Miguel Braceli’s voice is quiet, but his laughter echoes. His studio in MICA’s Fred Lazarus Center was intentionally empty and during our conversation his laughter reverberated against the walls. Materials from his staged performances were strewn throughout, including black flag poles, red, white, and blue beach balls, and a box of copies of the United States Constitution.
Braceli describes his practice as an exploration of collective performance in public spaces through “participatory projects.” For one of his most notable projects, “Here We Are,” 30 primarily international MICA students worked together to erect a black flag on the grounds of Baltimore’s City Hall. And instead of a single rectangle of fabric, this flag was made of multiple unwoven black strings. The erection of the flag, normally a military act, was transformed into something more playful and collective, folding and unfolding the “flag” of overflowing forms.
Braceli, a Fulbright scholar, already holds a master’s degree in architecture, and taught architecture for 10 years at the Central University of Venezuela before enrolling in MICA’s Mount Royal School of Art in 2018. He chose to pursue an MFA because he wanted to formally study art, something he had never done before.
Often leaning towards education and non-traditional art methods, Braceli stands out as an international student and social practice artist in an institution where many students are pursuing more conventional art-making practices. Braceli’s work is thought-provoking, beautiful, and fluid, using participation to create works that explore poignant topics and reflect our times.
I interviewed Braceli in February, before the COVID-19 threat was clear in this country, and shortly after that, when schools had to suddenly close, I thought about his work immediately. In this unexpected age of social distancing, Braceli’s practice can give us hope, but can also drive us to be critical and questioning of the traditional models of education that exist now. New models need to be created, new worlds erected. And laughter is where we need to return.
Artist:Miguel Braceli Instagram: @miguelbraceli Graduate Institution: Maryland Institute College of Art, Mount Royal School of Art (Multidisciplinary MFA) Tuition: $50,160 per academic year
NOTE: Photos provided by the artist. Although the interview took place in Braceli’s studio, with the sudden closure of MICA’s campus due to COVID-19, we were unable to return to the studio to photograph the artist and his work. His thesis exhibition is viewable online.
Teri Henderson: Where are you from? Where are your roots? Where are your people from?
Miguel Braceli: I am from Venezuela and my parents are from Spain. I am the son of immigrants also living in another country. Immigration is in my context, and in the complex reality of the people from my country. That is why I feel attached to these subjects.
Immigration is a global crisis, but is specifically a major problem for Venezuelans. And there is no better place to address these subjects than now in the US, with all the complexities and contradictions that implies.
I’ve read that you’re a Fulbright scholar.
I wouldn’t be here [in the United States] if it weren’t for that. And also thanks to a generous scholarship from [MICA’s] Graduate Studies and the Leslie King Hammond Fellowship. This last one is very important for me, because that community opened the opportunities to develop my first participatory projects in Baltimore.
Can you tell me about some of the work you’ve done in Baltimore?
We have been developing several projects in Baltimore. The first one was “Here We Are.” We raised a giant black flag next to Baltimore City Hall. The flag was made of multiple strings instead of one single surface. Through a collective performance we transformed the military ceremony of folding and unfolding the flag into a civic celebration and a playful action.
With “Geopolitical Games” we transformed a playground into a military base, recreating the Battle of Baltimore and recreating the US flag through a volleyball game. The history of Baltimore, as one of the oldest cities of this country and its current role as a sanctuary city, made it an ideal place to have these geopolitical discussions. The main idea is to create an open game to transform what is a historical military base into our playground. It’s another way to address the complex nature of national identities and how they are built through diversity of cultures, race, and people. [Through the project] you could address history and understand these ideas in the present time.
Both projects involve student participation. “Here We Are” was developed within an artist workshop with the Interdisciplinary Sculpture department and it was included in the closing event of MICA’s Day of Service. This is an unpublished project, and I am still editing the videos and raw materials to create new work. It is my first project in Baltimore and I feel very attached to it. “Here We Are” gave me the opportunity to know that I am part of a community here.
I’m interested in creating environments of learning: to create together, discuss topics together or just build something together.
When we spoke before about the nature of your practice, we talked about social practice, but could you describe what kind of art you make?
