Sunday, August 11, 2013

Interview: Alberto Aguilar

Alberto Aguilar, 'Preparing the Surface'  2006
Alberto Aguilar’s practice merges his various life roles in an attempt to capture fleeting moments, personal discoveries, and his interaction with others using whatever medium is at hand. As the father of four kids, family often plays a major role in this exploration, whether it’s through the invention of musical living-room sports, sculptural reconfigurations of household objects, or a collaborative performance with his daughter’s class at school. In the face of an art world that generally dismisses the presence of children, Aguilar enthusiastically includes them as active participants in his work. HomeFieldPlay, a series of Alberto’s multilayered interactive installations, is on view at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art through October, 2013 -- a great show to check out with your own kids along -- and he has new projects in the works for galleries in Chicago, Kansas City, and Boston in the coming months. We caught up with him to ask about the intersections between his work as an artist and his life as a parent.

CR: Briefly describe your kids in your own words.

Alberto: Joaquin, 9: He is moody and attached to his mother. Being the youngest, he fights for his rights. He asks for things over and over again  (which was my technique for getting things as a kid). He has been trying to get me to give him the real axe in the garage for a long time. I finally broke down and said he can have it at the first sign of an apocalypse.

Paolo, 10: He is protective of all of us. If we have to go outside at night for something he comes with or watches through the window. He regularly naps in the car making him an early bird and a night owl always ready to make stuff. He has a fascination with miniature things. He likes money and always thinks of ways to get it from his handmade creations.

Isabella, 11: She is my princess. My sons claim that she never gets in trouble. She is intense, sometimes she talks by herself making up different voices. I guess it’s called acting. I used to pretend not to see it because she would get embarrassed and stop doing it if I brought attention to it. Now I sometimes join in and together we become other people and go to new places. She also sings beautifully and has a current obsession with learning new languages.

Madeleine, 15: People say she is the most like me. I agree to some extent - but she is the nicer, more considerate version of me. She over-thinks things, she draws, she sews clothes, she makes weapons, she loves soup, she makes music and plays any instrument at hand. Whenever she records her music she does not do it in a silent place but prefers being in the midst of things, including all the noises of our daily home life. Currently she is working on an album about Joan of Arc, whom she greatly admires.  She is very aware that she is destined for great things and accepts whatever pain may come with it.

CR: At what point did you begin incorporating your children into your work, and what are some of the ways it has it affected your practice?

Alberto Aguilar, 'Rest Area (Museo Picasso Barcelona)' 2011
Alberto: It began in obvious ways, like drawing with them, because you know how great and inspiring children’s drawings are. But then I started to become interested in their daily ways of being -- like the intensity with which they watch TV. First I started drawing them in the act of watching. Now I take pictures of them looking at this unseen source with the kind of sincere commitment that I desire to look at things with.

Another way that my children affected my practice was through music. I would always make up these dumb songs with them. At a certain point I realized that there was something of value to these songs, so I started to record them on a cassette recorder whenever they came about. After I had collected a bunch of them I noticed that each one marked a particular moment and that as a whole they carried some poignant universal truth about being human.

Parenting has affected my work by making me a more aware looker and a better listener to things we might normally disregard, things that take place in the between times.

CR: How do the members of your family feel about being part of the work? Does it just seem normal to them, or is there ever any rebellion?

Alberto: Never rebellion. When I started to use Madeleine’s music skills as part of my work she would get frustrated. She had the skills, and I understood structure and had endurance for long hours of hard work. Sometimes I pushed her to edge and she would break down crying and confused. As a result she learned discipline, structure and gained endurance which she still uses to this day. I learned a little bit about music and I became more aware of the potency and potential of the creative mind of a child. I also became more sensitive of how far you can push a child and the importance of encouraging them on the way.

If anything, they get embarrassed. I can barely get my wife to do anything in front of a camera or a mic, and Isabella is just now starting to get comfortable with it. There was a long time that I ignored her creative acts in order to build up her confidence. My youngest son was angry and cried one time because I made a Christmas Pageant video with him in his underwear and put it online. In the end they look back and realize the importance of what we did in capturing a particular moment and our time becomes legendary to them. My main thing is keeping things natural and real, so I kind of know how not to bring attention to the fact that I am recording. At this point it is a normal occurrence that I will drop everything and start recording, so they naturally ignore whatever camera or device I use.

CR: Your work often documents objects or events in the intimate, comfortable spaces of home. What has it been like to bring these to the context of a museum?

  installation view: 'Home Field Play,' Station 3 (image by Joe Iverson)
Alberto: When I started I could not imagine that this kind of work would ever be shown at a museum, so it comes as a surprise and it feels great. These are the things that have always been missing in art museums for me. In teaching art appreciation for so long to non-art-majors I was very aware of the division between contemporary art and the general public. I realized through my students that it is sometimes hard for them to relate to art with all of its inside art languages. Everyone can relate to “home,” because everyone has lived in one at some point in their life, and everyone desires certain aspects of home. What I did at the MCA is not all about making visually stunning objects, but rather creating situations that people can relate to, and bringing these objects and situations to a new light. Making people aware of how exciting everyday life can be and making the art museum more accessible.

CR: Who have been your models for artist-parenting / parent-artisting?

Alberto: In 2001-02 I saw a video on Gabriel Orozco that started to change the way I thought about my home life. In it he spoke of the separation and conflict that exists between studio time/leisure time/work time and how he reconciled them by ridding himself of the studio, by not being a specialist in any particular medium and by making work wherever he is, even while taking walks. It all made perfect sense to me. I showed that video to my art appreciation classes over and over again until it began to set into my own life. It prompted me to let go of the traditional idea of studio and to think about integrating my various roles in life in order to make them work in harmony.

Sometimes I would show videos in class that I’d never seen before in order to learn about new artists. Between 2004-06 I happened on a video about Mierle Ukeles, which I initially resisted because It had the word feminism in its description. After running out of new things to show in class I decided to screen it. It resonated with me immediately. She talked about how after having a child she no longer had time to spend in the studio, and then one day as she was changing her baby’s diaper she realized that this act could be art simply by designating it as that. I took up that call by considering my parenting, my teaching and my daily house chores my art as well. I had just bought a fancy digital camera so I started to document myself mowing the lawn, cleaning, scrubbing down surfaces, painting the garage and I let go of my studio, which was a shared space with the laundry room.

CR: Any strategies or advice that you’d pass on to new parents struggling to maintain a creative practice while raising a family?

Alberto: First off, I would not be able to do what I do without the great and amazing wife that I have. I met Sonia when she was 17 and I asked her to marry me because I recognized greatness in her that would compensate for everything that I lacked. In terms of parenting she disciplines the kids and endlessly works towards keeping order. She teaches them to be as she is: good, responsible, considerate citizens of this world. Whereas I teach them about living a balanced life, considering pain a friend and a teacher, trying new things, and how to creatively navigate this world. So I guess the first thing I would advise is to know your roles and engage them fully.

rooftop soccer match (Image by Sonia Aguilar)
Another thing is to always realize that you are in an amazing moment. You become blind when you are in the midst of it, but being a parent is a great source of learning -- an opportunity for research and productivity. Never allow it to become an obstacle to getting to the studio, because that is when one of them starts to take prominence over the other, creating an imbalance. For me, integrating my various roles in life was essential in order for things to work together and for me to keep my sanity. I play sports with my children, which serves many functions: I learn the
sport, I exercise, I teach, I interact with them, it causes a stimulus in
my brain, it generates energy and stamina in my body, and I have fun. Since we are physically active with them and teach them to live creatively, we do not have the pressure of putting them in extracurricular activities outside of the home. This saves a lot of money, energy and time. I’m not saying that we never put them in programs -- if there is a good free/cheap program that they can be part of we will send them to it.  Then when they come home with new skills, abilities or knowledge, I steal them or incorporate them into my work in some way or another.

I see my kids as my arsenal, my army and my legacy, and this helps in not feeling that I am wasting my time or that my time with them is less important than my art production time.  They are an investment. In the obvious way that one day one of them may strike it rich and take care of all my outstanding debt…but more importantly, that one day they will use the wisdom and creativity that we shared with them and carry it on in their own work in an even greater way than we could ever imagine.

Below: 'A Family Christmas Pageant' (Part 4 of 4), 2012 with original music by Madeleine Aguilar

For more on the Aguilar Family, see Part I and Part II of their reports on the 2014 Open Engagement Conference.

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