Nicole Miller is an artist working mainly with video. She lives and works in Southern California. Miller’s work stems from the possibility that representation allows for reconstitution. Using video installation and sculpture, Miller proposes that active viewing can be used as a tool to reconstitute personal histories, or even one’s own body.
Miller has had solo exhibitions in several institutions including, SFMOMA, Marfa Ballroom, Centre D’art Contemporain Geneva, Kunst Werk Berlin, the California African American Museum, Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art, The Highline NYC and The LA County Museum in Los Angeles. Nicole also has been included in many group shows and Biennials, at places such as The Studio Museum in Harlem, The LA Biennial at the Hammer museum, Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon, and The San Francisco Museum of Art. Miller was a prize winner of the Rome prize at the American Academy Rome and has also received a Guggenheim, The William H Johnson Prize, the Rema Hort Mann prize, Louis Comfort Tiffany prize and the Artadia Los Angeles award. Her work is in the collections of the LA County Museum, the Hammer Museum, and SFMOMA amongst other institutions.
Artadia: You received the Los Angeles Artadia Award in 2013. Where were you in your practice when receiving the award and how did it affect you?
Nicole Miller: In 2013, I was four years out of graduate school. I think that was a year after I was included in the first Hammer Biennial, which was an incredibly big deal for me. I did have some encouragement when getting out of graduate school that there was a space for me in the art world, but there was no money. I came out of graduate school only making videos, which there’s still not the biggest market for. I was making work about my family, about representational issues and race, and I was determined to make a career based on making work that maybe wasn’t going to make me a lot of money. Getting the Artadia grant was one of the first times I was supported monetarily in a way that encouraged me to keep making my work. At that moment I needed some hope in terms of how I was going to support myself.
A: What drew you to video as your primary medium?
NM: I’m fundamentally a filmmaker. I’m a filmmaker that found a way to function in the art world because I wanted to make work that was conceptually based in ideas of material, context, and relational positioning of the body in space. There was no question for me of what my medium was going to be because from a very young age I was obsessed with cinema. And it wasn’t until I went to art school for photography that I started realizing video art was a thing. Even now when I make sculpture or I do work with laser light, it’s still very much connected with my interest in cinema.
A: You have described your work in the past as an opportunity for “individuals making a decision about how to represent themselves.” Does this still resonate as the philosophy behind your practice? How do you describe your work now?
NM: My work is about colliding with different people. It’s about collaboration in that sense. I think that statement, at this point for me, reads as a little naive. Both the lens and I have so much power as a filmmaker. The power of editing is such an expressive and specific gesture. Just the act of photographing somebody, you’re removing their image from their reality. A lot of my work is about that process. It’s trying to bring a sort of consciousness to the process of what’s going on in that space between a person’s reality and it being turned into an idea or an image. Through revealing that process, I’m trying to bring the viewer’s awareness to why they’re interested in consuming in that way, and how it creates archetypes and ideals in relation to very complex beings.
A: A large part of the commission you made for SFMOMA – “To the Stars” – involves the narratives of children in San Francisco. What work do you do to allow children to be a stakeholder in their narrative when they might not fully understand the complexities of the final product?
NM: It’s a long process of teaching them what the context will be. That’s really what the difference is in working with young people. It’s a lot of preparation time. Going to San Francisco many many times, visiting classrooms, showing them past work I’ve made that’s similar. Really, slowly talking through what the difference is between hanging out with me and a camera and talking, and re-experiencing that in a theater with your family.
I showed them a work called “Athens,” which I made in LA county. We talked about the process I went through with those kids and they could see what it was like for them to tell personal stories. The act of the screening is a big deal – having the families and the kids together in a safe space, where it’s just us experiencing what it’s like to see yourself on a big screen, edited, and through a lens. Adults are more savvy about what media is, so it takes less explaining. The commission was a great opportunity because I was working with a specific school and teacher. It was a really interesting survey of what concerns 12 year olds.
