Photo courtesy of Mike and Claire

Every once in awhile, an artist duo comes around that are so wrapped up in their crazy, inside reference-filled world that it's hard to imagine how the two even made work apart from each other in the first place. Young NYC-based artists Mike Bailey-Gates and Claire Christerson are exactly this kind of BFF collaborative team, whose colorful and kooky photos and videos have a Cindy Sherman-meets-Ryan Trecartin quality. With a fantastic cast of characters under their belt, Mike and Claire have transformed their love for performance into an artistic universe of their own, which is only going to get bigger and bigger. We talked to the young artists about their process and the art of creating a persona.

So how did you two initially meet?

Mike: We met at the School of Visual Arts. We were in a critique class together freshman year. Claire was singing My Fair Lady in the dark room and I liked that movie a lot so we sort of became friends from there.

That's so cute!

Also, I remember one time Mike said if he wasn't doing [photography] he'd be doing set design and I said if I wasn't doing [photography] I'd be doing costume design, so we just fit together perfectly.

How exactly did you two first decide you wanted to do this "Mike and Claire" artistic collaboration together?

Mike: With a lot of our work, we present work separately on different sites and media platforms. Then we realized, if I did a project, Claire would help me with all of it, and if she did a project, I'd help her so we realized there was no point in separating something by names when we can just have it together as one thing.

And you both have similar aesthetics and artistic visions that go together, would you say?

Mike: It's funny because I think our practices are very separate and different. Claire, she has an idea and she works on it right away, whereas I get an idea and spend a week making things for it. When we work together, both of our styles work well together.

"No Commercials Just Adds" by Mike and Claire

How does the idea for a video first begin? What inspires you to make your videos?

Mike: Sometimes it will be as simple as one of us having an idea and writing it down in this big book of ideas we just want to do.

Claire: I would say it depends on the video, but most of the videos are improvised. We've never written a script or sat down and written it out. It's really fun to decide what you're doing right as you're filming.

And when it comes to creating the characters for your films, are you inspired by people you meet in real life? How do these characters come to you?

Claire: I think the inspiration comes from all over. There's this [British] show called The Mighty Boosh that I watched a lot when I was younger. I've always been really inspired by iconic types of music and performers and looking at what artists like Michael Jackson or David Bowie wore. I feel like a lot of these characters come from the experiences we've carried throughout our lives and collecting things in our head and things that we see.

Mike: I always think of Diane Arbus' characters meeting Ryan Trecartin's work. Or going to Jersey and thinking of that one, weird woman who lives in a perfect suburbia where things are just a little bit off. It's not that we're making freaks, we're making people who are living their lives and not really aware of what else is going on.

The clothes and the props are transformative in terms of making your characters, but where does it all come from?

Claire: We've collected it mostly but I make a lot of the clothes for the shoots, too. I remember back when we first became friends, Alexander McQueen would come up a lot -- that's actually how I learned to sew, by studying his clothing.

Mike: We have a lot. When we first moved into our apartment I didn't know how we were going to fit everything into it. Now we're running out of space already. We have a back room where we keep all of our fabric. We're sort of hoarders with clothes. We're constantly in thrift stores and we'll freak out if there's doubles of something.

You two mostly make videos together, but Claire, you also make clothing and you're both avid photographers. Set design and makeup are also integral to your work. Can you see yourselves sticking to one medium or is creating this entire visual package the best part?

Claire: I don't think there's any limit. That's why we make so many GIF series, too, because it's a happy middle ground between video and photography. It's kind of a fluid, moving around [medium]. We're more concerned with what's in the frame and figuring out which medium is going to fit that idea the best. 

Mike: I think we push the limit by painting a backdrop and doing the costumes and the makeup. Claire tends to think of things moving, but I tend to think of things as a still image, which is funny because when we're shooting with the green screen Claire will think more about the editing process later but I'll be concerned with lighting and making it perfect [as we're doing it.]

And you two use your friends a lot in your work. What's the biggest difference in terms of using friends over professional models?

Mike: I used to do a lot more fashion work and I'd work with professional models and I've always been a fan of people using friends as models. It's much more authentic. And all of our friends are artists in New York, so working with friends who are artists, you just get so much more out of it. Cyndi Lauper always used her relatives and friends in her music videos and we've always really liked that.

Claire: We have no issue using a model versus our friends -- right now it's just so much more enjoyable using our friends. They know what we want and it's nice to use a friend who we haven't used in our work before and just have them come and dance in front of the green screen. It's nice to see someone who's quiet in real life go crazy in front of the camera. We'll look at our friends and think they have this potential to be this crazy character.

If you could collaborate with someone, who would be your dream pick?

Claire: I think if we were to do a fashion film, it would probably be Comme des Garçons. But music videos are also that happy filler where you can pull from everything to make something really cool and Daft Punk would be a dream team we'd want to work with.

Who are some artists that you're inspired by?

Mike: Ryan Trecartin. I also really like choreographed work for photography like that by Alex Prager or Gregory Crewdson. Cindy Sherman, as well, because we use ourselves a lot in our work, too. And I know I'm really inspired by New York nightlife, especially queer, subculture events.

Claire: There's also this artist named Rachel Maclean, and she does a lot of amazing videos. Also, performers as well, and this idea of creating a persona. Nina Hagen is our latest heroine -- she's our new inspiration. And I think sometimes the influences don't even come from just people. We're inspired to be creating a new world that isn't entirely touched by humans in a way.

What's the future hold for you both?

Claire: We hope to bring more of these things to life and perform them on the stage. We want to work harder to take it off the screen.

Mike: A lot of our friends are performers and we even have this big stage in our backyard, so we have the resources and the friends who can contribute -- it's just a matter of getting the courage and time to go and do it.