OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Michael Arcega

Piñata Mobile (installation view)
2012
Paper materials, wheat paste, dum-dums, mylar, string, cables, steel, and mixed media.

MICHAEL ARCEGA's research-based, interdisciplinary art practice is informed by historic events, political sociology and linguistics. Working primarily in sculpture and installation, he uses wordplay, material significance and joke formats to explore how unbalanced power dynamics affect the development of cultures. Michael is a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow in Fine Art and a 1999 Artadia Award recipient. He has been an artist-in-residence at Headlands Center for the Arts, Fountainhead Residency and Beamis Center for Contemporary Art. His work has been exhibited at such notable venues as the deYoung Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Orange County Museum of Art, The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Cue Arts Foundation, and the Asia Society in New York. Michael received his MFA from Stanford University, and he currently lives in San Francisco, California.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You've dealt with the themes of conquest and colonialism throughout your practice. Earlier work such as Conquistadorkes (2004), War Clubs (2008) and SPAM/MAPS: World (2001) addressed the conquest of people and land through force. But more recent work—which we'll turn to in a moment—addresses lexical borrowing and cross-cultural exchange. Even though the subject matter is serious in all your work, the tone is humorous and playful. How does linguistic humor and wordplay serve your conceptual goals in dealing with this subject matter?

Micheal Arcega: Great question. I’ve always been interested in language and its sociopolitical contexts. Humor comes naturally to me, and it’s a great way to cloak a topic that is often dense or problematic. Both language and humor are subjects and strategies I use in order to address serious topics.

Jokes have formats that I like to use, and embedded in those are a formal rhythm and pace. For instance, simple jokes start with a call and response. Then, there’s an inversion—a kind of magic or alchemical transformation happens—and, finally, laughter or a moment of revelation for the audience. I aim to include these stages in my work.

Language has become more of a subject than a strategic element in my recent work. I’ve been exploring a more complex linguistic model—Contact Language Generation. Pidgin and Creole languages often develop between two or more cultural groups when power is unbalanced. Plantations, for instance, are places where many people from varying ethnic groups are controlled by a powerful state or group. I'm thinking about Hawaiian Creole English from Hawaiian plantations and Gullah in the plantations in the Southern U.S. The existence of these languages are a testament to peoples’ amazing ability to adapt, challenge and subvert an oppressive system. I’ve been interested in finding a visual equivalence for this kind of subtle protest—the kind that happens under the radar. So, I hope my work doesn’t overtly exclaim, but rather calmly questions.

O.M.G. (installation view)
2010
Poly-tarp, tent poles, mosquito netting, rescue & utility ropes, carabiners, and mixed media
Size varies per installation

OPP: You’ve written that your series In Tents: Visualizing Language Generation and Sociopolitics “explores Pidgin and Creole languages through the visual language of temporary architecture.” Can you explain how the tent sculptures do that?

MA: The parallel I’m making has to do with the stability of language against the permanence of architecture. For instance, if a Neoclassical building is like formal, spoken English, then an unsecured lean-to is like pantomime with some words thrown in. Pidgin languages are fairly unstable and are under negotiation with their speakers. These would be like architectural forms that can change at any time. Temporary tent encampments, which spring up in response to natural and/or economic disaster, are contemporary examples that can be conflated with historical slave plantations where many ethnic groups were forced to co-exist. Creole languages are developed on the site and are usually stabilized by a new generation. These languages are native and unique to the cultures, landscape and the sociopolitical context involved. So, the tents that I made—including a lamp post, toilet, mailbox and fire hydrant—represent the moment in language generation that is unstable but deeply informed by the dominant architecture of the urban landscape.

OPP: In 2011, you made two pieces about the transformation of one thing into another. In Loping Honoring (a translation/ a correction), the national anthem of the Philippines was “corrected” in Microsoft Word and sung as an opera. Here the transformation is instantaneous and occurs through technology. The "correction" can easily be understood as an error. In Lexical Borrowing: Saw Horse by the Sea Shore—Understanding Manifest Destiny, you transformed an American kayak into a Pacific outrigger canoe as "a material analog of how linguistic shifts occur." This is a representation of a much slower transformation over time. Tell us about the process of transforming one vessel into the other. Is there a moral implication in this kind of transformation as it relates to linguistic shift?

MA: Both works are commentaries on oppression and imperialism. Firstly, Lupang Hinirang, the national anthem of the Philippines was a colonial construct. In the transformation from Lupang Hinirang to Loping Honoring, technology has been misused, causing the national anthem to become illegible. Language collapses into a series of markers of “high” culture (e.g. opera), and becomes a mere echo of the solidarity in the national anthem. My intent here was to expose the entropy caused by empire.

