Expanding the Horizons: Mario Santanilla Interviewed by Nihaal Faizal

An artist’s book investigates domestication and its limits.

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Page spread from Mario Santanilla, Still Life –mirrors and windows–, 2020, artists’ book. Published by Reliable Copy. Courtesy of Reliable Copy.

I first met Mario Santanilla when we were both participants at Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program in 2017. Although we quickly became friends, we realized that we couldn’t agree on anything. With this in mind, I invited him to Bangalore to work on a book with Reliable Copy, a publishing house that I founded in 2018. The resulting publication, Still Life –mirrors and windows–, is the result of lengthy Skype calls, numerous false starts, sleepless nights, occasional revisions, and endless discoveries. It exists within the framework of Mario’s research into domestication of all kinds, especially zoo architecture, virtuality, and artificial light. For this interview, we speak about the book as a formal object, speculation as a way to understand the world, and the limitless concept of the horizon.

—Nihaal Faizal

Nihaal Faizal For a publication that’s temporarily occupied a variety of forms—from a video, a website, a Google doc, a folder of documents, and an unbound collection of objects—before settling on its present one, perhaps reflecting on form and process is a good place to start. Do you recall how we got here?

Mario Santanilla I believe it was a process of aligning our thoughts and processes so that we could produce something together. I have collaborated with different practitioners for many years now and have learned that it is a lengthy process of syncing with others to produce a collective mind—a conjoined system of operating. This collaborative method is always a byproduct of conversations around content and form, but in the end it produces an entity that exhibits its own logic and emotions, and dictates what the inquiries, experimentations, and pursuits should be.

I operate in a more unstructured way than you do. You work in a coherent, step-by-step kind of way, which made this process of creating a third mind particularly challenging. I was relieved when Sarasija Subramanian [artist and coeditor of the publication] joined us, since her practice jumps between these two ways of operating. And from there Roshan Shakeel [the designer of the publication] also joined in, and the process of illustrating some of the sections of the book not only made the third mind clearer but expanded its function and capabilities.

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Page spread from Mario Santanilla, Still Life –mirrors and windows–, 2020, artists’ book. Published by Reliable Copy. Courtesy of Reliable Copy.

NF For the longest time, we struggled to figure out what Still Life would be about exactly. A few weeks ago I thought it is about domestication as a concept and the technologies that condition it. Last week I was convinced that it is about the idea of the horizon. The way you approach this book, but also your practice in general, is one where concepts are not grounded, but suspended. How do you feel about this summary?

MS As you know, I am always jumping from personal memories, to historical anecdotes, to scientific did-you-knows. I have trouble with how concepts that explain the world are given in a very concrete and rational way where one is built upon the other; even when they contradict, there is a rationality at play. I prefer speculation and storytelling as ways to understand the highly scripted environments we live in. 

I always recount the story of when I was very young and kept asking my mom and doctors how I could know that they weren’t aliens doing tests on me. I was convinced that I was the only human that existed, and I would think really hard about each of their answers and come back with a counter-argument. I don’t think much has really changed. Maybe I’m still not convinced everyone else isn’t really an alien.

NF You mentioned once that this book was like a cabinet of curiosities for you. It moves across textures and dimensions, from the desert landscape in a video game to the visual saturations of a thermal camera, but also across narratives and histories.

MS Cabinets of curiosities were initially approached very rationally and scientifically, but soon lost their rigor when bizarre and monstrous creatures started to appear in the collections. When studied closely, these anomalous creatures indexed the interests and intentions of their collectors, who attempted to meet the desires and demands of the various fields that surrounded them, like science and entertainment. This idea evolved into the concept of the museum and continues to be the field that we as artists reshape. The same thing happens in the book, where there seems to be a clear order, but “monstrous” sections start to appear out of nowhere and jump out of the pages. Just as the cabinets were portraits of their collectors, this book can also be considered a portrait of myself as an artist and as a collector of curiosities.

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Installation view of Mario Santanilla, Still Life –fragile choreography of clouds–, 2019, two-channel, color digital video installation with sound, seven minutes, dimensions variable. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.

