Photograph contributed by Dan Murphy to a recent copy of Megawords
BASED ON THE RIGHT STUFF, an Interview with Dan Murphy (one half of Megawords Magazine)
Perhaps you got the chance to stumble upon the Megawords pop-up shop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and were able to write your name on the chalk-board there, sit and enjoy a free copy of Megawords Magazine, try and communicate with plants, participate in one of the many panel discussions on urban planning, or join in on any one of the numerous free programs provided by the project. Maybe you were already familiar with Megawords, a collaboration between artist Dan Murphy and designer Anthony Smyrski , because you picked up a free copy around town or even visited the Megawords pop-up during it’s incarnation on 11th Street in Chinatown in 2008.
If you are like me, you have always felt like you know what Megawords is but would be hard pressed to actually describe it. The magazine itself is usually, but not always, photographs and photo collages with very little in the way of text. If I had to explain the overall feel of the magazine I might use the word “freedom”–not only does the content proclaim a wonder with the world as if seen through the eyes of a constant traveler zipping by on their bicycle, but every issue is different in both quality of paper, size, and design.
Dan Murphy is similar to his magazine in that, while I have always known who he is– I realized that I stumbled when describing what he does. My first thought was to call him a photographer but that didn’t really seem an accurate description. His projects, with perhaps the exception of gallery exhibitions at Fleisher/Ollman, or Stuck on the Map (a title he puts projects out under that are composed of various media but are often zine-shaped), are usually collaborative in a way that almost defies any authorship and his art works created for galleries most recently resemble small shrines to bike culture, Reggae, and. . . other things. I knew that Dan once started an alley-cat in Philadelphia called the Rocky Race back when he was a bike messenger, that he was somehow involved in the mysterious Landlords website, and of course I was familiar with Megawords. Not really knowing how to define Dan lead me to seek him out and the result was the following conversation, had in the company of the Lord while sitting by the river in Penn Treaty Park.
Annette Monnier: It’s a little funny, because I feel like I know who you are even though we’ve never really sat down and had a conversation before, but in preparation for the interview I was googling your name and came to the conclusion that you really aren’t on the internet all that much. You have a website for stuck on the map dot com, but as far as I can tell it’s only a picture. You don’t have an artist website and I’m not sure if you even have a facebook page. Megawords has a website and there is a lot of information about that project on the web– but on just you, not so much. I was wondering how intentional that was?
Dan Murphy: Yeah. My solo art career is not really a big endeavor of mine.
Annette: You seem really casual about it.
Dan: Yeah. I’m just not that . . . I don’t have the whole package going on.
Annette: (laughs) What’s the whole package?
Dan: I’m just not. . .
Annette: I mean, you’ve had exhibitions at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery so I assume you’re at least somewhat represented by them. . .
Annette: So that’s actually pretty legit.
Dan: Yeah. But I’m not. . . I don’t search out those opportunities. Those opportunities come to me. I might take them, I might not. If I’m, for instance asked to have a show at Fleisher/Ollman, I do it. That’s a good opportunity so I’ll take it but I’m not committed to a full-time art career.
DIGGING IN TO WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT (SELF-TAUGHT BY OTHER PEOPLE)
Annette: So you’re a self-taught artist?
Dan: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t go to art school but I feel like I did learn stuff from a lot of other people. I just kind of dug into what I wanted to know about. I did hang around a lot of people who went to art school.
Annette: Did you go to college for something else?
Dan: No. I went to SVA in Manhattan for one year and then I dropped out. That was it. I never went to college after that.
Annette: How did you keep up the connection to people who are making art? You must have been involved with art in some way. . . and of course you helped put together the book “Public Wall Writing in Philadelphia” so I assume you wrote/write graffiti.
Dan: When I went to art school I didn’t really know about the art ‘scene’. I didn’t really understand that. When I went to New York I got a little bit hip to that, but this is when I’m like nineteen though, you know? I was just doing graffiti and then I came back to Philly and I was just trying to get back into doing graffiti again and I wasn’t really interested in art. I was a little bit resenting art at that point.
Then I got into [Space] 1026, they came along. They came back from RISD and they sort of had. . . that’s what I mean by I learned a lot from other people.
Annette: Who was ‘they’ at the time?
Dan: Andrew [Jeffery] Wright. . . the people who started it, Ben Woodward. . . These are all guys from Philly suburbs and I knew them or heard of them a bit before then, but then they moved back and started Space 1026, modeled after Fort Thunder and the things they had seen in Providence. They really got me back into art.
Annette: So school turned you off of art?
