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“‘Is This Progress?’ And Other Timely Questions”: in conversation with Misael Soto

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

 

 

Loosening, rethinking, and altering the ways we navigate space and relate to one another are Misael Soto’s bread and butter. The Miami-based artist is currently working on large projects situated in public space, rooted in a practice that has continuously intervened in the systems that govern the everyday. Daily life is often riddled with unexpected and often contradictory phenomena that usually go unnoticed and unquestioned: construction street signs, scaffolding, and crisis-averting equipment are all obvious indicators of change—sometimes even threats —yet their ubiquitous and quotidian deployment eases potential anxieties, certainly staving off the urgency that required their invention in the first place. In a moment heightened by polarizing politics, many artists are looking to the nature of relations and relationships between people. Soto considers the challenges of our time through the interpellation of architectures, machines, and symbols of the public sphere.

 

The artist’s recent work engages with issues of climate change and sea level rise, which in places like Miami has gained a particular resonance as a metropolis with ever more frequent flood warnings. Soto’s work Flood Relief appropriated high powered flood-relieving water pumps into public fountains, at once pointing to their Sisyphean futility and beautiful repurposing. Their more recent project, Sand, transformed thousands of sandbags typically used for water blockades into an amphitheater for public use and extensive programming. In both works, band-aid solutions that normalize the ever-present precipice of crisis are reformulated into reflexively inquiring structures.

 

These works have also mobilized various public and private resources, signaling an investment that extends beyond a singular art public. Integral to the rigour of these projects is Soto’s penchant for platforming other artists, scholars, and organizers, which pushes the artworks into discursive realms, highlighting the interrelation of pressing issues rather than their discrete exigency. Norms—be they visual, behavioural, or object-bound—are established through repetition and expectation, which renders them near invisible. Soto’s practice plays with our expectations to make the ordinary shimmer with surprise, reinvigorated by an openness to fervent questioning.

 

 

 

 

“In relation to any issue, I look for something wrong when someone confidently tells me: ‘This is progress.’ My most recent work was a street sign as a part of a larger series that plainly asks a retort, ‘Is this progress?’ I had to make that sign because this is a central question for me... and has become a guiding query.”

 

 

 

 

 

I think a good way to open up the conceptual framing of your work is to talk about some of the forms you’re using, and how those reverberate outward into the concepts. Can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve been working on and what are the main concerns that guide your practice?

 

I recently framed my work as a knee jerk reaction. In relation to any issue, I look for something wrong when someone confidently tells me: “This is progress.” My most recent work was a street sign as a part of a larger series that plainly asks a retort, “Is this progress?” I had to make that sign because this is a central question for me. It came out of conversation with my friend Domingo, and has become a guiding query—Is this progress? Especially when someone is telling me it is. That has been a through line in all my work and is applied to so many scenarios. When people look at how my work has shifted over the years, if they don’t get that core query they can be lost. Lately I’ve stopped applying it strictly to arts institutions and have moved into the area of public infrastructure and development. For me this was a way to have a more global and relatable conversation.

 

This is interesting because the sign that was most recently installed was at FREE!; an auxiliary fair to Art Basel Miami.

 

That installation provided an outdoor shopping area that had an arts context overlaid, so people seeing them might think they are art-related or they might just think they’re installed in this semi-public area. I installed them there to test their limits, but they are supposed to be on the street and confused for actual street signs.

 

I was thinking about the proliferation of projects right now that are questioning institutional structures, particularly around identity politics. I found it interesting that in the context of FREE!, its inclusion had a certain reflexivity, as if the alternative fair is questioning its own legitimacy through these public infrastructural forms you’ve created.

