Antonio Muntadas and the Media Landscape
A catalogue essay and interview
Meditating on Art and Life in the Information Age
Catalogue essay for Des/Aparicions, Centre d'Art Santa Monica, Barcelona, 1996
Talking about plans for his current Des/Aparitions exhibition, Antoni Muntadas observed that "creating a useful structure is the creative aspect of the work." He was referring both to the production of specific artworks and to the economic exigencies of the life of an artist; or--to put it another way--to the connectedness of art and life. This is the principal subject of my essay. But I also invoke Muntadas's comment because it stimulated my thinking about catalogue-writing itself: its nature and its inherent (ideological) assumptions about the writer's objectivity and the presenting institution's authority, all embodied in a seamless flow of rhetoric. Then there's the matter of the essay's possible structure. Pondering Muntadas's over-all project--the examination or deconstruction of contemporary life in what he terms the media landscape--I wondered what sort of form or structure might do justice to his broad concerns and my obliquely-angled subject.
Writing and installation-art-making could hardly be more different. The installation viewer takes in a number of sights in an unprogrammed sequence. They frequently encompass more than just views of objects or series of objects. The objects themselves may be augmented by sound, comprise works in varied (non-object) media such as projections, and be presented within a specific architectural, historical and autobiographical context that constitutes part of the site-specific installation's meaning. Art is the most complex form of knowledge.
Catalogue writing, by contrast, tends to be linear--discursive, historical, and/or promotional. After a decade of the so-called institutional critique in the art world, the catalogue remains its last, largely unexamined product. Muntadas's practice of inviting several writers to discuss varied aspects of his work and create wide-ranging commentary about it is one logical response to the hagiography and obscurantism usually enshrined in the museum catalogue. But even these results frequently remain rather specialized and can seem suited for an audience exclusively comprised of specialists.
What I am writing is less an essay than a meditation. The former suggests an argument, the latter a more personal response to issues inside and outside of the work, including the citation of questions that cannot presently be answered. (Long live subjectivity!) I am drawn to Muntadas's work, in part, for its rigorously critical and analytical bent, its progressive world view. "Criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination and abuse," wrote historian Edward Said. "Its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom." I share Said's belief, which should prick the conscience of many writers. It is also an apt descriptor of Muntadas's art.
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In the 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg famously announced his desire to locate his aesthetic in the "gap between art and life." Two decades later Muntadas coined the ideogram or visual emblem arte = vida, which might be translated as "art into life and life into art." But where Rauschenberg saw a distinction between art and life, Muntadas saw their interpenetration. This interest in energies, in the dynamic and reciprocal connection between art and life, may be the chief link between Muntadas's early inclination to be an engineer and his later decision to become an artist.
It is the historian's commonplace that we are all products of our time; that is, our socio-political moment. Muntadas's expansive interest in what was previously the province of life, rather than the visual arts, could not have been enacted prior to the late 1960s and the advent of conceptual art.
In conceptual art, the cultivation of an idea--rather than the production of an object--drives the creative process. Conceptualists reacted against the narrowness of art discourse as embodied in the increasingly commercialized art world of the 1960s and the formalism of postwar art. In 1971, Muntadas (until then a painter) wrote on the occasion of a Madrid exhibition, "The picture as such exhausts its own function." (At precisely the same moment, the American conceptualist Douglas Huebler noted that "the world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.") Muntadas went on to suggest that the aggressively marketed art object ought to be replaced by works that are more open, more demanding, more educational, more interactive (in today's parlance), and more life-embracing.
To many artists of the late sixties, cultural ferment seemed to be taking place not in the studio, but in the streets. The birth of conceptualism coincided with the Vietnam War, the rise of women's, gay and black liberation movements, and the emergence of the counterculture. Happenings pioneer Allan Kaprow wondered how art might compete with compelling spectacles like the first, manned moon landing of 1969. Experience became the order of the day, rather than definitions or interpretations of it. Ironically, by focusing on matters of presentation, reception and analysis, conceptual artists engaged in more theorizing than art critics and art historians. But it was called self-criticism then.
