“I’ve had a painful experience. And sometimes, I just feel disgusted in my body at times or in pain. So I would feel like, if I didn’t necessarily have a body, maybe I could escape from that, in a way.”
“I think my body’s just the most precious thing to me, but I tend to forget it because I have a lot of responsibilities on my back, so I don’t take the time to actually take care of myself. So like today, I’m so tired. I just realized how tired I am. I guess I push myself way too much.”
“Honestly, it feels great to be alive, but, like, with this—with things that I struggle with, it’s often too much for me to deal with. I would—I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t—I don’t want to be alive, because I do, and I enjoy my life so much and all the people that are in it and all the things that I do, but it can be hard. It can be hard living.”1
These words spoken by St. Louis teenagers ring out across the space of Nicole Miller’s 2022 installation A Sound, a Signal, the Circus, commissioned by the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis.2 As its content suggests, what it means to be alive—specifically, the brilliance and the precariousness of life in a Black body—is an important entry point into the work of this California-based artist and filmmaker.
A Sound, a Signal, the Circus is a multisensory installation in which Miller explores and expands an understanding of synesthesia—a perceptual phenomenon where one sense is experienced through another—as it relates to Black experience in the United States. Through an intricate choreography of sound, moving image, and laser-light animation, the artist enacts what she describes as a kind of “ecstatic translation” in which the heightened, interior sensory experience of being in a Black body is transmuted into something external and destabilizing.
Miller’s twenty-three-channel soundscape anchors the exhibition, providing the narrative arc for the work and directing the viewer’s attention. It is composed of recorded and appropriated texts, sounds, and music, along with edited excerpts from interviews that the artist conducted in St. Louis in the summer and fall of 2021. In these interviews, poets, dancers, educators, and teenagers of color share a wide range of perspectives—personal, political, philosophical, and creative—often drawing connections to their own bodies.3 Miller asked participants to talk about their daily lives and experiences while always bringing the discussion back to the idea of what it feels like to be alive. “I really wanted to see how people responded to that very big question,” she states. “And in particular, what it feels like to have a body.”4 Participants evoke the body variously as a repository of experience, as a palimpsest of histories, and as a locus of joy and trauma. Miller intentionally omits her own voice from these conversations. The viewer, like the artist herself, is positioned as an active listener/witness, receiving these stories while contemplating their own body in the space of the gallery.
Throughout the soundscape, Miller juxtaposes the informal stories shared with her by St. Louis teens with readings of formal texts by eminent scholars and poets, including Hortense Spillers and Margaret Walker, along with recorded performances by such musicians and composers as Nina Simone and Max Roach. Themes of control, exhaustion, mortality, anxiety, self-consciousness, invisibility, vulnerability, disenfranchisement, survival, and self-care are woven throughout this sonic tapestry. The soundscape was designed to encourage visitors to explore the space of the installation, experiencing different sound elements depending on where they are in the room at different moments.5 At times a single voice or story projects across the installation; Miller also overlays many at once, resulting in a dense audio landscape that fully immerses the viewing body in sound.
As a filmmaker, Miller is acutely aware of how we read other people’s humanity through images, videos, and sounds; active viewing and listening are central to her practice. “I’m trying to inform viewers of the kind of viewers they can be,” she has stated, recognizing the power of representation to shape reality and asserting her desire to share something of that capacity with viewers.6 In A Sound, a Signal, the Circus, she intentionally upends the conventional cinematic hierarchy of image (primary) and soundtrack (supplementary), loosening established relationships between vision and sound and underscoring the multisensorial, synesthetic quality of the installation as a whole. The different modalities of listening, watching, and witnessing that Miller’s work demands draw our attention to what Tina Campt describes as “a Black gaze,” a multivalent model for seeing “with, through, and alongside” Black people.7 The framework of the gaze was first employed in feminist criticism to describe the objectifying power of the male spectator. Campt recasts this, asking, “rather than looking at Black people, rather than simply multiplying the representation of Black folks, what would it mean to see oneself through the complex positionality that is blackness—and work through its implications on and for oneself?”8 In her terms, a Black gaze is both a way of understanding how artists work and a form of engaging with art that makes rigorous demands on both thinking and feeling. At a time when the visual is often victimizing for Black people, Miller’s multimodal approach works to, as the artist Martine Syms states, “open up possibilities about what viewing can mean,” casting a deeply affecting quality onto young Black people’s accounts of Black life that pivot from mundane, to joyful, to heartrending.9 Miller, like Campt, is interested in how we come to see—not simply what we see—and this process includes senses beyond the ocular.10
The artist puts pressure on the museum as a literal and figurative white space by centering individual and collective experiences of youth of color, translating them into poetic mediations of sound, light, and transformation.
