“In 1985, after 10 years of showing my work in galleries and museums, I wanted to bust out of the conservative confines of the art world, to surprise people, to hit ’em where they live”.
– Eric Staller
Mission Loc@l: I’ve never seen so many spontaneous smiles on the street in one night! What’s it like to have driven the Lightmobile for 25 years?
Eric Staller: I read an interview with Mick Jagger. No matter how much great music he has written since “Satisfaction,” people always want him to play “Satisfaction.” The Lightmobile has become my “Satisfaction”! No matter how many (and perhaps better) artworks I have made since Lightmobile, it’s still my most universally loved and asked-for work.
That’s OK. The amusement of seeing the double takes, the astonishment and delight on people’s faces, is undiminished for me.
ML: While stopped on Mission Street, another crowd gathered. A woman taking photos yelled, “It’s not about the people in the car, it’s about the car!” When you’re behind the wheel, do you feel more like Elvis or Elvis’s chauffeur?
ES: Sometimes I hear people say, “That guy must need attention.” The Lightmobile is probably the alter ego of a shy person. I like the anonymity of driving it around, tapping people with my magic wand, while being unseen inside the car. I feel I have something powerful to share, but I would rather not explain it. Let people figure out for themselves what it means. I’ve taken it out four nights and I’m already tired of San Franciscans asking, “Is this for Burning Man?”
ML: A man on Valencia Street cracked, “It’s a Broadway Beetle!” [Indeed, Lightmobile shines with 1,659 light bulbs blinking in 23 computerized patterns.] Yet throughout our ride, the people outside were the stars of the show.
ES: I’m not sure how the people were the stars of the show, but the Lightmobile certainly is an invitation or a gift that people take very personally, as if I am there expressly for them. People can almost not NOT react!
ML: What have you learned about human nature through your “urban UFOs”?
ES: I have created over a dozen urban UFOs and exhibited them on the streets and waterways of North American, European and Japanese cities. I have looked into the faces of hundreds of thousands of people. My work is some kind of litmus test for people’s ability to have a spontaneous and childlike response.
That’s my job and my joy as an artist: to goose people into thinking and feeling.Every time I am out there, I get to see firsthand this wide range of reactions, from people shouting their appreciation (“I love it! Thanks for coming”) to people who can’t seem to take it in (their body language saying “Nope, I’m not going to react”).
ML: It’s a litmus test for people in positions of power, as well. How have police responded to the Lightmobile?
ES: The Lightmobile challenges the letter of the law. Police are people, too (mostly!).
Some of them say, “That’s awesome, have a nice night.” Some say, “That’s awesome, but it’s not allowed.” The third group treats me like a criminal and threatens, “If I catch you again, I am going to impound the car!” It’s not fun not knowing how they will react.
ES: In 2007 I was invited by the French peace organization Fair Events to come to Paris with three of my circular seven-person bikes, called ConferenceBikes. Palestinian and Israeli high school students were asked to submit paintings and drawings of their visions for peace, and the winners of a sort of contest were chosen to visit Paris for a week and to do various activities together. The kickoff event was a bike tour of the city, on conventional bikes and ConferenceBikes.
I found the symbolism so satisfying: Palestinian and Israeli teenagers, strangers, pedaling together around the city. I found the tour and the conversations with the kids so moving that I donated the bikes again in 2008 and 2009.
ML: Lightmobile and ConferenceBike involve (even depend on) eye contact and dialogue beyond social conditioning to bring them to life. Is this part of the “thread of optimism” you’ve described your art as having?
ES: We are conditioned to have a rational explanation for all of our experience. That’s why people have to ask: “What does it mean? What is this for? What are you advertising? Is it part of a parade?” Whereas children’s fantasy hasn’t been educated out of them yet. I want to reawaken in people their capacity to have a childlike response.
ML: Let’s talk about two heavy works of yours. HolyRoller talks graphically of religion. And Mr. President brings to mind the relentless stampede of patriotism and war. What is the flip side of optimism for you? Is it terror?
ES: I do believe that within us all is a great capacity for constructiveness and destructiveness. I believe it’s the job of the artist to elbow the collective ethos to the left. But I don’t want to get too didactic about what I do. I want the observer to complete these pieces with their own meaning.
It’s hard, though. The pendulum swings right, then left, the right again. But the pendulum isn’t symmetrical: it always seems to swing more to the right than to the left. That has always weighed on me.
ML: Why did you recently move to San Francisco?
ES: I was tired of being a foreigner! I missed my culture, yet returning to New York City, I felt like an outsider there. I had changed, New York had changed, and New Yorkers had changed. And not for the better, after 9/11.
After New York, I figure there are no great cities in the U.S. besides here. It has a nice scale, it’s walkable and bikeable. Very friendly and enlightened people. And I love the multi-culti flavor of my new home in the Mission. It is our most European of cities, and I am Europeanized after 15 years in Amsterdam. Still, it’s scary, because I am back in my country and still feel like an outsider. I have to think that’s just what we artists are!
ML: If you could create a fantasy ConferenceBike crew, who would the people be?
ES: It has always been my fantasy to have world leaders on board. These leaders, traveling around the world together, putting out the fires of unrest and suffering!
Read “Out of My Mind,” an illustrated memoir by Staller.