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  • Sarah Tsung

Interview: Miljohn Ruperto

Interview with Miljohn Ruperto, conducted by Sarah Tsung

September 9, 2021

ST: How would you describe your practice as of right now?

MR: Right now, the trajectory of my practice has been about thinking about the politics of representation, and the politics of representation in history. It sort of moved toward representation in nature, also, thinking through the different spaces—the social space of history and the possibly shared history of nature. Now it’s sort of both. I like to think about what are the thresholds of how we apprehend history, how we apprehend nature, how we apprehend culture. My work is a way for me to think through these issues.

ST: In your written artist statement, you mention being interested in a “history of history, the history of nature, and the nature of nature.” Would it be fair to say that you have an interest in constructing those concepts and those categories?

MR: Yeah, I mean, thinking about how we apprehend things, what is the ground? What do we take for granted as a cultural ground or a historical ground? What do we think are universal concepts? How are all these things actually generated by a particularity in subjectivity or a particularity in sociocultural or economic or geographical positions? Or when in history?

So the history of history—there are many different ways to think about history. In terms of epistemology or on a general social ground that we agree on, or some kind of truthful thing. Growing up, when you’re first thinking about history, it’s flattened. I mean generationally, the history you get is just completely flat. Something that happened 2000 years ago is the same as something that happened 10 years before you were born, because you haven’t experienced it. So how are we socialized to stretch out our conception of that history? It’s fraught. It’s full of these biases. It’s a kind of reconstruction, to understand what history is. It’s super complicated and really dynamic. That’s one of the things I've been thinking a lot about recently, to think about things in a more dynamic way. More in-betweenness, as opposed to a fixed position.

I’m a generally skeptical person. Maybe this is where politics comes in, in terms of being diasporic. When I’m in Southeast Asia, it’s nice to have this sort of conversation, where it’s a lot more to do with a sort of postcolonial restructuring, even in terms of identity politics. Even though it is reactionary, it is more generative and more about constructing, looking toward something to build up. It’s one of the main things I think about.

I had this conversation—I was in the SIngapore Biennial and had an interview with CNN Philippines. The curator was Filipino, Patrick Flores, and there were a handful of Filipino artists in the show. CNN wanted to group us together, of course, to tease out a representational thread that goes through the works and through the artists—a kind of showcase of what Filipino-ness is. I empathize with a recouping of identity through nationalism—I’m not too paranoid about it. The answer I gave was a sort of position I’ve taken on now, that as a diasporic Filipino person living in the States, I’m less committed to a core identity. I have a Filipino body and a Filipino cultural background, but there are all these cultural forces flowing through me, through this particular body and subjectivity. When I was talking about dynamics, this is the position I’ve adopted. It frees me up to not account for any particularity of identity.

ST: When we think about diasporic artists or just diaspora as a whole, it’s interesting to think about how our identities are somewhat necessarily comparative.

MR: Trinh Minh-ha says that she’s only a particular identity when a force is forced upon her. And then, of course, she’s Vietnamese, or a woman. But when she’s functioning everyday, she’s a full, robust person. So to think about identity in more instrumentalizing or more politically strategic ways is more healthy, I think.

ST: That leads me to a sort of core theme of control. When you talk about generating or constructing these identities, do you think of yourself controlling how we perceive things?

MR: I think the heart of it is aesthetics. A sort of framing or valuation. Why is this form better than this form? And framing leads to a kind of shared coherence. That’s the core of it. So in terms of power, or control—where the fight is—it depends on what you’re trying to get at. As an artist in control, I could talk about a kind of framing, focusing on what’s being done. What materials in what configurations generate something, something generative that’s working, opening up new ways of thinking about things. That’s what I hope for in my own work, to offer a new strategy to look at things.

ST: I’m interested in this idea of framing in terms of artistic control, because I find that a lot of the subject matter of your work is hard to grasp—not in terms of accessibility, but there’s a sort of inherent ambiguity. What draws you to that kind of subject matter?

MR: Even the materials I choose are generally read as mysterious or ambiguous. I think I’m a pretty middle-of-the-road material chooser. I’m not interested in pushing material to the threshold of the material. I’m more interested in the configuration of the material, but also the configuration of the viewer. The ideal scenario for me is to show a viewer a particular angle where certain things line up—where there’s something interesting going on from that one vantage point. To take things that are non-controversial and open up that view can open up new possibilities. That’s the ideal way to think about what I’m doing conceptually.

ST: The phrase “middle of the road” has a potential relevance to your approach to ambiguous subject matter. Is the aim to maintain a certain mysterious air to the subjects you choose, to keep it “middle of the road?”

MR: I think all objects can be mysterious, it’s just our attitude toward them. In a way, that’s what art does. There are artworks that use “dumb” materials or middle-of-the-road materials that produce something. For me, it’s more about the connection or the network where this object or material resides. It’s super complicated and generative.

ST: Your work raises fundamental questions about how we perceive ourselves, the conceptualities that guide our way of living and being. What are the different types of control that you engage with, whether it’s human control over nature or gendered or political control?

MR: The way I was thinking about that was—if you pull on a thread long enough, it’ll tug on the totality of the world. It’s not me thinking about these grand structures, but actually sort of the inverse—trying to block everything out except this one view. That sort of framing is what I’m trying to do. Things are so complicated and so generative, my job is actually to tamp it down and focus on one generative view rather than deal with these huge questions or issues or structures. I am interested in those things, but I feel like it’s only because that’s part of it. We can talk about a material endlessly as we keep unpacking it, its history.

