Feature #18 – Cookies

The Facts: Cookies is a band from New York City specializing in popular music.  Ben Sterling formed the band shortly after the dissolution of his former group (the critically lauded Mobius Band) last year, enlisting Melissa Metrick (vocals/bass/keyboards) and Ian Ainley (drums) to help craft a unique and compelling sound. Unlike most good bands specializing in popular music, Cookies is a truly innovative outfit, incorporating into its productions a genuine love of 90s hip hop and R&B, electronic music, and – perhaps most importantly – savvy, distinctive songwriting.  We’re grateful to Ben for taking the time to answer our questions, and for creating some excellent lists. Those of you who are in the NYC area should be sure to check them out tonight (Thursday, November 10th) when they play at Glasslands, in Brooklyn.

Listgeeks: So far you’ve released six tracks, and based on the live set, it seems there’s more than enough material for a full-length on hand.  Do you anticipate releasing an album in the coming months? More generally, do you think we’ve moved past albums, for the most part?

Ben Sterling: We’re doing at least one more single and then probably an album. I like singles. I like albums. Grouping songs together will be around in some fashion forever… though our attention span is shorter, expectations are changing, and the internet means we often hear a song or two and leave it at that. But maybe that’s fair. It’s hard to make a record that deserves its length. They are very rare. Even “Rumours” has a couple wack songs.

LG: Your previous band, Mobius Band, was a little more on the traditional side, both in terms of the live show and from a production perspective . . . what are the main differences in how you approach realizing the songs in Cookies Vs. the way process worked in Mobius Band?

Ben: Mobius Band was a gang. We met in college and lived together and finished each others sentences. We were a thorough democracy with every decision. It was great for a long time. But then it wasn’t anymore. The dynamic broke down and got weird, like it usually does.

Cookies: “Love Will Never Do Without You” (Janet Jackson cover)

Cookies doesn’t work that way, it’s truly the opposite and that’s something I need after that experience. For me, the process of writing songs is very simple to start with and then excruciating to finish. The original rush of an idea is quick and beautiful and easy. But it’s just an idea, not a song or a production. The rest is basically window dressing and finishing lyrics, but without that it’s not a song, unless you’re making folk music or free improvisation. The original spark usually takes about ten minutes but I can’t finish a song in under two months.

LG: I’m a big fan of the boy/girl tradeoff vocal approach, which seems to be becoming a more central element in your productions. Has working with Melissa over time changed your perspective or approach in writing the songs, or did you envision that Cookies would have this type of dynamic from the start?

Ben: Melissa’s voice was at the heart of it from the beginning. I love her voice and have always wanted to do something focused on singing together. At least in my little hetero-framed world, the dynamic between men and women is relevant to just about everything, so it can point in every direction at once. It’s a really good challenge to write for a female voice. I’m not sure I’ll ever be totally comfortable with it. That’s part of why it’s so interesting in the first place.

LG: Who are some of your major influences at the moment from a production perspective?  Which artists have done things you’ve found compelling in the last year or so?

Ben: I’ve been digging back into early 90s New York hiphop. It’s such an optimistic era. Tons of 60’s and 70’s samples, everything soft focus.  A lot of Pete Rock and some lesser known stuff. Caribou’s “Swim” is probably the best pure production work I’ve heard in a few years, it’s untouchable. Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Junglinge.” Watch The Throne sounds amazing blaring from a car loud and distorted. New stuff: I have a feeling the new Chairlift album is going to be era-defining, based on one live show in June.

LG: You’ve collaborated with the photographer Emily Keegin and director/designer Wyeth Hansen, both of whom seem to have a visual sensibility/vision that really works with Cookies. Are the visual aspects of what you’re doing an important part of the process of releasing the music?  How did those collaborations come about?

Ben: Part of why Emily and Wyeth are in tune with the Cookies aesthetic is because they invented the Cookies aesthetic.  I knew what the cover was for “Summer Jam” before I’d written the song.  I’m so lucky to have Emily in my life, she is an amazing artist and thinker.  We’ve got some great stuff coming soon. Wyeth is the same, just a great friend that makes work I admire. He made the “Wilderness Tips” video in one night. I made him dinner and spoon fed him wine, and he sat there mumbling at the computer and made a video in two hours.

