Michael Bell-Smith is an artist based in Brooklyn. His work has been exhibited and screened at venues including PS1, Queens, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the New Museum, New York; the Whitney Museum, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris; and Museo the Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
One July week with Bell-Smith is spent mostly upstate in the Hudson River Valley, where the artist listens to a lot of oldies radio and engages in some good old-fashioned whittling, as documented on his Instagram. In contrast to those two activities, Bell-Smith also spends time downloading images from shutterstock.com and watching Drake videos online. All this and much more—including an investigation into possible Christian music at the dentist—below! —John Chiaverina
Monday, July 6
An email leads me to a review of Zoe Leonard’s Show at MoMA. It looks good. I do Yoga from a rip of the DVD “Yoga For Every Body.” Track 28, abs and arms.
I look at Twitter. After ignoring them for weeks, I decide this will be the day I click on a Periscope link for the first time. I like to think it’s never too early or too late to get into anything. The video is awkward and makes me feel a bit embarrassed.
I follow a link to a news report about a pirate radio station in Ohio that’s been playing Ghetto Boys 24/7. They keep saying the signal has been “hijacked,” a strange choice of words. There is a reporter live on the scene, despite there being nothing happening live and no scene.
I have to run some errands. I’m in the Hudson River Valley for the summer, and when I’m driving up here I listen to an oldies station called Fox Oldies, WGNY. They have a rotation of four middle-aged white male DJs who are pretty much interchangeable, save for slight variations in the pitch of their voice. Two of the four are named Bob.
Their radio patter is fantastic, very Coffee News. One of the Bobs is DJing this morning. He says: “This next one is by the son of Woody Guthrie… his name is Arlo… as in Arlo Guthrie… big, big record: ‘The City of New Orleans.’”
Listening to “The City of New Orleans,” I’m reminded of an ad from the ’80s that flipped the hook to say, “Good Morning, America, how are you? Don’t you know me? I’m your native son. I’m the car they call Cutlass Ciera.” I can understand how that might have upset baby boomers.
They play “Rock and Roll Music” by the Beatles. Songs about music are always funny.
I pass a yard sign protesting a local zoning law. It says, “Say No To Event Space.” These signs are everywhere right now. I like the conspicuous lack of article preceding the word “event.” It sounds more philosophical.
The radio plays one of my favorite local ads. It’s for a wine-tasting cruise. The announcer says: “You like red, you like white, you like cruising, we get it!”
I’m done driving. I put on the The Best Show, the only podcast I listen to regularly. I’m a big fan. I listen for just a minute, before realizing it’s distracting me from writing a very important email.
I spend 45 minutes writing a two-paragraph email that I’ve been trying to write for a month. It’s not very good. A huge weight has been lifted off me.
I send someone some files.
I look at a tweet that Kanye West wrote about a new Pharrell song. Someone replies to him with “dad.” I’ve been curious about this trend. I try to learn more about it, but it’s very difficult to google. I do not listen to the Pharrell song.
I put on a sampler of Motion Graphics’ (my friend Joe Williams) new album. The music accidentally plays along with the mix from earlier, which I didn’t realize was still open in another tab. The beats nearly match, a very slight offset of BPMs. It is close enough that I don’t notice for a moment. Multi-tabbed listening.
The little speaker icons that tell you which tabs are making sound are one of the biggest developments in the internet from the last five years.
Joe’s album is very very good, the best new thing I’ve heard in a while. It is well suited for this kind of condition.
I go to shutterstock.com to purchase two images: a closeup texture of a plastic bag and a closeup texture of a paper bag. Paper or plastic, paper and plastic…
I’ve been collecting these kind of textures for the last few years and I pause to see if already have these particular ones somewhere. Is there a word for this, the impulse to download something before realizing you may already have it?
I download an image of some scraps of tape. I spend a while debating between two images of a plastic bag, before pulling the trigger on the slightly glossier one.
I play a stream of WNYC in iTunes to listen to All Things Considered. I look at a Google image search of Richard Prince’s gangs series for a minute. I download a paper bag texture.
I start whittling. For the past month, I’ve been whittling one stick every day, posting a photo of it to Instagram. I don’t use Instagram that much, but it seems like a good pairing. Social media is a lot like whittling. Marking the passing of time… it’s a similar posture as well. I carve my stick into the same shape as every day with a point on each side.
I post an image of the stick on Instagram, taken with the same placement and framing as all my other whittles. The one with some blood from a whittling accident has the most likes. I realize this is my 31st stick—one full month. I decide it’s a good time to stop for a bit.
