Q+A with Michael E. Stephen

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Installation image of midnight rainbow courtesy of pump project.

Michael E. Stephen’s objects and arrangements, composed from appropriated and casted materials, conjure the complex visual experience of subcultures from the 1970s-1990s. Stephen’s selectively scavenged objects (an auctioned piece of the moon; VHS tapes from estate sales) are sourced for their ritualistic or cult potential, and at times transformed alchemically, to create new autonomous relics. Muted by nostalgia, these emblematic artifacts provoke a meditation on the objects’ latent symbolism and associative content. Stephen’s works seek an embodied connection with the past and construct an intimate archive of the VHS era. Stephen’s minimally aesthetic forms display his mystic reverence for psychotronic groupings, object oriented ontologies, and obsolescent territories. Stephen currently lives and works in Austin, Texas.


Thao Votang: In your current exhibition at pump project, midnight rainbow, your mash-up of precious (gold and diamond dust), old technology (cassettes and VHS camcorders), and pop culture references (Elvira) work to heighten the viewer’s perception of their own ideas of each. How did you start working with videos, the actual VHS cassettes and the cultural touch points that you use in your work?

Michael E. Stephen: Since I can remember, my work has always relied on pop culture and a reflective, self-aware examination of the affect of nostalgia. This is due in part to the years of my childhood spent buried in a mountain of blankets, eyes transfixed on our 1980’s Panasonic TV console while shows like Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs and Elvira’s Movie Macabre altered my mental landscape.

However, the usage of film and video as a medium is relatively new in my practice, starting around 2013. It was around this time when I started experimenting with what I could physically do with the object of the film or VHS cassette. I no longer wanted the works to be solely about film, but to be made of film, with the identity, essence and history intact. With that said, I describe my sculptures and arrangements as “psychotronic groupings,” aesthetic homages that participate in the archiving of the VHS era.

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Installation image of cassandra, courtesy of pump project.

TV: What is your process for finding the materials you use? How do you actually identify the decade that they are sourced from and why is that important to you?

MES: Selecting a material I want to work with can be an arduous process. At times, I’m not even sure of what I am looking for; as if I am trying to hear the faintest whisper in a wind tunnel; and yet when an object presents itself, I make certain to learn everything there is to know about its origins and history.

For example, when creating the piece cassandra, both the Polaroid and the moth were acquired almost a year apart. It wasn’t until I had them both in my possession did I choose to pair them together based on their rarity, fragility and iconography.

When dealing with such specific, and at times, rare materials, I make sure each object’s history is authentic and original. This process of identification, especially the decade, is of the utmost importance to the conceptual integrity of the work. Before any material or object is acquired, a series of social exchanges between the collector and/or source occur. It is important I know every facet of its known history, whether that comes with records of authenticity or certifying the source I’m procuring it from.

TV: You view yourself as a collector of the items that you’ll eventually use in your artwork that will (with hope) be collected by another person. How does this loop feed into your practice?

MES: From rocks to horror films, I’ve always been somewhat of a collector. The understanding that everything is temporally situated, from commodity-value to popularity, to even the fragility of materials, has allowed me to become more of an archivist and a cultural conduit from collector to collector (with hope) to collector.

TV: How long do your relationships with your material sources last? What has been the most interesting interaction you’ve had?

MES: It depends on the source and their specialty. I’ve acquired materials from some dealers more than once, especially if their area of expertise is vast, while others are so explicitly unique.  Whether or not I’ve used them again, the relationship that was created through that shared exchanged is an additional layer of history augmenting this otherwise mundane object.

Installation image courtesy of pump project.
Installation image courtesy of pump project.

My interactions with these dealers have all been interesting in their own right. However, the most exciting piece I worked on for midnight rainbow was the piece titled witching hour. I acquired each one of the thirteen alarm clocks from thirteen different people, all of whom had a personal relationship with the item. Each clock, whose histories are cataloged through their own array of unique blemishes, was a 1980’s GE digital clock radio set at the same frequency, time and volume. However, the interesting aspects of this piece didn’t start with the multitude of collector exchanges, but once all thirteen alarm clocks resided in the same space. This is where those unknown, untamed histories merged causing frequency changes and abrupt shifts in time on the digital displays; an otherwise surprising and interesting transfer between object, environment, and viewer that could have never been predicted.

TV: Did you have the opportunity to try something new in the exhibition at pump project? What do you plan to explore next?

MES: midnight rainbow (golden era), the piece that provided the show’s title, was a piece I’d been working on for some time. Locating a company that has successfully created a process of metal coating non-metal objects was the first thing. Fast forward a year later, only one company in the United States has successfully gold plated non-metal objects. With the research behind me, it was only a matter of working along side the company to accomplish the goal, and achieving the end result: having the only gold plated VHS in the world…

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Midnight Rainbow (golden era), 2016, blank Polaroid (High Grade) VHS cassette plated in 24k gold, 7″ x 4″ x 1″

midnight rainbow: Michael E. Stephen is on view at pump project through October 30, 2016.


Thao Votang is co-editor of Conflict of Interest, a writer, and co-founder of Tiny Park.

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