Michael Smith:
Room Tone

In this bonus live episode, artist Michael Smith talks about how to get creative with bad teaching evaluations. Season 3 coming soon!



Michael Smith’s recent solo exhibitions and performances include Museo Jumex, Mexico City; Yale Union, Portland, Oregon; Tate Modern, London; and Greene Naftali, New York; and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. His work is in the collections of the Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin; Inhotim Institute, Brumadinho; LWL Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster; Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zürich; Mumok, Vienna; Museion, Bolzano; Paley Center for Media, New York; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

NEIL GOLDBERG: Hello, I’m Neil Goldberg, and this is She’s A Talker. We recently finished our second season, and we’ll be launching Season Three very soon. In the meantime, we thought as a bonus we’d share a live episode that was recorded with artist Mike Smith way back in the good old days of February, 2020. The event happened at the New York headquarters of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Skowhegan’s primary program is an intensive summer residency up in Maine for sixty-five emerging visual artists from all over the world. And in 2015, I had the good fortune of being faculty there, and it was actually there that I took the first steps for what would become this podcast. I was inspired by all the experimentation happening, and I decided to play around with this collection of thoughts I’d jotted down on index cards for the past twenty years as the basis for some sort of performance work. So here we are. My guest, Mike Smith, was also faculty at Skowhegan a couple of years before me and has been a favorite artist of mine for years. He’s recently shown work at the Tate Modern in London, and his work is also in the permanent collections of MoMA, the Walker Center, the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, and many other places. Here it goes.

NEIL: Hi everybody. Thank you so much for coming. So, the premise of the podcast is I typically start with some recent cards, uh, before I bring on a guest. And I thought, uh, this is a recent one: seeing an unflushed toilet at an art school. Now, um, I teach at Yale and, uh, I try to like use the bathroom as far away from where I teach as possible. And I also like to try and mix it up a little bit. So, you know, every now and then I’ll go into the basement. Other times I’ll go to the second floor. Uh, keep them guessing. And there was a while, very recently at Yale, where every time I walked into a bathroom stall, there was an unflushed toilet full of shit. And I started to think like, okay, is this like a student’s like art project? Um, but then beyond that, I really was cognizant of the impact it had on the crits I did later in the day, which is like, I found myself sort of evaluating everything I was seeing in relationship to the impact that seeing a unflushed toilet unexpectedly will have on you. Because think about it, that moment where you’re kind of like, you open the stall door and there is the unflushed toilet. That is, I think, what we’re all going for as artists. Um. Anyhow. 

With all that in mind, I am so happy to have, as my guest, Michael Smith, who I have been a fan of for a very long time. I have actually had the experience, Michael, of going to your shows, and I will say that its impact on me was not unlike that of an unflushed toilet encountered by surprise. So, please welcome Michael Smith.

NEIL: Hi, Michael, how are you? 

MICHAEL SMITH: I’m okay. I guess I, I don’t know if I should be flattered or – what I’m following in terms of the conversation or –

NEIL: when in doubt, be flattered. 

MICHAEL: Yeah. I have so much to say. I don’t know if we’ll be able to get to another card. 

NEIL: I know, right? Well, what’s your elevator pitch for yourself when you? When you encounter someone who doesn’t know what it is you do, how do you succinctly describe what it is?

MICHAEL: Well, it’s usually layered. I usually, I mean, if it’s a total stranger, I’ll say I’m an artist. And then they say, “Oh, are you a painter?” And I say, no. And then sometimes I’ll just cut to the chase and say I’m a performance artist. And then it doesn’t go any further. 

Michael Smith at his house in Austin, Texas.

NEIL: Do you feel like that’s accurate though? I mean, that doesn’t feel to me like it encompasses the breadth of what you uh, do.

MICHAEL: Well, when I first started performing or thinking about performing, I would tell people I was a comic. Because it was, I dunno, it was a little more interesting at parties or whatever. And also performance artist wasn’t really part of the vocabulary then. Usually I’d say I’m a comic, and then they’d look at me and they said, “You haven’t said anything funny.” So, it was like, well, I didn’t say I was funny, you know? So. 

