Teaching, Perception, and Public Space: The Living Legacy of Antoni Muntadas

Taller de artista, Antoni Muntadas. Paisajes Urbanos, 2007
ACT at MIT

“Perception requires involvement,” warns Antoni Muntadas, ACT Professor of the Practice. After twenty-four years of teaching at MIT, Muntadas is retiring this spring to focus on his extensive projects. Spanning over four decades, his art and pedagogy are rich in aphoristic observations. His classes and artistic practice dissect and reveal encoded systems of control and power hierarchies within media culture, architecture, and urban life by examining the intersection of language, media, and public space. On April 18-19, 2014, ACT will host a symposium and exhibition on Public Space to celebrate the legacy of Muntadas’s artistic and educational practice.

Muntadas came to MIT in 1977 to join the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) as a research fellow. In this experimental setting, he explored topics such as the media landscape and the dichotomies between subjectivity and objectivity and private and public. It was at CAVS that he coined the term “media landscape” to define the ever-expanding presence of mass media, audiovisual material, and advertisements in public space. Muntadas fondly remembers the creative dialogues and collaborations with multi-media artists such as György Kepes, Muriel Cooper, Aldo Tambellini, Otto Piene, and later on Joan Jonas, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Ute Meta Bauer, and Gediminas Urbonas.

Whether in a classroom or in a public space, the dialogue can be a form of critical practice. Moreover, “a question is an act of generosity,” notes Muntadas when speaking about exchanges with students and fellow artists. Taking his students to cities as close as Las Vegas and as far as Beijing, Muntadas has expanded the classroom dialogue to include students and artists from around the globe. Alumnus Jegan Vincent de Paul writes about his experience: “What I appreciated the most about his teaching of Public Art was the international nature; many of his students over the years had the opportunity to travel to far away places and come back with wholly new perspectives. I think art is about a certain kind of critical sensibility which Muntadas strongly fostered in all of us.” Muntadas describes class trips as teaching instruments, just like books, guest lectures, or films, only affording a more immersive experience where students are surrounded by alternative points of view, different architecture, and new concepts of public space. Almost anthropological in nature, the travels encourage comparative thinking and dialogue with different cultures.

His seminars on public art, or rather, art for the public space, are focused on understanding spatial cultural identity through art and architecture. The students, with their different fields of training (from arts to computer science) and their varied nationalities (including students from Brazil, Germany, and Egypt) foster a unique cross-cultural diversity and a wealth of perspectives inside the classroom. Students are encouraged to create temporary public interventions intended to activate long-term discourse, not only among class participants but also the audience. In one seminar, each student created a unique museum without walls. Some of the projects inhabited other MIT buildings with a high level of student traffic, while others engaged with audiences on the streets of Cambridge.

In addition to classes on art for public space, Muntadas has also led graduate studio courses. Alumnus Matthew Mazzotta, who recently designed Open House, a public theater and community center in York, Alabama, writes: “Muntadas definitely had a huge influence on my time in grad school and now as a working artist. I still quote him to this day — successful art projects have ‘one point of entry, but many interpretations.’” In a conversation with artists Anne Bray and Ferol Breyman, Muntadas explains: “I believe in different levels of interpretation which grow out of social, perceptual, and cultural differences. I prefer to encourage people to have their own interpretations, to raise questions, and to discourage absolute values in art.”

