DJ Spooky Spins Off: From ’90s Turntable Phenom to the Met’s First Artist in Residence

Paul D. Miller is a hyper-globalized citizen

DJ Spooky. (Courtesy Stephanie Berger)

DJ Spooky at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Courtesy Stephanie Berger)

It was supposed to be an intimate dinner party: Paul D. Miller, known to most as DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid (hereafter, Spooky), and a few close friends. Votive candles flickered on a table set for 12. Jazz burbled, guests sipped at sparkling wine. But people kept arriving. In teetered a pair of comely identical twins in vertiginous black stiletto boots; over to the piano strode three lanky guys wearing face paint, one of them hauling a tuba. By 9 p.m., the place was packed and very New York-downtown-creative-class-eclectic—curators, concert violinists, children’s book illustrators, fashion designers, academics, entrepreneurs. No one seemed particularly interested in the baby beets and arctic char. In time, the tuba was unsheathed, and octogenarian Melvin Van Peebles practically vaulted over a sofa to the dance floor. He shot the crowd a look that said “what’s wrong with you people?” and soon everyone was swirling and stomping around the loft.

“I know we were going to do a smaller thing,” Spooky said later, assessing the scene. “But when I do something, more and more people keep popping up.” He worked the room like a fly fisherman, reeling friends into conversations. Whipping around in his buttoned-up denim shirt and chinos, he doled out copies of his magazine and made introductions, pausing to check on Mr. Van Peebles, who’d been demonstrably enjoying himself (“This is the most fun I’ve had with clothes on in years!”), offering to find him a cab. When Spooky wasn’t speaking, people spoke about Spooky. A woman from a film distribution company said she is securing the rights to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari so that Spooky can “remix” the original 1920 score. Gerthe Holby, the producer who’d lent her Soho studio for the party, described Spooky’s musical arrangements for one of her upcoming operas. They will simulate the sonic climate of Mars.

But no one talks about Spooky like Spooky. “I’m representing the Maldives in the Venice Biennale,” he announced to his guests. “Which is a really big deal for the art world.”

“Paul is DJ Spooky all the time,” said music engineer Dan Yashiv, who collaborated with Spooky on his 2010 mixer app, which has racked up over 15 million downloads. Well, maybe not all the time. He ran into Mr. Miller in Rio a few years ago, and the two spent a day knocking back caipirinhas on the beach. “I’m just remembering that as the moment he was totally just a person. It’s rare to find him relaxed, guard is down, he’s not working, he’s not networking, he’s not planning the next thing.”

A fiendishly cold evening in mid-February found Spooky at home, being a person, or doing a pretty good approximation of one. Home is a Duane Street loft bursting with books, records, CDs and DVDs, some forming dozens of knee-high piles on the bamboo floor. Dust bunnies huddled between towering stacks sporting things like an oversize tome on the history of the Afro and Richard Dawkins’s A Devil’s Chaplain. Rolled-up maps, posters and flags sprouted from boxes shoved up against giant speakers. A tower of CDs leaned in the direction of shelves stocked with 80 bottles of cologne; his favorite is Comme des Garçons 2, a spicy scent in an asymmetrical silver flask. Dangling from garment racks and piled in rumpled pyramids were his many jackets, the chicly utilitarian kind with lots of pockets.

Being at home is a rare occurrence for him, perhaps only slightly less rare since October, when Spooky, author (of forthcoming books on Pythagoras and offshore banking), composer, magazine co-editor (of the arty lifestyle monthly Origin) and visual artist (a veteran of the Whitney Biennial), became the first artist in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he is doing a series of five performances, the third of which, “Of Water and Ice,” will take place on March 23. “Residence,” is to be understood loosely in his case. Spooky spends about a week a month in New York, as evidenced by the contents of his refrigerator: two bottles of cava, a quart of coconut water, some sriracha and a carton of milk that expired last July. He’s an art world nomad, with the passport to prove it. Barely five years old and already thick as a paperback novel, it bulges with stamps and visas from countries and cities from Angola to Zurich. “You can be anywhere in the world, and all of a sudden, Paul Miller shows up,” said Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. “I’m in some city in Europe or Asia or I’m at some art opening, and all of a sudden, there’s Paul Miller.”

Spooky explains his ubiquity with a degree of nonchalance. “I have friends in every major city on the planet.” Pause. “In fact, there’s overload. There’s too many friggin’ people … I’m able to navigate and be a hyper-globalized citizen. You can drop me in Antarctica”—he’s done a project there—“and it’d be no problem.”

