When I conceived of the Artists Drawing Club series, Michael Arcega was one of the first artists I envisioned working with to create an event. Rarely have I looked at an artwork and thought, “Wow, what a wicked sense of humor!” I think it is something I have experienced a total of three times in my life, once looking at a Mike Kelley work, another looking at the work of Rachel Harrison, and most recently looking at works by Michael Arcega. It is Arcega’s mastery of humor and language that compelled me to see his lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute last year. The artist’s talent at unfolding and exposing language and modes of expression is remarkable, but when it is handled with comic precision akin to Richard Pryor or George Carlin, the work becomes sharp, funny, and poignant. I was enthralled by each project he spoke about.
With the help of summer intern Jessica Modine Young, we composed a few questions to ask the artist to get a better understanding of his work through humor, language, and history as well as find out what he has planned for the Artists Drawing Club on July 24.
Marc Mayer: Language, the alteration of language, the act of translation, and occasionally a misreading/misunderstanding seem to be constantly at play in your works. How would you describe your relationship to language? In what ways does it inform your practice?
Michael Arcega: My relationship to the idiosyncrasies of language is largely cultural. Wordplay in the Filipino culture is ubiquitous. Punning, flipping, inverting, slicing, and splicing words were common games when I grew up in Manila. This combined with multiple long-term engagements with many nations and colonizers had contributed to the complexities of these games. As a fledgling artist, I felt a kinship with artists like Marcel Duchamp, Gary Hill, Bruce Nauman, Paul Kos, and Carlos Villa. Their exploration into words really opened up my creative world. I started likening them to objects, composing with language, ideas, and loaded objects to make sculptures and installations. Words became another material.
MM: Something I am struck by is the humor that emerges from your work. Conveying humor through visual art, I find one of the most difficult feats to accomplish. Can you describe the impact that humor has on your practice and finished work?
MA: Humor is deeply connected to wordplay. So there is a natural intermingling of the two. What isn’t obvious is how the mechanics of jokes are present in the work. Jokes have a wide range of formats, there’s the timing, a tone, the delivery and a punch line. Also, jokes do not happen in a bubble—it’s a dialog. When I’m crafting a work, I consider the format (context and materials), pacing, tone, delivery (the work revealing itself), and the punch line (hopefully, it keeps unfolding afterwards). Also, there needs to be a balance of legibility and opacity. If the references are too esoteric, no one will get it. But if it’s too obvious, it will be boring.
MM: It sounds like prepping for a performance as a stand-up comic, in a way. Along those lines, how, if at all, do you consider viewers as part of your practice?
MA: Yes, I make work with the intention that someone else will be looking at “this” thing. My practice is built upon a dialog with others who participate in the arts, and any viewer is a participant.
Loping Honoring (a translation/ a correction)by Michael Arcega, 2008. Single Channel video, audio, and framed lyrics, size varies per installation. Courtesy of the artist.
MM: While researching your work, there are two artworks that linger in my mind. One is Loping Honoring (a translation/ a correction) and the other is Decreolization: an arrangement from dark to light. I’m wondering if you would speak about each of those works.
MA: Both these works have a transformative element applied to them. There is a hidden rule that the original has succumbed to. Loping Honoring (a translation/ a correction) was produced by taking the Philippines national anthem, Lupang Hinirang, and processing it through Microsoft Word’s spell check. Decreolization: an arrangement from light to dark was processed through a hierarchic system that favors light over dark, standard over odd. Although, they seem conceptually distant, both works are metaphors for colonization and assimilation. The transformations are driven by an external ideal, one that is imposed by the dominant hand.
Decreolization: an arrangement from dark to light by Michael Arcega, 2013. Rejected Bahraini pottery. Courtesy of the artist.
MM: Metaphors of colonization and assimilation seem to unify a lot of your work, which engage with narratives of colonialism directly, or if it is more subtle it really explores histories of cultural hybridity. Can you elaborate on what holds your interest and attention to keep exploring these metaphors in conceptual frameworks as well as the materials and objects you use?
