Visual Arts

The Artist Currently Known As Michael 23

Michael 23 is an artist whose art has taken many forms. At the moment, he's into robotics.

"I try to understand how technology works in order to protect the survival of the species against it," he says.

Michael does that in a studio called Thought Crime located near Third Street and Roosevelt, which he shares with five other local artists. The space is cavernous, with high ceilings. The only natural light filters through the glass front door. In the entrance there's a massive wooden church pew, a display case with exotic trinkets, a loft above a cubby with a hissing espresso machine and a post-natal calico cat licking her swollen nipples.

"This area used to be an artists' co-op trading post," Michael says during a recent tour, cradling an espresso (a vice he's trying to quit). "I plan on bringing it back with more locally produced usable goods."

Barefoot, dressed in cargo pants and a "Food Not Bombs" tee shirt, the artist has several tattoos, ritualistic scars, piercings and a modified mullet -- all of which, he says, have complex personal meaning. His tattoo of an astronaut with butterfly wings symbolizes his fascination with the "frontier," or future, which was perhaps most apparent when he married his wife, Joanna, in 2000 wearing a full space suit ensemble. His hair changes are cyclical -- rotating among a "shaven" (which he calls a "baby"), "long," "warrior" and "monk" look.

"Hair is like a protein-based tape recording of the biochemical event of your existence," he says.

Intrigued? That's nothing. This is a guy who once planned to light himself on fire in the name of art, but Tempe police intervened. Today, his fire art performances are better planned and safer, and the show always goes on. For the first Cyber Arts Festival, held in 1992 in Los Angeles, he constructed a spectacular 38-foot robotic crucifix, which was later filmed by the BBC. He has published and printed several subversive publications including "Thought Crime," which is on hiatus after four hefty issues. (The goal is ultimately to release 23 issues.)

Two years ago, Michael created a very personal work -- 23 teleportation portals resembling highly lacquered wooden Frisbees with the quote, "We're All Here to Go!" The discs are what he calls "shaper technology" or "conceptual art pushed a little further into something more concrete." It was an attempt, he says, to put conceptual art into a sellable package, and it worked.

"Basically, I'm advocating a new form of human ability," he explains, "to teleport or move from one place to another without all the steps in between. The idea is that in order to do something you've never done before, you have to think about it a lot. And if it's something your species has never done before, you have to think about it a real lot."

Yet, for the time being, Michael 23 continues to transport himself around town in a weathered '66 Volvo.

From the entrance of his studio, a short hallway leads through another room to a space where Michael's office adjoins with a kitchen and the "Anarchist's Library." A chartreuse velveteen couch sits below books shelved to the ceiling. Michael's a self-professed workaholic, and his office is chaos, with papers and towers of technical equipment. The kitchen, another functional mess, has a bowl of onions with a sign: "community onions because we love you." "Almost everyone here is vegetarian," says Michael, including himself.

Throughout the studio there are several closed doors -- artists at work. Down another hall is an orange shower with a mural and crumbling plaster, a tiny bathroom that smells of cat poop, and a back room jammed with tools, computers and printing press equipment.

Unlike many downtown Phoenix artists, Michael 23 is wary of the success of First Fridays. On the board of the local nonprofit Artlink, he now helps organize the events, trying to control what he believes has become spectator sport, with onlookers far outnumbering artists.

"The beauty of the downtown arts community in the past," he explains, "was the socially organic brushing of wings with other inspired people. This has been replaced by endless networking, meetings and art shows."

Finally, why 23 as a moniker? Michael -- who declines to share his former last name -- likes it because it's "strange and mystical." And, he says, it represents William S. Burroughs' theory that word is virus. "It's my personal mythology that Burroughs chose an arbitrary symbol [23] and started collecting occurrences of it in newspapers. . . . It was an easy way for him to trace his work," Michael explains.

Now Michael 23 carries the virus. Where it goes from him is a mystery, but he's convinced it will travel into the future.

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Marnie McGann