Tell us about yourself, how did you become an artist?
Honestly, I never thought I would become an artist, or even considered the possibility until I was in my twenties; half way through university. Before attending art school, I loved subjects like biology, geology or environmental sciences, because they informed so much of the curiosity I had to understand the ways in which things operated. Beyond those initial interests, I learned so much from my mentors in Holland, Canada and the United States. These people were outstanding makers and thinkers I admired, who set an example in front of me of what it meant to be an artist. I absorbed so much from their generous guidance; by listening to them and learning from the ways in which they observed the world. It took me many years before I started making self-initiated work, so I see the idea of becoming an artist in itself as a process of resilience, nourishment and learning. There is no beginning and no end, it is a way of thinking, of existing in the world. There are many artists that have never made artworks and many people making artworks that aren’t artists.
What is your background? and how did it inform the focus of your creative exploration or the medium you're currently working with?
I was born to a family of scientists and I remember how my parents would often describe to me the complex systems that configure our bodies while we sailed and collected fossils along the Atlantic coast of Spain. Learning how to observe the processes of nature through the physicality of these encounters and to grasp my relationship to them in immediate and discerning ways has always been one of my greatest concerns. I remember listening to my dad trying to explain to me when I was barely seven years old what a virus was, and how it operated inside our bodies. I remember trying so hard to understand the complexity of these mechanisms, fascinated by the ways in which his eyes illuminated while explaining the things he loved. I have always been really bad at memorizing things, so I had to comprehend the ways in which these processes really operated in order to integrate them, and I discovered so much magic into the process.
I like to think that in many ways that is exactly what I am still doing; trying to understand my relationship to the ongoing forces and transformation cycles of our environment, and the political and ethical grounds I must hold within these landscapes.
Of course, this is an area of study in which many different disciplines collide, and so my practice is research-based and interdisciplinary by nature. I am currently working within the field of installation, site-specific performance, video and photography; and my projects are normally articulated through a synergy of scientific, eco-critic and philosophical knowledge. Although there is a very strong visual component to the work, I also pay a lot of attention to articulate and communicate conceptual concerns connected to the processes of climate breakdown, the poetics of geology and time, and the problematics inherent to an anthropocentric worldview. Through these strategies, my work seeks to generate spaces for critical reflection around concepts of sustainability, deconstruction of the nature/culture dualism, creation of post-humanist subjectivities and new narratives of belonging in our relation with the Earth Organism.
What ideas interested you in the beginning of your practice, which ideas have you continued to explore, and where have they led you?
The very first works I made were related to the phenomena of rain. It was something that affected me in many ways. I lived in Holland back then, which is one of the rainiest countries in the world, so I am sure that is the source of those initial works. However, my life back then was deeply rooted in skateboarding culture and so back then I was very interested in the social ecologies that cities generated; I was a kind of flaneur.
After going through four knee surgeries many things changed and I started hiking and surfing more often. Surfing is all about water as well, and about reading the ecology of the ocean. You have to actively listen to the ways in which it moves, in order to inhabit a moment in which you are able to join the forces of nature and go for a ride together. I loved that it was an active agent, pushing its agency on me, and that I had to work with it, not against it.
Spending time outdoors with my former partner and dear friend Carlota Antón revived my childhood magnetism for fossils, stones and wilderness. She is such an avid explorer and an amazing photographer who documented many of my works and took me to many unknown places; so road-tripping with her around the National Parks of the United States became one of the most important ingredients in my development as an artist and as a person. Working as I travelled and experiencing the richness of the environments we often refer to as “the middle of nowhere”, became the actual epicenter of my thinking and making. What once used to be an interest for the social ecologies of the city, became an awareness for the ecologies of nature and the ways in which its processes are culturally constructed. I quickly became obsessed about collecting rocks during my travels. I was drawn to their colors and material properties and later, to the idea of the memento, to their meanings, their geological and geographical histories, the ecologies of extraction of these materials, the biological-geological divide, the emergence of new human-geologies in the Anthropocene, the global environmental crisis it is entangled to, the deconstruction of all of these ideas, and so forth…
Who were and are the biggest sources of your inspiration?
Teachers, friends I hold close. Family. Nature. Other artists, People whose books I read. The list would be too long and unfair in naming just a few. Some have supported and guided me in difficult or key moments, some have helped me open my eyes and expand my understanding of things, some I consider mentors and some others have inspired me through their own work.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in learning from science, indigenous cosmologies, contemporary eco-critical philosophy and in spending time outdoors. I find so much grounding in travels that generate nourishment, empirical knowledge and bodily engagement with nature, and so much purpose and ideas in the books and articles I read. One thing complements the other.
