Interview with Michael Lewis

As we begin our new cycle of A POSSIBLE PRACTICE, we welcome our nine featured artists to reflect on how the world keeps ending, and the world goes on. In this series of interviews, we’ll discover more about each artist’s work, their practices, and what it means to be making art during this time of intense global change. Michael Lewis is a Portland-based multidisciplinary artist currently exploring ways to track, compile, and transform daily apocalypses into art. 

When we selected Franny Choi’s poem “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” in December 2019, we could not have envisioned the ways we would each be asked to accept new levels of grief and apocalypse into our daily lives. What initially drew you to this poem? How has your understanding of the poem changed since then? What elements / images / phrases strike you most now?

The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning” was a Smashing Pumpkins song from the Batman & Robin movie soundtrack.  I remember the song being a bit of a disappointment, a precursor to Ava Adore, but in no way the rock anthem of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The best part of the song was the title, except that I’ve always mistaken it for “The End Is the Beginning Is the End.” Without a doubt this has helped to form my feelings of faith, of love, loss, country, and time.

Franny Choi’s “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” communicates in the same vernacular. I find myself asking if there is such a thing as a disaster or an apocalypse, or is it all just known behavior? “The Apocalypse in the textbooks’ silence…” There is an emptiness in society’s attempt to “make up” for atrocities of the past.  

White fragility is a thing.  “The World Keeps Ending…” reads to me as a counterpoint argument of being “woke.”  Things have always been this way. We just cannot agree and no amount of education or post-baccalaureate prognostication can really gloss that over.  We are a walking series of apocalypses, but only in that we must sell the drama in order to feel as if we have really been there.

What are you planning to create for this cycle? How does your work relate to the themes in “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On”?

I am making a series of collages from newspapers, magazines, personal watercolors, drawings, and prints culled from the detritus of one representative of the present. Simultaneously, I am plotting the points of daily atrocities, my own personal apocalypses, as a parent, graduate student, and now virtual professor.

As I create the collages I will add visualizations of my plotted data over top of and working into the works, a document selling my own drama. At the culmination of my painting work, I’ll be recording a soundtrack and creating a tape cassette which will be presented as the final art piece with the collages appropriated as the J Card.

In the past couple of months, we have been asked as a culture to take in, synthesize, and understand data. Charts, graphs, exponential growth… How do you use your creative practice to organize the “data” of your days? In what ways do you envision art helping us process this kind of quantitative information?

There is a tendency for people to separate themselves from data and algorithms, but the truth of the matter is that people are the data, the algorithms just a translation to another language created by other human beings. It is senseless for people to continue attempting to separate themselves from data.

The thing that is deceptive about data and graphs is that they are created by human beings using information about people. We think of data as fact, but think about it, if someone wants to make our presidents’ numbers look good for the news, how could we do that? It would be easy to take a relatively large sample of people who would be in support of the president if we went to a known republican area of the country. While a sample of 2000 people sounds representative of many, it may not be if that 2000 people is from rural America or Alabama for instance.  

However, numbers and graphs can also serve as a way to more comfortably “read” the overwhelming amount of information which feels like it is attacking us. By breaking things down into numbers we are actually opting for a similar behavior as a Gestalt Theory. Our brains desire order and strive for a sort of simplicity recognizing shapes and patterns. Thereby it is only natural that charts, graphs and numbers would ease our minds in a similar manner as traditionally accepted artwork.

You often work in series: a set of zines, an edition of cassettes, a line of paintings. What draws you to the format? What possibilities open up when you approach work in this way?

To me, artwork is about recognizing patterns, analogies, and rituals.  By making the actual art making process recursive it recognizes the question that is central to our lives; why are we here and what are we doing?  Generally we approach our days in patterns, but why? What is the purpose of doing roughly the same thing for thousands of days in a row? My work becomes an exploration of the inane, the everyday, which is also everything.

To me, artwork is about recognizing patterns, analogies, and rituals.  By making the actual art making process recursive it recognizes the question that is central to our lives; why are we here and what are we doing?

How does your practice engage with processing personal and/or collective grief through art?

I am a terrible verbal communicator.  I can never actually process, develop, and formulate a thought vocally.  I need to look at the patterns. I need to sit with the weight of it in front of me. I require a 2D surface to function cohesively with other people.

What are you listening to / reading / looking at right now?

I have been reading and watching a lot of Dan Jones, a historian from Britain. He has a short series on Netflix, Great British Castles, and a number of books; I am currently in the midst of Crusaders. I appreciate how he takes a rock n roll sort of approach to storytelling, absolving history of its lameness accentuated by Ben Stein-ish sounding professors.

I have shifted almost entirely back into hip-hop lately, enjoying the mesh of Jay-Z’s aggressive rhymes over smooth and catchy mixes. Cut Chemist has been releasing a new mix every day of the pandemic shut down. Chemist has a similar love for old R&B and Motown as so many of the hip-hop greats of the eighties. I’ve also been missing Phife Dawg in a big way since reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on a Tribe Called Quest last summer and so have been listening to We Got it From Here… in attempts to finally process saying goodbye.

Describe your practice space.

I had to let my studio go last fall. I have a corner in my wife’s and my bedroom with a pile of cassettes and a ton of baseball cards and zines. It’s not for everybody, but it’s for me.

What is an important message you’ve recently received?

My friend KT sends me memes on Twitter when I am having a hard time, well all of the time really. It’s a pretty steady stream of cute puppies and kittens and wild animals acting domestic. It’s fab, and it gets me by.

What wise words do you carry with you into your practice?

Seen in plain daylight
The firefly’s nothing but
An insect

What is one important thing you’ve done for your creative practice / general nourishment lately?

I effectively took a two year break from art making. Sure, I made a daily watercolor drawing in my sketchbook and I made a few zines, but in the sense of a constantly producing artist, I was fairly still. I’ve been pursuing a Masters in Library Science and Information Studies, which at the beginning felt like a complete cop out to attempt to shift gears, make money, and focus on my family, but as I sit with what I’ve learned, I realize that it may have been the best thing I could have done for my creative process. I find myself needing to work on my drawing chops a bit, they are a bit rusty, but I also find that I see information in a way that I’ve never seen it before. It’s like food for creative output not something to make art about, but the very essence of what I’m doing. ✽

An artist based out of Portland, Maine, Michael Lewis, a former New Yorker, works as a librarian and educator during the day. His work has undergone a number of metamorphoses, but now looks like a series of watercolors, collages, and zine projects exploring awareness of environment and interpersonal relationships.


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