Interview with Montgomery Knott

Originally published on Pink&Brown, Barcelona

After being blown away by Monkey Town 5 we were dying to meet the man behind the curtain and gain some insight into the fascinating project. Montgomery Knott did not disappoint. Founder and director of Monkey Town as well as film-maker, artist and musician, he has a wild imagination and a curious mind and is exceptionally warm and open in nature. Over beer and tea at the cool Taranna Cafe in Sant Antoni, Montgomery shared with us some of the joys and struggles of the project. Monkey Town is an immersive dining experience, an installation that combines video art and haute cuisine inside a large floating cube of four screens. It is a singular and thrilling experience which started over ten years ago in New York and now we are lucky enough to have it in our very own Barcelona. It’s not in town for much longer, visit their website for dates and book now. Still in doubt? Read our full review for more reasons not to miss it.

Why did you choose Barcelona for your first stop in Europe?
Mostly because I came here in 1996, it was the first time I was in Europe, I traveled all around and I fell in love with Barcelona. At the time I gave four-hour tours of Gaudí’s buildings, I just made up this tour, we were at Sagrada Familia for two hours every day. And I just really love Barcelona, I have some friends here and when we were in Denver having a really successful run one of my friends said, why don’t you bring it to Barcelona, I’ll help you. And he was incredibly helpful in getting us here and helping with the press. It was a chance for me to come back to the city that I loved.

What do you think of the local art scene compared to the art scene in New York and Denver?
Denver, New York, and Barcelona all have incredibly different art scenes. New York is so unfathomable in comparison to probably the rest of the world, because there’s so much going on that it’s often daunting even just to get a grasp on it. The gallery district is an overwhelming, wonderful, free, accessible thing that you can go to at any time, it’s like having a free museum with all the best contemporary art from around the world at your doorstep. Denver is a very small scene, it’s in some ways closer to what Barcelona has in the sense that there’s no one gallery district in Barcelona, they’re scattered so you don’t feel the power of a central gallery district. There are incredible artists that are working here but you don’t get the sense that it’s all being pulled together in specific spaces, you have a little bit of a feeling of the dispersal of all that energy. But I’ve seen incredible shows here and I’ve been really impressed with the artists and what’s happening. You also get the sense that design is the bigger focus of this city as a whole, there’s such a rich tradition of design and architecture that has carried on into the contemporary culture and to the incredible schools that are here and there’s not as great a focus on a gallery culture. And the gallery cultures that are here, you see them as more of a DIY thing and I think they all kind of struggle to gain an audience and establish collectors. In some respects I’m outside the gallery culture. The kind of economy of scales that I’ve established is more based on taking artists that are already showing in galleries and museums and putting them into a platform that allows a greater audience to see their work in an interesting new way. So I’m not really involved in the culture of selling artwork, I’m in the culture of presenting artwork.

The original Monkey Town was in 2003, over 10 years ago, and I’m curious about how it has changed since then. Can you tell us what Monkey Town 1 was like?
The first Monkey Town had a very Punk aesthetic. It was very similar but it was in my loft and it was only four days a month. That meant that the food was created by chefs who were moonlighting -so they would get off their shift at some incredible fancy restaurant in Manhattan and then come and make food from 12 at night to 4 in the morning. That was a really magical time because we were kind of making it up as we went. Every show was sold out because it was just through word of mouth and it was always special because we only did it like 24 times a year. And that was a period when you could still do something like that in Brooklyn, you couldn’t do that now. Each presentation was very inventive and surprising for the audience, it was very different each time we did it.

What’s the story behind the name, Monkey Town?
There are four reasons for the name. One is that Monkey has kind of been a lifelong occasional nickname for me. There was also monkey graffiti all over Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the time that we were opening, there were three graffiti artists that were using monkey imagery, so that was cool. And the other reason is I knew this man towards the end of his life, his name was Eugene Walter and he was a poet and writer. He was in Fellini’s 8 ½ and he was also a founder of the Paris Review, which is a an important literary review magazine in the US, and he was friends with Harper Lee and Truman Capote when he was growing up. He had lived in New York for 30 years and I met him towards the end of his life when he was living in Mobile, Alabama, where he was from. He was just this beautiful, literary, bon vivant sort of figure. We were having sherry in his library one afternoon and I noticed we were surrounded by probably 1000 monkeys, some small statues and some huge. He had written poems in the 50s to these monkey gods – Monkey folklore is big in Southern US, it’s kind of an African American/West African import – and he wrote these poems and people gifted him monkeys throughout his life. So it was a little nod to him. And then the other reason is that when you put the two letters together and say them quickly it says “empty.” And it is just an empty platform for people to put their artistic concept on.

