Tim Davis’ DIY Olympics

Cities around the world are becoming generic and suburban – proliferating with malls, highways for cars, and parking lots. Suburban spaces restrict free movement and reduce the random interactions that define city life. But they might also be ideal sites for experimental, free and creative play.

Tim Davis' Upstate New York Olympics was a series of performances, recently exhibited as part of the 2012 Moscow Photobiennale. He transformed the suburbs into his own competitive grounds, documenting his games on videos for viewers to watch in any order and at their own pace.


Some faves:


'Being an Obstacle' - reverse parkour?

'Architectural Detail Dangle' or human as infrastructure.

'Brush Fire Dozens' - your father was a lighter

He demonstrates how life and its practice can be a combination of a performed intervention, artistic expression, and social statement.

I fell in love with the videos, and the only thing I can imagine that would make it more amazing would be having it projected on huge blank walls in the city for everyone to watch.

We interviewed Tim about this series and about his art.


Tell us about yourself and the idea behind Upstate New York Olympics.

All my work is absolutely devoted to a comic and tragic sense of actually being in the real world. It began on my 40th birthday. I was miserable, and went out with a video camera with no idea of what I would do. I just wanted to make some art that would make me totally happy, regardless of whether or not it was good. I went for a walk in the woods on a cold November day, and found a huge pile of old tires. I filmed myself making the tires into an obstacle course, and then using the course. I knew immediately what the work would become.

Are you an athlete or a sportsman?

I am an athlete. I love sports and play tennis, Ultimate Frisbee, run and hike. Of course I am a short, bald, Jew who doesn't exactly look like he belongs in a Leni Reifenstahl film!

Is this your first video art work? Do you think of it as social critique?

It's my first serious video show. I've done singular videos before that were mostly just moving photographs—standard fare for the photographer turned video artist. I think of the piece as having some social critique, because I really do hate the Olympics, and am saddened at how they represent minute specialization. These people spend their whole lives practicing one tiny motion, then train for years to achieve...what? I think we are getting too professional and specialized as a species, and eventually we'll just be a series of inflexible lugists and javelin-throwers.


'Divine Vine Climb'

I think of all my work as having a joyous, celebratory side and a negative, critical side. Photographs are so thorough, so generous (they love anything you put in front of the camera) that there is a lot of room for critical social feelings. The Upstate New York Olympics is also unashamedly funny, which I think makes it absorbent of negativity as well. I can't imagine making a thing that is merely didactic or entirely formal. I need both: to know the work is about something, and that it knows how to reach you.

Do you see a link between art and revolution?

I think art changes the way you see the world. There are moments in time when art and civilization happen onto the same path: I think of Velasquez in the Spanish Court, for example, or, I must say, 1917 Moscow. But often artists are outliers. Right now, I think of politics in most of the world as a barge drifting aimlessly, un-piloted toward the corporate and the uniform. Artists in that world are disposable court jesters, here today for the delectation of oligarchs, gone tomorrow.

What do you think of suburbs and the lifestyles they promote?

I grew up in a small town, but in a poor section of very suburban looking development. I'm ambivalent about it. I understand the loneliness the suburbs promote, by keeping us separated in our little nuclear families, but I also think there is openness and room for interpretation in the suburbs, that you can't always track in the city.

A city is a series of façades that are hard to penetrate. In the suburbs no one is paying attention, no one is on their guard. They feel safe and so the photographer, the artist, has leeway to look behind the façade, behind the mask.



It's almost like you're the intervention in suburban life and lifestyle.

I think you're exactly right. It's a kind of small town parkour. I took inspiration from Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson, as well as from MTV's "Jackass."


'Port a Potty Triple Jump'

I read that you lived in New York as a practicing artist before moving to teach at Bard upstate. Is your work a commentary of the inactive living and boredom experienced in suburban America?

I think that's a fair assessment, and it's true, I did move back to a small town, rural life after 20 years in Manhattan. But rather than being about inactivity in the country, it's more about an openness up here that isn't in an urban place. I learned quickly up here that you have to make your own fun and over the years, we've set about inventing our own set of holidays. I'm unsatisfied with the ones I've been given, so now we have an Edible Sculpture Party every year, as well as a dictator-themed Independence Day party (Last year was called "Kim Jong Grill"). There's a natural playfulness that emerges when there isn't ENTERTAINMENT filling every second of your life.

People watching your videos become engrossed, cheering you on and sometimes unable to watch the dangerous things you were doing. The humor made your video artworks so interactive.

I think the humor has a lot to do with it. I've definitely  come to a place in my life where I am not embarrassed to be making art that is pleasurable and comprehensible. I spent 20 years writing poetry that no one (not even I) understood. But I also think that these silly acts I'm making are framed and photographed with the same love and attention I bring to my still photography, which helps keep people engaged. In form and style, this is not guerrilla art. In substance it is, but the quality of the imagery keeps you focused.

Do you think watching sports is funny in a way; the lethargy associated with watching someone actively do things and not actually do anything to participate?

I find it's ironic and maybe symptomatic of life these days.
I've never been a good passive observer. I feel immeasurably strange in  supermarkets, because I think your ancient hunting instincts are aroused, but it's also the most banal, empty experience you can have. I am definitely part homo faber—man, the maker.  I can't sit still, and think I evolved from poet to photographer mostly because I love moving through the world rather than sitting at a desk.


"We are of course living in the great heyday of DIY. YouTube is one giant DIY Olympics. The internet is one massive DIY concert, porn set, and flea market rolled into one."


What do you think of the idea of cities or suburbs as playgrounds?

The main thing I can explain about Upstate New York Olympics is that it became not dissimilar to my normal photographic process. But instead of moving through the landscape looking for still images of a particular subject, I looked at the landscape as a location for potential game-playing. If everyone did it, the world would be much more fun, although no one would ever accomplish anything ever again...which is OK by me.

Do you think you might inspire DIY Olympics in suburbs or in cities?

We are of course living in the great heyday of DIY. YouTube is one giant DIY Olympics. The internet is one massive DIY concert, porn set, and flea market rolled into one. Smothered in the usual corporate bullshit. In some ways, this whole idea is nothing more than the typical behavior of any artist. Artists are misunderstood because they are always inventing their own rules. I just happened to be doing it not in my studio, but in your back yard.


 'Election Day Croquet'


'Mailbox Balance'

Did anyone watch your games, and were there any responses or reactions?

I learned to tell when people were not at home. Mostly, no one noticed me. When they did, I think they either assumed I was crazy or on official business. That's what I mean by there being 'room' in the country for odd behaviors. No one notices.

What is your favorite video or Olympic sport in the series?


'Abandoned Building Bowling'