Text and Interview: Monica Uszerowicz
Photos: Olimpia Dior
The depth and history in Michael Bailey-Gates’ work belies both his own age and the playful nature of his practice itself. Spanning too much media to list here—with a special emphasis on photography and performance—Mike is especially good at utilizing play as a tool to address and dismantle larger social issues. Of course, this isn’t always his intention— Mike works primarily for himself and his community, finding inspiration in his core group of friends and expressing something that, at its core, feels very personal (and real heartfelt). Earlier this year, Mike, who is also one-half of Mike and Claire with Claire Christerson, completed Calligraphy by Men, a series featuring hieroglyphic-repetitive bodies–some on burlap and cotton–and participated in BOOKLUB 10, an edition of the ongoing BOOKLUB performance series (this time curated for MOMA by India Salvor Menuez). Below is our recent e-mail correspondence with him–in which he discusses what’s piquing his interest at the moment–following his studio visit with photographer Olimpia Dior.
Some of your work reminds me of the collaborations between LA2 and Keith Haring. As a young artist in New York yourself, how inspired are you by the mythology of the place you’re living, its radical history?
Thank you, yeah—Keith Haring wouldn’t have been who he is if it wasn’t for LA2. It was impossible to not be inspired by the colorful history of New York City when I moved here. Myth is important to me; I grew up around a lot of American folk art—my grandparents are antique dealers. There is a lot of lost, very exciting history here—it is being paved over. People are realizing this now.
Can you tell me about your Angels? I like that this work speaks to the history of New York’s queer community, a lineage you’re part of.
This was a series about queer folklore. Yes, the series speaks to the history of New York’s queer community, but I was interested in a visual history that queer people seem to share. I had just finished reading The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions [by Larry Mitchell]. I don’t agree with a lot of the politics, but it is an imaginative text with beautiful drawings by Ned Asta.
I had a hard time gathering academic text on queer myth. Historically, there is a stigma to it. I ended up looking at art history—specifically the photographic collaborations of Paul Cadmus, Margaret French, and Jared French. I loved the semiotics they used. Images were more informative about myth than text; there is a growing consciousness about queer myth. Hal Fischer’s book, Gay Semiotics, talks about this idea directly: “Gay culture’s new visibility has exposed a subculture’s developing myth.”
I think joy is a powerful thing.
You’ve said before that you like to make work that is political, but joyful— “ revolting through joy or play.”
Yeah, I think joy is a powerful thing. It’s different for everyone, but I think it’s a more accessible emotion for people—humor and happiness as a way to express an issue.
What is the common thread between the people you choose to photograph, the histories you’re choosing to document? I know you were inspired by Alice O’Malley, who encouraged the documentation of your friends.
As all over the place that my work can be with mediums, I try for it to share some common ground—keeping it in the family and working with friends makes things meaningful and genuine for me right now. Alice has been very supportive of my work, and I have a lot of admiration and love for what she does—but I’m not intentionally documenting any history, except my own with photography. My friends don’t need me to take photos of them; I do that for me. They can do that themselves. I think the medium of photography no longer belongs to a specific group of people, but is for everyone today. People document themselves and their own “subcultures” now, with their own camera—and you can see and share yourself online via Instagram, Facebook, etc.
What else are you working on and thinking about at the moment?
I’m into repetition right now—and very excited about upcoming projects. 😉