Moby’s New Photography Show Explores Cults and Innocents
Moby has always been a multifaceted being, swimming between the worlds of music, environmentalism, vegan cooking, writing and now, art. In a new photography show at Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in Chelsea under the same title as his most recent album, Innocents explores the idea of cults in a post-apocalyptic society. Vast and vacant landscapes paired along distopian portraits of masked and shrouded characters, Moby’s visual language is almost opposite from his inviting and calming music; his photographs meant to bring a feeling of discomfort and alienation, forcing thoughts of what might happen if an apocalypse was not just one dramatic happening but a gradual, benign decay. We talked with Moby about his connection with cults, the difference between his music and his art, and his WILD Wish for a smarter human race.
When did you get first get involved with photography?
My uncle had been a photographer for the New York Times and when I was 10 years old, in 1975, he started giving me his hand me down photo equipment. What was great about this hand me down photo equipment was that is was actually professional grade, great stuff. The best present I ever got was a Nikon F, the most storied 35 mm camera of all time, and it had an amazing pedigree: It has been in Viet Nam, South America. When I was 13 or 14 he emptied out his dark room and gave me all this profession grade photo and dark room equipment, the only problem is I couldn’t afford film or contact paper or anything to print on. I took me a week of mowing lawns just to buy the film!
I think it’s pretty interesting for a person who is so musical to have such visual influences and background. It’s rare.
I was raised in a strange artistic family. My mom was a painter, my other uncle a sculptor, both aunts were writers, my grandmother was a painter- so I was raised by a bunch of weird visual artists with the assumption that along with playing music I would do something visual.
For all the strange disfunction of my family, I’m really grateful for the fact that everyone primarily defined themselves through a creative output. Like my mom was a painter, but she also played piano. My uncle who was the photographer also played the guitar and the flute. Everyone just assumed you would learn how to do as many different creative things as possible.
Your art show is under the same name as your album: Innocents. What were your influences?
If the show has a concept, the concept is: Cults and the Apocalypse. But the idea is that most cults are formed anticipating the apocalypse, or anticipating some impending apocalypse. I had this thought: what sort of cult would form if the apocalypse had already happened?
Another thing that informed the show was living in New York after September 11th. What happened after 9/11, after the terrible tragedy, was the most banal things you would walk by without giving a second glance suddenly took on all this cultural and semiotic significance. For example, going to the grocery store on September 10th, 2001, was banal, going to the grocery store on september 12th 2001 was suddenly laden with sudden significance even thought the grocery store was exactly the same. It’s his idea that we can look at normal things and have them be so drastically colored by our historical and contextual history.
Remember in 2012 we were talking about the Mayan Apocalypse? When I was little I always thought of it being this big thing happening on one day, but then I started thinking, maybe it was like turning an ocean liner. Like you turn the wheel but it takes a while for the ship to actually change direction. There’s so much evidence to support the idea that we are currently living in an incredibly benign apocalypse. We have an African American president and a female and African American secretary of state and gay marriage is legal in many places and people are so much more informed then they were 10 or 20 years ago. What if the apocalypse has been happening for decades and we just can’t see it because it’s happened so gradually?
That’s what the show is about. Evidence of the apocalypse and showing this strange cult that has grown out of it as a response.
Many of the people in your photographs, the people in these post apocalyptic cults are wearing masks. I’ve noticed that the idea of covering the face and being faceless is consistent in a lot of art post 9/11. How do the masks play into your photographs?
I’m interested in the mask as a signifier. In university I was a philosophy majority, but I really wanted to go to Brown and study semiotics, the ontological existence of something vs the meaning we prescribe to it. You look at a mask, and the truth is, especially in my use of them, masks are just pieces of plastic and some bad Chinese paint on the front. But we look at it and ask: does it represent innocence? Malice? Shame? Malevolence? I’m fascinated by things that come with a whole bunch of question marks attached to them. In the pictures it’s just a person wrapped in a sheet wearing a crappy mask from a dollar store in Burbank, but we look at it and we can create a narrative question around it.
Do you feel that your music and your art are somehow linked?
It’s funny. It’s a reoccurring question and I always get frustrated with it because I want to have a great answer. I want to be able to say they are related and describe how they are, at least for my benefit. But I really don’t think they are. Besides being made by the same person, I don’t think the music I make and the visual art that I do have any relationship. A lot of the music I make is gentle and emotional but the photography I do is supposed to be disconcerting and off putting. I want it to make people uncomfortable.
Many of the photographs show these vast, empty terrains. How are you connected to these places that you show in the series?
Part of it is a result of being born on 148th street in Manhattan and growing up in Connecticut. In Connecticut, it’s small and quaint with no grandeur. It’s small and not terribly overwhelming or inspiring. I don’t remember, besides the occasional thunderstorm, ever being exposed to or confronted by the enormity of nature. I moved back to New York in the 80s, which is more interesting, but there all you see are buildings. They are big but they in no way compare to the majesty and grandeur of, say, of the American west. When I started touring I was exposed to this vast, phenomenal, exceptionally challenging, nature. In Connecticut and New York and many parts of Europe, everything is human. Even nature has been controlled by humans. And one thing I love going out and being reminded is that things existing on a human scale are an exception and not the rule.
What I love about living in LA is that there is this huge messy, megalopolis human city but adjacent to it is just endless space. Either dessert or ocean. A little rind of humanity perched between two gaping existential voids. I am way more interested in art that is inspired by this vast emptiness and vast uncaring nature rather then cute, provincial urban art.
And finally, what is your WILD Wish?
I have so many. But my biggest WILD Wish is that humans would stop causing so much trouble for themselves. For millennia our ancestors dealt with a very hostile world but now, as humans, 99.9% of the problems we come up against we created ourselves. It seems like ideally as a species we would learn how to be less stupid.
We need to just stop hurting ourselves, stop hurting each other, stop worrying about things that aren’t worth worrying about. Stop poisoning an environment that we need in order to live. All the dumb nonsense. If we could just collectively agree to stop being stupid.
Innocents will be on view at Emmanuel Fremin Gallery starting October 23rd, 2014.
This interview has been republished from February 2014.