Michael Portnoy, improves

Piero Bisello

We delve into the career changes and improvements of New York based artist Michael Portnoy through his work as shoemaker and absurdist pornographer.

Among the images coming up when one googles “career change,” there is one of a fish jumping from a smaller bowl into a bigger one. It is an image of desperation, as a fish in a bigger bowl is still a fish in a bowl. Perhaps the irony has to do with that corporate feeling that the term “career change” brings about: from sales manager to senior accountant, you still deal with that 45-minute commute 5 days a week, and yet you see the improvement. But there are different kinds of career changes and improvements, those of Michael Portnoy for example.

The New York based artist formerly known as stand up comedian, singer, and dancer, is embarking into two new careers at once: absurdist pornographer and shoemaker; an improvement, in the Portnoyan sense of the word at least. In this piece we aim at unraveling what kind of shoemaker he is, and what kind of absurdist pornographer too. We then move on to talking about his improvements.

Necklaces, White Mutes, Shoes

michael portnoy
Michael Portnoy URGENT, 2020, Installation shot at Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam. Photo: Robert Glas. Courtesy Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam

A new fashion line is born. It is called URGENT, like the issues it tries to solve. It specializes in necklaces, white mutes, and shoes. Its designer Michael Portnoy developed the project partly in connection with previous theater and performance pieces of his. For example, the necklaces could be seen playing an important role in “Touching on Everything,” a play commissioned by the Steirischer Herbst in Graz in 2018, dealing with everything that needs to be dealt with. The white mutes are literally ceramic sticks to dress your mouth, and shut you up if you are an “annoying white man.” The shoes, which stand out as quintessential issue-solvers, are described this way by Portnoy:

These shoes use frontline technologies not only to represent issues, but to actually solve them. For instance, there is one shoe called The Permafrost Warden, which has a snout in the front sniffing pathogens that have been recently released into the air from the ancient ice that’s melting because of climate change, and it irradiates them instantly with UV lights. And there is another shoe that has these veins filled with Oxytocin, a chemical in your brain responsible for social bonding. The shoe injects the neurochemical into the bloodstream of the wearer, instilling a sense of empathy between them and the people they might dislike.

michael portnoy
Michael Portnoy, The Veracity Footgoggles, 2020.

How to function in a world where facts are increasingly harder to discern? The Veracity Footgoggles let the user feel their way through the ambiguity by gently stroking the sole of the foot in the presence of truth and causing a quick muscle cramp for lies.

Alike the necklaces, we speculate that performance has a direct connection to the URGENT shoes too. Their daring shapes are witness to the hand gestures that brought them into being, and the fully developed storytelling is as important to understand them as the theatre play was for the necklaces. It is as though Michael Portnoy’s new career as a shoemaker could not do without some bits and pieces from his life on stage. Despite being much better versions of normal shoes, we were assured that the URGENT shoes serve all the traditional functions too. They are fairly warm, for example. On the contrary, they can be painful too, as they restrict certain behaviours.


On a different note, Michael Portnoy has also been a busy videomaker. His piece Progressive Touch is a series of four art films of people having absurd sex. Not all sex on screen is pornography of course, but a lot of it is, and we wondered how Progressive Touch fared in the porn/not porn debate. The artist told us that

people have all kinds of definitions of pornography, and it’s usually understood as something whose primary purpose is to produce sexual arousal in viewers. Some conservative and close-minded people might consider Progressive Touch to be just pornography, even though I definitely did not design it for arousal. I’d be very surprised if someone was aroused! For me, Progressive Touch, with its intricate music and patterns is more like watching math than porn.

Michael Portnoy
Still from Michael Portnoy’s Progressive Touch, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

We have already delved into the topic of artists using sex in their work, for example Omer Fast and his quite realistic picture of pornography and its industry (here the link to the article), and Zoe Williams, whose artwork prompted our attempt at drawing a line between pornorgrapy and erotica (“the former exposes us to the worst forms of manipulation while the latter speaks of one of our highest capacities, that is imagination–” here the link to the article). Compared to Fast’s work, Portnoy takes a big step away from realism and documentation, coming up with a version of how and where people will do it in the future. In other words, from description to prescription. As to the difference between pornography and erotica, according to Portnoy

erotica needs a level of seriousness. Aesthetically speaking, Progressive Touch might feel like erotica, for example in the use of beautifully lit sets as opposed to the bright HD aesthetic of mainstream porn. The environments of Progressive Touch are minimal, with lots of haze, they leave a lot to the imagination.