What do you want to achieve with the pairing of food and video art? And what do you hope people will take away from it?
I think a lot of people have a misconception about what I’m trying to do – they expect there to be something like they eat a piece of food and then it shows up on the screen on something like that, that there’s a huge connection between them, but there really isn’t much of a connection. The whole point is to have a communal experience. The cube in itself is a powerful concept because, as opposed to the normal theatre where you look forward, this has everyone looking at each other as well as looking at the screens, as well as eating their dish, while looking at someone else eat their dish – so there’s this really intense echo chamber of reactions that can happen. I’ve said this maybe too many times, but if the 19th century was dominated by the novel, and the 20th century was dominated by cinema, the 21st century is dominated by food. If you spend your leisure money, it tends to be towards food more than anything else – and this is kind of happening globally – so I think on some level I’m just trying to create an experience that’s stimulating all of your senses. You can have food while you’re seeing this beautiful art, or this very intriguing, interesting art, and you have another sensual experience while that’s happening. I think of them as separate but I think of the whole as the experience.

What is your selection process for choosing the artists and videos? Can you explain a bit about your programme and choices in Monkey Town 5?
My selection is kind of based on things I’ve seen at museums or in galleries. It’s also people referring me to artists, and other artists referring me to artists. So it’s a very random selection – I’m not rigorous about trying to see see every video piece that’s happening at any given time. There’s also video art that I love that I would never show at Monkey Town. There’s durational video art that you really need to get into for a while, it might not be entertaining, and that’s great, it can be really rewarding. But for Monkey Town I’m not trying to present incredibly challenging, obscure, hyper-weird stuff, I’m trying to show a spectrum of video art that’s accessible, maybe a little bit challenging at times, maybe you don’t like every piece, but something that a general audience can enjoy. For Spain I spoke to a lot of people, curators and artists, and they referred me to other artists. It’s interesting because I looked at a lot more video art in Spain than I have in any other period and I would say that in general the Spanish video art is incredibly dark. It’s very heavy. And I’m not sure what that means, but we actually had to take some of the pieces out because we kept getting comments about how dark the programme was. So that was very interesting. Again, I loved all those pieces that I put in there, but a dominant reaction for people, even now with the programme the way it is, is that it was intense, almost too much to take in. Intense is fine, but maybe darkness is not really what I’m trying to go for. There can be lighter moments, there can be darker moments, but I don’t want a general darkness, that’s not really the mood that I’m trying to capture. For the performance there were different groups of people that helped me out, some friends from the US that could come over given their schedule. So again it’s a mix of friends and curators and other people’s suggestions.

Which is your favourite video of this edition and which video has been best received?
I love Albert Merino’s piece, and that’s one of the darker pieces. I think it’s a really creepy, beautiful piece, it’s based on two painters that he was doing studies on and it has lots of references to classic European paintings from 16th and 17th centuries. I love that piece. It’s got beautiful sound design, great imagery, I just love where it’s going and that you don’t know what’s going to happen. And that’s not necessarily the crowd pleaser, even though there are people who definitely loved it. Actually we make sure to not serve food during that piece because of the creepy images. I would say that the piece that people love the most is the Takeshi Murata piece, the one with the old man and the wolf, people seem to be really attached to that. And not to put myself out there but a lot of people seem to like my piece as well, the one at the end – maybe they’re just being nice to me – but I’m really satisfied with how it fits in the programme, it’s meant to be kind of a closure. It has a lot of references to Barcelona, and it has some deep literary references about a woman exploring her femininity and the spectre of this knife and what she’s going to do with it.

What about the menu, how do you select the food? How involved are you in the process?
We were originally working with two other chefs and we were delayed by about 6 to 8 weeks because they had to take other projects in the end. So we hooked up with Sergi late in the game, we tasted a few of his dishes and we let him construct the menu. My role – and I think the same goes for most restaurateurs – is to be a taster. You’re not saying “put more fennel in this dish,” you’re mostly saying “this isn’t quite right, we need more flavour”, and then letting them adjust to it. So my role is kind of to be the lead taster, to say “this is great”, “this one needs work”, or “take this dish out, lets replace it with something else”. The video programme and menu are being created separately. And we’re serving dishes during periods when we think it might be a more ambient piece, when people don’t need to concentrate as hard. We don’t serve during a performance. We don’t serve during Takeshi’s piece. There are certain pieces that demand your attention and we try to keep away from them.

What are your plans for Monkey Town in the next few years?
Well, since we’re going to close early here, I’m heading back to the US and the most likely thing is that we will revive it in Denver since we had such a great reception there. People keep wanting me to come back there and I always say “no, no, no, this is just meant to come for three months and then we go to the next city and then the next. We’re like a circus.” But now I’m considering it… I have also had some invitations to London, I don’t know how serious they are though, we’re still discussing it. There is a fair amount of money that has to happen to make it come together so it’s more a matter of whether there is someone there who can host it and if there is a chef who’s interested. So yes, there are no definitive plans yet but I would say a reboot in Denver is possible, or somewhere else in the US. I don’t think I could come back to Europe unless I had definitive funding in place because it was very hard to set it up here.

You are a video artist yourself, can you tell us a bit about Countess Calypso, the piece you’re showing at Monkey Town 5?
It started out of frustration with the movie Boyhood. I spent some time in Austin, Texas so I knew that film community and I love Richard Linklater’s films in general, but I really hated that film. I walked out of it actually, and I thought there must be a better way to see ordinary life presented in a more interesting context. Not that it’s really a response to Boyhood, it just took on its own life, but that was the initial idea. We constructed a narrative, we were shooting it in Berlin, Brussels, Barcelona and Brooklyn, and we originally thought we were going to have the woman walk between each screen, that she would actually go through each city to the next, but it was so hard to coordinate that we just had them coordinate within each city. It’s based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, a writer who wrote in the 1930s. She’s known for Out of Africa and this was one of her first short stories, Seven Gothic Tales, they’re really fantastic pieces. This one is about four people who are stranded in a barn while there’s a flood outside that could kill them and they start to confess what they’ve done with their lives and what they regret. Countess Calypso is one of these people, she grew up in a kind of château with a very wealthy landowner who was gay and only cared about men, so she felt neglected for her femininity. At some point she’s carrying around a knife and she contemplates cutting off her breast to become more attractive to the count and she also contemplates killing him with the knife. I’m not trying to go too deep into that metaphor, but in this case it’s about a woman exploring her femininity and ending with this semi-suspense of what is she going to do with this knife. So that’s the back story, that’s the frame of it. And then the other reference is to Feelings, which is this cheesy song from the 70s which Nina Simone covered in a concert at Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. This is a year after it became a huge hit, and she put her own Nina Simone spin on it to make it this insanely beautiful, powerful song. It’s just a cheesy pop song, but she makes it into the powerful song that it is. And I was talking to the woman who acts in the video, she had been stung by a bee and I asked her if that would that make her cry, and she said “no, I don’t cry because of painful things, I cry because of feelings.” And then I thought of the song. We found the video and it was fantastic, and so it became about feelings.