In Lexical Borrowing: Saw Horse by the Sea Shore—Understanding Manifest Destiny, I present a case or proposition that could be understood as reverse colonization. The American kayak begat a new model that leads to a Pacific outrigger canoe named Baby. The object on the bottom of the sawhorses is a makeshift outrigger that was added to the American canoe that needed to be stabilized during a tidal shift on the James River. The makeshift outrigger, fashioned from branches and empty plastic soda bottles, is proof that influence from the Pacific is affecting the continent. In essence, the piece signifies the decline of empire through challenges to its technologies and the replacements of its markers of power. This work is motivated by the possibility of change for the future rather than the lament of the past.

Lexical Borrowing: Saw Horse by the Sea Shore—Understanding Manifest Destiny
2011
Mat board, wood, found plastic bottles, river water, and mixed media
4' x 7' x 3'

OPP: Since your sculptural and installation practice is very research based, you must spend as much time reading as creating objects. What's the ratio of time spent "in the studio" versus researching? Do you prefer one part of your practice more? 

MA: I’m not sure if I can quantify the percentages of my practice because it changes all the time. But there is definitely more academic research and administrative work than there is actual production. This is fine with me. I am invested in making, but my practice is grounded in conceptual art.

I try to make my work pleasurable. I allow my research to be guided by things that I’m curious about. Sometimes there are difficult tasks, but it is always rewarding. This pleasure keeps me engaged in my work and helps make it sustainable for the long haul.

Eternal Salivation
2006
Plants and animals
7.5’ x 15’ x 10’

OPP: Your most recent exhibition Baby and the Nacirema (2012) at The Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco was an art exhibit that took on the guise of an anthropology exhibit. After Baby—the Pacific outrigger canoe you mentioned before—was created, she went on a journey. Could you tell us about Baby's expedition and about the Nacirema and the collection of their cultural artifacts?

MA: The departure point for this fictional work is the conflation of two narratives: the Lewis and Clark expedition—representing all westward expansion in America—and Horace Miner’s Nacirema. Both cases describe a people inhabiting North America. Lewis and Clark surveyed the continent for the coming colonists. They described the topography, indigenous peoples, flora and fauna through the text and objects they sent back to Thomas Jefferson. Many decades later, anthropologist Horace Miner described the colonizer’s neurosis about their overly complex lives after decimating the native population. My exhibition, Baby and the Nacirema continues this inquiry, but it takes on the point of view of the colonized, indigenous North Americans, observing the Nacirema culture through the lens of the Pacific, rather than the Atlantic. Nacirema is "americaN" spelled backwards.

The premise of the exhibition was that Baby and crew went on an expedition across North America to describe this invasive culture of the Nacirema. They collected cultural artifacts and used them to unlock the meaning of a significant Nacireman text (The New Colossus), cataloged objects and inventions (Cultural Phonemes) and described important symbols and icons (Piñata Mobile). They also displayed Baby (Medium for Intercultural Navigation), the symbolic, yet seaworthy vehicle that was used for the expedition as well as photo documentation of its creation.

The visual language of museums informed the overall tone of the project. Wunderkammern and early collections are extensions of an empire just like cartography. Also, patents and land grants established “legal” ownership of land, but these were alien concepts to indigenous North Americans. Historically, some collecting institutions have functioned as a repository for colonial war booty. For instance, a lot of specimens from the Lewis & Clark expedition ended up in Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum. As much as I love them, museums, maps and collections are the residual marks of imperialism.

Nacireman Inventions: Cultural Phonemes
2012
Polymer clay and wire
Size varies per installation

OPP: Why is it important that, as Americans, we "other" ourselves?

MA: “Othering” ourselves allows for empathy and sympathy. As members of the most powerful nation, we need to be even more empathetic. Otherwise, we can become more self-centered and psychotic as a nation. I believe individual citizens from the United States and other developed nations have greater responsibility because these nations have greater influence due to their global/social position. For students of anthropology, linguistics, sociology or any other social science, the interpretation of the cultures they study will inevitably have a bias. "Othering" ourselves allows us to develop more neutrality and objectivity, which can yield a more accurate picture of the subject at hand.

OPP: Is it useful to do this type of exploration through visual art?

MA: I’m not sure if visual art is the best place to look for lessons, although it’s definitely capable. Those in the arts don't have a responsibility to educate viewers about morality or facts. I believe that art—in the broadest sense of the word—is one of the many places where we can articulate truths that aren’t necessarily facts. It is one of the best places to ask questions, leaving the viewer/participant to seek the answers.

OPP: Are you working on any new projects?

MA: Right now, I'm in residency at Al Riwak Art Space in Bahrain, which will culminate in a solo show that opens on May 28, 2013.  The work focuses on translations and mistranslations, and the form of the show is developing onsite, determined by the circumstances in Bahrain. I’m interested in the loss that occurs during translation and how we try to fill in the gaps. There might be issues with legibility, but there will always be that situation when two or more cultures try to communicate with one another.

To see more of Michael's work, please visit arcega.us.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include 
Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago)