Michael Edward Miller | Navigating Identity in the Digital Age

Michael Edward Miller (BFA, 2019) and his work appear to be both quiet and confident. His black and white static imagery had a commanding presence at The Show which sparked a lot of questions about him and his practice. I met Michael for coffee to have an unfiltered discussion about going through art school and how our work is impacted by the world around us.

“Emily Carr University presented me with the opportunity to inform my painting practice with other mediums,” shared Michael. “I didn’t take another painting course until the end of my third year.” This exploration has allowed him to form a thriving practice that is not situated in a singular medium, but borrowing from many.

When looking at his work in The Show, it’s evident Michael’s practice is heavily influenced by the digital generation – in this case, videogames. “The interactive tropes and aesthetic motifs of videogames have influenced my practice greatly,” said Michael. “The static is a motif referencing my own life and what I grew up with.”

I've lost control again by Michael Edward Miller

Like many Millennials, disdain for the categorization aside, Michael grew up with the transition of the internet becoming mainstream and highly accessible within our homes. “I grew up in a very religious suburb in Abbotsford and although I was isolated, I had the internet,” shared Michael. His parents were early adopters of the technology as his father ran his own business. Michael was first able to see the slow-loading websites of the 90s when he was three or four. “I think I might have seen the very first Sailor Moon website,” laughed Michael.

Michael and I discussed what it’s like to see the world shift with technology, especially as an artist. “I think I was five or six when we got a computer for the home,” shared Michael. “We had dial-up internet. We had time slots as kids for when we had ‘computer time,’ and it was all we fought about growing up. World War III in my house was always over the computer or videogames. I grew up on that.” The familiarity in Michael’s story makes me laugh because for many people in our generation, that is a universal story.

As his identity as a gay man started to take centre stage when growing up, Michael began to use the internet as an escape. “When I was young enough not to think about how I was different, it didn’t affect me. I was very outgoing and popular at that time,” shared Michael. “As soon as that came into play, I became very introverted and almost obsessively shy. I just hid on the internet and with videogames.” It’s why the internet, computers and videogames are so integral to Michael’s practice and identity.

What is special about Michael’s work, is that while it is deeply personal to his own life, it is abstract enough for the viewer to interpret it based on their own identity. We talked about this universal connection presented in the work as an intentional choice. “I make work because of my own life experience, but I’m looking to connect with the viewer through a common experience, emotion, or issue with identity,” said Michael. “Instead of the work being overtly personal, I’m creating access points for the viewer.”

I've lost control again (right side painting, detail) by Michael Edward Miller

Michael’s work in The Show, I’ve lost control again, is about the body malfunctioning, chaos and control, and being disconnected from your own identity. The static pattern was created through vinyl stencils – and for those of us who have ever weeded vinyl, you can only imagine the time it takes to remove individual pixels from a surface with a needle. “The actual process of painting this work is about chaos and control, but it’s also about the painful process of being trapped by these stencils,” said Michael. “It’s reflective of how I have felt over the last decade in my own body while I was working through the difficult experience of my body not functioning as it should – trapped and feeling like I couldn’t escape it.”

Having lived on his own since age 16, Michael notes that his earlier work was about this disconnection from family and his identity and trying desperately to reform that connection in his work by connecting it to the happy memories of videogames. “At the time, I wasn’t in close touch with my family, so I yearned for that connection,” said Michael. “I felt disconnected from my own body and was looking for a way to control anything that felt like it was dissolving into chaos. I felt like people brushed off my earlier work as just being superficial videogame pop art, and maybe in some ways it was, but I was inserting the viewer into the narrative as the avatar so it had greater meaning to me.”

“Since then my practice has developed and the work operates on more levels” said Michael. “At the same time, I’m still dealing with that subject matter although I’ve taken a slightly different approach. I’m very interested in the real. Being able to effect the real is radical to me.”

I've lost control again (right side painting) by Michael Edward Miller

The major shift in Michael’s practice occurred while he was at ECU. “I didn’t realize how ignorant I was before coming to art school,” said Michael. “Being at Emily Carr really contextualized my practice and allowed me to articulate my work.” Reflecting on art school pushing you outside of your comfort zone while also being graded on experimental work is a learning curve. “Grading feels very subjective with art,” said Michael. “I would love for art school to be a pass or fail situation as opposed to consuming myself with worry over my GPA. However, I came to university to learn and be challenged. With each new medium I was forced to reframe the way I was working to come out on the other side with a new way of thinking.”

“I’m very grateful I decided to come back to school as a mature student,” shared Michael. “I had incredible faculty who pushed me to my limits.” In terms of advice for those who are going to be in Foundation this year, Michael has shared some wisdom.

“I think if I started my degree over again, I would have never looked at a grade I was given and allowed myself to be even more experimental” said Michael. “Coming through this final year, I realized my work and journey speaks louder than my grades. Someone just needed to tell me to chill. Ultimately, you need to speak from your personal experience in this world. That is your unique voice and it’s valuable to share it. Take risks because this is the only time you really can without consequence.”

Michael laughed and said, “One last thing – you can sleep when you’re dead.”

Drawing on a range of sources from digital media to everyday and popular culture, Vancouver-based artist Michael Edward Miller’s work is concerned with exploring and critiquing the ways in which postmodern technologies impact and shape new kinds of human subjects and inform aesthetics.

A recent graduate of Emily Carr University, Miller’s current work addresses the human condition, identity construction, and the physical body through painting, installation, sculpture and ceramics.

“I’ve lost control again” is about navigating the loss of identity, the dichotomy and inseparability of chaos and control, and the human experience of surviving trauma. Static, or “white noise”, is the randomly generated pixel pattern that appears when analog television sets are disconnected from their transmission source. The intricately painted static pattern serves as a visual metaphor of the internal experience of becoming disconnected from one’s body, identity and the breakdown of physical functionality. The material process of this work speaks to chaos and control through the way the precise stenciling method controls the chaotic properties of the spray paint

Michael’s work was selected for one of the Nudelman Collection Awards, a series of awards funded by Andre Nudelman. Andre tours The Show with an independent jury each year and hand-selects pieces by students that become a part of his private collection.

A number of awards provided through the generosity of donors will be provided to students participating in The Show. Award winners are selected by their works, their GPA, or a combination of the two. A complete list of recipients for the 2019 student awards is available here.