In Muntadas's work, the erosion of conventional disciplinary boundaries--or introduction of non-art methods--began as early as 1971 with the appearance of a sort of sociological survey prompted by an homage to Picasso staged at Galeria Aquitania in Barcelona. (Those "surveyed" were encouraged, among other things, to send artist-supplied postcards to the Spanish master regarding his exile.) Muntadas's aims must have seemed as perplexing to art viewers as the poll targeting New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller's support for the Vietnam War, which Hans Haacke conducted as part of the Information exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. (Like the events of 1968, or fluxus art of the early sixties, conceptualism was an international modus operandi.)
Muntadas first employed arte = vida in 1973, when he stamped it on television screens, windows and mirrors in Barcelona and New York. More than a year later, it became the title of his second solo show at the Galeria Vandres in Madrid in December, 1974. In the interim, he'd created a situation and a work which embodied the ideas of both arte vida and conceptual art itself.
In July, 1974, Muntadas organized a workshop with Bill Creston in the Sala Vincon in Barcelona. Its purpose--in a country with only a single, official television channel--was to introduce architects, designers, filmmakers and others interested in alternative media and information sources to the new, portable video technology that promised to democratize video production. The same month, he initiated a related project called Cadaques Canal Local, in the nearby resort town of Cadaques. This channel offered programming produced by Muntadas and his collaborators. Their local news reports and interviews were then shown at sunset in public places like the Casino and other bars and cafés. It was a radical replacement of centralized television programming produced by the nationalistic TVE in favor of community programming. Cadaques' local channel was the first television outlet of its kind in Spain. (Muntadas employed a similar method two years later in a piece called Barcelona Distrito Uno, which examined ideas of locale and community in a changing neighborhood.)
Viewers unfamiliar with conceptual art may find the designation of Cadaques Canal Local as art troubling. Is it not, after all, an example of media activism? Or an important episode in the history of mass media in Spain? It is both these things and art, too. As Muntadas recently noted, "In the middle of the seventies, I realized that most of my work is located in a territory that in particular aspects can be understood by artworld people or communications people or social scientists. But it's rare to have a dialogue with someone who understands the whole proposition."
By working outside the traditional domain of aesthetic production, many conceptualists blurred the boundaries between art and non-art--i.e. life. In the late seventies Muntadas, reflecting on his practice, observed that "In order to provide alternatives [to the status quo] we must be more objective, and this can only be achieved by combining the contributions of different people and different disciplines." Conceptual art might take socially engaged forms like Cadaques Canal Local, which exemplified Hans Haacke's 1971 admonition to "think in terms of systems: the production of systems, the interference with and the exposure of existing systems." (Muntadas's and Haacke's straightforward approach seems more European than American, echoing Joseph Beuys' 1969 statement that "to be a teacher is my greatest work of art.")
Some conceptualists--operating within non-art systems--produced nearly invisible artworks. Consider Les Levine's Canadian-Kosher restaurant in New York or Bonnie Sherk's Farm in San Francisco, a park-like, educational and recreational center. To many viewers, such works may not register as art. In order to continue attracting visitors, they must effectively function as restaurant or park (or local television channel.) They also embody conceptualism's opposition to modernism's exclusive, either/or reductionism and insistence on so-called aesthetic purity. Their opposition to these fundamental tenets of modernism made conceptual artists some of the first postmodernists. (This impurity is the one of the few aspects of postmodernism with which Muntadas identifies; it was the intellectual raison d'etre for his exhibition Hibridos, at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in 1988.)
To function as art, works like Levine's and Sherk's and Muntadas's required the complicity of viewers and writers to "complete" them. In the late seventies Muntadas announced his belief in "different levels of interpretation," arising from perceptual, conceptual and cultural differences. "I like to...pose questions and deflate absolute artistic values." Conceptualism tell us that meaning is something an audience arrives at, as much as something an artist produces.
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Of course, much of Muntadas's art is not invisible. If it were, he could never have made a career in the art world. Ironically, many of the most successful conceptualists--On Kawara, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Long and Daniel Buren, among them--utilize a surprisingly narrow range of imagery, thinking, and even visual style. But for Muntadas, style is almost irrelevant. (Visual appearance and style are not synonyms.) It is simply an outgrowth of suitability or appropriateness. What characterizes his work is not its signature appearance, but a constellation of recurrent themes, approaches, strategies and ongoing discourse.
