Remote studio dates is a series of conversations with artists, curators and researchers to document and explore coping mechanisms for isolation in the current health crisis. Each date focuses on one work, project, concept or dream, with digressions and slippages, without the need of ending somewhere but with the desire of opening something up.

Mia has been one of the best discoveries of my 2019, from art practice to friendship. Her work unfolds at the intersection of music and the visual arts. She is currently developing a major project with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne that will take the form of a large-scale installation combining different elements such as sound, live performance, image and video. A strong component of her practice is the translation from one expressive language to another. She often departs from the architecture of a place, interpreting spaces into musical score compositions and drawings made of dots, lines, colours and notes that are conceived to be performed live. Collaboration is therefore at stake in different stages of her projects, spanning interactions with architects, classical musicians, dancers or DJs. When the lockdown started in Australia, Mia temporarily left her studio at Gertrude Contemporary to work from home. Like for many of us, isolation has forced her to rethink some aspects of her work including presentation and display as much as the structure of the installation itself. 

MLR: From where shall we begin? Where are you at with the project?

MS: It’s complex. When I begin working on a new project, I never know what the final result will be. I start from a strong feeling of a place – it can also be an argument around it – which eventually evolves into a thought process. My work is very spontaneous so the outcome is different all the times. At the moment, I am developing the drawings to the best of my ability through a music program, translating dots, squiggles and lines, forms and structures into a rhythmic score that is harmonised. A shape in the space, which might correspond to a line in the architects’ drawings of a building, can become a series of dots and marks that will shape the musical composition. I am currently up to the part where I interpret some character into the pace of the music, loud and soft tones, thinking about the spatial aesthetics of the place and its purpose, trying to express all of this in sound.

Mia Salsjö, The Quietude (2020).

MLR: Are you still thinking to display the work at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, where the project itself originated, or are you considering alternative venues, online options, due to the current situation with the pandemic? 

MS: I am evaluating different possibilities to present my work… virtually as well. I am thinking about videos, a display with multiple screens. I need to consider a plan B, C, D… how to exhibit my intention within the realms of life after Covid-19. Ultimately, the work could become a performance that focuses on the public and the way they experience the piece.

MLR: I never asked you why you chose that building in the first place.

MS: Oh, yeah. I was coming from a major project in Cuba at the International Art School where I worked with a building that had clusters of domes and amazing serpentine tunnels. I love that kind of organic winding spaces. I think they reflect the spontaneity in my practice. Even though there is a very strict, almost mathematical process embedded within my work, which requires exactness and precision, the space dictates the work to me. The visual elements of a space as well as its internal structure inspire me to generate a translation into the structure of sound, almost like if I were looking into the mechanics of atoms and molecules in order to find parallels with music. So when I saw the atrium of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre I had a strong feeling and thought I wanted to meet the architects. I was curious to see the inner workings of that building. I also felt moved by the fact that it was a cancer center, having a family member that went through breast cancer while she was very young. Entering that building was an emotional experience that reminded me of when I first saw the serpentine underground tunnels in Cuba, where I developed the work Modes of Translation. It felt like a continuation of that process; the building itself looked like it was related to the one in Cuba although, of course, they were made by different people and in a different time and space. Hospitals are places that contain incredible stories about people’s lives, about both death and life. I just felt that it would be a great starting point because it had such an energy, that sort of power for me to create. So, I searched for the architects and approached them. I visited them in their office and we spoke for an entire afternoon, going through the whole history of the building. I talked about my process of translating the structures of things, and they spoke to me about the building and how they created it. My work on this project has been going on for two years. Last year I said to Debbie, one of the architects, that I was not yet ready to show the work. She was like ‘oh, it took us years to realize this building, don’t worry. We understand!’ Hearing that was good because it made me realize the synergy there is between the architects and I, both deeply immersed in our own process. 

View of the atrium at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne. Photograph by Mia Salsjö.

MLR: The first time I visited your old studio in Fitzroy, you were already working on this project. I remember you were considering playing with videos and photographs as well, alongside the drawings and the actual live performance. It sounds like this is the largest project you have worked on so far, in terms of all the different elements that compose the work. 

MS: Yes, absolutely. The work is going to include drawing, video and photography as well as musicians performing my scores live. My practice has expanded a lot in the last few years. It has grown from one project to another and since the last iteration of Modes of Translation it is much more articulated. In Cuba, I worked with students from the School of Music and filmed them performing inside the building that I used as a starting point for the work, then developed the project further, for a performance at Fabrica de Arte Cubano on the occasion of the 13th Bienal de la Habana in 2019.

I then re-worked the piece for the Moving Pictures exhibition at La Trobe Regional Gallery in Morwell in February 2020, where I collaborated with the Silo String Quartet. The more I research and translate, the more I feel like the work needs different collaborators. In the case of the Cancer Centre, I am experiencing a constant progression in the way I can articulate the power of the structures holding such an immense place that, you know, hosts very unwell people and eventually either heal them, keep them alive, or send them off to the heavens. This idea of extremes is going to be represented in the work. I use different elements as triggers to begin the translation. I can create only by having a kind of narrative going on in my head, like the stories that I hear about the space or the reasons why an architect would raise a certain floor, you know, why there has to be a specific temperature in a room… it can get down to a very cellular level of things… the humming of the air conditioning unit or those constant beats of the hot machines. I am looking for meaning inside structures.

