The Australian publisher and artist Michael Salerno fell in love with Paris years ago and decided to stay. And though he did a radical change, his works are still related to his childhood. Far from what is sweet and pretty, the atmosphere and the emotions you have to engage within his artworks are dark and mysterious. Today, we talk with him about the richness and complexity of childhood, the world of zines, and his attraction to catastrophes.
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You are a photographer, artist, filmmaker and you also run a publishing house called Kiddiepunk. Who is Michael beside your many professions? You are Australian but you have a typical Italian surname. What are your origins?
Yeah, I’m from Melbourne, but my grandparents are Italian, hence the surname.
What brought you to Europe?
Just boredom, to be honest. I was pretty sick of living in Australia and I came to Paris in 2009 for a vacation and kind of fell in love with the place, so I never left.
You create collages, video/film and photos. How did you arrive to do what you are doing? What were your first steps? Where and how did you learn?
I never went to art school or anything like that, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve been making things and creating images. So in a very real sense, all of the things that I do now have their genesis in my childhood, in one form or other. I was always a bit of a loner. I preferred to be home, locked away in my bedroom making things and watching movies, so that’s what I did. Then, when I was a teenager, I started making these kind of fucked up, little art zines and getting involved in the zine community a little bit. These eventually fed into making the collage-type artworks that I still create now.
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We can say your style is quite dark. Why did you choose to develop it in this way? Has it always been like this? What fascinates you about darkness and mystery?
I’m really into things that have a strong, palpable mood, and I like creating work that gives me an emotional charge. I view my artworks as interior landscapes, so I have to be in a really specific state to make them. With my film and video work, I always have several things in progress at once, but with the still images, I don’t actually create work very often. It’s not unusual that there will be months or even a year or so when I won’t make a new piece at all. I try to do that kind of work only when I feel a real urge. Then, it usually flows out very quickly and I make a whole bunch of work in a very short period of time.
It’s very rare to see children surrounded by a dark atmosphere. How did you come up with the combination of both? What aspects of children do you try to depict the most?
I feel like childhood is this really rich and complicated period of our lives, yet for some reason, it’s often represented in the most shallow way. It’s weird because it’s like skimming the top off a lake that runs thousands of miles deep. People tend to idealize childhood and take all the complexity and mystery out of it, but that’s where its beauty and power reside. The inner lives of children are super rich and it’s kind of amazing the way everything takes on this gargantuan quality. Everything’s bigger, scarier, more vivid, more intense. Everything’s immediate and blown up, magnified. It’s a totally unique period in our lives, and in my work, I try to allow all of that oversized emotion and complexity to be present.
How was your childhood? Would you relate any episode of that period to your works?
People see my work and assume that I had this terrible, traumatic childhood, but I’m not just picking my own scabs. Yes, my work is very personal, but I don’t think it’s quite as simplistic as that.
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How would you describe your collages? We can see that you very often combine children with destroyed buildings. What’s the connection between your subjects and the catastrophes? How do you choose what to combine? What’s the purpose of them?
’d love to be able to make some smart, grand statement about why I do things the way I do, but to be honest, it’s really just all instinctive. I feel like I’m always looking for something very particular, but something also very difficult for me to articulate in words. On the most direct level, I can say I enjoy seeing particular types of images of children alongside destroyed houses and landscapes. I’m particularly into tornadoes. I’m not sure why it excites me and gives me a charge, but it does. I try not to unpack it.
You published a fanzine called Teenage Satanists in Oklahoma, a film titled Die Young, and lately a project named Apologies. Do these stories come from reality? 
Actually, one of your latest series, Apologies, seems very personal. Sentences like “I’m sorry that you never felt like you belonged”, “I’m sorry that I always did these terrible things to you”, or “I’m sorry that you never felt safe” seem like you’re really apologizing to someone in particular. Could you tell us a bit more about it? Do you use your art, or at least this particular series, as a cathartic solution or way of self-exploration (and even self-forgiving)?
I don’t really like speaking too much about what things are about, but yes, I am apologizing to someone in particular in that series and it’s very sincere.
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Are you afraid of or concerned about people’s opinions about your works? What judgments do you often receive from people who are not in an artistic field?
I never really think about it. I make my work primarily for myself. People seem to respond pretty strongly to my work, on both sides of the spectrum. I think that, for a lot of people who don’t like it, it provokes feelings that they would prefer to not engage with, which is fine. It’s definitely not for everyone.
Let’s talk now about Kiddiepunk. I’ve read that your intention isn’t to be a publisher but that you like what you do and this allows you to make everything work together. Can you tell us where this name and the idea come from?
Kiddiepunk originally started as a zine and then slowly morphed into a small press over time. We publish books and zines that are mostly centred on the theme of childhood or youth in some way. I tend to think of it as one big, tightly curated art project. The focus and aesthetic are consistent with the themes of my artwork, so I view it a little bit like an extension of that.
What do you think about the new interest for people in mostly surfing the net and not appreciate printed works as it used to be? Do you think it is also related to an economic or a commodity aspect? Is it maybe just part of the evolution?
People still love and buy printed works. Looking at things on the Internet and looking at a book are two separate things. In regards to Kiddiepunk, I think the people that would have been excited by these types of things twenty or thirty years ago are still the same kind of people that are excited by them now. The advantage of the Internet is that it allows you to reach people that you wouldn’t otherwise, so that’s cool. You generally can’t buy Kiddiepunk releases in bookstores, we only sell through our website, so the Internet is a friend. There’s room for everything to co-exist I think.
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What do you generally buy on paper?
Mostly books – I’m really into books and bookstores.
When did you encounter zines for the first time and what did you like about them? You’ve been publishing your own for quite some time now. Would you like to reach a selected, specific audience? Or maybe create a subcultural community, as it used to be for punk?
I discovered zines when I was a teenager and I was really into punk and Riot Grrl zines at first – those were my gateway into the whole zine world. Everything about them excited me, from the making to the way they look, to the way they are disseminated out into the world. As far as reaching a specific audience or creating a community, I feel like that’s what I’ve been able to do with Kiddiepunk. I always felt there was never really a place for what I was and what I wanted to see, so I kind of made one myself. Maybe that sounds a bit corny or whatever, but it’s true.
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