Artist and DIY Publisher Billy Miller Curates European Exhibitions This Summer
Jersey City artist Billy Miller is a bit of a modern-day renaissance man. He not only exhibits at venues like P.S. 1 and Deitch Projects and writes for magazines like Vice and Butt, but he also edits and publishes independent publications like When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, No Milk Today and Straight To Hell (which has been in publication since 1973).
Miller organized two simultaneous exhibitions — Lost Horizons and Head Shop — at Berlin’s Exile gallery this summer, as part of the gallery’s second annual Summer Camp, which opens up the space for a curator to create, as Exile says, “a spontaneous, communicative and flexible process of exchange.”
We caught up with Miller for a chat about Berlin, independent publishing and Journal Square.
How did you come to work with the gallery in Berlin? What can you tell us about the exhibition?
The group shows (Lost Horizons and Head Shop) are at Exile Ausstellungsraum (say that fives times real fast with your mouth full of crackers) in Berlin — Germany that is, not New Jersey. Besides the exhibit, which is set to close in a few days, there have been live performances and a couple video-film screenings at Exile and another space called Basso.
Then there is also an installation with artist Jan Wandrag at the White Cubicle gallery — which is actually a bathroom in a place called the George & Dragon in London.
I met both Exile gallerist Christian Siekmeier and White Cubicle director Pablo de la Barra in NYC.
How did you get involved in independent publishing?
The first things I made were limited edition photocopied booklets in the ’70s that were meant as gifts to friends. Since the ’80s, I’ve produced a variety of publications of varying quality. Some of them you may be able to find at a bookstore or newsstand, and others only a few people have ever seen.
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. 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.
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, Lost Horizon. What’s in a title?
No Milk Today is the title of Herman’s Hermits song … a line in it says “the bottle stands alone, a symbol of the dawn.” When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again is an ironic song about the Civil War, A Poor Wayfaring Stranger is the title of another spooky folk song. Titles can be like drawers to put things in.
Always wanting to show people stuff is a habit I picked up as a child and probably yet another symptom of my obsessive compulsive disorder.
Your publications, as well as your group exhibitions, feature many artists from a range of disciplines. Where do you find the artists, and what are you looking for in their work?
The so-called art world is a probably a temporary bubble and let’s hope 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. Don’t look to artists for “art” — 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?
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 sped-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 Avenue — it’s been around since the ’60s, sort of hiding in plain sight.
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 58 Gallery told me he thought bompy comes from a combination of the words “bum” and “papi.” I don’t know, but it sorta sounds Italian. [Editor’s note: Urban Dictionary says the term is used exclusively in Hudson County, and “may refer to the way a drunk walks, sort of ‘bomping’ along unsteadily.”]
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 woman who looks like someone who would work on Wall Street from a distance but up close you see how whacked-out she really is 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 charity — that doesn’t exist — and has all these forms and fake ID that are spelled wrong and who 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. And the one 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.
Photos of the Berlin exhibitions and other work: