Interview with Andrea Wolf

Interview with Andrea Wolf

Andrea Wolf is an interdisciplinary artist interested in how images accrue meaning culturally. Her project Weather Has Been Nice uses algorithms to decompose images taken from mailed postcards.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
We’re going to talk about a couple things, but let’s begin with Weather Has Been Nice. How did you start this project?

Andrea Wolf
About three years ago I discovered an open source pixel-sorting sketch and processing by Kim Asendorf, but it was only for still images. I liked how the pixels shifted, distorting the original image and also endowing it with movement. I was also curating a show for Miami Basel that focused on landscape and technology. Those two things started to merge, and I thought it was a very interesting way to explore landscape by decomposing it. Memory is a very important aspect of my work. I already had a few postcards, but I wasn’t into collecting them yet. Then things just started to click. I had the idea of working with landscapes and I had these postcards that show idealized scenarios which connects with the discourse of tourism and the question of what you are supposed to remember. Decomposing these images shows that landscape as memory is not only something outside ourselves, but also a construction. It’s a personal construct and a social construct.

Martha
I was thinking about all that needs to happen to these postcards before they arrive to you. The photo been taken, the postcard been designed and printed, then been bought and written on and sent. Then someone else receiving it and then discarding it, and then you finding it and scanning it and turning it into something else.

Andrea
In general I like working with found footage and appropriation. I share that feeling about the story of these objects. Things that are so personal end up in flea markets or junk shops. I’ve always thought it would be very interesting to document the history of even just one postcard. But that’s another project entirely.

I decided to work only with written and mailed postcards. When I began collecting postcards, I needed a restriction; a criteria of selection. There might be aesthetic criteria too, they had to be in color, and I was specifically looking for landscapes because I was trying to explore them visually. Then the fact that they had been written and mailed became really interesting. I’m fascinated with the social and the personal; the relationship between personal memory and cultural practices of remembrance. I had to consider how to make this more evident in the pieces themselves, But I didn’t want it to be something very explicit. Finally I came up with the idea of inviting different sound artists and sound poets to create soundscapes with those texts.

Weather Has Been Nice. Sala de arte CCU, Santiago Chile, 2016.

Martha
This project has gone through several iterations. Every time you show it, you want to bring something else to the table. It’s not a closed project; it feels like an evolution. How did you decide to be so open?

Andrea
It wasn’t a conscious decision. The media I work with lends itself to this kind of progression. Also, making one piece requires so much work and production, and after I show it I start to think about what else I could do, or what I could do differently.

I’m comfortable thinking of my work like an open-ended series. It’s more complicated in terms of a commercial point and determining how to sell the work, but by showing different versions you also see it grow progressively.

I think the installation for Weather Has Been Nice, as it was presented at NEW INC’s Showcase at the New Museum and then at Sala de Arte CCU in Chile is at its peak. Those where large-scale installation but now I’m thinking of producing smaller, individual pieces for each postcard,

I have a show coming out next year in a gallery in Chile that is a different context for showing this project. I have the idea of making individual pieces for each postcard, and then also the idea of making prints and flipbooks. There are so many things that I can do, particularly with this project. If I continue finding more postcards and scanning them, why would I limit it? Why would I say “No, it’s done”? No one is telling me it has to be done. If there’s a point where I feel like I have to move on, I will.

Groana Melendez
I work mostly in photography, and I can keep going because it’s my family and my family keeps growing. But it’s nice to hear you talk about a different kind of process and still being open-ended because in the end, everything you do is part of your practice.

Andrea
It’s open-ended, but it’s also limited. You establish some rules or some common practices for a specific work or series to develop. It’s not that suddenly I’m bringing in portrait postcards. It has a line. It has a path. I’m sure it’s the same with your photography practice.

You trace borders and frontiers, and some of them you can push, which is also interesting. Some of the most interesting things in the work happen by mistake –for example, I might be projecting something and I see the reflection on the floor and I wasn’t looking for that, but it looks great and maybe that is the thing.

I think it’s a disservice to you and your work and your practice to limit yourself. On the other hand, it’s important to work within certain ethics and logic and specifications for each project.

Martha
What I really like about this project is that we usually think of moving image as the progression of different images, twenty-four images per second. What happens in Weather has been Nice is not that, but it’s still moving image. It blew my mind when I realized that instead of being a video in the common sense it was an algorithm that in real time was affecting a still image. I like how it subverts what moving-image can be.

Still from Weather Has Been Nice.

Still from Weather Has Been Nice.

Andrea
When I started, I wasn’t aware that I was subverting what we understand as moving image. I was interested in unraveling or unfolding an image. I was reading a really cool book by Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking on An Empty House. It’s essays and his writings. It’s kind of like an artist’s sketchbook.

One of the essays resonated a lot with me. It was about how HD image has prompted this obsession with being very realistic, with high fidelity and getting sharper and sharper, and at the end of the day that’s not necessarily the most real image. If you only give image the value of a mimetic representation, then maybe it is, but what does an image really is when you think about the real image?

An in this essay he writes, “to search for the image that is not an image, not a realistic rendering, but an artifact. ” That resonated and stuck with me. In many ways that’s what I think about memory and that’s what I think about the images of ourselves and of the world that we put out there, so I just wanted to question our methods of representation and the value we bestow on images. I mean, this is a super real image of a landscape when it’s kind of unfolding before your eyes. Also, we have this need to create logic out of what we see, even if it becomes very abstract and with geometrical shapes, a lot of people still see a landscape in the abstracted version of the first initial image.

Martha
I also wanted to talk a little about REVERSE and how it influenced your practice to be in charge of this huge project for so many years. [REVERSE is a non-profit artist-run organization dedicated to expand the conversation in Art and Technology].

Andrea
In many ways it was a great experience. It made me more aware of my administrative counterparts when I’m an artist, and helped me understand the expectations of a gallery or an organization—like the importance of meeting deadlines and sending images when you’re asked for them. When I was running REVERSE I couldn’t understand why I had to go after artists to get their images for a press release.

It also helped me be more organized in general. At the beginning REVERSE took away from my practice. Preparing the space and figuring out how it should work consumed so much time and energy. But it also allowed me to engage with a much broader artist community than I would have just working in my studio by myself. My network grew so much, and not just visual artists, but sound artists and curators and organizations doing similar things.

It put me in a position where I knew more people and also had to look for more people. If you’re curating a show, it takes you away from your regular group, your social connections, and your comfort zone. It opened a lot of new opportunities for me to learn, to see, to rethink my work. I saw so many performances and different artists and works going through the gallery and that clearly influenced the way I was thinking about my work.

Even though REVERSE took some time away from my main studio practice, I had a privileged seat in watching a lot of different artists who were in a similar point in their careers as I was, and maybe a few who were further along and a few who were just starting out. It gave me a lot of inspiration and information.

Martha
How did it all start?

Andrea
It was like a real estate marriage. I had this idea of how cool and interesting it would be to have an art space with art studios, and a gallery and build a community. I had a vision of a place where I would like to work and be as an artist, but I wasn’t actively looking to make it happen. If I had planned it better I probably would have gotten a few partners.

I had to leave my apartment because they were raising the rent and it just didn’t make sense for me to stay there. I lived in Williamsburg, near REVERSE. One day I saw that a really cool spot—a garage in a great location, that now has been turned into a fancy restaurant— was available for rent. I wasn’t looking for a commercial space, but I like real estate porn, so I called.

I met with the broker, and I was like, “This is cool, but I actually need an apartment.” So he showed me another place a block away.  It was crazy: upstairs there was the apartment, and downstairs it was this small warehouse open space. I can be very impulsive, and I got super excited. I talked with the friends I was planning to live with about the upstairs situation. I also have a good friend who works in construction, and maybe two or three weeks before this we had been talking about the idea of having a space. He said, “If you ever do that I’ll help you build it up.” He had done that with other spaces. I called him and I was like, “Piro, remember our conversation? I think it’s happening.”

A lot of things just came together. I had very good friends who supported me. It sounded like a great idea to live there and have the space. I already knew enough curators and artists. I had been showing as an artist. I had the community from ITP. I knew that I could put the word out there and that to kickstart it I would invite curators to guest-curate.

I had my business plan to build walls in the larger space and create studios to rent out to artists, which would help sustain part of the space. I didn’t anticipate the amount of work involved in not only building it, but also managing it. So I just jumped in and went for it, and it grew like a monster.

I try to be a little bit more conscious in my decisions now. It was great, but maybe it’s better to think things a little bit more through. On the other hand, if I had thought it through more I might not have done it. I think that at some points in your life you have to take those leaps of faith and go for things, but I’m older and more tired now.

REVERSE Art Space.

Martha
It was a great space. It also reminds me of what you’re saying about your work. You had limits. It was meant for a special kind of art that might have had a hard time finding a home.

Andrea
That was definitely one of the missions. I didn’t want to limit REVERSE to new media or art working with technology, but it became super clear that that was a common thread. It was very natural because of my art practice, and because of the people I know and my ability to understand work that other places might have turned away. I was very happy to push it in that direction. But we established that it was more a conversation about technology than technology was a requirement for every exhibition. For example, we could have exhibitions about painting and architecture. This idea of being interdisciplinary and trying to understand how technology affects us as a society, culturally, and also how it affects the art-making process. A lot of people working with art and technology came to us because we were one of the places offering a space for it.

Groana
A lot of the things you said about managing REVERSE reminds me of us [Martha and Groana] working together right now.

Martha
I think we get carried away by thinking, “It would be awesome to do this.” Then when we’re doing it, it’s like, “Oh, this was so much more work than we thought it’d be.” It is not only curating the list of artists, but reaching out, researching, coming up with an interview strategy, then meeting up, recording, editing the recording, transcribing, editing the interview, reaching out again with the artists, picking the images…

Groana
Any words of wisdom?

Andrea
My advice is, don’t think about all the work that’s involved; just follow through. Woody Allen says that comedy is tragedy plus time. We tend to forget because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t do anything. Imagine if you remembered how terrible you felt during pregnancy or how difficult birth was—no one would have more than one child.

These are things that you learn. Then for the next big project you might be able to set boundaries a little better because you will know how much you can do. And—this is very important—you have to learn to listen to yourself about how much you want to do.

I also learned that sometimes you have to invest to make good things good and to achieve the outcome that will eventually get you the financing you need. I also value my time. It’s important to put a price on your time. Like, how many other things could I be doing while I’m transcribing that would get me further toward my goals? Where should I put most of my effort? Is it really in transcribing or is it in editing the interviews and diagramming the book and thinking of all of it together? Of course we are limited by our resources, but sometimes you have to invest a little in order to get much more out of it.

I had to make a decision. I couldn’t continue with REVERSE and have my practice. I had to decide which one was more important for me, and which one to push forward. I chose my practice, because for me REVERSE was like a super big art project. I didn’t want to be a gallerist first and foremost and an artist on the side.

So, my advice is to push through. You’re already in it, so make the best out of it. And think of all the good things you will get out of it. Not only in what you make or what you accomplish, but in having interesting conversations with different artists.

Martha
You’re right.

Andrea
It wasn’t easy to learn all this. Believe me. I probably still don’t apply everything I’ve learned.

Martha
This project was born out of a studio visit. I met with a curator, and he told me that my art was not Latin American enough for his show. I said, “What is that? What does that mean?” Then Groana and I decided to showcase Latin American artists to explain how so-called Latin American art is not a thing.

Weather Has Been Nice. New Inc Showcase, New Museum, 2016.

Weather Has Been Nice. New Inc Showcase, New Museum, 2016.

Andrea
I think that goes in line with an older view of Latin American art. It’s someone that has an image of Guayasamín, the painter from Ecuador, or, very political art. I think that’s still part of it, but nowadays the boundaries are so much more blurred. My art would probably not be Latin American at all for that curator.

It’s very important to consider what it means to be an artist from Latin America. How much does that really define you or your art? What does it mean to be an artist from Latin America in New York? I can see how that could be an easier place to situate yourself because there’s a specific market for it.

I have a lot of issues with paperwork that asks you to define yourself and your identity. I’m from Latin America, but I’m also Caucasian and I’m also Jewish and my grandparents are from Eastern Europe, so what do I mark? It’s great when you can check more than one box, but it’s a very limited view of what a person is. I can’t help but think of Deleuze and Guattari and El Devenir [Becoming]. This idea of identity as something that is constantly transforming. I understand we won’t get bureaucracy to see it that way.

It still feels very binary, and I think the world in general is moving to a different place. I wouldn’t know what to tell that curator. Maybe he should visit more studios of artists from Latin America and see what they’re doing. Maybe his opinion will change. I would like to have a definition by his standards. I bet it’s very political or ethnic.

Martha
I don’t think there’s a degree of how Latin American you can be. I think that whatever I do just because I am Mexican, it’s Latin American art. We were really upset. That’s why we’re starting this, because I think there’s a way of defining what’s not you in terms that feel comfortable to you.

Andrea
I know a little bit of your work. You work a lot with your family photos, and they’re not photos from a typical midwestern American family. People think that if you’re from Latin America, you can’t be blonde or have very light skin. And there is an expectation that Latin American art will be related to crafts. It’s very ignorant—not only about the current state of affairs, but also about history. The Spanish, the Portuguese, the Italian, the French, the English all came to Latin America and grabbed their piece. At some point there was a mixture, and something different will come from that. I’m getting upset.

Martha
When it first happened, I was very upset. It’s hard to respond to something like that. I know it’s unlikely that anything I’m going to say will change anyone’s mind. But his comment empowered us.

Andrea
That’s great. And I understand the feeling of not knowing what to say in the moment. I would probably ask the person to define Latin American art—not to correct him, but just to know what he thinks. C’est la vie. That’s too French.

Groana
It’s not Latin American enough.

Andrea
Yeah.

Groana
Tell us how you got into art, how you became an artist.

Little Memories. 2010 - 2011

Little Memories. 2010 – 2011

Andrea
I actually studied journalism and communications back in Chile, and people in Chile tend to make a big point of it, like, “Oh, she’s a journalist and an artist.” I’m like, “I’m not a journalist. I don’t work as a journalist. Yes, I studied that and it’s not like I’m denying it, but just because I went to college and got that degree doesn’t make me that.” I worked in all type of media while I was studying and I came to the realization very early on that I didn’t like journalism, but I liked documentary films.

I always liked working with research and nonfiction material. I did my last semester in Barcelona and I loved it. I saw that they had a master’s in documentary filmmaking so I went back to Chile to graduate and then went back to Barcelona to study documentary filmmaking.

I liked more the theory classes than the actual practice just because they were going through all the subjects that I’m really interested in: the meaning we give to images, specially as an index of truth, cultural visual operations, and collective memory and storytelling. So I got very excited about all that and then… – I’m taking the long road to answer this, but it’s just that it wasn’t like a specific moment when I was like, “I’m an artist”.

I actually wanted to stay in Barcelona and it was much easier to stay as a student and it wasn’t as expensive as it is here to study, so I enrolled in this Masters of Digital Art because I loved editing and video and I saw a lot of classes there that I thought could be helpful in my practice. I had classes of programming, this is going to show how old I am because our classes, I think it was the last year that they taught programming with Action Script, but we also had Pure Data and stuff like that. And, oh my god, did I suffer at the beginning. I was like, “What the hell am I doing here?” I never saw myself as a technical person. With video, yes, that came super natural to me. Editing, I loved it.

Then after the first month of being like “What am I doing here? What is this?”  I started making peace with it and I saw the amount of opportunities that open up when you are able to control the tools to create the work that you want to do. Not that I’m a great programmer, but that was something that interested me. And when I started working on my thesis project with another friend, an artist, it proved to be useful. It was the first time that I actually started using home movies and we programmed this whole project.

It just was this kind of natural progression that took a while to settle and understand. I was still thinking “I’m going to do documentary film”. I’ve always been very interested in film in general, so I didn’t see that right away, but things just kept taking me back to thinking of film even in a different way and not as a movie that you have to watch in a theater.

Then for different personal reasons I had to go back to Chile. I had this online project that was memoryFrames and I showed it to some people that were working with art and technology and they invited me to join an exhibition that they were curating, but I needed a physical interface and I had this idea of a machine that would emulate the metaphor that we were doing on the online version, but I had nothing done. I had a month to build that. It was kind of horrible, but also great. There was a moment when I was in Chile that I had to find my place that I realized that was what I wanted to do and that I had to start reaching out to the community of people working with Art and technology.

There was this one time that I met this very well established artist in Chile with a long trajectory. Again, he thought I was a journalist because the person who introduced us told him that. We started talking and he was like “Oh, but you’re not like interested in doing an interview. You’re an artist.” That was the first time that I had to say, “Yes, I’m an artist.” It takes a while to feel comfortable with that statement – years. But at some point being in Chile I said “Okay, this is what I want to do and this is where I have to put my energy.” Things started happening and exhibitions started to pop-up and then I applied to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at Tisch, NYU. The only program that I applied to was ITP. I got accepted. I got a scholarship from NYU.

I came here and at some point I felt the same that I felt with the Master’s in Digital Arts in Barcelona. I was like “What the hell. This is so much technology.” I just don’t like technology for the sake of technology, I only like it if it allows me to say something. Here I am now. I can’t shake it off. I guess it’s part of me.

If there’s one thing that I really appreciate of the American culture is this idea that you can reinvent yourself and that maybe you should. That failure isn’t a bad thing. The important thing is when you show your strength and how you recover from that. That is a big contrast with what I was telling you about Chile and how I’m still labeled as a journalist. “Yeah sure, but not really.” I chose a different path than the one I did when I was eighteen going into college knowing really nothing. I think it feels good to be able to have flexibility. As an artist I think also it’s good to have that flexibility because you see so many artists sometimes trapped in a successful formula. Many times that is also a demand from their galleries and the market. I assume that if you become like a super big artist, you have all this pressure to continue being that successful. I think it’s great to have the freedom to explore within your own artwork and within your own practice and not be stuck with something.
I just learned how to knit, so who knows? Maybe my next work will be like a knitting piece. I don’t think so, I don’t think I’m going to get that good, but I think it’s good to have that opportunity. In general, I’m more drawn to artists that are versatile and ductil; you can see that in their work.

Groana
You mentioned being really interested in documentary. Do you see your practice being documentary in a way?

Andrea
No, but I can see the relationship. I don’t deny being a journalist. I think that what I went through really informs my work. I choose to work with materials that come from real life of real people. I work with other people’s memories, so I have this interest in nonfiction as a starting point, but then what I do with that is not necessarily what you would expect from a documentary film.

This allows me to question methods of representation and social discourse and a lot of things we are taught to believe and pursue. I’m not saying that documentary films can’t do that. Some of the French filmmakers of the New Wave era did it beautifully, like Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda. Or the Dadaists like Buñuel from Spain. I think that was a super interesting time of questioning the value of the image and storytelling. The challenges now have gone a little bit further than back then, but I like to go back to the roots because I really like their work.

Future Past News, 2016.

Future Past News, 2016.

Martha
I haven’t made that connection between your journalist background and Future Past News, which is like journalism but in a very different way. [Future Past News is a Virtual Reality installation that juxtaposes a 1937 newsreel with today´s news]

Andrea
That’s the most journalistic piece that I’ve done. I was editing the present news and writing all these texts to scroll down the screen. I took it very seriously and I think that’s probably because of my foundations. I also wanted to be very accurate with what we were showing.

I think it’s pretty far from what a lot of journalists practice today. I don’t know how many media professionals are questioning what they hear from different political or social actors or putting things in context. Either they have an idea of fake objectivity they want to pursue and they lack context, or they have a very biased point of view but aren’t honest about it.

I don’t think I was thinking about that either. It was just like it was so much in my face. I had this newsreel from 1937, with all these things happening and they’re all these things happening now. It just felt so similar… And when I talked to Karolina Ziulkoski about it, we were both like, “yes, it’s crazy, we need to do something with it” I think it was more like giving context to something. It’s really crazy because we’ve received some very hateful comments on social media from Trump supporters. They’re really good at trolling.

Martha
I guess it never crosses your mind when you put up a work like that.

Andrea
I had a sense it was controversial, but because it’s art I thought it would be viewed by an audience that had similar thinking and beliefs. But then it’s online and it’s out there and it’s on social media and anyone can see it. If I had to choose again the main image to promote it, I would probably pick something different—we have one that shows Hitler in the old newsreel and Trump on the phone.

Of course, I’m not saying Trump equals Hitler. In context, I’m saying the situations are very similar. I think that what he does is very similar to the way dictators and populist fascism work. I think that in choosing that image we narrowed the conversation. It was very easy for people to be binary about it.

Martha
And people can choose not to see the full conversation. Some people just read headlines and assume that the note is about something.

Andrea
What’s even more dangerous and worrisome nowadays is that a lot of people get their news from Facebook. That means they are only looking at items that are tailored for them from outlets and people that share the same views. That narrows your worldview so much, and it kind of exalts the ideas you already have. I wish people read the headlines from different media. I can’t deal with Fox News, for example, but I still like to know what they’re saying because I think it’s important to be informed and to get different points of views.

Interview with Elia Alba

Interview with Elia Alba

Elia Alba is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice revolves around building community. I caught up with Elia at a rooftop in mid-town Manhattan for drinks on a chilly fall day. (Featured image: The Spiritualist, 2014. Maren Hassinger in Inwood HIll Park, NY.)

Groana Melendez:
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

Elia Alba:
My parents emigrated in the 1950s from the Dominican Republic. They grew up in the very same town, but actually “met” and fell in love here. I think it’s because the Dominican community was small. They weren’t in Washington Heights; it was the Upper West Side! My parents married in 1958. My grandmother arrived here first in the 1940s, and she lived in West Harlem.

Groana:
Before Trujillo?

Elia:
My grandmother came to New York during Trujillo. She was a very interesting person, very independent. Barely any education but traveled the world and learned how to sew and worked for milliners and coat designers and did all kinds of things. She worked ten months out of the year and traveled two. She did that for a long time.

Groana:
Your mom worked in the garment industry?

Elia:
Yes. Her last job, she was as an assistant designer, making the patterns for Betsey Johnson. Then she made knockoff dresses somewhere else.

Groana:
My mom used to work in the factories when they were here.

Did you grow up on the Upper West Side, or did you move around a lot?

Elia:
I don’t know what Dominican woman didn’t.

My mom used to brag about how we lived on the Upper West Side in a six-bedroom apartment with two fireplaces. It was $145 a month, and that was a lot back then so my mother would rent out rooms. My father hated that there were always other people in the house, so we had to move. We moved to 175th and Broadway, which was very Jewish. Then my father got tired of apartment living, and we moved to a house in the Bronx. I was 6, and my sister was 5, and we lived there until they decided that drugs were taking over New York (this was the late ‘70s). They packed it up and decided they were going to raise their daughters in the Dominican Republic, and yo, what a culture shock!

It was 1978, and I was 15, but it was 1943 over there! Girls did not wear shorts. Talk to your mama; she’ll tell you.

My parents decided to put me in this ritzy school that was really crazy. My first understanding of class was in the DR! I remember once, these girls invited me to go bike riding in the park. It was heavily chaperoned. They came to get me, and I had on a tank top with spaghetti straps and shorts. When they arrived and saw me, they said, “We can’t go out with you like that. You look like a hooker.” I was like, “What’s a hooker?” I was 15 years old! So I had to go back in and wear a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. It was July in the DR. It was the worst bike ride ever. I don’t think my mother was aware how lame the DR was at that time. It was my introduction into how things functioned there.

Groana:
How long were you there?

Elia:
I was there a few years, until 1981, but it was my core years. I really feel it formed me in some kind of wacky way. It made me all uptight about things.

When I got to the States, it was just different. I was open-minded but very conflicted. I learned a lot about class and color. I always felt ugly in the DR. I had to press my hair too. They made me put chemicals in it.

Groana:
I begged to have my hair relaxed at nine years old.

Elia:
Of course! We all did, and our parents didn’t help us, making us feel uncomfortable about looking the way we did because they felt uncomfortable. I’m not even angry with them, but it’s interesting because I think my family and those that I was around pushed the straight-hair thing. It was actually white folks that would tell me, “Oh my god, your hair’s so beautiful. Why are you doing that?” It was kind of weird. Like, “What? Who are you with your straight hair talking like that? Get out of here.”

Groana:
Did you always have to balance a day job with your artist practice?

Elia:
All the time. Is the next question, “How do you do that?” or “Why do you do that?”

Groana:
Are you happy with your day job?

Elia:
I don’t hate my day job. I actually like going to work, because I’m very independent with how I want to do things. I don’t want to rely on grants. I don’t like writing applications. I do have to say that there are times when I wish I lived more of an “art life,” especially when it comes to residencies. It would be nice to just get up and go, but I would be stressed out about money.

Groana:
Right. That’s where I’m at right now.

Elia:
I also had a kid, and I just felt like, “No, I can’t put him through that lifestyle. I’m just not going to do that.” I know people have done it, but that’s just not my thing.

I want to be able to do work and just do my art practice on my own terms and have the money to do it. It’s a choice. Just like you make that lifestyle choice to be that artist that wants to live grant to grant. No one should criticize your choice for working. I did know I didn’t want to work in an art institution. That would zap me. I didn’t want to give them my creativity in that way. I think I’m creative in my job, within its limitations, but it doesn’t zap me of my creativity. It doesn’t tap that source.

The Pulsar, 2014. (Abigail DeVille at West Side Tavern, Chelsea.)

The Pulsar, 2014. (Abigail DeVille at West Side Tavern, Chelsea.)

Groana:
How did Supper Club start?

Elia:
The Supper Club started in 2012, so it’s been going for a minute. I am having a solo show at The 8th Floor Gallery in fall 2017, where we will show all 60 portraits. The 8th Floor is an exhibition and events space located in Chelsea. It was established in 2010 by The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation. The foundation is dedicated to promoting cultural and philanthropic initiatives. They have been hosting and funding the Supper Club since 2015, so I am really excited to be presenting the project there.

A lot of my practice is about bringing together different kinds of communities, and I wanted to make a book that was about artists of color, but not necessarily black and Latino. It has Southeast Asian folks, Arab folks some mixed-up folks because I feel like that’s really where the color conversation should be residing.

Initially, I was just going to make portraits, and I asked my friends. Not everyone in the book is my close friend, but rather people I’ve known along the way. Then I started thinking about how I wanted to give these artists a voice because it’s not enough just to take the picture and write a description. Recess Art came on board, and we began talking about hosting dinners, having conversations, and recording them. Initially, it was just going to be three dinners with three groups, of the artists that I was photographing.

