Unplugging the Machine

Harry Shearer has been disillusioned longer than you. The comic and social commentator is best known for his voice-over work on The Simpsons and his role as drummer Derek Smalls on the cult classic film Spinal Tap. But he has also done something with his disillusionment, such as releasing The Big Uneasy earlier this fall, a film about the government failures that led to the disaster following Hurricane Katrina, and contributing to liberal news site the Huffington Post. Shearer’s most compelling work, though, is found in his ongoing series of exhibitions titled The Silent Echo Chamber.

The latest installation, currently on view at the Henry Art Gallery, features pirated satellite feeds that show politicians and pundits sitting quietly, waiting for their cues on news shows. The result is disquieting, if not necessarily political: all those talking heads shut up. Speaking on the phone from his Santa Monica home the morning after the midterm elections, Shearer took a break from work on his musical about J. Edgar Hoover to share his thoughts on what, exactly, his work is saying.

City Arts: How are you doing?
Harry Shearer: I’m all right. California didn’t legalize pot, but ten cities voted to tax it, so there’s that. But, yeah, I was one of the first disillusionees, so I feel I was a little ahead of the wave.

Disillusioned with what exactly?
Our president. I thought doubling down on the two unwinnable wars, and ignoring the problems in New Orleans with the “new and improved” system down there being run by the same people who almost drowned the city five years ago, were really bad signs. When he came to New Orleans early in his tenure and called it a “natural disaster” – that really was the spark to me in wanting to do the movie.

Do you feel disengaged?
No, I feel engaged; I just don’t feel tethered.

So, you’re not a partisan hack?
Well, when I worked in the state legislature eons ago, it was pretty easy to figure out that there were morons and robots on both sides, and the current media landscape really discourages that point of view. For instance, one race that really escaped national attention last night was a smart moderate Republican who was not voted out by the Tea Party, but by folks who elected a person who is, by all signs, a corrupt Democrat.

But the disillusionment began, for me, in 2000, when the Democrats had their convention in Los Angeles. Their opening-night party on the Santa Monica Pier was sponsored by two organizations: Philip Morris and the National Rifle Association. That is when I lost faith. But, you know, my job is to make fun of them all anyway; I don’t feel like being a wholly or partially owned subsidiary of either side.

There is no slant to The Silent Echo Chamber; you include liberal and conservative pundits. Is there a difference between the two sides when it comes to television, or are we just looking at actors preparing for their respective roles?

It’s pretty much tilting towards the latter. It’s much more about people and human behavior and also what you get when this supposed visual medium becomes a truly visual medium again when you shut off the talking. Television, mainly for economic reasons, has turned into radio with pictures. You find that you really aren’t looking at people when they are yakking at you all the time. My installation is a way to look at them now, as humans.

Do you feel that your show humanizes them?
Humanizing is something they do to themselves when they go on The Daily Show, to seem less robotically canned. That’s not my function.

What do you think drives these people?
I guess there is a breeding farm somewhere in Nebraska where they raise, on the Repub-lican side, these toothsome blondes, and on the Democratic side, God knows what the common denominator is; but they’re the people who come out and parrot the party lines respectively day and night, and that’s what passes for conversation. This is a way of unplugging that machine for a little while.

Do you think that machine is destructive?
I think it’s ultimately boring. I think that it points to the pernicious effect of nonstop polling. One of the reasons that Obama doesn’t pay any attention to what is going on in New Orleans is because it doesn’t show up on polls as something people care about. There are plenty of examples. Like, you didn’t hear a word in this last campaign about the unreported severity of the foreclosure problem, because it hadn’t shown up in polling yet. But by the time it shows up in polling, it will be too late to deal with it seriously. On the television side, the incentive for anyone to do anything but chase ratings has been shorn from the system.

Sounds pretty hopeless.

Well, if there were no hope, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I think the role of the artist is to scream back at the system, “Not good enough yet!” But, you know, this is a convenience-based society, and it’s more convenient to turn that stuff on than to turn it off, because if you turn it off there is a scary silence in the room. In a way I’m trying to say that the silence might not be as scary as the alternative.

You’ve said that you were once a political junkie. What are you now?
A recovering political junkie. I’m on the third step. It’s so tiresome at this point. The media makes it very difficult for you to tell really competent people from the barely trained ones. But I guess that is what has been so refreshing about this cycle; there were many characters who hadn’t been airbrushed into sameness. Idiosyncrasies stood out in bold relief. •