A Sound, a Signal, the Circus builds on two of Miller’s previous works—Athens, California (2016) and To the Stars (2019)—that center the stories of young people in an exploration of how societal pressures and the violence of racism condition the experience of growing up in the United States, including how youth are represented and perceived. With each work, Miller issues an invitation to action—not of a performative sympathy, but of rigorous reflection, both on the part of the viewer and the institution of the museum. By inserting the voices of people who are just figuring out how to articulate their stories into the context of an art museum, Miller challenges normative expectations. Across her trio of works, the artist asks us to see these young people, their different contributions and experiences, as “brilliant in the here and now,” rather than through a future-oriented lens of potential (or lack thereof). With each installation, the artist puts pressure on the museum as a literal and figurative white space by centering individual and collective experiences of youth of color, translating them into poetic mediations of sound, light, and transformation.
Miller comes from a family of educators—both of her parents were public school teachers—and this background partially informs her ongoing interest in working with young people and engaging with their stories. Storytelling can be a means of sharing knowledge and building empathy through personal experience. Recounting events in one’s life can be a powerful act. Miller skillfully harnesses that power, creating intimate portraits of youth that are notable for their sensitivity to her subjects’ integrity and complexity. In the three-channel video installation, Athens, California, commissioned by Los Angeles County, the artist wove together personal interviews and accounts from a range of teenagers, many of whom attended George Washington Preparatory High School, located in the unincorporated community of Athens in southern Los Angeles County, which is predominantly populated by Black and Latino residents.11
Miller began the project by meeting with teachers and the vice principal at the school, as well as community organizers and leaders in the neighborhood. After talking with the school’s drama teacher, Mr. Barrows, who was running a program where he had students write from their lives and then perform those stories on stage, Miller decided to host a workshop where the students could talk and write about their experiences in Athens.12 They would then go on to perform those narratives in front of the camera, equipped with an awareness of their self-presentation and empowerment in telling their stories.13 In the final installation, the students discuss issues including political activism, transgender identity, familial tragedy, and personal aspirations. Evelyn, a poet, tells of her older brother being killed outside a friend’s house; Rjissle, host of a morning radio show, listens to music with his friends; Jaelin, a transgender teen, describes hanging out at her mom’s beauty shop and goes on to recount shattering physical and sexual abuse; Andrea, an activist, explains to her mom and sister how she organized a student walk-out in solidarity with the Ayotzinapa mass kidnapping in Iguala, Mexico. Surrounded by the three screens of the installation, the stories move around the viewer. Voices overlap at moments as narratives blend sonically across the screens, creating a kind of oral archive that acknowledges documentary-style methods while undermining that format with screen shifts, edits, and incomplete narratives that raise questions about knowledge production, power, and a person’s right to be heard.14
To the Stars (2019) also centers the voices of youth, in this case 12 year-olds from a public junior high school in San Francisco. The work was commissioned by the education department at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for the museum’s Phyllis Wattis Theater with the aim of bringing more young people into the museum.15 Miller interweaves the stories of these middle school students with those of NASA astronaut Dr. Yvonne Cagle, choreographer Alonzo King, opera singer J’Nai Bridges, and violinist Jessica McJunkins, focusing throughout on the power of light and the resilience of the human body. Astronaut, dancer, singer, and musician are all professions that Miller herself aspired to at some point during her childhood.16
The labor of rehearsal is notably foregrounded in To the Stars. All of the incredibly accomplished adults who appear in the film are shown practicing, preparing, experimenting, and refining their respective skills. By focusing on the space of rehearsal, Miller shifts emphasis away from totalizing representations, especially the burden of Black exceptionalism, and the inherent distortions of idealization versus lived human experience.17 She frames creative articulation—be it a dancer practicing in a studio, an opera singer training her voice, or a young person telling their story—as an ever-changing process of becoming instead of a point of arrival or resolution. Movement, flow, plurality, and possibility are prized rather than essential ontology. As in Athens, the students featured in To the Stars look directly, sometimes awkwardly, into the camera while sharing accounts from their lives: figuring out how to do a triple axel, growing up with a father in jail, being worried about an older brother struggling with self-love and depression, and being handcuffed during a police raid with the rest of the family at nine years old. One of the most compelling scenes in To the Stars is a short montage halfway through the hour-long film, in which some of the children state their ages.
