Oolite Arts' Latest Exhibition Reshapes Power Into Creative Agency

Isabella Marie Garcia, Miami New Times, August 6, 2021

Summers are no stranger to unrest, as 2020 showcased through the masses that took to the scorching streets in the hopes of holding police and judicial systems accountable for violence against Black lives.

But this summer there's a sting to the tropical air that reeks of a similar feeling of intolerance. In Cuba, where a dictatorship has fueled cries of "Patria y Vida," and in Haiti, where persistent corruption and disarray led to a presidential assassination.

For René Morales, chief curator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), and Amanda Bradley, programs manager at Oolite Arts, the initial conceptualization of "Where There Is Power," a group exhibition currently on view at Oolite Arts in Miami Beach, surfaced after last summer's disruptions.

"Everybody is dying to get past a state of chaos and crisis, but it's important to note this balance between power and those subjected to power as something worth paying attention to, especially since power is much more vulnerable than we might think," says Morales. "Digital surveillance is one of the main tools of power, but it's also a very powerful tool for those resisting. A young 20-year-old with a dial-up modem can hold this power. It's scary, it's exciting, it gives hope."


The range of creative agency can be found in the 13 Miami-based artists included in the show, revealing the many ways in which the local art scene is reacting to power through its own personal interpretations. In harking back to the presence of digital surveillance, the thematic nature of Big Brother watching can be seen in both Yucef Merhi and Rodolfo Peraza's installations, which greet the visitor upon entering the second floor of the center. Wallpapering the looping corridor, Merhi's Maximum Security consists of hacked emails of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, revealing resistance in the digital sphere.


Thematically similar is the work of Peraza, present in the continuously evolving site-specific software of Pilgram: Naked Link 3.0 and the virtual reality of Jailhead.com. The latter is an immersive and interactive simulation of Presidio Modelo, a defunct prison on Cuba's Isla de la Juventud, embodying the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, from whom the exhibition takes its name; Foucault brought attention to the panopticon as an architectural model of maintaining social order and controlling masses through visual surveillance.

In Pilgram: Naked Link 3.0, Peraza traces Oolite Arts' IP address to every ISP in Cuba created since the internet was established - a poignant statement given the island's disruption of internet connection following this summer's protests. That enabled the artist to comment on how control evolves within the island's communication system and how users regulate themselves and others out of fear of being watched.

"The timing of this exhibition in relation to the recent uprising events in Cuba made Jailhead.com and Pilgram: Naked Link 3.0 a gesture of digital exploration in the current state of control that my colleagues, even some of them my friends, are currently suffering in Cuba, as well as the Cuban people," Peraza elaborates. "Artists such as Hamlet Lavastida or Luis Manuel Alcantara and other young Cuban intellectuals are being imprisoned under false claims and unproven crimes. I hope that the works make a deeper connection between those experiencing the pieces and those that are suffering repression, jail, and censorship."

Despite the range of topics, from the influence of cult personalities to the significance of military-industrial planes, Bradley notes that the firsthand lived experience of the artists featured in the show is what really makes the work even more impactful.

"This exhibition is not afraid to be so forward in subject matter because these artists are directly affected and touched by the issues they are discussing," Bradley says.

In My Father, Reginald O'Neal's portrait of his father, who has been detained in state prison since the artist's childhood, hangs next to a QR code that plays an intimate phone conversation between father and son. The disembodied connection of his father's voice with the pictorial presence of his body reveals the potency of their connection despite being separated by the correctional system.

"My main concern is to be both vulnerable and honest at times, but I'm more at peace with being honest," O'Neal says. "The recording is one out of many conversations that I have had with my father, and for those who don't know him, it gives a glimpse of who he is and our relationship. To hope the listeners or those who experience the work take something away is something I desire less about showing. I accept that others will have their own interpretation of the work, and for me, that's enough."

The same goes for Chire Regans' (AKA VantaBlack) installation. In When They Ask Me What I Did, I'll Say Everything I Could, Regans renders children as the end pillars turning away from portraits of gun violence victims looking towards a future devoid of the same fate.

"I chose to include personal portrayals because if I'm going to tell a story, I definitely have to start with my own," says Regans, who was inspired to create the portraits after 6-year-old King Carter's death. "The portraits of my children Cypher and Alia are gazing into the unknown; the idea of the future being something yet to be realized is one of the many concepts that inform my practice. I don't know what type of world awaits them, but I do know it's my duty to reflect on the world they currently live in, to tell the truth about what's happening, and to help them realize they can shape their future."

The exhibition encourages self-reflection on where the viewer stands in the culture schema of power.

"Is resistance to power always good? Some would say it's always bad. I don't agree with that. Is it always good? That's a more complicated question," Morales says. "Power and those subjected to power are constantly shifting, as each side develops new techniques to counteract acts of resistance. Developing forms of resistance is inherently good. Almost like an evolution of predator and prey. Sharper tooth, thicker hide. It's a constant back and forth and a shift of technique. Who is going to have the advantage in the end?"

"Where There Is Power." On view through September 19, at Oolite Arts, 924 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 305-674-8278; oolitearts.org. Monday through Sunday noon to 5 p.m.