 

The signs were almost an attempt by the fair to appropriate the conversation. The other signs I made were shown in an exhibition last summer, where they were situated on the street as part of a broader program that wasn’t art related. There are non-profits such as 100 Resilient Cities, which are responding to a lack of attention on resilience and climate change issues at the government level. They are creating design challenges and offering free consultations to municipalities at heightened risk such as a South Florida, and come here to do research and conduct workshops. I’m currently proposing work for the Van Alen Institute that is going to be having an exhibition in conjunction with a design challenge. They work with these municipalities enough to see these design challenges actually implemented.

 

 

IS THIS PROGRESS?, 2018, Installed at Brickell City Centre, Miami, FL, as part of FREE!, December 6-9, 2018.

 

 

WE NEED TO TALK., 2018, Installed at Monceaux Park, West Palm Beach, FL, August 6, 2018.

 

 

 

 

So is your proposal a design query?

 

It’s separate, but adjacent. In the case of the street signs, I was asked to be a kind of field reporter for people in this convention center. I would Skype in once a day with my street signs and I have a set up with traffic cones that allowed me to speak with people on the street. In that way, my work becomes a catalyst for conversation and dialogue. That dialogue then becomes channeled into their workroom and design process. The Van Alen Institute is going to have an exhibition and street fair at a park to inform the public of the work they’ve been doing for the last two years. They have asked a couple artists, myself being one of them, to do outdoor projects as part of the festival. This residency with the City of Miami Beach has really opened me up to an entirely other world of new patronage and support from initiatives that are gaining momentum because traditional avenues for mitigating climate issues aren’t working. In New York for instance, Tania Bruguera is working with the city’s Department of Corrections to develop new solutions for incarcerated populations. There has been a move recently to invite artists and give them a prominent seat at the table in these conversations.

 

You mentioned earlier how a lot of your work has engaged with institutional structures, but specifically art institutions related to capital, history, means of display, etc. I’m curious about this transition towards extremely public projects, but also towards works that are funded by municipalities and urban planning institutes. Even though there is a lot of support to be leveraged there, the discourse around the work shifts. In thinking about control of the art object, does this new support change the work at all for you?

 

Definitely. It’s something that will be a slow transition for me. I saw the shift happening with my recent project Sand, where the needs of a public program are complicated. Luckily, I spaced out the three program days with a week in between because it allowed me to adapt accordingly. I wouldn’t say the first of these was a failure, but it was a bit messy and I was treating it as an exhibition as opposed to a very public, open air, mini-festival of sorts.

 

I went to Adrian Piper’s retrospective at the Hammer Museum in LA, and I was so struck by how her conversation was initially tied to Minimalism and other artistic forms but very quickly she shifted gears and her work became primarily guided by critical issues. Form began to follow function. I very quickly felt a kinship in where I’m at with my own work. I’ve been thinking about obvious gestures, rather than getting hung up on an arts conversation, whether it be formal or related to the canon. Instead I’m choosing to ask, what’s the issue at hand, and how can it best be communicated? When I was doing research for Sand, I was questioning how we even got here in the first place, to this problem of sea level rise now so intrinsically tied to South Florida’s identity. Sand became the best resource to encapsulate the cross section of issues concerning the problem.

 

I find that more than anything, making work in this way broadens the dialogue, it doesn’t replace artistic discourse. This requires more work on my part of course, to keep the concerns of my practice in sight, but it’s exactly the challenge I’ve been working towards and find incredibly rewarding.

 

Knowing your work very well, I think this is such an interesting shift because so much of your previous work had a gentle trickery, taking the viewer on a perhaps circular but deepening journey. The exact meaning of a piece was always dropping hints but remained elusive. Now it seems like the field of inquiry has expanded.

 

A lot of times people took issue with what they perceived as a veiled trickery in my work, but the reality is the work has always been transparent. When Sand was being set up, people were confused because they thought a storm was coming. However, there was signage around explaining the project as well as myself and others on site allowing people to ask questions. I really wanted to make the project as clear and transparent as possible so the work wouldn’t be thought of as an obscure trick but more so as an inclusive opportunity.

