Rio de Janeiro, RJ, 1980. – Vive e trabalha no Rio de Janeiro, RJ
Represented by Galeria Nara Roesler.
Nominee of PIPA 2010, 2011, 2012 e 2014.
Winner of PIPA and PIPA Popular Vote 2014.
Nominating Committee member PIPA 2015 e 2017.
Alice Miceli is a Brazilian artist, born and raised in Rio de Janeiro. Her exhibition record includes the Sao Paulo Biennale, Nara Roesler Gallery, Sao Paulo, and Max Protetch Gallery, New York. Her work has been shown in venues such as the Japan Media Arts Festival, in Tokyo, the TRANSITIO_MX festival, in Mexico City, the Transmediale festival, in Berlin, and Documenta XII, in Kassel. Residency awards include the MacDowell Colony, Bogliasco, Bemis, Djerassi and the Dora Maar House. An extended conversation with the artist has been published by the Skull Sessions, in New York. Alice is the recipient of the 2014 PIPA Prize, Rio de Janeiro, and the 2015 Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation Grants & Commissions Award, Miami.
Alice Miceli applies formal experimentation, investigative travel, and archival research to chart the visual, physical, and cultural manifestations of trauma inflicted on social and natural landscapes. In the Chernobyl Project, she documented the exclusion zone around the site of Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster using specially developed photographic processes. Her current research focuses on photographic representations of landscape, looking in particular into the space of land-mine fields.
Miceli has had solo shows at Nara Roesler Gallery, in São Paulo, and Max Protetch Gallery, in New York. Her work has been shown at festivals and institutions around the world, including the Sao Paulo Biennale, the Tomie Ohtake Institute, in Brazil, the Japan Media Arts Festival, in Japan, the Transitio_MX Festival, in Mexico, the Mediations Biennial, in Poland, the Sydney Film Festival, in Australia, the Z33 Contemporary Art Space, in Belgium, the Transmediale festival and the ZKM, in Germany, and the New York International Independent Film Festival and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, in the US, among others.
Fellowships and residency awards include the Brown Foundation Program at Dora Maar House, in France, the Bogliasco Foundation Program at the Liguria Study Center, in Italy, the Sacatar Institute, in Brazil, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and the Camera Club of New York, in the US. Miceli received awards from the Videobrasil Festival and the Sergio Motta Institute, in São Paulo, and was nominated for the Transmediale Award, in Berlin.
In conversation with Alice Miceli, by Luiz Camillo Osorio
[Text published in June 2016, on Camillo’s Column, on PIPA’s website]
1 – The formal training of an artist is becoming increasingly indispensable and involves attending some kind of school. Often, such training comprises an academic education culminating in a master’s or doctorate degree. In your case, I know that this process was more erratic and interdisciplinary. Tell us a bit about this education and how this transition from “school” to the “art scene” occurred.
I grew up wanting to be a filmmaker, and I got hold of a photographic camera when I was very young. It was during the time of the government of Fernando Collor when the audio-visual industry seemed to have died. I asked my parents, I searched everywhere, but I was never able to find a film class that a child could attend. I tried then to learn photography by myself, which then seemed to me to be the closest thing to film. When I was fourteen, I saw a film by Bergman for the first time, it was “The Seventh Seal” or “Cries and Whispers”, I don’t recall exactly. I could not explain why, but I had the impression that these films were not the same as all the others and I kept asking myself how come they were different. After that, I watched everything by Bergman, Antonioni, Visconti, Bertolucci, Italian neorealism, the Nouvelle Vague, films by English directors, such as David Lean and Hitchcock, and by Hollywood directors, like John Huston, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, and many others… I spent my entire teenage years watching films, of different genres and sources. My father is a huge cinephile and he would always say: watch first and then judge, as if to say, I think, that the experience of watching the film should be visceral. Afterwards, you can think about the audio and visual techniques of filmmaking, and not the other way round.
During my childhood and as a teenager, our apartment – and my father’s place nowadays – was full of books: academic books, literary books, photography books, art books, and I would spend hours looking at the latter but also reading the former. In retrospect, I think I had an intuition that these things might be interconnected. I think their influence (that of my parents), which were both intellectuals and social science professors, was decisive. It added to and supported my own interest in the arts in general, and in photography and cinema in particular, prompting me to think about what happens in these visual phenomena.