A: You have recently collaborated with laserist Zak Miller in a few projects. How does laser technology resonate with your video practice?
NM: “To the Stars” was my first big commission where I decided to include laser light. That was the first big work Zak and I worked on together. He is a cinematographer and has been shooting my work for a very long time. He started learning how to animate lasers for concerts. The way we produced the lasers was a kind of old, analog technology. Nowadays you can use computers to animate lasers but old school laser technology uses analog sound run through an analog synthesizer that moves mirrors inside the laser in order to move the beam. It’s really a transmutation of sound waves into light waves. That kind of transformative translation is what I’m looking at in video art and filmmaking. When he told me about it it seemed like the perfect medium to bring into the practice because it holds the ideas of mirroring.
A: The use of lasers is a striking aesthetic choice in “To the Stars” that acts as an interruption of the narrative storytelling, which is more “straight ahead.” How did you conceive of the interspersed laser effect?
NM: When I got commissioned to make the work for SFMOMA I knew I needed a point of disruption. I’m not interested in making straightforward cinema in the art world because I think the context and history of conceptual art is one of repositioning. We can think about material and structures from “alien eyes” sometimes, and I think that’s why pointing out the structures of how the thing is functioning works in the art world. It helps shake us out of the stupor of being entertained and projecting into the narrative of the dreamlike space of the cinema.
The laser is so bright, it’s uber bright. When you’re in the cinema you’re used to looking at light – that’s what you’re experiencing as the medium. When light is brought in at another level, it makes you think about its presence in another way, as a material in space. On top of that, the kind of synth noise that’s running the lasers is very jarring, and so all of a sudden it should feel like you’re waking up. While you are consuming the stories and images that I have offered you in the space, the lasers are a moment where you think about the process of doing that and wonder to yourself why you are?
A: Can you tell us about your new book Michael in Black, that focuses on your sculpture of the same name?
NM: The sculpture contains so much- so much so that I felt compelled to create a book about it with collaborator Lauren Mackler. It’s such a complex work that I felt I had to spend three or four years aggregating material to contextualize what it is to me and why I made it.
As a filmmaker, when I photograph someone, their image is removed from them. And that’s a process we sort of rely on culturally to tell ourselves stories, to think about people in relationship to ourselves, but it also has created a lot of problems. It turns people into something that can be consumed. That’s how archetype is created, that’s how stereotypes are generated, that’s how people are pigeonholed and dehumanized as well. Michael Jackson, perhaps, is one of the most important humans who’s been turned into an icon in this way. I found these molds that are literally an index of his body, as close to the reality of the thing and yet still photographic in its way. I immediately knew it held all of these issues I’m concerned with in my work.
A: What was the reaction to the piece as you portrayed a figure with such a complicated reception?
NM: The HBO documentary came out in the middle of the show in LA. The work is so intense to be next to, I almost feel that people were coming into the gallery and not believing it was what it was. It was just too big a thing for people to realize it was real. It was the first time it was shown in LA and it hadn’t been written about yet, I hadn’t done any interviews about it, so it took a while for people to understand what it was. There were two other works in the show about transmutation. The first laser I made was in that show, animating the phrase “For Now.” Which makes one think about time, and change, or something that’s stuck. So you have the sense of things being transmuted. Ideas of black bodies turning into something that’s consumable. When this happened in the middle of the show the relationship to his body culturally shifted in a major way. But that made it, as Lauren put it, “radioactive.”
Nobody wanted to buy Michael Jackson’s body at that moment. Even if the work wasn’t about it as a kind of monument or even about loving him. In a way, that’s where the art lies for me. It’s turning toward the problems, instead of away from them. Which is why grants are so important for me. Because it’s not about making something that is fetishized for the sake of it being shiny, but to really figure out how these things are being used in society and to try to articulate some sort of vocabulary or tools we can use to deal with the stuff of the everyday.