 

 

Flood Relief, 2017, Museum Park adjacent to Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), Miami, FL. Image courtesy Diana Larrea.

 

 

This seems like a good chance to talk about the site-specific elements of your work, particularly the public projects. Can you briefly introduce your two recent artworks, Flood Relief and Sand, and then maybe touch on the reception of each?

 

Both of these works were realized in collaboration with Miami municipalities, Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami Beach, respectively, on the topic of sea level rise. More and more, this issue and broader concerns related to climate change are becoming catalysts for exhibitions and projects here. Miami-Dade County was one of the first I can remember, inviting five artists over the course of a year to realize works on the topic throughout the county in 2017. While preparing the Fproposal that would eventually become Flood Relief, I was then living in North Miami Beach, an area prone to “sunny day flooding” as they call it, which is when there’s flooding along streets and sidewalks without rain as the water comes up through the ground or over seawalls.

 

On one such occasion I was driving by a highly trafficked, low-lying area and as traffic diverted to one lane because of such flooding I noticed a couple of gas-powered emergency flood water pumps sitting in the puddles, pumping the water out to the bay. The water was all at the same level, so the pumps were completely futile. In the subsequent weeks I couldn’t let that image go and I proposed to the county the use of similar water pumps, echoing the failed infrastructural gesture of the city. Eventually I repurposed three of them, positioning them as fountains along Biscayne Bay in Museum Park adjacent to the Pérez Art Museum. During this week-long installation, myself and two performer/operators activated the pumps, turning them on and off, performing a choreography with and alongside the pumps. The installation also included a night of activation with classical musical accompaniment, readings of poetry and prose, and a dance performance—all by local artists. This nighttime activation in particular taught me many things, leading in some ways to what would become Sand: Amphitheater, Theater, Arena.

 

Going back to the issue of obscurity and trickery… There was about a year between these two projects. With Flood Relief, I began to really understand what this kind of work could do. Even though it was a bit more confusing to passersby and looking back I would have included signage, at the time I was interested in its obscurity and somewhat confusing presentation. I am now more confident in the public works I am creating that there can be very clear text or signage that explains a project, and it can still retain the complexity of a particular issue.

 

To elucidate further on Sand, the founding of Miami Beach in many ways starts with the relocation of many acres-worth of sand dredged up from Biscayne Bay in order to create and sell land where there was once swamp. This land, as with most of South Florida and many other low-lying major cities, did not exist naturally, a fact many of these cities must now contend with as water levels rise. After settling on sand, everything else grew organically. I decided to borrow 176 cubic yards of beach sand and 6,000 sandbags from the City of Miami Beach and in a very public site began to fill the bags, using them to build a Greco-Roman-inspired structure. Appropriating flood levee construction methods, over the course of a month the structure was built with the help of local volunteers and was used to host three days of curated programming. It grew from a small amphitheater, to a Roman-style theater, and finally to a further enclosed arena. Its final dimensions were 60 x 35 x 7 feet. Each day of programming was in accordance with the three steps of the Greek and Hegelian dialectic, as well as to the changing form of the installation. The curated programming in turn corresponded to the structure’s shape with historical lectures and participatory exercises occurring inside the amphitheater, performances and readings occurring within the theater, and lectures and a roundtable discussion occurring inside the arena. Beyond the anchor programming, the site carried an open invitation to residents and local institutions for activation, opening the site towards further unplanned dialogue and exchange. These included the reading group, a screening of films by a local production company, and sunset karaoke.

 

Sand really combined an ambitious public approach with a collaborative ethos that I honed during graduate school, as you might remember. This project felt like an accumulation of my multiple ways of working, and the reception felt equally as such given it really touched a large swath of the population including local environmental scientists and activists, area residents, tourists, as well as the usual arts crowd.

 

 

 Sand: Amphitheater, Theater, Arena, 2018, Collins Park, Miami Beach, FL, November 18, 2018. Image courtesy Phillip Karp.