His over-arching project--the analysis of what he's termed the media landscape--comprises an investigation of nothing less than the creation (or mediation) of contemporary consciousness by powerful individuals and institutions, and by economically- and culturally-determined forms and forces that we are likely to take for granted. These range from fundamentalist religious figures to the values and practices that govern the art world, and from the ideologically-determined construction of "history" to the disappearance of public space. But commentary devoted to an artwork by Muntadas cannot be said to be merely "about" a particular subject. (As far back as the 1964 essay Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag warned against the now-ubiquitous style of art criticism--and art making--that "By reducing art to its content and then interpreting that...tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.")
Consider The Board Room (1988). This evocation of telegenic religious figures including the Pope, Ayatollah Khomeini, as well as a bevy of Christian televangelists, was also an investigation of architectural space and religious imagery. It metaphorically implied the shared values of the corporation and institutionalized religion, emphasized by the 13 TV-headed figures gathering in a cabal reminiscent of the Last Supper. The drone of their recorded voices emanating from tiny, TV-monitors implanted in photos of their faces was hypnotically seductive; an installation without sound would have been far less intriguing.
Representations of architectural spaces and the generic institutions or social policy associated with them have become an important aspect of Muntadas's work of the eighties and nineties. Examples include Stadium (1989), an investigation of the architectural form and the nature of spectacle; City Museum (1991-95), an analysis of the commodification of history and the nature of contemporary tourism; and Press Conference Room (1991), an evocation--and interrogation--of celebrity and future-speak in the media age. These architecture-themed installations are art and something else as well: The Stadium, for instance, is both an artwork and an architectural exhibition, although some would deny its status as the latter because it seems too subjective. It makes no pretense of objectivity or global reach, as if objectivity could be precisely defined in such a situation. (Muntadas explicitly invoked this issue in 1978 in On Subjectivity, a work surveying the varied, cross-cultural responses of people to fifty images culled from Life magazine.)
A longer list of installations and videotapes relate to the cultural place and effects of mass media. It includes: On Subjectivity (1978); Between the Lines (1979); La Television (1980); Media Eyes (1981); Watching the Press/Reading Television (1981); Media Ecology Ads (1982); Media Sites/Media Monuments (1982); Credits (1984); Political Advertisement (1984); This is Not an Advertisement (1985). This list might be expanded to include The Press Conference Room and The Board Room, previously considered as architectural installations. But classification is hardly the point here. What's especially interesting about Muntadas's work is its range, which in this case encompasses an investigation of investigative news reporting itself (Between the Lines) and the wickedly witty designation of Media Sites/Media Monuments, such as the locations of historic demonstrations that those in power would rather forget. Media-related works that are so diverse in tone, outlook and approach mingle in the memory, like an anthology of written works composed of essays, memoirs, and fiction.
Significantly, the media installations do not primarily derive from Muntadas's longstanding interest in the media and media theory, just as the architectural installations (Muntadas thinks of them as "life-sized maquettes") do not derive from his burgeoning interest in architectural history and urban policy. All of this artist's work is rooted in a desire to reveal the nature of contemporary, media-suffused existence; to show us the way things are. To do this Muntadas characteristically employs a method familiar from the history of rhetoric and literature (the drama and the novel), rather than the history of art. It is based on dualities and the juxtaposition of opposites. The first and most important is the meta-tension between art and life, followed by other dialectically related concepts including public/private, reality/media, and visibility/invisibility.
Such overt oppositions have been fruitfully mined in installations beginning with Emision/Recepcion in the Arte = Vida show in 1974, which contrasts slides of broadcast television with slides of viewers in public and private spaces containing TV sets receiving those images. Another series of installations, Standard/Specific (1988-89), juxtaposes the culturally-specific, historical signage of a particular city with the new, multi-national visual language of the credit card visible in every city. While Muntadas's dialectical probings are rarely as explicit as in these works they are virtually always present.
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Muntadas's current exhibition is called Des/Aparitions. It is linked to a number of earlier shows on the themes of visibility and absence. Credits (1984), a videotape and installation, showcased credits from films and television programs, something on which we invariably fail to focus. But for Muntadas, the issues raised were more complex. He also intended the credits as evidence of power structures and institutional heirarchies awaiting representation and decoding.
