by Aaron Wilder, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Roswell Museum
“A Machine to Live In” (detail), 2020, produced by Sebastian Alvarez and co-directed by Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke, digital video with sound. Photo Courtesy of Mass Ornament Films
In last month’s column, I focused on artist Elias Sime. This month, I would like to continue celebrating Future Shock: (Re)Visions of Tomorrow, a large exhibition inhabiting three galleries at the Roswell Museum that is co-curated by Roswell Museum Executive Director Caroline Brooks and myself. Today, my focus is on a feature-length film included in the exhibition: A Machine to Live In.
When I was in graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute, interdisciplinary artist Sebastian Alvarez was one of my mentors. In addition to Artistic Ensemble, an ongoing collaboration with incarcerated men exploring “social inequalities with language, sound, and movement,” I remember talking with him about an ongoing film project in Brazil. After I graduated we kept in touch by connecting every now and then. In my role as curator and interim director of the Natalie and James Thompson Art Gallery at San José State University, I curated the group exhibition Planned Obsolescence in 2019 that included one of my favorites of Alvarez’s projects, Deep and Shallow Time Media: A Brief History of Telecommunications.
Fast forward one year to 2020, a year of disruption, disease, and death globally and locally, when I found myself relocating to Chicago for a job at the Smart Museum of Art. Little did I know at the time that I would be moving cross-country just to work remotely. In an early conversation with interns over Zoom, a graduate student mentioned she had just seen an amazing film streaming free on YouTube called A Machine to Live In. She shared the link and I watched it shortly thereafter. As I watched it, something about it seemed familiar, not visually, but conceptually. I couldn’t put my finger on it until the very end as the credits began and I saw that the producer was Sebastian Alvarez. Elated to see the fruits of my former mentor’s years of labor, I reached out via email to congratulate him on the film.
In late 2021, after moving cross-country again, one of my first projects at the Roswell Museum was Future Shock: (Re)Visions of Tomorrow that would also be my first opportunity to share A Machine to Live In with audiences. In the world of art exhibitions, it is somewhat uncommon to include a feature-length film, unless it is shown once as part of an event related to the exhibition. This is because video works in the context of an art exhibition are typically shown on loop and it is unlikely for visitors to watch a video work with a narrative arc with a duration that exceeds 30 minutes. We settled on a recurring screening schedule of the film in the museum’s auditorium. While the film’s nearly 89 minutes duration was too long to show on loop in the galleries, I also thought the film was too important to only show during one or more events as it is so well aligned conceptually with the exhibition’s themes.
Alvarez, A Machine to Live In producer, was born in Lima, Peru and received both his Bachelor’s of Fine Art and Master’s of Fine Art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Yoni Goldstein, who was born in Netanya, Israel, co-directed the film with Meredith Zielke, born in Detroit, Michigan. Both, like Alvarez, received their MFAs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Goldstein describes the film as being “about cosmic dreams and mystical architecture at the heart of Brazil’s remote wilderness … the film moves from the hyper-designed, space-age city of Brasília to the vast flourishing landscape of UFO cults, spiritist temples, and utopian outposts.”
The film is a poetic tapestry in Portuguese — with English subtitles — of woven-together fragments from four central figures: Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, writer Clarice Lispector, cult leader Tia Neiva, and linguist L.L. Zamenhof who invented the language Esperanto. Labeled a “hybrid documentary,” A Machine to Live In is an artistic investigation into a plurality of intersecting ideas of futures where the line between fact and fiction is blurred.
Brasília is the capital city of Brazil, built 1957-1960, whose ultra-modern architecture designed by Oscar Niemeyer was forcefully inserted into the wilderness in the center of the country. Niemeyer started designing the city in 1956 before the capital was to move from coastal Rio de Janeiro to Brasília, positioned as a “city of the future.” Niemeyer’s architecture based on geometry and symmetry is revisited throughout the film. “On some level,” Zielke expressed in Filmmaker Magazine in 2018, “these monuments are nothing more than incarnations — of the dreams and nightmares of their makers.” As Brasília was intended to be a kind of utopia, the filmmakers explore the connections between the glaringly white structures of the city to depictions of alien spacecrafts from popular culture, such as in the genre of science fiction.
Like Washington, DC, Brasília is the contemporary political hub of its country, but this is not how it is portrayed in the film. The co-directors make allusions to the government’s structures of power, but individual politicians are not awarded major screen time. Instead, the filmmakers were more interested in portraying individual groups from a cross section of the citizenry, such as bikers, a children’s choir, Freemasons and maintenance workers in the city to cult and utopia-seeking groups in Brasília’s surrounding hinterlands. Spending eight summers establishing relationships with groups depicted in the film and gathering local footage, Zielke explained in an article in Vox Magazine in 2020 that they had “collected enough footage for three films.”
A Machine to Live In is not only experimental in its narrative and concept, but also, aptly, in its technique. In a 2020 review for Ubiquarian (a website dedicated to experimental, documentary, and short films) Stephen Dalton explains, “Deploying drones, helicopters and even hot air balloons, the filmmakers capture stunning aerial views of the city. They also use 3D ‘lidar’ laser mapping technology to generate some highly original graphics, high definition computer imagery that dissolves vast concrete structures into swirling digital dust. The effect is exquisite and magical: all that is solid melts into air.” The film crew was intent on abandoning standard cinematic techniques. In addition to Dalton’s description of the filmmaking processes and technologies, it is interesting to note the majority of the footage in A Machine to Live In is at ground level to have the viewer’s experience match the film’s ethos of seeing Brasília and its environs through the eyes of regular Brazilians.
Additionally, “Voiceovers are doubled to reveal multiple identities, and captions are manipulated to reveal multiple perspectives,” co-director Zielke said. The film intentionally portrays its subject as simultaneously beautiful and ugly. In the translated words of a local featured in the film, “In pursuit of perfection, Brasília is imperfect!” The film presents a critique of utopian ideals and asks questions such as: “What is a vision of the future to believe in?” The answer may very well depend on us allowing ourselves to have a feeling of the future without the expectation of articulating it.
Future Shock: (Re)Visions of Tomorrow is on display in the Roswell Museum’s Donald B. Anderson, Spring River and Russell Vernon Hunter galleries through Oct. 30. If you have yet to see the film A Machine to Live In, you have only four more opportunities: Saturdays, Oct. 8, 15, 22 and 29 at 3 p.m. These film screenings are included in the regular cost of museum admission.