Claudia Malfitano: You’ve lived in many cities before settling in Miami. And each one has represented a particular experience, from a climatic and geographic point of view. Could you tell us more about this interesting aspect of your biography and why did you choose Miami and how is the geography of the city inspiring you?
Felice Grodin: To quote my website (which needs updating!): “My work is also a fusion of my background and the unique cities in which I have lived. San Francisco’s earthquakes, Miami’s hurricanes, New Orleans’ weakened levees, Venice’s rising lagoon and New York during 9/11, have left indelible impressions on me of the vulnerability and resiliency of life in the big city. In turn, my work posits a contemporary interpretation of the space that we live in today – a contradictory world that is simultaneously global, territorial and always transforming.”
Upon reflection of the quote, which was written over ten years ago, I think that the very topic of climate and geography is clearer to me now than it was then. Then it was post 9/11 and geo-political conflicts due to globalism were manifesting. There was not the commencement of the Anthropocene (that had already happened) but an emergent consciousness of it. I now understand Deleuze and Guattari’s relationship of the three strata (inorganic/geology, organic/biological, and alloplastic/social) much deeper, literally.
Miami is a ground zero for the compression of these conditions. We’re sandwiched between the virtual financial flows of real estate speculation hovering above, and due to climate change, a rising sea below. Miami is diverse in its population, yet we have a common (un)ground in that our city may disappear. We live in the ‘cone of uncertainty’ lying in the path of hurricanes, fluctuating real estate markets and tropigoth.
I did not choose Miami, it chose me. I came back after 9/11. My family is here, and I needed to be with the familiar. It’s funny how the familiar can be so extreme. It makes for good art probably…
CM: From the point of view of a wider context, what is the art scene in Miami like today? As an artist, could you tell us about the current climate for artists living and working in the city compared to the other cities you have lived in?
FG: As an artist the most liberating thing I find in Miami is the paradox of the utterly synthetic and the brutally honest. Miami so nakedly exhibits a branded lifestyle to its visitors that we joke about it. The funny thing is that the real Miami is so much more interesting. There is also an understanding of how flows of money, finance and industry moves, and how we move with it.
I remember going to an open discussion at an art space in Miami about the relationship of art and real estate developers. At the time the Wynwood Walls were exploding and there was a problem beginning to be perceived. Artists were being used for promotional purposes to facilitate gentrification. Although we can say that this happens in many cities, it was so vividly clear to us artists that we were extensions of Miami urban development. But what was interesting is that we were galvanizing a knowledge of this and how we felt about it – which was disempowered. This was also a time when Art Basel Miami Beach and its related fairs and programs were beginning to focus on the global market and not the local. There were hardly any Miami artists who were participating.
But an evolution began, and the art community began to question these things. I think the Miami art scene has become one of the most possible for developing questions. The questions have become even greater in terms of grappling with not only climate change, but those related flows and how they push and pull in different ways. Being an artist in Miami is both a liberating escape from tradition and expectation, in tandem with the very challenge of what our future will be.
CM: Tell us a bit about your practice and your creative process. Where does it all start?
FG: When I began my practice, I did mostly drawings. My background is in architecture and I was interested in the relationship between mental and physical space. Living in cities like New Orleans, Miami and Venice (for my studies), I experienced space as fluid, literally and figuratively. I drew freehand abstract landscapes using isometric techniques that were both precise and organic. I began to think of these drawings as depicting processes or cartographies of nature and culture simultaneously. I realized that imaginary or speculative processes could be applied both in the virtual and actual sense.
I then decided to focus on the speculative integration of art by developing strategies for both modeling our present conditions and creating meaningful imprints upon them. I now look at existing contexts, conditions or platforms and explore where and how it makes sense to graft or overlay something contingent, something that will reroute the circulation of perception and experience. For example, my first full scale installation was called A Fabricated Field and took place in a project room (Locust Projects, Miami) where the existing ceiling was constructed out of Dade County Pine. Most of it has been deforested. I spent a full year constructing the elements of the installation entirely out of off-the-shelf wood products to accelerate the reading of logistics, mass production and consumption. The funny thing is on opening night most visitors were too intimidated to step into the work. They were lining up on the perimeter and leaning against the walls. I had to literally lead people by the hand into the piece. I don’t know if there was trauma in seeing all that wood expressed like a synthetic cave of stalagmites, or rather it was the excessive and algorithmic embeddedness of time, labor and materials that was somehow inhuman. It was uncomfortable – and I preferred that. It reformed the way I approached the creative process.
