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Nicole Miller: Mirror Images and the Power to Create Reality

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Nicole Miller.

Artbound's season seven debut episode explores Afrofuturism and contemporary Black art. Catch the premiere Tuesday, November 17 on KCET and nationwide on Monday, November 23 via Link TV.

 

As a visual artist working primarily in video, Nicole Miller often explores self-representation. She's not a documentarian, but her films sometimes reflect the lives of ordinary people. Her 2013 video project with LACMA delved into the oral histories of individuals in various locations throughout Los Angeles County. Instead of providing a straightforward portrait of each person, Miller's works provided a vignette of their lives, creating an intimate detail from a larger life-photograph. Her subjects were responsible for telling their own stories -- taking hold of the narratives of their lives.

Her recent exhibition at Koenig and Clinton Gallery, "The Borrowers," featured video pieces that continued her investigation of self-performance and reconstituting loss. Three single channel videos portrayed individual people: David, Ndina, and Anthony. Each person -- an amputee, a "laughing yoga" instructor, and a Jimi Hendrix impersonator -- stood before the camera and enacted a kind of performance for Miller's lens, revealing a bit about themselves by what they chose to share with the world.

Through her looping video installations, she strives to bring an active viewership to her audience, where the viewers can realize how film and media are used as a means to transmit ideas and information.

Miller's recent exhibitions include LAXART, Made in L.A. (2012), The Bearden Project at the Studio Museum in Harlem, LACMA9 Art+Film Lab, and "The Conductor" at High Line Art in New York City.

For the debut episode of Artbound's seventh season airing November 17, we're exploring expressions of African American art. In a recent interview for our upcoming special, Miller spoke with filmmaker Martine Syms about the idea of transmission through film and media, her recent exhibition "The Borrowers," and how science fiction can predict our reality.

Installation view, "Nicole Miller: The Death of a School" at Centre d'Art Contemporain Genève, January 31 - April 27, 2014.
Installation view, "Nicole Miller: The Death of a School" at Centre d'Art Contemporain Genève, January 31 - April 27, 2014.

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On her recent exhibition, "The Borrowers"

"The Borrowers" is three works that are part of three different, bigger pieces. For about a year, I had been trying to find someone with a missing limb, because I read about this exercise that this neurologist, [Vilayanur Subramanian] Ramachandran used to help patients get rid of phantom limbs, [which are] very painful. Usually, when you have a phantom limb -- after you've lost a limb -- it feels like it's still there, even though it isn't. Generally, like the man that I found, it felt like his arm was constantly stuck in a block of ice and there was never relief, and he had lost his arm in the early 1970s. So there is this horrible percentage of people that end up killing themselves because they can't handle the pain.

Subramanian Ramachandran came up with [an] incredible, revolutionary new exercise, very simple, where you put a mirror where your missing arm is. You look at your existing arm -- its reflection in the mirror -- and your brain recognizes, just through seeing that your arm is there again. It kind of reactivates that area of your brain where your arm had been mapped out -- and that's why the phantom is still there -- and it gives you a will to "will it" away. It gives you control. And I immediately became excited about this idea that it was this scientific proof, that representation, or this idea of the mirror image [that] literally changes the makeup of the brain through looking at an image.

The very first time Ramachandran did the exercise he asked the man to move his arm as if he was conducting and I was like, "Yes! That was my 'aha moment.' That's exactly what I'm doing with my work, like my work is that mirror image."

Still from video "Anthony," by Nicole Miller. The piece is part of larger installation "The Borrowers."
Still from video "Anthony," by Nicole Miller. The piece is part of larger installation "The Borrowers."
Nicole Miller watching "Anthony." The video is part of larger installation "The Borrowers."
Nicole Miller watching "Anthony." The video is part of larger installation "The Borrowers."

On her earliest works

My first video work was called "The Conductor." I had auditioned a couple of actors and I asked them to act as if they were conducting with their face, but not their hands. So in a way, we were calling it a "facial ballet." I found this one man, Eric, who was absolutely incredible and had memorized 10 minutes of expression, from looking like a psycho to looking very skilled, something that was almost choreographed. [It was] a very interesting movement. It was silent [and] was about a figure as subject, whose role is to transmit an idea -- which a conductor does. [A conductor] transmits a score to the orchestra, and then turns that performance into sound. And I liked this idea of "cycle of information" turning into an image, and then being used by an audience, and changed into something else that's used in reality. So he was kind of a representation of that idea for me.