Related Links:

Cookies Website
Cookies tumblr

Cookies Twitter
Cookies on Listgeeks

Listgeeks Feature #14 – “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art”

Adolf Konrad, packing list, 1962–63. Adolf Ferdinand Konrad papers, 1962–2002. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

The Morgan Library & Museum is currently featuring an impeccably curated, list-oriented exhibit called, “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art,” which runs through October 2nd, 2011.  Derick Rhodes (one of the co-founders of Listgeeks) recently had the opportunity to visit the exhibit, and apart from being overwhelmed by the profoundly fascinating array of lists on display, he thought it would be of special interest to the Listgeeks crowd to hear more about how the exhibit came together, and what inspired the selection of lists.  Liza Kirwin, the Acting Director of the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, who curated the exhibit (and compiled the accompanying, highly recommended book), was kind enough to answer Derick’s questions about the exhibit and provide some insight into this unique collection of lists:

Derick Rhodes/Listgeeks:  How did the idea for the exhibition and associated book come about?  Was there a specific list that first sparked your interest in curating the material?

Liza Kirwin: Picasso’s list, recommending European artists for the 1913 Armory Show, has long been considered one of the great treasures of the Archives of American Art.  Written in Picasso’s hand, complete with misspellings and curious omissions, it revealed the behind-the-scenes organization of a landmark exhibition in the history of American art:

Pablo Picasso, recommendations for the Armory Show for Walt Kuhn, 1912. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, 1859–1978. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

In 1996 this list was included in the Smithsonian’s pan-institutional treasures show, “America’s Smithsonian, Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution.”  Then, when I organized an Archive of American Art’s treasures show in 2000, I again featured Picasso’s list, as well as Reginald Marsh’s 1953 “list letter” to collector Lawrence A. Fleischman; the John Trumbull auction catalog of 1844 with appraisal prices; Worthington Whittredge’s illustrated ledger with thumbnail sketches of commissioned works; and Everett Shinn’s personal account book listing titles and prices of his contributions to “The Eight” Show at Macbeth Galleries, 1908. There were a lot of lists, which got me thinking about this form of documentation and what it could tell us about the lives of artists.

I like to use common forms – the diary, illustrated letter, or love letter – as a hook to draw people into more esoteric aspects of American art history.  It occurred to me that the list was a perfect vehicle for this kind of cultural exploration.

So I started making lots of lists of lists.

LG: The exhibit features a wide range of fascinating lists, from such disparate people as Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, and Eero Saarinen.  Strolling through the space at the Morgan, I started to wonder what sorts of lists or list-related materials were excluded.  Were there certain compelling things that you wanted to include that were a little too far from list form?

LK: That’s a good question. Some artists, such as Oscar Bluemner, were such avid list makers that it was hard to choose just one or two lists from their papers. When I started this search in the Archives, I thought I would find more lists of books to read, or New Year’s resolutions, but I didn’t, which seems odd to me.

Oscar Bluemner, list of works of art, May 18, 1932. Oscar Bluemner papers, 1886–1939, 1960. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

After the book was published one of my colleagues found artist David Ireland’s list of “assholes.” It was short, just five individuals, but one wonders how they qualified. I thought of including that list in the show at the Morgan Library, but in researching the names I could only identify two of the five, and I felt that such a list deserved greater context.

An art historian, who had written about painter Ad Reinhardt, told me that she had seen a list that Reinhardt kept of parties he was not invited to. I looked for that list, but sadly it is not among Reinhardt’s papers at the Archives of American Art.

Ad Reinhardt, list of paintings, ca. 1966. Ad Reinhardt papers, 1927–68. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

Now that I revisit some of the lists that I didn’t use the book, I regret not using them.  There is a lengthy letter from Charles Frederick Briggs, a writer, novelist, editor and critic, to artist William Page, dated February 24, 1846, that includes his Briggs’s opinions, in list form, about portraiture and history painting. I may have decided not to use it because it was more letter than list.

LG: One of the things that’s been interesting about starting Listgeeks is observing the many forms a list can take.  Some of the lists in the exhibit/book are simple and practical (like Franz Kline’s grocery list) while others are more emotional/expressive, or elaborate, multifaceted art objects (like Eero Saarinen’s list of Aline Bernstein’s good qualities).  Are there specific lists in the exhibit you felt were especially revealing?

Eero Saarinen, list of Aline Bernstein’s good qualities, ca. 1954. Aline and Eero Saarinen papers, 1857–1972. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

LK: Some of my favorites are Janice Lowry’s lists that she kept in her journals. They are most interesting read in progression – to-do lists that move to successive pages, and successive days, as well as lists of “angry grievances,” and “people I need to forgive.” She used lists to clarify her thoughts and move forward from day to day.