Is there are a single work, project, or series that is pivotal in your current trajectory?
I don’t believe there is one single work, as they all are part of a same process; conceptually connected and informing each other. However, if I had to choose one, I would say I discovered so many things in my performance project Walk Like a Glacier. Until then, I had worked mostly with physical objects and environmental concerns but had never made use of situated performance before, nor explicitly addressing and embodying the effects of climate breakdown in such a sound manner.
I feel like in many ways, my performative actions are at the core of my thinking and my making; and so I believe this site-specific performance was so meaningful in opening new processes, mediums and ideas in my work. Anyhow, the work has expanded the complexity and reach of my understanding and my making; but I don’t see it as a “pivotal” change of direction in my concerns.
How did it begin? and how did it evolve?
Walk Like a Glacier is a site-specific performance in which I carried and displaced a block of ancient glacial ice by walking from the glacier’s tongue of Mendenhall Glacier (Alaska), all the way down to its glacial lake. During a period of nearly two hours, I traversed a distance of 3,8 km —carrying a block of ice that would slowly melt against my back— until I reached the place at which the glacier ended in the year I was born. This place is nowadays situated more than 2 km away from the edge of the glacier’s terminus, and increasing. The performance was captured and relayed through a series of photographs, a score, a map, an artist’s book, and a floor-video projection that documents the entire action.
The making of the work coincided with a trip I took to Alaska during my stay in the US. Back then, I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s book “Wanderlust -A History of Walking” and attending Lori Waxman’s lectures at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on the Art History of walking as an aesthetic practice. I was also working at the time with ideas of geologic-specificity and material displacement, so it all happened in very organic ways when I arrived there and saw a glacier for the first time. Back in Chicago, I started working on all the materials that Carlota and I captured during the performance, and ended up writing a homonymous artist book that I am lucky to have in many prominent collections around the USA. The book documents and narrates the process of the performance, focusing on Walk Like a Glacier as a procession, a protest, an expedition, and a pilgrimage that revolves around the intersections of climate breakdown, geological time and the implementation of walking as an aesthetic practice.
What were important lessons in the process that you’ve carried forward with you?
There is a central aspect in Walk Like a Glacier that has to do with the relativity of human time in relation to geologic phenomena, but also with the intersection of human and non-human agents, and the embodiment of these interactions. In my current practice, one of the main ideas I am working to deconstruct is the liminality of these worlds —the biologic and the geologic, the human and the non-human, the lively and the inert, the cultural and the natural— because I believe these dualist distinctions lay at the core of our colonial cosmologies of exploitation on other beings and material configurations. If there is one thing that I have learned from nature and from the process of making my work is that there is no isolated entity in this world. It all forms part of the entangled webs of matter and life exchanges we form a part of. In contrast, a cosmology of classification and distinction make up for a world that is divided, separated, alienated, hierarchized.
What are you working on now?
I always work on so many projects at the same time, because they form part of a same ecology of processes and ideas. Sometimes I struggle, because development can seem slow when you grow organically in many directions simultaneously.
At the moment, I am starting the production phase of an investigation connected to techno-remediation practices on post-natural coral reef systems damaged by the effects of climate change. Connected to these ideas, I recently released a series of wearable sculptures in collaboration with 15a Studio, in an effort to contribute to coral reef restorations through the adoption and reinsertion of corals. I am also working on the video-documentation of two performances related to ideas of empathy, uncertainty and instability that I carried-out recently in response to the ongoing state of global crisis. Lastly, I am continuing an ongoing project concerned with a series of human-made geologies that exist in the estuary of Bilbao (Spain), as the result of metallurgic waste from the industrial revolution of the Basque Country; among other projects.
If you could go back in time to the very beginning of your art practice and give your younger self a single piece of advice what would it be?
Be kind to everyone. Stay humble. Seize every opportunity by giving your very best. Be patient.
About the Artist
Based in Madrid, Spain
Miguel Sbastida (1989, Madrid) graduated from a Master of Fine Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2015-17), with the full support of a scholarship from La Caixa Foundation. He completed a BFA at Universidad Complutense of Madrid (2007-12) after his fellow BFA studies in Holland (2010-11) and Canada (2012).
Over the last ten years, his works have been widely exhibited at venues like ARCO Madrid, Expo Chicago, Zhou-B Art Center, CDAN Museum, Korea-Foundation Seoul, Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection, Laboral Art Center, Asia Culture Center Gwangju, or the Netherlands Institute for Media Art; among others.