Most of my work includes collective performances in public spaces, integrating people and also practices. These projects began with my teaching practice in architecture, and now what all of these projects have in common is that they are spaces of learning. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in creating environments of learning: to create together, discuss topics together or just build something together. For me, this educational aspect is one of the most important aspects of my research. And that’s why I’m so interested in educational spaces. I like to call [the works] participatory projects, or you could call them social practice. But the most important thing about all these names and practices is that they all converge in education.
What is your medium?
There are many mediums involved, like performance, installation, video, and photography, and my practice could be categorized as participatory art or public art. But I would like to think that my main medium is education. Again, it is in which most social practices and collaborative projects converge.
If you could have all of your dreams come true in 10 years, what would you be doing?
I would be doing this. I think for many artists teaching is their Plan B. In the art world this is considered a semi-failure, like if you didn’t totally “succeed” as an artist you become an educator. But in my case, I became an artist after being an educator, and now I want to be an educator to produce art.
Can you tell me more about your role as an educator, and the importance of teaching in your practice?
I became an artist by being a professor, working with my architecture students in ephemeral projects in public space. Now I understand these practices as art: education as art. In the idea of the artwork as a formative project, the methodology is the substance of the work. It is not about the object, or even the experience. It is about the knowledge production, and the pedagogical structure to make the works possible.
What are you working on right now?
An article called “La Escuela Desnuda.” The Naked School is a building without facades, with no walls to hang the artworks. Most of the production of art within art schools is created to fit the white cube and recreates its institutional dynamics, rather than imagine new systems and open new possibilities. Art schools need to go out to the streets, as the arts did many decades ago. Educational spaces must be inserted into real contexts to learn from them and transform them. The class must go outside the classroom to create new spaces for action; we must dialogue with physical, social and political contexts that allow us to generate tangible contributions in specific places, contributions that return to students in the form of knowledge.
Why did you choose to come to MICA for graduate school?
Baltimore. I wanted to be part of a city like this one, where there are many challenges but you have a tight community to face them. Somehow, Baltimore reminds me of Caracas, my hometown, a place where the needs are as strong as its charms.
If you could go back in time would you do anything differently, or maybe attend another institution?
The irreversible [nature] of time is a value of life. It forces you to look forward as a possibility of change, and to the past as a place of learning. But answering your question, MICA has been a great school, and so has Baltimore. Both have the potential to develop a great community-based practice with the work of students. In MICA I found people like Sheri Parks, Kevin Griffin, Nicolás Rodriguez, and Abbey Neyenhouse who have been great allies in these experiments.
I think it’s unique that you have a history as a professor, an architect, and already have a master’s degree. How has this helped inform your artistic practice?
I find it very interesting that when I was teaching architecture I used art to go beyond “the project” and materialize the works, exploring the possibilities of installation, performance, and many other artistic mediums for that to happen. And now I find myself as an art student using architecture and the possibilities of “the project” to go beyond the white walls. In the group crits, while my peers are installing their physical objects, I am using a powerpoint to present a project in public space, using drawings or schemes. It looks like I am not doing the homework, but I am just doing it in another place. Art and architecture have a lot to learn from each other, especially within educational spaces.
What place in Baltimore inspires you the most?
The bars! You can feel the identity of this city in these dive places—I even saw John Waters once in Club Charles. That is one of the most valuable things about Baltimore, the myth is real and the magic is there. It is an authentic place, not an American dream. The possibility of encounter and the possibility of change is what inspires me to create every day.
Is your experience at MICA what you’ve expected?
I came to MICA with more curiosity than expectations. Art schools face a great challenge teaching art. For me, the challenge of educational spaces is to approach reality without replicating it. That requires the transformation of the internal structures of the academic world and then breaking with the structures of the outside world. Schools should not emulate the art system or the professional practice. Education must provide the tools to create alternative models of artistic practice, create new forms of legitimization, new spaces of action, and new structures of emancipation.
What is the one work of art you’ve made that you’re most proud of?
“Biblioteca Abierta (Free Library).” It is a public art installation where we display thousands of books on the floor, books that are there to take for free. The work arose at the Central University of Venezuela as a manifestation in the National Strike of State Universities in 2013. Its purpose was to reveal the value of the Academy, taking its knowledge production to the public space. The work was so well received by the people that we transformed it into a series. I presented it in Slovenia in a European Union Congress for Future Architecture.
