When Flicker-track and Verge were exhibited at the Whitney Museum, Kaiser adopted the pseudonym of P. Mutt to protest the last-minute sponsorship of the exhibition by Phillip Morris. The museum refused to display this artist’s statement, which was posted instead to the web.
I have seen four relatives die of cancer. The most heartbreaking death was that of my aunt, Freda Kratter, who quit smoking in the early 1960s when the U.S. Surgeon General finally conceded the severe health hazards of cigarettes. Twenty years later, a rapidly metastasizing cancer nonetheless invaded Freda’s lungs and quickly claimed her life.
My other relatives - my grandmother Margaret Sundgaard and my great-uncle and aunt Henry and Paula Kaiser - were all so addicted to nicotine that they maintainted their grim habits right up to their deaths.
These four individuals belonged to an earlier generation. They started smoking before anyone knew that it led to cancer, heart disease, and other ailments - at a time, in fact, when the cigarette hucksters advertised the health benefits of smoking.
So even sadder than looking back at the deaths of my older relatives is looking forward, so to speak, to the prospective deaths of many of my students.
As a schoolteacher in the 1980s, I saw my learning disabled students sneak off school grounds to grab a smoke, that deceptive symbol of defiant independence. They were eleven or twelve years old when they started, an age when few of us think out the consequences of anything.
In teaching college students more recently, my dismay has been all the greater as I discover how many start smoking at the university itself. These are the best and the brightest, are they not? – but still succumbing to the same old seductive come-on that’s extended its fatal embrace for many years now.
The blandishments of the cigarette industry may be stupidly simple-minded, but they work with devastating effectiveness. Their message is tried-and-true: coolcats smoke.
Now the sad fact is that Philip Morris is one of the few major corporations to support avant-garde work, and this at a time when the government has withdrawn almost all of its support.
Understand, though, that the Philip Morris contributions come straight from its marketing budget, not from some nominally independent foundation they could have created. No, it’s straight advertising, and the recipients of that largesse can harbor no illusions about the fact, as they’re required to give prominent place to the Philip Morris logo on their building banners, brochures, announcements, invitations, playbills, and websites.
Supporting the “cutting-edge” buys Philip Morris two things: not only the marketing advantage of linking cigarettes to cool, youth-oriented events, but also the sociopolitical advantage of linking their company to progressive, left-leaning institutions. With right-wing politicians like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond long in its pocket, Philip Morris thus balances those unsavory affiliations with more respectable ones, like that of the Whitney Museum, Lincoln Center, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and many others.
Given the culture wars of the past two decades, these make for exceedingly strange bedfellows.
In December 2000, I was asked whether two of my digital artworks - Flicker-track and Verge - could be included in an upcoming Whitney show, “BitStreams.” The curator, Larry Rinder, is a man I know and admire, and of course I said yes. Larry confided in me that his budget for the show was terribly small and asked whether I could loan the museum my own projectors and workstations for the three-month run of the exhibition. Again I agreed, and added that I’d also pay the fees of my installation architect.
In mid-January the museum finally managed to secure a sponsor for the show, which (as you’ve already guessed) turned out to be Philip Morris. Larry knew of my moral objections to this company, so he served as an intermediary between museum officials and me in discussing what I could do short of withdrawing.
My first proposal was to extend my independent support of the show to include my paying all direct costs for the installation. I wanted the sign to reflect this with the following notice: “This artist does not accept funding from Philip Morris. Instead, funding for this individual installation was provided by the artist himself.”
The museum came back and said I couldn’t mention Philip Morris by name; however, when I agreed to the removal of the first sentence, they decided that I couldn’t use the second one either. By their logic, the second statement was inaccurate because I would still benefit from the Philip Morris marketing dollars that would publicize the show. I inquired whether I could pay my share of that cost too, even though I knew I didn’t have the money. My wife and I figured we could take out a personal loan from the bank, but the museum came back with its answer: no. I would only be allowed to say “Additional funds provided by the artist.”
I was also disallowed from removing my name from the artworks and instead simply listing myself as Anonymous. I was told that in the same way that the Whitney no longer allowed anonymous donations, they were also forbidding anonymous artworks.
And so you can see that my conversations with the museum were starting to become a little bizarre. At various points, Larry referred to concerns by the “higher-ups” that in the wake of the recent Armani scandal at the Guggenheim and the Saatchi scandal at the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney was being ever more careful about donor and artist improprieties. They started speculating that it was unseemly for me to be paying for my own work at the museum, which might be misconstrued as my having bought my way into the show. They also worried that by making a noticeable dissent from the show, I would be drawing attention to my work unfairly - that is, making a scandal to increase its supposed market value at the expense of the other artists in the show.
So I began asking questions. Should the museum sign identifying an artwork be considered part of the artwork itself? Or is it outside the artwork and thus outside the artist’s control? Certainly the sign is a place of odd - and in this case, contested - overlap between the artist and the institution. But it seemed indisputable that at least two parts of the sign belong entirely to the artist: the artwork’s title and the artist’s name.
Eventually I decided to give myself a pseudonym. To persuade the museum officials to agree to it, I cited Marcel Duchamp’s famous alter ego, R. Mutt: the name he gave himself when signing Fountain, the urinal readymade submitted to and ultimately rejected by the supposedly “open” Independents show of 1917.
And so I settled on calling myself P. Mutt, a linguistic relative not only of R. Mutt, but also of P.M., that is, Philip Morris.
My urinal is considerably larger than Duchamp’s. Philip Morris rains down on us all from a much higher perch.
I consider this statement, posted in cyberspace, to be part of the Verge and Flicker-track installation.