumed?
Michael Dayton HERMANN muses on this idea in his video mixtape My Life Before Your Eyes. The fast paced collage is a feast of visual stimuli, representative of the rapid flow of content we are exposed to at each moment of our lives. Its fifth chapter focuses on illustrating the artist’s personal experience with skateboarding, skate culture, nonconformity and the idea of failure.
In a new collaboration with THE SKATEROOM, HERMANN channels these musings into a limited collection of hand-painted skateboard art editions. We caught up with the artist to discuss his fascination with the digital world and its relationship to the human subconscious, his work with the Andy Warhol Foundation, and the unique approaches he takes towards visual communication.
Do you remember the moment when you became an artist? Or is it safe to say that you’ve always been one?
I don’t remember a specific moment. I just always felt that visual language and communication was the most natural way for me to navigate the world. From an early age, drawing, collaging, examining the world and absorbing visual content was such a natural place for me to be. I’ve always considered myself an artist. That hasn’t changed.
Your art seems to surpass aesthetic labels and always surprise with new, unexpected approaches. Are you able to describe your visual style?
I had this very conscious moment when I went to art school. Initially, I thought that I would go into illustration or commercial art with the idea that I would need to make a living. Then, I very quickly realized that this limitation required that I conform to what others want for a project and serve their needs, and that was not what attracted me to visual communication. It was really about exploring the world and my desire to communicate something unique. I have always been interested in finding purpose, power, and meaning in the relentless stream of content we absorb. I very quickly decided that I would study fine art and not any commercial field and figure out how to make a living one way or the other. I really don’t think about style. The great thing about art is that you don’t have these limitations. The idea of focusing on a particular style for my work feels incredibly limiting. In many ways I find it very boring, it almost feels like pastiche. I like to think of myself as an inventor, with each work of art I create things from scratch.
Where do you get the inspiration for this multidisciplinary selection of works?
As individuals, there are always subjects that we return to and that interest us. For me, a lot of those things are larger philosophical ideas about life, but in many cases the inspiration is sparked by a very simple moment that I might have, or a question I consider. The video that I showed at THE SKATEROOM GALLERY in Brussels came from exactly such a place. I found myself constantly staring at my phone and sitting in front of a screen and just consuming all this content. I asked myself this question – what if, when the moment comes when my life flashes before my eyes before I die, all I see is not the life that I lived but the content that I consumed? Because so much of the life that we’re living now is consuming content. What does that mean and what would that look like? Those simple questions were the catalyst for my 40-minute video mixtape My Life Through Your Eyes. I really started thinking deeply about the world my sons will inherit and how complex it is for them to navigate today. My work can come from such larger philosophical considerations to very whimsical moments.
Your work draws upon the inescapable bombardment of digital imagery to confront the familiar and examine the subconscious from unexpected perspectives. How did you first come to realize this link between the digital and the subconscious?
I’ve always been interested in consuming media and understanding its power. And not just media but objects, signs, and symbols we confront in our lives. A well-loved toy can have power for a child in a way that it doesn’t on a shelf in the store…We can discover and imbue new meanings. Looking closely at a magazine advertisement, you can find different messages that perhaps weren’t the intention. I appreciate this question because I’ve never really consciously thought about it – was there a moment that I realized what this investigation was really about for me? I challenged myself to think about this and I realized there was. I was probably much too young but as a kid I watched A Clockwork Orange. There is this moment when Alex, the main character, is forced to watch violent content while being injected with drugs to make him nauseous. The content affected his behavior prospectively. That was a moment when I realized that the content we absorb can have a powerful impact on us. Thinking about it through the lens of today – these algorithms and AI are supposed to be learning from us, but I think in many ways we are actually having our behaviors modified by the algorithm. Sometimes we don’t want to consume this content, it’s not what we’re looking for, but there it is in front of us. The algorithms are learning from us but we’re also learning from them like Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
Being so conscious and alert to the sheer mass of content that we are exposed to must sometimes feel overwhelming. How do you keep a healthy balance of approaching it with an analytical and inspired perspective, without becoming too consumed?
Like with anything in life, we have to approach it with conscientiousness and intentionality. Rarely are things truly binary – good or bad. Digital media is the same. So much of it is incredibly exciting, interesting and helpful for humanity but there are also downsides to it. There is a balance in recognizing this and empowering yourself to use it as a tool, rather than passively allowing yourself to be a tool. The simple exercise of two people googling the same simple query, resulting in different answers to the same questions, is evidence of the tools’ subjectivity. If you’re not aware of this, you’re going to navigate the world with less autonomy. Being more active, intentional and conscious about digital media and how to navigate it is a responsibility that we all have.
So you never find yourself in a moment of existential dread over certain developments in the digital world and technology, especially as an artist?
There are many times when I have serious concerns about it, but ultimately I am an optimist and I believe in the good of humanity. I don’t usually find myself in a place of existential dread however, I’ve definitely been down many internet black holes and dark places to see how that could very easily happen.
Which piece, or aspect, of popular culture fascinates you the most right now?
