Alejandro T. Acierto is an artist and musician whose work is largely informed by the breath, the voice, and the processes that enable them. He has exhibited artworks at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Issue Project Room, MCA Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, and Roman Susan and presented performance works at Rapid Pulse Performance Art Festival, the Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival, the KANEKO, Center for Performance Research, and Center for New Music and Technology. Recent projects were shown at the 2019 Havana Biennial in Matanzas and Boundary Gallery in Chicago. Noted for his “insatiable” performance by the New York Times, Acierto has performed written and improvised music extensively throughout the US and abroad as a soloist and chamber musician. He is also a clarinetist and founding member of the Chicago-based new music collective Ensemble Dal Niente.
Acierto has held residencies at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, VCCA, Banff Centre, High Concept Laboratories, LATITUDE, Chicago Artists' Coalition and was an FT/FN/FG Consortium Fellow and a Center Program Artist at the Hyde Park Art Center. A 3Arts Awardee, he received his undergraduate degree from DePaul University, an MM from Manhattan School of Music, an MFA in New Media Arts from University Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and was an inaugural Artist in Residence for Critical Race Studies at Michigan State University. He is currently an Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Digital Art and New Media at Vanderbilt University.
Tell us a little about your background and your trajectory as an artist/ scholar.
I grew up in Chicago during the beginning of the Bush years in a community of young people dedicated to social justice. As a young person, I was mostly surrounded by black and brown folks, punks, leftist organizers, and queer people who had felt upset and distraught in the aftermath of the Iraq War. In these years, I felt a similar resonance between the punk and experimental shows that I would go to frequently and the protests that were erupting around the city. There was an energy and urgency for change that propelled me personally in those moments and that has inevitably impacted my creative trajectory to this day.
I ended up in music school for my undergraduate degree with the idea that I’d be a professional clarinetist specializing in contemporary music (also known to some as neue musik) and composing experimental works for ensembles, or whatever it was that composers did for a living. During that time in undergrad, I helped start the new music collective Ensemble Dal Niente (now in it’s 15th season! and with whom I still occasionally play) and then continued on to a program in New York for a master’s in contemporary classical performance at the Manhattan School of Music. While finishing that degree and freelancing between New York and Chicago, I had started collaborating with a smaller group called thingNY where it seemed we were always doing some sort of post-Fluxus performance project, mostly improvised, and generally always weird. I played a ton of noise shows, experimental gigs, and really bad improvisations, but was nevertheless surrounded by an incredible group of performers, collaborators, and brilliant humans that cemented my love for performing, collaborating, thinking, and making.
I left New York for an MFA program in New Media Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago where I began to refine the bigger questions that I hadn’t been able to resolve as a performer in conservatory-type environments. There, I was able to finally take on ideas that explored sound’s relationship to critical race studies and queer theory and devised a handful of performance projects that were devised from musical impulses but not ultimately legible as music. Those years, I thought a lot about how language and speech could be embodiments of larger racialized systems and how constructed environments enable or disable different formations of subjectivity. At the end of my graduate career and the moments immediately following graduation, I began experimenting with these disruptive speech performances though the body of the clarinet and realized that I was not actually interested in speech as an articulation of racialized performance, but on the breath. For me, at the time, the breath was the sonic space that was devoid of racialized audition, and where the body could exist without the hegemony of racialized and gendered identification. The breath was (and still is?) the ethnofuturistic entity that catalyzed a sense of being human.
While my current work has shifted considerably, the breath becomes a centralized node in an expansive conceptual terrain that I manage to return to frequently. I’m not particularly sure how it will continue to evolve, but it does sit comfortably well within my practice and enables me to sustain my work as a clarinetist / performer / artist. At the moment, I’m thinking about archives broadly defined. I think about the internet as an archive, while also working in and with “traditional” archives. Connecting back to the breath, I also envision the breath as a sort of collection, both metaphorically and physically, where the air we breathe entangles the particulate of the environment and the exhaled gases of other beings who occupied that space before. As a grouping, the air around us and whatever it is we breathe in becomes an archive of location as well as a hub for a network of inhabitants.
