Interview with José Andrés Mora

I sat down virtually with José Andrés Mora, Tkaronto-based media artist, fellow artist and friend. We discussed everyday language found in public spaces, assimilating into English-speaking culture, the elements of surprise and wonder, manipulating time-based media, and his upcoming exhibition the Mornings in Reverse, running from March 12th to May 14th at Artspace in Peterborough. José Andrés and I met in early 2020 pre-pandemic in Halifax. We quickly connected over the fact that we had both gone to the same small arts school and grown up in the same neighbourhood in Caracas, Venezuela, and were amazed that we had never before crossed paths. Since then, I have followed his work closely throughout his MFA degree at Guelph University and upon graduation.

Camila Salcedo: How did you get started with exploring a mundane language that is used in everyday public life, such as neon light advertisements on windows or instructive messaging on street signage?

José Andrés Mora: I did a work at the end of my undergraduate program, where I discovered (by accident), what would later turn into a recurring interest in language. The work was a video piece that involved interviews with different people in my social circle. I asked them to answer these very mundane questions about how their Christmas break vacations were going and I also asked a few different questions about how they were just generally doing. Each person was  sitting in front of the camera while I interviewed them, and the only change that I made to the entire video was, I wrote down everything they said and I dubbed myself over their voices, following the exact same words they were saying. The idea was to completely erase the trace of their own voices and substitute it with my voice. That was kind of the first moment that I realized how powerful language is, how it behaves in an unexpected way, primarily because there are differences and dissonance between the people who were speaking and the voice that was coming from them. It also indicated to me how much language can also be used to identify a person and their gender, or even just their social position, like everyone spoke like a student or a young person. So that was the first time that I stumbled on how effective language can be when it does something that is outside of its expected function.

CS: Something I have observed in your work a lot are the elements of surprise and wonder, can you speak to that interest?

JAM: It's a bit of a device that I’ve worked on refining more than anything, because I work really consistently across different disciplines and one of the constants that I use in different media is the element of surprise, or moment of awareness of the work. The reason why I'm interested in that particular quality is because it incorporates a sort of a time-based component to any experience of an artistic work, where there's a moment of encountering the work and then there's the moment after the surprise. There's always a before and after to seeing the work. That moment of realization, when somebody crosses that threshold is an interesting moment of change for me, and it continues through the experience of the work. So, in a video piece, that can be the literal movement of the timestamp of the video. But when I work [on projects] that are still, or sculptural, or drawings, or prints, I always look for that time-based experience of development of seeing the work; what it's like to experience it from afar, walking towards it, what comes up from long contemplation. It's a big part of the reason why I also work with text that’s been distorted; because there's always the [question] of time that’s brought into the experience by having a barrier of legibility. And the entry point to that time-based experience is always the element of surprise.

CS: I love that way of thinking of your work as an event with a before and after the moment of experiencing the work. Another one of the major elements I see in your work is your use of disruption and discomfort in your work. You manage to trick the viewer into interrogating how they interact with public life. I’m thinking of public works like State of Emergency, Recurring Sun and Ascending/Descending.

JAM: I think that comes back a little bit to the idea of using this interruption or surprise or a moment of realization when experiencing the work in a way. Discomfort is an element of, by definition, something that deviates from convention. When there's that moment of realizing that an object behaves differently—that there's intention behind that change— it’s in that moment of deciphering why something is working differently that I've thought of as a very fertile ground for a lot of different thoughts to happen when experiencing an artwork. Right now, I'm working on the Mornings in Reverse at Artspace in Peterborough. There's an artwork that is a customized portable Wi-Fi access point. What it's doing is outputting 17 different wireless networks simultaneously, and the idea of the artwork is for it to roam or be mobile and be in places where people would normally access wireless connections like bus stations or cafes. What the artwork is doing is outputting a poem in the form of Wi-Fi networks, and the poem is a sort of lament, or calling, for someone to return home. It encompasses the element of surprise, but also that kind of discomfort encountering something personal in public, and that feeling of when something feels out of place. That's a state that I always try to look for in my work. So a person may be on the phone and they're going to look for a Wi-Fi network, instead of seeing a Wi-Fi network they just see this complete list or just words on their cell phones, instead of finding an actual connection to the Internet. One of the things that I've been honing with my work has been creating a parallel between this state of the work being uncomfortable and out of place, and the state of my own personal experience of being [a diasporic person in this country] where I've also found in-between places, but also not functioning within the context of where I am. That's how I insert myself as a person, and it’s in that feeling of discomfort where I process the experience of movement and displacement.

CS: Do you feel empowered by having the opportunity to control or manipulate the audience? Does it allow you to reclaim your own lived experience?

JAM: Yes, because a big part of my experience [in Canada] was going through a process of assimilation and blending in; that was with the intent of not wanting to stand out and not wanting to be perceived as any lesser. Because the minute your English starts to go [the wrong way] people start treating you like you're a 10 year old. It sucks that that's my perception. The control and the standing out is a way of empowering, of [re]claiming [my lived experience], because it's about going against having to blend in. It's about the complete opposite of what it was like and how it was [for me] back then.

CS: That's great, I'm happy that art can do that for you. The reason I asked that is because I wonder whether there is a correlation between your manipulation of language, and your own lived experience learning ESL.