What kind of themes and styles do you usually explore in your own work?
My previous piece was set in Guatemala and it was about a kite festival, but it was also about an assassination that had happened there. It was this intense story of a lawyer who was assassinated and at his funeral, three days after he was killed, they handed out a DVD to the press which said “If I’m dead, the President of Guatemala had me killed.” And it almost brought down the whole Guatemalan government. It was a huge scandal, it really rocked the entire country. This happened a year before I went to Guatemala and I was going there to film a kite festival, where they build these huge 30-meter kites, they work on them for 3 or 4 months and it takes place in 3 small villages, way in the rural part of Guatemala. I filmed the festival but I kept running into people and asking them about Guatemala, what it’s meant post-civil war, and that became part of the narrative. So I think my work has a similar trajectory in that I start with an idea, I film certain things, and then it leads to other ideas, and then I start to weave them together. I also weaved in a narrative about Nabokov and Lolita, because of the way that I saw people approaching Guatemala, almost like Lolita in the sense that she was an innocent girl that they wanted to both keep innocent but they also corrupted. So there was this idealised version of what a Westerner or an American sees in Guatemala. But Guatemala actually is both living in the 18th century and the 21st century. I was at this kite festival –it’s during the day of the dead, people go to cemeteries and fly kites– but the day before that, in this tiny town, there was a death metal show with like 5 Guatemalan bands all playing hard-core death metal. And that’s as much a part of the reality as living in an agrarian farmers existence. So I’m definitely interested in those points where contemporary culture meets with traditional culture. My next film is a very different idea, I’ve been figuring it out for about 5 years and I’ve only shot one part of it, so we’ll see.

What or who are your biggest artistic influences?
Filmmaker-wise Werner Herzog is really important to me because he’s got this incredible integrity with his films, and part of that integrity is a creative integrity. And I like his sense of humour too. I’ve spoken with him and seen him speak several times and he’s always surprised when people comment about seeing funny things in his films, he’s like “of course, all my films have humour in them!” People think he’s so serious but he’s an incredibly funny person. I think the most important thing that he does is take these marginalised people, people who are in the extreme of culture, and looks into their psyche and tries to explore the meaning of life and the meaning of existence through people who are on the edge of that life. But he himself is a very orderly person. People think, “Oh Herzog, he must be insane, he’s really out there”. Well, he’s not. He’s someone who’s attracted to those people and he frames them in his films. Sound is also really important to my pieces. It’s hard to say of any one sound influence.. I was a singer in a band and we toured around the world for a while, so I’m familiar with creating music and all that you can do with sound, and I think all the great film-makers really know how to manipulate sound to heighten the experience. Christian Marclay has always been a big influence and I think his clock piece is one of the greatest video art pieces ever. It’s a 24 hour piece, incredible. He spent 6 years working on it, all the images are taken from old films over a 70 year period, and you can actually tell what time of day it is because of the references. If it’s 3:24 in the afternoon you will see a film that says 3:24. It’s a 24 hour film and you can go into it for 2 hours and get lost. It’s not like all you’re seeing are clocks, you’re seeing the narratives around them.

Apart from Monkey Town, do you have any other projects going on at the moment or planned for the future?
I want to do my first feature film in Guatemala. It’s a script that I have outlined, and I would live in Guatemala for a year to shoot it. It’s based on a friends’ story and it happened around the same time as the assassination, about a man who creates shoes and sells them on e-bay to people who do Comic-Con. People would order Anakin Skywalker boots for $400, for example, and he became known as the guy that did that. But shipping the shoes to America was always a problem, he could make them in a week or two but he’d say six to eight weeks to deliver because he would gather enough orders to ship them all at once. One time he had 100 orders that he shipped off, and it got lost. So he had to decide whether to make them all again and re-ship them, in which case they’d be late and he’d get horrible reviews, or just take the money and run. And he actually decided to re-ship them, and of course he got horrible reviews and got kicked off e-bay! There’s this whole narrative that I’m constructing around that little scene. It’s going to be him having 13 meals, meeting with his ex-girlfriend, etc, and contemplating what the fuck’s going on with his life and what he’s going to do. And the other thing, I’m finishing an album that I’ve been recording for the last five years. It was originally meant for a band that I was in, but one of the people died last year. It was a stupid tragic accident, he was a producer who produced Lou Reed’s last album, he was a really good friend. It feels even more important to finish the album now. But I haven’t really had the time since I’ve been here, so when I go back to Colorado I’ll start working on that again. There’s someone in London who wants to put it out, it would be an art project, we would be putting it out as a limited edition vinyl. It’s a soulful pop album with very weird electronic stuff happening. I really love it, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, but it still needs a little work.

What’s your favourite place to see art in Barcelona?
I would say that the chapel at MACBA, that’s such a beautiful space. There’s also a place near MACBA -I don’t know the name of it… It’s an old church and they have temporary exhibits there and it’s a great space, it’s probably the best art space. I saw a beautiful exhibit there, I think it’s still up.