In Exposicion (or Exhibition), produced a year later, he presented a critique of institutional authority and its relationship to the "selling" of art. Blank, framed canvases, empty vitrines, video monitors showing only "snow," and slide projectors projecting nothing but light suggested that the generic art-product need only be inserted into the literal and figurative (or conceptual) frames. But viewed from another perspective, the brightly lit blank canvases or light-emitting slide projectors offer viewers the haunting visual experience of nearly palpable light. Such experiences remind us that nothing is absolute, everything exists in relation to something else--first and foremost the dualistic relationships Muntadas invokes.
Disappearance and absence may be related states of being, but they aren't synonymous ones. Disappearance implies willfullness and aggression, while the causes of absence are potentially more innocent; they encompass passivity and oversight as well as disappearance. The Latin American transformation of disappear into a transitive verb--referring to those "disappeared" or kidnapped (and presumably executed) by military regimes in Argentina and elsewhere--conveys the term's newly sinister connotations.
Des/Aparitions may be Muntadas's most personal show. Presented in his native city of Barcelona, its centerpiece is a previously unexhibited videotape, TVE: Primer Intento (or Spanish Television: First Attempt). The tape was commissioned by Television Espanola for Metropolis, its weekly arts-magazine program, in connection with Muntadas's 1988 exhibition at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. When the show's producers approached him to do a piece about himself, Muntadas proposed that he instead produce a work about Television Espanola. Surprisingly--given the deconstructive nature of his work--his proposal was accepted.
Two years later, the work was finished. In that time, a succession of producers used to three-month production schedules "lost control" of the piece, Muntadas says. Far slower than Metropolis' usual frenetic pace, Muntadas's tape ruminates on the history of television in Spain, mostly through found footage from TVE's archives. A surprisingly untelegenic Generalisimo Franco is seen castigating the "licentiousness" of the international media. A parade of technological progress embodied in TVE's expanding arsenal of hardware rolls past. Vintage documentary footage shows viewers exclaiming about the wonders of television or revealing their addiction to the idiot box. Visual and audial "static" crackles. It's not a very pretty picture, especially in Muntadas's own footage of the archive captured in what the artist terms "repetitious pan[oramic shot]s of chaos." Metropolis rejected the work and never provided Muntadas wih an explanation. "I think it was disturbing to them," Muntadas speculates. "Because my piece is an image of disorder."
Not living in Spain, he felt that it was inappropriate to make a public issue of the rejection. Instead he responded to this incident of censorship with a new work, The File Room. This electronic archive, which is located on the Internet's World Wide Web, documents the history of cultural and social censorship since the ancient Greeks. Muntadas's experience with Television Espanola supplied the motive for the piece; it was also the first case history recorded on the archive.
Censorship--one type of disappearance--is hard to define. Writing about The File Room in another context, I noted that "For some of us, moving a controversial artwork from a prominent to an obscure place in an exhibition hall fits the bill. But what about a juried show at a mall that excludes nudes? Or an art institution that never shows the work of artists of color? And let's not even mention self-censorship." Whether TVE's rejection of Muntadas's tape was legitimate editorial control or censorship may be difficult to determine. But when all the facts are known--which is rare--censorship is virtually always characterized by an abuse of power.
The history of art mirrors the history of political power. The outrage that modern artists like Gustave Courbet provoked was frequently caused by the perceived unsavoriness of their previously unrepresented subjects. (Such class values were similarly expressed centuries ago when Caravaggio depicted the Madonna with decidedly working-class, dirty feet.) Muntadas's work not only refers to power but occasionally even attempts to redistribute it. (The File Room, for instance, catalogs the grievances of ancient Athenians and gives voice to those today who might not otherwise be heard.) Art and life have always been difficult to separate. Representation is power; that is, both the ability to represent and the good fortune to be considered worthy of representation. By giving form to what's disappeared, The File Room reminds us--above all--that artmaking remains an ethical act.
Produced in conjunction with Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago and numerous contributors, The File Room initially comprised nearly 400 entries. It now boasts approximately 5000, thanks to the contributions of some of the site's 200 daily visitors. Incidents of censorship are accessible via four categories: geographic location (e.g. Europe); date (e.g. 1900-25); medium (e.g. film or public art); and grounds for censorship (e.g. behavior, religious, or sexual/gender orientation.) The archive's reach is especially broad when it comes to 20th century incidents. Sometimes stranger than fiction, they include the World War I-era internment of Carl Muck, the Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor who was jailed in 1918 for refusing to play the national anthem, and the prohibition of Isadora Duncan from performing in Boston after making pro-communist remarks and "expos[ing] her body" in a 1922 performance there. More recent offenses include Jordan's refusal to license Schindler's List because of its pro-Jewish sympathies, the Phillipines' censoring of the same film for sexual content(!), and the banning of the Simon & Garfunkel song Cecilia by the wife of a dictatorial, African leader.
