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Presenting Systems: A Conversation with Mick Chivers

Mick talks with the Brown Art Review about industrial fishing, capitalist food systems, and the importance of presentation in advance of his upcoming show “Liturgy of the Shelf.”

On The Hill
On The Hill
Presenting Systems: A Conversation with Mick Chivers
Charlie Usadi

Charlie Usadi

March 12, 2024
10 Minutes

Mick Chivers is a Senior in the VISA department whose work pulls inspiration from personal experience in the commercial fishing industry. His sculptural and wall-based work blends organic debris and photography with technical mediation to present viewers with a layered and oftentimes visceral window into the industry’s often unseen underbelly. “What does the industry look like, what’s the history of those animals, how did they get harvested, what remains, and what happens to the waste?” I sat down with Mick to talk about his work, perspective, and upcoming thesis show. The following conversation has been edited for clarity. For a fuller conversation, a recording of our interview is accessible through the art review podcast, I highly encourage you to give it a listen.

Guiding the Sweep (too many fathoms on the drum) - Fluke and scup bones [six flounder, one scup] harvested on the edge of the shelf in October 2022, mantis shrimp exoskeleton harvested from Narragansett Bay in October 2022, steel, aluminum, plaster, brass hardware, monofilament fishing line.

Charlie Usadi: Hi, Mick!

Mick Chivers: How's it going?  

CU: Pretty good. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me. You are always so generous, taking time to share insight into your perspective, practice, inspirations, and techniques. I haven't been familiar with your work for too long, but I already feel like I've learned so much about it because of your openness to share. There's just so much we can talk about within your practice, so no matter what we cover in this conversation, I know it won't fully do your perspective justice. With that being said, I think we should get right into it. 

To begin with, it would be hard to talk about your work–actually, it would be impossible to talk about your work–without first talking about yourself and your experiences that contribute to it.

I'd love for you to give a brief introduction to yourself and talk a bit about your life outside of the studio. 

MC: Yeah, well, first off, thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here. I've been living in Rhode Island for the past 16 years. A lot of my work is around this very specific narrative identity of being a Rhode Island commercial fisherman. My visual narrative engages with what this identity looks like, how I got to this point, and what sort of exposure I have to things most people don't have access to within systems of food production and extraction.

Mick, 18 months old, with a minnow discovered washed ashore.

Fishing has been a part of my family going back generations. We weren't commercial fishermen; my dad’s side of the family, where the fishing comes from, is from upstate New York – lake fishermen. I learned to fish when I was three years old in Finland, and I've been fishing every year since. I started hand-lining perch off the dock between the wooden skiffs of Helsinki’s ports.  

When my family moved to Rhode Island in 2008, we kept fishing. My dad was working overseas in conflict, and he was gone for around eight months every year, so he wasn't home very much. But when he was home, what we would always do together was fish. It was a sort of ritual where he'd go fishing with his friends, and I would always tag along to be around him. I grew up falling asleep on the open deck of his boat in the middle of the night while he fished. I’d be being woken up, carried to his car, and driven home. We evolved, we fished, and we grew, and I got older and stronger. I started running the boat alongside him. 

I'm in the class of 2024. So we had the “COVID semester,” where I got told in July that I had nothing to do before I came to Brown in January. Since I had some experience, I started walking the docks of Point Judith, the state's largest fishing port, and eventually, a surfer, who was friends with a fisherman who’d mentored me, took me lobstering. So I started working on an offshore lobster boat. We had 2000 pots about 90 miles south of the island and would haul them all in four days and go home. It was awesome, I saw so much. I didn't make any money but had a great experience. Eventually, I realized there was better money elsewhere, and I had gotten my sea legs somewhat, so I got on a squid boat and started towing squid, which I’m still doing now. I've also done some scalloping, some shrimp fishing in the bay, and now I'm running a small oyster farm, too. I really like oyster farming because it's less destructive than the other things I've done. Yeah, and now I'm working on these 100-foot vessels, doing 80,000 pounds of squid a week, which is really cool. 

Mick with a dragonfly, hand-caught from a clothesline in southern Finland.

I've always had this fascination with organic form. I had this really great moment about a week ago where my mom was sending me all these baby photos, and they're all me with animals. There's a photo of me at 18 months old where I caught a minnow in the surf, I'm just looking at it. These’s images of me catching moths and dragonflies and lizards and everything. It's just this infatuation with nature and organic form–the way different animals evolve and exist within ecological niches.