What are some of your main influences?
Ugh, it’s hard to isolate a few things, but generally speaking, I read a lot of books that span queer of color critique, feminist studies, postcolonial studies, and sound studies while sprinkling in some communication theory just for kicks. Over the years, I have found myself returning to the written works of Gloria Anzaldua, Pauline Oliveros, José Esteban Muñoz, Sarah Ahmed, Lisa Lowe, and Fred Moten for their theoretical grounding that have activated a wide variety of scholarship and cultural production.
As far as artists that I find to be influential, I think Fred Wilson’s work really opened up the idea of the archive and helped me sort out the framework of institutional critique that has become a large part of my practice today. I also love Ana Mendieta’s work and will never tire of Glenn Ligon and Paul Pfeifer’s works that develop the body into visceral experiences. Bob Ashley’s operas have more recently become influential in the ways I think about theatricality and mediation, and then I’ve also always loved listening to Ikue Mori, Rafael Toral, Arve Henriksen, and Evan Parker for the complexity of sounds that they are able to achieve. Of course, I also have to make a nod to Alvin Lucier’s sonic experiments (having performed a handful of them), and Phill Niblock for the ways he makes pieces that really embody sonority at scale.
New Media is .......
A process, an abstraction. I’m less invested in the notion that capital-letters New Media have specific material consequences and am more in favor of the much more challenging idea that it devises different formations of relation. For my students, I try to impress upon them that there will always be something new that will claim the moniker of New Media which will ultimately change the technical ways we go about understanding the world. While important, I am less convinced that a new experience is always inherently different or even an exciting thing to be seeking (particularly in the ways “innovation” is used as a buzzword tied to new technologies). What I generally offer my students instead is the notion that the “new” of New Media is really a process in the evolution of communication in which we have devised new material consequences for media to exist, to be made available, and to be transformed at scale. Though new media (the material consequences and articulations of media) is/are not always New Media (the almost-too-overbearing term for a broad set of processes of cultural production), I do try to relay the entanglements and share with them the complexity of the things that we all collectively do, while also allowing them the space to understand that they don’t always need a 3D print of something to make New Media works.
What is your typical day like?
I will always eat breakfast before I head out for the day and I usually caffeinate between noon and 5pm, depending on how much sleep I’ve gotten. I keep hydrated throughout the day and have a tendency to make lists in my head or on paper scraps that I have in my bag or studio. Other than that, all bets are off.
What are you working on now?
I’m thinking a lot about time, particularly how beings exist and sustain through time and the conditions that enable that being-in-time. Connected to the breath, I’ve been working on a series of longer-form performance works that involve the practice of circular breathing that enables me to make sound continuously without interruption. In a lot of ways, the scale of duration connects with how I’m thinking about the recurrence of beings, particularly among racialized, gendered, and queer bodies who have been historically subject to erasure. Running parallel and occasionally colliding with this project is an investigation of audio feedback that articulates the relationship between the signal and its output. In playing with the cavity that separates them, the system employed becomes immediately evident, declaring its presence in an amplified audio system where it has often been taken for granted. I’m not yet sure of the limits of this project, but I’m excited about how both feedback resonates with ideas of presence, the archive, and queer sensibilities of time.
I’m also in the process of (re)developing a varied media semi-theatrical performance work with video, real-time API-sourced visualizations, and sound that link legacies of colonialism, air quality, and the transnational movement of houseplants as a way to think about how we fill domestic space with things from afar.
Do you have a collaborative idea that you want to get off the ground?
I want to work on a set of projects that trace the spatial impact of the breath. I’ve been imagining some small projects that image the air as it enters and leaves the body in a way that can be photogrammed (that’s a technical word we use now, right?) and scaled from a 3D model with multiple possibilities.
What is the most recent thing you’ve learned?
Apparently there are a lot of videos of people’s french bulldogs throwing tantrums and I am here for it.