JAM: There is, definitely! My interest in English and in language didn't necessarily begin from the experience of arriving in Canada, for me it started with moving first to Mexico City for a year when my family first left Venezuela, and living in a culture where all the sudden my accent made me completely different – and it was the same language! Spanish in Mexico is, as you know, very different from Spanish in Venezuela. I don't know if it's so much control over language that I'm trying to have, it's more using it for its capacity to [allow someone to] blend in [or] stand out, and operating a dial that goes between the two states of quotidian language versus noise.

CS: I definitely observe how you work with the limitations of language. It makes me wonder, too,  whether technology or language poses a bigger challenge for you when you're making a new work? Which of the two is more limiting?

JAM: They’re different processes. When I work with technology I’m usually thinking about a set of core conditions and about the environment. When I’m thinking about the artwork as it is materially, with existing technology or thinking about the programming components of it, it’s  different from the challenging components of coming up with the language and how to work with it. One of the results that I want from my writing, when I make writing for artworks, is that I want  it to sound as though it's been pulled from a longer narrative. And I want the experience of encountering the language in the artwork to be a way to piece together narrative elements. And so, typically when I work on, for example, The Mornings in Reverse, there's a short story that I wrote that started as a component from which to draw things from for the text in the exhibition. But the actual story itself is not a part of the exhibition at all. That's not important to me. [What is important is] to create this feeling that it's all coming from the same place. That kind of world building is a difficult thing. I’m someone who has a hard time staying focused, with writing and reading, so I focus a lot on brevity. Despite the fact that I’m someone who rambles a lot when I speak, when I write I try to be concise. I don’t think I've ever written a piece that is more than six lines, it’s usually really short, so whittling it down to conciseness is really challenging. The technical aspect is definitely the most time consuming. I can spend like three months working on a work sometimes, and it could just be me learning how to code or how to make something I haven’t learned before. So, it's challenging but it's challenging in another form. I find the technology part is more like problem solving, whereas the writing part is more story writing.

CS: How do you select the parameters of the machinery that you work with for each piece?

JAM: I don't necessarily have a particular criteria for choosing to work with either a monitor, or projector, or different materials. If I do have a criteria, the criteria is more based on trying to realize a form or something that behaves in a way that doesn't work the way that it's supposed to work. The way that I come up with the machinery, the conditions and the parameters come primarily from my own familiarity with a certain kind of technology, programming, display or editing. The parameters are like an empty vessel until the writing is there. For example, for Reeler the parameters started with, what if there’s a monitor that moves from left to right and each time that it doesn't move the text remains still, and when the word disappears off of the screen, and the monitor returns to that position, the off-screen word becomes a different word. As I'm talking about this right now, I’m thinking about how, I guess I do have a parameter for choosing different things and the parameter is imagining if I encountered a vessel that was completely empty, what could I do with that vessel? If I had access to a billboard, how would I work with it? My approach is [creating] the blank slate that then I can begin to give meaning to it with the writing.

CS: Is that also your approach with this new show? By having a completely empty gallery, were you left thinking what can I do with this?

JAM: Yeah, definitely. All of the works that are going in [for Mornings in Reverse], I'm choosing them specifically for the gallery space. I have a fairly strong bias towards working with writing and I think that the machinery that I choose is trying to serve the purpose of changing the way that language behaves and changing the way that we engage with writing as a reading process of that text. That's the purpose of what the machinery does: to begin to disassemble or break away the language. The writing and everything that surrounds machinery is giving sense to the reason why that disassembling is happening.

CS: I want to hear more about the elements of looping and repetition, and even run-on sentences in some of your more recent work like Scanner.

JAM: For me there's an inherent condition that exists in time-based work, that when time-based work exists in a room in a gallery or outdoors, and the work is continuously playing and looping, there's a constant condition of random entry into the work. The run-on sentence is a nod to the way that the viewer interacts with the condition that they enter, as in someone's always entering at the halfway point of something. When I do text that is in motion or text in a time-based manner, in [the] case [of Scanner], I typically write with the idea of creating almost a sinusoidal, like a sine wave of an arch, where something is rising and then falling, and then rising and falling again. [It evokes] a kind of wondering of where something begins and also where it's taking you. So the run-on sentences and the looping is a technique [to elicit] that discomfort and surprise that we talked about which, in this case, is a sort of suspension in a narrative that exists in a paradox: moving forward but not going anywhere.

CS: It relates to the idea we discussed earlier of tricking the viewer, in this case trapping them in this loop. My last question is, what should people expect from your upcoming show?

JAM: This exhibition really allows me to explore the idea of piecing together a narrative through different components, and the different components being the different artworks. I think there is a much stronger sense of an underlying situation. I wouldn't say an underlying story, because it's not about telling a story, it's about an assembling of different things that are happening at the same time somewhere. I think people should expect the exhibition to have a strong connection to light and atmosphere as imagery that references the looping structure that I use in time-based work, in the sense that there’s a recurring rise and fall. What I'm trying to do, through the language and the images I’ll show, is make a connection between the repetitive components of my work and atmospheric changes and the cyclical quality of being on this planet, and how we experience the changes of light. Parallel to that is the written voice that is operating throughout the exhibition. [The voice] is someone who is almost afraid to, or hesitant to, remember because of the tenuous stability of memory. In the exhibition, there are moments where this voice suggests that the simple act of recalling a memory can damage it; describing a sense of paralysis, where they have to forget in order to remember.

CS: Is there a title for the show?

JAM: The title for the show is the Mornings in Reverse. [The title] also comes from the piece of writing I did, where there's a moment in which the narrator describes the sky and the sunset as being a sunrise in reverse.

CS: I'm really excited to see the show!


I acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.