CU: It's interesting that maybe you didn't recognize how deep that connection was to nature until your mom shared those photos. 

MC: Yeah, I might make one of the images into a flier for my show; I haven’t decided yet.

CU: So, this relationship to nature through fishing has been a major part of your life for a long time. Has your relationship to art been similar? 

MC: No, this surprises people when I bring it up, but I only started making art seriously in the fall of 2021. I think it's been only two and a half years now. I took art classes in high school and middle school, but I was a STEM kid, gunning for STEM things. Then I got to Brown, and I followed a friend into a VISA 0100 class and really enjoyed it. I ended up signing up for Daniel [Stupar]'s Sculpture Foundations Class, and the environment he created in that class was pretty spectacular. It was just, “This is the equipment. This is how you use it. Here's a prompt to get you thinking and do whatever you want.” Something clicked for me. I grew up my whole life building sheds, building chicken coops, working with my hands and with power tools. I feel like I have a really good understanding of three-dimensional space, how it works, and how structures work. That was like a light switch where I was like, “I can do whatever I want. No one else is going to do what I do because I've got my own perspective, and no one's going to say it's wrong because how can they? It comes from me.”

Puncture. - Monkfish bones.

His class was so exciting; that's where I made my first bone piece: he had a found object prompt. My neighbor was spearfishing, and he gave me two Tautog Carcasses. Daniel sent me a YouTube video that started it all, which showed me the skeletonization process. I started gluing them together, playing with symmetry and structure, and I was stoked on it; Daniel was stoked on it. I also started welding at that point, I started doing other stuff, and I was like, “Fuck it. I'm going to major in art.” It's been the main thing I’ve been doing at Brown ever since. It's been great, and I feel like I've learned a ton in that time. 

I feel like I'm never really struggling with my voice, which is something I feel really privileged about. I think it's really hard today in the art space to come with a unique perspective and have a new aesthetic. It feels like I'm starting to get there, and I feel really privileged to have, in such a short time, found a visual language that seems unique to me. 

CU: Beyond the strength of that formal language that your work speaks, the conceptual weight it holds is also powerful. I wonder, was that first bone sculpture you created as conceptually weighty as what you're doing now? When did you begin to attach these ideas of say, class, economy, and environment to the sculptures?

MC: Yeah, I'm not convinced that the sculptures are talking about that stuff yet. The sculptures still feel very formal. But I think that painting, two-dimensional space, gives me the opportunity for more legible imagery that can start to go in those directions, to speak about those things. I'm not exactly sure when that started. 

This fall, I took this really interesting class with Eric Johnson, a post-doc in the art history department. He does really cool research about Wampum and its role within westward expansion and indigenous communities. He had this class called “The Material Culture of American Capitalism” about how we got to this point in society, to these systems. I wrote this paper about the history of Rhode Island's fishing; it was like, “Oh my God, there's so much here.” Obviously, there was a lot I had observed directly and experienced myself before that point. The industry's really complicated, there's a lot of interpersonal politics about race, identity, and belief systems and all that. I'm not the run-of-the-mill fisherman, I have a lot of ideas that didn't fly, so I got hazed a good bit and fucked with a lot, but that was also good emotional stunting, to develop a sort of jadedness for the studio. 

For a while, I didn't feel like my work was at a point where I could talk about those systems yet. The material culture class really helped me think about it—to contextualize what I had experienced and witnessed at sea. It made me come to understand the system from a bird's-eye view, a more theoretical understanding. So it's really new for me. I'm not sure what I'm making now is the right way to be talking about these ideas, but it's getting there. It's a feeling that each piece I make has a little bit more to say.

CU: I appreciate that you've talked a bit about the human and interpersonal aspects of the industry. I've taken some environmental studies courses where that human perspective is somewhat overlooked when talking about extractive industries. Your work doesn't allow viewers to do that simplification–beyond speaking on the organisms themselves, it speaks to the organisms as they relate to you and to those working alongside you. 

MC: Yeah, I don't want my work to be super legible in terms of “arguments.” In some ways, it is. I mean, you can get a lot of context from the writing I do and the way I express my ideas. But I don't want my work to be “one-liners.” The work I'm trying to make thinks about the roles and lives of animals within our society, how we extract them and use them either for food, industrial products, or whatever. What does the industry look like? What’s the history of those animals? How did they get harvested? What did they become? What remains? What happens with the waste? It’s this whole system, and an essential part of that is the human who's going on these vessels, who's doing this work. That’s something I'm shifting towards now.