Michael Portnoy
Michael Portnoy, Progressive Touch, 2019 three-channel HD-video installation, 13 min. sound 3 projection-screens forming an architecture. Video is commissioned by steirischer herbst ’19, coproduction with Vleeshal Center for Contemporary Art, Middelburg, and supported by Chris Fitzpatrick. Installation view Vleeshal Photo: Gunnar Meier. Courtesy Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam and the artist.

While watching Progressive Touch, we found ourselves giggling and all of a sudden we remembered Portnoy’s career in comedy. What if those videos were designed to provoke laughter more than sexual arousal? Furtherly, can sex be funny, can jokes be sexual? In the artist’s opinion

it is difficult for something that induces sexual arousal to be ironic. If you are having sex with someone and you start laughing, you still are within a sexual scenario, but like a seesaw, it suddenly tips to the humour side, and to get back into the sexual you need to get serious again. They are two very different wavelengths.

And yet, there is some uncanny mix of sex and laughter in Progressive Touch, like a cocktail whose ingredients are randomly put together, except it still tastes good because one of those ingredients prevails on all the others. This core of Progressive Touch was revealed to us when Portnoy explained his conception of improvement, a big key to his entire practice.

Make something better

Let’s begin the section with the artist’s words:

One of the mechanics I like to use in my work is what I call improvement, not meant as making something better but making it more complicated, more intricate, more confusing. For instance, I take jokes and all of their typical features, and then I just make them much more complex and abstract. Regular jokes have a clear protagonist, a clear plot, a clear punch line. In my jokes, all of these elements are ambiguous, as when you have way too many factors and too many incongruities to give you a satisfying kick at the end.

In Progressive Touch, all the features of pornography and sex on screen are made so much more complex and confusing that it is hardly recognizable as belonging to any of the categories we know. Even that judge who once said he could not define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it (Justice Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 US 184 (1964)) would have a hard time to tell. Generally speaking, the idea of Portnoyan improvement is that you “take the thing and you permute it to such a degree that you create a new breed from it. It’s not just a form of critique, it is to fuck with something so much that you make it unrecognizable.” That thing can of course be anything, including other artist’s art, which Portnoy has been improving for some of his previous works. Perhaps another item in his already long list of careers.

As a last example of improvement, we want to share one of Portnoy’s carrot jokes, where he exploits theories from cognitive linguistics for his comedy. Feel good if you find it funny, don’t feel bad if you don’t.

This carrot joke leaves a lot to the imagination. Well, at least this much is clear: there are two ducks in the room, one in the sink and in excess of ten in the bedroom. There are also several men near the ducks who are also pretending to be near the ducks, or overstating their proximity. These men have wives or at least have had some, or, have had some parts of them, intensely. Those parts are called duck-I’m-ready, duck-I’m-slipping, or duck-I’ve-lost-track, respectively. Which seems to be the reason the men are pretending to be near the ducks even though they are clearly near the ducks. Through the window right behind the SCHOWLORT! [pronounced monstrously in the back of the throat] is an enormous mediated radiator which the SCHOWLORT! removed from where the SCHOWLORT! is standing presently and placed outside the room, in the Opathic Sorium. It’s crystal clear that the SCHOWLORT! considers the radiator mediated in that the radiator intervened in his understanding of what acclimatizes ducks to suspect settings. So, this much is established. Now what is less clear is: what, if anything, does the – excuse me, I’ll just use the English pronunciation from now on, “schowlort” [gentler] – what does the schowlort intend for the viewer by sheathing the punch line in parboiled duck fat and placing it aside the sink like some kind of soap? My hands aren’t even dirty yet!

From pornography to math, from shoes to jokes, from bowl to bowl, we get the feeling that the overarching message in Portnoy’s practice of improvement is that his practice is what he is really fucking with.

November 25, 2020