Fellows News

A Short Question and Answer with Michael Arcega

Oct 2, 2012

Michael Arcega is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in sculpture and installation. Though visual, his art revolves largely around language. Directly informed by historic events, material significance, and the format of jokes, his subject matter deals with sociopolitical circumstances where power relations are unbalanced.

GF: Your family came to the United States from the Philippines when you were a young boy. Do you think your emigration impacted your art?

MA: Our immigration to the United States continues to inform my art practice. The act of assimilating at such an impressionable age has shaped the way I perceive the world. My views on language, class, race, and social politics stem from this period in my life. Going through such a drastic shift in lifestyle and culture shocked my core. Of course, I would not process this experience till much later in life.

GF: You earned a BFA at the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA at Stanford, but you seem to have taken an unusual path in your training, studying linguistics, anthropology, and history as a graduate student.  Can you explain the way these fields undergird your work?

MA: My education at the San Francisco Art Institute was extremely helpful in shaping my artistic ideals. The extremely liberal and liberated environment in San Francisco and at SFAI was practically a parallel bizarre universe—it was a great place for nurturing a creative voice. My choice to go to a university for graduate school was to ground my practice to issues that I felt important and necessary in my work. My time at Stanford shaped the academic side of my practice by adding rigor to the way I research and handle my subjects. I feel that these two ways of thinking complement each other in my work.

GF: So many of your creations are surprising in their melding of common, “unartistic” materials.  Woven Dollies comes to mind, or SPAM/MAPS.  What do you look for when you are choosing your materials?

MA: Since my work is driven by ideas, the materials I use need to follow the logic structure that I’m exploring— my materials have to be in service of the concept. Objects are signifiers, retaining their cultural history, use, and value. Spam luncheon meat, for instance, was used as rations by the United States armed forces. I grew up eating it like many Filipinos. Spam holds a higher value than most other canned meat products because of its ties to American culture. It also doubles as a marker of empire/colonialism in my work. Many of my materials have a double life as medium and receptacle for meaning.

GF: Wordplay and humor are very evident in your work.  Has it always been your intention to use humor to make people more open to seeing the other layers of meaning in your sculptures and installations?

MA: Language and humor are major threads that run through my entire body of work. My interests in them are mostly cultural, but they also function to disarm the viewer. I take pleasure in the illusive nature of language and the inherent flaws in the English language. Whether an accent, double entendre, homonyms, acronyms, typos, or any other ruptures in communications, these can be manipulated to serve as punctuations to a mundane landscape. Using language playfully entices the viewer, complicates meanings, and keeps me engaged as a maker.

GF: Can you discuss your relationship with Carlos Villa? How did he inspire you as a teacher? What does it mean to you that you both received a Fellowship in the same year?

MA: Carlos Villa was one of the first professors I worked with at SFAI. I immediately gravitated to him and his style of teaching. He has always been supportive and thoughtful with a conscientious practice. Carlos combined a personal narrative with a political frame while being wholly aware of the greater context. He opened my eyes to this way of working—operating on multiple sociopolitical scales and strata.

It is a huge honor to be a Guggenheim Fellow and it’s an even greater one to be in the same Fellowship class as Carlos Villa.

Visit Michael Arcega’s website