A lot of my previous work was very just form-based, this almost fetishistic fascination with the fishbone and these other corporeal remains, but now I'm thinking “Who are the fishermen?” Often, that topic isn’t engaged with that much. There's so much in the media about how horrible commercial fishing is. But it's also a time-honored tradition, the foundation of New England's economy, and the people working in it are oftentimes some of the most marginalized people in society–they don't have anything else to do. If you get rid of fishing, where do they go? I work alongside a lot of people struggling with pretty intense substance abuse and a lot of people with criminal records who can't get other work and have families. This is the only way they can make a significant income to support their family. 

Also, there's a recent shift in the industry where there are more and more undocumented people working, especially during the winter, when it's the most dangerous because every year, there's less and less money. It seems like every year, the expenses of the industry go up, and the price of fish goes down, partly because of monopolization of the fishing ports. The crew share of profit has been getting smaller, and the people who do have other options are like, “Wait, I can do something else. I don't need to do this.” That's created a labor shortage in the industry, and what's been filling the void is these undocumented immigrants, who then get really heavily exploited. It's really disturbing to watch, especially when you're working alongside them—you don't really have any power because you're also just a transit deckhand; nobody gives a shit what you have to say. 

Of course, I have nothing but respect for the men and women who fish, and there are countless people who have treated me really well, and who I have observed treat migrants and others with the same respect. It’s not a black and white question. Like everywhere, there are genuinely good people in the industry, alongside people, who for a variety of reasons, be it ignorance, anger, jealousy, or simply hate, are hostile. It’s this crazy system, and there's so much bigotry in the industry. Who's in power, what are the power dynamics, the capital, labor dynamics, the interpersonal religion dynamics, experience, age, gender? It's this weird political web that you basically don't see until you're right in the middle of it and getting screamed at, working alongside a dude from Guatemala who doesn't speak any English, communicating with him in the fish hold-through, basically, like hand gestures, and bonding in that way. It can be really beautiful in a sort of melancholy way. 

CU: It's interesting to see how these natural systems and human systems are so deeply connected and complex. At this point in the Anthropocene, people's lives are so entwined with these industries and ecologies. It's cool to see that you're consciously thinking about it when you're working.

MC: Yeah, I think that's the space I want my work to fill. People are so involved in this; it's everywhere around us. This industrial production is inherent to all the food we consume and a lot of the products we use, not just fish. A lot of people aren't thinking about it; the contemporary American model is to consume and to be a consumer. We don't think about the origin of these products. I'm really aiming to make people think about it. Like, for example, there's this fish, shrink-wrapped at the supermarket. What's the story? Where did it come from? Where was it harvested? What's its life? What does it eat? What does it look like? Who's the person who harvested it? How was it harvested? What was that labor like? How did it get to the fishing port? What happened to the guts along the way?

This impossibly complex system exists now through the global economy; it used to be so simple. Maybe through my work, I’m trying to subversively radicalize people to think about decentralized local living, knowing where your food comes from, knowing your farmer, knowing your fishermen, and being able to look at what you eat and know when and where it was caught. That's what I try to emulate in my own life. 

Ichthys (us; and Them.) - Laserjet image transfer [Barry’s steam-home shirt / the invisible recyclers] & acrylic on canvas.

CU: Your work does really force viewers to think beyond simple narratives. For example,  I thought I had a solid sense of your work, and then you brought this painting to the studio. This image of Jesus from a graphic t-shirt shows up. I was like, “Whoa, what is this?” Because like you said, that complex human aspect of this industry is overlooked. 

MC: Yeah, I like that piece, though I’m not sure if it's exactly what I want it to be. I'm really amused by that shirt. On the way in from a fishing trip, we showered and got into clean clothes, and this fisherman was wearing a shirt, “Jesus loves you, but I don't,” with an image of a crucifixion, and under it, “Go fuck yourself,” which I think is flawless. It captures the attitude of fishermen, who these people are, what they behave like, and how they think. It’s this individualist mindset that's so pervasive in the industry. It also taps into this intangible, interspecies, interpersonal politic of religion at sea. There’s the classic symbol for Christ, Ichthys, and then there's the allegory of him handing out the fish. I'm not a religious studies expert by any means; I just remember that from my childhood. So like, Christ is the fish, and Jesus died for our sins. But he’s also the fisherman, this unseen martyr grinding his body away, toiling ceaselessly for our food. It's happening every day in the North Atlantic, in every ocean across the planet. We’re harvesting these organisms in really brutal, inhumane ways and turning them into food to sustain us. And I think I think that's so fascinating, how you rationalize labor. In the painting it’s overlaid with this image of a microscopic fungus growing across a fishbone that I found in my studio. That brings it into this conversation of decay, waste, and what remains. Cycles and rebirth and all that stuff. And so I think it's a good painting. I'm not sure yet. 

