INTERVIEW: Mike Ballou



On Monday, October 26 a giant cow head appeared atop Diner, a restaurant at the intersection of Broadway and Berry in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Moo-Moo the Giant Cow Head is a large sculptural portrait by artist Mike Ballou of one of the grass-fed upstate New York cows that are used in Diner’s dishes.  I met up with Mike and German artist Hans Winkler (see ZING #15) at Diner to discuss this absurdity.

Brandon Johnson: We’ll just talk about that big cow head on top of Diner and see where it take us.  So, why’s it there?

Mike Ballou: I became interested in Diner as a social venue.  A lot of it was function and I wanted to do something that played with their sensibility.  So, I went to the farm where they get some of their livestock and took pictures.

B: Did you know the guy who owns Diner?

M: Yeah, actually, I met Andrew [Tarlow] 8 years ago?  It was this hysterical trip to Stockholm and we had this insane layover.  I mean we were laid over for 14 hours and I had been traveling so much that year that I said “I’m not staying inside this fuckin’ airport.  Anybody wanna come with me?  I’m going outside.”  It was May or early June in Stockholm, so it was light forever.  Andrew and I ended up in the middle of this traffic median and there was this grassy patch with dandelions and we ended up making flower leis for one another.  I kept talking in this pirate voice, saying, “Argg, you’ve been ruining the neighborhood, turning all yuppyfied, haven’t ya?  Serving all your fancy food with pretty girls.  Think you’re fancy do ya?”

B: So, you’re sitting in the middle of this traffic median in Stockholm, calling him out on gentrifying Williamsburg?

M:  No, you know, he’s been around for a while.  It’s sort of like, when I work in the studio I work until 11 or 12, and when I’m done I want to have a drink, a couple beers before I got out on the streets.  I just want to be around people.  So, I got to know the people.  Diner used to be this big project, you know, they do magazines, they do courses and stuff, so it’s not just about serving food and making a nice place to eat.  And when they made the switch to grass-fed, having this relationship with this farmer, I got really intrigued by it.  One night I said “I’d really like to make a giant portrait of one of your cows.”  So I made this cow, and it has this audio component, which is just, doesn’t really have anything to do with the cow, it just simply occupies the same space.

B: Uh-huh.

M: So, underneath there are these two little soundgardens and there’s this rendering of what you’re eating there on top.  It’s going to be like an apparition—it’ll only be there for another couple of days, and then it’s going to disappear.  Then I think we’ll probably make it re-appear in a different position, as a different function.  It may become a source for an image projection.  It’s been really well received so far.  It worked out really well.  I didn’t want to do an opening.  I just wanted this thing to appear…

B: Just be there.

M:  If we had a proper opening, it would have totally screwed up the way that Diner socially functions, and I didn’t want to interfere that much.

B: So, to clarify, that is specifically one cow that you saw at the farm upstate.  I noticed there was a tag on the ear with a number…

M: Yeah, exactly.  Actually the tag number is my own self-reference.  I mean, they do have tags like that, but the number itself is a reference to the old place I used to live in here.

B: What’s it made of?

M: It’s made out of blue foam, then plaster, aqua resin, and then paint.  All the material was donated and it was a complete freebie, the project.

B: Nice.

M: But, you know, a significant amount of money.

B: So, if you could restate the story about how you got it up on Diner’s roof.  It’s a pretty gigantic sculpture.

M: Well, it’s like most of my projects.  I’d be like “Oh, that would be a great idea, no problem!” Like when we put the weathervane on top of Mussolini’s bunker.  It was like “That shouldn’t be a problem!”  I got this great story.  Hans [Winkler] got me involved in the Brenner Pass.

Hans Winkler: In Italy.

M: I put a Pinocchio weathervane on top of one of Mussolini’s bunkers. There’s a great Super 8 I took of it.  At one point Hans had to carry the Pinocchio weathervane up, but he looks like Jesus.

H: It’s great because it’s such a symbol.   This is right on the border of Italy and Austria.  You come out this big tunnel from under the pass and you see this weathervane. Pinocchio is a symbol for lying.  Everybody in the area thinks you did it because of Mussolini.

M: Well, that’s not exactly why I did it.  But that’s the interesting thing, that even though you’re the author, once you go out, you’re the audience.

H: Exactly.  Because a lot of what you’re doing has to do with social sculpture.  You’re not just putting out one image and having to say what it is.  It integrates in society.  It’s more of an intervention.

M: Yeah, they do become that way.  And even though I work with galleries and do lots of stuff with them, it’s just been so much about itself the past 8 years.  The art world, the gallery art world, is becoming so irrelevant to anything outside of itself.  I really prefer doing projects.

B: The gallery world is insular?