ST: You’re working with historically grounded subjects—how do you decide which historical grounds you find yourself drawn to? How do you decide which ones to explore?

MR: I always have these dumb epiphanies, in the sense that they’re really obvious. Something obvious that I never really thought about reveals something to me, or some kind of configuration reveals how to understand things and the world. It’s less that I choose them, and more that it speaks to me, or it tells me something. I don’t think that’s unique to me—I think most of the time artists have an inkling about a material because they know it’s revealing something, and it’s about figuring out what that material is revealing and trying to help it out.

ST: You talk about pushing material to reveal something and for a certain perspective to align, but there’s always this sense of neutrality in the binaries that you explore. I’m thinking about works like Janus, that tread life and death, or in works that are exploring the tension between human and nature. I never feel like you’re championing one over the other.

MR: I think that’s because I like to be the viewer, also, in my work. We’re all implicated in this dynamic. We’re implicated in viewing something, like, let’s say, an optical illusion. It requires our participation, some kind of optical participation or phenomenological participation. Where is the generative aspect of artworks? Where does it reside? We can map out where different artists think it is—whether it’s in the artwork or object itself, or closer to the viewer, or even past the viewer—to think about it in a completely social or historical plane. It’s all upstream or downstream. But we’re all in it.

It’s curious, this neutrality. I’ve never thought about it before. I guess my resistance to some kind of fixed position is part of it.

ST: I suppose it’s not a neutrality in the sense of removal, but a resistance to saying “here’s what this is.”

MR: I guess I’m more at ease with unstable things. Where something can mean something through time, or through different locations. I like the possibilities. I guess you can ascribe that to politics, or something diasporic.

ST: I want to build on this idea you mentioned of you as an artist, being a viewer of your own works. Do you see a certain collapse in distinction between artist and viewer?

MR: It’s funny, I talk to artist friends of mine and this is something that—well, it’s probably something that only artists talk to each other about. It’s about how the work gives back to you, how it’s generative to you, also. Where you can become the viewer and no longer the maker of it. Where the object generates a new relationship with yourself. Not that I absolve my responsibility for the art, I’m into taking responsibility for what you make. But there’s something about being a viewer to your own work that I find really satisfying. Like when old works surprise me again. It’s an object in the world. Through time and unfolding new contexts, it’ll mean something else.

ST: Is there a work that you’re thinking about that surprised you?

MR: Yeah, and it’s so satisfying to me as an artist. I guess it goes back to this idea of control. In Western art, especially, there’s a history of thinking about art as a sort of existential imposition on nature or on material. And so it has to do with a kind of imposition of static will and intention, and that means many things. But it’s kind of nice to think about how an imposition of will at once isn't the end-all.

ST: I think it gets back to there being no fixed positions. That things can shift after their point of creation.

MR: I don’t want to say there are no fixed positions. But if we think about time as an unfolding, and how this ground changes over time, you just have to be aware that even in a fixed position, the whole world can swing against you. It also gives a kind of beauty for art objects to change over time.

ST: I want to talk about medium—your collaborations with digital media, like 3D modeling or animation, and your collaborations with others in creating those works.

MR: Thinking about digital media, in a way it can’t be helped. That’s where we’re at, that’s how many things are mediated. And it’s interesting to me to think about what kind of visualizations occurred in these digital spaces. There’s a media theorist, Esther Leslie, who wrote this book about LCD screens. She believes that the digital is an expression of the mineral. Which is bonkers but so lovely, you know? I’m on the same lines, I think, to push that we are part of nature, and nature is us. I have a more holistic view. We’re not born in opposition to nature.

ST: Talking about longevity and how artworks have a capacity for change, I’m curious how you think works will be perceived in the future, considering the speed at which digitally mediated things are changing so rapidly?

MR: Things are moving rapidly, for sure, but a lot of the ways we think haven't changed. We are shifting into a new way of being, but for right now, we’re still building up this new way of being. I think we’re still modernists, or still mostly modern. Technology, what it's doing, is accelerating a kind of modernity. But the new thing is that it’s multiple; the new way of doing things is fractured. There are horizontal instantiations of things. The change isn’t something emancipatory.

There are infrastructural changes—the way we socialize is changing—but at the same time, culturally, we’re dragging modernity with us, creating these new spaces of new, multiple modernities. But if Esther Leslie is right, we still have to go through the medium of the mineral, or translate through the mineral. The social aspect of it is interesting, the new ways that we’re now organized. But I don’t know what that means for culture.


Miljohn Ruperto mainly works with video, film, photography, and performance to map the conditions that bring about our conception of nature and history: the history of history, the history of nature, and the nature of nature. Recent shows include Every Step in the Right Direction, Singapore Biennale,

Singapore (2019); On the Shoulders of Fallen Giants, 2nd Industrial Art Biennial, Croatia (2018); Stories of Almost Everyone, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2018); Geomancies, REDCAT Gallery, Los Angeles (2017); Kadist, San Francisco (2017); Para Site, Hong Kong (2016). In 2019, he participated in the Acts of Life critical research residency NTU CCA Singapore and MCAD Manila commissioned by the Goethe-Institut.


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