Mariel Miranda is a Sociologist, contemporary photographer, and founder/director of the Tijuana International Festival of Photography. Selected artist for the 2019 FONCA scholarship. She is a participant in the Programa de Fotografía Contemporánea (PFC) which in the last edition brings artists from across northern Mexico for monthly critiques, exhibitions, lectures, and events in Tijuana, MX.
She is particularly interested in the intersection between critical theory and radical ways of teaching and discussing photography. Her work incorporates photography’s history and its complex social, class, racial, and gender power relations that are currently at play in national and transnational spaces such as the U.S.-Mexico and Mexico-U.S. border.
First, tell us a little about yourself
I can tell you that I started answering the questions of your interview on Tuesday, I started around midnight, I like to work in the middle of the night, that’s why I wake up late every day; although I would love to wake up at 7 and go for a run, I never do it. I tried to work on the answers to questions 2 and 9 in the hammock that I have in my house but I discovered that it is very uncomfortable to write that way; that’s why today, Wednesday, I am in my room. I have three work tables, two are in my room, one in front of the window. From here I can see three green houses that run from north to south; to the west, if I go out to the street you can see the sea. The houses are lined up and in the background are Mr. Donato’s land where hundreds of old olive trees are planted. I live in this house since I was five years old and now I only share it with my younger brother [Mario] and two cats [Gigi and Hodor]. My neighborhood is called “Las Cumbres” and it is here that my first biographical experience was built to understand questions about how structural violence operates on bodies in a given territory. The militant influence of my grandfather and my parents led me from a young age to sympathize with anarchism and feminism. I studied sociology, I research, I write, I read, I cut images of encyclopedias, I see The Office again and again, I dance and I play scrabble.
What was your beginning with art and photography in particular? How did it all start for you?
My dad taught me how to make collages was, he always liked to draw, my grandmother taught him when he was little and he did not stop doing it until a few years ago. My father brought to our house the first art book I saw as a child, it was a collection of engravings by a radical Mexican artist named Leopoldo Méndez, I spent years browsing through that book — my dad worked in a channel at that time of local television as a security guard and at first he told us that someone from the channel “forgot” the book after a party…that’s how he told us that he had succeeded. But he actually stole it from an infomercial presenter in his dressing room.
Ángeles Carballar was my literature teacher in high school. I saw her one morning walking through the schoolyard, taking photographs with a reflex camera. I told my friend Alejandro about the scene of that passage, he worked and saved that summer to pay for a camera like the one I had described, he gave it to me one day at about six in the afternoon with a pack of six photographic rolls so I could start shooting.
When we met you gave me your business card which was an old found negative with your information – which not only warmed my heart but also made a real connection to it and you as an artist. I feel like that small gesture of yours really captures the essence you carry as an artists. This is not a question – just a statement I wanted to share with you, but, would you agree with me?
I think it is important to work closely with the materials we have available. My goal with these cards was to find a way to share my personal information so that the person who obtained it could use that resource in another way. That he did not want to throw away what I was giving them. I imagined that people could use those negatives for their own purposes, a large part of my work seeks to democratize the materials to which I have access, making them available to others. This exercise of openness about materials, processes or information to broader audiences I try to develop in the classes I teach and in the exhibitions in which I participate, or through the activities that we programmed in the Photography Festival that I’ve co-directed in Tijuana for the last three years.
Your work has a very personal touch and always has a connection to the social issues you see around – how do you use your art and photography to bring these issues to light?
My academic background lies within the social sciences, sociology and cultural studies. At the same time that I studied sociology I also started my studies in photography [the same week, in fact]. During my first stage of training, I was able to find methodologies for study, research, and experimentation in both territories, in the way in which I could communicate these investigations that I could do from the theoretical point of view towards broad and heterogeneous audiences. Working then with my interests and concerns was opened from the beginning to the possibility of hybrid languages [the sociological and visual] that has been inherent in my practice since then.
These two spaces of knowledge [academic and artistic] made me able to understand the scope and limitations of each of these languages. The research carried out from the academic field has been dead for many years, conferences, articles, journals, and books with which researchers intend to socialize their research are barren land that are within the reach of an elitist niche that dominates those same languages; I worked for five years in a research center and I could see first-hand the frigidity with which one operates from that type of premises, without scruples and full of contradictions. There are very few exceptions. The field of art is not very different; however, I believe that we can still explore the power of the hybridization of languages and the spaces and publics with which we open these experiences to find other possibilities for approaching audiences that may feel attracted to the issues that concern us the most.
I found your work with found and old footage to be mesmerizing. You have a great eye for story telling within these found elements – can you tell us more about your process?
In the Alfred Hitchcock film “Rear Window”, nurse Stella represses photographer Jefferies who can not take his eyes off the intimate neighborhood lives. A symbolic communication comes to life in both spaces through the gaze that crosses it; in this relationship, the eye that observes and revels in intimacy goes unnoticed by the observed subjects. He constructs meanings, readings and deductions from the clues that others unintentionally allow him to see. Stella calls Jefferies window shopper when he gets lost, participating with his eyes, in the kiss that the newlyweds of the opposite department offer each other to celebrate the arrival to their new space of intimacy.