The fastest growing section of the interactive data base is likely to be the one devoted to current, Internet-related abuses. A recent posting protested the alleged harrassment of America Online users for violating the service's vague prohibitions against "vulgar language" or explicit sex talk. Since then, Compuserve has blocked worldwide access to more than 200 Internet discussion groups following a German federal prosecutor's statement that the material may be pornographic, while T-Online service (Deutsche Telekom) blocked access to the Web site of a Canadian neo-Nazi after German prosecutors warned the company that it was investigating whether the online service provider was "helping to incite racial hatred." Such policies contrast sharply with the privacy we more-or-less take for granted when making phone calls.
Muntadas's File Room currently leads a double life on-line as an artwork (to those who recognize it as such) and as an interactive data base. Conceptual artists like Muntadas not only blur the boundary separating non-art from art, but question conventional approaches to duration, as in videotapes like the leisurely-paced TVE: Primer Intento. What will happen, over time, to The File Room? Ironically The File Room as data base has acquired commercial value that information-oriented artworks of the seventies could never have possessed. In an era in which public and private institutions are facilitating the "privatization" of all sorts of information, it is this innocuous-sounding privatization of information that poses one of today's biggest threats to free expression.
The File Room also leads another kind of double life: In addition to the archive's on-line status, the project was also conceived as an installation, which debuted in May, 1994 at the Chicago Cultural Center. It was seen there by 80,000 visitors, and was shown later in on-line and installation formats in Lyon and in stripped-down installation form (that is, an accessible computer terminal in a gallery) in Cascais, Leipzig and Bucharest. In his introductory notes to the project, Muntadas referred to it--à la Joseph Beuys--as a "social sculpture" that "gains its meaning through a group effort of individuals, organizations, and institutions." The archive offers citizens of formerly totalitarian societies a place to anonymously document offenses commited by past regimes. It is also reminiscent of the liberatingly subversive impact of mail art on Iron Curtain-shrouded Eastern Europe 25 years ago.
The conceptual resemblance between mail art--one of many forms of information- and media art--and the work of some of today's on-line artists is far from coincidental. In the case of Muntadas and artist-peers like Peter D'Agostino and Douglas Davis, working on-line is simply a way of pursuing their long-time interests in communication systems and the decentralization of power. Defying the (fluid) categorizations of media and architectural installations I invoked earlier, The File Room also joins The Board Room and The Stadium in their examination of the power relations historically embodied in public and private spaces.
At Centre d'Art Santa Monica, Muntadas presents both The File Room (in installation format) and its catalyst, TVE: Primer Intento. But he intends them only to be two elements in a complex investigation of disappearances--and appearances. The architectural site itself is rich in history, including the patriotic construction of Spanish history. Originally the convent of Santa Monica, the building became a journalism school in 1955 during the censorious Franco regime and the set for the feature film Escuela de Periodismo (1956), which glamorizes the field of journalism. (Then the building lay fallow until 1987, when it opened as an art center.) This film, too, will be periodically shown during the exhibition in a space in which the seats will be spotlit when the film is not being screened. Now you see it, now you don't.
Light will be one of the artist's chief methods of upending conventional meaning. Architectural details will be brightly lit--jointly "framing" an 18th century wall, an adjacent industrial-era fire extinguisher, and a postmodern room divider, for instance. Projected slides will feature images of historical art and artifacts from the building, newspaper front pages, and relevant books like Paul Virilio's Esthetique de la Disapparition. Video projections will transform the second story windows (when seen from the courtyard below) into traditional sites of power through ghostly images of public personalities, apparently "orating" from the balcony-sites so often associated with the articulation of political and religious dogma. Continually turned on and off, the varied light sources will not only dramatically affect visibility--appearance and disappearance--but our experience of time as well. The manipulation--or rationing--of light is a reminder of just how many variables determine our art (and non-art) experiences.
