Michael Jackson is a subject I have returned to many times – starting in 1998 with a live performance and video art piece that examined the incongruities between the construction of celebrities’ private and public lives. In 2004, I put together a live puppet show that illustrated allegations of animal abuse at Neverland Ranch. In 2005, I shot a puppet video centered on the singer’s relationship with a very special monkey. In 2009, the shock and horror upon receiving the news of Jackson’s passing via text led me to make a photographic series of obituary messages. I also spoke about Jackson frequently as a guest on Feast of Fun.
In 2009 I created a series of photographs documenting the barrage of texts I received about the untimely passing of the King and Pop. I was struck by the incongruity between the cold pixelated screen with the very personal message of a human being’s passage. I wanted to capture not only the shock and horror I felt receiving that very first SMS but the phenomena of what I termed as RIPsters on Feast of Fun.
RIPsters, A portmanteau of RIP (Rest In Peace) and Hipsters, are social media users with the compulsive need to be first in their network to announce the deaths of celebrities that have become all too common place a vulture-culture of sick star gazers.
Jackson’s Private Zoo was a short music video that celebrated the relationship between the reclusive pop star and a very special monkey. In Jackson’s Private Zoo, I cut out and animated drawings I sourced from the National Enquirer. The video’s soundtrack was an a cappella version of Beat It sung with Liz Hara (responsible for the foley of Van Halen’s guitar solo).
I filmed Jackson’s Private Zoo at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT with the Video Anarchy strand of the 2005 National Puppetry Conference. At the time, Jackson had been embroiled in his second protracted child abuse trial as a result of Martin Bashir’s controversial documentary, Living with Michael Jackson.
The initial screening at the O’Neill Theater Center happened to be just two days after his acquittal from seven counts of child molestation and two counts of administering intoxicating agents to children (what came to be known as “Jesus juice”). Subsequently, I showed Jackson’s Private Zoo in Providence at Perishable Theatre, in North Hollywood at California Institute for Abnormal Art, and in Austin at Salvage Vanguard.
The Adventures of Michael Jackson and the Animals of Neverland Ranch was a table-top, short-form puppetry piece that focused on allegations of Jackson’s animal abuse at Neverland Ranch. In the proscenium of an over-sized storybook, I animated photographic cut outs extracted from the paparazzi and tabloids.
I adapted Neverland Ranch from a section of Michael Jackson Was My Lover, a questionably sourced, pulp, tell-all about the King of Pop’s relationship with a teenager written by a former Hard Copy reporter who was successfully sued for slander after publication. The excerpt alleged substandard care of Jackson’s zoo animals, including incidents where Jackson threw stones at his pet lion, ordered security guards to burry a giraffe that died from overexposure, and engaged in sexual transgressions with chimpanzees, concluding in a trip to Disneyland with his child-friend.
I first performed Neverland Ranch in Pawtucket, RI at the Gamm Theatre, Rhode Island. I went on to present Neverland Ranch in Providence at Perishable Theater, and again during the Performance Studies International Conference. I also exhibited ephemera from Neverland Ranch at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
In King of Pop’s New Clothes, a reclusive pops star’s drug-fueled attempts at being loved through personal reinvention go horribly wrong when his public and private lives collide. The King of Pop’s New Clothes existed as both a live performance with projected video art and as a video art piece. I was not agreeing with or refuting allegations made against Jackson, but taking a hard look at America’s blood lust for knocking down public figures from the very pedestals we once elevated them to.
I was fascinated by the incongruities between the narrative of Jackson as soft spoken, innocent, child-like, talented, generous, and philanthropic and the counter-narrative of a calculating monster fueled by a raging, injured ego that could never be satiated by a seemingly endless narcissistic supply of manic fans, exotic animals, record sales, or children – especially terminally-ill and disabled children.
At the same time, as part of my course-work at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was researching postmodern gender theory, the abject body, post-humanism, and technologies that can drastically alter identity. Everything seemed to gel within Jackson as a problemagic contemporary “trans” figure, who not only transed gender codes, but also race, sexuality, age, and generational norms.
Michael Jackson represented many of the through lines I would explore in future projects. My commitment to off-beat characters whose private manias become public fodder for tabloids and reality television can be seen in pieces like Object of Her Affection and The Feeder. Themes of plastic surgery and the negotiation of identity in an ever shifting landscape of technologies that can drastically alter and remap the body have reappeared in pieces like Bride of Wildenstein – the Musical and Raggedy Ann to Real Doll. Crime as entertainment is a subject I am currently taking another look at in Model Killer Giant Crimes and Tiny Cover-Ups.