MFA Thesis Projects
The History of the Present
by Tiffany Beres and Alexanndra Nicholls
I would like to write the history of this prison, with all the political investments of the body that it gathers together in its closed architecture. Why? Simply because I am interested in the past? No, if one means by that writing a history of the past in terms of the present. Yes, if one means writing the history of the present – Michel Foucault
What does history have to do with contemporary art? When artists use history as part of their art making process, it encourages audiences to confront the idea that history is a construction. When artists reconsider past events, they’re not so much returning to another time and retrieving material or events. Instead, they are restaging those events in the here and now in order to think about the present.
This group exhibition of artists graduating from the UCSD MFA program takes its title from philosopher Michel Foucault’s expression “history of the present,” which appears in the first chapter of Discipline and Punish (1975). In this seminal text, Foucault proposes a history of the Western penal system, illuminating the relevance of studying the past to understanding present power relations and politics. Foucault points out that the past can become a lens to better understand the present-that exploring historical trajectories allows for a better understanding of the contingencies of the present. This is also true for the history of art. A critical analysis of this history, as it is constructed and researched, can alter our observations of contemporary phenomena, opening our eyes to hidden facets of history previously overlooked and taken for granted. Paying particular attention to troublesome, underrepresented and forgotten pasts, these artists are linked by an overarching social agenda: to identify and transform engrained social systems by developing or revising historical concepts. Falling into three distinct categories of historical inquiry, each artist employs a unique strategy for understanding major issues and developments in contemporary life.
One category of historical inquiry that brings together several artists in this show is the archival process or more specifically, the way in which artists research, catalog, and examine historical materials as a fundamental part of their artistic practice. Mateus Guzzo, for example, is interested in organizational structures. As a kind of meta-analysis, Guzzo documents the planning and organizing this exhibition by systematically creating a newspaper of how it came together using the text and image artifacts of this show’s development. Working with both photography and ethnography, Yubin Kang researches the interconnectedness of the world by visually archiving milk production and consumption between the US and China. By physically going to these places and visually documenting the repercussions of these networks through her camera, Kang sheds light on a history that most are oblivious to. Maya Grace Misra traces the violent histories that affected the foods we eat today. Her archaeological process of dredging up the often-neglected past is reworked into a eye-opening retelling of food culture. Ryne Heslin is interested in exploring museum philanthropy and the topic of private vs. public funding. He researches and displays the resumes of Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) board members as a way of refocusing attention to how public institutions are funded. By looking to research-based strategies to unearth historical phenomena that often go unseen, this group of artists make the archaeological process a fundamental part of their work. With each systematic investigation, these artists uncover hidden conflicts and contexts of the past as a means of reevaluating the contemporary experience.
VIOLENCE AND POWER
Mechanisms of power are important considerations in identifying and analyzing histories of bodies, class, governing structures, and social struggles. Several artists in this exhibition confront the violence enacted on certain peoples via various social, political, and economic systems. Kevin Vincent employs both organic and industrial materials, looking to the body as a site where violence occurs. Using severed tree trunks as representations of corporeal forms, these objects are bound by rope and other materials, restricting and obstructing their exterior. Referencing the human form as a key point of speculation for corresponding acts of violence and power. Continuing with the body as a point of critical speculation, Asa Mendelsohn looks to the ways in which human bodies are socially and culturally constructed. His three-channel, silent video installation describes an encounter with a skinhead-narrated via subtitles from three different perspectives. Exploring the intersection between white supremacy and masculinity, Mendelsohn addresses ideas of “passing” and how the presence and absence of the human voice relates to perceptions of whiteness and masculinity. Also taking into consideration perceptions of the human form, Sister Chapman looks to the transgender body as a source for historical and contemporary contemplation. Her looped video references a scene from the 1992 film Basic Instinct, showing the artist uncrossing her legs, at which moment a small mirror is revealed. Through this gesture, Chapman reclaims gendered dichotomies of concealing and revealing. This work confronts underlying harmful perceptions that are placed on the trans, feminine body by implicating the viewer and their expectations. Delving into constructs of violence and power on a broader scale, Nathan Vieland takes up the topic of war and militarism as historical entities of power. Using the medium of animation to illustrate the gruesome effects of battle, his looping video speaks to war as a never-ending historical tool for obtaining and maintaining power, and points to the use of video games as recruiting platforms, in which the game itself transforms into a source of control. In order to illuminate aspects of race, gender, and representation, and how such topics are affected and influenced by histories of cultural oppression, dana washington-queen explores the intersections between experimental film, documentary practices, and theoretical writing. For example, her work Untitled (I Know The Lord Will Make A Way, Oh Yes He Will) uses performance in the form of a gospel blues composition, organized in a poetic structure to emphasize utopian wishes. By mining histories of violence and power, these artists create outlets for deconstructing said histories, and provide opportunities for breaking away from harmful cycles of oppression that occur within the present.
The present that we experience at any given moment does not always coincide with the present experienced by a given community or nation, and this concept is at the forefront of these artists’ minds. In order to conjure physical and theoretical conceptions of “space,” artists in this category look to geographic notions of place, delving into various cultural and biological histories of a particular region. Ana Andrade focuses on the Yucatan region of Mexico, extracting material samples from caves and bodies of water throughout the area that were created in the aftermath of a meteor. After examining these samples via microscopic technology, their structural forms are then photographed, and a series of mappings are projected onto them, highlighting the interconnection between these spaces, and the region more broadly. Also placing an emphasis on geographic location, Zara Kuredjian’s work investigates bodily relationships to material and site. By employing geological and materialist lenses as entries into layered histories, she connects notions of physical history to contemporary culture. Using material agency as a foundation for the development of her practice, Kuredjian’s works are often multi-sensory and invite viewers to reflect on their relationships to time and place. Taking up the histories of constructed spaces, John Dombroski’s light and sound installations are informed by the vibrations and movements that occur within a location at any given moment. Using microphones and lenses, he creates interactive, site-specific systems that activate architecture and found objects. Investigating the ways in which our audiovisual and cognitive systems produce sensory experience, Dombroski excavates the social and material histories embedded in everyday experiences. Guillermo Estrada, whose work centers on a practice he refers to as “Aliendigenismo,” probes into the idea of what it means to exist in an interstitial space that is designated by national and international boundaries. Focusing on border regions between Campo/ Tecate, Calexico/Mexicali, and San Diego/ Tijuana, this idea of Aliendigenismo, for Estrada, is to be in multiple realms of geographical, conceptual, and cosmic frameworks simultaneously. In examining the intersection of culture and location, his work reveals the multifaceted nature of human existence more broadly. These artists recognize that “space” needs to be produced and re-enacted, not merely as a subjective experience, but as a tangible reality established alongside those who share in a particular present. Their work posits that an analysis of the present requires a dislocation from space as it is experienced–from where we are in a particular moment, and from the physical cues that define the reality we belong to.
Escaping the traps of conventional historiographies, each artist in this exhibition utilizes a visual language to explore a “history of the present” in an effort to address and transform contemporaneous realities. Scandalous, thought-provoking, humorous, and/or profound, the artists in this show regard “history” as a part of their toolbox of instruments designed as a means of working on specific problems and furthering certain artistic inquiries. Here, history is not an intellectual end in and of itself, but rather a building-block for a grand theoretical edifice for those of our present day to experience and enjoy.