Dan: Yeah. School kind of turned me off of it. . . but at the same time I was working with Steve Powers, even at that time, even in 1994 or 5, when he first worked in New York–so I was getting hip to the art and gallery scene through him and I still have those connections today as well. I still get opportunities from that, from Steve–and 1026, probably. I mean people still ask me ‘Hey, how’s 1026?’ and I’m just like, I mean, what do you say? It’s great? I haven’t been there for ten-fifteen years.
At one time I wanted to distance myself from all of that, but it’s cool. It’s a cool place.
Annette: Everything comes back around, for awhile you might be wanting to distance yourself from something but as time wears on it just seems stupid to do that. The stuff you were into was and is cool.
Dan: I’m fully excepting of all of that.
Annette: I guess I just wanted to talk about how it seems like you fell into art naturally, rejected any kind of classical training and just stuck with the things you like and were drawn to. When you wrote graffiti what did you write?
Dan: I wrote ‘Nope’. . . but one thing I will say about graffiti–one thing about graffiti writers coming into the art scene is, with graffiti you really have to put yourself out to a level. . .you know what I mean? You really have to have a lot of self-confidence. You have to be able to present yourself, you have this DIY campaign for yourself. That’s why I think graffiti writers almost have an easy time coming into the art scene, they aren’t really worried about thinking that they aren’t supposed to be there. They have a confident approach to presenting themselves. They are just like ‘we’re here.’
I feel like that’s what I have. I value that a lot.
Annette: Does that come from hanging out with a lot of writers? Or is it that putting stuff on a public wall for everyone to see takes confidence?
Dan: All those things. Interacting in the social part of graffiti is a very ‘alpha’ kind of thing. Executing graffiti is a very kind of courageous type of thing sometimes. . . you gather all these life skills from graffiti, and then you walk into the art scene and you just think ‘Oh. I can just push up on this’. Not that I’m. . . I guess that’s why I feel guilty sometimes, I don’t want to be the bully or say this is easy–you can do whatever you want, don’t be so scared, it doesn’t have to be so perfect. . .
My point is that graffiti gives you a sort of empowerment.
From the exhibition, “Dan Murphy, Certain Things” at Flesicher/Ollman Gallery.
MEGAWORDS MAGAZINE, A SUPER SPECIAL SECRET THING
Annette: What exactly is your part of Megawords. . . how would you say that’s divided up?
Dan: I’m just half of it really.
Annette: What does half of it mean?
Dan: We [Anthony Smyrski and I] basically share everything pretty down the middle. We each have our own skills and we let each other do what we each do best. My responsibility is more shooting photos and coming up with ideas. . . it’s more visual. Tony’s. . . I hesitate to say more administrative, I would say that he handles the administrative stuff but he also is almost exclusively doing the design part of it.
Annette: So you put the content into Megawords that gets designed.
Dan: Yeah. I tend to shoot and curate a lot of the photos. I would say I contribute 75% of the material whether I make it or find it.
Annette: Do you consider yourself a photographer?
Dan: Not really. I use photography as a tool. I hesitate to use photography in the same way as a photographer. A lot of photographers are super serious about it. I don’t really want to be considered a photographer, because then all these other things are expected of you, people are asking you what kind of camera you have. . .it’s a scene.
Annette: What kind of camera do you have?
Dan: Oh. You know, this one (points), lying in the wood chips. . .
Annette: So what is your work about then if it’s not about all of that?
Dan: My work? I don’t know, it’s always changing. For awhile it was about cataloging stuff. . .
Annette: When you say cataloging does that mean just seeing something and taking a picture?
Dan: Just curating topics that I was into. I used to have photo albums of clothing, of hats and gloves and sweaters. I was really into curating all the best of all the stuff that I liked. I had photo albums of records, and sneakers and photos of photos.
Annette: Would you also keep the actual stuff?
Dan: No. I took the photos so I wouldn’t have to. I really vibed that off of the e-bay craze, how everybody all of the sudden wanted to get all of this stuff they always wanted, all this collectable fiendish shit. You know, when guys my age were getting into their twenties and they were buying all these action figures and things, and I thought it was so stupid, and I just said no. I just wanted to photograph all that stuff, that way I didn’t have to own any of it.
Yeah. I was really into cataloging but I’m not anymore. . . now the photographs are. . .I don’t know. . . (laughs)
Annette: Well, it seems like it’s a lot of street photography, and it’s a lot of. . . I don’t know either, where are you when you take the pictures?
Dan: Just on my bike doing things like this really. I just try to get photos, get ideas, get these little narratives going with the photos cause that’s where you get the best ideas and then putting them into the magazine because that’s the best vehicle. If I could put them [the photos] in the art gallery in a way that people could see them and get them that would be cool, but the magazine works a lot better.
