To artists like Antoni Muntadas, fear can be seen all around us.
In his virtual talk on Feb. 23 for the Program in Media and Modernity, Muntadas spoke about how fear manifests in the media and the built environment. His presentation covered several of his works, each of which seeks to elucidate our relationship with fear.
Muntadas is a multimedia artist whose work frequently involves photography and video. He approaches art through a scholarly lens, contemplating social problems in the contemporary through multiple perspectives. Muntadas has taught at the Instituto Universitario de Arquitectura del Veneto and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally from Barcelona, Spain, he now lives in New York.
Joining him was Mary Anne Staniszewski, author of “The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art" among other books on art and culture. During the event, she served as an interlocutor and facilitated conversations about the night’s theme. Staniszewski works at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as an associate professor of Arts.
The event began with Beatriz Colomina, Director of the Program in Media and Modernity and Professor of Architecture at Princeton, introducing the two guests. After receiving a warm welcome, Muntadas promptly began his talk, accompanied by a slideshow presentation.
Muntadas’s presentation highlighted the areas in our lives where fear has a substantial presence. Of the many art pieces Muntadas discussed, several stood out as especially pertinent to the events of the past few years. Early in the lecture, the artist showed a compilation of political advertisements titled “Political Advertisement X 1952–2020.” In this artwork, Muntadas chose to highlight four ads, three taken from the political campaigns of former U.S. Presidents Johnson, Reagan, and Trump and one from the National Rifle Association. The commercials capitalized on the fear of nuclear war, home invasion, and Islam. The 2016 Trump campaign ad, in particular, saturated with Islamophobic rhetoric, underlined how political ads and other media manipulate the public’s emotions to push agendas.
Muntadas’s work also underscores how fear thrives in the borders between countries. His presentation featured an image of the U.S.-Mexico border wall as well as a similar picture from the boundary between Spain and Morocco. As with the political advertisements, Muntadas noted how architectural features such as border walls and fences are used to influence people’s emotions. “Borders are significant landmarks to control security and fear,” he explained.
These images offered a segue into Muntadas’ next two pieces, which were both installments in the artist’s series “On Translation.” “On Translation: Fear/Miedo” is a video work consisting of interviews about fear in the context of U.S.-Mexico relations. Muntadas talked to residents from both Tijuana and San Diego about their experiences with the border and their perceptions of the opposing community. The interviews were punctuated with scenes from popular movies exemplifying the specific fears they discussed. “On Translation: Miedo/Jauf” explored analogous themes in a similar format, this time addressing the controversy surrounding the Strait of Gibraltar, which separates Spain from Morocco. Both works were circulated and made available to watch before the presentation.
Muntadas released both films in the 2000s, predating the current political climate. However, viewing these works, my mind went to the human rights violations occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border and the particularly toxic ways that fear has influenced immigration policy in recent years. Yet, as Muntadas demonstrates, this type of fear is not confined to the edges of political territories but exists in all parts of society.
“Cercas (Fences),” a series of photos taken in wealthy urban and suburban neighborhoods, depicts the lengths to which residents will go to achieve a sense of security. The pictures feature a multitude of fences, cameras, and alarm systems. Muntadas’s work reminds us that physical representations of fear exist even in our urban centers, perpetuating the separation between different social classes. The photos evoked the suggestion of celebrities bunkering down in their mansions during lockdown, isolated from the problems of ordinary people in their bubbles of luxury. The expensive measures homeowners take to keep outsiders at bay also reveal an industry built on unease. “The business of fear is flourishing and well,” Muntadas noted.
The final piece of the night, titled “Closed/Locked,” related directly to the events of the past few months. Consisting of a series of pictures taken between March and May of last year, the images depict buildings with boarded-up windows. When going through the photos, Muntadas paused his lecture, allowing the audience to observe the images in silence.
Among the buildings featured, I was surprised to see many high-end department stores — stately shops that appeared to be abandoned. In some photos, entire sections of blocks were boarded-up. Some boards served as canvasses for hastily graffitied statements, such as “Store Empty, Nothing Left.” Others featured phrases like “Educate, Support, Demonstrate,” paying tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement with remnants of the protests that occurred last summer. Though many of these stores were likely locked up out of fear, their appearances a physical representation of unease, it inspired me to see how many people transformed these objects into expressions of hope and positive change.
As Muntadas’s presentation wrapped up, Mary Anne Staniszewski shared her thoughts on the evening’s topic and the artist’s work. “I was struck how this body of work has become uncannily timely,” said Staniszewski, referring to Muntadas’s point about the atmosphere of fear that the pandemic has created in our daily lives.
Staniszewski also commented on how Muntadas’s work brings together otherwise mundane scenes and objects and makes them the center of attention. She presented an image that Muntadas showed in his presentation, a picture of a security camera by the Claris Hotel and Spa in Barcelona. Comparing the image to a front-facing photo of the hotel, Staniszewski observed that the security camera was nowhere to be found in official photos, emphasizing how the artist brings marginal objects and places to the foreground, reflecting a greater trend in politics and art. “The marginal has become the primary,” she noted.
Staniszewski further emphasized the variety of elements Muntadas featured in his work, including slogans, generic products, and architectural features. She underlined how the artist connects disparate manifestations of fear and demonstrates the ubiquity of angst in everyday objects. Muntadas expanded upon this point, stating that much of his time as an artist is spent researching and speculating about various artifacts. “Accumulation is part of a process of work,” he explained.
Wanting to learn more about his creative process, Staniszewski also brought up the subject of outtakes and asked Muntadas how he selects images to work with. “The final process of a work is a process of editing,” Muntandas said in response. He stressed the importance of refining his work, relating his view to filmmaking and the power of the final edit.
Muntadas’s unique approach to art underscores his ability to draw attention to unexpected patterns. Through his scholarly lens, Muntadas opens up a new perspective on fear as not just an emotion but a force that shapes our environment. His work teaches us to question the world around us and to understand how fear influences our behavior. As doubts about the future prevail during these turbulent times, such a perspective may help us construct a more conscious and compassionate world.