Portland-based Michael Green blends conceptualism, surrealism, and capitalism to create work that asks questions unique to our new digital world. His satirical GIF based on Jeff Koon’s Balloon Dog achieved global internet fame in 2014 when he put it on eBay in an attempt to make it the most expensive GIF ever sold. The original Koons sculpture had recently sold for $58 million so Green’s reaction became a perfectly timed comment on the value—both monetary and intellectual—of digital art more generally. Green uses the markers of modern capitalism in his work in a way that transcends new media art’s ubiquitous obsession with brands. There is a restless, punky, and subversive strangeness to his art that makes it surprisingly personal and revealing.
In 2015 Green achieved notoriety by spending a year living in the online virtual world Second Life. After criticizing the Second Life art community in a GOOD Magazine interview (with yours truly), his experiment was deemed disruptive by certain members of that community. He was accused of "trolling" and subsequently banned from many Second Life grids. Green found redemption in using the negativity to learn and grow, both as a person and an artist, ultimately giving the project a fascinating and unexpected resonance beyond its original intention.
I spoke to Green about these projects, consumer culture in the digital era—including the sinister side of Pokémon Go—and whether internet artists are ever gonna get paid.
#secondlife365, OMGV6, the avatar of Michael Green, in one of his many character reincarnations
Christian Petersen: What was your first experience of computer-generated art?
Michael Green: I discovered the post-internet era in 2013, and that definitely inspired me. I was working in Photoshop at the time. I think my first complacent Photoshop collage featured a middle class nudist couple walking around in their condo, maybe a little too comfortably. It is still up on my Tumblr. It weirded me out because later I discovered they looked like my parents… Anyways, from there, I gradually upgraded to 3D-modeling software.
CP: What made you want to make digital art your primary form of artistic expression?
MG: The internet is a world. I am embracing the internet lifestyle. The art of the internet is the cutting edge. I have an endless fascination with the hyperobject. It looks like the end of reality. It feels real. You can relate to GOD when you place a 3D model into a new scene. The precision of detail is uncanny. Real world physics. Reflective materials. Area lights. You can literally render your dreams.
Dinner in America, 2016
CP: In retrospect, how do you now feel about the notoriety you achieved with your “world’s most expensive GIF” project?
MG: I made #balloondogdeflated, because that was how enraged I was feeling at the time. eBay expressionism. Jeff Koon’s evil twin. The plan from the beginning was Revolution! #balloondogdeflated was designed to go viral. My only hope of selling a GIF for $5,800 would be if the media sold it for me. The media has a fetish for unusual eBay listings. Astonishingly, I succeeded in the first phase of the mission. The media picked up the story and coverage spread all over the world. Being in GQ was surreal. People were debating GIFs on bodybuilder forums. A luxury website published my Certificate Of Authenticity. Imitation Balloon Dog GIFs were showing up on eBay. It was total madness!
For better or for worse, I was on another plane of existence, living and breathing inside of this eBay world for three weeks, refreshing the page every minute, hustling 24/7 on social media. I had built this delusional Nietzschean overman mentality, listening to Beethoven’s 7th on repeat, whenever in doubt. Reality was questionable. Eventually I knew I would crash and burn. I went out blazing, inhaling champagne, live streaming a DJ set on the internet in synchronization to the last three hours of the final auction. In retrospect, I made it a lot further with this project than I thought was possible, and I am grateful for the experience. However, I consider the project a failure. I retired from the GIF business with a net worth of $202.50.
Wall-E 2, 2016
CP: What are your thoughts on the monetization of digital art? Do you think things are changing for digital artists being able to make money?
MG: Internet art is clearly relevant to our culture, but nobody wants to support the digital artist financially. If there is cultural value, then why not monetary value? iTunes can sell the mp3. An mp3 does not exist in reality. Nothing will ever change unless we make a major shift in perception on how to value and market digital art. I seriously doubt you will see any significant progress anytime soon, at least for the next 5 to 10 years. I'm not sure if anybody cares enough to do something about this. You don’t hear anybody talking about this issue anymore.
CP: What did you learn from your experience living in Second Life?
MG: With art, sometimes you don’t know exactly what you are doing or what you are trying to express, until you reflect upon it later. The #secondlife365 project gave me the opportunity to live in Second Life, and create as much art as I could in a year, wearing the Second Life aesthetics. It was inevitable that this project would be more personal than others, because my avatar was a virtual representation of the RL Michael Green.