As the following quotes indicate, Muntadas has marked his students profoundly:

“As a professor, he honestly cared about making his students develop what they found interesting in a more meaningful way.” — Matthew Mazzotta, SMVisS ‘09

“Muntadas is a great professor, full of contagious enthusiasm about culture, not just art. I remember him saying something that still inspires me today (and my teaching) and it goes more or less like this…‘There is not enough art (poetry) in the world to bridge the conflicts around human activity.’” — Sofia Ponte, SMVisS ‘08

“Muntadas’s commitment to pedagogy is not limited by semester or classroom. You learn that quickly after meeting him. He’s an incredibly generous and dynamic person; always eager to put you in touch with someone you must meet. Seven years into knowing him, we’re still very much in communication. Teaching for him is a long-term, if not life-long project, and I’m very much honored to be a part of it.” — Alia Farid, SMVisS ‘08

His teaching and artistic practice evolved together, using art as his medium of choice for critical theory; “When I have something to say, normally I say it with my work,” he remarks nonchalantly. The intertwined structural themes of his oeuvre — mass media, language, and public space — function simultaneously as viewing devices and objects of analysis in deconstructing power. Born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1942, Muntadas lived under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco until 1971. In the exhibition catalogue of his retrospective Entre/Between, Jo Anne Birnie Danzker writes, “When Muntadas left Spain and moved to New York in 1971, he had personally experienced nearly thirty years of political, physical and legal assault on the body of the Catalan people, on their language and their freedoms.” While his practice formed in a certain socio-political context in Spain, his work can also be linked to media theory developed by Marshall McLuhan in the sixties and concepts in social sciences and linguistics explored by figures such as MIT Emeritus Professor Noam Chomsky. As Birnie Danzker admits, “his practice was never specific to one particular national or political context.”

Below is a video of his 2012 lecture Projects and Protocols:

His continued focus on the media landscape and language unfolds through series such as On Translation, Media Architecture Installations, or Political Advertisement, which Muntadas has revisited and recreated throughout his career, each time shifting the content and context of the work. For instance, On Translation: The Bank (1997) looks at economic spheres of power embedded in society; On Translation: Celebration (2009) presents a critical stance on the spectacle of mass media; On Translation: Museum (2002) applies the same scrutiny to the language, methodologies, and politics within museographic institutions. On Translation: Fear/Miedo (2005) is just one of his many projects that analyze the employment of fear in mass media as means for political manipulation. Installed in urban settings across the world, On Translation: Warning is a series of multilingual stickers, press inserts, and banners, that spell out “Warning: Perception Requires Involvement.” Every four years, Political Advertisement (1984–2012) — a collaboration with artist Marshall Reese — provides a historical look at how media and language have been used in presidential campaigns since 1952, including videos from Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign that featured the tag line “Time To Vote Like Your Whole World Depended On It.” By recalibrating the viewer’s attention, these projects enable the audience to perceive and truly engage with the language and images encoded in mass media and public space.

Muntadas is also critical of educational institutions, as his installations About Academia indicate. The project investigates the complicated relationship between the university as a nexus of knowledge production and the economic power that underlies its operations. Previously installed at the Harvard Carpenter Center (Cambridge, MA) and Audain Gallery (Vancouver), the exhibition will be installed in a new iteration at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at UMBC in Baltimore in the fall of 2015. Read more on About Academia.

Many of his works function as temporary interventions, where video installations, books, newspapers, billboards, and even dialogues are vehicles for critical thinking and exchange. Expanding on McLuhan’s premise “the medium is the message,” Muntadas chooses a specific medium based on the context and content of the work in question. For instance, the series On Translation includes installations and projections, books, and websites. Taking an archival approach to political propaganda, Political Advertisement is comprised of archival video and found footage. The intervention’s lack of permanence is critical, for, in Muntadas’s view, a permanent structure is an imposition, an act of authoritarian intent.

Muntadas has exhibited widely, including at MoMA, the Venice Biennale, Documenta VI and X, and the Whitney, Sao Paulo, Istanbul, and Kwangju Biennials, and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Velazquez Price in 2010 among many other awards. His most recent exhibits include The Construction of Fear at Periferico Caracas (Los Chorros, Venezuela), Protocolli Veneziani I at Galeria Michela Rizzo (Venice), and his comprehensive retrospective Muntadas: Entre/Between at the Vancouver Art Gallery (Vancouver, Canada). Click here to read his full biography.