NEIL: Um, are your parents alive? 


NEIL: When, when they were alive, what would they say that you did? 

MICHAEL: My mother probably would say, Michael is Michael. And Michael – 

NEIL: That is a full-time job, isn’t it? 

MICHAEL: Michael had such a sweet voice when he was a child. And my father said, I don’t know what the hell he does, you know, he didn’t know what it, yeah. 

NEIL: Right. I didn’t know you were Jewish until quite recently. You’re like one of those stealth Jews, you know, Smith. Okay. 

MICHAEL: I asked my father once what it was before Smith, and he, he said, Sutton. 

NEIL: Sutton? That’s like a wall that’s been painted multiple times, like, okay, and what was it before Sutton? That’s where it gets into like Schmulowitz or whatever.

MICHAEL: That got too deep. 

NEIL: Yeah, exactly. 

MICHAEL: It was, yeah. It’s opaque.  

NEIL: And what’s something on you – today, what’s something you’ve found yourself thinking about?

MICHAEL: Well, you know that card you first –

NEIL: Oh yeah. 

MICHAEL: That card you first brought up. I actually, I’ve been in my studio for, since ’99. And I actually cleaned the toilet in the public bathroom for the, the building because it was just getting a little gross, so I thought I’d clean it. 

NEIL: You just took that on yourself? 

MICHAEL: I took it on. 

NEIL: Wow. 

MICHAEL: Yeah. I should also say that when I first came to New York, I was a professional cleaner. 

NEIL: Really? 

MICHAEL: Yeah. I was very good. 

NEIL: I bet. 

MICHAEL: Mike the Wipe. I was originally I, I was, I originally was going to be a house – well, I was going to, I advertised in the New York Times, “Mr. Smith will cook and clean.” And no one wanted me to cook, you know, just wanted me to clean.

NEIL: So many follow-up questions, Mike. Um, shall we move on to the cards? You don’t have a choice at this point. We’re all in. Uh, this card says: There are no friendly reminders. You know, like, I feel like, is there anything more passive aggressive than someone’s like, just a friendly reminder. 

MICHAEL: That’s like, if they, if they preface what they’re going to say with that, yeah. That would be horrible. 

NEIL: But they do all the time. 

MICHAEL: Really? 

NEIL: Yeah. Or in an email – friendly reminder. How many, I mean, haven’t you? I’ve probably gotten a friendly reminder in the last week. 

MICHAEL: I guess FYI is not a friendly reminder, huh? 

NEIL: No, FYI can be pretty passive aggressive too, but I use it a lot 


NEIL: That’s fine. Yeah. I dunno. 

MICHAEL: So, I have a feeling I probably do it, but I’m not aware of it. 

NEIL: Of a friendly reminder? 


NEIL: Hmm. So you’re not bothered by it?

MICHAEL: Probably, yeah. 

NEIL: Probably not bothered by it? 

MICHAEL: Probably bothered by it. Yeah, I am. I get bothered by people easily. And I had something really good to say, but I’ve, I’ve already forgotten it. 

NEIL: I’m excited for the rest of this conversation, Mike. This is, um. 

MICHAEL: I’m still thinking about that dirty toilet. 

NEIL: We could go back to that anytime you want.

NEIL: Uh, this card says: Things that are lost but you know will turn up. Talk to me. 

MICHAEL: Well, I, I was with a friend the other day, and, um, I, I said, Oh, I don’t, I don’t recognize that person. I said, I’m not good with faces. And then she mentioned the name and I said, no, I’m, I don’t recognize the name. I’m not good with names. And she said. Mike, what else is there besides faces and names? So anyways, I just wait until it comes, you know, it just till, the name comes, I just wait and wait. And in the morning, I figure, after looking at all those places for the keys or whatever, I’ll eventually find it. And then I’ll look in the unlikely places and I find it.