Annette: Yeah, and Megawords is free which is amazing, how do you guys pull that off?
Dan: It’s just different. Now, with the PMA there’s money to make that, sometimes we do it on our own. We make cheaper ones, we make more expensive ones when there’s money available.
Annette: It seems like the quality and shape is always different.
Dan: We just find ways to do it. The Megawords project is really just an experiment with magazine making and all the things you can do with a free magazine. It doesn’t have to have ads, it doesn’t have to have a certain page count, it doesn’t have to have anything. My point being that we set a budget and then figure out what we can do with that, even if it’s just photo copying something. There’s a lot of freedoms in making a free magazine.
A magazine is a great medium and it’s a shame what it’s been reduced to. The formula for a magazine, with articles and ads is just something that’s accepted and that’s only a very narrow version of what they could be.
We give it away [Megawords] and people respect it when it’s in print. Especially in the internet age, people are like ‘wow, it’s not even on the internet, this is like a super secret special thing.’
Megawords pop-up at the PMA.
Annette: You were a bike messenger around 1994?
Annette: And you started this race, called the Rocky Race that’s still going on.
Dan: I just made the flyer for it, Rocky Ten.
Annette: What is the Rocky Race?
Dan: What is it technically? It’s about the Art Museum, it’s this Philly centric race. . . I really made it up because I got into bike messengering but there was really no scene when I got into it, it wasn’t popular or anything. . . but it kind of was, it was popular to me. When I was in High School I would see bike messengers and I thought it was cool, so as soon as I got out of High School I wanted to be a bike messenger. I thought it was cool, and I knew about the New York messenger scene from being in New York a little bit. . . I’m just giving you the back story I guess. . .
I knew bike messengers were ‘cool’ even before I was a messenger and there was a little bit of a scene in Philly but there were no races or anything like that and no one was really proud of being a messenger. A couple of Time Cycle dudes, but this was when Time Cycle had like four people . . . so me and a couple of dudes went to a race in Boston (Crazy Eight) and this is ’97, ’96. . . something like that, we went and saw that race and we were the first people to ever come up from Philly, only dudes from New York and Boston were there. We wanted to have a presence so I made this race up.
I feel like we were really about Philly then, you know, as like– twenty year olds.
Annette: The race seems to have struck a cord, someone continues to put it together every year. . .
Dan: It’s cool. It’s an honor, I embrace it fully. I haven’t been to it since I did it, but I’ll go to it this year I guess. . .
Dan: No, it’s like you said, somethings you have to back off of for awhile and then you come back to it. Like, this is cool, this is my people, I’m not too cool for this.
Cover image for the Landlords Cycling book.
HUNDRED DOLLAR BOOKS FOR BIKE FIENDS
Annette: What is the Landlords?
Dan: Landlords. . . is a website really now but it started because we were asked to be in a movie about bike gangs in New York that this woman wanted us to be in, it was fictional so we just made it up.
Annette: This was awhile ago?
Dan: Yeah. But we just made up the name on the spot, just to be in our friend’s film, but then we stuck with it and me and my fiend that I make it with, we ended up making a book. . .
Annette: And that book costs how much?
Dan: A hundred bucks.
Annette: So that’s like pretty much the opposite of Megawords.
Dan: Yeah, that’s true.
Annette: How many hundred dollar books have you sold?
Dan: I dunno, maybe twenty I would guess, less then twenty-five.
Annette: How long have you been trying to sell them?
Dan: Maybe two years? So we made the website because we were trying to sell the book, we just wanted it to be out there. So we made the website and now it seems like people like the website way more then they like the book. People pay attention to the website a lot. We get contacts from all over the world.
Now I’ve assumed this whole other responsibility of manning this website, which is nuts because I was completely out of cycling for years I feel like. I mean I always rode a bike and I have always had love for cycling but I distanced myself from cycling culture for a long time and was just on my own.
Annette: It seems like Landlords is bringing back a lot of that stuff you used to do–like taking pictures and cataloging stuff, it’s a lot of ‘hey, look at this really hot bike.’
Dan: Yeah. We try to assume these characters in Landlords that are conglomerations of people that we knew. Just fiends, just people that want to see every last things about bikes and want to differentiate between this thing and this bolt. We just try to play off of how fiendish bike people are and assume these alter-egos that are made up of crazy bike-world people.
Annette: But it seemed like at your last show at Fleisher/Ollman you had a lot of bike culture references in there. . . so it’s spilling over into other parts of your life.
Dan: Yeah, it’s true. I let it happen. I can’t front on it. I’m super into bikes right now so I’ve got to make some cool stuff about bikes. It’s also. . . I get opportunities like that at Fleisher/Ollman and I know everyone is going to look at it and so I think, fuck it, I should tell everybody that I like to ride bikes. Make bikes cool. That’s the bottom line. It’s almost activism. If I’m going to make something hip and cool it should be bikes.
