Michael Sumner and his wife Melody Sumner Carnahan founded Burning Books in Oakland, Calif., in 1979. When the couple moved to New Mexico in 1989, what began as a publishing company evolved into an “artist-run, weirdness-driven organization dedicated to the production and publication of unmuzzled literature, music, and art.” Much of the art is text-heavy with tongue-in-cheek messages. For example: “All citizens must everywhere everyday constantly fiddle with their cell phones,” “avoid eye contact” and “give blood/take revenge.” We spoke with Sumner about what goes into Burning Books’ work.
SFR: How would you describe your art?
MS: It’s just social commentary. My first reaction is to make something that says what it means. It turns out to be more effective to say the opposite of what you mean in a sort of dystopian, Big Brother way. Then put it in a poster style where it’s funny and has humor. ‘Don’t walk around holding that phone all day, you dumb fuck,’ doesn’t work as well.
Your art frequently condemns society’s dependence on technology. Do you have a cell phone?
We have one of those little track phones we got when our car broke down in the middle of the Arizona desert for two weeks. I did get one, but I don’t carry it with me. I don’t know the number. No one knows numbers. We wouldn’t be able to do anything we do without wonderful iMac computers. I just think you should leave stuff at home. Outside, all this incredible stuff is happening. I feel like I live in a zombie world. When people go jogging, there’s specials shoes, clothing and, before you go out, be sure to put an iPod on so you don’t have to hear a bird.
The upcoming generation is supposedly the first to be less literate than its predecessors. Would you say computer/cell phone literacy makes up for it at all?
I think there’s a loss. There’s a gain, but there’s always a loss. In this case, I’m not sure it’s balanced in a positive direction.
You have a Facebook page but, simultaneously, have a link on your website that’s a send-up of Facebook. How do you rationalize the two seemingly contradictory messages?
I just leave the Facebook page there because occasionally somebody, like a friend I worked with in Oregon in the ’70s who’s now living in Turkey, finds me. I was at a dinner party about a year-and-a-half ago with 12 artists and writers I highly respect, and it suddenly became apparent that everyone was avidly on Facebook except me, so I thought I’d better see what this is about. It felt like I had crashed through a skylight into a huge swimming pool where everyone was having a party for months. After two weeks of the novelty, I became appalled at the level of conversation: just short blips of so-and-so ate a cookie and that someone liked that so-and-so ate a cookie.
What’s the most influential art to you?
The most important body of work and most important artist to influence me is John Cage. A book fell off the shelf into my hands in 1971 when I was in college, back when bookstores in college had a lot of books, not just those required for courses. I opened the book and there was a click. Everything in it spoke to me so clearly.
What do you consider the most provocative art these days?
I have ambivalent feelings about a lot of the stuff like Damien Hirst’s. It’s kind of like, if an artist has no limits, millions of dollars at his disposal, he can make dazzling things. But I’m much more interested in people able to make things with nothing or very little.
Your artwork is text-heavy. If you could paint just one sentence/phrase for everyone to see, what would it be?
I couldn’t answer that. Melody would have to answer that because she’s the text, and she’s not here.