Artist team Mike and Claire use so much face paint that they have a club card at Ricky’s. This is a good place to start when thinking about the stylistic integrity of the up-and-coming performance artists, filmmakers, and costume fanatics.
The duo (full names Michael Bailey-Gates and Claire Christerson) met freshman year at SVA studying photography, and after collaborating on a few projects, realized they had the same influences and vision. Now they share a website, apartment, and maybe even their dreams and nightmares (which undoubtedly inspire their work).
Raised on The Mighty Boosh, early Flickr communities, and Myspace-meets-Blingy visual aestheticism, the two have an almost obsessive-compulsive work ethic. They have released a deluge of art projects online over the past year that maintain a consistently ebullient and quasi-psychotic voice.
Their video “The GEM Sisters,” for example, has them portraying hyperbolic caricatures of teenage girls who spend too much time online and have sudden bursts of aggression regarding Beehive hairstyles.
Across their work, Mike and Claire constantly gender swap, wear Gaga-friendly costumes, and hit viewers with a deluge of visual stimuli that may be a bit intimidating to some.
I’ve heard Mike and Claire fairly compared to Ryan Trecartin and Cindy Sherman, though I believe their photography and ADHD-addled video clips are taking the torch from Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! (with maybe a dash of Cindy Lauper, Reed + Rader, and some Rachel Maclean). Videos like "No Commercials Just Adds" could simultaneously fit with Adult Swim, Rookie Magazine, or a queer cinema course taught by, say, Greg Araki.
Yet Mike and Claire are unique among their reference points in that they actively strive to push still imagery to its next frontier--often with the aid of GIFs. The two told The Creators Project that “With GIFs you don’t have to press play. The idea is that it never stops or starts. It's more inclusive." All of their costume-heavy character profiles are wiggly, restless, seductive creatures. They also plan on making a video comic book, again trying to find new terrain between 2D and 3D.
They balance their focus on Internet aesthetics with theatrical cues, hand-made costumes, and in camera techniques from past decades--be it silent film era acting, Scooby Doo horror soundtracks, or distinctly New York characters like Upper East Side divas. They nod to the past, while giving their work a future-focused twist that could only spark from the minds of two, Hattori Hanzo-sharp brains who’ve spent a lot of time on Tumblr.
Mike and Claire premiered a new video on Neverland Space this past week titled "Ghost Hole," and have several projects in the works, including a cameo appearance in an upcoming Blood Orange video. Their moving photos will even be showcased at the New York Photo Festival this January.
The artists talked to The Creators Project about GIFs as a fine art medium, the possibility of GIF tattoos, and why getting asked to collaborate is the best type of flattery. It’s only a matter of time until these two start getting commissioned by MoMA Ps1 or Cartoon Network. The omnipresence of Mike and Claire is just beginning.
The Creators Project: How much face paint do you go through in a month? Do you have a tab at Ricky’s?
Claire: [Laughs] A lot! I actually do have a card at Ricky’s now. Most of our face paint is hypo-allergenic kids face paint. You can put water in it and it helps it spread and stretches the dollar.
Mike: Sometimes we’ll do really intense make-up but use the children’s stuff and drag queens will ask us where we get our makeup.
Claire: We were also using acrylic paint which is really bad for you because it hurts your skin, but sort of feels like a face lift.
Mike: She was once totally naked and covered in paint and shouted “It’s starting to peel!”
The Creators Project: Was it a conscious decision to start using the internet as a platform or was it out of convenience?
Mike: I think a lot of our work references a mixture of old New York performers and…
Claire: Not just old New York!
Mike: I know, but old New York performers, silent era film tropes, in camera techniques, etc. But we want to use the internet as a platform because we’re not just looking back and replicating weird stuff from the past, we want to move forward.
Claire: It’s a cool way for everyone to get involved. And our first video comic strip might have been the first step towards it.
A lot of your stuff could fit in a gallery, but it’s interesting that you use the Internet.
Claire: It’s cool because with the Internet it’s kind of a thing….our stuff could maybe fit in a gallery, and that’d be awesome, but it’s nice to have everyone feel included. You don’t have to go to a certain spot. You can go online and it’s an equal playing field for everyone.
Mike: Even in comic books, there is so much movement that you have to draw it all in, but with the Internet things can move on their own. Literally everything can have movement and the Internet gives us an opportunity to actually move forward with both still and moving images.
Claire: How do you move the medium of photograph forward? The answer might be in movement without it becoming full-on videos.
You told me that sometimes you prefer GIFs to videos because the viewer never has to push the play button. Can you expand about this? Why does that aspect of GIFs appeal to you? Is the play button a barrier between art and the viewer?
Claire: See, I don’t like one over the other. I like them for their own separate purposes. GIFs are really great for getting your point across quickly, and what I like about them the most is that they force you to be clever in under 20 seconds. The only down side can be the quality is a little limiting at times. Videos allow you to do more and the quality doesn’t get brought down. I’m not trying to hate on GIFs, but there are just some ideas that we have that cannot be translated through a GIF. Videos are great for telling longer, more elaborate stories.
Mike: When the work plays on it’s own without a play button, it really has a life of it’s own. When someone else clicks a play button they have control over their viewing, but when the work surprises you, it has a totally different life. For us, these GIFs all live behind a screen. Videos are predictable because when you hit a play button, you expect something to happen. There is something about GIFs that is much more exciting. They never start or stop.
