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MOCAtv: Michael Smith

In Partnership with MOCAtv, a new, contemporary art video channel, developed as a digital extension of the education and exhibition programming of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

This interview with New York artist Michael Smith serves as an introduction to his work in video and performance from 1978 to the present, focusing on his two recurring characters: Mike, a hapless everyman, and Baby Ikki, a pacifier-sucking, sunglasses-wearing baby of ambiguous age. Smith inserts these characters into particular scenarios, either real or constructed, in ways that can be seen as responses to broader issues in contemporary society. Baby Ikki has visited Burning Man, been out and about on city streets and thrown a birthday party replete with a clown; Mike has had an art career, started a business and built a basement fallout shelter.

Regardless of the scenario, neither character ever quite fits in. Mike is too credulous, too studied in his attempts to get into the swing of things. The Baby is also out of sync, mimicking those around it without seeming to understand the implications of its actions. In their guileless attempts to navigate the complexities of contemporary life, Michael Smith's characters reveal the underlying absurdity of what we think of as 'normal.'


Michael Smith:

I'm Michael Smith, and I make I guess a variety of work. I do video performance installation. Maybe a little bit of photography. A lot of the work centers around a persona or two. I do a character named Mike and also one named Baby Ikki.

So, the baby came out of generalist or sort of a neutral, not neutral but lacks gender. By the time I thought of an infant, where it's not quite clear. It was sort of at the time of a lot of feminist discussion, the early 70's, so I came up with the idea of the baby. It sort of brings out in people this kind of nurturing, protective instinct, but then a repellant. They don't know where to go with it. I've performed it on the streets. I've spent a week at Burning Man with the baby. I've performed it in Europe in a store window, a department store window.

The baby's been to children's birthday parties. One time I performed stand-up club as the baby, in New York. I went to Catch a Rising Star, and I got in line and got a number and did the baby. Right before I went on, they put David Brenner. I don't know if you know him, but he was a famous, he is a famous comic, stand-up comedian that hosted the Tonight Show. He appeared. So he did like 10-15 minutes and then they brought me on. I bombed! I mean, the immediate image is them.

The people were looking at me, they were kind of intrigued, and then, this was '78. The baby doesn't do much. He doesn't talk. You know, he just acts like a baby. I got up and did my thing. And then about, then there's chatter going on.

And the emcee came up, like four minutes into it and said, "Well it looks like that baby ate too many paint chips!" (makes sound of drum) And then I was off.

It took me a while before I went back to the clubs to perform. The first performance was very different. The baby talked. The baby was sort of brought out in public. The baby sort of talked about, really abstracted way about where it came from. Or and it did things like, it read from a journal. He walked around on the ground. I mean, I was still really getting used to who the baby was and how to perform it, so it was really awkward. It smokes a cigar. Its kind of like this cartoon versions of an adult playing a baby. But from that, doing the baby, I realized that babies shouldn't talk. Baby isn't going to talk from now on. And then I started to get a little better about his movement and reacting with people.

I was asked to do a performance on the street in Hartford, CT. I think it was in 1978. It was a summer program and they were doing this program called Sidewalk Inc. And they were doing this project-art on the streets. And they asked for the baby, so the baby went out on the sidewalk and the baby doesn't do much. I'll acknowledge he's a 'he' now. The baby responds to stimulus. He was just there sitting near the sidewalk and he'd occasionally approach someone and it was getting kind of boring and stuff and someone gave the baby balloons. The balloons got away. And I guess I stayed in character and I went after the balloons and they crossing the street. I crawled in the street, traffic got stopped for a while. And then the policeman. I had a permit to be on the sidewalk. And the policeman interrupted me. He was really pissed at me. He picked me up and threw me down the sidewalk. Actually and it ended the performance. I actually skinned my leg and it was time to end it. Once a break happens with the baby, I realize, I'm in public, dressed up as a baby and people are looking at me. It's time to go.

I was one of many artists in the 80's, performing artists, video artists, artists in general, who were interested in crossing over. Like from the art world into like more into mainstream media. My work is sort of in between the cracks, but it has, it borrows from the formats and some of the conventions and the formats of commercial television, and I use those. So it has the look of but it's not quite there.

Mike is this kind of bland, nerdy kind of character. Different than me. Has different beliefs than me. And he sort of has a lot of received ideas. His received ideas come as a result of what he sees, in media and advertising. I'm a baby boomer, so I'm part of the TV generation. Mike is very much influenced by all that stuff. And this was a way to respond. In sort of an accepting way. Mike has, I guess he's thrown many parties that no one's attended. Mike built a fall out shelter in the early 80s in response to a lot of discussion about nuclear proliferation. He had his own cable TV show. He hosted his own variety show. He owned his own business that went bankrupt. He was an artist and had a loft. Went into the video production business. Now he's dealing with the idea of discovering the fountain of youth.

"Go For it Mike" was produced in 1984. It was in response to a lot of the election campaigning going on at the time and it was sort of the height of Reaganomics. There was a campaign of his called "Morning in America," which used all of this old bankrupt Americana imagery. And before that came out I actually did "Go For It" and it was Mike on a horse, as a politician. What happened is I had this opportunity to do this piece in Texas, and they had this Western town there. And it was also around the time that MTV was kind of blossoming.

So, I wanted to do music videos. It was an easy way to do a production and it was also a way to use this Western town. It showed in festivals and I think it showed on Canadian MTV and we won an award for it. It was perfect. Like a 'Mike Moment.' I won a Betamax system. So you know, this system that would soon be outdated.

"Open House" is about putting up his loft for sale and at the same time he's putting up his lot for sale, this personal history about him is going to leave. These works will go with the loft. I think when "Open House" happens, the time frame, Mike is not really making a lot of art, but his identity is connected to it. He realizes that this is a period of time that he needs to get this out into the world to give himself a survey exhibition. So, at the same time that he's putting his loft up for sale, he has a survey exhibition. I should also mention that Mike was an artist in this piece. But he wasn't a very good artist. He was a mediocre artist. And it was filled with art that we made. It was all fake art.

"Famous Quotes" was actually a commissioned piece from Palais de Tokyo and they wanted to do a magazine format show. And they asked a bunch of artists to produce segments for it. And they asked me for 1 to 3 minutes or something, or 2 to 3. So I thought, magazine format show...Paley to Tokyo, French...and they said maybe they thought that possibly it could continue and I thought, well maybe famous quotes. That's something...It was start a segment that I could just do again and again.

So, I came up with this idea of the Matisse quote. I always liked that quote with him looking at art from an armchair. Mike is talking about this armchair approach to him looking at the art. But, it's his version of the armchair. It's the Barcalounger. A very luxurious Barcalounger.

I was reading a profile about Mitt Romney. They were talking about these kind of defining words for him, and it was focus, focus, focus. And I think of myself and I think of focus, focus, focus. Just trying to focus, you know. So I'm like all over the place. I'm just trying to like disperse. I'm trying to like, just focus. Can I focus? Can I focus? The same word, but really different feeling towards it.

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