As an only, latchkey kid of a single mother, Michael Bird grew up in a small town outside of Wichita, Kansas in the 1980s. Star Wars and Tron had sparked his young imagination and inspired a curiosity and an affinity for computers. But like a lot of creative youth, he often felt like an outsider.
Looking for consolation, Bird found his way to punk rock, David Bowie and William S. Burroughs. He explains:
“When you’re young, you’re fighting against the pressure to conform. Creativity is an indulgent act that, at its best, defies conformity. It implies confidence, which the conformed can find threatening.”
“Burroughs rewired my brain to see things differently, to view my experience through a shifted perspective. He gave me the excuse to cast adolescence through an alternate narrative that made it sexy and adventurous and exciting, instead of boring and obvious and embarrassing. And Bowie’s example taught me that not only was it acceptable to be alien, but that which makes one an alien is what makes one compelling and powerful.”
Though an obvious fit, art wasn’t an immediate outlet for Bird’s self-realization.
“I had always drawn as a kid. My imagination was very visual and drawing was how I expressed it. When I was in high school, the school’s only art teacher informed me that he saw no proclivity in me for drawing and I’m embarrassed to admit that I just accepted that at face value. I turned my attention to journalism and resigned myself to writing. Looking back now, I realize he didn’t know what he was talking about. I was actually pretty good, albeit raw.”
None of what Bird did in the intervening years held his attention for long. He bounced from journalism to graphic design, making progress with the latter as a self-taught professional. But once competent in a skill, he was on to the next challenge.
All the while, fine art continued to pester Bird. During his years as a graphic designer, he’d encountered the work of Egon Schiele and Joel Peter Witkin, two artists who would greatly influence his later work. The newfound obsession with them would lead him back to art.
As a designer, Bird realized over time he needed to build on his skillset and acquire formal training. Living in Washington state at the time, he packed up and moved back to Kansas to tackle art school. While an undergrad at Emporia State University, he completed his formal graphic design education. Having brought a lot of practical experience with him, he also had time enough to explore fine art in greater depth and by the time he’d graduated, interest in multimedia and video had taken hold. When he entered the MFA program at the University of Kansas in fall of 2004, he did so as a fine artist, with video installation as his concentration.
“It took me awhile to find my voice with video, which you can see in my show reel. Everything I knew about experimental video had come from music video. The faculty sought to file that influence off by pushing me to explore more traditional forms of performative video, which I tried, but it never felt like me. I tried to combine some of my film influences, like Luis Buñuel, Peter Greenaway and Matthew Barney, but even then, I felt like I was placating the faculty.”
Ultimately, it was sound and the notion of starting with musical elements that would reground Bird with his work.
“‘Primer’ was the breakthrough piece. I started with the sound. I wanted there to be a pulse of subsonic energy pushed loudly out of a subwoofer that would punch the viewer when they approached the work. The aggressiveness of that was uncharacteristic of me, but absolutely a reaction to having my back up against a wall. When I considered my circumstances, the visuals were apparent: a wall of fists. I was like, ‘here’s your performative act!’”
The work that followed wouldn’t be so obvious. Needing to expand on that piece with material of more substance, Bird began developing deliberate soundscapes to go with his work and the process of doing so lead him into a more ambiguous headspace. Marrying research into Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, Bird looked to produce work that tapped into a collective unconscious. In so doing, he found a different source of inspiration.
“It sounds very new age-ish, but I became aware at the time that I had begun receiving visual ideas that had no apparent root in my everyday life or relationships. There was this mental wavelength I was receiving that spoke to me in visuals. I took note of what I found and the work that has followed ever since has come from the same process. I meditate, quiet my mind, and listen. In the emptiness, the visuals are just there to be found.”
The pace and complexity of the ideas began to evolve though, especially after finishing grad school in 2007.
“The more I listened, the more elaborate the visuals became, and I was aware that my means for interpreting and transcribing the ideas needed to change to suit them. I shifted focus and started making a body of work that was more firmly rooted in still photography.”
That body of work is varied; some pieces feature assemblies of body parts, reformatted to imply creatures with threatening objects. Other pieces feature the artist with a variety of characters cast in a primal, mythological play in which the moon seems to watch over and torture the actors.
“I really loathe artwork about art, so I try to make certain my work functions on a level that doesn’t require a lot of backstory. I’d rather inspire and collaborate with my viewer. Ambiguity is the real gift of 20th century art and I celebrate that. I don’t want the viewer to feel an obligation to ‘get’ my work. If it has something to offer you, even if it is something you cannot verbalize, then I’m pleased. I’m not sure that even I can always verbalize my work. Viewers give me a lot of very intense interpretations and I’m always gratified to hear them.”
“It isn’t to say that there isn’t a good deal of thought and consideration that goes into my work, but it is to say that if I meant for anyone to receive my work didactically, I should just write it in an editorial and call it a day. In the end, I just don’t want to deprive my viewer of the opportunity to have a two-way relationship with my work, because I’ve always loved what ambiguity in art has inspired in me.”