CU: We should talk about your show. There are so many rich layers and nuances within your works, and I know it can be a challenging position to approach a thesis show where you have to summarize what you're doing on a one-page document. How have you been framing this body of work? Representing it to visitors? 

Promotional poster for “Liturgy of the Shelf”

MC: Oftentimes in the process of making, I get so many ideas that they outrun the work. So despite everything we’ve talked about which I'm thinking about now, the work is still very much grounded in form, a celebration of form. Though it is starting to involve these larger ideas about industry, especially within the wall works.

She Came in Ten Thousand Codends and Left Through the Port Scuppers  (i’ll greet her tomorrow, south of the island.) [process; gesso] - Oil & acrylic on thermoplastic ; steel brackets.

I’m making a lot of 3D-printed sculptures, scaling up really small fish bones. I’m thinking about technology. I have this digital library of images from the ocean and scans of organic things. The work speaks to how pervasive technology is within our society, how reductive it is. What does it mean to have technology mediate my practice? To be engaging with these really complex organisms and structures, then to reduce them and translate them, and distort them through technology. Through the process, I end up with these really mesmerizing sculptures and some really weird paintings that you couldn't really paint. 

I want you to feel a little bit like you don't belong in this space, and I want you to feel confused. I think I'm still confused. I mean, I'm talking, I'm rambling, it's all this stuff going on in my head, but I don't have any synthesis for it. I want it to feel like that. I want the viewer to enter the space and to be like, “There's a whole world here that I know nothing about,” and they can get some ideas, but I ultimately want it to be this feeling of “I need to know more,” “I need to learn.” I want them to leave this space encouraged to do labor about that. What is Rhode Island's fishing industry? What is this food I'm eating? And so just a little unsettling, disturbing, melancholy, and morbid. This othering of the viewer, 

CU: It's cool that such a visceral and engaging body of work will occupy space in. I mean, we should talk about your tuna piece. 

Watch Us Go (proper rank.) [near completion progress photo] - Nine complete tuna skeletons [one 150lb bluefin & eight 40-80lb yellows], tepid saltwater ; steel & acrylic vitrine - hermetically sealed February 27, 2024.

MC:  Yeah. So, over the summer, I got nine complete tuna skeletons, and I saved them, then skeletonized these large carcasses by soaking them in the ocean. Now, I have a giant pile of bones with the fat trapped in them. They're full of odor, and they’re this really unsettling, orang-to-off-white color palette. I've made this clear acrylic vitrine, and I'm just going to fill it with the bones, seal it, and have it in the exhibition space. I hope over the show that they leech juices and that the bottom acrylic panel becomes an opaque milky yellow. I really want that to be the centerpiece. It’s in this conversation with taxidermy, Hirst, and with other artists who've made similar work, acrylic boxes encasing some sort of organic remains. I think I'm going to call it Watch us Go, the idea that these things are passing.

CU: There's such interesting tension within your work. You are so detail-oriented when it comes to display. You, maybe more than any other concentrator I've seen, are so involved with, say, the stands, cases, or mounts of any given piece you're creating. But at the same time, you work with these organic materials, which, in a way, resist total control. For example, the microscopic fungus you’ve photographed or these tuna bones withering. Could you speak to that interest? 

MC: I mean, presentation is everything. The way you present work is the way it's understood; the framing device—be it the pedestal, the vitrine, the wall mount, or the literal frame—defines what the work is and defines how people engage with it. We've talked about how I've got this really complicated conceptual backing for the work I'm trying to make, but the visual language I'm engaged in and the materials can very easily become cliché; they could occupy this “vacation/beach home” setting. So I try to be very careful to avoid that. Through presentation, I can define where the work is, how it looks, and how it reads. That feels really important to me. It’s one thing to put something on a pedestal or put it on the wall, but to make that pedestal this height, this dimension, and this color does so much more—it elevates the work.