That first dinner was intense. It brought up important issues for folks of color that people don’t like talking about but can’t deny. For example, either you’re not black enough, or you’re not Latino enough, or you can’t be part of this conversation because you’re Southeast Asian. All these different positions came up. It wasn’t the intention of the first dinner. I just wanted to let people talk. I didn’t say anything or give them any prompts, the way I do now.

Let me backtrack. The prompt for the first dinner was when I asked Wanda Ortiz to come in as her performance character “Chuleta” and be a provocateur and poke people to talk. She was the “host” for those first three dinners. After the third dinner, I realized that I wanted to keep doing it. At first, as I said, it was only the artists I was scheduled to photograph, which was 50 at the time. I’m up to 60, and that’s it.

Groana:
You have 60 portraits already!? That’s insane!

Elia:
It is insane. I remember when I was talking to our buddy LaToya (Ruby Frazier), and I was like, “I want to do one hundred!” She says, “Elia, you’re crazy! You should do twenty or twenty-five.” I said, “Twenty-five is not enough. That is definitely not a conversation.”

Groana:
It’s like a spotlight.

Elia:
And then who are the rest that you don’t see?

Fast forward. Recess and I started the dinners. We didn’t host another big one. We started doing smaller dinners with groups of five and six people, and we ordered takeout. Now the dinners take place at The 8th Floor. Sara Reisman, the artistic director, wanted to work with me. She’ll tell you, “I wanted to bring this to Rubin’s because I wanted to sit at the dinner table, and I knew that was the only way I was going to do that!” Because I kept it only non-white folks for a while. I was adamant about that. Although I did loosen it up in 2014 and allowed some good friends to join because of the nature of the work they were doing. I felt they could sit at the table. They were quiet, which was interesting.

Groana:
Because a lot of times, that’s the problem, right? Just listen. We just need you to listen. Don’t try to tell us what’s right or what’s wrong.

october-15_2868_1

Dinner on Racial Subjugation in Latin America, at The 8th Floor, The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, October 10, 2015.

Elia:
I think the first white person I had at the table was Maris Curran, a filmmaker who had just finished working on a project called Five Nights in Maine, which deals with an interracial relationship. The film was very powerful because it dealt with this interaction between a black male whose wife dies and he goes to visit his mother-in-law. The film revolves around that visit.
So that’s how The Supper Club started. I was really lucky to have Recess jump start this project. I always say this over and over; Recess is about ideas, which is very unlike a lot of arts organizations, where you have to submit a full-blown concept. Recess just liked the idea so much that they funded the first dinners. They funded the first photographs. That really jump-started the project. It’s taken so long because I had to move on from them. Then I ran out of money. I did a Kickstarter. I started to take more pictures, and then I ran out of money again.

The Rubin Foundation came into the picture in 2015. There was, however, an important shift that came in late 2014. While I was having these small dinners, I realized I wanted to host big dinners again, but this time I wanted to cook. At this time I was funding the project on my own, and with the help of my friend and curator Rocio Aranda and her husband James Congregane, they granted me permission to use the recreation room, which had a kitchen, in their building to host these large dinners. I noticed that once I did the cooking, it shifted the dynamic to how people interacted. Now we’re talking about an exchange. Even when you’re buying dinner for people, it’s not the same. I would cook (and still do) comfort-type foods. Like Saya (Woolfalk) said, “It’s like coming home for Thanksgiving Dinner!” That’s the feeling.

That really shifted it for me. It really was about looking at this group of color collectively. I do feel that this is a conversation that no one wants to have. Or they do want to have it, but not really, because it becomes you’re against something when you’re not, or you don’t understand when you do. That’s the complexity, I think. A lot of it having to be Caribbean, because we were raised that way all the time. I think when you look at my work, it really is about addressing the complexity of race and complexity of identity, which people want to put in a fixed place, but it’s not. I don’t even believe people are fully one race or the other, even if they look it. There’s always other stuff going on. That’s a lot of what drives this, and it drives everything. I was shocked when some people agreed to sit for me. I like my portraits; some of them are fun, and some of them are serious, depending on the artist. Some people let me go to town with them.

juana_9999

The Orisha, 2015. (Juana Valdes in Key Largo, FL.)

Groana:
I really like Juana Valdes’ portrait. It’s gorgeous.

Elia:
Juana was like la diosa Olokun in the middle of the ocean. Juana’s portrait is crazy. I can’t wait until you see the others. The pictures reference other artworks or time periods. The Supper Club has all these little stories about how I photograph people.

I know people are different. I know certain histories that we bring into this country are different, whether it is forced or not, but there’s also similarity. Southeast Asians were dominated by the British for a century. They have that in their history! Folks of color have the imperialist oppression in their history. Why do we want to focus on dividing? I want to have that conversation. However, when I have these dinners, there’s always tension.

I always pray for a kumbaya moment. I did have one during the last dinner. I invite hosts now, and my last host was Edwin Ramoran and his question was, “How do you define sanctuary?” It was a table full of queer folks: Filipino, Latino, African-American. In the end, everyone went from sanctuary to safety, and about feeling safe as a person of color. Nobody felt safe at that table. That said something. It was just a beautiful moment. There was a teeny moment of tension, like a second, but then it dissipated.

In my 20 plus dinners, I’ve had maybe one or two where that kind of moment lasted. Everyone just felt it. But even at the first dinner, the last person you heard was Simone Leigh saying, “That was intense, but it was good.” It’s about these conversations that in my opinion have to happen. I think as black Latinos, this is a thing we have to go through because people want you to pick sides. If you pick the Latino side, then you’re saying you’re not black, which is not true! Ever!

Groana:
Today I realized that you actually record the dinners. I just imagine walking into that situation and already being on guard, knowing that it is being recorded.

Elia:
People were a little bit guarded, but I always feel a little alcohol doesn’t hurt none.

I always tell people, “Keep the conversation real.” Whatever is out of pocket will not be published, sometimes to keep the conversation going, you might have to tell a little story or two. You might have to be a little critical, or you might have to badmouth somebody. It’s not about gossiping. You need those kinds of fillers and those kinds of scenarios or points within the conversation so people can relax. Some people do come to dinner very structured. They’re like, “No, I’m not saying anything.” I’ve gotten to the point now where I feel, “If you ain’t going to talk, you can’t come.” I used to say, “You can sit down and just observe,” but no—that time came, but that’s over.

I provide prompts with questions, so people can start thinking, but the conversation might go in another direction. I might say, “What is sanctuary?” We could start talking about disco balls, and I don’t flip that conversation. I have to let it organically evolve, because if I start to shift-shape it, it will then be a talk at a university or something, and that’s not what it is. People are fine with it now. Some people get a little crazy; I’ve had issues.

Groana:
What kind of issues? Tension between people? Because it sounds like mini therapy.

Dinner on Global Blackness and Transnational Identities at The 8th Floor, The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, August 14, 2015.

Dinner on Global Blackness and Transnational Identities at The 8th Floor, The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, August 14, 2015.

Elia:
“No, I didn’t say that.” I’m like, “Yeah, you did.” “No, I didn’t.” Then I send them the transcript and they say, “Oh, but you can’t print that.” But people are getting a little better. There was a moment where some artists felt that if you had some political opinion about anything, somehow a curator or a collector wouldn’t collect you. But there are a lot of political artists that are collected, and they say anything. They say what they’re going to say. A curator? They’re doing a show on something, and you’re doing work like that, and they like you, and you have a reputation, and you have awards to back you up? They’re not going to not work with you.

But we are fearful as artists, so that was the initial challenge of this. Yeah, it is therapeutic. I think I wanted it to be therapeutic for me. I think it always starts from the place of the self, right?

Sometimes it makes me sad. Sometimes I walk out of there sad. Sometimes I walk out of there so angry. It really depends, you know?

Groana:
How do you bring the idea of The Supper Club to a wider group?

Elia:
Here’s the thing. I discovered that in order to have an intimate conversation, we could have 20, 25 people tops. Twenty-five is a lot. Twenty, where everyone’s participating, is closer knit. We had one dinner that accidentally almost had 35 people. That does not work. It’s not a dinner; it’s a conference. You have to think of dinner at your mom’s house. My mom would serve 20 people. I don’t know what it is about that number, but that’s the number.

Late in 2015 and early 2016, I did two dinners in Washington DC, sponsored and hosted by Jessica Stafford Davis’ Agora Culture. That brought together an amazing crowd from DC and I did manage to get a couple of artists in the book to go to DC.

Groana:
But how does a kid in the Midwest—in the middle of “nowhere” right now—create a similar space?

Elia:
You start with your friends. I think people need to start with their own communities. I think we have this going on all the time; we just don’t think about it. My friend Clifford Owens, who was at one of the dinners in DC, reminded me of this. He said to the group at the table, “You know Elia has been doing these dinners since 2004 at her house. She’d make food, and we’d sit down, and we talk about art, we talk about race, we talk about politics. It just wasn’t recorded.” If I look back, that’s what my mother used to do. Make food and have her friends over, and they would hash out sports, politics, art, pop culture. This is no different.

You start with your community first, and you challenge your community. You challenge them with challenging questions. I organized a dinner in December 2014 that was the year that Mike Brown and Eric Gardner were killed. I wasn’t sure what we were going to talk about, until the night before the dinner. I emailed everyone and told them, “We’re going to talk about these killings because I don’t know how we can not talk about anything else at this moment.” Everybody came fired up.

One artist said, “Right around the time of Art Basel, everyone was up in arms about Trayvon Martin, but they still showed up to Miami. We went to Florida anyway.” All that came out. “What are the post-black artists thinking now? Take three seats back.” Things like that were coming up. Then there was another artist who said, “Fuck race! The planet is dying, and it’s not going to fucking matter!” Then Shaun Leonardo said, “I’ll worry about the planet when I don’t have to worry about a gun being put to my head.” That dinner had Coco Fusco, Lorraine O’Grady, Maren Hassinger, Kalup Lindsey, Arnaldo Morales, Clifford Owens to name a few. It was the dinner my filmmaker friend, Maris Curran attended.

We had this writer, Juan Thompson, who was reporting from St. Louis. He was studying to be an attorney and then switched to become a journalist on race issues. We had a curator from The Whitney. It was incredible. There was no kumbaya moment, but collectively everybody was upset with what was going down. My question was, what about Rodney King? That was in the early 1990s. What happened to those fools who beat him up? They’re walking around free.

Groana:
How long do you think The Supper Club will go on?

Elia:
Right now, I’m doing a residency at Lafayette College, where I am printing the portraits for the exhibit. I am also working on the book itself, and I have to start doing some writing for it. We are planning additional dinners too. The Rubin Foundation will continue to sponsor and host dinners, and I have been in talks with another arts organization to do the dinners nationally. How long will it go? It is unclear to me but I do see it going on for a while.

dawit-2006

The Explorer, 2015. (Dawit Petros in the studio, New York, NY.)

Groana:
What was your major in undergrad?

Elia:
I attended Hunter College and completed a special honors curriculum for interdisciplinary studies, and minored in studio art. I was a terrible painter! I gave my brushes away. I thought getting expensive brushes would make me a good painter. It did not. When you’re not good at something, you need to let it go. Because your creativity isn’t just around one thing. I know when I see a good painting, and I know when it’s not great too. God bless all the people that can paint. Painting is hard. Good painting is really hard. Not everybody can do it.

During school, I got a full-time job at L’Oreal. I was working with the sales department, with PR planning all the meetings and parties. That’s still going on! So I thought I was going to go into PR. Then I was like, “No, I want to be creative.” So when I graduated, I said to my boss, “I really want to get into the art department.” They had me do something for a Paloma Picasso’s fragrance called Minotaur. I designed the cover of the box and packaging for the spring collection in ‘94 or ‘95. By the way, nothing was on a computer. I did it all by hand!

I had so much fun doing it, and at that point, I discovered I was good with materials. I told myself, that’s where I need to be heading. I quit my job. I was about to turn 33, Jesus Christ’s age, and I enrolled in the Arts Students League because I didn’t know where else to go. I applied to Hunter for an MFA, and they liked the work I presented, but when I sat in front of the committee, I didn’t know what I was talking about. They said, “You should know what you’re coming in here for. You need to know what you’re talking about with your work.” I said, “If I need to know, that defeats the purpose of getting an MFA.” I was being argumentative, which was probably not a good thing. Of course, I didn’t get in.

I get it now; you should have somewhat of an understanding of what you’re doing. Not a full-blown explanation, but something. I applied again, and I didn’t get in a second time, but I did get into the Studio Museum in Harlem Residency Program, which was cool. I was working a lot with materials, doing abstraction work with a lot of sand and wood and paper, but then I got pregnant. I’m allergic to all that stuff, so I was like, “I can’t pop pills and be pregnant.” I literally changed my game. I went from working with materials like that to working with fabric. At the same time, I changed from abstraction to figurative. I think that’s how art functions. I don’t think 90 percent of the time it’s intentional, or that you’re totally aware, “I’m going to do this, and it’s going to be that…” You just evolve.

jeffrey_3627

The Disco Shaman, 2015. (Jeffrey Gibson in his studio, Hudson, NY.)

 

Interview with Alejandro Yoshii

Interview with Alejandro Yoshii

Alejandro Yoshii is an interdisciplinary artist whose defining act is the touch. We caught up with Alejandro a few weeks after he presented in A Mexican Tertulia at Baxter Street in collaboration with Celebrate Mexico Now.