I love to look at art – new, old, classical. It is something that I’m always doing actively. However, sometimes I find myself going to galleries and not finding anything that really moves me. Then I might pop into Comme des Garçons or Dover Street Market and remind myself that visual communication is more than just gallery walls and what they’re putting on there. It’s around us, always. Recently I saw Junya Wantanabe’s collection and it was a powerful reminder that fashion is public art and we are all artists. Everyday that we wake up, we are making these conscious decisions about how to present ourselves to the world. That’s a form of visual communication that we all use and are familiar with but I think we often take it for granted. With the constant bombardment of media in today’s world, everyone has a strong sense of visual language. We are all artists and visual thinkers, even if we don’t consciously acknowledge it.
You are the Director of Licensing at the Andy Warhol Foundation. Both of your work draws from popular culture and experiments with different forms of visual expression. What influence does Andy Warhol have on your personal life and art?
As an art student, I wasn’t looking at Andy Warhol. I felt like he was from a different generation and, in many ways, was making work that just didn’t resonate with me. However, an opportunity came up to do an internship at the Andy Warhol Foundation and I decided to take it on. In the 20 plus years since, I continue to learn and be inspired by his life and work. One of the things I found inspiration in is the freedom Warhol gives to people. It’s not just the artworks he made but how he lived his life. He was a nonconformist who refused to be confined by conventions. He founded and published Interview Magazine, he was a photographer, an author of books, director of music videos… For him, his fine art and everything else was part of one larger creative vision. For someone like myself who has passions that are beyond just one singular thing, it was very liberating to see Warhol’s unorthodox path. I think it’s the case for me and countless others that he is a point of inspiration and somebody who’s given permission to go beyond certain constructs and expectations. It has been a wonderful experience to work at the Warhol Foundation and I am as passionate about that work as I am about any time I spend in my studio.
Do you have a go-to artistic medium? Perhaps there is one that you are yet to tap into?
I studied sculpture as a graduate student yet my thesis consisted of videos and paintings. I’m always willing to jump into anything – mediums are just tools to use for visual communication. I haven’t done sculpture in some time but I have a sculpture that I’m working on now, so that’s an exciting development for me. Drawing has always been something that I come back to. Just the immediacy of it, not having to rely on space or different tools you can just pick up an instrument and start drawing. It’s always been something that I’ve gone back to. The newest work that I’m making uses oil sticks that I draw with.
What is the inspiration behind your collection with THE SKATEROOM?
I’ve always been excited by THE SKATEROOM, their projects and how they center artists and social change. As somebody who grew up skateboarding, skate culture influenced me greatly. It values individuality, creativity, community and I know that that is a big part of THE SKATEROOM as well. The idea that art and skateboarding can come together was incredibly attractive to me personally. Having done this video, My Life Through Your Eyes, with one chapter dedicated to my experience skateboarding, it seemed like it would be a natural jumping off point for this collaboration. Many of the visuals draw directly from this chapter of the video. There are five hand-painted decks which are unique works in and of themselves. They tap into that chapter which really talks about conformity and that tension between seeking individuality in a system that often rewards conformity. They feature trophies for these beauty pageants, which are often all about conformity. You have to conform to what an ideal of beauty is. But they’re carefully hand painted in ways that are very personal, transforming them into totems of individuality, subverting the original meaning of these objects of conformity.
In that specific chapter of your visual mixtape, you indeed juxtaposed clips of skateboarders falling (and essentially failing) with excerpts from beauty pageant videos. What is the link that you saw between the two?
A lot of the time when creating work it starts with a very specific concept. I’ll then do lots of research, reading, writing, gathering materials… And at a certain point I let go and just rely on my intuition and respond to the visual medium. Sometimes those decisions aren’t that conscious. They are responses to ways in which I see relationships visually. To translate visual language into words is sometimes a challenge, but this chapter certainly touches on the pain and celebration of failure. In skateboarding, a lot of the time you see these polished, edited videos. But the reality is that skateboarding is one of those practices where you fail far more than you succeed. These beauty pageants have a winner and they have many losers. I’ve always seen failure as an opportunity for growth. Otherwise, failure becomes a state of mind. I like to think that we either succeed or we learn, but we don’t fail. That type of approach to things has served me well and I think that video is getting at that to some degree.
The benefits that come with skateboarding and skate culture are far greater than just the act of jumping on a board, and spreading those benefits is inherently tied to the genesis of THE SKATEROOM. What is the importance for you of giving back through the work you create?
It’s incredibly important. Skateboarding is something that I’m passionate about, visual art is obviously something that I’m passionate about, and I recently also joined the board of the Children’s Museum of Art here in New York City. I think when you have the means or the knowledge to give back, it’s important you do what you can. A lot of people and organizations don’t see things through that lens. But I think that THE SKATEROOM is one of the unique examples of a company that takes on this responsibility to give back. My perception is that for THE SKATEROOM it’s not about cause marketing but a sincere desire to do good in the world. I find that a terrific thing which aligns with my own values.