Interview with Artist-in-Residence Roberto Mighty
Recently we sat down with Roberto Mighty, Mount Auburn’s first Artist in Residence, to learn more about him and his project at the Cemetery. A new media filmmaker, photographer, and sound designer, Mighty will be documenting the conservation of the Amos Binney monument and creating a short film about the project and the monument’s history as part of our IMLS grant.
When and/or how did you realize that you are an artist?
I started writing fiction when I was seven or eight years old, began playing musical instruments at 13, and studied stage acting and radio theater in high school. After professional careers in music, audio, radio, television, film, and new media, I still yearned for something more. I went back to school in 2009 and earned my MFA. I concentrated in multimedia installation, a field that places all those creative and performance disciplines into an interactive, artistic context. My career as a professional artist really began in 2010 with my art exhibit at the Arnold Arboretum, a project about the beauty of dormant, dead, and decaying trees, inspired by the death of my mother.
What do you find particularly attractive about working in film, versus other media?
My favorite film directors are great artists. In works like Judou by Zhang Yimou, The Cranes are Flying by Mikhail Kalatozov, Great Expectations by David Lean, Y Tu Mama Tambien by Alfonso Cuaron, and Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson, the directors synthesize all human experience through the language of cinema. Multimedia installation combines all the best aspects of cinema with an immersive architectural setting. I like to think of my work as helping people walk through and become part of a site-specific cinematic experience.
What drew you to this project at Mount Auburn?
Much of my recent work – including projects at Harvard and for the National Science Foundation – deals with cinematic or multimedia experiences involving history, spirituality, and landscape. Mount Auburn Cemetery is such a significant historic landscape in our region. It is a romantic idea of a place of rest for an entire city’s worth of residents. It is a landscape almost entirely created by human beings, many of whom left primary historical sources that I can draw from for this project. It is exciting historically, visually, and especially aurally, with all the wildlife drawn to this huge urban green space. Since I’m interested in relating the paths of celestial bodies to human spiritual practices, Mount Auburn’s 175 acres of open sky is a bonus.
What is the most compelling element of this project for you?
I’m excited and humbled as the first Artist-in-Residence in Mount Auburn’s history. Excited because, historically speaking, how human societies treat their dead is an important key to unlocking the mysteries of the worldviews of peoples from the past. Also, Mount Auburn has a robust community of staff, professional and amateur historians, naturalists, birders, botanists, archivists, docents, and hikers whom I’ve already begun to seek out for their views. I’m humbled because there is already so much beauty at Mount Auburn. I feel like my contribution had better be very, very special.
How does film convey your message for this project better than other media?
There are countless beautiful photographs of Mount Auburn. There is much fine writing about Mount Auburn. I hope my multimedia contribution will be unique. My project combines the building blocks of cinema – motion pictures, historic voices, layered sound design and music – along with the one-of-a-kind architectural surfaces of Story Chapel. Hopefully this combination will be emotionally moving, aesthetically pleasing, and historically evocative.
We will learn much about you and your work through watching your interpretive take on this project. What do you hope to learn from Mount Auburn?
My work involves learning as much as I can about the history, landscape, and people of a place… and then using that factual knowledge as a basis for interpreting how that place makes me feel as an artist. Sudden, “senseless’ deaths from violence, wars, illness, and accidents happen every day. In the wake of personal losses, I, like many people, am left wondering: what does it all mean? Why are we here? What can I contribute during my remaining time on earth? What I hope to learn from Mount Auburn is how other people approach these issues.
How does this project differ from your previous work?
My previous work includes an 18-month artist residency at Harvard Forest, where I studied differential land use between Puritans and Native Americans in the 17th century and created a cinematic multimedia installation for Harvard’s Fisher Museum. That project focused on a period in New England approximately 200 years (1630) before the founding of Mount Auburn. One difference between these two projects is that there is almost no visual evidence remaining of the habitation of New England by pre-Columbian indigenous peoples. My project was in Central Massachusetts, where there were very few structural remnants of the Puritans’ towns. In contrast, many of Mount Auburn’s monuments from its founding in 1831 are still here. As a photographer and filmmaker, it is a pleasure to have access to extant historical structures to help evoke the lives of people from the past.
What technologies are you using in your project at Mount Auburn?
I carry a fair amount of equipment with me on my visits to Mount Auburn. I sometimes look up to find inquisitive visitors looking over my shoulder! Depending on the day that I’m there, a passerby might see me flat on my stomach in the dirt with a digital motion picture camera on a sliding dolly; walking with a still camera; inserting an endoscopic camera into the hollow of a tree; “fishing” with an underwater camera; or manipulating a camera on an eight-foot crane, with several different lenses, several different microphones, a couple of digital sound recorders, a time-lapse setup, or a game camera. Back at my studio, I use an array of computers and software to assemble and edit the footage, and specialized microphones to record actors reading excerpts from historical documents, including grave markers.
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