Mike Mills Is Human After All

The director talks about his first monograph "Graphics/Films", which covers 15 years of his various creative endeavours.

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Like a true Renaissance man, Mike Mills cannot be pigeonholed, he effortlessly switches between a variety of media while juggling his numerous commercial and personal projects. His first monograph, simply called Graphics/Films, could easily summarise 90s cool, as it features Mike's work for brands such as Supreme, X Girl and Marc Jacobs, record labels like Mo Wax and Matador and bands like Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys and Air. The book also shows, to great extent, Mike's more recent ventures into filmmaking and showcases his own, whimsical product range called Humans. We caught up with Mike over the phone and, despite his declared shyness, he turned out to be very articulate about his work process, the 70s, depression and his life in LA.

Dazed Digital: The book spans 15 years of your career.  Going through it, one immediately notices the variety of your creative activities. How do they differ for you?
Mike Mills: In my mind, it's not a bunch of different things. It's really the same ideas, the same issues and the same concerns that come out, they just get put into different categories. It all comes from the same book and they all feed off of each other. And I usually do them all kind of at the same time, you know? They are sort of overlapping. There's obviously a huge difference between making a film and doing a t-shirt, but they all come from the same desire to have a conversation with people in a public venue. Making a film takes years, so while I'm working on one, I'm also doing my HUMANS stuff or a video or an ad and they all kind of feed on each other – it's like a mini laboratory for me. So, doing an ad recently, I'm sort of practicing for the film that I'm doing later this year. At the same time, I had to do some artwork for the Armory show. They're all spinning off of each other.
When I was a kid, growing up in the seventies with American consumer culture, if you watched a TV show or a cartoon, that same character was also on a lunch box or on a t-shirt; there was a comic book and a movie – all the same story. I was very susceptible to that whole world and I think I'm sort of recreating that on an individual, personal level.
It might seem like I’m working in a lot of media, but it’s really just a small, cottage industry of one person. I mean there are lots of people who have done this in the past, like Ray and Charles Eames. They influence me a lot. They would do a huge exhibition, they would do a chair or build a house, they would make films, and they would make toys. When I was in college that seemed to really suit me, they seemed very exciting. They were very articulate about how to fall into one category, like, to be a sculptor, or an illustrator or a graphic designer, or a filmmaker; it's kind of a bourgeois, capitalist trap; a careerist trap. Those definitions don't really follow the way human brains work or human life goes; those are just industrial categories that we sort of fit ourselves into. So by the time I was 20, I felt like the world wasn't to follow those rules anymore.
Also, people like Moholy-Nagy and the whole Bauhaus thing was all about the interconnection of all the different forms.
I think it’s the art school industry to blame for this categorization. Because art school is programmed to create little careers, you know? Jobs, basically. That's such a narrow idea of what a creative life really requires.
Especially when you're doing graphic design or anything like that, they tell you 'Build a portfolio to get a job!' I’ve always been more concerned with sort of a social consciousness; with what are you really doing in the public sphere.
I got a lot of that from Hans Haacke, who was a teacher at Cooper Union. He was a German, conceptual, political artist. He really brought down the idea that it isn't at all about any medium or any craft. It's really conceptual. The ideas are most important and it doesn't really matter how you make it. Or it matters how you make it but it's secondary. That again reinforced the tendency I already had. And as I think the physical reality of all the mediums is different, the ideas are all the same and they are the most important part for me.

DD: When I think of your work, I tend to see more influences coming from literature than other visual sources.  Is that right? 
MM: I read a fair amount but it influences the film stuff more, because I'm also writing the script for my next movie. I've been on a long (Milan) Kundera binge lately. Generally, I’m more influenced by very theoretical stuff. When I was at school, I've read a lot of semiotics and post structuralist stuff and all that, and learned about the Situationists. The real Situationists would totally hate me but I've been very influenced by that. Barthes has deeply influenced me. All my stuff has a lot of text, playing around with stuff that I got influenced by when I was 19-20 years old and which I can never really shake off. Even when I try not to be theoretical, I'm still coming from that paradigm. So not so much literature, as in fiction, but Barthes, Benjamin, Foucault – all this sounds very pretentious, all this name-dropping! But even if I didn't understand it entirely when I was reading it, I was young enough that it really got in there. The HUMANS thing is to me, trying to be a Situationist project. Trying to be…  art that's cheap, that's in the public sphere, that's mass-produced, that's trying not to partake in any of this special artist aura stuff.

