For Antoni Muntadas, process makes intervention possible. Process—that wide net of a word—resonates for the conceptual artist as a kind of sustained labor that synthesizes research, collaboration, and context into an interdisciplinary approach. It’s long, structured work that eventually proposes some sort of dialogue with a community.
Exercises on Past and Present Memories, his latest exhibition showing at the Ateneo Art Gallery, roots itself in these dialogues through representations of transnational exchanges—an invasive plant, for instance, introduced by the Americans—which signal the fraught colonial negotiations experienced by the Filipino people.
In a robust career that spans decades, Muntadas has concentrated not in fixed art objects but in the prolonged work of creating “interventions.” Muntadas explicitly frames his works as interventions since they actively resist the imposition of an authoritative statement but instead act to draw out interaction from communities, crafting sites open to negotiation and reevaluation. Our interview feels similarly open and free-flowing as we discuss art practice, the concept of a media landscape, the internet as archive, and more.
Cartellino: The art you exhibit is often hard to categorize since it employs a variety of different approaches, from public space interventions to multimedia and research collaborations. How would you describe your art practice?
Antoni Muntadas: I studied engineering and architecture at university. At the same time, I was doing painting. So it was a combination of two practices. In my university studies, I learned to work with a structure and a methodology. I need to emphasize here that the way I am working is to produce “projects,” that it takes time, sometimes years. It starts with a concept and then a process of work that is quite different from the production of objects in a studio, which is more immediate, spontaneous, and intuitive. I am a kind of process artist that tries to link my process to different contexts and countries through an interdisciplinary approach. For instance, I draw from techniques and strategies of the social sciences, like interviews and fieldwork, and that informs my process: the investigation of links to the context and the links to the subject matter. Research is also a big part of my practice, but I don’t necessarily show the research in the finished work. The research needs to be integrated within the work, and this final work is the synthesis of what the project is about.
Sometimes, working on a project can produce objects, like in the case of Exercises on Past and Present Memories. My research project produced the works Malas hierbas, Portable Monuments [to Emigrant Anonymous Workers], and Mantones. These three finished works will be impossible without my process of work. And I see these three works as a synthesis of that research.
C: How has your art practice developed over time? Have you always been drawn to process-oriented work?
AM: My art has evolved to more complex situations. Projects have always been my way of working but at the beginning I was working more as an individual. As my projects have grown more complex, I realize I cannot do it all alone. I needed to form teams, people in the communities I am working in, people in Manila, Barcelona, and New York. For Malas hierbas, it was a big research project about the Padre Blanco book but it involved more macro-scale plans, like the production of plates in Sevilla. In that project, I wanted to explore how these invasive species are an act of colonization from Spain via Mexico. It is different from the Mantones work, an appropriation of popular culture which traces the colonization from China to Manila to Spain. In both cases, I explore macro-level concepts.
C: Exercises on Past and Present Memories is your ongoing exhibit at the Ateneo Art Gallery; it is a show that is heavily informed by discourses on Philippine history, colonialism, and transnational memory. What was the process like researching and conceptualizing the show and then operationalizing that concept?
M: The exhibit started when I was invited to do a couple of lectures here in the Philippines around 2018. In researching for the presentation, I learned about the context of the country. After that, [AAG director] Victoria Herrera proposed to me if I wanted to level up the project. I told her I needed time to research, to know the elements of the past and present memories that interest me and how I could create a structure for the project.
Pretty soon I started to approach the galleon de Manila as a metaphor of reality, all the movements from Spain to Mexico to the Philippines and back, with all the trades, bringing back all kinds of material, and how empire was sustained through these movements. It was not my intention to start a work about colonization, about the kind of political and religious and cultural influences.
I wanted to contemporize the view in light of globalization. I wanted to look for elements that talk about issues of exchange and colonization but not in the usual way. I started to see that a plant could colonize, that a manton could colonize. That the portable monuments could recognize anonymous, diasporic people working very strongly in their communities versus a typical monument, which is normally a vertical figure of an individual leader.
C: A key thread in your projects is the notion of the media landscape. What interests you about this concept?
AM: When I say the evolution of my work, I mean the movement from micro-spaces to macro-spaces. I conceptualized this term, “media landscape,” to accommodate a series of works that form an entity focused on the latter. It’s an analogy that takes the image of the window. A window that allows us to see a realistic view of the natural world, which has been an inspiration for many painters and photographers. And then I incorporate the element of media, the window of the screen. You turn on the television screen and it’s another landscape, the media landscape. I extended this concept also to newspapers, magazines, and the internet. These things are another reality, but it is a mediated reality.
C: I wonder if you keep up with the discourse on social media sites like Facebook and TikTok. At a time when our public and private spheres are constantly being negotiated by media companies and corporations, how do you see art working to intervene in this context?
AM: I am in favor of adding mediums that produce different kinds of work, but the thing is, sometimes we put too much emphasis on new mediums. I am of a generation that started to interrogate mediums as alternatives to popular media. Now, the big corporations are controlling the situation. With the internet, it started as an alternative—we see and access more and more information—but I think now a lot of the ways we inspect and interrogate it are not realized. The problem is that the economy controls the systems of information. I am critical of how social media is functioning because it starts to be very connected to and defined by consumerism.
For artists, the internet can be a valuable archive but the archive needs to be activated for it to make any sense. It is the responsibility of the artist to synthesize the archive through the work of selection, editing, and research.
Muntadas: Exercises on Past and Present Memories is on view at Ateneo Art Gallery until July 29.
Sean Carballo is a writer and undergraduate from the Ateneo de Manila University.
Images courtesy of Ateneo Art Gallery and Clefvan Pornela.