Michael Smith, A Day with Mike. Video by Carlton Bright.
Born 1951 in Chicago, Illinois; lives in Austin, Texas, and New York, New York
Performance and video/ installation artist Michael Smith inhabits his alter ego, Mike, in comedic portrayals of a man struggling to succeed in a technologically sophisticated world. Live or on-screen, Mike is a nerdy underdog whose sense of isolation translates into satirical physical comedy reminiscent of filmmakers Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton, while his conveyed interior mental space pays homage to playwright Richard Foreman. Smith’s approach to illustrating Mike’s peculiar worldview, however, was developed in dialogue with burgeoning 1970s and 1980s performance artists such as Mike Kelley and stand-up comedians like Andy Kaufman.
Though embodying a character of such fundamental blandness, Smith’s performances and videos are lively, humorous, and brief—a reaction to what he has called the “endurance performances” characteristic of New York’s 1970s performance art renaissance. Taking cues from sitcoms and other television formats such as music videos, commercial advertisements, and game shows, his videos place Mike in a world once-removed from reality to accentuate his slow, quizzical mannerisms. His idiosyncrasies—including fetishistic obsessions with disco dancing and personalized clothing and accessories—manifest as eccentric overcompensation for Mike’s confusions about navigating the complexities of daily life and human connection. In early videos Secret Horror (1980), Down in the Rec Room (1979/1981), and Outstanding Young Men of America (1996), Mike plans parties with pathetic results including a “Disco Inferno” solo boogie. Deep-seated insecurities are conflated with pop cultural references, colliding into nonsensical, hallucinatory scenarios.
In Smith’s recent works, Mike takes a more proactive approach to both aging and technology. Portal Excursion (2005–07) is a 10-minute piece that harks back to Mus-co (1997, made with director Joshua White) in the corny corporate lingo Mike adopts to underscore his determination to become successful. In Portal Excursion, Mike’s life story unfolds as a journey into “self-learning” composed of online trade school courses, video lectures, and other dubious educational modes. Shots of Mike typing on his laptop in various drab rooms are accompanied by Smith’s explanation of the computer’s capacity to increase the speed of education. This earnest narration is sweetened and contradicted by Red Krayola member Charlie Abel’s folksy accordion playing as part of his and Mayo Thompson’s composed soundtrack.
Included in the 2008 Biennial are Smith’s Class Portraits (1999– ), taken at Sears each semester as mementos of his teaching experiences meant to gauge the artist’s aging process by comparing the students’ perpetual youth to his own increasing maturity. More than simple portraits, these photographs, with their generic department-store backdrops, offer a sincere glimpse into the artist’s personal life through ironic visual language while seamlessly fusing Smith’s identity with Mike’s. As Smith eradicates lines between real and theatrical personas, he presents a character whose awkwardness is at once abnormal and expected of the stereotypical American man. TRINIE DALTON
Michael Smith, A Nite with Mike. Performance, Videobrasil, Sao Paolo, 1998