DD: That sounds a lot like eames again.
MM: Let's say you're in an art school in New York City and it is so attitude-y... It's all about 'I'm more distinguished than you', 'I am more clever, more sophisticated, more cool than you'. It's all over the place. It's such a trap. I find it so limiting. Eames were so friendly, open, democratic and unpretentious. Simple and straight. They were very protestant, in a way –there's no commotion, there's no sex; it's very protestant. It's very open and transparent. I like that a lot. Something about their work, I think I share, is that there is nothing that technically amazing, there's no wizardry. It's just a good idea and a good presentation. That's something I really respond to.

DD: What you said about New York art schools, it feels to me, could be applied to that city in general.
MM: Oh yeah! By that I also meant the downtown youth culture. And it's not like I wasn't part of that; I was totally susceptible to it and a part of it, but tried to get out somehow. I tried to find a more positive and more open way of thinking about things.

DD: Being part of Alleged Gallery back in the day, did that provide 'a more positive and more open way of thinking'?
MM: To me, it was always like you just said. Aaron (Rose) is my friend and I lived around the corner. Especially when it first started on Ludlow Street, it was the most impoverished little thing. It had no involvement with “the scary art world“ or big art careers. It was really chilled and at the beginning, the people that were hanging out there, we would just go there every night and hang out, get drunk and be bored. It wasn't a scene, it wasn't Beautiful Losers, it wasn't anything. From the outside, I think, it looked very pretentious and a lot like an insiders club; very much a guys club. Which it kind of was and if you were outside of that circle, it could look very cool and attitude-y. And there's a piece of truth to that but, contradictorily, when you just went in there, and you were friends with people that were hanging out there, it wasn't like that at all. It was really weird how in that film (Beautiful Losers documentary) it comes across as a movement or something. Whereas at best, what that was, was a big accident. A bunch of people who weren't sure what's up. And had a little community to be unsure in. That was the great part. By the nature of making a film, and editing, it kind of comes across a little commercial-like: in reality, this “movement” was just a group of friends.

DD: Was this disatisfaction with NY the reason why you moved back to Los Angeles?
MM: Part of it, yes. I moved to NY when I was 18, and was 33 when I moved back. 15 years. I missed home. I missed California. I would see my parents maybe 2 or 3 times a year and they were getting older, so I wanted to come home. And it's also what you're saying: in NY every piece of clothing, every record you buy, the way you walk resonated of how distinctive you are. It gets kind of relentless after a while. Also, rent. It's so fucking expensive! My apartment came up and there's no love - you'd think if you've been there 15 years, you'd get a better deal. But you find yourself on the street fighting to get a tiny, little place. I was over that.

DD: How is it, being back in LA?
MM: I miss NY now! LA is nice. Good thing is there's not that much going on, to distract you. Weirdly, it's much easier for me to make my personal stuff and I’m not bouncing off of this cool thing and that cool thing and just reflecting all the things around me that are really interesting. I have a big yard and a dog and trees. It's more meditative and to be honest, more lonely, and way less hip. I have more space to forget who I am. When I first moved back here, I really wanted that.
But I totally miss NY and every time I'm there, I'm thinking I should move back. It's so nice to bump into people all the time. It really has a walking culture and much more integrated social life. Different classes and different people you get to see. The city being made every day. LA is so residential, bourgeois and 'in your car', and segregated.

DD: But there is a big creative community in LA at the moment.
MM: Sure, but I'm not really involved in any of it (laughter). I'm not a good socialiser. There's this myth that LA doesn’t have culture, especially independent culture. But you know, John Cassavetes made most of his films here or Neil Young recorded his records here. There's a long history of great art from here. But when you live here you see it way less. And as I said, I'm just a bad socialiser. I'm just a loner.

DD: Did your work change a lot since you moved?
MM: Yeah, totally. Also, my mum died when I moved back and then my dad died 5 years later, so everything changed and got much more serious. It was a real shift and a lot of things changed for me. There are coyotes in my yard. I saw a huge one this morning. I got super into my garden, almost obsessively. A lot of the HUMANS stuff, and ‘Thumbsucker’ and my short film 'Architecture of Reassurance', they're all really focusing on the emotional lives of people. Trying to get to the more vulnerable part of that emotional life. I think the quiet space that LA provided, enabled me to start going there. Also all that shit that happened in my life back then, just makes you think more about everything. And it makes you willing to be braver because everything has been blown apart anyways.

