Alexandre Estrela. Flat Bells (detail). 2023. Computer-generated video and shadow projection. Photography: João Neves. Courtesy the artist and Travesía Cuatro, Madrid

For MoMA’s Kravis Studio, the Portuguese artist Alexandre Estrela has created Flat Bells, an immersive sound and media installation that straddles the history of art, music, and technology. The work’s algorithmic structure taps into contemporary conversations about artificial intelligence, but Estrela’s work pushes us to think more expansively about the relationship between human and machine. For this conversation, we’ve invited artist Ellie Ga, a friend and sometimes collaborator of Estrela’s whose own practice centers nature and image production, to help uncover the process and big ideas behind Estrela’s MoMA show.
—Sophie Cavoulacos, Associate Curator, Department of Film

Source material for Flat Bells. Photo: Sophie Cavoulacos

Source material for Flat Bells. Photo: Sophie Cavoulacos

Ellie Ga: When I think of Flat Bells, having seen it installed in your studio, what I keep going back to is that there are so many ways into this work, and it’s like an archeological site. Can you talk about the origin of the symbols that are engraved on the plates?

Alexandre Estrela: I don’t really know their origin. I found the plates in my previous studio, Oporto, which was a former merchant sailors’ union hall and was covered in murals painted by a fugitive anarchist sailor, an early example of Portuguese social realism. Actually, the plates were in a print shop next door, where I used to make all the flyers for the film program I started out of my studio in 2007, which I now co-program with Ana Baliza under the name farO. When the print shop went bankrupt in 2000, I went over there to get whatever paper I could salvage. That’s when I found these printing plates. I brought them to the studio and they stayed there, dormant, for 15 years. Someone told me that they could have had a connection to the sailor’s union. But I always felt that they’re so generic that they’re open to all kinds of meaning.

This is in the Port of Lisbon, so all the businesses around, they live on sea trading and ships. I also loved the anachronism of this clash between the experimental films we were presenting in our screening series at Oporto and the nautical murals in the space.

EG: When you’re describing programming at Oporto and these clashes of spaces, that’s exactly what’s happening in Flat Bells, right? You have these clashes of other kinds of spaces: what’s still, what’s a shadow, the idea of the living image that is migrating, that is never quite fixed.

Since I’ve experienced Flat Bells, I’ve become interested in the idea of the caravela, the Portuguese man o’ war, or if we want to use a binomial name, the Physalia physalis. I’m fascinated by how animals become useful metaphors for us. For people who have never seen it, these animals are everywhere, especially in the Azores, a bit in Portugal, and they’re not a jellyfish, but they’re somewhat related. They are fascinating as a multi-bodied species that essentially has multiple polyps, so it’s not one body, it’s a body plan. All these polyps look like sails, like plastic bags in the water. And the first time you see them, you wonder, “What the hell is all this plastic doing in the ocean?” But the thing that’s fascinating about them, besides the fact that they’re super dangerous and extremely strange-looking, is that even though they’re genetically all the same, they all serve different purposes. So, one of these little sails is in charge of reproduction. One of these little sails is in charge of navigation. I was really curious because, structurally, Flat Bells has a bit of this sensibility in its own structure.

AE: I did the first experiments with Flat Bells at Oporto, but it wasn’t until I moved to farO that the work really took shape. At a certain point I felt that I was really working on an artificial being with several parts and each of them had their own rhythm, way of living, that could actually live separately. But I was interested because they had singularities, but also, they could collaborate. While I was working on Flat Bells in the studio, I started to be able to sense its behavior before seeing it, just by hearing the sounds. I could tell what stage each element was in, what cycle, because each of them has their own sleep mode, or, if they are over-excited...

EG:...that’s when the color changes, I remember you pointed this out to me.

Oporto’s murals, painted by M.A. Santos. Photo: Lais Pereira

Oporto’s murals, painted by M.A. Santos. Photo: Lais Pereira

Flat Bells wants to grab your attention but it also doesn't really give a shit.

