The Work-Stay: Miami

Sue Montoya and Paolo Cirio Workshop at the ICA Miami

Miami-based artist and researcher Sue Montoya examines how climate change affects Miami-Dade County. She was joined by her mentor, Paolo Cirio, for a weeklong work-stay and a workshop at the ICA Miami in February.

In her investigative mixed-media project Rising Tides, Montoya delves into the complex network of financial, political, and social impact that rising sea levels have on the city where she was born and raised. In addition to her research, the artist also documents herself in a six-hour film, as she traces a 20-mile route from Krome Avenue to the Miami Circle on foot. As she walks through varied municipalities and zoning codes, she records the built environment to contextualize each area’s development practices, which directly affect communities prone to precarity.

Sue Montoya and Paolo Cirio. © Forecast

New York-based artist Paolo Cirio met Montoya for a week of condensed mentoring as part of their joint work-stay. In this new element of the Forecast program, the mentee and the mentor come together to tackle concrete questions within the project. In addition to the intensive weeklong exchange, the artists also held a workshop at the ICA, inviting local kids up to age 15 to creatively document climate change in their city. Forecast’s Artistic Director Freo Majer sat down with the two to find out how mentoring takes shape in the Miami context.

Majer: How has working with Paolo been?

Montoya: It’s been really great. I feel like I’ve been able to flourish. It’s much different to the authoritative, patriarchal, “This is what you have to do” attitude that I experienced in art school. What’s special about Paolo is his openness, and he’s very generous with his time—also on an emotional level. I’m very genuine about the process, so if I’m feeling doubt or fear, I will express that, and I was concerned in the beginning that this would be too much; that he wouldn’t want to engage with that kind of emotional labor. But he’s been very generous and open to any kind of idea.

Majer: Rather than travel for a condensed work-stay somewhere in the world, you and your mentor are meeting in Miami. What does this mean for your project?

Montoya: My project is about climate change mitigation in the area; it’s site-specific so I need to be here. My image of the city is very personal because I grew up here; it has also radically changed since I’ve left. Something that I find disturbing is the funneling of money to some of the richest areas to mitigate climate change effects there. Most of the economic drive is within these areas, yes, but who is really protected, and at what cost? And who is going to pay in the future? Those are the things that have been driving the project from the start.

The work-stay is important because Paolo needed to see the city in a way that you can’t see represented in the media. I can point to physical things and the research makes sense; it’s not just abstract anymore. There’s also something about the personal conversation that’s imperative to have. The work-stay allowed us the opportunity to brainstorm and think through elements of the project that are so complex that they gave me serious creative block. It’s easier to navigate something I’ve never done before with someone I feel is competent in what they do.

Majer: What’s your impression of Miami, Paolo?

Cirio: Miami is a place full of contradictions. It’s significant for a project on sea-level rise because of the disparity and inequality in the city—and in the United States in general—and how vulnerable it is to climate change. The socioeconomic dynamics and political mechanisms are very concentrated in this city, and that’s what makes this place so interesting. Also the fact that you can see these differences manifest visually, just by walking around, talking to people, and observing the infrastructure.

Majer: How do you see your role as a mentor?

Cirio: My role as a mentor is just giving suggestions. I don’t want to be too invasive; I respect the artist’s work. I provide practical and logistical advice, and some strategic advice from my own experience. I’ve taught before, but being a mentor is a different type of knowledge transfer. It’s more collaborative and engaging.

Sue is very special. It’s been interesting to share ideas with her. She’s inspiring and knows a lot—I learn from her. Sue is very good in research, understanding complex material, and being able to decode it and deliver the financial, scientific, and social issues connected to climate change. She’s very brave for embracing a subject like this, and the way she represents it is also brave: she’s walking along a difficult and somewhat dangerous road, thinking about the project as a performative as well as personal experience, too. It’s easy to work together, and that’s an important part of the mentorship. When we met in person at the Forecast Forum it was clear we got along—that’s fundamental, because the program is almost a year long!

Majer: The ICA Miami is hosting the work-stay. What role does the institution play in the project?

Montoya: The ICA hosting this work-stay was really about connecting with one particular person, the Institute’s Curator of Programs Gean Moreno, who runs the Art + Research Center. There, he brings in people from all over the world throughout the summer to hold seminars. I’ve attended those seminars for the past three years, and that’s where I learned about some of the issues included in my project. Many of the things we’ve learned about, I had experienced in my life and just couldn’t articulate what they were, or know what they were called. Going to those seminars was significant. And they’re attended by locals, so some collectives have been formed here as a result of this program.

Cirio: It’s interesting to work with an art institution in Miami. Sue was already in touch with the ICA, so it’s great that Forecast has been able to reinforce this institutional partnership with a young artist.

Majer: How has Forecast pushed this project forward?

Montoya: I applied to Forecast on blind faith. I saw the open call and at the time I had this question in my mind of who will pay for the future; whose lives are at stake when we think about climate change? I wasn’t just thinking of Miami, but the Global South as well. Paolo’s work and his Expanded Documentary category struck me, because I’ve been wanting to do this research for a long time, but was told that it was uninteresting. I spent two months on my application, but I didn’t expect a callback. I went into the program thinking, even if I don’t get the mentorship, I still see this person as someone who can be a guide. Now I tell everyone to apply. I still am a bit in shock that I’m in this position.

At the Forum, I brought everything and was just, “this is what I’m thinking about!” and Paolo said, “Oh wow, that’s a lot …” (laughs). I had this vague idea of how to curate everything, but the research is overwhelming, and another person can be more objective. Also, in making this work with the support of Forecast, I feel more confident in approaching people and institutions.

Cirio: It’s an amazing opportunity. And Sue, as someone who didn’t know the program before, is a great example: She applied with a very good idea, and was selected. She received a production budget, a mentor, and people can access her work.