To read part 1 of the interview with Dan Mills, visit here.
Christina: In 2009, your series of thirty-five maps titled US Future States Atlas was published by Perceval Press. Discuss the political, social and cultural events that led to the creation of this pivotal work.
Dan: Yes. It was such a great experience working with Perceval Press. Perceval is actor Viggo Mortensen’s press, which he started a decade ago. His brother, Walter Mortensen, and designer Michelle Perez do fabulous work. Viggo responded favorably to the project, so we created an artist’s book that is large format, hardcover with a faux leather embossed cover, and a fine essay by Phong Bui (Brooklyn Rail founder/publisher). Viggo is known for being very involved with the small number of books published each year. I recall receiving emails from him from Spain, where it was being printed, with updates about some final details right before printing—he was there to do the press check! With Viggo and the press’s fine work and extraordinary attention to detail, the book turned out wonderfully. There are still some available at http://www.percevalpress.com
The work itself: The US Future States Atlas was started after we went to war with Afghanistan and before Iraq. From the initial global response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and how our leaders turned what was initially a supportive “we are in this together” outpouring from most of the global community to more of an “if you’re not with us you’re against us” approach to diplomacy, and to determining military actions based not on facts but rather on deciding actions and then searching—or fabricating—for corroborating information to support these decisions, etc…this poorly conceived approach, where this would lead us in war and diplomacy…these were the catalysts to this work.
LA Times critic Leah Ollman summarized the work well in conjunction with an exhibition at Sherry Frumkin Gallery, Why Stop at 50?, “As Dan Mills points out in the mock manifesto accompanying his terrific show at Sherry Frumkin, these United States of ours cohered over time — starting with 16 territories in the 18th century, adding 29 in the 19th, and five more in the 20th. ‘As we consider U.S. history,’ he writes, ‘a pattern of expanding by at least five states every fifty years exists, with the exception of the last fifty or so. We clearly have some catching up to do.'”
Ollman continues, “Wonderfully ludicrous in its entirety, the project is frightfully credible in its details. Mills exaggerates to the point of parody opportunistic foreign policy doctrines already in place — at least those that prevailed during the dark, greedy heart of the Bush-era PARTISAN POLITICS, the years Mills compiled this Atlas of Global Imperialism. The work reeks of truth and shimmers with humor.”
Christina: Your work for the concurrent exhibitions Quest at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery and US Future States Atlas & Related Material at the Chicago Cultural Center continued to evolve based on the US Future States Atlas. How did the ideas and artwork progress and develop in the last year or two leading up to these seminal exhibitions?
Dan: For Quest, I worked on a number of small and mid-sized works on paper, and five larger works. After moving to Maine in fall 2010, I spent a year painting on small maps, approaching this using different media—watercolor, acrylic, ink—and different conceptual and visual strategies. I also revisited making work on/with schoolhouse maps, this time laying them down on gessoed board.
In fall 2011, I began the work that is in the exhibition, and painted out words that identify political and other characteristics; the addition of paint as a form of erasure. In the catalogue that supports both exhibitions, Eleanor Heartney writes a substantial and informative essay. About this work, she states, “While the maps in Atlas are heavily annotated, Quest takes the opposite tack. Here, Mills starts with colonial maps (and Mills makes the point that most maps, in some way, contain evidence of colonization and conquest). These are reworked in ways that transform text – including place names, keys and ancillary information – into abstract forms and colors according to rules and systems that he chooses not to divulge. The eye-catching results are reminders of the artifice of all mapping systems.”
When the Chicago Cultural Center offered me an exhibition, the exhibition that developed, US Future States Atlas & Related Material, provided me an opportunity to show the “Atlas” in Chicago, a place important to me and where my formative years as an artist and curator were spent (1981-94). Adding the related material was my way to also include supplemental materials to the Atlas, namely a number of United States Empire (USE) Ambassador Documents.