I look at Twitter. Lots of references to Bill Cosby. I google his name to find out why. This is a common activity: googling to learn about news events that are being referenced in my Twitter timeline. I’ve often thought this should be built into Twitter somehow.
Google tells me there are new developments in the recent revelations that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist. In a sidebar, Google tells me that “people also search for Hannibal Burress.” I am reminded that Hannibal Burress was responsible for bringing these decades-old allegations into the media spotlight.
I look at my Tumblr dashboard—a scroll of all the Tumblrs I follow for a private scrapbook Tumblr I keep for inspiration. I have selected each of the Tumblrs I follow based on their keen eye for images. 95% of their posts are pictures. The other 5% are tidbits about their personal lives, a reminder that these aesthetes are mostly in their teens or early twenties.
I get around to listening to The Best Show.
Tuesday, July 7
I put on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. I think of Brian as New York City’s homeroom teacher. He’s a national treasure.
I look at Twitter for a minute. A Tweet from rap critic Noz leads me to a New Yorker article about Apple Music, which in turn leads me to a New Yorker article about the legacy of Adorno and Benjamin. The opening paragraph details a scene from a Jonathan Franzen novel which makes me feel good about my decision to not have read any Jonathan Franzen.
On Twitter, PeeWee Herman announces he’s got a new movie coming out via Netflix. It stars Joe Mangiello. I’ve never heard of Joe Mangiello so I google him, only to discover he’s a super big movie star. I’m somehow both ashamed and proud.
WNYC: All Things Considered. I look at paper-shredding company logos online.
I listen to The Trojan Rocksteady Collection on Spotify. The Trojan Rocksteady Compilation is my OK Computer. I begin to make dinner. I think about a passage in the New Yorker article on Apple Music that describes the service’s “playlists tailored to various activities and moods,” including “cooking.” Is The Trojan Rocksteady Collection my “cooking” playlist?
I find it very hard to separate the things “I do these days” from the things “we do these days.”
I listen to Earl Sweatshirt while looking at reference images of hands on the internet.
I watch Tales of the City, episodes 2 and 3 on Hulu, followed by a video of a father and daughter beatboxing competition. I scan through an anime called Children Who Chase Lost Voices looking for a specific shot of a hand reaching out into space.
I read a bit of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 before going to bed.
Wednesday, July 8
Twitter this morning is all Bill Cosby, Paula Dean, and Donald Trump.
Dummy magazine posts a link to a video of the song “Lemonade” by Sophie being used in a McDonald’s commercial. I think about the Cutlass Ciera ad and Adam Harper’s writing about experimental electronic music’s relationship to accelerationism and capitalism and what selling out could mean these days. It’s all quite exhausting.
I start on a two-hour car ride to New York City with my girlfriend Sara. I’m driving and we’re listening to the oldies station again. There are some classic trucking company logos on the highway: NEMF, Swift, Crete, Robert, Jb Hunt, Prime Inc., NFI.
We listen to Brian Lehrer (via the WNYC iPhone app), then some MP3s off of Sara’s phone. There’s no playlist, and we’re unclear on the logic that’s dictating the song order. At first it seems like it’s alphabetical by artist, then alphabetical by song, then completely random. It plays some deep cuts.
We’re close enough to the city to tune into Power 105.1. It has overtaken Hot 97 as my go-to rap radio station in New York. It seems like they switched identities at some point, like how the Democrats used to be the Republicans and vice-versa. This might have something to do with Angie Martinez.
They play “Hypnotize” by Notorious B.I.G. which sounds really good. I remember not liking it at first when it came out, but I also didn’t get ”Juicy” at first, so what do I know? I’m reminded of the recent and complicated Bad Boy Records reunion performance. They play ”Yoga” by Jonalle Monae. It sounds Frankensteined from a bunch of hits over the last few years, even more so than most pop songs. There’s a two-note phrase that gets stuck in my head. I know I’ve heard it before, but I can’t place it. It drives me crazy. We switch to Hot 97 on the commercial. Now they’re playing “Hypnotize.”
I go see a bunch of art shows. I am advised by a friend that this is not media. It is a “primary” experience as opposed to a “mediated” experience. I understand, but it’s also not always that simple.
I go to the dentist for a teeth cleaning. She asks if I would like to watch TV or listen to music while they clean my teeth. I choose music, before remembering that the last time I was there, they were playing Christian music in the exam room, much to my surprise. I think about changing my mind and requesting TV, but it’s too late, I already have hands in my mouth. I spend the rest of the cleaning analyzing the lyrics of every song for Christian content.
