Billy Miller is an artist-writer who has exhibited internationally at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Deitch Projects, John Connelly Presents, Kunstverein München, Edlin Gallery, D’Amelio Terras Gallery, Exile Berlin, and other galleries and cultural institutions. His writing has appeared in publications such as VICE, INDEX, K48, WON Magazine, and BUTT. And he is the editor and publisher of a number of independent publications, including; When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, No Milk Today, and Straight To Hell (which has been in publication since 1973).
Billy, tell me a little bit about your background?
My family is mostly in West Virginia and Tennessee. I grew up in Detroit and have lived in a few places like Denver and Chicago but have been in Jersey City for over 20 years, so I sorta feel like this is my hometown now.
In Conveyer, the designer Josef Reyes notes: “A life is a narrative and a place is a meeting point of several narratives. Consider a place to be not so much a physical environment to but a crossing point of disparate stories.” What are a few of the buried stories in Journal Square, and what do they reveal about the character of our city?
Wow… stories about Journal Square. I suppose there are countless stories there every day. If you could do a speeded-up time-lapse movie it would show a lot of change in the area, especially in the past few years.
The State theater, the Canton restaurant, and other places that defined Journal Square in the 20th Century are all gone now but there are still a few interesting holdouts. You should check out the Upstairs Gallery across from the post office on Bergen Ave…. it’s been there since the ‘60s and has some interesting art in there.
What is a “bompy?” Who is your favorite bompy, and why?
It’s surprising that you’ve never heard that expression before. Orlando Reyes at The 58 Gallery told me he thought bompy (or bompi?) comes from a combination of the words “bum” and “papi”. I don’t know, but it sorta sounds Italian. In any case, I started hearing folks call homeless people who hung around Journal Square that about a week after I moved here. Guess you’ve seen that one crazy woman who looks sort of like someone who would work on Wall Street from a distance but up close you see how wacked-out she looks and especially when she pulls out a huge sign that says “You Must Be Catholic To Go To Heaven!” And there’s “Teddy”, the guy who claims to be collecting for some made-up charity that doesn’t exist and has all these forms and fake ID that’s spelled wrong and always says that “supplies are low at the shelter” and gets a few tourists and bleeding-hearts to give him money even though he’s obviously stinking drunk. Or the woman who looks like she’s on meth or crack with bleached hair who’s really nice when she asks you for money and then yells profanities at you if you don’t give it to her. Or that guy with the snake and the parrot and all the tattoos. You could make a Reality Show like the one about the Shore at the Square – only maybe it’d be too depressing.
You are organizing two exhibitions in Berlin this summer: Lost Horizons and Head Shop. How did you come to work with the gallery? What can you tell us about the exhibition?
I’m organizing two concurrent shows in two spaces at Exile Ausstellungsgraum Berlin (say that fives times real fast with your mouth full of crackers) Besides the exhibit, there will also be a couple video-film screenings at Exile and another space there called Basso, at least one or two live performances, and a cookout in the hof (courtyard). Then in late July I’m meeting my graphic designer friend Jan Wandrag in London to do an installation at Pablo de la Barra’s White Cubicle Gallery – which is actually a bathroom in a restaurant.
I met Christian Siekmeier -the director of Exile- in NYC when he used to live here. When he moved back to Germany and started his gallery, he asked me to organize a show in 2008 and so I went over there for that.
I met Pablo de la Barra in NYC, but he lives in London and used to have a gallery with Isabella Blow, who was Alexander McQueen’s muse. This will be my first time there but I won’t have a lot of time to do much.
I have always been taken by the titles of your magazines, blogs, and art shows [No Milk Today, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, A Poor Wayfaring Stranger, The Pussy Farm]. What’s in a title?
“No Milk Today” is the title of a Hermans Hermits song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” is the name of a song about the Civil War, “A Poor Wayfaring Stranger” is the name of another spooky folk song, etc. Titles for me are just something to organize ideas around.
Always wanting to show people things is probably just another symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. At age 7 or 8, I started putting up a gallery of photos on the wall of my room taken from magazines that changed every few weeks, and at 12 I collaged the walls -and ceiling- of my aunt’s basement bathroom. Then in early ‘80s, I started organizing exhibits in Chicago, and again recently in the past few years. In-between I’ve worked at various freelance jobs that are so all-over-the-place that I’m not sure where to start. Over the years, I’ve been a house painter, bartender, salesman, city pool cleaner, art handler/installer, scenic backdrop painter, waiter, window display artist, factory worker, set designer, exterminator, DJ, commercial videographer and a lot of other things… some of which I shouldn’t mention here.
How did you get involved in independent publishing?
The first things I made were limited edition xeroxed booklets in the ‘70s that were meant as gifts to friends. In the early ‘80s, I curated some shows at the Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago and produced a couple catalogs, and few small-edition publications. Then I moved to NYC in the mid-‘80s and started publishing Straight To Hell around ’89 or ‘90.
Since then, I’ve produced a variety of publications of varying quality. Some of them you may be able to find at a bookstore and others only a few people have ever seen. For instance, I made about 75 copies of a little Spanish language booklet to put in copies of Straight To Hell for a couple orders to bookstores in Barcelona and Madrid. I wrote the text in my awkward Spanish and showed it to a couple native speakers who thought it was goofy but okay enough to use.
Your publications maximize resources. You do a lot with very little. Is it an aesthetic, convention, or just the way it is?
With no funding of any kind there is just no other way. As you may have noticed Brendan, I’m always bragging about how I only paid $1.99 for a shirt or whatever. Doing things as inexpensively as possible is a major chore and a headache, but few things in life can compare to the joys of extreme cheapness.
For me, your publications operate on several levels. For example, your publication, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, is a chronicle with a theme, but it is also feels like an art object in its own right. It’s like a traveling group exhibition that the reader can experience in the palm of his or her hands. What does it take to get a publication like this off the ground—from conception to development to execution?
Not sure you want to hear how we put the layout together, coz it’s kinda boring, but in general, the whole thing is a back and forth collaboration with the writers, artists, designers, gallerists, distributors, etc. that I sometimes work with.
The booklets and other things I made years ago were crude and amateurish, but these days I try to put more time and thought into the total execution of everything. I ask people to be involved because they have something important to say or show people, so I want it to be presented in the best possible way given the resources that are available… which in my case, means bargain basement. There have to be specific reasons to make stuff other than just “Look at me!” and “Aren’t I nifty?” If you’ve got something to express, a book or magazine can be a great way to put that across – but it’s always better to do nothing or do something else if you don’t, coz it’s really not cool to waste paper that’s gonna end up in the environment anyways. There is no throwing things away coz there is no “away”.
Your publications, as well as your group exhibitions, feature many artists from a range of disciplines. First, why do you work with so many artists—aren’t artists difficult? Second, where do you find these people, and what are you looking for in their work?
The so-called “art world” is a probably a temporary bubble and I’m at least hoping that there’s more to it than what exists now. Art is anywhere you want to look – how people will survive in the new paradigm is the question. I don’t look to artists for “art” – I look to them to point out where the art is coming from. For some reason they are the only ones in our world who are allowed an independent vision – if they aren’t giving us ideas for a way out of this mess, then who will?
Original post may be found here.