Groana Melendez
Can you tell us about your artistic background? Do you have formal training in art?

Alejandro Yoshii
I came to the U.S. to study art, I did an MFA in Fine Arts at Parsons the New School. Before that, I studied Communications in Mexico and worked in advertising and graphic design. Painting was always part of my life, I was making paintings all the time but I didn’t have any academic training until I came here.

Once I started the MFA, I stopped painting and began doing other things. I think that happens a lot when you go to grad school. They challenge you to do something different than what you were doing before. I started doing more installations and sculptures and even performance. I’m exploring many different media now. I don’t feel myself fixed into a label of a painter or a sculptor. I like to work around the ideas and concepts and then later decide the medium.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
What I like about your work is how it is so much about touch and it is also about you in particular, being there, touching something.

Alejandro
Like imprints of my body.

Martha
Yeah, you are like, “I was here, and this is my index of me being here.”

Groana
You even have a work titled “I am here.”

Alejandro
I know it sounds like a strong statement like I want to be in my work. When I went back to Mexico one time, I was talking with friends, and they reminded me of a prank I pulled in middle school. My class went on a field trip to a nature reserve and research center in Mazatlán, where I’m from, and I made an imprint by the lake there. I just drew this thing, like a footprint of an animal with six fingers. Later on, the teacher came to the classroom and said, “I need to know who did this because the researchers thought it was an actual footprint. They took a sample and sent it to Mexico City to investigate it.” Then they realized it was just a joke. The teacher was so embarrassed and wanted to know who did it. I had to confess that it was me. Maybe what I’m doing now, putting my body in my work came from this experience. I don’t know, but it was a funny and bad thing to do at that time.

Also, I kind of like to work around the body, and question the notions of the body and how we see ourselves and others. I think it’s related to my background of being Asian in Mexico. I’m Japanese-Mexican. People don’t see me as Mexican at first, and I have to explain that I was born in Mexico, but my family is Japanese.

Then, when I’m in Japan people see me as Japanese, but I don’t speak very fluently. There is always this sense of not belonging to a place, and the only place I think we truly belong is in our body. It’s like the only physical place we live and exist.

 

(In)tangible bodies (2014). clay, photographs, video, objects.

(In)tangible bodies (2014). clay, photographs, video, objects.

Groana
That’s so beautiful. I never thought of that. I’ve also made work about belonging and not belonging, and I never thought, “The place you do belong is in your body.” Can you tell us about your family background?

Alejandro
My maternal grandparents immigrated to Mexico before the Second World War. My grandfather came first, followed by my grandmother. My mom was born in Mexico, and she went to Japan to study marine biology. There she met my dad and brought him back to Mexico.

Groana
Oh, wow—I didn’t realize both of your parents are Japanese.

Alejandro
My mom is Mexican-born Japanese. Basically, I’m Japanese, but I was born and grew up in Mexico.

Groana
Do you ever go back to Japan, or did your parents ever take you?

Alejandro
I studied there for a year in high school.

Martha
How’s your Japanese? How do you relate to the language itself?

Alejandro
My Japanese got better when I was there. I speak some Japanese at home, like the term pocho but in this case mixing Japanese and Spanish.

There are many stories about the Japanese immigration to Mexico. In Chiapas, there is the little town of Acacoyagua that is the first place where Japanese immigrants settled in Latin America, as an organized immigration. It was called the Enomoto Colony. In the main plaza of this town, there is a memorial for the immigrants, on the back of it there is a haiku that says something like “summer grass, battles of the heroes, traces of a dream.”

I’m very interested in that. I’m going to Mexico in December, and I want to go to Acacoyagua Chiapas. I’m curious to learn more about it. There are some descendants of these immigrants and many people who have Japanese last names.

When my grandfather went to Mexico, he was single at that time. There was this thing like matchmaking for Japanese who immigrated to other countries. Most of the immigrants were single men, and they wanted to find somebody to marry, and I guess it was very difficult to marry a local person if you didn’t speak the language. The matchmaking process was done through photographs. My grandmother was told about this person in Mexico and was asked if she wanted to marry him, and she said yes. It was kind of like an old archaic version of Tinder.

Martha
With more severe consequences. You couldn’t just go out on a date. It was straight to marriage.

Alejandro
Actually, when my grandmother got to Mexico, she was already married. Her name was changed to Mitsuko Kasuga.

Martha
They married even before they met?

Alejandro
Yes. They even did a ceremony without the groom. There is a photograph where she is wearing a kimono and everything, but he’s not there.

Martha
A proper marriage?

Alejandro
Yeah, a long-distance marriage. When my grandfather came to Mexico, it was about ten years after the Mexican Revolution ended, and it was harsh times. They lived in San Luis Potosi.

Martha
Right now it’s a little better, but I can’t even imagine what it was like then. It’s not even like that big of a city now.

Alejandro
Water was scarce. My grandmother was shocked at breakfast when somebody brought her water and asked, “Do you want to use this water to wash your face, or for coffee?” She couldn’t have both.

After WWII began and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Japan became an enemy of Mexico as Mexico was an ally of the US. The Mexican government gave the order to relocate all the Japanese people from the coastal and rural areas to the central part of Mexico, like Mexico City or Guadalajara, to have them close and monitor them.

It wasn’t as harsh as in the U.S. because they didn’t have concentration camps. (Actually, there was a small concentration camp in Queretaro.) My grandparents had already built a life in San Luis Potosi, and they had to start again in Mexico City, but it was good for them in a way. That’s why there is a big Japanese community in Mexico City. There is a Mexican-Japanese school and other things.

Martha
I was thinking about how circumstances forced your grandmother to move, but then you left Mexico by choice. You were like, “This is what I want to do.” I thought that was an interesting contrast.

Alejandro
Yes, my grandparents had a very difficult time, and now I’m in a more privileged situation. Their experiences are inspiring and a motivation for me. I always have it in my head and my heart.

I want to explore that part more. My grandmother used to write tanka poetry. They are short poems where she expressed most of her experiences, from the time she left Japan to her everyday life in Mexico.

Martha

It’s interesting that your grandmother was somewhat of an art-maker, even though it’s not visual art, she used art to help her process what she was going through.

Alejandro
I’m very interested in my grandmother’s poems about her life and what was happening around her. And the process of abstracting experiences and reducing them to verse within a rigid system of five, seven, five, seven, seven syllables. I like that idea of taking things from the world and reducing them into a short point.

Groana
How much of your practice is about performance?

Alejandro
I sometimes do performances. If I have a show with an opportunity to do a performance, I will. In performance, the body is the medium, the actions, the body and the remains are the work, but it’s very challenging to put yourself in front of a lot of people.

Some of the work I do with the traces of the body and the imprints has a residue of an action or a performative action—like painting the whole space with the body, or a wall. Performance is quite challenging, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, how you’re going to react, you’re vulnerable, etc. I’m very nervous before a performance, but when I’m doing it I kind of get lost and forget about it.

molido2

Molido (2015) Performance.

Martha
You’ve been talking a lot about Mexican-Japanese people, but the work you did on Ayotzinapa is more about a Mexican issue. It’s interesting how you embrace both.

Alejandro
I don’t mention it directly. I guess some of my work is a form of a silent protest. I made that piece after the missing 43 students, and when all the protests were going on in Mexico because of that. When you’re far from Mexico and you’re observing things from a distance, it’s difficult to address those issues, because you’re not there. You’re not experiencing it, but you want to talk about it. You want to make it visible for other people who don’t know about that situation.

I tried not to make political work that is in your face with blood and bodies. It was a performance piece where I ground cacao seeds and used the paste to make drawings that were instructions for actions and movements.

I was thinking of the number 43 in relation to the body and in this case bodies, and movement, in relation to the social mobilizations to protest against this criminal incident. So I had these three elements: body, movement, and symbols. The drawings on the wall became an accumulation of these repetitive actions.

And when I was grinding the cacao, the smell of cacao permeated the whole room in the exhibition space.

Molido (2015) Performance.

Molido (2015) Performance.

Even if you don’t want to talk about political issues, you inevitably end up addressing them—it’s something that we experience every day.

I have another work that is a big piece of paper with 47,515 of my fingerprints. I read an article in the New York Times stating that at the end of the Felipe Calderón presidency, the official number of murders from the drug war was 47,515. There were obviously more than that, but I wanted to recount all these numbers and make them visible. I counted each of the 47,515 fingerprints. I like to make work that can be grounded in political issues, but in a more poetic way, visually.

47,515+ (2012) squid ink on paper. 60" x 204"

47,515+ (2012) squid ink on paper. 60″ x 204″

Martha
Which is very nice. I think about someone like Teresa Margolles and What else could we talk about? She talks about it in a way that you as a viewer are somewhat forced into violence. I like the way you approach it because it’s still very visible, but it’s not so violent.

Alejandro
Yeah, I don’t think I would like to attack violence with violence. My work is not so graphic. I think I try to find ways to say things that are around my life, in a non-aggressive way I guess. I just take things I see. If that is what I see and experience, I need to put it out there.

Martha
I can understand, because when that happened, I was here in New York. All of my friends, all the people I knew, were protesting back in Mexico. Protesters were even getting arrested, and I was here looking at it on my phone. I went to Union Square, and there were like three Mexicans there. I felt so weird not being back home.

Alejandro
I know what you mean. I make art, but if I also want to do some activism, then I do it. Artwork may come from political issues or family stories or other experiences, whatever is informing my work at that time.

Groana
What does your practice look like? Your daily practice?

Alejandro
I sometimes start by making sketches and drawings. I like to make quick drawings with watercolor, and sometimes more detailed sketches. I like to put them around on the walls and have them visually in front of me, and see them every day.

What I like about this process is that when I start making and object or something, I later find similarities to the things I did a long time ago. It’s a way to create your own visual language.

Then I also have to do my freelancing jobs in graphic design. I have to pay my bills you know, but I have flexibility with time, and I’m able to work and make my own artwork, but my schedules are a mess sometimes. I guess that’s my system of working or process, having all these visual elements and then trying to make connections around them.

Sketches

Sketches

Groana
Can you tell us about your most recent shows, especially the one opening tomorrow (December 9, 2016)?

Alejandro
The one that is tomorrow is a post-election show and related to the winning of Trump, part of the proceeds will be donated to the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center. It’s for a good cause. I made the smallest sculpture I’ve ever done. I’m responding to Trump and the wall, and also referencing the body.

The show that opened a few weeks ago was more of an installation. I wanted to do something intersecting sculpture, drawing, and installation. I had these prints of my body, my arm, leg and foot, and printed them life-size on metal. I use them as rulers, with them I measured and cut the pieces of wood to make the structure, kind of like tables. The objects I had on top were also imprints of my body, mostly of my hand, and then I drew the surface of the table. I had all these mix of things, everything around the body, like deconstructing my body and constructing something else and occupying the space.

thepalaceat420am

The Palace at 4:20 am (2016) Plaster, graphite, pencil, raw hide, black gesso, bone black pigment, whitewash, magic sculpt, wire, wood, digital screen print on dibond.

Martha
It reminds me of the measuring system they use in the U.S., which was basically the king’s measurements. Like a foot was the length of the king’s foot.

Alejandro
Yeah, I decided to make my own system of measurement based on the body.

Groana
What are you working on now? I know you mentioned going to Mexico, to Chiapas.

Alejandro
Yeah, that is totally different from what I’ve been doing, more personal. At this point, I’m researching and studying more the history of the Japanese immigration to Mexico.

Immigration is something that happens all the time, and shifts certain structures in the world, socially, culturally, politically. I think it’s important to talk about all these in order to bring more diversity, I guess.

It’s funny, because now that I’m in the U.S., I’m interested in things from back home. Every time I go there, I gather more material. My parents are marine biologists, and they have all these old biology books. I remember looking at them when I was a child, but now as they don’t use them anymore, they told me I can do whatever I want with them, so I’ve been tearing them up and making collages, I love these images of shells, fishes, plants, etc.

sketches2

Sketches

 

Martha
That makes sense. I was never interested in the pictures that my parents took of me. But when I came here I was like, “I want to scan all of them, and do work around them.”

Alejandro
Yeah, there is some kind of nostalgia, no?

Groana
You have to step away, in order to see your life. That’s the whole reason we want residencies, right? We need to step away—not only to have the time to focus, but also to reflect on our lives.

Alejandro
To reflect and see the things from outside. I think that to get deeper into your thoughts, you have to step back a little bit and see yourself from the outside.

Martha
I think it’s very hard to focus on things when you have them so close to you. It’s easier to see them clearer when you step back.

Alejandro
You don’t see them. You take them for granted because you have them and you’re just like, “What else can I do?” You try to make things outside your bubble. Now, when you’re outside the bubble you’re like, “Oh, wait, I can see what is in the bubble.”

Martha
You don’t even think it’s interesting because that’s just normal life to you. When you’re outside, you realize normal life is not even a thing. And besides, that’s actually what you can talk about more, because that’s what you know about it, whatever else you are a little bit clueless, but your experience is your best topic. All of our experiences are so different that it’s important to say, “This is what it looks like to have my life.”

Alejandro
And in New York, there are people from all over the world, and everybody has different experiences in life. It’s interesting, what happens here, the conversations that happen here. Everything is around our roots, and that’s important. It makes you see that the world is more diverse. And on the other side, you don’t want to assimilate into another culture and lose your roots, because you want to keep your voice and keep your background.