MA: My relationship to colonialism and post-colonial issues has shifted over the years. I’ve explored it from the perspective of the colonized, then as the colonizer, as the assimilated, and now as an explorer. Overall, the crux is the complex relationship between two or more cultures. Often, one is more powerful than the other—it’s asymmetrical. I feel that this collision and collusion are perfectly embodied in contact languages—Pidgins and Creoles. This is very different from hybridity, which presumes that there is a symmetrical relationship. Contact languages are almost always generated from contact situations where one dominates another. Our contemporary power struggles are far more complicated. It is this system that I’m trying to understand with my current work.
MM: Rerereading Arrangements is a project in collaboration with composer and experimental musician, Chris Brown. Is this your first time working with sound or music?
MA: I’ve always been interested in sound and have had a high respect for those who compose and perform sound/music. I explored it pretty seriously during my undergrad, but it phased out of my practice as I progressed. But lately, my explorations into translations and language have naturally brought me back to sound. Works like Nacireman Inventions: Cultural Phonemes conflate the object with sound (or the idea of sounds). In that piece, I treated each object as sound—like a phoneme (a word fragment), each object was an idea fragment.
This project starts with an examination of the Asian Art Museum’s permanent collection. The history of museums and collections is a colonial one. By looking past the individual items and focusing on the presentation and the taxonomy, we can start to ask questions about the institution. In this scenario, we are trying to reveal the framework through sound.
MM: What role do you hope collaboration plays in the context of this project? What roles has collaboration played in previous projects?
MA: Chris Brown is an extremely talented and knowledgeable artist. I was honored that he agreed to collaborate with me on this work. When Chris and I were in a residency at Villa Montalvo, he was working on a piano piece tuned to a South Asian sensibility. It was later finished as 6Primes. (It was premiered recently at the Center for New Music.) He and I share an interest in drawing together disparate cultural references. This project fits seamlessly with our shared interests.
I haven’t placed many expectations, but I have asked a few questions. Hopefully this collaboration will tease out answers or draw out more questions. In the visual arts, collaborations are difficult. However, in the sound/music world they are essential. Surprisingly, this collaboration has been fluid and fun (as a visual artist, I expected it to be harder—just one expectation). We are finding ways to deconstruct the arrangements at the museum. As a seasoned experimental music player, Chris is able to guide us through the more complicated displays and complex objects. We also chose our own instruments for the project and rehearsing with them has been quite enjoyable.
Chris Brown and Michael Arcega rehearsing “Rerereading Arrangements.” 2014.
MM: Where did the idea for Rerereading Arrangements originate? How has it developed? What contributions have arisen through working with Chris?
MA: Rerereading Arrangements is a continuation of a project/question. It’s an investigation of Western culture through a Pacific-centric lens. The repeating of the first syllable comes from the conjugational rules of Tagalog—repeating turns the root word into a verb. By absurdly applying a Tagalog conjugation to an English verb makes it sound like a scratched record. It also emphasizes a repetitive event. Arrangements is used as a pun that refers to the museum displays and also the musical score.
Chris and I grew up in the Philippines and we share a love for crossing over. Already, our rehearsals have been giving shape to the arrangements that are unexpected. With each display, we wonder—what would that sound like? It’s exciting because neither of us know. The displays inspire their own rules on how they are interpreted. Chris is deftly skilled at finding those rules. He brings a deep insight to improvisation, experimental scores, and music history. In many ways, he has been a sonic translator.
Michael Arcega is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in sculpture and installation. Directly informed by historic events, material significance and the format of jokes, his subject matter deals with sociopolitical circumstances in which power relations are unbalanced. As a naturalized American, Michael incorporates a geographic dimension to his investigation of the cultural markers embedded in objects, food, and architecture. Michael was born in Manila, Philippines, and migrated to the Los Angeles area at 10 years old. He received a BFA from San Francisco Art Institute and attended Stanford University for his MFA. He is an assistant professor of art at San Francisco State University.
Chris Brown is an American composer, pianist and electronic musician who creates music for acoustic instruments with interactive electronics for computer networks and improvising ensembles. He has invented and built electroacoustic instruments and performed widely as a pianist. In 1986 he co-founded the pioneering computer-network music ensemble The Hub, and he has received commissions from the Berkeley Symphony, the Rova Saxophone Quartet, the Abel Steinberg Winant Trio, the Gerbode Foundation, the Phonos Foundation and the Creative Work Fund. He teaches composition and electronic music at Mills College in Oakland, where he is co-director of the Center for Contemporary Music.