And what about the performances?
Every performance is unique in regards to the context and its own experience. If I have to choose one I would say “Area,” a performance placed in the heart of the governmental district of Caracas. The project aimed at building a common area, a shared space against the polarization that had been stimulated by the government speeches as a result of the presidency of Hugo Chávez. Polarization is a division used and created by totalitarian regimes as a political strategy for the perpetuation of power. It was very impressive for me to see how many people spontaneously appeared that day, and how they resisted the rain. Many people joined, even a kid from the streets around, who ended up leading the performance with me.
We spend a lot of time obsessed with galleries and institutions, recreating the dynamics of museums. But a school is not a museum. If you think in science, the greater innovations come from the universities. It should be the same with us.
Have you staged any performances on MICA’s campus?
We have been working in the city and on the campus. “Trigger” aimed at transforming an object of violence into a pedagogical tool and reimagining a gunshot as a method of construction. The body is the structure of the weapon; as an object of knowledge, it holds the same possibility as a book. In the framework of Constitution Day, “Trigger” proposed to use the US Constitution as the object to shoot. The objective is to create metaphors about the power of law and rights as a weapon; at the same time, questioning from an art school the idea of the legality of guns and its consequences in educational spaces.
What other projects would you like to develop for Baltimore in the future?
“Living Boundaries.” This is a pending project, we created a performance as part of the CALL WALKS from the City as Living Laboratory, NY. This collective performance is part of a walk that explores the scientific, artistic, and social principles of absorption at Lake Roland, a defunct reservoir surrounded by parkland at the edge of Baltimore City. Delving into both ecological and social issues, this walk will examine the relationship between people, land, and water, as well as exclusionary urban planning. In the performance we would be walking together, getting into the lake with lines of biodegradable paper that dissolves immediately upon contact with the water.
Can you talk about the influence of poetry on your work?
Poetry is about creating images, and that is what we do in all these projects: transforming places from the poetical gesture as a political act. All this time we have been talking about the spaces of learning in my practice, but there is another thing that inhabits the images we are creating, and it is the medium to talk to a foreign audience through photos and video. I like to think of these projects as poetry. Aesthetics could be a very powerful source, because it is digested as water.
What wisdom would you impart on an individual who is in the process of applying to the Mount Royal School of Art?
Build your own school.
How have you built community at MICA? How have you built community in Baltimore?
Both communities already exist, strong and powerful. We just need to work together in the city, developing new dialogues in public space, using the city as a school.
Do you feel like you would be able to make the work that you make without having gone to art school?
I already did it that way, I had never been in art school before. However, I found that art schools could be very powerful institutions if they find their role in the art world, creating paths rather than following traces. We spend a lot of time obsessed with galleries and institutions, recreating the dynamics of museums. But a school is not a museum. If you think in science, the greater innovations come from the universities. It should be the same with us.
How did the COVID-19 outbreak affect your education at MICA? How did it change your last semester there?
My education, beyond being affected, is being stimulated by this crisis. The text I had started writing months ago about “The Naked School” has taken on a new meaning. The art schools have been stripped of galleries, events, laboratories, and other resources that were proposed as an integral part of education. They stripped us of all the accessories and we only had two things left: knowledge and community.
Schools became only schools, putting in check both us the students and the institution itself. What remains to be seen in these months is whether our pedagogical systems are solid enough to approach education from another place; more sensitive to reality, outside our bubbles and inhabiting a global crisis.
How do you think the COVID-19 outbreak will affect the educational landscape/future?
The coronavirus crisis has affected everything, from world geopolitics to our small art worlds. The fact that MFA students from institutions like Yale, Columbia, MICA, Tisch are demanding tuition refunds is asymptomatic, as this is happening predominantly in art schools. Not in medicine, not in law, not in engineering, not in humanities: in art schools. These requests open questions about the correlation between expensive tuitions and the sense of their education—in general, on how art education is being developed as a pedagogical project, and more specifically, what is its contribution and how is it related to the contexts it inhabits.
In the future, education has to be more accessible to everyone and closer to our contexts. The future of education—and art—is not to complete this transition to online platforms, rather creating a transition to re-inhabit the public sphere from the most sensitive aspects of our human condition.
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