Martha
There’s one part of you that really wants to fit in. Back in Mexico, I was rebellious, so I never had a quinceañera. Now that I’m here I’m like, “I wish I had had a quinceañera. I wish I had more of an accent, and I wish that I wish I was more Mexican,” whatever that means. When I was in Mexico cumbias were cool, and I will dance them at parties but never listen to them in my own time, but now I’m like, “Oh, I will listen to them in my house,” but that never happened before. It’s not like I really think there is such thing as more Mexican, I guess what I mean is that I wish I was part of a community of Mexicans here, I miss that familiarity.

Alejandro
Actually, that happens to me too. In Mexico, I feel like I need to assimilate more to the culture, and have a strong accent, in a way to prove that I’m Mexican. It’s like an identity play. Belonging and not belonging is confusing. It’s just a back-and-forth situation, of trying to find your place in the world.

Groana
What’s your relationship to photography?

Alejandro
In my practice I use photography to gather images, to get a collection of things that I see and captured my attention. Even if I take a photo of a chewing gum on the floor or something, it’s because it was interesting to me at that moment.

Recently I started printing my photos. I printed about 200, and I like to have them next to my sketches on the wall. Photography is my source material. Sometimes it helps me remember what I saw and what captured my attention.

Even if I don’t use them as artwork, they inform my work in a way. I like to take many photos of random things. I did a series of photos of only circular shapes, like a circular entrance or a circular object. I have many photos of that, and of sleeping dogs. They are part of my personal archive of visual images. I think it’s important for every artist to have visual archives.

Groana
Yeah, it becomes your library.

Alejandro
And accessible. That’s why I like to print them. Sometimes I make small sketches and forget about them. Now I’m forcing myself and put all of these images in front of me. I love that later I see them manifested in a similar form, but in another material. Like abstracting something from reality into a sketch and then transforming that into something else in another work or material. It’s like a filtering process.

 

Interview with Daniel Terna

Interview with Daniel Terna

Daniel Terna is a lens-based artist whose work is marked by absence. His images balance the emotional with the conceptual. We sat down with him to share food, drinks, and conversation shortly after the election.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Daniel Terna
I’m the child of immigrants. My folks were not born in this country. Still, it sounds so strange to say that because I’m just a New Yorker.

Groana Melendez
Where are your parents from?

Daniel
Dad was born in Vienna in 1923 and grew up in Prague, which was at that time in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Mom is also Jewish, Eastern European, but comes from Colombia. She was born in Paris after the War, but grew up in Bogotá. In 1959, when she was 12, her family moved to Brooklyn.

Martha
How did they meet?

Daniel
They met in a therapy group for children of Holocaust survivors. My dad is a survivor, and my mom is the daughter of survivors. At that time there was a movement around supporting first-generation children of survivors, exploring how they dealt with growing up in an environment where their parents were psychologically fucked up because of their experiences in the war. My dad was a speaker, and he saw my mom afterward on the train and asked her to get a cup of coffee. They got married three months later. She was 35, and he was in his late 50s.

homepictures_danielterna

Carpet Portrait (Mom), 2013

Groana
How do you identify, especially since you’re adopted?

Daniel
I identify as an ethnically Colombian, culturally New York Jew. I have no cultural connection to Colombia. I identify a lot with being your typical over-analytical pseudo-intellectual New York Jew. The Colombian thing rarely comes up because nobody really knows or asks. Somebody today thought I was from Lebanon. My birth mother was from Bogotá, but I was born in Manhattan.

Martha
Have you been to Colombia?

Daniel
No. I started asking my mom for some information about my birth mom. Every time I think about it, I’m like, “I need to make this into an art project.” Then I get stuck, because I’m like, “I need to call the lawyer that was involved with the adoption.” Then I’m like, “Do I need to record the conversation? How do I record it? What kind of camera does it need to be? Can it be the computer camera, or can it be my iPhone? Do I need a setup? Do I have a camera on the lawyer’s end, so do I call beforehand to tell them that I’m going to call them?” Then I don’t do anything.

Martha
You just get caught up in technicalities?

Daniel
Which might just be an excuse not to want to open a can of worms. But I did start looking into it, and the crazy thing is the lawyer just died. So that’s another one of those things where I wonder, What if my birth mom died right now? Maybe she’s in Queens; maybe she’s in Bogotá. What if I just missed that by a day? How awful would that be? Because I spent the last two years thinking about doing it, and then I didn’t do it, and then I did it, and now she’s dead.

Groana
Stop!

Daniel
It’s so Jewish. It’s very Jewish, that sort of anxiety, like worrying so much you don’t get anywhere. You’re standing in one place. You’re just standing in one place worrying.

Martha
Like a Woody Allen character.

Daniel
Like a Woody Allen character. Yeah. But I’ll do it. Don’t worry. I’ll do it somehow, but what if I have siblings? It’s weird. I probably do have siblings.

Martha
You don’t know what’s waiting for you on the other side.

Daniel
No, I don’t. Every Colombian I meet is like, “You have to go to Colombia, it’s awesome, I’ll tell you where to stay.” I have a standing invitation at an artist-residency in Medellín.

Martha
I get the hesitation, though, because you don’t know what’s waiting for you and it’s easy just to guess instead of confronting it.

Daniel
My dad says that I should use his story and experience in my art. He’s like, “It’s a very special situation that you still have access to a Holocaust survivor, and you should use me as much as you can.” With these newer pictures of his skin, I’m doing exactly that: looking closely at his body.


Groana
It sounds like a collaboration because he’s urging you to tell his story.

Daniel
I don’t know if I would call it collaboration. I’ve collaborated with another artist, and it’s a very different experience. With this, he’s more game to do stuff, but I don’t know if he would call it collaborating because he’s more like, “Do your thing. I’m here for you, and if you want to do this idea with me, great.” I use his body and the objects in his studio and his paintings as props, but there isn’t an active conversation going on.

Martha
In our classes at ICP there were a lot of people working with family. It’s interesting.

Daniel
For me, it comes from a fear of his death and wanting to go to places emotionally that we just wouldn’t under any normal circumstances. My father’s long life and his eventual death is the elephant in the room. He says that with his first wife, who was also a survivor, the Holocaust was the elephant at the dinner table. Through my pictures and my work, I have a portrait of my dad, and if I have kids I can say, “This was your grandpa. This guy.”

I’ve always had a fear of his death and anxiety about losing him. I grew up knowing that he was old and that he would die when I was young, so I’ve always been preparing for it. But he’s 93 now and very active and healthy. I think many of us photographers want to make work about our families. I think we’re all trying to understand ourselves better.

Daniel Terna, 2015. Dikes of Different Ages.

Dikes of Different Ages, 2015

Martha
For me it’s not about death, but rather memory as it relates to personal history. Both my parents are orphans, but they are very young, so I never associated them with mortality. It makes sense that you have a closer relationship with death.

Daniel
My dad is an artist, and he paints because the paintings are going to outlast him. His art is a record of his survival. He paints with acrylic because it lasts longer than oil or he covers it with a veneer after he’s done painting so it’s damage-resistant. When people come to look at his paintings, he starts scratching them. He’s like, “See? Nothing is happening. They’re good. They’re going to outlast you; they’re going to outlast your grandkids. If you’re going to spend money on this, it’s going to be made well.” I think a lot of that is his personality, but I also think it’s interesting to think about it as his desire to make a little mark on history. His paintings are essentially documents of him, portraits of his psychological state.

I started taking pictures of his skin and his wrinkles because I was interested in texture. His paintings are very textured as well; he uses sand and pebbles. He wants blind people to be able to see them. When you look at them you can see light and shadow; I wanted to do that with his skin. I wanted his skin to be my canvas. I wanted to make pictures that could relate to that physical sensation. I don’t know if I succeeded, but they’re not bad pictures.

Technically, I had been shooting with a flash, and that work was beginning to blend with some of my commercial work. It started to go in a direction that a lot of other people were headed, so I started thinking of the assignment Nayland Blake gave of breaking your own rules or setting boundaries. I decided not to use a flash. I put all these magnifying lenses on the camera so I could get really close. I also wanted to make something that was about going back to the beauty of optics, which to me meant using natural light, really soft focus, and doing something that wasn’t so trendy.

Daniel Terna, 2016. From the series A Crazy Bass.

From the series A Crazy Bass, 2016

Martha
When I saw them, it was not what I remembered from your show or from what I know about you. It was very interesting.

Daniel
Yeah, it looks different from what I had been doing.

Martha
Also, you don’t want to get into the trap of yourself.

Daniel
Exactly. I wanted to break it up, to try not to have a visual style—or even a style of personality. Sometimes I can be really depressing and sometimes I can be, in my opinion, hilarious. I have a huge variety of interests and approaches, which is sometimes to my detriment. While there are recurring themes of isolation, absence, labor, my relationships to others and specific sites, I don’t think my work is identifiable by a specific visual style. Sure there are strategies I use myself because they’ve worked for me in the past and I have a lot of trust and confidence in the instincts I’ve sharpened over the years, but I can’t entirely say that everything I do looks like it was done by me, Daniel Terna. I could see myself having a solo show and someone thinking it’s a group show.

Martha
Sometimes the story wants to be told a certain way.

Groana
When did your dad become a painter, and did you get into the arts because of his work?

Daniel
My dad started drawing in the concentration camps. One of the first camps he was in was Terezin, in Czechoslovakia. Terezin was a gated fortress concentration camp, but by most standards of the time, it was not so bad. There was a degree of freedom of movement so that Jews could congregate. Terezin was a hub of intellectuals, so there were a lot of famous painters, musicians, composers, singers—all kinds of artists. They got together and had these sessions and even informally taught those who would listen, like my dad, who had been taken out of school.

He became interested in the arts. He was like, “Okay. I want to be an intellectual. I want to be involved with this kind of community and live my life (if I survive) like this.” That’s where he got exposed to some artists that were drawing on paper, what little they could find. When he was in some of the worst camps later on (Auschwitz and later Dachau), he drew with a twig in the dirt. If a Nazi walked by, my dad could easily erase what he had made. He was teaching himself. After being liberated in 1945, he went back to Prague and discovered that his father, brother, and everyone he knew had been murdered in the camps. He married his first wife Stella, whom I made a film about (My First Wife Stella), and in 1946, he went to Paris and started taking a few art classes there, sketching and painting. He’s been doing it for his whole life.

But I didn’t get into the arts because he’s a painter. I was into photojournalism, especially war photojournalism. I always looked at the names of photojournalists in the New York Times, and I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to photograph in Afghanistan or Iraq when the wars broke out. In high school, I started taking pictures. The first things I shot were the Jews in Borough Park. I just wandered into buildings and businesses and openly photographed them.

Martha and Groana
Then what happened?

Daniel
I went to Bard, and I started seeing fine art photography, and that started shifting my perspective. I started reading Susan Sontag and learning about the problems with photojournalism, and I realized that what I really wanted was danger. I wanted the adrenaline rush, but I didn’t care enough about making pictures of people in trouble and telling the world about them. I didn’t care about doing that myself. Pornography is a really strong word, but I see some photojournalism as this twisted form of media entertainment.

I realized I couldn’t do it. An adrenaline rush was the wrong reason to be a photojournalist in a war zone. I took a class with photographer Gilles Peress at Bard, a human rights class, and I told him I was interested in being a war correspondent. He sat me down and said, very seriously, “I’ve lost a lot of students to war, who wanted to go to war, who got killed, and you will get killed if you go to war.” I laughed, and as a result, he body-checked me. He lifted me up and threw me to the ground. This was in front of some people, but it was really intense, and I was like, “He’s not kidding.” It was a supremely bold statement on his part, and it really cemented what he meant. He’s an incredible person, a true intellectual and deeply affected by the wars he’s photographed and the Rwandan genocide. I still see him around Fort Greene.

Groana
Why didn’t you end up in a journalism school instead of Bard?

Daniel
I did journalism in high school, and I loved journalism, and I still love journalism. One of the reasons I love photography is because you go into these unknown places. I think that’s why a lot of us are photographers. You have your camera, and you just go. Especially if you’re younger, you’re like, “Okay. I’m just going to go explore with this camera.” You discover people’s stories and talk to people, and sometimes even pretend to be someone you’re not, which is what I did a lot of times. I looked at colleges for journalism. I was looking at Boston University because I thought maybe I would be a reporter. But then I went to Bard, and I studied art history and photography, and the photo program was so intense that I ended up really dedicating myself to it. I also worked on the school paper, the Bard Free Press, eventually becoming the Editor-in-Chief, which is something I’m really proud of.

One of my photography teachers was An-My Lê. She photographs with a view camera, but she works within fast-paced worlds, such as army bases, the military in training, even shoots on aircraft carriers. She works with subject matter that a photojournalist might be interested in, but she doesn’t approach it in the way that a photojournalist would—with an SLR, shooting a lot of frames. She takes many steps back and is like, “I’m making landscapes and pictures of huge systems.” I loved how she perceived the world, instead of documenting up-close the pain of others, which is this endless conversation we can have over and over. Every time you see a picture of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach, and say, “This is a powerful picture. This picture will get the world to change, to get off their asses and fix the refugee crisis.”

Daniel Terna, 2009. From the series I'll See You On The Beach.