You can find hidden portals to your being when exploring in a virtual world. I lived many different lives; I was Michael Green, role playing as Artist, as Troll, as Drunkard, as Dad, as Officer, as Beggar, as Death Row Inmate. In the end, I ended up created a mythology of my own autobiography. Because it was mandatory for my avatar to “deactivate” when the project concluded, I had the unique experience of knowing what the process of death was like. My personal life ambition was simulated, hypothetically, through the #secondlife365 project. My avatar did not fulfill his prophesy. In the end, Michael Green held Michael Green back, until it was too late. My avatar was defiant towards death, doing everything possible to accomplish his life mission, right until the very last second.
My relationship with Second Life is complex. There were many conflicts I had with the Second Life community. I could never dream of being controversial if I tried. I was just being myself. Sometimes your truth is misunderstood. The project itself allowed me to explore the depths of my own truth, and I think #secondlife365 accurately represented the process of trying to find your way in a virtual community. There were truly extraordinary moments I experienced in there. I love Second Life in my own way, and if I am ever resurrected, I have an alt ready for Easter Sunday.
#secondlife365, #OMGNYE2015 OMGV6, moments before his "deactivation"
CP: Have you experimented at all with VR?
MG: Recently I have been working with 360 video. Although not true VR, it is easily accessible for people to interact with. Google Cardboard is relatively inexpensive, and it can be viewed with an iPhone or laptop. The medium is fairly new, and there is much room for exploration and innovation. I am hesitant to jump into VR at the moment, although I am very interested in the medium. The main issue I have with VR is in presentation. Where do you show this work? Not many people own a VIVE or Oculus Rift, so posting online would be almost useless at this point, except for programmers and developers. Presenting it live in a venue or museum would be ideal, although it would limit the audience to whoever was physically present in the space.
Michael Green and Jónó Mí Ló, C V B 3 R W A R II. PROJECT DARPA, 360° video
CP: Can you tell us a little about your recent collaboration with the artist and musician Jónó Mí Ló?
MG: Jónó provided the original score for C V B 3 R W A R I-V, a five part 360 video series that explores the dangers of Artificial Intelligence. C V B 3 R W A R I-V follows a hypothetical scenario in the future where the US military has a monopoly of AI weaponry. The Technological Singularity is right around the corner. There are warning signs that the humans might have already lost control when an autonomous SmartWeapon “malfunctions” on the battlefield. The series concludes with the most horrific of doomsday outcomes, The Grey Goo Scenario, where all matter on Earth is consumed by nanobots. My biggest concern is that AI development may be rushed in order for a nation to have a political monopoly over other nations in the AI cyber weapon race. AI research should be developed thoroughly, with its philosophical implications being debated publicly.
I enjoy the collaborative process very much. Initially Jónó contacted me to direct a video. I thought the music he sent would work even better in a VR environment. There was definitely a Call Of Duty PS3 gamers vibe to it. The music was composed with a coded Max MSP patch, and the samples generated itself from an algorithm, which I thought was very meta, like it was composed by a cyborg. We sent over a few crazy ideas in Facebook messenger, then mutually conversed over production details and from there, the collaboration was a subtle process of allowing the concept to develop and take shape.
CP: Rampant consumerism has been a consistent theme in you work, why does that fascinate you?
CP: Who do you think your audience is?
MG: I think it depends on the project I am working on. I am a shape-shifter of aesthetics and mediums. I like to take dramatic left and right turns. It is a survival mechanism for me to keep morphing into new shapes and forms, or I will get bored. It is understandable that I may have a demographic of an audience that likes some of the things I do, but honestly I have no way of knowing. According to the latest Facebook data, 98 percent of men have watched my latest video in a 24-hour period. What does this even mean? I doubt that is even true. My Facebook artist page currently has 825 followers, then how is it that my latest work has generated only 2 likes? I have a theory that I may actually have zero followers. It is too easy to fall adrift into the labyrinth of web statistic analysis.
Walt Disney Pictures Presents ‘EMOJIS IN 3-D’ - A PIXAR ANIMATION STUDIOS PRODUCTION, 2016
CP: What are you currently working on?
MG: Nothing major at the moment. Upcoming is more about refining my 3D modeling skills and focusing on how to improve the overall quality of my work. Recently, I have discovered new techniques on how to achieve a hyperrealistic render. This is a game changer for me. I have entered the epoch of my “Pixar Period.”
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he'll be selecting a Web Artist of the Week.
(Image at top: #balloondogdeflated. All images: Courtesy of Michael Green)
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