NF Throughout Still Life there is a constant return to the concept of the horizon. While making this book, it became clear that you see the horizon as something to be challenged—specifically through our understanding of both outer space and virtual space, which are two limits of our actions and perceptions.

MS I’ve been thinking about this idea of the horizon for a while now. These thoughts have been more recurrent ever since a recent image of a black hole was published. For me, the horizon is not just a physical mirage but also a conceptual one. The horizon was once thought to be the end of the world. It was thought to be an edge that we would fall off from. While we’ve realized that the horizon on Earth is simply an illusion, we still believe in different kinds of horizons.

Nowadays, we no longer have to get to the edge to break the mirage of the horizon, but an image is enough. So once scientists made an image of a black hole, it became the limit of our perception of space—it became our horizon—because that’s as far as we can see at the moment. It’s about distance and occupying that distance. And if you analyze previous beliefs in relation to this one, the horizon is represented by the same dark space—whether the edge or the infinite spiral of the black hole. It’s the same with CGI and virtual space. 

NF Speaking of horizons brings us to what sometimes limits our perception of it—architecture.

MS Architecture is a physical representation of human intentions. The built environment reveals so many layers of behavioral scripting and social engineering. The most intriguing architectural space for me, at the moment, is the zoo. I’m interested in the formal decisions of their construction and also how specific materials are used, especially temperature and light. Although zoos house animals and simulate environments for different species, they are really only designed for us. The paintings that cover the walls of the enclosures showing depth in a landscape are really for us and not for the animals that clearly see only a wall, a limit. Similarly, it’s interesting how time is completely inverted for nocturnal animals through artificial light so that their “natural” behaviors can be visible to us during visiting hours.

The Way Things Die Mario Santanilla4

Installation view of Mario Santanilla, The way things die, 2018, single-channel, color digital video installation with sound, twenty-four minutes, dimensions variable. Commissioned by Espacio Odeon. Photo by Andres Bernal Guarin.

NF You have worked with thermal cameras and 3-D modeling software to produce paintings and light installations for your performances. How do you approach each tool, and how do you decide how to position it, when to use it?

MS I keep returning to two paintings by Vermeer, The Geographer and The Astronomer (both ca. 1668), both of which are explorations of space—one of the Earth and the other of outer space. Although their subjects of study are vastly different, they both approach it from a room through a window. I also work from a room, using each material as a window through which I am able to observe certain relationships, configurations, and desires. At the same time, these windows function as mirrors, much in the way that a thermal camera, by recording heat, transforms windows into reflective surfaces.

NF And where does performance come into your work? You rejected performance as a medium for the longest time until you could not hold it off any longer. Which reminds me of something Jalal Toufic said in one of his seminars back at Ashkal Alwan. He said that you have to keep resisting—an idea, a medium, a desire—until you cannot any longer. Until it forces you to engage with it. And I think just like how you came to performance, this book was also about resisting and rejecting, until finally almost everything we tried to edit out somehow found its way back in.

MS I remember a text by Jalal about rival dancers trying to surpass each other by constantly training and practicing. In the end, they both become so precise in their choreography that they become mirrors of each other. I resisted performance until I understood that I could use it at a different time-space than other media. Even though it’s the medium that demands the most time to develop a project, it’s still the one that I’m most excited by. It’s about immediacy and intimacy, and also about suspending these concepts. This was also the process that shaped this book—a two-year ping-pong match in which I was often reluctant about how things were taking shape. But I later realized it was just a matter of understanding the nature of a new medium, its possibilities and constraints, and also of exposing myself to the vulnerabilities that come with it.

Mario Santanilla’s Still Life –mirrors and windows– was recently published by Reliable Copy

Nihaal Faizal is an artist based in Bangalore, India. His works have explored fictional histories of flubber, family memories around the Indian singer Mohammed Rafi, the international phenomenon of Taste of India restaurants, and AI-generated drawings in science fiction films. In 2018, he founded Reliable Copy, a publishing house for works, projects, and writing by artists.

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