Q&A with Visual Arts Center’s Artist-in-Residence Mika Tajima

This fall, the Visual Arts Center (VAC) welcomes Mika Tajima as its Artist-in-Residence in the Vaulted Gallery. The NYC-based artist is known for her interrogation of the performer and the built environment, and her work as the founder of New Humans. We recently talked to Mika about her ideas and inspirations for the upcoming exhibition, and the relationship between art, design, and architecture.

Your site-specific installation, which opens September 9, is entitled The Architect’s Garden. What is the connection to architecture in this exhibition?

The built environment is of particular interest in my work and for the exhibition at the VAC. Not only are these surrounding environments a product of labor, but they also shape our activities at the same time in a feedback loop. I am interested in specific historical structures that have come to represent the evacuated modernist dream and its legacy—such as office cubicle designs and geopolitical border walls like the blast walls in Iraq. The urban landscape is of particular interest to me, especially with its transformations marked by the proliferation of half-built highrise condos and derelict buildings in the wake of post-industrial economy. One of the major visual markers of this condition is the ubiquitous scaffolding structure, these temporary architectural structures that cover half-built constructions and hide demolition sites (modern ruins). For the VAC, I’ll utilize scaffolds as both support and structure for various surfaces for painting/sculpture, and I’m interested in how surfaces of objects can function—i.e. how a painting becomes a covering or signage, always in a state of becoming something else such as a backdrop or a skin.

Why did you choose specifically to explore this topic here at the VAC in Austin?

In my work there is an aspect of refusal—to avoid determination and to defer expectations as a mode of autonomy. For this exhibition, I wanted to continue drawing on states of becoming and refusal in the face of this type of surrounding environment. Also, I am bringing specific research into the fold by engaging resources at UT and the link to Richard Linklater’s seminal film Slacker.

In recent projects, I’ve investigated the history of autonomists in Italy (a left workerist movement; those who lived in society but by “one’s own rule”) as well as referenced Situationists urban derive. For Austin, I wanted to continue thinking about these various topics but specific to a native version that emerged in Austin. In Slacker, Austin’s landscape is the backdrop for exploring these themes. In the current Austin, like other cities, we live amongst the overgrowth of capitalist overdevelopment. Slacker seems more relevant than ever now–finding one’s own way without joining the ranks.

As part of the exhibition, you’ve invited Nancy Kwallek, director of the interior design program in the School of Architecture, to join you in a discussion about Herman Miller’s and Knoll’s color palettes from the 1950s. What do you hope for people to take away from the talk about art’s relationship to design?

I’m addressing how the built environment has shaped our lives and how the legacy of modernism has seeped into every aspect of our culture, particularly at the register of decor and its overproduction. Another specific reference is Herman Miller’s “Action Office” system, the first cubicle ever, which revolutionized the modern workplace interior under the rubric of maximizing efficiency, human interaction, and progress. After discovering that the spaces the cubicles created were not exactly the idealized workspaces imagined, Herman Miller commissioned designer Alexander Girard to create silkscreen designs that were stretched over the cubicle panels to customize workers’ spaces (in another sense, to mask or decorate the alienating space of the cubicle). I also saw these cubicle designs (both the architectural structure as well as the surfaces) as instrumentalized paintings. So on the one hand, I’m investigating what has gotten us to this point, and on the other, I’m thinking about slack or avoidance of these situations—new undetermined spaces.

You spent part of your childhood here in Austin. What stood out the most about your time here?

I spent most of my childhood in Austin, but haven’t been back until this project for the VAC. In Austin there is a feeling that there is something else going on there, that things are “different” from the rest of Texas. I was in high school when Slacker came out and seeing a film like that gave me a feeling that there are other possibilities through different navigations and encounters of places—an everyday autonomy that propelled me to find out what else is out there.