A Most Exquisite Abberation. - Monkfish bones, steel, acrylic, mdf.

When I go to any gallery show all I do is look at their pedestals and look at their frames, that's what that's what really separates good work. When I see a poor presentation, I get really frustrated because I know what it could have been.

CU: You're still at such an early stage in your artistic trajectory, so I'm excited to see how those develop—how you push them. It's already exciting because, even as you refine your presentation techniques, you're already playing with these modes of display and pushing them in interesting ways.

So, the format of a thesis show is really interesting because it can be very generative and can motivate a lot of production. But at the same time, you really have to narrow the work you're doing and try to think within a cohesive body. I'm interested in what's been on the back burner as you’ve focused on this show–what will you dive into once the show is complete?

MC: Yeah, so my thesis show is in ten days now, and it's been a month of full sprint, like 16 hours a day in the studio, constantly working. Thinking about it 24/7, It's really been driving me insane, and I wish I had another month, but I’ll reach a point of at least some resolution in the work for the show. Then, I graduate. It's the question of what's next, right? And that's the fun one. There's a few things I want to do. 

One, I want to tie up a lot of the loose ends that are emerging in this show. Not loose ends in a bad sense, but there's all these new directions to explore that have emerged through the making of everything for this show. All these new things I see, all these specific moments, and instances of form that I want to expand on. How can I add complexity? How can I push these paintings? How do I make it better? Where does it go next? 

I also got a grant last summer to research ceramic 3D printing. Specifically making an oyster shell biopaste, and that's been totally on the back burner because I really didn't have time to invest in that, but I still have the machine. I really want to research biomaterials, making ceramic 3D prints and firing them. I'm really interested in this mold-making product called Alja-Safe. Alja-safe includes sodium alginate, which is derived from a polymer found in brown seaweed. When you take sodium alginate, paint it really thin on a sheet of plastic, peel it off, and hang it, it takes on this sort of hyperbolic seaweed form when it dries. It’s something to do with that polymer originally extracted from the seaweed. I've been scanning those, and I have an archive of a few dozen of them. I really want to print those in ceramic, fire them, and return them to the ocean. I do a lot of free diving, so I want to do an installation on a coastal Rhode Island reef where I just deposit all these unglazed forms, return them to the reef, and put them back where they belong. I think that's exciting because no one will see it except me. 

Resurgence - Alja-safe mold-making compound, white plasti-dip.

And then, yeah, I'm applying for a residency at the Steel Yard right now. I really want to strengthen my Providence community and get involved in the arts in Providence. I plan to stay here for a long time. There's another grant I'm waiting on that if I receive, I hope to make a public-scale cast iron piece. For me, in my personal belief system and worldview, I struggle somewhat with what it means to be an artist working in “the white cube,” working in the gallery space. I don't want my work to just end up being something that rich people consume and think they understand because they had a conversation with me when they bought the art piece. I think public art is a really exciting way I can make work for the community, work that's accessible, that uplifts stakeholder voices within a space. That's a direction I want to trend in: large-scale monuments, public projects, community involvement. 

CU: It's exciting, that scaling up. You often mention how it's hard to keep up with ideas as they come, and I feel like that really lends itself to momentum in your practice. I'm really looking forward to seeing what comes next. Thank you so much again for speaking with me. Where can readers or listeners find more of your work if they're interested in seeing it? 

MC: Yeah, so I've got an Instagram. It's @mickchivers.studio. I have a website, mickchivers.cargo.site. Once I finish my show and document everything I've been working on this year, I'm going to overhaul that site.

And then I've got my show, which opens on March 8th. If you want to come see what I'm working on, hang out with me, or talk about my art in person. If you want to eat some free oysters, it's all going to be at the show. 

I'm always down to talk with people. I like talking about my work. I like talking about other people's work. I like thinking about systems and thinking about our role as consumers within this capital-oriented structure that we live in. Basically, I’m an open book. Hit me up, you've got my Instagram, you've got my email on my website -  reach out. 

CU: Awesome, thank you so much. 

MC: Thanks. Thanks for having me. 

For readers interested in seeing Mick’s work in person, his upcoming solo show “Liturgy of the Shelf” will be on view in List Art Center from March 8-14. Check out previous Brown Art Review interviews for insight into other working artists on campus!

(All photographs courtesy of Mick Chivers [and his mom])

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