Nicole Miller’s ‘To the Stars’ Lights the Path to Greatness (With Lasers!)

Nicole Miller, 'To the Stars' (still of astronaut Dr. Yvonne Cagle), 2019.  (Courtesy the artist)

On the ground floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, tucked away in the Phyllis Wattis Theater, middle and high school groups are watching laser light shows. No, the museum is not hosting raves, nor are they playing Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Those lasers are part of Southern California artist Nicole Miller’s To the Stars, an hour-long piece commissioned by SFMOMA with their junior-high audiences in mind. Her non-narrative video combines clips of exceptionally talented people of color (mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, NASA astronaut Dr. Yvonne Cagle, violinist Jessica McJunkins, Alonzo King and his dancers) alongside interviews with San Francisco middle school students. Intermittent sequences of laser animations and synth-heavy sound create breaks between the often gut-wrenching stories told by the participating kids.

For Miller, this piece is all about potential.

The distance between the students and these accomplished adults is years of support, opportunity and practice. Seeing how much is possible, Miller’s piece argues, why shouldn’t those children achieve such heights? Why do we have such a hard time seeing young people—specifically young people of color—as full of potential?

Fittingly, much of To the Stars’ hour is given over to mesmerizing shots of Alonzo King LINES Ballet members working on SUTRA, a spring 2018 performance set to the music of composer Zakir Hussain. Their bodies move in ways most of us only wish we could; they bend the laws of gravity. In the studio, King provides advice and commentary to his dancers (less rigid, more fluid), translating ideas about birth, connection and movement into words and gestures.

Nicole Miller, 'To the Stars' (still of opera singer J’Nai Bridges), 2019.
Nicole Miller, 'To the Stars' (still of opera singer J’Nai Bridges), 2019. (Courtesy the artist)

Showing people in rehearsals, discussing creative problems and hashing out artistic impulses, Miller says, makes such levels of performance seem more attainable. Bridges sings three pieces in To the Stars: a cradle song to a black child, the “Habanera” aria from Carmen and the black spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” But before and after those beautiful renditions, she jokes with her piano accompanist and cops to making mistakes. Beneath the polished virtuoso we see on the stage, she’s human, relatable—and it looks like she’s having a great time.

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Similarly, Cagle’s eloquent monologues about space travel, the human body and her dreams for the future show her standing before historical displays of space travel and defunct machinery. Technology hasn’t always matched our aspirations, but visionaries like Cagle push us towards further advancements and discoveries.

In contrast to the adults’ smooth, assured delivery, the middle school students in To the Stars are learning how to communicate in fits and starts. “They just told me what they wanted to tell me,” Miller explains. The participating students watched her 2016 piece Athens, California, which captures the lives of high school students from Athens, an unincorporated community in southern Los Angeles County. They’re all students at Washington Prep High School—teenagers deeply affected by racial segregation and gang violence. After the screening, Miller talked with the San Francisco students about what it means to tell others stories from your own life.

As the To the Stars progresses, the camera stays with the students and their stories for longer and longer stretches of time. In one clip, a girl breaks down talking about the discrimination she’s faced for being mixed race and how hard it is to see her older brother’s struggles with depression. Another girl talks about caring for her baby brother when her father went to jail, her mother couldn’t be counted on and her grandmother was working long hours to support the family. She was only 10 at the time.

Nicole Miller, 'To the Stars' (still of Alonzo King LINES ballet dancers), 2019.
Nicole Miller, 'To the Stars' (still of Alonzo King LINES ballet dancers), 2019. (Courtesy the artist)

Then, Miller strings together clips of the students simply announcing their ages. One girl is a head taller than her companion—both are 12. One girl, nervous, says she’s “11, no 12, no 13!” and bursts into giggles. These are very young people, many of them the same age as the school groups who will view To the Stars, and they’re just starting to figure out how to arrange their faces, process their emotions and tell their stories.

Periodically throughout the piece, a dappling of rainbow hues resembling an aurora waves across the screen, giving everything a magical tinge. The lasers pulse in spirographic undulations and spell out, in various fonts and colors, “ad astra” (Latin for “to the stars”), “prelude” and ultimately, “the end.” There’s a fairly simple technology behind these dazzling effects: an analog synthesizer, mirrors and five-watt lasers. But Miller points out it’s the closest we can get to a synesthetic experience. They’re light shaped by sound.

The lasers, too, are full of potential: to transport audiences beyond the theater setting and the expectation of a “straight” documentary experience; to morph into whatever shape sound waves will allow; to wow. It’s hard to know how To the Stars’ target audience will appreciate or react to the piece. I caught myself thinking about preteen attention spans during some of the extended dance sequences. But in that reaction, too, is potential: to challenge and eclipse adult assumptions.

'To the Stars' is on view for school groups visiting SFMOMA through the 2019–2020 school year. Public screenings are currently scheduled for Sept. 22 and 24, 11am and 2pm. Details here.

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