M: Well, it’s really market driven.  And you could feel that change 10 years ago.  The YBAs came up, the ascent of Chelsea.  The whole gearing of everything toward a museum, which is much different than just living and having art work for you.  I mean it’s great to have those kinds of super-rarified pristine spaces, but I just don’t think that’s the only thing.  But the other thing is I don’t think you and I could do the kind of work that we do without that component.  What do you think?  Would you agree?


M: For the official record, Hans Winkler was nodding.  Nodding in the affirmative.

B: In brackets, “Hans Winkler nods pensively.”

M: In a German way.

B: A Germanic nod.

H: In some ways, it’s true.  Like you say, in one way you don’t want to be in the social context, in the political context, but…

M: You can’t help it.

H: But the pieces are finding their way.  People have to finish the stories.  For example, Berlusconi.  Everybody knows he’s a liar, and idiot.  Now there’s a symbol when you’re crossing the border.  There’s Pinocchio.  Everybody says, “Oh, it’s our president, our gangster”.

M: I got the idea in ’97, when I was in Tuscany, from the Tuscan landscape.  I had never seen a landscape like that where it was once primeval, then somebody settled it, somebody took that over, then these people came in…it just has an effect of sedimentation.  In Italy, there was this weird kind of juncture between nature and human nature that I was feeling.  I was thinking, nature is this kind of take it or leave it proposition.  It doesn’t really give a fuck.  And human nature DOES give a fuck.  It tells stories, etc.  When I was looking at the Pinocchio thing, I thought that this was the ultimate human thing: the ability to lie.  So, I thought if you put that on a weather vane, you get this juncture between nature and human nature.

H: It’s interesting, because art has a lot to do with fiction…

B: Artifice.

H: Yes, but also reality.  But reality and fiction are always very similar.  But I think, like in writing, it’s not always the point to be literal, it’s also about…

B: To craft a reality…

H: Yes, and a free interpretation.

M:  Don’t let the facts get in the way of the truth.

[Everybody laughs]

H: But it is what it is.  If you look at this piece at Diner and say, “Oh, it’s saying don’t eat meat” and blah, blah, blah.  It’s a different story.

B: I don’t think everyone would necessarily read it like that, because what Diner is trying to do with the grass-fed beef is the antithesis of factory farming and detachment from food.  So it’s, in a way, bringing the person closer to the animal they’re eating.  It gives a face to the food…

M: Or a head.

B: Right, or a head.

H: A couple years ago, comparing America to Europe, the U.S. was far behind in the green movement.  And now, it’s crazy here.  I heard in an interview about pets, that people now treat dogs like a partner rather than something to kick aside like they would in the past.  Now here, you see a cow smiling on a restaurant.  I like meat, don’t get me wrong.  But to respect it.  When I was younger, I went to a farm in Bavaria, and they slaughtered animals.  We had a big celebration and used everything.

B: That was the first time you ate meat?

H: No, but I had the feeling it was the first time, because before it would just be meat.   Meanwhile, you see meat in plastic and it’s so far away from reality.  The cow on diner has personality.  It’s not an advertisement, but rather something for people to consider.

M: I think that’s how projects can get interesting.  When the audience starts making their story and making it their own.

B: Like people are walking into Diner, they see this giant sculpture, and include it in the conversation over a drink or meal.  Put in their two cents and make it a part of their day.

M: Yeah, I think that’s a good function of poetry and art.

B: Conversation, dialogue?

M: Dialogue, for me, implies a certain amount of pragmatism.  Whereas this is quite absurd.

H: It was great while installing, to be on the roof and see the reactions of the people passing by.  For example, one conservative Jewish man was rushing around, but when he saw cow, he stopped and stared for a while.  It’s nice that it creates a situation like that.

B: For the record, let’s go over the installation process, which we had spoken about earlier.

M: Right, like I said earlier, it was like “Oh, this will be fun.”  And then you get in the middle of and you say to yourself “What was I thinking?”  Anyway, there was about 4-5 people on the ground and Hans and I have got it lashed and scooted up on the ladder.  It actually isn’t that heavy.  I would say it’s about 200 lbs.  So, we’re pulling it, just at the edge but can’t quite get it, so we lower it back down.  Then there was this crew doing roadwork with a backhoe, and the foreman, a Polish guy, comes up and says “I’ll get that up for you.”  So he brings the backhoe.  I’m looking at the backhoe, thinking, there’s no way this is going to reach.  Then the guy takes the truck and pushes the bucket into the ground and pushes the whole thing up about five feet.

B: Wow.

M:  We’re sitting there like “Coooool.  That’s manly.”  So, that starts the ascent of the cow head.  And that’s when everybody starts gathering around, taking out their phones.  This thing starts ascending like a saint.  Then it lands and everybody cheers.

B: Great.