Janice Lowry, to-do list, August 9, 2003, journal no. 101. Janice Lowry papers, 1957–2008. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

LG: Are there further plans for showing the exhibit in other cities?

LK: I am hoping that the show will travel to at least one more venue, but a second museum has not yet been confirmed. It is a quirky show (art-historically significant lists), but one that appeals to list makers and anyone interested in American art. If any of your readers have ideas, please let me know.

LG: What’s your relationship with list making? Could you share a list you created (handwritten or otherwise) in the process of curating the exhibit?

LK: My whole day is governed by lists. Here’s one of my typical to-do lists from my desk:

And here’s a list of lists not included in the exhibition:

Links:

Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art

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Listgeeks Feature #9 – Emily Keegin

Emily Keegin is a fantastically compelling, Brooklyn-based photographer who grew up in San Francisco and studied in Vermont (at Bennington College) and in London (at the Royal College of Art, where she earned an MA in 2009).  While the focus of her work has shifted greatly since she first started taking pictures, a few threads recur consistently: the spaces between public and private realms, the quiet elements and artifacts of domestic life (and the secrets they reveal), and the ongoing complexities of American girlhood.  Emily’s work has recently appeared in the “Humble Arts Collectors Guide” (Chelsea Museum) and in the “Women in Art Photography UK” exhibition (Taschen Book Store, London UK).  After you’ve read her interview and checked out her website (note: features potentially NSFW artful nakedness) be sure to take a look at her lists.  Otherwise, we’re thrilled that Emily has allowed us to show three brand new/untitled images for the first time! They’re the last three in the below article:

Emily Keegin – “Dallas”

Listgeeks: What first inspired you to take pictures?

Emily Keegin: My parents were fantastically rigid in their whole-grain anti-pop aesthetic.  As a reaction, I became obsessed with American cheese and fast art.  The camera is the world’s greatest tool for making pop art.  It’s forever linked to its other role as a lowly household appliance, and yet: SO SHINY! And – as it happens – I’m a terrible draftsman.  Those who can’t draw take pictures.

Listgeeks: What was your first camera?

Emily Keegin: A 1987 purple 110 Vivitar, which I got at age 7.  Vivitar is a terrible gateway drug.

LG:  It seems like much of your early (pre-MFA) work revolved around mostly domestic themes – people and places close to you, perhaps – but that you were also mostly interested in depicting their less obvious aspects. Does that make sense?

EK: Photography was invented to capture the moment between moments, to stretch the human second and preserve the otherwise overlooked.  Even though much of my work (then and now) is staged – or at least “still”- I remain linked to the intrinsic nature of of the medium.  Also, it’s true: I’m a snoop.  I like the stuff that’s under the bed.

LG:  In the “Homeland” series, which was part of your MFA program at The Royal College of Art, you incorporate and juxtapose typically American and typically unAmerican things.  How did being in London while you were making those images shape how they turned out?

EK: Working outside of the united states was crucial for the construction of “Homeland.”  The newness of London forced me to take aesthetic risks I wouldn’t dared to otherwise, and the physical distance allowed for a distillation of the American culture I was so keen on analyzing. I am easily overwhelmed by the largeness of things.  Being outside of the states allowed me to deal with it in small, digestible pieces.

Emily Keegin – “Bless This Mess”

LG: Does the newer, post-London work you’re currently featuring on your site deal with some of the same themes as “Homeland?”

EK: Totally. I’m still working through the same ideas I was in “Homeland”- the fame, failure & aging of American girlhood – but am now using a slightly different vocabulary.  I think this is due primarily to a very short haircut I gave myself right before leaving London. With short hair, the self portraits I had come to use as totems in my work didn’t have the same zing.  In their stead, I began working in still life and the occasional sculpture.

Emily Keegin – New/Untitled

LG: On your blog you document a seriously wide range of images and projects that seem to inspire you in one way or another.  Are there specific photographers or artists who have been especially important to you lately?

EK: I love the work of Liz Deschenes – though finding her images online is not so easy.  Lucas Blalock and the rest of the common language guys are excellent tightrope walkers (commercial meets art meets meats).  Viviane Sassen makes perfect portraits.  Walead Beshty makes art that’s good in all ways.  Always and forever: Ed.

Emily Keegin – New/Untitled

LG: Finally, your images (both from “Homeland,” so far) have adorned two vinyl singles covers from the NYC-based band Cookies (fronted by Ben Sterling, formerly of Mobius Band).  Does relating them to music give you a different sense of what the images are about?  Is the feedback to them in that context very different from the kind of feedback you’d get in a traditional gallery setting?