From the series I’ll See You On The Beach, 2009

That conversation is always happening, and it doesn’t seem to stop, but it doesn’t seem to help enough. I have faith in the new power of virtual reality, like Clouds Over Sidra, where they made a documentary in a refugee camp. They set up a VR camera inside a tent. You see groups of kids walking right past you, and it’s like you can touch them. You’re there, and it’s so effective. It’s a really intimate picture of a situation in the world that is hard for us to imagine ourselves. It’s been really amazing as a technology.

I would love to use that kind of technology with my dad. For my thesis, I put a GoPro on him. The idea was to get the viewer to be in this old body that was moving on the stairs, and I was trying to think of a way I could relate his trauma and his survival to people, and I don’t know if I accomplished that. I don’t think I dug into it deep enough. After I did that, you started seeing this VR stuff coming out. I would like to do things with my dad with that kind of technology. What is it like to be a 93-year-old taking a shower, cutting your toenails, eating, just being in your body.

Groana
You still wouldn’t get to the experience of being. You would be watching him. So it would be more visual porn.

Daniel
Yeah, but you could also do this GoPro kind of thing with VR, in a way. You could. I don’t think you could feel exactly what old age is like, but that shouldn’t limit one from trying it. I thought, “How can you make somebody feel a physical sensation by looking at a photograph?” I tried to do that with some of my photography early on in grad school, and I don’t know if I failed or succeeded, but I was thinking about when I used to go fishing. I remembered the feeling of the fishing line on my finger. Or if you ever played the piano, the memory is so intense that you can almost feel it on your skin. You could feel the weight of the keys or the feeling of the fishing line, so I had my dad put on his socks, or tie his shoe, or comb his hair and brush his teeth.

Martha
How did you start 321 Gallery?

Daniel
The gallery started with my buddy Mekko Harjo. We wanted to show our work, but we knew it was impossible to be noticed by any galleries. It was 2012, which is actually not that long ago, but it feels like an eternity. We put up a show. Then I did a second show a year later. Two of the artists who were in that show, Tin Nguyen and Tom Forkin, asked if I wanted to team up and convert the space into a functioning gallery that mounted shows more frequently. I said yes.

Now Tom and I are working constantly at the gallery, helping people realize their projects. We’ve done 22 shows, including three art fairs. Well, we’re about to go to our third art fair, NADA Miami. Which is a ludicrous thing to think about in comparison to the election.

Shifting away from the gallery, I’ve been thinking that all these Trump supporters have identities, and I wonder who they are. It’s the first time that I felt the liberals were almost mean and overlooking a huge amount of people, especially when Hillary said, “A basket of deplorables.”

That kind of rhetoric is so offensive, and people knew that it was offensive then, but now we’re sitting here thinking, “Oh, my God, we’re fucked.” Who are we to sit on our overeducated chairs and judge a lot of white people in America who are not as educated and have been barely scraping by? When I go to D.C. in January, I want to see who these people are. Even saying, “these people” sounds so fucked up.

Martha
Of course they’re not all in the same.

Daniel
No, of course not. Also, can you blame them for being pissed off? It’s a weird position to be in. When Eric Garner was killed, I saw this moment that photography was about to have. Charlotte Cotton had just made Photography Is Magic, and she closed the book on that way of making work. And in a way, I’m thankful that conversation has died down. I need a long break from it. For what seemed a long time we were seeing the kind of work that Charlotte Cotton was really putting on this pedestal. I don’t give a fuck about that shit at all right now. It makes me angry to think of making work about the medium, photography about photography. It’s like when Daft Punk comes out with a new summer hit that gets overplayed everywhere. It’s exciting for a week, and then you just want to turn it off or leave the room.

When Garner was killed, I thought we were going to see a lot of work about people, and humanity, and emotional subject matter. I thought my interest in photojournalism and the problems I had with it would coalesce into something. We’re seeing work being celebrated now by artists who have been making socially-concerned work but were overlooked for a while.

I think this election has woken up all of us, and that includes artists. I haven’t seen energy like this since 2003 when the war in Iraq started.

Daniel Terna, 2015. Untitled (Green).

From the series We Buy Gold!, 2015

Groana
What are you working on now?

I’m still working on the skin and canvas idea, and playing around with masks and theatrical setups with my dad and sometimes my mom. Meanwhile, I’m working with an amazing designer, Rory King, finishing the publication of my From Several Angles Over Several Days project, which I first showed as a photo installation at Baxter St. at CCNY in the 2015 juried show. I’m also helping my dad curate a large show of his paintings at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, opening in January. And most recently I began giving him these assignments to make political paintings, and photography will be incorporated into it. Definitely a new, unusual direction for both of us, but something to do in reaction to the current climate.

The Great Escape, 2016

The Great Escape, 2016

 

Daniel Terna (b. Brooklyn, NY) has participated in select group exhibitions at MoMA PS1 (NYC); the International Center of Photography (NYC); Foley Gallery (NYC); Baxter St. Camera Club of NY (NYC); New Wight Biennial (UCLA, Los Angeles); BRIC Arts Media Biennial (Brooklyn, NY); New York Film Festival (NYC); Eyebeam (NYC); Museum of the City of New York (NYC); The Wild Project (NYC); the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts (Cambridge, MA); Armory Center for the Arts (Pasadena, CA); Contemporary Arts Center (New Orleans, LA); and Gallery Tayuta (Tokyo, JP). Terna was a resident in the Collaborative Fellowship Program at UnionDocs, Brooklyn, and was awarded the Cuts and Burns Residency at Outpost Artist Resources in Ridgewood, NY. Terna graduated with a BA in photography from Bard College and received his MFA from the International Center of Photography-Bard. He runs and co-curates 321 Gallery, Brooklyn.


 

Milagros de la Torre – The Lost Steps

Milagros de la Torre – The Lost Steps

Milagros de la Torre is a lens-based artist whose work examines intimate representations of violence and its effects. She is currently featured in the publication After the Fact edited by Martha Naranjo Sandoval and organized by the ICP-Bard MFA Class of 2016. The following is an excerpt from the book.


First, I would like to thank the ICP-Bard MFA program for inviting me to be part of the uplifting conversation that normally happens within these walls. I’m especially grateful because of the subject matter we’ll be discussing here—the cross-observation and analysis of the event. Growing up in South America, I perceived and understood the notion of the event at an early age. One of my earliest memories is that of an earthquake with a 7.9 magnitude on the Richter scale. Such strength causes damage to most buildings, and causes them to partially or completely collapse.

The earthquake was the strongest impression not only of movement, but of what came later to represent the aftermath—what the event changed and what was no longer. As artists working with images, such impressions are ingrained at the back of our minds, helping us define as individual creators and producers of meaning, helping us to observe in a certain way. Such impressions often come back to haunt us and almost unwillingly become part of our own work.

Part of my upbringing was experiencing terrorism firsthand. Because of family circumstances I learned early how violence has the power to intimidate and spread fear. I grew up in Peru when the Maoist guerilla insurgent group known as Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path, was deploying its radical ideology and terror. Generating an internal conflict was eventful. How does one process the possibility of instant tragedy? The understanding of a beforeand-after of an incident? How can we as artists come to terms with such intense circumstances in order to interpret and translate through imagination?

falda

Milagros de la Torre, from the series The Lost Steps, Skirt worn by Marita Alpaca when she was thrown by her lover from the 8th floor of the Sheraton Hotel in Lima, toned gelatin silver print, 1996.

I would like to share with you the process I went through for developing a project from 1996 called The Lost Steps. The work, composed of fifteen photographs, was developed in the archives of the palace of justice in Lima, Peru. In Spanish, the archive is called Archivo de los Cuerpos del Delito. From the Latin corpus delicti, body or evidence of crime.

I was already familiar with objects being understood as evidence, but only after visiting the archives did I realize their strength as witnesses to extreme human situations. To quote Georges Didi-Huberman, “We take objects as neutral, insignificant, without consequence, which is precisely why they merit all our attention.” Images of supposedly everyday objects—a fork, a skirt—that had with a dense weight to them were presented as evidence for trials in criminal and terrorist acts, crimes of passion, and other circumstances. Their innocent origin counteracts their incriminatory testimonies.

The title, The Lost Steps, is drawn from the name given to a hallway, a long corridor of a courthouse in Lima that led from the sunlit majestic façade to the somber back of the building, where the accused waited for their hearings. It was generally believed that if one walked the lost steps hallway, one should expect imminent condemnation.

The photographs reference a process common in the nineteenth century, when the development of the optical lens was not as advanced and did not entirely cover the format of the photographic negative. The technical limitation creates a dark aura around the photographed object and makes it look as if it is floating, contextualized in a circle of light. This allows for both darkness and the light version of the object to be shown at the same time.

There is a limited depth of field, so we must concentrate our attention on a single detail in focus. The visual technique places the images in the past. Surrounding the object with a dark halo alludes to the obscure side of human nature, to the psychological intent and traces of the prosecuted. The depiction of objects is often symbolic of the still-life genre, but a singular focus of an isolated object might be more suggestive of portraiture and vulnerability, abstracting the emotionally charged objects from time or space as Susan Best noted when writing about the series.

Several factors informed the series conception. First I had to gain permission for access to the archive, which was not entirely easy. This is common when one works under military or dictatorship regimes. Fujimori was still in power, I had to prove I had been working as an artist for several years and that I was not seeking to undermine the image of Peru. Some conflicting ideas were present since the start.

I met the chief of the archive, Mr. Guzman, who had a passionate knowledge related to each criminal case and the part each object played. His memory served as a first catalyst. He had learned insider’s details since he had to collect and present the evidence from the archive, then wait in a back room until the judge asked him to bring them up front to the main courtroom. In the process he overheard privileged information from each case.

Another interesting fact is that this wasn’t an otherworldly archive where documents and records are preserved. It was a mix of different articles that were barely catalogued. It was, in a sense, the anti-archive. In a way, its sense and purpose laid within the memory of its guardian. Nonetheless, it served its function as a depository of all guilty things.

Mr. Guzman knew exactly where to find any object. If I named the case, he could find the evidence in no time. We improvised a photographic studio in the archive, then worked for several days recounting and trying to find explanations for the cases and aftermath images—where accounts are not depicted, but implied, relying solely on text to signal historical significance.

I decided to use a restrained type of text employed by law enforcement professionals under each image. This added an extra element to the work, as what might appear to be a simple fork was instead identified as a chemical test to recognize cocaine chlorhydrate made in a clandestine laboratory.

The photographs, each 16 by 16 inches, approximately the width of a human body, are large enough to fill the field of vision and small enough to draw the viewer close. I paid special attention to the characteristic of the prints, done in richly toned black-and-white fiber-based paper reminiscent of long hours spent in the dark room.

The work seems to be emblematic of our times, where there is an increasing militarization, overwhelming mechanics of violence, and a climate of insecurity where the human psyche is strongly at play. Unfortunately, they have global relevance today. Now let’s have a look at the objects of guilt.

Bullets. Belts used by psychologist Mario Poggi to strangle a rapist during police interrogation. Police identification mask of a criminal known as Loco Perochena (it was through the making of the mask that they could finally identify him). Incriminating love letter written by a prostitute to her lover. Crudely fabricated knife confiscated as evidence. Rudimentary weapon made from broken bottle and paper—one holds it a certain way to threaten a passerby.

Crowbar. Tool used to force entry. Fake police ID used by terrorist. Skirt worn by Marita Alpaca when she was thrown by her lover from the eighth floor of the Sheraton Hotel in Lima. She was found to be pregnant at the autopsy. Chemical test to identify cocaine chlorhydrate produced in a clandestine laboratory. Improvised knife made from a prison bed frame. Shirt of journalist murdered in the Uchuraccay Massacre in Ayacucho.

Thank you. I will leave it there.


(more…)

Interview with Elle Pérez

Interview with Elle Pérez

Communities on the outskirts of society are at the heart of Elle Pérez’s work. We were able to talk with Elle Pérez over Skype while they were on the West Coast on assignment for The California Sunday Magazine.

Groana Melendez
I saw your wrestling project Raw. Did that all happen at Yale? What were you working on then? What are you working on now?

Elle Pérez
The wrestling work began while I was in graduate school at Yale, but it was made in the Bronx. I traveled back and forth a lot between CT and NY, multiple times a week sometimes while working on that project. Part of why I went to Yale was because of its proximity to the Bronx —I could be very close to home, but also have the critical distance to figure out what I wanted to do there.

It felt really good to be able to photograph at home after having traveled for a while and being based out of Baltimore. The punk shows that I grew up going to were still happening while I was at Yale, so whenever I didn’t know what to do with myself I would go back to that original point of inspiration.

The new pictures I’m working on as of now focus on desire, concealment, and seeing.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
Could you tell us more about your work?

Elle
The overarching theme of my work is a celebration of the possibilities inherent to marginal spaces and identities. The subjects I’ve explored have ranged from people who identify as living between genders, entertainment wrestling, Puerto Rico, and underground nightlife.

Lately, I’ve started showing all of my photographs of different subjects together because they all feel part of the same experience. At one time I felt like I needed to compartmentalize them because it’s conventional to show photography in series. But more and more the idea of the project is falling away. All of these things are part of one life. Now I’m thinking of them as ‘just’ my pictures at this point, letting the parameters reveal themselves through work rather than pre-existing categories.