Writing before this exhibition is installed--like most catalogue writers--I can only imagine the Kafka-esque sounding Des/Aparitions. Contemplating Muntadas's complex and theatrical ideas about a constantly changing exhibition that challenges conventional notions of space, time, museum- (and even church-) going, I suspect this exhibition will be one of Muntadas's most provocative and poetic efforts. Anxiety reigns as we slouch toward the millenium. (The 20th century is dead, long live the 20th century!) In a world fearful of the future and ambivalent about the contested meanings of the recent past, what could be a more resonant organizing-metaphor than disappearance?
Censor Sensibility: Antoni Muntadas on the "Media Landscape"
The Media Channel, www.mediachannel.org/arts/perspectives/dir/index.html, May 2000
The anchor of the Media Channel's Media Arts section is "The File Room," artist Antoni Muntadas's interactive archive of two millennia of social and cultural censorship. It's a simultaneous artwork, database, and activist tool that chronicles hundreds of cases of perceived censorship, which have sometimes, but not always, been covered in the media or other public forums. Any visitor to "The File Room" can add new cases of censorship to the database by filling out a simple online form. Or search the site by geography, subject matter, medium or time period. The unsettling experience of visiting "The File Room" not only raises questions about the character of censorship itself, but offers a repository, or hidden history, of thwarted expression.
For the past three decades, the overarching theme of Muntadas's work has been the analysis of what he's termed the "media landscape." Put another way, he's embarked on nothing less than an investigation of contemporary consciousness as created by powerful individuals and institutions, an exploration of the economically--and culturally--determined forms and forces that we are likely to take for granted. His subjects range from fundamentalist religious figures to the ritualistic nature of political TV ads, from the ideologically-determined construction of "history" to the disappearance of public space.
On the occasion of Muntadas's first New York shows in five years, MediaChannel took the opportunity to chat with the Barcelona-born, New York-based artist about his twin exhibitions and about "The File Room."
The Kent Gallery houses "The Nap/La Siesta/Dutje," a video installation featuring footage from leftist Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens projected across a corner of the gallery containing a shrouded easy chair; and "The Meetings," a series of unframed, blueprint format drawings of generic business encounters in the age of the Nasdaq. At Crosby Street Project Space, Muntadas presents "On Translation: El Aplauso," a large-scale video-installation triptych. Black-and-white news photos of political violence are flanked by color, video footage of anonymous audiences seated in an auditorium and applauding, resulting in a surreal spectacle that oddly smacks of the everyday.
The shows--around the corner from one another in Soho, New York City, at Kent Gallery, 67 Prince St., and Crosby Street Project Space, 113 Crosby St.--are up through May 27. (For more on Muntadas's projects see Fundación Telefónica.)
- Robert Atkins, Media Arts Editor.
Robert Atkins: The title of "The Nap" made me first think about Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters." Are nap and sleep the same word in Spanish, or am I totally off track?
Antoni Muntadas: Nap and sleep are two different words and concepts. So in terms of Goya, it's not a literal translation of his title. "The Nap/La Siesta/Dutje" is the complete title for the work, and I had many motivations for it. The project began with an invitation to several artists and filmmakers from the Netherlands Film Museum and the Joris Ivens Foundation. We spent four days in Amsterdam viewing all of Ivens' films and discussing them with Ivens scholars. The intention was to provoke and solicit projects from us, and then maybe they would produce them.
RA: Had you known Ivens's films before?
AM: I was familiar and sympathetic with some of Ivens' work--the experimental ones like "Rain" and some of those about the tradition of the political documentary, Dziga Vertof ... ideological involvement or utopias, such as "Borinage." Obviously I knew "Spanish Earth," which is about the Spanish Civil War, and then there are the films made in Russia, Cuba and China.
RA: And all the footage in your installation comes from Ivens's films?
AM: Yes, I mainly chose ones of movement activity, labor and war, and I juxtapose those with images I made in New York. But during the sessions in Amsterdam I began to be very curious about the work's more personal aspects: the intensity of production; travel as a central component of Ivens's projects and life; and the commitment the projects demanded--including the energy needed just to carry on several projects in various places linked only by hope and his ideological beliefs ... All this activity is impossible without some moments of rest; that's where the metaphor of "la siesta" comes in. Ivens' wife even assured me he took one every day.