The students range considerably in terms of ethnicity, height, and body type, but they are all in seventh grade and are 12 or 13 years old. “I really think a major issue in America is that most Americans cannot see all kids as kids,” Miller states. “So I wanted to be like, ‘This is a 12 year old, this is a 12 year old, this is a child, this is a child.’”18 The film functions as nothing less than “an indictment of American adults watching it.”19 Why would a nine-year old ever need to be handcuffed? Who is seen as innocent and who is seen as a threat? Who gets to hold on to their childhood?
In A Sound, a Signal, the Circus Miller retains her focus on young people, but the bodies of the teenagers whose voices animate the soundscape are absent, intentionally withheld. The artist’s choice not to film the teens denies access to any concrete sense of knowing the speakers. Furthermore, while all of the participants were credited by name on the introductory wall text positioned just outside the gallery, in the actual experience of the soundscape it is left unclear exactly who is speaking at any given moment. The piece maintains a certain level of opacity.20 The bodies that are visible in the installation are those of professional acrobats and dancers who appear across a three-channel video in various stages of practice—on a trampoline, in a park, on a basketball court, in an apartment—many of whom are preparing for roles in various circuses.
Like the bodies of the young people interviewed in the soundscape, the circus is invoked but never actually made visible as Miller again trains her attention on the labor of rehearsal, on the lived experience of being a moving and feeling body. The circus serves as a key point of tension in the work, conjuring associations with not only extreme physical ability, but also risk, spectacle, and empowerment. Images of individual bodies in motion are repeated across the three screens in the installation, shown in different angles and from different perspectives. Unlike both To the Stars and Athens, the sound of the video is, for the most part, not diegetic—the relationship between the imagery on the screens and the soundscape is rarely synchronized. The intermittent inclusion of laser animations serves as an additional point of disruption and reorientation. As transmutations of sound to light, the lasers draw our attention as viewers to the materiality of being in space as well as light’s transformative qualities on an emotional level.21 The installation thus manifests brilliance literally and figuratively through what is recorded—the compelling self-expression of young people and the skilled artistry of adult performers—and the effect produced in the luminous experience of the installation itself.
Light has been a mainstay of communication in Miller’s work, whether in the form of photography, film, or distilled to a material object in the form of lasers. She first introduced laser light into her practice as a kind of Brechtian distancing effect aimed not only at readjusting the audience’s patterns of perception and the outlooks they bring to the work, but also the recognition of being an embodied participant oneself. Miller first combined film and laser animation in To the Stars, a work located not in a gallery, but in a theater at SFMOMA. The work’s location in a theater presented a unique challenge for the artist: how to break up the seamless cinematic experience that facilitates dissociated viewing and implicate the viewer as part of the system of viewing and receiving art? The film is punctuated at key moments with laser animations projected, at times, directly onto the images on the screen in the form of abstract shapes and lines. In other instances, the lasers spell out the words “ad astra,” “prelude,” and, “the end.”
The quality of laser light is so bright that it can only be experienced live. Its beauty and its power is that it requires us to be present. When viewed in close proximity, as in the case of To the Stars, the lasers provoke a physical response, a jolt of delight and discomfort as our eyes struggle to adjust to their radiance. The experience of being in the theater with the lasers punctuating the screen, the lyrical cinematography of the film, and the surround sound is intentionally overwhelming.
