Long before Tim & Eric made a career out of avant-garde parodies of commercial culture, American video artist Michael Smith cultivated an alternative persona to do just the same. Meet “Mike,” the lovably simple, middlebrow hero of Smith’s ongoing (now decades-long) series of art videos, “Mike’s World.” In Smith’s own words, “Mike” is “a modern-day Candide,” perennially confused and overwhelmed by technology, glued to routine and infinitely suggestible. He is, in other words, the perfect consumer, naïve enough to be molded by whatever advertisement or scrap floats his way.
In the inaugural (and my favorite) video from the “Mike’s World” series, “Secret Horror,” we are treated to scenes of Mike whining over spilling his bridge mix (his favorite snack), being overwhelmed by appliances that gnaw at his attention, and getting abducted by sheet-wearing ghosts—themselves manifestations of the ghosts in the television to which he is addicted.
The character “Mike” first appeared in the early 1980s, at the beginning of the computer revolution and the tail end of Generation X’s reign—appropriately, the first generation of Americans to have been reared on color television since their birth. Likewise, Mike’s world is a purely visual one: sensory overload and commercial clichés abound in “Go For it Mike!” What exactly Mike will “go for” remains unclear; the sensation the music video gives is akin to that of missing the last five seconds of a commercial, hearing the pitch but not the call to action. It’s an emotion that Tim & Eric borrow for their commercial parodies, though their cultural deconstructions are disruptive where Michael Smith’s are subtle; one wonders if they were perhaps inspired by him, despite his comparative obscurity.
Watching Mike and his actors prance around on screen is uncannily reminiscent of the educational videos I watched as a child in the early 1990s in my public elementary school, these worn VHS tapes the teachers recorded from public access stations. It feels like Smith and Fischer made a checklist of 1980s educational video tropes. Jingoism? Check. Cowboy backdrop? Check. Actors culled from community theater? Yup. And it’s all just as weirdly saccharine as we remembered.