I just put a small selection of the new pictures up on my website. I’m printing on silk. The pictures hang in space, and they breathe when you walk by. They do all these things that a picture on the wall doesn’t necessarily do, like have a different opacity depending on the time of day. I don’t really know enough about these new pictures yet because I just started them this summer. There were two pictures last year that just appeared out of nowhere, totally different from what I’d been doing. The first one was a portrait of my friend Mishka. The second one was the picture of my binder hanging up to dry. Like little blips on a radar. Then nothing for almost a year. And it was a rough year, my first after grad school. I didn’t make many pictures that were successful. I felt like I had failed myself. Then, this summer, I intuitively started making a number of new pictures in color riffing off of similar themes. All of this new work coming out of what felt like nowhere. So that makes me feel a little bit better about my post-grad school blues.

Groana
There is hope. There is light.

Elle
Oh! There is definitely a light at the end of the post-grad school blues. When I started making work I cared about again I was like, “Oh! I’m not scarred forever!” It’s like, “No, you’re not. You just needed to recover.”

Groana
So, that’s what’s happening.

Elle
That is what’s happening. People told me that it takes time to feel like yourself again. But it just goes back to patience, of having to be like “Oh. I guess I have to actually wait for myself to recover, and heal, and rest.” I felt like, “what do you mean I can’t just run out of the gate right now? No? Oh.”

Kirsten, from Reinas, 2015, digital inkjet print

Kirsten, from Reinas, 2015, digital inkjet print

Groana
How has Yale it affected your relationship with photography?

Elle
Honestly, it really changed the fundamental nature of my relationship to photography. I had a really hard time in graduate school, at points traumatic. Graduate school is a two-year crisis you induce in your life by going to school.

As I move further away from it I’ve become grateful for its difficulty. Yale does what it does to people’s work — improves it so much — because it is so, extremely, difficult. You are asked to really hold up and examine yourself, your relationship to art, and the commitment you are making to this life. You get pushed. Over, and over, and over. By critics, by your peers, by the symptoms of systems of power and oppression endemic to a university like Yale. There has been nothing that I’ve ever experienced in my life that has deepened my relationship with photography and other people like my time at Yale did.

I met my people there. I learned some of the hardest truths about myself there. The trauma of Yale, it was worth it for everything that I gained from experiencing it. If had to do it again to keep all the things I learned, I would. But I’m glad I don’t. Ha!

What helped me process all the lessons of graduate school was starting to teach at Williams, and having to really parse all of the lessons that I’d just learned. I had to figure out how to mine them make them useful to students. It felt like my 3rd year of grad school.

Groana
That’s amazing.

Elle
It was so good.

Groana
How do you feel after grad school and after your first year of teaching?

Elle
I’m starting to feel clarity — that feels good. Another thing that has contributed to both of those things has been my involvement with Skowhegan. I was lucky enough to find myself there right after graduation from my MFA when I was still really emotionally drained. I got to go there and to make a new community for myself.

Skowhegan is designed to bring together people who have a lot of very different experiences in the world. It’s been a blessing to be able to talk to them about what their experiences have been with either higher education or not higher education, different art scenes internationally, just the different options out there.

Going to Skowhegan made it possible for me to teach immediately after graduating. It created a space between where I was and where I was going. Having a new group of teachers to learn from was critical for helping me decide what to keep from graduate school and what to jettison. Something I didn’t realize before I got there was that Skowhegan is actually a school. It has a reputation as a residency, but the thing that makes Skowhegan so special is that it’s not just a retreat; It’s an invitation to learn.

One of the best things that Sarah Workneh, who runs the program and who is one of this generation’s visionary teachers, has said about it is “Skowhegan is a school because we are here to learn.” I heard her say that this year in 2016 when I came back as a dean. I don’t remember if she said that when I was a participant, but one of my first questions I had as a staff member when I came back as the dean this year was, “Why are we a school? What makes us different than other residencies? What makes this experience such a critical juncture for so many people?”

I’m mulling over this question like it’s real hard. Then Sarah, in her opening speech answers that question by saying “Skowhegan’s a school because we’re here to learn,” The cartoon light bulb above my head went on. Ha. There, the learning takes place everywhere — you are learning in your studio, in your conversations, on the porch, in the lake, at visiting artist lectures, connecting with people from other countries you now cannot imagine your life without, having breakthroughs and breakdowns. The time is so short it requires a lot of generosity and energy from everyone involved. By week nine you’re a puddle of emotions and complexity. It feels like three years. Learning, there, happens in the most expanded sense.

When I was a participant in 2015, having artists like LaToya Ruby Frazier and Sarah Oppenheimer in my studio, talking to me about my work in this transitional moment, giving guidance and giving me feedback — that was huge.

One of the moments that was most influential was when Sarah Oppenheimer asked me what my engagement with the boundary of photography was, and what my relationship to convention was in photography with the work that I was making at the time.

Those two questions took me about a month to really hear them. They kept replaying in my mind. “Where is the boundary of photography? Why does that matter to me?” At the same time I was preparing my courses for the first time, so those questions then framed the way that I was looking at photo history and the way that I wanted to structure my syllabus, and thinking about what was crucial to convey for students.

Groana
That’s amazing.

Untitled, from Raw, 2014, digital inkjet print

Untitled, from Raw, 2014, digital inkjet print

Elle
It’s funny, too, the way Skowhegan has come into in my life. I had peripherally known about Skowhegan for years because I took my first real photography classes when I was in high school at the Education Alliance on the lower east side. The director at the time, Walter O’Neill, had been the fresco instructor at Skowhegan in the nineties. I first learned about it from him when I was a student there.

Groana
When I was growing up, there were no programs for photo. My junior year in high school, my school found out about a program at FIT, and that’s how I started getting into photo. With the kids I teach now, I’m just like, “You guys are so lucky because we didn’t have this. We didn’t have all these programs like for the arts,” and that’s just amazing.

Elle
Seriously! When I think about it, the Educational Alliance gave me so much. When Monica Bravo (the youth programs director) let me take a darkroom photo class for $75 —I paid her in one dollar bills — that moment has given me my whole life. I could never repay that debt. Even when Walter found out via Facebook that I was at Skowhegan as a participant, he wrote me a little card being like, “Here’s 20 bucks. Everybody needs beer money at Skowhegan.” I’m just like, “Wow! It’s been 10 years, and you’re still there.”

Now, I’m staff at Skowhegan, so it’s like just this funny, circular network that keeps going.

Groana
It was meant to be.

Elle
Oh, and the other funny time and space network moment I had recently has to do with this, too — it was meeting Keisha Scarville at Skowhegan. Keisha is an incredible photographer who used to teach the teen academy program at ICP. I remember being in high school and desperately wanting to get into Keisha’s class because all of my friends were in that class. Her students were people like Yael Malka, Paolo Morales, and Suzanna Zak; all who are now artists. Which I think is such a testament to the power of her teaching, and also the power of these programs when they come into your life at that time. When we met I felt like I was meeting a celebrity. But I remember that program was one of the few things that was available around 2006 when I was in high school.

Groana
Yes. I want to know more about that, how you went straight from grad school into teaching and — Also, you used to teach kids the differences with that and what role it plays in your practice.

Elle
I love teaching because I love people. I love talking about art, and I love facilitating community, I love making things accessible to people. It gives me ten times more than what I give. It’s something I hope to do for the rest of my life.

The difference between teaching and going to school was that I couldn’t ignore the work that I didn’t like. All of a sudden I had to contend with all of these artists that, in school, I had the luxury of saying, “I don’t like that work. I’m not going to learn about it,” or, “I’m not really going to engage with it,” or, “I don’t have to look at Richard Prince. I don’t have to think about Richard Prince.” Now, I have to know, because I have students asking, why was Spiritual America by Richard Prince so important in the history of photography? I actually have to have an answer for that. I had to go do the research and understand it. I really had to understand the motivations behind that work, the ways that it broke a boundary, the way that it played with convention and pushed past it into new territory.

At the end of my first year of teaching I had such a new and deep understanding of my own work and the ways in which I needed my work to change, the ways in which I should be looking for growth in my own work, the way I was or wasn’t considering the boundary of photography or the conventions, what was I taking for granted in my own work. I didn’t expect that.

Groana
That sounds beautiful. Now, I’m inspired to teach all over again.

Elle
Yeah! Then there’s also the relationship that I have with my students that forces me to be the best version of myself, the most articulate version of myself, the most challenged version of myself. That gets brought out by the relationship that I have with my students at Williams, who are amazing. They have taught me a lot about discipline. They’re so intelligent — like, “I’m 18 and I have an encyclopedic knowledge of artists,” and i’m like, “Damn, I’ve got to do better!”

Groana
That’s amazing. That’s good though. That sounds fun.

02_josefina-from-give-take_2016_photographicprintonsilk_1250

Josefina, from Give Take, 2016, Photographic print on silk.

Elle
It also makes me think about the qualities that I model in the classroom and what signaling my various identities can mean for/to my students. One thing that brought that up for me was attending Liliana Porter’s lecture this summer at Skowhegan. I realized that she speaks english with the same heavy spanish accent that my grandmother does. And then I realized that it was the first time I’d ever heard that kind of accent from someone who was simultaneously being celebrated and respected as a leader in what could be called a mainstream art institution.

Martha
What’s your relationship to Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?

Elle
It’s shameful. [Laughs] I have a fluent ear. I can speak Spanish under duress.
In Puerto Rico, when I’m by myself and I really need to do it, I can do it. But speaking to my friends who are fluent in Spanish… It’s some shame thing that I’m trying to work through. My parents are both fluent Spanish speakers, as is my entire family, with the exception of my sister, myself, and my cousins who are my age.

We weren’t taught out of a desire to make us fluent English speakers and to not give us accents. I have a lot of shame around not being fluent in Spanish.

Martha
It doesn’t have to be shameful. Or do you think it should be a bigger part of your life?

Elle
Yeah. I do. It’s been hard because my shame is illogical. Because if it was logical, I would be able to work through it. I’ve been trying to teach myself Spanish for a number of years.

Martha
I mainly ask you this because I noticed when I moved here the difference in what gender means in both Spanish and English languages. In Spanish every word is gendered. Things are either male or female. Even a table [la mesa] is a female thing, and a stool [el banco] is a male thing. There’s no going away from gender.

But in English, that you can use “them” because that’s neutral. “Ellos y ellas” is gendered. I think that just speaking Spanish, you have this relationship to the binary of gender that is easier to avoid in English. But I learned that everything is either masculine or feminine. I was wondering what were your thoughts on that.

Elle
Whenever I go back to Puerto Rico, my name becomes activated in a really funny way. When I was 13, I was just so frustrated that people couldn’t pronounce my real name that I changed it to Elle. (Elle sounds like “Él”, “Him” in Spanish.)

I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time as something that would fuck with gender. Then whenever I go back to Puerto Rico, my name becomes really funny because people are like, “What is your name?” Then depending on their relationship to English, they either accept it or they don’t.

Martha
That’s in Spanish and in French, it’s the other way around. (“Elle” means “She” in French.)

Elle
Exactly, so it’s always been this funny, gender queer thing that I’ve embraced. But I also don’t feel like I’m at a point in my Spanish where I can be intellectual about gender yet. I haven’t had to negotiate my queer identity in Spanish yet.

Martha
I think it’s not even easy… I don’t think that Spanish even allows for that to happen. There’s not a word that allows going out the binary. Moving from Mexico to New York, all my ideas about gender just broke apart. There’s this thing about Mexico where you not only have to have a gender role, but even gender is not what you think it is. I had to negotiate with my ideas. Now living in New York and going back to Mexico City, it’s hard for me to even explain to people, smart people, that is not a conversation there, you know? I think it has to do with the language a lot because language is not permissive of not understanding gender as a binary.

Elle
That’s super interesting to hear. I feel like, honestly, with my family in Puerto Rico, I’m already such a weirdo that they just are like, “Whatever.” So in some ways, that just gives me this free pass where I don’t have to explain myself.

Groana
That’s what you can get away with by being an artist. You could just be like, “I’m an artist…” That’s what we’re here for.

Elle
Exactly. I have a particular relationship to ambiguity due to the racial ambiguity of being Puerto Rican and my gender ambiguity. I also think that ambiguity and illegibility, in a broader sense, can be a space of progress, and learning. Ambiguity can be a dangerous thing, for sure, too. At this point in my life, the only thing that I can do is embrace ambiguity, because it’s just the hand that I’ve been dealt.

Groana
You mentioned that as a kid of the diaspora your family was like, “I didn’t come here to make you an artist, for you to be an artist.” How do your parents feel about it now?

Elle
Once I got a job, it was okay. I think when I was a lot younger, they were just concerned about things that parents should be concerned about, which was like, “Are you going to be able to support yourself? Um, is this going to be a good idea like for you to chase down?” Just, “Is it a phase?” I think those things are fair questions.

Groana
Are your parents still in the Bronx?

Elle
Yes, they’re still in the Bronx. My parents were both born there and have also spent portions of their lives living in Puerto Rico. My grandparents were the generation that made the jump.

Groana
Are you living in the Bronx?

Elle
I just spent a year in Massachusetts, but right now, I’m commuting between the two to teach. I spend half the week in each place. Everything that’s going on with the Bronx has hit this fever pitch. I’m realizing that the vacation is over and I really can’t stay away that much longer.