DD: Did this interest in emotional vulnerability lead you to making your latest documentary 'doese your sould have a cold'? (a documentary about anti-depressants in Japan)
MM: I think that my film ‘Thumbsucker’ is really about depression in lots of ways. I've been dealing with depression A LOT. There's so much of my art that's about being sad or lonely. And I could wholly see that I was doing that over and over again. There have been key people in my life that have been depressed and I have my own little strand of depression in my own mind. It's definitely something I was in tune with and sympathetic to. To me, all the way back from college, the emphasis was on social and political aspects of what you're making and how you are engaging in public life. And the most interesting and most political part of public life is your emotional life. That documentary is about depressed people in Japan taking anti-depressants. It's kind of a perfect combination where your sadness is interfacing with that global market system. At the same time, the film deals with Americanisation of Japanese culture. This project was like a key combination of all these interests that I had forever. Also, I grew up being in bands, like a typical, southern-Californian, punk rock teenager. All the bands and all the music I was listening to really shaped the emotions I was having; shaped my self identity on a really deep, mysterious level. I think I've always been interested in how pop culture, art, bands, or something like skate culture, shape your innermost feelings about yourself, your innermost identity. And I've always been interested in how media affect the really mysterious inner life of a person. The HUMANS project is much about that. It's about the interaction between the built world around us and our inner life.

DD: It's interesting what you said about your work dealing with depression.  I though that your series of drawings 'Fireworks', contradictory to what the title suggested, was very sad amd melancholic.
MM: I was really, really depressed at that time. Drawing ‘Fireworks’ was all about trying to make myself happy or try to get out. It wasn't like I was in bed unable to do anything, but in my mind, I was pretty down. Doing bigger projects was a little too difficult, so I just did lots and lots of drawings.

DD: Did they help?
MM: I think they helped in that... when you're depressed, for me, it's not like you're mellow and down-and-out. It’s this grating pain the whole time. It's like a headache. Simply having something to do distracts you from the pressure of it and makes you feel like you're being productive. And I liked them when I was doing them. It was like a piece of comfort during the day.I don't want to over play it; it wasn't like I was SO depressed but it was like an everyday thing for a while.

DD; So, these drawings were a form of your own, personal therapy?
MM: All my art is, in a way. Me trying to get less lonely. Me trying to gain some control over my world. All my art is trying to make myself feel better.

DD: Working so much in film these days, do you still draw?
MM: I just did a huge project at Pool Gallery in Berlin for which I did more drawings than I've ever done!
I did a history of Winnie the Pooh. There was a real bear named Winnipeg that this soldier brought to London in 1914. There was a real Christopher Robin who saw the bear and named his teddy bear Winnie after him. And then I looked at the history of who owned Winnie the Pooh up to Disney. And it's all drawings, hundreds of drawings.
I'm trying not to drop anything and I like how all the different media keep coming back to me.
Drawing is a thing I did the most when I was a kid. I drew all the time. Even when you're making a film, you draw a lot; storyboards or just ideas for shots. So drawing is like writing for me; it's such an easy, quick thing.

DD: A lot of your work seems influence by the seventies graphics.  Is it a conscious stylistic choice?
MM: There was a time, when I was doing X-Girl and all that, in the early nineties, there was this visual, seventies thing that I fell into, that wasn't really that important to me; it wasn't a part of what I was doing. But then, more importantly, there are so many things about the seventies that I'm drawn to, like seventies film making, from all of Hal Ashby's films, all the great Woody Allen films; much more political, socially conscious film making in general. Seventies conceptual art is some of the most exciting stuff; some of Hans Haacke's best work is from the seventies. Situationists were still around in the seventies. In general, I think the seventies’ pop graphics were a little simpler, a bit more modernist. And that's when I was a kid, it's the imagery I grew up with, that I responded to, that I'm recreating.

DD: When are you planning to make your next feature film?
MM: I've been writing it forever now. Hopefully I get to shoot it this year. Seems like it's coming together. I can't talk about it too much; it's still bending around. If I talk about it, I know for sure it'll change and turn into something different.

DD: Is it an independent production? Is it difficult working that way?
MM: Very difficult. We’ve been trying to get actors' money together for a couple of years now. It's really hard. Especially now, with the financial world in crisis and the film world contracting, money people aren't really interested in small films about human relations that are complicated and vague.

DD: What other projects are we to expect from you in the near future?
MM: I'm doing more HUMANS stuff and I've been working on a book for years with Takashi Homma, a Japanese photographer. It's called 'Wildlife Corridors'. There are places in Los Angeles where mountain lions can make their way over or under freeways and around housing developments. Even in the city as seemingly built up and unnatural as Los Angeles, there’s a really intense wildlife in here. So we go and photograph all the places were mountain lions have been. We've been doing it for a while and hopefully it will end up in a book form later this year.

Mike Mills: Graphics/Films is published by Damiani, £24.99

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