Greetings from Kokomo: A Conversation with Michael Marcelle

By Matthew Leifheit

In his series Kokomo, New York–based photographer Michael Marcelle surrealizes his family and his hometown in coastal New Jersey. By abstracting his biography and mixing personal experience with a broad range of references, including horror films, he imagines that Hurricane Sandy tore an actual hole in time and space. “It’s not about the hurricane, but what the hurricane made in my eyes,” Mike told me. “It’s about realizing the mortality of everyone in the work.”
 
VICE: Where are you from?
Michael Marcelle: New Jersey, right on the coast, by Red Bank. All of these pictures are shot at home. They are kind of about my family, in a very abstract way. I’d been making work about home for a while, and then the hurricane happened, in October of 2012. It would be really hard to come home at all, and if I did get home I couldn’t really travel anywhere. I was kind of stuck at home trying to come up with new ways to make work. I became really interested in this idea of an alternate reality—like, what if the hurricane unlocked like a hole in space and time?
 
Yes, there’s something kind of dark about the images. It’s not necessarily frightening, just bizarre. How did the hurricane affect your family?
It didn’t affect our house, but the town was really hurt. They’re still recovering. As the hurricane moves to the back of the history of this project as an event, it’s becoming more about mortality, and about the idea of nostalgia being the same thing as death. I’m interested in creating a world that’s drenched in this nostalgia—one that’s a constant reminder of mortality.
 
 
Some of the digital manipulations create circumstances that couldn't exist in the natural world. 
I’m using Photoshop in a way where it’s not really pointing to the use of it. Whereas a lot of work now is about the tool. 
 
The aesthetic of Photoshop. Like Joshua Citarella's work. 
I’m interested in using it in a more earnest way. Where it’s obviously happening but there are times when you can’t tell, so it puts all of the work into question. 
 
It’s a more earnest way to use Photoshop, but in the end it’s actually more deceptive. 
Oh, yeah.
 
How do horror films come into the work? 
Horror films are probably my main influence and interest as an artist. It also relates to a queer aesthetic. Rather than taking pictures of a queer lifestyle, it’s about creating a queer experience and sort of turning a world that’s pretty domestic into a very queerified space. Is that even a word?
 
Do you mean queerness in terms of sexuality?
I don't think the work is necessarily exploring a queer sexuality, where the subjects in the work can be read as queer, but more a queer aesthetic. Rather than photographing queer people, I'm trying to construct an aesthetically queer world, or experience, at least by the ways that I would visually define it.  By referencing the theatricality, ritual, spectacle, and camp of Kenneth Anger's films, Jim Bidgood's Pink Narcissus, Argento's Suspiria, and even someplace like the Magic Kingdom, the photographs construct a world that elevates and abstracts the typically domestic and suburban space into something totally uncanny.
 
I think that also relates to the work's connection to horror films. I think, at their best, horror films are utterly visual, more so than any other genre, with things in a constant state of being concealed and revealed—with all the elements coming together to create an unrelenting sense of a world, of something (usually terrible) activating and changing the course of everything. I want my work to hover in that space, to feel like the first stages of some kind of irrevocable event has taken place. 
 
 
Is there some component of ritual or shamanism in the way that you’re working?
Yes, but it’s very abstract, and it’s a way to create a language in the work. There are candles, and a lot of things being activated in this abstract way, where it’s locking in and out of this ritual that’s happening and not happening at the same time. It speaks to this hole in time and space that I’ve imagined the hurricane made. 
 
As the work continues, it’s imagining that this hole is getting wider, and things are becoming more and more extreme. I’ve become interested in genetic mutation, like the picture of my sister without a nose. If you photograph a person over and over again, they start to change in a way.
 
 
What do you mean by "queerifying" your family?
I’ve thought about that a lot, and I really don’t know. To me, each time I take a picture of them they become kind of a new characte,r and they’re not who they are. The removes a personal narrative and replaces it with a new narrative, a new biography. At the same time, these are pictures of my mom and dad, and that’s arguably the most interesting thing about the work. What does it mean that I do this to them all the time?
 
Part of it could be that they’re very cooperative subjects.
It took a long time to become this comfortable working with them in this way. I do view it as being very collaborative. 
 
Do they like the pictures?
My mother hates them. She’s only in the work occasionally. I think everyone else likes it. They understand that making work with them in it does not mean that it’s about them in a direct way.
 
This doesn’t look like the end of the project.
No, it’s definitely not. But, this work is the most realized up until now.
 
 
Michael Marcelle is a New York–based photographer who has studied at Bard College and the Yale School of Art. 
 

Matthew Leifheit is photo editor of VICE. He is also editor-in-chief of MATTE magazine.

 

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