There is, of course, a downside. “It’s a real relationship-breaker,” he said of his travel schedule. Clutching a cup of green tea, he’d settled into his favorite reading spot, a chair with white cushions opposite his couch. He’s reached 42 with a trim build (he tries to jog every other day) and an unlined face accentuated by a gleaming shaved pate (he cut off his dreadlocks in Iceland before Björk’s New Year’s Eve party around 15 years ago).

He has trouble sitting still, both on a macro level (“The amount of time and attention he can give to a certain project is limited,” said Mr. Yashiv. “He limits it by cramming in 10 other projects. I don’t know if it’s in his character to focus on one or two things”) and on a micro level. He rarely went more than a few minutes without yanking out a smartphone or tablet (he owns many) to illustrate his points. When the mockup of his book about Pythagoras wouldn’t load properly, he became visibly distressed. “I’m not used to seeing a blank screen.” He speaks of offline activities in Internet-ese (“we should have a download session about that,” “the Met is taking up a lot of bandwidth”).

mike figgis

‘I’m not a people person. I like reading; I just want to chill. I want to focus on things. I’m a work-oriented person.’ (Courtesy Mike Figgis)

In art as in life, he is always, always sampling. The party, a human mash-up, was best seen as an extension of his practice as a deejay: fusing classical sonatas with dubstep, rare reggae tracks with drum and bass. His performances are postmodern Gesamtkunstwerken, the music accompanied by visuals that draw from every corner of film and art history, pushing pastiche to its multimedia limits. He speaks in 21st-century aphorisms.

On Globalization and Americans’ Aversion to Travel: “The process of repetition and the idea of global culture is interesting because most Americans—I think less than 10 percent of our population has a passport and of that 10 percent, 2 percent actually use it.”

On Friendship: “Friendship in the 21st century is far more about renegotiating the terrain people choose to build together. In the 20th century, people would get together, they’d go to a bar, they’d hang out, they’d do all this stuff together consistently over a period of years. In my scene, it’s very fragmented. Everyone’s traveling, everyone has all sorts of different layers of engagement. After a certain point, you just want to get out of that and be in a group of people you can find a consistent sense of engagement with.”

Studies show that many people do still go to bars with friends, but Spooky rolls with a different crowd. Mention Yoko Ono, Mike D., Steve Reich, Talib Kweli—they are all “old associates.” If Spooky meets you once, he remembers your name. He networks, but, said Mr. Yashiv, “he’s really generous about it, because he understands that it’s all about collaboration.” The first time TED Talks founder Richard Saul Wurman had dinner with him, he admired Spooky’s hat, and Spooky gave it to him, right there on the spot. They had, Mr. Wurman recalled, an “elliptical” conversation that “went around touching different things, from the South Seas to music to culture, some of it braggadocio, some of it humble.” Spooky, he said, was “truly wanting to learn, sometimes not giving any space for anybody to talk, but all charming, and it didn’t turn me off. It would have turned me off if somebody was described that way to me … His charm broke through.”

Never a critical darling, Spooky has taken his lumps. In January, The New York Times panned his first Met performance, “The Nauru Elegies,” a turntable-plus-iPad-plus-laptop-plus-live-string-quartet multimedia extravaganza dealing with the history of the titular Pacific island. There was handheld video footage of Nauru’s dilapidated buildings, computer-generated graphics, quotes from Che Guevara, Buckminster Fuller and Goethe, and lots of Spooky-authored text (“Utopia is the dialectical progression into the ocean currents of economic transcendentalism”). “An overearnest assemblage simultaneously bloated and thin,” wrote the Times’s Zachary Woolfe (who covers opera for The Observer).

Limor Tomer, the Met’s general manager of concerts and lectures, who conceived Spooky’s residency, was unfazed. “Bad reviews are what they are,” she said. “I note them, I read them, and I move forward.” Spooky, she said, “reacted the way artists react. I was much more sanguine about it.”

Spooky was not unfazed. The stages of grief, as related to this reporter, began with historicism. “Can you imagine being a woman or a person of color in 1950 and having a review like that?” he said in his loft. “It would have destroyed you! But in 2013, I can shrug that stuff off.”

Then it got personal. It irked him that bad press would make his ex-girlfriend “gleeful.” Then, ad hominem. Regarding Mr. Woolfe, he professed, “I don’t care about this guy.” Also, “I have friends who are hackers. If I wanted to make this guy’s life miserable, I could. I don’t care to do that. What a weasel. I looked him up, I know everything about this guy at this point. He’s a low-level weasel. You can put that in the article.”

DJ Spooky Spins Off: From ’90s Turntable Phenom to the Met’s First Artist in Residence