In A Sound, a Signal, the Circus, with its emphasis on synesthetic experience, laser-light animations become even more pronounced, existing on equal terms with the soundscape and the three-channel video. Animations appear projected onto the wall behind the three television monitors, which emit a quality of light that alternately complements and clashes with that of the lasers.
The animations include abstract forms that riff on the dynamic movement of the bodies on the screens, as well as select words and phrases derived from the soundscape. Additionally, the words “here” and “now” appear at moments throughout the program, referring to place and a feeling of the temporal.
The prominence of these words harkens back to Miller’s first laser work, the 2018 text-based projection For Now, in which the words “For Now” move rapidly across a wall, reminding viewers of the passing nature of any given condition, be it joy or pain.
The deliberate repetition of the words “now” and “here” in her work at the Kemper Art Museum similarly draws attention to the passing (or not) nature of pleasure, anxiety, and even trauma, underscoring the range of sentiments evoked in the soundscape.22 The words themselves are never static, but rather continuously morph in terms of font, color, size, and legibility. The lasers thus transmute and amplify the expressive power as well as the disorienting effects of Miller’s use of narrative strains, screen shifts, and fragmentation across the installation. The encounter is deliriously kinetic with a concentration of light and emotion that is both captivating and disconcerting to behold.
Miller troubles an easy faith in the notion of visibility as an antidote to erasure and exclusion.
Through these continuous transmutations—sound to light, light to text, text to sound, sound to video—Miller troubles an easy faith in the notion of visibility as an antidote to erasure and exclusion, seeking to generate a different register capable of holding a multiplicity of, sometimes contradictory, stories and experiences. In this immersive environment visitors are implicated as spectator and subject; we are asked to question how we come to know what we know about bodies and the meanings attached to them. The sound of voices speaking and the sight of bodies moving through space set up the potential for a heightened attention to one’s own body while provoking fundamental considerations of whose bodies are valued in society, whose stories are amplified, whose lives are cherished, and whose brilliance shines forth in the here and now.
The author wishes to thank Nicole Miller for generously providing insight into her artwork and for assistance with images. My gratitude also goes to the anonymous reviewers of this essay for their insightful comments and suggestions. Additionally, I thank John J. Curley, Emily Hage, Jennifer Josten, and Meredith Lehman for their support and feedback.
Meredith Malone is curator at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis. A specialist in postwar and contemporary art she has curated numerous exhibitions, including Nicole Miller: A Sound, a Signal, the Circus (2022), Multiplied: Edition MAT and the Transformable Work of Art, 1959–1965 (2020), and To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare (2016).
- These three quotes are excerpts from three separate interviews with teenagers conducted by Nicole Miller November 3–November 6, 2021 in St. Louis. ↩
- Nicole Miller: A Sound, a Signal, the Circus was on view at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, March 25, 2022 – July 25, 2022. I curated the exhibition. Some of the text describing the installation at the Kemper Art Museum mirrors verbiage I wrote for the exhibition handout. ↩
- Participants included teenagers of color and staff at different cultural institutions in St. Louis. Miller engaged St. Louis ArtWorks, an organization that provides job training in the arts to creative teens; Center of Creative Arts, a multidisciplinary community arts organization; College Prep at Washington University in St. Louis, a program designed to help high school students in the region succeed at college; the Griot Museum of Black History; and Circus Harmony, a social circus that trains youth, using circus arts to motivate social change. Before interviewing each participant the artist conducted informational meetings, either in person or via Zoom, introducing herself, her practice, her previous films, her goals with this new work of art, and what it means to share your story in a public way in the space of a museum. ↩
- Nicole Miller quoted in Jeremy D. Goodwin, “Nicole Miller’s Multimedia Installation at the Kemper is Built on Black Voices,” St. Louis Public Radio (April 28, 2022). ↩
- Miller created the soundscape in collaboration with sound mixer and musician John Somers. ↩
- Nicole Miller, quoted in “Nicole Miller: Mirror Images and the Power to Create Reality,” Artbound (November 16, 2015): 8. ↩
