Books In Conversation
Mike Albo with Jen Zoble
Whether he’s dancing in the altogether with the glitter-soaked Dazzle Dancers or waxing agitated about the agonies and ecstasies of consumerism, Mike Albo is an author and performer who understands exposure and how it drives our fame-crazed culture. I met Mike four years ago through mutual friends – several of them his naked cohorts – and have followed his career on page and stage ever since. Over breakfast in Prospect Heights, the Park Slope-based Leonardo and I discussed his recent projects. (Da Vinci, not DiCaprio, you celeb whore…)
Jen Zoble: In the Dazzle Dancers Manifesto, on the DD website, you state, “We battle the forces of blandness, fear and isolation so common in our clenched culture of coffee franchises, fear marketing and money worship.” This seems to be a good summary of your work as a whole. When and how did this become your mission and how does being Dazzle Dazzle coincide with your work as a writer and solo performer?
Mike Albo: I wrote that manifesto before 9/11, and then it meant how toxically commercial everything was getting, and after 9/11 it took on a whole different meaning, it had a bit more of a backbone to it, it wasn’t just about scary consumerism.
I was in grad school in ‘96-‘97, and that’s when I started performing. I was there for poetry and insanely frustrated with how limiting the system was, because it was based on money just like everything else in America – “We have twelve slots for poets, we have twelve slots for fiction writers, and twelve for nonfiction writers.” I was there to get confident as a writer; I started as a poet but I secretly wanted to do other things. So I ended up frustrated, and that’s when I started performing, and one of the first things I did was a sort of biblical litany of praises of products, using the language of billboards and commercialism and ad copy.
The whole Dazzle Dancers thing raises a point about not taking yourself seriously. We started literally as a joke – we didn’t know what we were doing, we were just a bunch of fuck-ups – says a lot about what becomes successful in our world. Paris Hilton can shit on a plate and make a million dollars.
Rail: You’ve worked as a staff writer for several glossy fashion/culture magazines, and been featured in a bunch as well. Your writing also has appeared in more “serious” publications. What are your impressions of the commercial publishing world?
Albo: It’s mind-boggling how much things don’t change in the publishing industry, especially magazines, like they say “We want a fresh new voice” and then you think, “Why didn’t you just get a monkey to bang on the keyboard, and edit it?” It’s so easy to get brainwashed, because you end up having to be in the office all of the time and see the other people who work at your magazine more than you see your mother in your entire life. Though it ends up that I totally love the people I have worked with at various magazines. People are like, “Oh, in the modern world we don’t know the meaning of real work, we don’t know how to skin the lynx and use the fur and bones” but it’s fucking hard work to work at a magazine. One time I had to write a story for Cargo about a new line from Champion Sportswear, and I had a limit of about ten words, and after going through a billion editors, it came back to me with the instruction, “Put more of yourself in the story.” And I was like, “What story? It’s ten words!” But thank god that they need more creative people, I got myself out of debt while I worked there last year, and I learned so much about fashion.
Rail: It’s interesting to see how you inhabit these worlds. For example, your recent essay on product placement and neuromarketing in BlackBook, a magazine which likes to pitch itself as more cultural, more intellectual, but it’s still a big glossy, ad-driven thing. Yet they gave you the space to write, “This is all crazy!” Somehow you pull it off.
Albo: It was the same when I got Adidas to sponsor my last show, and I had to be honest about what was in it. The way that makes me comfortable about this whole thing is not to say “Consumerism is bad” but more “What is happening, let me be honest about what’s happening and not be a big fakey Carrie Underwood botoxed celebrity about it. How can we discuss how we’re being enslaved by products.”
Rail: Your second novel, The Underminer (published earlier this year) exposes a character who, just like the forces of consumerism, derives his/her power from reinforcing others’ natural feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Why do you think this person rings so familiar and true with your audiences?
Albo: At first I thought, because you are often told this, that it was too New York-y, or something. You know, “Oh, the rest of the world doesn’t really think that…” Things are so balkanized, people try to categorize you so that no one pays attention to anyone else, they just read in their own little worlds. But after the book came out, I did some radio interviews, and these people would call in, for example, in Pittsburgh, where The Underminer would take the form of a friend who talks about your size. I guess there’s a lot of fat people in Pittsburgh. So someone would call in and say, “My friend said that I need to lose weight…” It’s funny how The Underminer takes shape in different cultures. I was on a show for this NPR-like station in Australia, and someone from New Guinea called in who lived in the bush country, and said (in Australasian accent) “I moved to my first house last year, and my neighbor made fun of me because I didn’t know how to make a bed.” I was like, wow. That shows how ancient The Underminer is. I find it very ironic that the most successful thing I’ve done is about the most evil character I’ve ever created. People have asked me, “Why didn’t you kill off The Underminer in the end, he’s so evil” but I think The Underminer is Mr. Magoo, he/she can’t die unless the world changes. The character is really a representation of how the only thing that matters in this country is how well you promote yourself.
Rail: How have you chosen to modulate your work based on the audience or perceived audience?
Albo: I think maybe “chosen” isn’t the right word, because I feel that it’s inevitable. I have no choice but to talk about how the symbols and the language I use are so much wrapped up in television advertising, stardom, fame, because that’s the blood of the world I live in. And that’s why it seems to me that to write precious poetry about lunch… and seagulls or something…I mean, it’s beautiful but it just isn’t the world that we live in, unless there’s Juliette Binoche sitting there watching the seagull.
Rail: You alluded to your Adidas sponsorship earlier, and I wanted to ask you about a comment you made in an interview with your longtime writing partner, TV critic Virginia Heffernan. She asked you about Adidas’ sponsorship of My Price Point, and you commented, “Collaborating with a gigantic consumer icon like Adidas might actually represent one of the last shreds of optimism left in the world.” Could you elaborate on this?
Albo: You know, sponsorship is as old as time, people painted for kings and did whatever. Right now, there’s no government funding, and we’re in this cultural wash where the only thing that matters is what sells, and I feel in a lot of ways that I need to exploit my work so that it can be shiny so that people can buy it. In my heart of hearts I probably wanted to be a Walt Whitman poet who sits by a riverbank and watches naked men bathe and writes about it, but (in mock announcer voice) that doesn’t sell, so my transformation of my voice has been all about this frustration in a lot of ways. There’s a give and take, and that show is me trying to make myself as commercially viable as possible but not lose my sense of weirdness, and the fact that Adidas could meet me halfway and let me ironize the whole thing … the guys there admitted, “We’re a German-owned company, and whenever we’ve supported the arts it’s been people like Robert Wilson, with a tiny little Adidas logo at the corner of the card.” It had never been so blatant. But the people there understood what I was doing.
And anyway, anything counts in America in terms of ads, someone could stab a baby and write Nike with its blood and people would think, “Nike!” It’s all about the image.
Mike Albo currently can be seen performing solo and in sketch ensembles on Tuesday nights at Starlight Bar and Lounge in the EastVillage, 167 Avenue A, between E. 10th and 11th Streets. 10pm, free.
Jennifer Zoble is a writer, editor, educator, and literary translator. She coedits InTranslation, and teaches at NYU.
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