As an undergraduate, I studied film in France and discovered many other filmmakers that I hadn’t come across – Chantal Ackerman and Chris Marker, for example. Afterwards, I worked briefly in the industry there. This was my first work experience of production and editing. I also worked as an assistant director on some documentaries and feature films here in Brazil. Until that time, film and, in a broader sense, questions regarding the moving image had been at the center of my education. Despite the fact that these experiences in the industry were highly enriching on many levels, I began to realize that the pre-determined form of cinematographic convention – the hour and a half-long feature film, that is shot out of sequence, vertically, repeating the same scene for various takes, which are then selected and reassembled as a coherent whole, horizontally, in the editing – I began to realize that this form, despite being inexhaustible in itself and continuing to remain vibrant and full of possibilities, was only one among many other possibilities for imbuing images with meaning. As Bergman himself had already shown, even within this convention the possibilities are endless, and there are many ways of exploring the world with a camera.
From then on, I decided that I wanted to think about my own projects and find ways of carrying them out. So I went to study with Charles Watson, in his studio at Rua Mundo Novo, and at the Parque Lage Visual Arts School. Charles is an extraordinary guy, a genius teacher. He’s one of the most intellectually generous people I’ve known. I stopped working in film and went to do a highly intensive drawing workshop that he has created, Provenance & Property. I ended up doing it two more times and continued in Charles’s study group for a long time. I honestly love the dynamic of the situation that Charles created in this course so much that I’d like to do it again. After such a long time, I think it would be interesting to take the class again, but only if he’d let me, obviously (laughter). What happens in this workshop is that, through drawing, practiced to exhaustion, the students’ way of looking, that of the teachers, of everyone, is gradually altered and expanded, and becomes more attentive. Charles was my most influential mentor in a general sense, and he also provided the basis of my training in the visual arts themselves, which took me beyond the experience that I had growing up with film and photography, and then studying these disciplines. Or rather, not beyond, but brought them together: creating a synthesis between all these fields, encouraging us to exercise our eyes and curiosity in different areas, from the social sciences and visual arts to the natural sciences, considering the physicality of the world, in physics, maths, engineering, sport, music and in anything that could provoke and raise interesting questions. This interdisciplinary training was essential for me. At the same time, I also took a post-graduate diploma in the History of Art and Architecture Program at the History Department of PUC-Rio (Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro), and it was important for me to follow these courses simultaneously because they offered different perspectives on similar issues. I loved it.
After some time with Charles, I started to think about and to develop my own projects. In this regard, my experience working in the film industry, even though it wasn’t extensive, helped me a lot, as I was able to see how to organize a production and put it into practice, even on my own. In terms of getting onto the circuit, I started to send my work for selection at festivals in Brazil and abroad, until one project was nominated for the Sergio Motta Art and Technology Award, in São Paulo, and another was selected for the Transmediale festival, in Berlin, and so this process of getting onto a circuit developed gradually.
2 – In an increasingly globalized world, where artists have residences and travel to exhibitions, biennales and fairs all over the place, the sense of belonging to a given cultural context seems to have diminished. The term ‘Brazilian artist’ itself is often obsolete and lacking in importance. How do you regard, in your work – which addresses such universal subjects –, this sense of belonging to Brazilian culture? Or is this simply an irrelevant question? And if it is irrelevant, is there a specific irrelevance that has to do with the place of origin of your poetics, which is Brazil?
I don’t think it’s irrelevant. It certainly matters where you are born to yourself – to me, to have been born in Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, in 1980. It matters that my mother tongue is Brazilian Portuguese, that this language has formed my cognition. It matters that my first experiences took place in Rio, Brazil. That my first aesthetic experiences, in my childhood, have to do with the landscape, the fauna and flora of Rio de Janeiro. I think that this sense of belonging is a vital part of someone’s education in the broadest sense of the word education (Bildung). Just as an actor’s persona is always with him in every role, in every acting work that he develops, however versatile he may be.
However, I don’t think that this primary education should or must be literally visible in every project. At the same time, and although it hasn’t been my experience, this shouldn’t prevent there from being work where an artist can choose – and why not? – to use biographical details, or to openly refer to matters of national identity, using these elements as raw material for his or her work.
3 – The documentary dimension and the power of fable are connected in your poetics. It’s as if there were no clear division between politics and art. And there is in this also a kind of exploration of the ontological helplessness that comprises our relationship with the “real”; of the way we articulate what we see and what we say. Explain a bit your relationship with the image and its political effects?
It seems to me that there really are no clear boundaries between art and politics. This doesn’t mean that artistic projects have to address subjects that are literally political, in an illustrative way, such as documenting protests or activism; which, at the same time, doesn’t imply that work that uses such subjects as its raw material cannot be interesting. I think that everything depends on what is being addressed in a given work and how. There are no pre-determined rules.