NEIL: What are the unlikely places in your life for keys? 

MICHAEL: You know where I’ve been to keeping them lately? On my front door. So I go outside and they’re always there now, so yeah. That’s where I seem to keep them. 

NEIL: That is really, why don’t we all just keep them there? 

MICHAEL: Right. I trust my neighbors, evidently.  

NEIL: We just very recently got a knock on the door from our neighbor Arlene. A shout out to Arlene if you’re listening, and I know you’re not, but, um, bless Arlene who very aggressively knocked on our door. She kind of is like policing the hall in a very loving way, but authoritative. And I left the keys in the door. And um, you could tell Arlene lived for this moment. The keys, they’re in the door! You know, it’s like, and uh, and then of course I have to like reciprocate with like, um, thank you so much. Oh God. Wow. How did we do that? Thank you, Arlene. 

MICHAEL: I have – the person that polices our place, uh, has a Trump hat. 

NEIL: Oh no. I don’t know if I could deal with that. 

MICHAEL: He is taking over the recycling, which is great, but he’s got it under lock and key, literally under lock and key. So you go downstairs to get rid of your bottles and stuff. And it takes a lot longer. So then everybody just leaves it down there. 

NEIL: Every now and then, forgive me, is there like a, an immigrant child in there as well? 

MICHAEL: Oh, there’s not an immigrant child, but there is something I think it, I realized it bothers him, that people pick through the garbage and it’s mostly like, you know… 

NEIL: The people who shouldn’t be here. From the shithole countries.

MICHAEL: Yeah. So I thought about that later and then I just didn’t want to think about it anymore cause I was getting all upset. 

NEIL: Um, have you had a political conversation with him or? 

MICHAEL: I don’t go there. Yeah, he’s on, he’s a little unstable and he asked, one time he asked me if I wanted to take something outside. 

NEIL: Oh, he asked you if you want to, I thought, take something outside like garbage.

MICHAEL: Right. 

NEIL: But no, he wanted to take a discussion outside. 


NEIL: Wow. I’m gay enough that I have never had that conversation, you know? Uh, or if it is, it’s like, it’s nasty and it’s happened a long time ago and it wasn’t a fight. Um, wow. Okay. I’m glad that worked out okay. Uh, this card says: Read my –

MICHAEL: Can I be, can I, I had a hard time reading that, kind of, reading them. 

NEIL: Yeah. Well. 

MICHAEL: Your penmanship is like… 

NEIL: Well, I always say if my, if my handwriting were a font, it would be called Suicide Note, so I’m… 

MICHAEL: Not judging. I just said I had a hard time, you know, deciphering it at times. 

NEIL: Yeah. Read my course evaluations at my funeral. That’s what that says. 

MICHAEL: Oh, well, I was thinking that when, when I do pass, I would like to get ahead of the thing and have people send out a, uh, an announcement saying, if you happen to be in the neighborhood, you know, come to my show, I’ll be like, you know – 

Mike Smith and his students in Sears Family Portraits, a tradition of his.

NEIL: I’ll be here for eternity.

MICHAEL: Um, class evaluations. Yeah. I love my class evaluations and I save them and I, I find them very funny. One, I actually made a poster and it was, uh, it was, “I’m not sure if I agree with the way Professor Smith teaches this class. He called my work crap and he called us idiots. This is a waste of my time and money.” I was very happy with that. 

NEIL: And you made that into a poster? 

MICHAEL: I made it into a poster. 

NEIL: Do you, do you have any other ones that come to mind? I bet you get great course evaluations. 

MICHAEL: Some are good. But like I, I forget them, you know, um, I get them, I still get them handwritten. You’re supposed to, a lot of people just go online, but I always, I always hand them out and, and I, I have to leave the room and I always say to them, before, “My livelihood and my future is dependent on how you judge me. And I’m so sorry, I meant to bring the donuts. We’ll get to that.”