You mentioned how your Witch GIF is like an old style of animation reincarnated in a new format. Could you talk about this a little more?
Mike and Claire: We are always trying to use old in camera techniques, and combine them with new technology. Working with frames while making GIFs really references working with reels and the process of editing film frame by frame. It’s incredible to us that artists like George Melies would edit his movies by individually working with each frame.
The frames in our witch GIF break the 4th wall of the idea of a frame. We wanted to make something that moves the medium of a GIF forward, but also pays tribute to the past. For the characters, we wanted them to be over exaggerated and reference mannerisms in silent films, or even cartoons like Scooby-Doo. Playing with human animation and treating people like cartoons is something we think about a lot.
I think that we have managed to use elements of digital collaging/composting with our obsessions with “older styles.” It seems to be all coming together through different ideas. A lot of what we do is digital manipulation, and even though a lot is done in camera, there is still a ton of post-production that is involved. A lot of the work that we did last year was the beginning of this combination.
The Creators Project: So when did the transition happen of you guys going from behind the camera to being in front of it?
Mike: We’ve always been behind the camera, but I’ve also always shot myself. Then Claire and I would explain stuff to people [who were modeling] and we couldn’t always get what we wanted. We’re not always good at verbalizing what we want people to do in front of the camera so we decided to start doing it ourselves.
Claire: Last year, when I was working by myself I was never in front of the camera. I would always have other people. It’s become kind of an obsession. We love playing characters [laughs]. I don’t know if there was ever a clear decision to get in front of the camera. It just transitioned into this.
Mike: And all the photographers and artists we like are often people who put themselves in front of the camera.
Claire: We definitely don’t just use ourselves, we like to include other people. We’re about to do a video project that won’t involve us at all. It’s currently titled “The Cherub Gardens.” It’s going to be short, but a lot happens in a such a small period of time. We wrote out the scene. It starts out with two Marie Antoinette-type characters drinking tea and they’re sort of competing with each other. Then this clown figure runs into the frame and knocks one of the tea cups over.
Mike: They go crazy and start throwing shit.
Claire: And it becomes this red light situation with a performance on a stage and all these things are happening at once. Then, there’s going to be this figure on the stage who’s controlling everything like a puppeteer and he’s going to pour slime on to one of the characters. There will be some twins who are narrators of the whole thing and the puppeteer will pour slime on them and they’ll dissolve. The twins will be in the red light and a spell will be cast on them. Then they'll be on the ground falling apart and the video ends. It’s about going from this ethereal situation into this insane, underworld-type thing.
Mike: The tone goes from really high energy and changes into something really calm and quiet, or vice-versa.
Now that you’re getting some press, do you feel like the attention can be distracting or prevent you from putting so much content out there? You release new material almost weekly.
Mike and Claire: No, no.
Mike: It’s funny because when I was really young and I’d get a blog feature I’d freak out. Now that I’m doing stuff with Claire we try to not pay attention to that stuff. We’re just so interested in making work. We haven’t even scratched the surface of what we want to do.
Claire: We get really obsessed with making work. It’s really nice to get press and really cool for people to get interested, but it’s not deterministic.
Mike: It’s flattering and so nice that people tell you that they like what you’re doing, but the best compliment is when someone tells us they want to get involved with our work.
Claire: It seems that as of now, a larger statement that we are working towards is being realized through smaller projects. I do think that works can connect without intention. As you develop the work, the voice/vision behind it becomes stronger and messages become clearer.
How much do your characters actually reflect your own personality?
Mike: All of them reference some part of us!
Claire: Quite a few of the characters we come up with are interesting to look back on because they are refractions of all these people I did see growing up in New York. Like the stylists walking around or really eccentric Park Avenue divas--those bizarre, old women. I went to high school in the Upper East Side, and it was so funny seeing their dresses and purses.
Mike: I got the idea for "Ghost Hole" during a photography road trip with Ryan [McGinley] this past summer. We were in Georgia and my boyfriend’s from the south. The first time I went there, it was nothing how I pictured it. Not at all like American Horror Story [laughs]. Then we were passing all these massive houses and it really is incredibly beautiful, but what really freaked me out was the architecture and history of everything of the south. Having beautiful architecture combined with an awful history and thinking about that juxtaposition as silhouettes and it all clicked together.
Claire: This project is on Neverland Space. The site is based in Europe and you usually pay one euro to go on and access the art, but for our piece they’re going to make it free. We’re so excited because no one wants to make an account, login, pay a dollar…
Mike: Especially online.
Claire: I’m so happy it’s free because again it’s more inclusive.
What does the future of GIFs look like? How could you imagine this medium expanding or evolving? Mike and Claire: Just a few ideas: It could used more as a medium than a tool within another medium. Also, moving ads, bigger commercial use, GIF album covers, GIF tattoos (omg), GIF clothes, and dolls with holographic faces.
What do you like best about the web as a space for performance artists? What frustrates you most about it? Can the internet ever offer viewers the same experience as seeing a piece of performance art in person?
Mike and Claire: I think what frustrates us most is that the idea of a performance is so personal, because it’s always been known as something you witness in person. Online work is always accessible, and it’s free to see anytime.
Sometimes we feel as if the Internet discredits work solely because it is displayed on the web, but the other alternative is displaying work in a space that not everyone will have the opportunity to see. Yes, seeing something live in person offers that firework effect where everything shines bright for a moment, but when it’s in an online space you can see it as something infinite. We think it’s good to find a balance between both worlds.