I believe that art has an intrinsically political and subversive character; being in the presence of a work – whether it’s a poem in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) about a boy jumping from tree to tree, published by a modernist poet in 1916, (“Birches”, by Robert Frost), or a contemporary stage play, where different streams of consciousness are channeled by a single actress, alone on a Dublin stage (“A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing”, by Eimear McBride, adapted for the stage by Annie Ryan), or, in the 17th century, Bach’s work, that magisterially validated the reorganization of the pitches in the tonal scale through the creation of preludes and fugues in all their tonalities, allowing them all to be performed on a single instrument (“The Well-Tempered Clavier”), or even a conventionally documentary photographic series, produced recently, where we see interminable sequences of containers holding unidentified merchandise from around the world, strikingly illustrating the capital flows that shape our world, and which can seem so abstract to us today (“Fish Story”, by Allan Sekula), or in endless other examples that could replace these – I think that being in the presence of a work of art, having an aesthetic experience, produces new possibilities, that were previously unimaginable. It broadens, changes, challenges or simply draws attention to our perception of the existing order, of what has been but shouldn’t always be normalized, of what we can change in the world, starting with our own perception.
It also seems to me that there is a blurred line between the status of the fictional and documentary image, there is no clear border. Does the image contain a truth within it, or is it a point of view that says something, that is always contingent? It seems difficult to me to propose a distinction between a documentary work and a work of fiction in relation to the image itself, for example, when we consider that fiction can contain “real, authentic” images, such as in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Philip Kaufman, and that a documentary can contain fictional images, such as in the beautiful film by Sandra Kogut, “L’Histoire de Pierre et Claire”. I would say that the question of what is real thus appears – beyond the content of the image – to be related to the construction of the point of view and the frame.
4 – Both in the Chernobyl series and the minefields series and especially in 88 of 14,000, we are confronted with the limits of representation, with what appears to be prohibited to representation. These are situations without any possible distancing, where we appear to be always confined to the inside, which is to say, without a possible outside for the vision. If we were to think more specifically, I would say that these works place us in a kind of space beyond the possible – in ethical terms, in the presence of the intolerable. For some people, as with the discussion of the Holocaust, for example, giving an image to the intolerable represents a kind of dangerous tolerance. For others, this is a place of expression beyond representation, which, once again, in expanding our capacity to experience the unimaginable, touches on a political aspect of the image – in a politics that belong to the image itself, which is the non-illustrative power of the image itself, the allegorical image according to Benjamin, or perhaps the sublime according to Lyotard. How do you see this, based on the commitment of your work to go beyond representation?
I belong to the team who thinks that poetry after Auschwitz is not only possible but also necessary. I don’t think there is an absolute “un-representable”. In the seven decades since the end of the Second World War, we have seen all sorts of attempts to represent that unimaginable horror. Primo Levi, Dov Kulka, Spielberg, Resnais, Roberto Benigni, Agamben: all trying in their way to narrate, testify, think about and represent those events, or what persists and remains of them.
In relationship to tragedies and disasters, I also think it is problematic to try to establish a hierarchy of what is most unquestionably terrible. Unfortunately, our history and everyday experience is full of horrors.
In the case of my works that concern situations where conventional representations seem inadequate – such as the radioactive contamination of Chernobyl, which is literally invisible; or the Cambodian genocide, where more than two million people died in four years, under the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge; or, currently, in my research on different areas of the world contaminated by land mines, which remain active and lethal decades after their originating conflict ended –, what moves me are the limits that these situations force me to challenge, making me reflect on what images might represent these negative spaces, taken over by something that seems to elude comprehension.
5 – Does the presence of the market represent more of an incentive or a problem for your work? Not in the sense of wanting to live without it – everybody has to pay their bills – but there is a limit and a freedom that can often be compromised if the demands of the market become excessive. This is a problem for everyone, but there is certain specificity in the art scene, whose idiosyncrasies are excessive. Talk a bit about how you deal with this.
It’s definitely an incentive. Nowadays, everything belongs to markets. Art, like cinema and other creative fields, may have a somewhat problematic relationship with this sphere of things, but this sphere is pervasive in the world today. As you said, it is a delicate balance, but one which can often also create interesting dialogues, for example concerning broadened concepts of what might constitute a private or institutional collection; or questions regarding the storage and preservation of work in non-traditional media, which can again serve as feedback, creating new artistic curiosities to be explored.
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