 

 

 

Let’s talk about that element of your practice—the facilitation of a platform for other artists and practitioners of varying disciplines both within and outside of the arts. I believe you had a public official come to one of the program days. Can you expand on how you’re bringing multiple discourses and disciplines together, and how you’re scaling them? I’d love to hear about this in relation to Sand.

 

Coming in it was really important to me to listen. For Sand, I was focused on listening to the community. This was staged on South Beach in Miami Beach, which is a barrier island. This is a wealthy and popular part of the greater Miami area, which means that it gets a lot of attention. As a result, much of the conversation on sea level rise is focused here. Doing a project on Miami Beach is not just about this geography’s current manifestation. It has to do with going back to who was here before colonization and land reclamation practices. Sand created Miami Beach and allowed developers to sell land they fabricated. These are processes that today are being used at much larger scales in places like the U.A.E. and Singapore, continuing this legacy.

 

I wanted to cast a really broad net that would include many different voices and allow for diverse  points of entry. This included asking the community to help build the structure they would hopefully return to and sit in. I knew the project could only go as far as the community’s investment in it.

 

Who were some of your collaborators, and which did you think were particularly successful?

 

If I keep doing projects that are about a community in the broadest sense, I would like to always have a land acknowledgment ceremony. It was a really important element to this project and should become a recurring practice, not just for me. The Miccosukee and Seminole tribes were the people displaced from this land. There are others but those are the main two that still hold jurisdiction. Samuel Tommie, a leader from Seminole tribe, guided a ceremony, played his flute, and brought water from the Everglades. This was probably my favorite moment.

 

It was also important to have a couple outside perspectives to give it more breadth and scope, like the writer Vince Beiser from LA and artist Mie Frederikke Fischer Christensen from Denmark by way of Chicago. I also had a roundtable discussion where there was a researcher on the Anthropocene, a city representative, and an architect/designer.

 

Projects like this allow me to sift through methods of documentation and consider how the work exists beyond its lifespan. I’m never happy with just images or text, so I invited artists to make new works that will also exist in a publication that I’ll be working on over the summer.

 

I actually used almost my entire budget paying people to come and make work or participate in the project. The sculptural element in some ways was a technique to build communal interest and an excuse to get different types of people in the same space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Ive been thinking about obvious gestures, rather than getting hung up on an arts conversation, whether it be formal or related to the canon. Instead I’m choosing to ask, what’s the issue at hand, and how can it best be communicated? When I was doing research for 'Sand', I was questioning how we even got here in the first place, to this problem of sea level rise now so intrinsically tied to South Florida’s identity. 'Sand' became the best resource to encapsulate the cross section of issues concerning the problem."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both of these two projects have been temporary in nature. Taking into consideration that you studied performance in graduate school, I am curious how you are using a performance studies approach to the documentation of your work and thinking about the afterlife of artworks.

 

I’ve always thought of the work I do as having a performative element. For instance, lately I’ve been moving through the city and shadowing a lot of people. Many of my requests become a performative wrench in a municipality’s quotidian cycle. Some city workers find it to be a nuisance while others think it’s novel and interesting. Some end up learning a bit more about themselves and how their occupation fits in a larger framework; it is a reciprocal opportunity. That element is certainly performance.

 

Thinking about the documentation for this type of work is something I will always be figuring out. I still need good video, photographs, writing, and didactics because those are required to get support in the future and communicate in a necessary removed way, however, they’re often not the most interesting. Something I learned with Flood Relief and Provisional Obstruction (the project just before it), was the power of an image and working with visual devices that communicate the project in some way. A lot of my previous projects were almost completely illegible via static images, and it wasn’t something I was totally concerned with. Now working at a larger scale, I’m very committed to creating a strong sculptural image to ground the work. The Sand project certainly did that.