NEIL: Huh? See, I try to be real coy about it. Like, you know, they make me do this and, you know, try and like keep it open to, um, other than positive feedback. But obviously it’s a desperate wish for approval.

MICHAEL: Yeah. I, I always tell them I care deeply for them too, when I’m, yeah. You know, I care deeply for all of you. 

NEIL: See, you can, 

MICHAEL: One thing – I, one of my students who I happen to, like, he- 

NEIL: Happen to like. Whatever. 

MICHAEL: He came up to me and he said, you know, Mike, even when we’re watching videos in the dark, we always know what you’re thinking. We can always read you. 

NEIL: Wow. That’s a scary thought. 

MICHAEL: It is. Cause I’m, I have no filter with, you know, I, I just, it, it comes out, I just sort of convey it with my face. 

NEIL: See, I find you, because there is a kind of like genial neutrality, you know, like the, the idea of like quote unquote resting bitch face. You have kind of like resting, mm, bemused face. Um, I find it actually kind of opaque. I wish I knew what you were thinking. 

MICHAEL: You know what? A lot of times nothing. I get the feeling I’m not answering the, I’m not answering these cards very, uh. 

NEIL: Do you need me to take care of you a little bit right now in terms of – I think you’re doing a phenomenal job. You know, this is a fucked up, um, project, by the way, because everyone, like I, I once was doing an iteration of it and this kind of high powered curator said to me, did I do okay, or did I do it right? And I wanted to say like, you did, there’s no way of not doing this right, but let’s talk about why you’ve never put me in a show. But that’s a different story.

The faces of spectators at art world performances. The dutifulness and absence of pleasure. We’ve all seen this like documentation of a performance at an art event and you see like the spectators, like- 

Michael Smith, Baby Ikki at the Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2012

MICHAEL: I often say to my, uh, um, to myself and sometimes my students, where’s the joy? Looking for the joy. You’re talking about pleasure. I’m looking for the – all the time, I’m wondering about that. 

NEIL: Where’s the joy? Yeah. I’m stealing the hell out of that for any teaching I do. And also, that would be my teaching evaluation for like 95% of the art I see. I mean, it can be art about, um, Auschwitz and you can still appropriately ask the question, where’s the joy? Don’t you think? Provocative question. 


NEIL: What was the question? 

MICHAEL: No, no, no. I thought I’d get some room tone. You know, we start with the toilet and then we put, where’s the joy with Auschwitz. You know, this is-

NEIL: This is like a balanced meal or something. I’ll take the toilet, joy, and Auschwitz. Well, we’ll have to talk about what constitutes dessert within that. 

NEIL: Uh, okay. Let’s try this: The brutality of a memorial service having a duration.

MICHAEL: All right. Are you, a duration, like a time limit or like, um, it doesn’t end? 

NEIL: You answer it however you want. 

MICHAEL: Well, I, I, I think brevity can be good, you know, um, and I don’t think I need to go to a durational memorial. I may have misunderstood the question or, not the question, the card. I have been in position where I’ve, I’ve helped organize them in a, you know, like emceed them. So you get a little nervous, you know, so you want to keep it like, it becomes like a fucking variety show.

NEIL: Exactly. That is so true. Memorial services are a variety show. 

MICHAEL: I don’t know if that’s appropriate. You know? 

NEIL: What should it be instead? 

MICHAEL: Well, it can, I guess it, it should be kind of free-flowing and with me at the helm, it’s not going to be free-flowing.

Michael Smith, KidZania, Experience No.2: The Approach, 2015

NEIL: Because you keep it, you keep it moving?

MICHAEL: I try to, yeah. 

NEIL: That’s a lot of responsibility. I’ve never, I, I’ve done, I, I seem to be the person who you will call to do the slide show for your loved one’s memorial. I’ve done a number of them. 

MICHAEL: That’s a lot of work. 

NEIL: It is. And you can’t complain about it. Uh, you know. 

MICHAEL: And also you have to be in touch with people to get that material. 

