Mike and Claire’s short films and photographs are timeless and tons of fun. Often referring to 1950s American cartoons, 1920s German Expressionist films and many great performance artists, they stretch a line between embarrassment and humor through uncanny pantomime play. Ultimately, Mike and Claire seek to explore the recesses of identity, queer and other, through a series of open-ended collaborations. We visited them in their Bed-Stuy studio in the middle of last winter.
Where are you both from?
Mike: I’m from Rhode Island originally.
Claire: I’m from New York City.
Is the idea of playfulness a big theme in your work?
M: Oh yeah, totally. I think something that we came up with was the idea of being happy. We’re talking about something that’s hard to talk about in an accessible way. That’s pretty much our go-get: talking about things that are hard to talk about or social issues in a positive and accessible way.
C: Also, besides that, it’s about addressing or finding humor in awkward situations and painful moments. John Waters does it really well, finding the humor in really awkward situations. I think that is a huge part of our stuff too.
Tell us about the mood behind your work: is it a fantasy? Is it a theater? There’s a scary element too.
C: I don’t like realistic things. So I think it’s neat to be able to make stuff how I wish it were.
M: I think one thing that all of our work falls under is the idea of available-ism, which is making work with whatever is available around you. So like all this stuff [gesturing around the studio]—all the dolls too—are made out of materials that we have.
C: Cardboard is the best thing to work with.
You’re interested in set design.
M: When I was younger I was putting all my stuff on Flickr, I was doing set design, fashion stuff. Claire was making clothes when I met her so it just went together.
And you met in the middle somehow, between fashion and set design. Is that the dynamic?
M: We both like the same things pretty much.
C: Fuck shit up.
You like to have your group of friends in the work and everyone’s involved, don’t you?
M: Oh yeah and they’re pretty much all the people in our portfolio book. They are just our friends. We don’t really ever shoot models.
Have you come across any interesting interpretations of your work so far?
M: Sometimes the comments on our videos are a little intense but we’ve decided not to really read them that much.
M: You can ignore those comments; they’re from crazy people in North Dakota...
C: Like the Vice comments; those comments were crazy. We did this one editorial for them a while ago for Easter and there are some Catholics who are pretty unhappy with it and I was like, “Yes!” I loved it. That kind of feedback is nice, I love that shit but…
M: I think mostly everybody’s been like—
C: —either confused or just like kind of down.
M: Anything that’s bright and colorful people want to look at for a while but once they get past that, they try to start figuring out what it is. That’s when the conversation starts about what we really want to talk about with the piece. It works out that way.
“embarrassment is the least explored human emotion”
What do you like in Leigh Bowery’s art?
M: He’s not a really super well-known artist. He’s not talked about as much as he should be. But our friend India, she once said to me—she likes this quote—it was, “embarrassment is the least explored human emotion.”
C: When I heard that quote, it clicked in my head.
C: Exploring embarrassment and anxiety and then turning that on the viewer—exposing emotions that they choose to turn off—and then making them explore that. The natural reaction to embarrassment and anxiety is laughter because you’re so nervous about it. I think that’s been a really useful tool.
M: His stuff was the same way, he didn’t have a beautiful body but he would do these beautiful, amazing morphs to his body that people were into. It’s the same way as being embarrassed, I guess.
C: I’ve been reading a lot of John Waters’s books in which he writes about Divine lately and Divine is another case of working with what you’ve got. Most people kept telling us that our work reminded them of things that he’s done, so we just started looking into it and we were like, “Yeah totally, that’s awesome, sick.”
M: Recently I’ve been introduced to this video artist called Charles Atlas who made a lot of videos with Leigh Bowery. He was a good friend of his; he actually directed the documentary about him.
C: But everyone ripped him off and that’s just how it is. Like every fashion designer that is current has been influenced by Leigh Bowery, whether they know it or not, which is interesting.
It is also about this idea of getting ready, of always postponing the performing moment.
M: It’s what Kembra [Pfahler] always talks about too… Artists having an artist’s temperature: you can’t perform unless your temperature is right. You have to check your temperature. We thought that was kind of cool.
C: We’ve been Karen Black girls for her. It’s funny being in her specific kind of makeup and the mood that you have to take on. You feel so strong being one of those girls. It’s the way you have to position your body. You’re so stiff. I really like it.
So you’re into John Waters?
M: Claire’s on a John Waters kick right now.
C: I’m reading all of his books because it’s almost better than watching his films. It makes you appreciate him so much more, just to read what he thinks about life.
He also brought the idea of the “raunchy” into mainstream American culture.
C: He opened so many doors for people. I think the best way to think of “raunch” is just beautiful-ugly-truth, like working off of things that are kind-of like ugly pain and making them beautiful.
“I think the best way to think of “raunch” is just beautiful-ugly-truth”
Do you still have class now?
Wow, how do you have enough time in the day to edit and make original work apart from thesis?
C: I don’t know…
M: Just working I guess.
C: It’s just time management, that’s the best advice I can give people.
M: Everything is so mobile, whereas you can be going to school or going to a casting or to somebody’s house and at the same time, as you’re going there, you’re organizing a shoot from your phone. Really, your office is the whole city when it comes down to it.
Do you try to stay away from recognizable references?
M: We’re more interested in animation, making people into cartoons. We’re more history and silent film-based. I’ve never really thought about it.
What kind of silent movies would you say?
C: Have you ever seen “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari?” It’s a really good German Expressionist film made in the 1920’s.
M: And Chuck Jones. It’s kind of obvious but his stuff’s really amazing. It’s the way they direct with music and sound, super-influenced by Fried Egg too.
Chuck Jones once said that Bugs Bunny is his ideal self whereas Daffy Duck is his real self.
M: Oh weird.
C: A lot of our characters come from drawings that we make. Compulsive stuff. You think about it later, figure out what could this character possibly have to do with anything and just start figuring it out.
“Have you ever seen ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari?’”
Is a lot of it stream of consciousness? Or do you work with dreams?
M: No, not really. I don’t rely on dreams too much. People say that but… I don't like the word “dreamlike.”
C: I hate that word! “Dreamlike.” To describe something as dreamlike is the most unrealistic way of describing something.
But we have to adjust, to adapt to your images. There is a floating moment.
M: More like a nightmare then.
C: Because I think nightmares are more real than what people consider dreamy. Dreams are fucking vivid—especially nightmares. You’re not going to forget your nightmares. There’s a foggy thing when you wake up and you’re like, “Oh my God, what the hell?”