Window Shopper // Mirror of stained glass makes reference to a reality reproducing and existing in front of us without it being possible to reach. Window Shopper in its North American cultural meaning, of common denomination, alludes to a social status, to the confrontation of the desire with the impossibility of consumption. The window shopper establishes a relationship with the object observed through fantasy, fiction, an always imaginary, always hypothetical continuum. The archive is also a dresser. The photographs, documents, texts contained in it are the unfolding of a “reality” also unattainable. Like Jefferies in front of his window, in front of the archive I become another looker of stained glass where I have to decide what kind of fictions and tensions I want to reveal around him.
I think that somehow the archive speaks. Each of the projects in which I have worked using this type of material has asked me to do something different. If the archive did not speak and demanded actions to understand it, then surely I would have resorted to the same gesture of operation and exploration in them. In some cases it has asked me to find the formal patterns that link hundreds of its photos with one another; in others, it has asked me to map the geographical points where the photos were taken during various vacation trips of the same family; in another project the archive asked me to discover its original owners as to find a way back to them. A Spanish-English dictionary from the 19th Century asked me to discover its epistemic origin of colonial order; the archive of the tijuanenses families made by wandering photographers asked me to keep it as it was and exhibit it exactly that way to honor the work of those who produced it. Two archives that I found recently, on the other hand, have asked me to destroy them with knives and guillotines to form new images and possible narrations. Almost always that mutual communication occurs instantly, just as I am opening the album or the cardboard box where the images are deposited and I start looking I discover what will happen between us. It took almost 6 years to get to an archive that told me it was important to destroy it.
Some of the images you stated that are from a 1984 edition of the illustrated encyclopedia The Treasure of Youth. Can you tell us about the choice of using these images and the significance they have to you and the story you are portraying in the work?
The illustrated encyclopedia The Treasure of the Youth was a very important encyclopedia and of an enormous print run put to circulation in Latin America by the North American publishing house Grolier at the beginning of the 20th century. The context of its creation coincides with a period of US military and symbolic territorial expansionism where knowledge about the physical territory and the sensitive Latin American body was a first order objective. The context is also aligned with a series of positivist strategies, interested in marking the possible imagination about the organization of the State, its new project of modernity, its cultural fields and the power relations within them in which the role of science would be the vehicle for the legitimation of these speeches. It is an anticipated ending to know that the look of the contents of this encyclopedia is Eurocentric, moralizing, racist, sexist and classist. It is obvious that it cannot but respond to the ideological climate of its time: the 20th century.
My work then has consisted not only in studying the history of this encyclopedia but in dismantling its images, using them in various projects to give them new meanings, often those “new meanings” I have oriented them towards a problematization of the history of symbolic relations of power between Latin America and the United States. In “Penumbra” I was interested in exploring what shots appear in the non-central planes of the photographs of this encyclopedia. The idea of the surplus, the error, the hidden, the lumpen, the margin of the image itself. I worked with the power of reframing, with the rescue of the apparently insignificant, hidden detail. It seems important to bet to exercise literally and metaphorically the gesture of looking back to rediscover, in this case reedit allows me to bring to the foreground the bodies that in these images were hidden behind the machines of production, of the traditional landscapes, or aerial shots.
You talk about how these images, in todays new understanding and open dialogue of race and culture, portray stigmas that at one point in time were used to teach the youth about the world around them. You talk about using these images, deconstructing them and giving them a new meaning. Can you tell us more about it?
I’m thinking of Susan Sontag’s essay “On Photography” in the section where she takes the work of Diane Arbus to think about the relevance of photographic production at a time of danger. Diane had to seek to escape the American monotony, from the confines of the domestic space and that of a sexuality disguised as long skirts and salon hairstyles. While these operated as the slogans of the social canons of his time, his work is politically relevant, not only for its content, but especially for the production experience of it; that is, by the simple decision not to occupy the night, to dissent in their sexuality, from the modes of representation and from the state-family apparatus. The work of this artist has been parodied; yet, since 1974 Sontag invites us to bet on the construction of an experience of overflow and discomfort that from our artistic practices can move us first to ourselves.
If I leave here, I assume then that one of my responsibilities as a producer should try to understand what my practices mean at the time and the time with which I have to play.
These new meanings that I am interested in building with the archive images that I work with have to do with rethinking the epistemologies that are deposited in the scopic regimes of the past, in order to be able to locate them with greater clarity in the present. I think that all of this has to do with lemebel(izing) processes, that is, to try at all times to find problematizations, discomforts, incongruities and the archons that operate even in those spaces that we idealize in a first moment of innocence as steady grounds to build ourselves: for example, a “noble” juvenile illustrated encyclopedia or in the case of the poet Pedro Lemebel, the Chilean Communist Party.
Who are your influences and inspirations in the art world?
I like the work of Roy Andersson, Chris Marker and Harun Farocki; Sohrab Hura and Lieko Shiga; Tania Candiani, Marcela Armas y Adela Goldbard.
Any news or events coming up for you that you would like to share with us?
This year I have a Visual Arts Fellowship, in the Photography program of FONCA. The project that I am developing is a road trip around five states in the United States, I go from West to East from California to Texas. I will start in July and end in August, the route of my trip takes as a map the diary of the French author Simone de Beauvoir, she made this trip in 1947 and published a book about it.
I have been developing a series of conceptual and visual strategies to be able to appropriate the contents of the book and its journey, with the purpose of generating a decolonial, dialogical and contemporary conversation with t his author. My goal is not only to photograph during my trip, but also to work with other formats such as writing, performance, intervention in public spaces, video and installation to be able to problematize through these strategies some of her rhetoric notions about “the mexicanity” in united states and the landscape of the west.
I will be using my instagram account to share the work experience on this trip.