 

It reminds me of one of the central works at Documenta 14 called The Parliament of Bodies, which was a flexible space for public programs and an area for people to rest that donned a paramilitary aesthetic. Even though there wasn’t always a program happening, viewers could understand what that work was intended for. There was a certain anticipation embedded in it.

 

I had forgotten about that work, but yes, I was thinking along similar lines.

 

It’s interesting because in so many of your projects the document is this whole other object. With the show we did together, Between the Real and Utopia, the lasting document was the acceptance letter to the residency that ⊖ (Circled Minus) organized. With Side Show, it’s the catalog that also has some strange elements which make it a unique object, rather than just a publication on the exhibition. This makes me think about how documents should strive to add layers rather than simply reproduce and contain the work.

 

Yes, it definitely has to exist on its own. I did this with Sand as well. I had a billboard that was quite uncanny and similar to something that would exist at a construction site. It was just two-by-fours and a piece of plywood, but when you actually approached it there was a lot of information available. It had a description of the piece, a library, and a log of how many sandbags had been filled, so it was a workstation but viewers could also see its breadth. It also shifted every couple of days in location and content, changing throughout the duration of the installation.

 

The site in many ways could have continued for much longer. There were certain bureaucratic constraints that caused it to end, but there was also a beautiful timelessness to it somehow that I’m still learning from.

 

 

Provisional Obstruction, Collaboration with Ayesha Singh. September 15 - October 9, 2017 ACRE Projects, Chicago, Illinois 

 

 

 

Thinking of these “coming soon” signs placed at construction sites, I’m reminded of a collaborative piece you did in Chicago with Ayesha Singh, called Provisional Obstruction. This installation, situated at ACRE Projects in the rapidly gentrifying Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, erected scaffolding outside the gallery that displayed an exact image of the building beneath it printed on scrim. It was a sign for a building that was already there, but had recently changed function from a funeral home to art gallery. You recently received a grant to do another iteration of this work.

 

 Yes, we’re going to be doing an expanded version in Miami as well as one soon in Ayesha’s hometown of New Delhi. In Miami, we’re planning to do the work in three sites simultaneously. Each site is situated in a neighborhood that is at a certain stage of gentrification, shifts, development, or whatever you want to call change, and we’re attempting to tie the sites together. We are hoping it’s an opportunity for the sites to learn from one other. That will hopefully be happening in November of this year.

 

We look back at the Chicago version and laugh about how naive it was, even if well-intentioned. With these new iterations we are really trying to grapple with the complexity of these issues and touch all their layers.

 

Since your residency with the city of Miami is coming to a close, what comes after these large-scale, multifaceted projects? Will you be continuing this line of thinking in your work and staying in Miami?


While Flood Relief was a standalone work, loosely part of a series of works on the topic of sea level rise sponsored by Miami-Dade County, Sand is merely part, though a large part, of my time as the Art in Public Life resident with Art Center South Florida and the City of Miami Beach. Since June of 2017, I’ve been allotted a studio and housing, in addition to financial support from the Art Center. It’s been an incredible, career-changing opportunity. Art Center and the city’s Art in Public Places team decided to pair me with the city’s Environment and Sustainability Department who have really taken me under their wing. They’ve since provided me access to almost anything I’ve required from sand and sandbags to meetings with any city staff or public officials I want to meet. This is still in the works, but they’ve been so supportive of my work that they’re working to keep me around for another year. I’ve been working on conceptualizing my own city department or division in order to further explore how my practice can be framed under a municipality, as well as to streamline the production of future works and their documentation. I see it falling somewhere between the Center for Land Use Interpretation and the work that Walid Raad does under the Atlas Group moniker. It’s all quite nascent, but I’m super excited. We’ll see what happens!

 

 

Jameson Paige is a writer and curator based in Chicago.

 

Editorial support from Katie Lawson

 

Frontis Image: Sand: Amphitheater, Theater, Arena, 2018, Collins Park, Miami Beach, FL, October 28, 2018. Image courtesy Diana Larrea.

 

 

 

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