Interview originally appeared in We Don’t Owe You A Thing #1 a fanzine about art and hardcore.
Tim Davis received a BA from Bard College and an MFA from Yale University. He has shown nationally and internationally at museums like the Tate Modern, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of Art. He has published two books of Poetry with Edge Books and Figures Press. He is currently playing in Cuddle Magic, when not making visual art and teaching at Bard.
Am I crazy or did you see DOA when you were younger? Any memories of it?
I saw M.D.C. (Millions of Dead Cops) for sure around 1984 in Greenfield, MA. There was a place called Guiding Star Grange, not much more than a barn, and I saw bands like Cancerous Growth and Seige. I admit that I showed up at these gigs wearing an oxford shirt and the same sort of tweed cap I favor today, looking entirely out of place among shaved heads and green mohawks. I thought of the music as being essentially comedic. I loved "God Damn Motherfucking Son of a Bitch" by Bad Posture, and other songs from "Not So Quiet on the Western Front," the double album of West Coast hardcore I bought in 9th grade in downtown Amherst at one of the many record stores there. I didn't feel the political or social rage in the music as much as I heard potty humor and goofy truncated forms. It wasn't that far removed for me from Frank Zappa, whom I worshiped. I wasn't a punk, but a listener with wide tastes who continues to love music with a bit of a sense of humor.
What role has music played in your visual art?
Here's the Tim's music story. I started out as a poet, and always wrote more like a musician than an essayist in that I was prone to strange, disjunct formal experiments, and never felt I had much to say per se. But I have a little brother, Ben Davis, who is 17 years younger than I am, and who has always been a musician since day one. We started writing songs together when he was around 3 and I used to bang out chords on the piano while he improvised lyrics and sang perfectly on key. Since he went to New England Conservatory, the roles have been reversed, and I've been writing the words his songs for his band, Cuddle Magic. They are an incredible group of very very talented musicians who make a kind of complex orchestral folk music that is gorgeous and supremely musical. That channeled my poetic energies for the first time into something people could actually understand and enjoy, and that synced up with my feelings about photography, which never stray far from the feeling that photography is for clarity and directness, despite what the curators are telling us these days.
Over the last three years, I've been playing a lot of music myself, mostly in a hootenanny format at the local pub here in Tivoli called the Black Swan. At the same time, I bought a digital camera and found that I couldn't make a decent still, but that its video capabilities were astounding, so I've travelled around the world building up a store house of found images, not much more than mobile versions of my still photographs. I then started writing my own songs and testing them out at the pub, and found the process startlingly enriching. So, (whew) now I have recorded and album of the songs with Cuddle Magic and others, including my father, forming the band, and I am in the process of putting together music videos from all that footage. That's a mouthful.
Also are you playing out ? How did that get started and what does it sound like? Is it on the internet? And when are you gonna play downstate?
I’m working up to playing out, but for now I see the videos and the album as being the work, and it’s work I really like. It’s as generous and varying and vivid and real as anything I’ve done, and I hope adds up to my Gesamtkunstwerk or somesuch thing. The album and eventual show are called “It’s OK To Hate Yourself,” and its musical influences include Vic Chesnutt, Elvis Costello, Big Star, Jorge Ben, Beatlesy things, and, yes, my youthful hardcore flirtations, particularly on a hard driving song about disgusting animals that happen to mate for life, called “Vulture Sex”.
How has living upstate, teaching full-time, having a child and in general having an adult life affected your art?
The main answer to this question is that I’ve always hungered for the proper form to express what I am foraging for intellectually RIGHT NOW. That’s why I’m always swiveling between poetry, essay writing, photography, video and now songwriting. I’ve always made exactly what I want to make and paid no attention to how it fits in the wide scope of any kind of “career.” Which is I why I don’t have much of a “career.” So, teaching, living upstate, and now, fathering, are all delirious worm food and I’m the worm.
And a follow-up, how much of Upstate Olympics was a response to moving out of the city and having more of an adult life?
I always found myself driving through the Holland Tunnel or over the George Washington Bridge to go make art. New York City always, for the almost twenty years I lived there, felt embarrassingly useless to address. If I knew about it, it must have already been over long ago. It’s so SEEN. The minute you leave the grey region I call Robert Moseslandia, you can find your own way, your own vision. I started the Upstate New York Olympics on my 40th birthday, hungry to just go make art with no agenda and no precedents. So I walked out into the landscape with a digital camera, came across a huge tire dump, and filmed myself making and then executing an obstacle course. From there it felt like any other body of work I’d made: a thing to search for in the landscape, though it definitely tapped into another part of my being that hadn’t gotten much exercise before, the part that loves sports and games.
What are you listening to these days?
I have a group of friends up here who collect vinyl records. It’s called TULiP (Tivoli Underground Listening Party), and as its grown in intensity and scope, most of my music listening has gone into periods that favored vinyl. So these days, I’m back into a big jazz phase. I play Art Tatum and James P. Johnson for my son almost every morning. He’s named “Bix” BTW, after Bix Beiderbecke. Duke Ellington, Lee Konitz, Lennie Tristano. About as far from MDC as you can get.