EK: Strangely, the boombox image was created in the midst of a body of work about pop music and memory.  The photograph was in every way an accident/a slow Saturday messing around in my studio/a film-test-gone-interesting/the kind of accident that you pray for.  It was through the creation of this photograph that I began to shift away from music and toward a larger discussion of pop media and femininity.  It seems very tidy that the subsequent body of work has found its home on album covers.

Emily Keegin – New/Untitled

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Listgeeks Feature #4 – Christoph Niemann

Christoph Niemann is an award winning, Berlin-based artist/illustrator with a plethora of high-profile covers and editorial pieces (including for Wired, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly) to his credit.  Conveying his ongoing fascination with the sights and sounds of New York City (Niemann lived and worked in NYC from 1997 to 2009) through his Abstract City Blog (which recently became Abstract Sunday), Christoph has delighted and enlightened New York Times readers with his remarkable insight, singular wit and superior illustrating skills on a regular basis since 2008.  His most recently released books include “The Pet Dragon”, a book created to acquaint kids with Chinese characters, and the NYC-centric “I LEGO N.Y.” and “Subway.” His latest children’s book, “That’s How!,” comes out next month.  Christoph’s Web site is the best place to keep up-to-date on his latest projects, and you can also follow him on Twitter.  After you read the interview, check out Christoph’s “Vanilla to Pomegranate” list.

Listgeeks: You’ve recently worked with a very wide range of materials – paint, pencil/paper, legos, fabric, coffee, computers, tile on the NYTimes blog . . .  Is it hard to decide which projects are destined for which materials? Does the material you’re working with frequently lead you into new or unexpected concepts?

Christoph Niemann: Usually I start with the concepts and then think of the appropriate way to execute the ideas. With the 3D objects I have been doing for my blog, there are obviously a few unexpected things that happen, mostly due to my impatience and clumsiness. But since I usually develop the concepts with pencil and paper and only start building the items once the whole project is figured out, there are relatively few surprises.

LG: Your kids seem to have a big impact on your personal work – especially the projects featured on the Abstract City Blog.  Has being a dad changed your approach to illustrating?

CN: Not really. Obviously life with the kids is a pretty rich source for strange mementos that can be abused for my visual essays, but I am very wary of focusing on my kids too much. As a reader, the last thing I want to read about is how interesting or peculiar the life of the author is. I am keen on finding stories that a reader can relate to by finding experiences we all share. As for the Lego series, the kids are less of an inspiration but rather an excuse for me to spend hours each weekend playing with what is still my favorite toy.

LG: How did the Abstract City Blog come about? You started that with the NYTimes in the summer of 2008, right?

CN: Yes, at that point I had been working as an editorial illustrator for about 12 years, which I still consider the most important part of what I do. But I also felt that in order to stay fresh, I had to force myself out of my comfort zone and try out projects that were scary and that would involve a greater amount of mistakes and dead ends. It’s not that I don’t mess things up in my editorial work, but after a while one becomes rather smart in avoiding disasters by (more or less consciously) avoiding risk. Coming up with my own stories and relying on handmade art goes so absolutely against my instinct that it seemed like the perfect way to shake things up.

LG: I’m curious about the differences between projects for which you’re required to generate a concept of your own/on your own vs. projects for which there’s a more clearly defined, explicit goal (or something very specific to illustrate).  Do you find one way of working easier than another? Is it sometimes helpful to have restrictions in place?

CN: I am infinitely more comfortable with the restrictions of a normal assignment. Part of it may have to do that I have much more routine with these kind of assignments, but a tight framework gives you a lot of good angles to start. If there are rules you can think about how to break them (or at least get close to breaking them). The self-generated work is much harder, because instead of just creating a solution, you have to create a problem first. And things don’t work out, I am never sure if I didn’t try hard enough with the drawings and the copy, or whether the overall concept is so wrongheaded that failure is inevitable.

LG: Finally, you have a well-documented bond with NYC.  After a few years of being in Berlin, how has your perspective on New York changed? Do you see yourself moving back at some point?

CN: I can absolutely imagine moving back there at some point (probably not before the kids are out of school though). I still go to New York five times a year and enjoy every minute of it. In a perfect world I would split my time 50/50, enjoying the possibilities and creative freedom of Berlin AND taking advantage of the energy, speed and determination that come from living in NY.

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