Alexandre Estrela

Christie Wilcox holding a freshly-caught Physalia physalis. Photo: Rachel Skubel

Christie Wilcox holding a freshly-caught Physalia physalis. Photo: Rachel Skubel

FarO with the aluminium Flat Bells/screens resting, waiting to be engraved. Photo: Hugo Santos Silva

FarO with the aluminium Flat Bells/screens resting, waiting to be engraved. Photo: Hugo Santos Silva

AE: Yeah. So purple is an excited behavior, blue is calmer, and then they can go into sleep mode so the image disappears. And then it just shows the body of the plate. I love what you are saying about the caravela. It also lives in a hybrid environment, half of it is underwater and half of it above, where the underneath part wants to be anchored, the upper part wants to drift.

EG: Yes, exactly.

AE: And so, this being that is Flat Bells also has these multiple functions that want to anchor you, sting you, whatever. It wants to grab your attention but it also doesn’t really give a shit, you know? It’s just going to continue drifting. It’s a hybrid object that has an image skin that is the projection. It also has a body; there’s a metal-sounding bell that is covered with this image, a geometric scheme that kind of directs the sounds, and in turn is directed by it.

EG: Hell yes!

AE: You’re seeing a flat object on a 3D perspective. They all started as printing objects, and I’m establishing a parallel between the actual process of perception and the process of printing. You are listening to printing somehow. So you could say that for film, you’re printing at 24 frames per second on the retina, 60 frames in Flat Bells, and then the screens can go back to its original function. They can become printing plates again.

EG: And that’s what I love about it: they’re constantly migrating. And in a way, that’s getting back to the Portuguese man o’ war. Like you said, it’s both drifting and anchored.

AE: I was trying to create the context for this being to perform and draw you in, seduce you, but also repel you. Or be dull! For me, nature can be so boring.

EG: It’s just being itself. It’s just doing its thing. I don’t know if this connects, but I know that another important reference for you is James Conway’s Game of Life.

AE: Yeah. The idea in that game, that rules are actually putting everything in motion, is one of the threads that runs through Flat Bells. The Game of Life is this chaotic algorithm that tends to exhaustion. The exhaust is the space where the cells multiply. But what we did with Flat Bells is create something that never exhausts itself. It reboots itself. And there are different ways of programming it and Borja [Caro, the work’s sound designer and programer] made it in different ways. Yeah, it was a big reference, but it feeds on many other things too. It’s ambiguous, like the caravelas that appear to be a piece of plastic because of the context. When you’re watching or listening to Flat Bells, it sounds like avant-garde music, but it isn’t.

EG: What about the sounds? Are they created in the machine?

AE: Well, no. The sounds are concrete. This is a little bit like concrete music. The screens are aluminum plates that have some volume, which consequently gives them their distinct sound properties. Something that I like when you’re working with video is that there’s two things that happen. When you’re working small, everything is cheap. Then, if you want to have a big image, you bring the projector back or change the lens. But the problem is if you want to replicate the context that exists in the maquettes or in the small environment, then everything gains weight. And so this is what happened. When I enlarged the small plates, when I projected the image and I forced the screens to have the same engravings as the small plates, these new screens or plates gain sounds, or even musical properties beyond sound.

EG: Nice. Okay. Yes. And the enlargement makes it into music. Or a new sort of language.That could be really interesting to think about, how the sound you were producing for each of the bells would reveal the meaning of the symbol on the plate. But as Carl Jung could have said, what’s interesting about these symbols, these logos without logos, is that they never exhaust themselves.

Alexandre Estrela. Flat Bells [detail]. 2023. Photo: João Neves

Alexandre Estrela. Flat Bells [detail]. 2023. Photo: João Neves

Alexandre Estrela: Flat Bells is on view from November 4, 2023 through January 7, 2024. On Monday, November 6, as part of our Modern Mondays series, the artist joins us in person to present four pieces that have never been screened in the United States.