NEIL: That I – that I have subcontracted and, you know, but even so, it’s a lot of work. And you do not want to fuck that one up. Um. But see, for me, I love the idea of durational, like for those of our listeners who don’t know, there’s a terminology within the art world of durational art, and to me that is like the height of decadence. Like we have such a surplus of time, you know, that we’re going to make art from that surplus or something. You know what I mean? 

Michael Smith, Installation view, Excuse me!?!…I’m looking for the “Fountain of Youth,” Greene Naftali, New York, 2015

MICHAEL: I have a, getting back to my students, I have a, um, a three-hand rule. 

NEIL: Oh, let’s hear it. 

MICHAEL: Um, well, if some of the, when I’m covering some work like early seventies, you know, and you kind of get the idea after like five minutes and it goes on. If, if one person, three people raised their hand, we’d go onto the next video. 

NEIL: I am learning so much today. 

MICHAEL: But I don’t think you can do that in memorial service. I don’t think that’ll, I don’t think that’ll work, no.

NEIL: Oh, that’s funny. 

MICHAEL: How surprised would they be if you, you mentioned that in the beginning of the memorial?

NEIL: Yeah, listen, not to create pressure, but it’s kind of like the Apollo where you get the hook.

MICHAEL: How am I doing, how am I doing? Yeah. Right. 

NEIL: Okay. A bad X you would take over a good Y. So, for me, perpetually, my example is I would take a bad episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race over a good Godard movie. So, what’s a bad X you would take over a good Y? 

MICHAEL: Well, I’m of the school that something bad can have lots of charm. There’s something redeeming about it. Where there’s something is overly so good, like a certain kind of Broadway kind of, um… 

NEIL: Careful. 

MICHAEL: Yeah. Well, you understand a certain kind of large delivery or something. A certain styling, a certain song-styling. Um, oh, I’m going to lose the whole audience on this reference.

NEIL: Go for it. You have me. 

MICHAEL: Okay. The, the, the Bobby Short commercial singing Charlie. I would, I will always cringe at that one. And then I would much rather take a bad public access, uh, commercial than that. 

NEIL: There’s a fragrance that’s here to stay and they call it Charlie.

NEIL: Um, so Mike, uh, what is it that keeps you going?

MICHAEL: Uh. Hm. I don’t know what’s keeping me going right now. Um, that’s a big one. Um, I, you know, when I was lot younger and doing my work, I, you know, and reinventing the wheel, you know, reinventing the wheel and stuff, I was very excited. But I don’t, I wonder what, what keeps me going? No one knows. No one knows. Looking for the joy. 

Michael Smith, A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, 2009

NEIL: On that note, thank you to all of you for being here. Thank you, Mike, for coming to this live taping. Thank you to everyone at Skowhegan. Sarah, Katie, Kris, Carrie, Paige, everyone else. Um, now, this series is made possible with generous support – thank you Jesus – for Still Point Fund. Oh, Siri, something set Siri off. That’s, that’s my husband, Jeff. Um, oh, sorry. I know, you know, it’s interesting. One of the cards I have is every time I stub my toe, I look for someone to blame. And it’s often Jeff. And, um, so. Uh, the calls are coming from inside the house. The house being my subjectivity. Let’s do that again cause this is important.

This series is made possible with generous support from Still Point Fund. Devon Guinn is our producer. Molly Donahue and Aaron Dalton are our consulting producers. Justine Lee handles social media. Our interns are Alara Degirmenci, Jonathan Jalbert, Jesse Kimotho, and Rachel Wang. Our card-flip beats come from Josh Graver. And my husband, Jeff, sings the theme song you’re about to hear. And he’s going to perform it live. He’s a professional.

JEFF HILLER: She’s A Talker with Neil Goldberg. She’s A Talker at Skowhegan. She’s A Talker, it’s better than it sounds.

NEIL: Thank you, everybody. Thanks everyone for listening to this bonus episode. Keep your eyes open for She’s A Talker, Season Three, coming soon. And in the meantime, be well.