M:  The project has a really good vibe to it.  Everybody’s picking up what they can and running with it a little bit.  We’re trying to collect as much of the imagery that people are taking as we can and letting that be the documentation for it.  Actually, I’m following that bear project that you and Stefan did, Hans.  Because that was all documented in a similar way.

H: That was a long time ago, but it has a story.  I was in the States, in Barrow, Alaska for a project.  I was in Alaska and we came across Polar Bears and Grizzlies. In Germany, the last bear was killed 100 years ago.  I came back to Germany and said, “I have rent a costume.”  So we put on the bear costumes, and were living and moving like bears in the mountains.  People took pictures and eventually the European media got hold of it and said “Bears are back.”

B: When did you do this?

H: 1993.

B:  Wasn’t there a bear in Germany recently?

H: Yes, and then ten years later there was a real bear.

B: Was his name Bruno?

H: Bruno.  He came to Germany, and the first thing the media did was call me.

[Everybody laughs]

M: Really?  That was interesting because you let the tourists and people who saw you act as the documentation.

H: It was a limited sculpture.  Like the cow, I think it would be a mistake to keep it up forever.

M: Exactly.  If you keep things around too long, they become less important.  You have to animate them by making them disappear and re-appear.  Then it becomes an active thing.  Or it seems to.  It’s funny, because sometimes pieces that remain for long periods of time are continually rediscovered.  One generation will come across it and then forget about.  Then the next generation goes the same way.

H: But do you call it an object, an installation?

M:  I just call them projects.

B: Is it titled?

M: It’s REALLY stupid.  “Moo-Moo the Giant Cow Head”.  I couldn’t be more sternical, like “138 Bovine”.  You know, it really doesn’t have a title.

H: I’m also confronted with names.  Is it an object, installation, intervention?  Then the media calls it something else.

B: No need to pigeonhole it.

M: Then there are art schools with things like “installation studies.”  Objects don’t exist the way the moving image exists.  The moving image, whether it’s 3 seconds, 3 minutes, or 3 hours, you never get that back.  Whereas objects, like photos, paintings, sculptures, you enter and leave at will.  They don’t exist in that same sort of way as the moving image does.  You remember the catalogue thing did for ZING?

B: Yeah, the “Pane” project, which was part of issue #21.

M: I liked that, because it hovered between those two ways of apprehending film and an object.  As you were moving through the catalogue, the stills were sequential.  You would kind of pick it up a little bit, but then put it away for later.  You could also leave the stills and look at the contents of the catalogue.  By the way, I was thrilled that you guys put that out.  I love that project.

B: It’s nice, because it’s a unique project.

H: What was it?

M: I had that show in England and people were like [with British accent] “You do a lot of important stuff, you should have a catalogue about yourself.”  And I was like, “Who’s going to buy it?  Who’s going to pay for it?  I can’t.”

H: The government.

M: Okay, let’s start a revolution so I can get a catalogue.

B: There’s your running platform.

M: Right, “a chicken in every pot and a catalogue with every show.”  So, I started to do a bunch of projects and they would kind of weave in this way, but it was just turning into mud real quick.  So, I got the idea to start with something simple. I thought, “Maybe I’ll design some catalogues.  They’re simple.”  They sure are.  You end up with sequential stills, a title, nice graphics, blah, blah, blah.  So, I was getting really disgusted and put it back.  Meanwhile, I was getting catalogues in the mail.  Christmas, tools, clothing, whatever.  And I thought, “Gosh, my films are kind of like these catalogues.  Somehow received.”  So, I decided to take a catalogue, devote that to one film, put them in sequential order.  Just intervene by taking part of the picture space in each spread.  Don’t change the content, don’t make any comments.  And it worked.

B: Yeah, it did.  That film you used for the ZING project was a bird trapped in an air vent?

M: No, actually it was a mockingbird that flew into my studio, so it’s flying against my window.  It’s a really nice film because when it’s being screened, there’s this really nice pressure you get from the light going against the wall and the absence of light from the bird flopping against the window.  For the catalogue, I liked the indifference of both images [the film stills and the Harry and David catalogue].  They’re just neighbors.  I’ve laid out about five of them, and plans for many, many, many more.  Projects should be poetic in a way.  It really is about content.  When you take these project positions, you’re using material to get something across.  To activate some kind of content.

H: What do you mean?

M: Some people would take this conceptual position and just set up these parameters on how to work.  But the work needs to resonate beyond its parameters.

H: It depends on the project.

M: It’s like the bear piece.  You weren’t interested in being a bear.  What you were doing was try to activate something about the myth of the bear in Germany.

H: There were different levels.

