When we first walked into Michael Paul Britto’s Sunset Park, Brooklyn studio, one of the first things that caught our eye was a huge white window—propped up in the middle of the room and looking out to nowhere. Equally eye-catching were the knickknacks and novelties scattered around the room—Aunt Jemima waffle mix boxes, a gorilla mask donning a plastic handcuff chain, a doll-shaped jar with exaggerated features stuffed with tootsie rolls.
Michael discussed how his work is inspired by the intersection of “race, class, and pop culture,” and how he collects these objects as props for satirical and incisive photos, videos, and sculptures. His interest extends to the re-positioning of popular music and old movies/TV shows as well—one of the first sample videos Michael showed us, projected on his large white wall, featured a scene of police brutality set to the tune of John Mayer’s “Daughters.” Another depicted a Ku Klux Klan figure in traditional white robe and hood, which quickly morphed into a duplicate robe made of African Kente cloth—the African cloth robe from the video is currently also sitting on a mannequin in Michael’s studio.
Michael sees making this type of artwork as a way to not only raise awareness of racially-motivated violence and stereotyping in the media; it is also personally cathartic to him: “The KKK used to scare me when I was younger. I decided to take back that fear by making a music video about the KKK, and using an expensive and respected type of African cloth.” Appropriating and re-purposing racist images and objects for one’s art can be a way of exerting power and control over these images.
Another video showing just the heads of a younger and an older African American male yelling argumentatively at the same time was also inspired by Michael’s personal experiences as a teacher breaking up fights between kids and their parents: “I wanted to show in this video how old and young people often don’t see eye to eye, but someone’s kids are an extension of who they are. In this video, I also want viewers to feel attacked too.”
The incorporation of personal experience into Michael’s work has extended as far as setting up a secret camera to record in real-time people fighting in the apartment window across from his. Students were especially fascinated by the resulting miniature video projection, which feels like an eerie reality TV show devoid of detail or commentary and with only muffled sound. At one point, one of the unknowing “actors” throws a piece of furniture.
Michael also showed a set of videos that explained the purpose of the detached window in his studio—he had used it as a prop for a video series showing different women, exaggerated in accent and appearance, yelling out of an upstairs apartment window, supposedly at different passersby on an urban street corner below. This piece is also based on memories from Michael’s own childhood. The window video loop was shown in a group exhibit at a Harlem brownstone among other places, and is always projected higher than eye level, placing the viewer in the position of the person on the street being yelled at. Michael’s descriptions of the particulars of the display of his work gave us the idea that how a video is shown in a gallery setting can be as important as its actual content.
Michael’s work rooted in popular culture may have also been influenced by his former career working in television and advertising. He decided to change to the far less lucrative but much more fulfilling path of making his own artistic work. While he is not represented by a gallery, his has been successful doing his own production and has also sold artwork. In addition to being a 2007 Studio Artist at Smack Mellon, he won a competitive Workspace Residency at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. He also supplements his artistic income by teaching video and computer at a public high school, and after-school classes at Downtown Community Television (DCTV).
Like the other video-based mentors we have visited, Michael has an active performance practice, and is interested in engaging his mentees in a series of live performances at the Kitchen in April, where he will dress as a preacher singing gospel and rap songs. He is also interested in helping students with their own photo and video projects.
For now, every student in the group left Michael’s studio with a prop to perhaps get started on his or her own urban toy-inspired project: Michael let everyone choose one tiny plastic action figure clad in hip hop clothing from a huge bin that someone had sent him. This helped emphasize an idea also introduced in other mentor visits—in addition to personal experience, anything from everyday life, from the banal to the bordering-on-offensive– can be channeled into thought-provoking art.