Christina: In the Chicago Culture Center exhibition is a copy of your USE the World: a manifesto. Tell me a little about the thoughts leading to this manifesto.
Dan: Written in 2003, this satire of the time, in deadpan language, lays out why we just aren’t doing enough to grow and expand the country. Heartney draws parallels to 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal—I like that! Anyway, she states, “Like Mills, Swift uses the apparently rational arguments to lead the reader toward a shockingly inhumane social proposition. In Swift’s case this is a solution to the problem of Irish poverty that involves serving up the children of the poor as gourmet meals. In a similar way, the USE Manifesto begins by noting that the US must stop feigning benevolence toward the rest of the world and start acting in a way that serves its own interests. From there it goes on to detail the benefits to the United States in taking over such countries as Iceland, South Korea, Qatar and Iraq. As with A Modest Proposal, the tone is almost boringly bureaucratic and the references to similar acts in U.S. history make it seem quite logical. Like Swift, Mills is daring his audience to take the statements at face value, thus forcing them to own up to their own darker impulses.”
Christina: One stark contrast between the two exhibitions is that approximately 10,000 words are embedded in the art at the Chicago Cultural Center, but ZERO words are in the work at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery. Why did you decide to include a volume of written word in one show, and an absence or silence of written word in the other?
Dan: This was exciting and fascinating to do simultaneously. Much of the CCC show focuses on the Atlas, which in its entirety is comprised of 35 works on paper that on average have 200-300 word text hand written in them. Each work has some facts about the new “acquisition”; motives and rationale for takeover and statehood, and usually some darkly humorous aspect of this takeover, and part of the grand narrative that exists throughout the Atlas. Additionally, the Manifesto, 74 Ambassador Documents, and related correspondence are in the show. While not necessary for someone to read it in its entirety, the act of selectively doing so makes the viewer have a good sense of the rest (although I love knowing the occasional viewer actually does read everything).
Meantime, Quest is employing a strategy of removing text and its meaning. After all, historically, colonialism and imperialism have been as much about erasing history as writing new history, no? So I developed various strategies to do this: certain colors marks, frequencies, were chosen by the letters beneath them. No longer readable, what existed beneath significantly determined the outcome of what is seen. This is even true with the Artist Statement. After writing it, I transferred it onto the 22 ½ x 30 inch Arches watercolor paper and painted the words out applying the same strategies used in the other works. But I left the punctuation.
Christina: Those who know your artwork are curious about the “rules” you have created for your embassy and inclusion of members. Can you give us a sneak-peak into how these rules were set?
Dan: I essentially applied some of the same time-tested methods for such appointments: quid pro quo, favors, money, and nepotism are some of them. Viggo Mortensen, Leah Ollman and Eleanor Heartney were offered embassy positions, as were Gail Skudera (artist and Mills’ wife) and our children. And so were crate builders, frame-makers, people who helped me unload a truck returning from an exhibition, artists who I’ve exhibited this work next to, etc. Recently I started creating aspirational quid pro quo offers—people associated with institutions I would like to have an association with: large museums, curators and directors. We’ll see who wants to be part of the staff, help the cause. Also, posthumous offers have been made, to artists important to me in my formative years as an artist and whose work continues to inspire me, such as Öyvind Fahlström, Alighiero e Boetti, and Marcel Broodthaers, and also some imaginative eccentric mapmakers such as Walter Trier and Heinrich Bunting. The document borrows over-the-top language from sources as varied as confederate US presidential documents to Tai Kwon Do certificates of achievement. And each includes prints of the new state the position is offered for, and the official seal and stamp.
You may have reason to inspect one closely in the near future…
All photographs are Courtesy of the Artist.
See Dan’s work on exhibition or visit the following websites:
Dan Mills: Quest, Zolla/Lieberman Gallery,Chicago, through 8.25.
Not the Usual Politics, Rose Contemporary, Portland, ME (group show)
View more of Dan Mills’ work on his website.