M: And that’s when it has a certain kind of resonance.  But often enough you see people just kind of make these formal gestures and they just don’t work.  You know…

M: It’s like every generation thinks it invented sex.  And in a way, they’re right.  Every generation, all the kids were taught how babies are made.  Then you learn from your friends, you do this and you do this.  But when it actually comes to doing it, when you first have a sweetheart, you ARE inventing it, each one of us.  But it’s been around before we were humans.

B: It, in fact, MADE us humans.

M: Right.  But every generation does invent sex.

B: That’s going to be the tagline of this interview.

M: I’ve seen tons and tons of moving image, lots of porn, and the interesting thing is when they first invented the camera, one of the first things they shot were sex acts.   And they were all like, you know, people doing it with dogs, fisting, none of this stuff is new.  It’s all been done before.  You know, whatever you can twist around in your little noodle up there, it’s been done.

B: What can you do that hasn’t been done better before?

M: Exactly.  One of these projects I did was in this Imbiss in Berlin.  Do you know what Imbiss is?

B: No.

M: I-m-b-i-s-s.  They’re like these ubiquitous snack stands.  They would serve currywurst and pomme-frites and stuff.  They’re all over the place in Berlin.  So, anyway, this guy let’s us use this thing to do a project in.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I definitely didn’t want to do like an art invasion.  You know, vacant space, fill it with objects.  So I was trying to let the content of the space come out, so I started cleaning the place.  So there was the Imbiss kitchen here, where they would serve food.  And there were two restrooms, the men’s and the women’s.  The women room was particularly filthy.  I mean it was literally knee-deep in like condoms and needles, just crap.  Literally.  It was horrible.  We spent about four days literally shoveling and hosing it down.

B: Ughh.

M: So, I went to the men’s room to start cleaning the stalls with water and a sponge.  And I thought “That’s weird.  Why is it getting all foamy?”  Then I see all these gloryholes around.  I’m like “JESUS!”  That’s when I learned how to say the German phrase for “May I have some great big rubber working gloves?”  That was a little place where men had some fun.  Remember the graffiti all over it?  One said “Black American, please come back.”

B: So, what ended up going in there?  I mean the cleaning is a project in itself, but…

M: I started looking at the graffiti, and seeing how graffiti is always the atmosphere going over architecture.  So I decided to wake that up by doing a video of the graffiti.  Remember that one story of the woman from Berlin who wanted to sell herself and her children for sex to a man and/or woman?  Remember that, Hans?  And she left her phone number…

H: No…

M: I would just run the camera over it and then pull it back and it became these word pictures on the screens.

H: But here, the restrooms are clean.

B: You mean in New York or this bar?

H: In general.

B: I would have to disagree.  But it’s mostly tags.

M: And in Berlin it was messages and stories.  We displayed the videos on the Imbiss, and people would come off the Ubaun, and sit for an hour just reading these word pictures.  I loved it.  There were certain points that just jelled on that project.

B: When was this?

M: 1999 or 2000.  But last time I was in Berlin, the Imbiss is back to what it used to be.  We polished the gutters and everything, woke it up, but now it’s returned to its former state.

B: Squalor?

M: Yeah.  I think sometimes you don’t want to intrude too much.  You just want to wake things up.  I mean for gosh sake, there are enough objects in the world.  Sometimes I think just waking them up and lighting them is all you need.  What is really depressing is going to some of the super blue chip collector and their houses are like mausoleums.  It’s a shame, because all that Modern stuff that I grew up with, like those black ultimate paintings by Ad Reinhart.  When those things are lit, they’re just knee buckling.  The disaster paintings by Warhol or Pollock’s stuff.  It’s great to have this stuff around.  I’ve been doing a lot of work in Belgium the past 10 years, and that’s what’s great about Belgium.  It has all this work around you, and some of it has been around for a thousand years.  Along with all this great contemporary work.  I enjoy working within that context.  That’s why it’s fun in New York to do these kinds of projects, that they are more, I don’t want to say casual, but what would the word be?  Integrated.

H: So what happens in a couple of weeks.  Just destroy it?

M: You mean the cow head?  Actually, we’re going to be sneaky and pull it to the back of the roof where you can’t see it.  But I’m thinking of making it re-appear in another position and have a video projector in it projecting on a wall.  But I think it would be interesting to have the moving image involved.  But the trick I found, because I was doing all these projections down Maspeth Ave for a couple of years, just these guerrilla video projects.  They always worked best when the frame of the object wasn’t there.  Where the building was the frame.  The frame becomes the architecture.

B: Sounds good.  Looking forward to seeing what’s next.  I’ll put this up tomorrow so people have a chance to read it and then go see the cow before it’s moved.  Should we go in?  Looks like we can still catch the end of the of the baseball game.


Moo-Moo remains on display at Diner, 85 Broadway, Brooklyn, until this Saturday, Nov. 7th 11:55pm.