FREEDOM IN THE FREE AND CHEAP
Annette: There wasn’t much photography in your last show, and when I have seen it used in your work, it almost seems like you’re intentionally making the point that photographs are not precious items.
Dan: That’s very true, but that’s not like a protest. I mean I don’t have the money to frame all this shit and I don’t want to frame two photos perfectly, I’d rather frame fifty photos not that well. People get so caught up in printing one or two things, and I’m not dissing people for doing their own thing but. . .
Annette: It’s not what you do.
Dan: No. To me, that’s. . . what I’d rather see as a patron of art is just, you know, let me just see a bunch of shit and let me deal with rather I like it or not. People just want to put together one thing and just be like ‘this is what I’ve been working on for years’. . . I have respect for that, but it just seems so hard.
I do have respect for it, but I’d rather put as much stuff as I can down, cheap. Make it look cool. I can still make it look cool with a utilitarian approach.
Annette: I think that line of thought really plays into the Megawords pop-up at the PMA. Thinking about what you’d like to see as a patron and that casualness. You don’t feel a formal distance, you feel like you can touch and interact.
Dan: A lot of the Megawords stuff is about trying to empower the audience.
Annette: It was always free to visit the Megawords exhibition. . . and I was wondering how hard it was working with the museum to be able to get that?
Dan: We settled on that space because it was there and you could get into it for free. Yeah, some of the original places they were thinking of, you would have had to pay in order to be able to stumble on it. You can go there [the location of the pop-up] because you can go into the cafeteria and gift shop for free.
That was good. We had to look a long time for a place that would work. The place we finally settled on used to have a bench and a payphone and an ATM machine in it and then the other part of it, there were doors there and it was a dressing room for the auditorium.
BASED ON THE RIGHT STUFF
Annette: So what’s next?
Dan: For Megawords. . . we’ve been talking about doing some things out of Institutions. I think we’re feeling a little guilty for doing all of these museum things. . .
Annette: Why would you have to feel guilty for doing museum stuff?
Dan: I don’t know, it’s just self-guilt probably. We just want to do cooler stuff. There’s nothing wrong with it but there are limits to what you can do in a museum.
Annette: Do you feel like this project [at the PMA] was stifling a little bit?
Dan: If you want to ask me what I really want to do?
Dan: Well then, yes. Of course I’m stifled. I wanna have camp-out rave techno parties on like (points) that island out there.
Annette: Well, you should totally do that.
Dan: I’m dead serious though. Do you know like Big Brad and them and the crew?
Annette: A little, yeah.
Dan: Well, the shit that they do is really inspiring to me. That’s like the only thing in Philly that’s really inspiring to me. Sometimes I just want to quit everything and just be down with them.
That’s what I mean by feeling guilty. I mean, we’re doing shit at the art museum and that’s cool for everybody but it’s just half fake to me. It’s G rated, PG at best.
Annette: Real life doesn’t happen in institutions.
Dan: Yeah, but at the same time I don’t want to be against institutions, I just don’t even care. I just want to. . .I just feel like you should do the real shit you are about and I don’t feel like I am doing that sometimes. A lot of the time, actually.
Unless I am at Big Brad’s party . . .
Annette: You should probably describe one of Brad’s parties.
Dan: He throws these parties on Thursday nights on the drives in the summer that are like, super cool. Every Thursday night he sets up a sound system with a generator and people are just chilling out. It’s totally mellow, it’s not like some rager or anything. It’s just cool. It’s not based on a bar or commerce or anything. It’s just for people who love music or wanna fuck off. I dunno, there’s just some more pure energy there then anywhere else. As opposed to art, I mean you go to an art opening and there’s rarely some really great party vibe where you really feel like you are part of some excellent thing.
Annette: Usually you feel the opposite. Like you’re not part of it.
Dan: Yeah. You feel disenfranchised. Why are we going for that? As a community, why are we trying to like, be at the ICA–nothing wrong with the ICA– but, and that’s what I mean, I don’t want to be against this stuff but do we really feel great at an ICA opening?
Annette: Usually I don’t know what to do with myself so I would say no.
Dan: That’s what I mean. We can do better.
Annette: Sure. I agree.
Dan: Yeah. But I only have so much in me to do, I don’t even know what my part is in that plan.
Big Brad’s parties are the only thing that make me feel legitimate, like I’m at the right place. This is where I need to start. This is the right party. Maybe not the only place, but you know? Sometimes you’re at somewhere and you’re like ‘Alright. This is cool. This is based on the right stuff.’