MIXED MEDIUM: MICHAEL BURK

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Words by Conor Riley.

Brooklyn-via-Orlando photographer and mixed-media artist Michael Burk and I initially met on a social networking app which will not be named, but didn’t start working together – or actually meet in real life, rather – for quite a long time after those initial texts back and forth. This was (what feels like) long before I started working for OAK, and the first time we met face to face I totally decided to bite his style (he was wearing these metal collar tips you could buy on eBay for a steal). We also began a working relationship that continues to this day with two of his latest projects: our SS13 Fleece editorial, and our Movement editorial. I recently caught up with him (we do Mondays at a bar in Williamsburg for RuPaul’s Drag Race) to talk about his work, Orlando culture, and what makes someone a New Yorker.

CONOR RILEY: How did your time in Orlando, Florida inform your work?
MICHAEL BURK: I went to college in Orlando and I found the landscape to be incredibly mundane– so much so, in fact, that the mundanity started to inspire me. I’d drive around late at night in my ’83 Toyota station wagon and pull over to photograph weird, ugly storefront displays and crap on the side of the road, looking for those subtle nuances that make Suburbia so interesting in the most boring way. I was also taking a lot of photos at local gay dive bars and clubs, and I started noticing visual patterns and puns within unrelated images. I decided to string them together into series that told a sort of funny story about the landscape around me.

CR: Tell our readers a little bit about the Orlando gay scene. How does it compare to New York?
MB: The gay scene in Orlando holds a special place in my heart because it’s where I spent my college years. Most of the bars are super crappy, but that’s kind of nice in the sense that you don’t feel like you have to impress anyone. There’s a really amazing place called the Parliament House, which is in a pretty bad part of town, and is one of my favorite places on Earth. It’s this huge resort that looks essentially unchanged since the 70s, on a fake beach, with hotel rooms encircling a pool and a giant Queer As Folk-style discotheque. It’s really seedy and there are some really colorful characters there. I think in New York you can find any kind of gay scene you want, because there are people from so many different places and cultures here. The social dynamic is definitely different here, but that’s too big of a discussion to have right now.

CR: I’ve never been to Disney World. How many times have you been? Is it better as a kid or adult, and why?
MB: I’ve only been there a few times, when I was a little kid. Theme parks are to Orlando what Times Square and the Statue of Liberty are to NYC– when you live near them, you kind of try to avoid them. I very briefly dated a guy who worked as a puppeteer at the Magic Kingdom. That was a weird experience on many of levels.

CR: To you, what makes someone a New Yorker?
MB: I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that yet, because I’ve only been living here for about 3 years, but I’d say a New Yorker is someone who doesn’t ever give up, has a huge tolerance for bullshit, and a sense of humor that keeps them optimistic in what can be an incredibly dark atmosphere at times.

CR: When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
MB: I’m not sure I even know what I want to be when I group up yet. Photography is just one of many ways I express my ideas. To me I guess the message is more important than the medium. I enjoy the image-making process, and photography is an accessible way of doing that. I’m having fun with it and seeing where it takes me!

CR: What’s your dream project?
MB: Hmm.. I don’t really know. I just want to develop a recognizable aesthetic and a reputation that makes people want ‘The Michael Burk Touch’ for their brand, project, etc. Does that make sense?

CR: It does. Who or what has been your biggest influence, in your work or otherwise?
MB: I think just the environments I’ve grown up in and the people and things I’ve been surrounded by have really influenced my aesthetic and outlook. I think a lot of young artists nowadays grow up in the suburbs and they struggle with the fact that they aren’t from an exotic place or have some crazy story about how they were raised by gorillas or survived religious persecution, but I think everyone’s story is important and relevant to the art they create. If it’s not coming from an authentic place, then it’s not really worth paying attention to.

CR: You work a lot with still-life, what about this process do you enjoy?
MB: I like working with still-life because it validates the fact that I collect so much junk.

CR: What are you currently working on?
MB: I’ve started a series of still-life images that revolve around items I’ve found in thrift stores. I go thrifting a lot and I find these objects that have a sort of funny or sardonic quality to them that I really like. Sometimes I alter them, sometimes I leave them as I found them. The series isn’t really fully-realized yet, but one of the main ideas is a collection of ‘sad things’. I like the idea of describing such an intense and universal human emotion through kitschy trinkets and figurines. I also really like the over-arching idea that all the objects in the photos were once thrown away, given away, etc. Sometimes I find something and I think to myself, ‘Why the hell does this exist and how did it and up here?’. I think the same thing about myself sometimes.

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