Jogging and Motel Selfies
An Interview with Photographer Michael Max Mcleod
Last July, Mike McLeod and I took completely separate photo-centric road trips across the country. I was on my way to Minneapolis for summer camp, and he was headed to New York and back with directions to two hundred adult video arcades—not surprising for Mike. He self-publishes his photographs, which are often rooted in the darkest corners of the male psyche, under the imprint Goodbye Ranch. His zine series Casual Encounters is currently on view at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam as part of an AA Bronson-curated exhibition within an exhibition. The following interview happened in sporadic bursts of text messages over a three-week period after we ran into each other – thanks to social media – on my first night out of town.
I. MEDIEVAL KITSCH
THE BELIEVER: Where are you right now?
MICHAEL MCLEOD: I’m at the Art Institute in Chicago. I just took candy from a Felix Gonzales-Torres sculpture. I’m Instagramming myself pretending to step on Carl Andres and touch Eva Hesses.
BLVR: Why do you keep deleting your Instagram account every few months and making a new one?
MM: I get overwhelmed and delete all of my social media accounts thinking, “That’s it, no more Internet,” but I always come back. Instagram is keeping me company while I drive across the country.
BLVR: I actually re-installed Instagram on my phone for this drive to Minneapolis. I’m glad we both had that impulse, because it let us know we were in Amarillo at the same time. When I saw you there you had just come from photographing a sex shop in an old train car. Do I have that right?
MM: It was sort of unbelievable, you and I ending up in the same Texas town on the same day right across the street from each other. It was an adult video arcade in a converted train station. I never could’ve imagined the ramshackle homemade porn shops I found in Amarillo. Pretty amazing and a little terrifying – converted barns, steel sheds. It’s that porno vernacular I’m after. Lately I’ve been calling it “medieval kitsch.”
BLVR: Medieval kitsch comes through in the photographs. There are times when it looks like you are exploring torture chambers, and the way you are photographing – blasting things with flash – seems like you are investigating crime scenes, but the pictures somehow retain some sensitivity. There’s a lot of fantasy even in the dankest, dirtiest, most hopeless scenes. You told me in Texas that you have two-hundred of these sex shops mapped out on your trip. How much variation is there among these places?
MM: Yes, torture chambers. Or psychological reprogramming labs. There’s this weird parallel with the Internet, too. These video booths are not much more than a chair, a button, a screen, and a way to feed the machine money. They’re all the same in that way, but they’re all different too. There’s definitely a standard-issue video arcade, all of which look the same. But some arcades are so outlandishly different. I get really excited about photographing those.
Legal issues surrounding the arcades differ as well. In some cities, mirrors have to be installed in each booth. In others, the booths can’t have doors; some can only have half-doors. Some have had all the glory-holes sealed over if they were outlawed. These little spaces are definitely contested as far as what a community deems acceptable.
I have mixed feelings about them. Adult video arcades are crushingly sad, the way that video and a hole in the wall has to be a social lubricant for what often goes on between men. But they’re also wonderful social pressure valves. Someone who’s conflicted between culture and desire can find freedom for a dollar.