Around that time, YouTube was getting pretty famous. I think people started looking at it as a new tool and I had found all these old videos from "Sesame Street," from the late 1970s, of all these very famous Black men reciting the alphabet. Richard Pryor is saying the alphabet, it's hilarious. Lou Rawls is singing the alphabet and it's this beautiful new song. Then I did a little research about "Sesame Street" from the time and it was conceived basically as an experiment where they wanted to create a visual male patriarchy on television for urban families with kids that didn't have a father at home. So they just really wanted to have Black men -- straight on the camera -- teaching. It was one of the very first research-based television shows for kids. It's this idea that they were really using the figure of the Black man in the same way that I was, as a source for transmission, like transmitting an idea, or transmitting information, and then each person infusing it with this sort of known persona that they have.

Nicole Miller, "The Conductor," 2009. High Line Art, New York, January 23 - March 12, 2014. | Photo: Timothy Schenck.
Nicole Miller, "The Conductor," 2009. High Line Art, New York, January 23 - March 12, 2014. | Photo: Timothy Schenck.
Nicole Miller, "The Conductor," 2009. High Line Art, New York, January 23 - March 12, 2014. | Photo: Timothy Schenck.
Nicole Miller, "The Conductor," 2009. High Line Art, New York, January 23 - March 12, 2014. | Photo: Timothy Schenck.

On her her work with LACMA

In the past couple of years, I've been working with the education department at LACMA. They had commissioned me to make this giant work. We went to nine different areas around L.A., from Redlands to Inglewood, and they wanted me to make works in these spaces, and then bring them back to LACMA.

So every couple of months I would make a new work in each town, and then put them as an installation in the movie theater where they were on loop all day. You can walk in and out and see them all day projected on this big space, which worked surprisingly well. At first, I was like, "I don't know, my work's not made for screening." I kind of got over the screening by just putting it on loop and that turned into an installation.

The first one was in Redlands, and I met this woman who was from Kenya. She was excited about talking about how she was born-again and wanted to talk about this church that she had found here. But then we started talking and I realized that she was teaching this class called "Laughing Yoga" and she worked at an elderly home. This was a kind of therapy she was giving to them, and I was like, "Well that's interesting. Let's just film you going through your exercises." So we spent about 10 minutes going through her exercises, laughing, which was great -- she was amazing. But then, when I installed it in the theater at LACMA there happened to be all these kids in the audience and as soon as she came up on the screen it was like roaring with laughter into this void, this darkness in the theater. It was this chorus of children, screaming back in laughter at her, and it was this amazing back and forth. And I realized that maybe that was one of the best installations I [have] ever done, because it was a real reaction and it was exactly what the therapy is supposed to be doing.

redlandsvimeo from private links on Vimeo.

Excerpt from Believing is Seeing (2013) by Nicole Miller from LACMA on Vimeo.

On science fiction and creating reality through art

I'm really obsessed with the essay by Fredric Jameson called "Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?" Basically, he's thinking of this idea of science fiction and how it pre-determines as a society what we end up living out. He gives examples of J.G. Ballard, Stanley Kubrick films, and how aesthetically if we keep pushing an image, we keep seeing something, then maybe that's how we start performing ourselves, or the way we think things should be.

When I started out making work, I always had this feeling that I had the power to create reality. And not in a way where it's like a reality in your head, like fantasy, but by making work that people view and take on. I always felt like there was a very strong power in making representation. Growing up, my images of Black actors -- the Black films that I wasn't seeing -- that's what I wanted to make.That's what I wanted to be, like the way that Jameson [supposes that] if you write a science fiction novel that is famous enough, it will predetermine the way the future looks. I think I try to do that with my work. I think a lot of the times in my work, I'm trying to inform viewers of the kind of viewers they can be. Like if you see a work, like "David," who is actively doing something about his missing limb, about the trauma in real time, maybe watching that will give you some sort of idea of what you can do as a viewer, or what you can reject as a viewer.

Still from "Alphabet" by Nicole Miller.
Still from "Alphabet" by Nicole Miller.
Still from "Alphabet" by Nicole Miller.
Still from "Alphabet" by Nicole Miller.

On claiming blackness now

I'm among [people] who now talk about how they don't need feminism, they feel like they're post-everything. Then I go down [to South L.A.], I drive literally 20 minutes and everything is different, everything is segregated, everything is based on trauma. I can't believe that anyone would say that we are post-anything at this point. I still felt that there were images, that I was just dying to see. There are still radical images to be had, so I don't know how anyone can say that identity doesn't exist or matter, or that we're post-race or post-whatever, feminism. I see a lot of issues, I'm still seeing a lot of problems. And I still feel that I am making images that I've never seen, like there's work that I need to do and can do.


Related reading:

Erin Christovale: Creating Narratives With Black Experimental Film
Archivist and curator Erin Christovale addresses the artistic traditions of Black California, her "Black Radical Imagination" film project and the importance of claiming blackness today.

The Hybridized Writings of Tisa Bryant
Author Tisa Bryant's work and pedagogy center around the fluidity of time, space and the meaning of race. Noted for her book, "Unexplained Presence," Bryant can be counted amongst the thriving community of Afrofuturists in Southern California.

 

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