I hear a Sean Paul song in a deli. I haven’t heard the song in a year. I remember that music is very seasonal in New York.
I read an interesting article about “Facebook moms’ ” use of the vocabulary of image memes on the subway. I go see more art shows.
I’m in the car for a moment. I listen to Marketplace on WNYC. They talk about how the New York Stock Exchange was closed for a few hours due to a computer error. It sounds like a Far Side cartoon.
I visit my friends Tony and Elizabeth who are in town. There is a baseball game playing on mute in the background.
We are driving back upstate. We listen to WNYC, first a special call-in roundtable show on race, then the TED Radio Hour. In the introduction to the show, they explain that the “TED” in “TED Talk” stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design.” It makes me think about the absence of “art”, and the relationship each of these three concepts has to “art.” I try to diagram them in my head. Silicon valley.
We listen to When Radio Was, a show on the oldies station where they play old radio dramas. It’s Sherlock Holmes. Watson has a terrible accent. There is a very questionable ad for Cafe Mexico, a two-CD set of Mexican music from the ’50s and ’60s. I’m reminded that I am not this station’s target demographic.
Twitter. I retweet two tweets:
- Jaden Smith thanking Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, “For The Best Birthday Party I’ve Ever Had.“
- An all time great tweet by @degg: “*crests a hill* hey dudes”
I read my friend Elizabeth Alsop’s great Atlantic article on the dark themes of popular television.
Thursday, July 9
Yoga. Abs and arms again.
From Twitter I’m linked to an article about The Awl on The Verge. It’s titled “Website Profiled” with a subheading that says “Why are the most important people in media reading The Awl?” I’m interested in The Awl, but don’t care about important people in media, so I pass.
I read a couple of articles about Donald Trump and skim an article about Tom Selleck’s avocado ranch.
Oldies station again. They play The Monkees song “Mary Mary.” I think of Run DMC’s version, and Minor Threat’s cover of The Monkees’ “Steppin Stone.” The Monkees were more influential than people give them credit for.
I get a piece of really elaborate junk mail from a car dealership. It’s full color, on thick, glossy paper, and it’s huge, folding out to a 15-inch-by-22-inch spread. There’s an area printed with some silver coating like a scratch-off lottery ticket. Removing it would reveal my savings. And they say print it dead!
It advertises a “Stars and Stripes Sell-athon.” The Fourth of July was the week before.
I’m driving to the hardware store. On the radio, one of the Bobs remarks that “congress is the opposite of progress.” Classic.
The hardware store bills itself as the “World’s Only Rock and Roll Hardware Store.” They sell tote bags with different rock-and-roll phrases on them. One says “Too Many Bullets Flying.” Tote bags can hold media, but can also be media themselves.
On the way back, the oldies station plays “Short Shorts,” which I know from an ’80s Nair ad and “You Talk Too Much” which I’d never heard, but I recognize as the inspiration for another Run DMC song. I’m intrigued by this newly discovered connection between Run DMC and oldies music. Were they consciously aiming for a generational crossover audience? Mining the music from their childhood, the same way others work with soul samples?
I listen to The Best Show again while I make some dinner. A tomato I cut up has two stickers on it. I wonder if this makes it media.
An email leads me to google the work of Joseph Yoakum. A tweet leads me to an interview with Vince Staples on Rolling Stone. I’ve seen a couple of interviews with him. I like the way he says things. He says when Snoop Dogg first came out “he looked like he was in Suicidal Tendencies.” There are six comments on the article, three of which are spam.
Another episode of Tales of the City.
I read some of David Joselit’s survey of American postwar art.
Friday, July 10
I watch the video for Drake’s “Energy.” It reminds me of Josh Kline’s Obama video in the last New Museum Triennial. I think about when Kanye West made a music video using datamoshing, a technique borrowed from video art. I remember that somewhere I have an accidentally released unfinished version of the video for “Monster” where all the stock footage clips still have watermarks on them.
Oldies station: a story about cloning a mammoth, “Simon Says” by 1910 Fruitgum Co., something by the Bee Gees.
I flick through the Ulster County Yellow Pages looking at clip art. There is a great ad for an arborist with an image of a sick tree.
I try to watch the Drake video again. It has been taken down. I find an alternate link.
More Jonathan Crary.
I watch a bit of a Led Zeppelin concert documentary at my friend Eleanor’s. There is a very long drum solo.