CM: Your forward thinking exhibition, now running at the Pérez Museum since 2017, is one of a kind. Tell us more about “Invasive Species”.
FG: The museum received a grant from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for a tech initiative. By the time I was brought onboard PAMM had chosen to pursue an Augmented Reality project featuring a local artist. What was even more provocative is rather than debut it as an ancillary project to the museum’s main programming, they rolled it out like any other exhibition. Yet it was the first full exhibition of its kind. There were a lot of firsts along the way. I could publish a backstory or catalog which would be just as fascinating as the final works in my opinion. But the focus was – what do we want to augment and why?
I had several conversations with curator Jennifer Inacio, who worked with me very closely on the exhibition. When we started we felt that the work should reflect on the environment of South Florida. We discussed how the Hudson River School utilized landscape painting to portray a pastoral and idealized view of young America. Those paintings were not in the realist genre but rather more sublime and codified. We decided to adapt a similar strategy by exploring climate change in a speculative way. What might Miami look like in 500 years? How could augmenting reality allow the future to slip backwards in time – to our present? Finally, how would the museum’s visitors interact and experience such work?
It thus became a site-specific series of artworks in which three out of the four were located on the exterior grounds of the museum. In each case, the existing architecture of the PAMM (designed by architects Herzog and de Meuron) was augmented with a notion of the takeover by an invasive species that had adapted post climate change. Jennifer brought up that point that in the future, small creatures would become bigger and bigger creatures would become smaller. Something now perceived as uncanny could very well be the new normal in 2518. A sense of wonder would hopefully be paired with a sense of consideration – about the future of our city in lieu of rising seas. Perhaps these future ‘transmissions’ would in sense beg the question of what can be, and what do we want to do about it? Where and how does the human species intersect with other species?
In addition, I have learned a lot about the potential of augmented reality as a medium. What strikes me about it is that rather than situating work within an analog materiality versus virtual reality, it hovers between both. To mediate between the concrete and the abstract is an incredible threshold that this project substantiates. I would say that augmenting the PAMM as a form of art has been a unique opportunity. Because of the ability to scale, the works can take on a large and transformative role. One can be ambitious and speculate on environments that might suggest alternative futures, presents or pasts. It has built in political and social capabilities to present alternatives. Because the interface is through a smart phone, it’s easily accessible and sharable. In our case, three of the pieces can be accessed and experienced (through the museum’s app) without ever entering the museum’s front door. Jennifer brought up the point that akin to invasiveness or even landscape, AR can migrate into the public domain outside the limits of the museum walls.
CM: My Art Guides likes to recommend to its readers unique places to visit in each destination, not necessarily connected to contemporary art, in your opinion, what are the absolutely unmissable places, landmarks and spots in Miami? And could you recommend something that shouldn’t be missed during the art week?
FG: I recommend a meal at Versailles – and don’t forget to include a café con leche. Clive’s Café in Little Haiti would be another one. I would also say just to soak up the neighborhoods. The city has its ‘image’ which tourists consume. But the actual places where people live and work – the communities, have so much more to offer. They are much more honest than the synthetic image. Yet both are what makes Miami.
CM: What are you currently working on? Any project in the near future?
FG: I recently completed a commission for a group exhibition called “E-State Realisms” (ArtCenter/South Florida), curated by Emer Grant. For the first time I completely utilized digital platforms. I modeled and fabricated nine sculptures, or ‘chess pieces’ as I call them, to explore the current use of parametrics and real estate investment in architecture. I’m also in the process of creating a new commissioned AR work for a group exhibition opening in November called “City unseen”. The project is by Snap! Orlando and consists of public AR artworks throughout the city. I’m very excited to be able to continue exploring both Augmented Reality and the transit between the digital and the analog.