MLR: We have been talking about your work so much but this is the first time I am understanding that architecture for you is much more than just numbers, materials, forms and shapes. There are stories, emotions, feelings and narratives, there are people and conversations involved, like the one you had with the architects, and the varied uses of a space. All these elements, which are very much alive, trigger your translation and not inanimate structures alone. 

MS: Absolutely. During my fieldwork in the building I have visited, for instance, the cultural center, the therapy center or the rooftop garden that overlooks the city. I have talked to so many people, even in the kids’ area. I saw the different spaces where children and their families can relax and be together in a very special and therapeutic area that offers lovely snacks and warm drinks and also sound pods that one can recline in… different games and a big TV. It’s a really lovely and soothing space.  So I recorded the architecture, as much as the feel of those spaces, that can be one of fear, pain and silence but also hope. Now I am translating all of this into music. 

Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne. Photograph by Mia Salsjö.

MLR: How is working in isolation affecting you in relation to this project?

MS: Beside the fact that I have been struggling a bit with cabin fever, feeling claustrophobic, it has not been bad I have to say. Being stuck at home, without commuting anywhere, has led me to fully focus on the work. At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, this whole situation has made me think about ways to communicate my work in a virtual context, which is exciting as well as daunting because l haven’t been an online artist. My work is all about engaging face to face with people, both with and in physical spaces. On a wider level, I am worried about the future of the arts and how artists and institutions will cope with and react to this crisis. I have been questioning my position within the field and yet, deep inside, I know I would not be able to choose or do anything else than what I am already doing. I am obviously not alone in this process; I have been talking to many friends who are artists or independent curators and struggling in terms of both adapting to the new situation and converting to a possible online practice. The stimulating part is that changing systems force us to turn tables and consider new, alternative avenues. In my case, for instance, I ended up thinking about electronic music, which I love but never included in previous projects. Looking at some images of the score, with geometrical compositions and bright, upbeat colours, I suddenly thought about electronic sound and how great it would be to add this layer on to the work. So I am currently in touch with an electronic composer that I should meet in a few weeks to begin exploring this path. 

Mia Salsjö, The Quietude (2020).

Interim electronic version of The Quietude developed in the current context of Covid seclusion. The piece will be later presented as a live performance with electronic composition and a series of works. This version is unmastered so please use good headphones or a sound system to listen to it. 

MLR: That sounds exciting! I find this unfolding of layers quite fascinating: from the structure and feeling you record off a space to the drawings you make and the score you create, all the way up to the actual music, with different rhythms and genres. Everything grows in escalation, in a crescendo of expressive languages that are interconnected through your own, very personal, process of translation. It is like you are following a secret formula in which each element leads to a specific level of meaning and your process unveils the gap between the simplicity of numbers and the complexity of the world – the work itself becomes a holistic experience since it includes image, sculpture, performance and sound.

MS: Yes! Everything is about numbers, measurements and materials. I think a lot about the composition of things, objects and spaces. I mean… if the inner structures of walls were not measured properly, we would not be able to stand underneath them, right? In the past, I used to experiment a lot with the idea of pulling threads out of a material. At that point, my concern was to break with the canvas, deconstructing the grid, that space of permanence and what is captured in there, something I wanted to unravel. While pulling things apart I intended to build a new scenario. Anyway, that is over.

Mia Salsjö, The Quietude (2020).

MLR: Yes and not. What you describe sounds pretty much like what you are doing right now, but in reverse. Or perhaps it is an expansion of that process. While back then you were stripping down pieces, decomposing a picture to its simplest elements, now you are going the other way around, starting from the basic numbers and shapes that make a whole building to construct other complex stories, compositions and worlds. 

MS: I suppose you are right. It is like an engine. I let myself be driven by the energy to come up with a visual outcome.

MLR: I am so curious to see how you will end up presenting all of this in the end, if physically or online. 

MS: Uncharted territory… I suppose this is the only good thing about Covid-19. We are opening up to experimentation and new possibilities. We are going with the flow, really, as there is no other way to go about it. 

Miriam La Rosa

Artist and composer Mia Salsjö orchestrates multi-disciplinary art projects, encompassing drawing, music composition, text, performance, video, and textile-based works. Her practice is grounded in complex code-based systems. The systems are devised by Salsjö as a means of linking diverse media to an underlying linguistic system. It is through this process that Salsjö reflects on the elusive nature of communication – its potentialities, triumphs, failures, past, present and future. Her work has been performed and presented in many exhibitions, most recently Moving Pictures at La Trobe Regional Gallery, Morwell, Modes of Translation at the 13th Biennale de la Habana, Cuba 2019 and The Score at Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne in 2017. Mia is currently a studio artist at Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne. 

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