I also wanted to juxtapose realities and fiction, activity and passivity, moving images and static scenes, and sound with silence. This installation comes out of a thought that's never really manifested itself in my work before, that is: "Every work of art is always autobiographical." From there, you can draw your own conclusions--Goya included!
RA: The chair in the gallery is a nice place for a siesta. It's so archetypal, such a symbol of domesticity. Matisse said art should be comfortable like an easy chair, but Warhol's best works may be his chilling images of the electric chair.
AM: For me, it's a passive element in a silent corner of the gallery. It's a quiet and removed space that can be used to rest ... to pause ... to dream. At the film museum in Amsterdam, I chose to present the work in the curator's office, a sort of private space where it was surrounded by papers and films and the like.
RA: "El Aplauso" is part of the "On Translation" series. Can you briefly describe that series?
AM: "On Translation" started in 1995 with "On Translation: the Pavilion" in Helsinki. Since then I've produced 18 different extensions of the concept. To me translation suggests interpretation in the largest sense, including the audience's reception to art and social conditions. "On Translation: The Audience" (in Rotterdam) and "On Translation: El Aplauso" (Bogota) are the most recent ones. All of them explore aspects of different situations I try to contextualize. They can--and have--taken many forms and mediums and approaches.
RA: "El Aplauso" made me smile. It was affirming to enter the gallery; I thought of Sally Field getting up at the Oscars and saying: "You like me. You really like me." How did audiences in Colombia, in the midst of acute political crisis, respond?
AM: Well, for me it's a pretty sad situation: the applause as an extreme and cynical representation of an accepted condition. But this is the reality, and it's not just in Colombia. The mainstream media has become a kind of translation of violence. I mean this in many senses: military, political, economic, ecological, cultural. And I hope the work points to our passivity, complicity and denial in this ritualistic process. As social beings we applaud. At various times we are actor, viewer and participant.
RA: Most of your work seems to reflect global social issues and concerns. Do you ever deal with local mass media as opposed to globalizing forms?
AM: Yes, for example, in the "Standard/Specific" project. It deals with the transformation of the urban landscape. I juxtapose signs from stores, factories, and marquees with international credit-card logos on glass doors. But you're right, most of the times it starts local and goes global. ...
RA: It's that universality, that abstract or global quality that makes your work accessible to people around the world, I think. For instance, in your third piece here in New York--"Meetings," a series of drawings rather than projected video--you deal with abstracted images or situations. These are not specific meetings, like the Yalta Conference. They clearly suggest business meetings rather than some sort of political forum, but the focus is on processes, the forms of discourse ...
AM: These drawings on inexpensive blueprint format are a kind of X-ray of generic, archival photographs. Their reduction to lines and the elimination of the photographic detail of the sources emphasizes the relationships between people, space and positions. That generic quality also underlines the meeting as a decision-making process where most of the decisions are already made ahead of time. So it's nothing more than the marketing strategies and so on. The subjects of these drawings are meetings in the realms of architecture, city planning, corporate world, media. As you see there's no information here, just the outline of blank pages, empty pads, white books. So it's not about what they--or we--discuss, but rather how.
RA: "The File Room," your archive of social and cultural censorship that's housed here on the Media Channel's server, focuses less on the multiplicity of "hows" leading to censorship and, instead, showcase real cases of censorship, in the most specific, local terms possible.
AM: The intention and needs of the project was--and remains--so different. We can't ever consider censorship a closed matter. It's alive and well, sadly enough. And the interactive part offers the possibility to exorcise our frustration and apparent powerlessness against censorship and activate the information by making it accessible. That makes the archive structure a necessity for organization and accessibility.
RA: Being interactive, "The File Room" also seems the most audience-dependent of your works--no audience means no cases in the archive. It also seems to be among the most successful of digital-era, interactive artworks, at least given the acclaim and audience involvement. How do you feel about this interactive direction in art? Does interactivity turn art theory into practice?
AM: Now we use the term "interactivity," while in the sixties we talked about audience "participation." "Interactivity" implies more highly developed technology. But in terms of meaning, the real force is the generosity of audiences.
RA: So the question is how to harness that?
AM: Yes. The problem has always been combating passivity.
RA: No easy task, given the mainstream media's interest in encouraging it. Thank you!