- Tina Campt, A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021), 7. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Martine Syms makes this statement in reference to Nicole Miller’s 2016 film installation Athens, California, but the sentiment speaks to Miller’s work broadly, including her installation at the Kemper Art Museum. See Syms, “What Kind of Viewer Can I Be?” in Athens: Every Word Said (Los Angeles: East of Borneo Books, 2019), 7. For an insightful perspective on how the visual can be victimizing for Black people see, Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015). Browne examines the violence of hypervisibility that has defined and surveilled Blackness since the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade. ↩
- Miller’s emphasis on embodied experience as a significant form of knowledge engages an implicit phenomenological framework, specifically one that centers Blackness. Campt’s A Black Gaze does so as well with a driving focus on positionality, asking how we, as viewers, position ourselves in relation to Blackness, given the overall climate of anti-Blackness and white supremacy. See also Biko Mandela Garay and Ryan T. Johnson, Phenomenology of Black Spirit (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022). This study grapples with anti-Blackness at the heart of philosophical thinking about the development of self-consciousness over time. ↩
- The area of Athens initially sparked Miller’s interest because it is unincorporated, without its own local municipal government. Unincorporated communities receive less representation and funding in city and county governments and “lack voices in their own civic lives.” Shamim M. Momin, “Nicole Miller,” in In Plain Sight (Seattle: Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, 2020), 37. ↩
- “Nicole Miller in Conversation with Naima J. Keith,” in Nicole Miller, Athens: Every Word Said (Los Angeles: East of Borneo Books, 2019), 123-124. This book exists as a document of the process of making the work and the relationships forged. ↩
- Several of the students’ written accounts, along with stories of some of the adults Miller met with, are published in Miller, Athens: Every Word Said. ↩
- Miller originally showed Athens in conjunction with her four-channel installation Death of a School (2014), a chronicle of two Tucson elementary schools on the verge of closure. Miller’s mother taught at one of the schools for many years. Beyond personal connections, Death of a School bears witness to the school’s shuttering, to the effects of political ineptitude and anti-immigration policies, and, in Miller’s words to “the death of thought in the pictured space.” Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson, “Curator’s Essay,” February 2016. ↩
- The work was commissioned by SFMOMA with junior high school audiences in mind. Miller described the challenge in conceptualizing To the Stars as follows: “I really spent a good amount of time trying to think about what it means to possibly make such a significant work, where it’s communicating to 12-year-olds and also in dialogue with the rest of my conceptual, structuralist filmmaking practice at large.” Nicole Miller and Lauren Mackler, “An Introduction, a Prelude,” Michael in Black by Nicole Miller (New York: CARA/Public Fiction, 2022), 229. ↩
- Conversation with the artist September 25, 2021. ↩
- Nicole Fleetwood’s discussion of dominant visual modes of representing Blackness and Black lived experience as exceptional or deviant is helpful to consider here. Fleetwood distinguishes between “iconic blackness”—larger-than-life personae (Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., for example)—and “spectacular blackness,” including criminal deviance and excessive bodily enactments. She counters these narratives with an exploration of localized, everyday images that are unfamiliar to canonical histories of Black American experience. Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), esp. 37 and 47. ↩
- Nicole Miller quoted in Emily Wilson, “An Art Film Created with Middle Schoolers in Mind,” Hyperallergic (December 2, 2019). ↩
- Miller and Mackler, “An Introduction, a Prelude,” 230. ↩
- Édouard Glissant discusses this quality of inaccessibility or withholding in terms of a “right to opacity” in Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997). ↩
- In collaboration with the laserist Zak Forrest, Miller produces these laser animations by “running an analog synth sound through a synthesizer, which moves around mirrors inside the laser with sound waves. This animates the beam of light very quickly, which changes the color and the size, the intensity.” Miller and Mackler, “An Introduction, a Prelude,” 231. ↩
- For Now was inspired partly by a 2002 endurance performance on video by Adrian Piper titled You/Stop/Watch: A Shiva Japan. In the video, the artist repeats the mantra “I can take it” over and over again until she breaks down crying. The phrase “for now” becomes itself an affecting mantra, a therapeutic gesture that emphasizes duration and survival. Conversation with the artist September 25, 2021. ↩