Groana
You mean with the gentrification issues or

Elle
Yeah, everything that’s going on with Mott Haven, and how things happening now in the Bronx are effecting my own family. All of those things are just saying, “All right. It’s time to really come home and do some work here.”

Groana
That’s interesting —  side note. I’m trying to buy in Mott Haven. It’s impossible at the moment.

Elle
I bet it’s impossible.

Binder, from Give Take, 2016, photographic printon silk

Binder, from Give Take, 2016, photographic print on silk

Groana
Because I was just having a conversation with Mike Kamber from the BDC (Bronx Documentary Center), and he was saying that it’s not that residents don’t want new things to come into the neighborhoods, right?

Elle
Right.

Groana
That’s fair. He sees a solution being people our age, people like us moving back to our neighborhoods, being part of our neighborhoods instead of what’s been happening where we just leave. You grow up with this mentality that this is the last place you want to be in.

Elle
I was just talking to someone about this actually! I was just talking to a friend about the experience of growing up in New York and being from the Bronx. And then going to art school and having to negotiate that and figuring out how to authentically be yourself. I was taught to distance myself from the Bronx was to be successful. You had your Bronx self; you had your art self. Assimilation is about survival. The tough thing is that resisting assimilation is about survival, too. That creates a definite tension.

It’s been a really interesting experience to now be trying to bring all those parts of myself together.

Groana
I’m excited to see where that leads you. I want to ask you more about the whole thing that’s happening in the Bronx.

Untitled,from-Raw, 2014, digital inkjet print.

Untitled, from Raw, 2014, digital inkjet print.

Elle
I don’t even know that much, which is a problem. The same friends who threw punk shows also used to throw parties from loosely 2007 to 2009, at the Bruckner Bar & Grill which is now the Mott Haven Bar & Grill. Even then, we were having conversations about gentrification.

Things were starting to happen in Mott Haven then; people were like
“Oh, no, here it comes.” There were think pieces already about how the Bronx was going to be the new Williamsburg — because at that point Williamsburg was still the conversation! People were trying to rebrand the area “SoBro.” That was happening then and now, almost a decade later, here we are again. A lot is going on. There’s a coffee shop that just opened up called Filtered that is being backed by the same developer, Somerset Partners, who tried renaming the area “the Piano district.” They placed the coffee shop right where it makes a triangle between some of the places artists — Bronx artists — Black and Latino artists — have been living or hanging out for a long time. Decades. The hashtag for the coffee shop before it opened was the Bronx is Brewing (“The Bronx is Burning”) before activists shut that down. People from the Bronx — my parents’ generation and my grandparents’ generation — have so much pain around that moment in history. And they were rebranding that pain as a hashtag. More pain.

Martha
I have a very particular relationship to gentrification because I’m an immigrant and I live in a Puerto Rican building. Sometimes I get things from my neighbors like “You’re gentrifying this place,” and I’m like, “Yeah, but I don’t belong anywhere in the city, I’m just moving in from somewhere else, so where am I supposed to exist in this place?”

Elle
I don’t know. My issue, in particular, is not with people moving here and it’s definitely not with immigration because that’s how my family got here.

My issue is with the speculation aspect of it all, the money-making scheme of displacement. The using of artists, from Swizz Beatz to local artists, to pump up the image of the area as a site of cultural production, and therefore value, so that they can make more money.

It doesn’t improve the community. And it doesn’t bringing in any resources more valuable than what’s already there. So to me, their game is not about community improvement. It’s about making money. The result of which is displacing an entire population and entire histories. And I’m thinking, can someone please have a longer view on this? While you’re making money in the short term, right now, on this neighborhood, you are also bleeding all of the culture out of this city.

Groana
Exactly.

Elle
My issue is with greed rather than people moving to the Bronx. I actually love helping people find a place here and welcoming them here. I got that from my parents. Our home growing up was often open to people who were moving here or temporarily needed a place to stay, family or otherwise.

Even some friends from college. Just recently, a friend I was talking to was like, “Oh no! My sublet just fell through!” and I was like, “Honestly If you need a place, you can probably stay with my parents. They love artists; they’ll love you and, you know, you could probably stay the time that you need to stay with them.” I called up my mom and told her the deal and she was like, “Oh yeah. She needs a room? We’ve got her.”

Groana
That’s my dream. I want to make a home like that.

Elle
To me, that’s what a New Yorker does; they have that kind of generosity. Sometimes people are amazed at that kindness. I just see it as helping people. I see it as necessary.

Interview with Verónica Puche

Interview with Verónica Puche

Verónica Puche combines history, politics, and personal anecdotes and creates imagery reminiscent of magical realism. We met her in her Long Island City studio a few days before Colombians were called to vote on a peace deal to end fifty-two years of internal conflict. (You can read more about this here and here.)

Groana Melendez
Please talk a little about your practice.

Verónica Puche
My practice is divided into two important moments: when I actually create the work and then when I develop the work. I usually create in a period of two to three months that are then divided in two parts: the end of the year and at the middle of the year. Then I develop the projects in the middle of these two spaces.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
What do you mean by “create?”

Verónica
Place the ideas in the palpable reality. I shoot images if I’m making photographs. Right now the base of my artist practice is photo based. I can interact with the image in different ways but that’s part of the process of creating the artwork. I shoot about twice a year mainly.

Martha
It’s like the first part you just shoot and the second part is editing.

Verónica
It’s not only editing because it’s also how I’m going to show the image. Whether it will be a two dimensional or three dimensional piece or as a virtual piece. I would say I have two periods of time when I’m not actually thinking of how I’m going to share my work with the world… It’s that space when I’m shooting the image or thinking about when I’m going to shoot it. It’s a more a free space where I don’t have boundaries or anything. Then when I’m developing the work I establish boundaries around me to not go insane.

Groana
When you photograph, I imagine you out in the world, taking pictures as you please and then later going to the studio and editing them into a sequence you envision at that moment. Is that your process?

Veronica
“As I please?” What do you mean by that?

Groana
I imagine you shooting freely.

Verónica
Usually, before shooting, I inspect the place I want to shoot without a camera and then I go to the place early in the morning or at one specific moment. I guess it doesn’t have to only be early in the morning but usually, it’s a moment where the air is clean, if I can call it that. There is a process of investigation before I shoot. When I said “freely,” I meant that moment was very free because I am creating in an environment I can’t control. I shoot mostly with sunlight, so it’s a moment where I can walk around, where I can talk to people, and be with the person (if is the case) that comes with me to take pictures. That’s what I was talking about with freedom. The freedom of moving, of being anywhere but inside of a studio editing in front of a screen.

Groana
Can you explain what you meant by three-dimensional? Just from the going to school with you for two years, I imagine you mean actually intervening on the image with objects popping out of it. Is that what you mean?

Verónica
Yeah. It can be sculpture. I’m thinking a lot about making sculptures… I made some examples in art school but I never developed them very much. It can be implementing other materials that are not about playing with the surface of the paper but about playing with the volume of the paper or to interact with the paper.

Martha
Yeah. As paper, as an object, not as an image.

Veronica
Yeah. As an element.

Martha
Can you tell us about your project Such as my great uncle, eaten by a shark?

Verónica
It is a series of short stories that are reminders of family members, some of them with tragic backgrounds or fascinating backgrounds, as my father had. To continue with how I work, I began shooting pictures between Colombia and Nicaragua, some places in the Caribbean, and some here in New York.
When I go to Colombia or to Nicaragua I always ask my relatives to tell me stories about their past, their family stories, or about the past of the country. Therefore, the moments when I’m shooting are combined with a lot of the conversations that I actually try to record and take notes. Then they become these short stories that go with the pictures. In book form it’s very easy to merge them together. It’s much more difficult when it’s a matter of installation, like in a space to put the text together with the images. I haven’t developed that part very much yet. But yes, that work is a series of short stories with photographs.

puche_buzondesugerencias

Buzón de Sugerencias, Archival Pigment Print, 2016

Groana
Can you talk about the new iteration of your book Such as my great uncle, eaten by a shark? And about how you see it as something that can keep going.

Verónica
I have a problem putting an end to a project, so I had this fantastic idea of making the book of Such as my great uncle, eaten by a shark into a book divided into chapters. Every chapter will have a story with a spread of pictures. So far, I’ve divided the book into six chapters, inside a bag with the title of the work. At the New York Art Book Fair people were asking me if I only had six chapters inside the bag. I said, “Yes, but there will be more to come.” They said, “How come?” I said, “Yeah, I’m going to write at least 20 chapters.” I don’t know if I will be able to write 14 more stories with 14 more spreads of pictures by the end of this year but at least I’m opening the door to continue that work. I really enjoy doing it and I think it can live as a 6 story book or as a 20 story book. It depends on my talante.

Martha
When Groana and I were preparing for the interview, we were talking about how it reminded me of Russian novels. How they were sold serially and separated into little books.

Verónica
Russian novels like Tolstoy or…

Martha
Yeah, like War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment… They weren’t one book. They were like little books that were sold one by one. It would be equivalent of a series now in that every now and then you would get a new one and then at the end of it, you would have a story. And every chapter was its own book even though it was part of like a bigger one. When you told me about this project it reminded me of that and the process of producing a book in that way.

Verónica
I think they used to do that because it was probably cheaper to print. For me it’s a matter of being able to collect these stories so if somebody wants to collect 1,3 and 8… I have to still develop that part but it’s a matter of like collecting stories and mixing them the way you please. In the bag, it can be a story, or like numbers 3, 6, 9, 12 and 18 instead of I, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Martha
Like Rayuela [by Julio Cortázar]?

Veronica
Yeah, but in Rayuela what Cortázar does is that he connects them somehow with instructions or the natural order of the numbers and you get all the chapters in the book.

Martha
But you can read them in different orders.

Verónica
Yeah, you can read them in different orders. I think it’s just like a nice way to divide the work and not make it very dense. Because it is a dense piece.

Groana
That reminds me of actually your photography work. There was a point where we were trying to edit your images and you basically said you can arrange them in different ways and get different stories. It sounds like you are doing the same thing with your books where it’s like you have the separate entities that can be mixed together in different ways.

Verónica
Well, right now they are just one entity but in the future, I wish they could do that. Like if I get to make my books a little bit closer to the Russians or like Cortázar, I will be very pleased.

Martha
How do you feel when you show it in space as opposed to showing it in book form?

Verónica
When I show it in a space (last time that was my solo thesis show) it was a very fragmented work for me. I understood it and the people that read my stories understood it as well. But I felt people who had no idea what my work was about were missing the short stories. Maybe I should have them up on the wall next to the images or as a stack of sheets on the floor. I did that afterward, at Baxter St at the Camera Club of New Yolk and I think there the work felt more complete. It’s very difficult to separate the image from the text. Because the short stories kind of guide you to that visual story or to another story with a different end. The viewer is a silent participant of the story which can change with the visual part of the work.

frentealmar_veronica_puche

Frente al Mar, Archival Pigment Print, 2015

Martha
We were thinking of your practice as that of a storyteller… where not only the image or the writing is important, but the result of putting them together. I think of the tradition of family storytelling, passing family knowledge from one person to the other, is very interesting in your work.

Verónica
Well, that’s a human nature. The odyssey was passed like that, the Bible was passed like that, so it’s the principal way of passing information, to tell stories orally to other generations. That’s very great to hear, I would love to be a storyteller. I think that’s very …

Groana
You are a storyteller.

Verónica
Yeah, but I feel that to be a storyteller I need to be better. Writers are storytellers, I don’t consider myself a writer. Writing for me is a very difficult part of my practice. It takes me twice the time to develop a text than to develop a work of images. Because of that, I don’t think this work Such as my Great Uncle, Eaten by a Shark is a work that is not going to end today or tomorrow. I need more time to develop it, I think it’s a long-term project. I have about six stories… and some of them are still not very pulidas

Martha
Polished.

Verónica
… polished. In order to write a good story, it is necessary to spend time with it. It needs to be very polished, and especially a short story.

Martha
What do you feel is the difference between writing in English and Spanish for you?

Verónica
It’s a huge difference. I have the task now of translating all these stories that I have in English to Spanish. It ended up being like that because of the circumstances of me being here in an Anglo-speaking country. But it would make more sense to me to write them in Spanish now.
The main difference is that romanticism or that passion that I have with the Spanish language and I lack from the English language. They’re very different cultures and very different ways of communication so I try to reproduce the sentiment when I’m telling the story in Spanish and portray it in English. In some cases, I achieve it at one point but in other cases, I think I haven’t.
It’s fantastic to share these stories in two languages for now. I wish I could share it in more languages. I always try to keep the core of the sentiment that is released with each of these stories in both languages. It varies a little bit, the tone, but decorum, I always try to keep it the same.

Groana
I think you are a little hard on yourself. Do you see yourself striving to become a storyteller? Because, in a way you are very successful in not necessarily being a writer, but in combining image and text and then giving the viewer enough space to add to the story and make it their own or to fill in the gaps. I think that’s really successful and in that way, I think you are a storyteller.

Martha
I also don’t feel storytelling is exclusively about words. Filmmakers are storytellers. They are not necessarily about …

Veronica
They have scripts.

Martha
Yes, but there are filmmakers who don’t use scripts, Godard didn’t use scripts for some of his early films and they are still storytelling. It’s not about writing. It’s about telling a story. I don’t want to corner you into saying that you are a storyteller, but that’s what I think.

Verónica
It’s an honor that you would say that to me. What I’m trying to say is that as a child I was told stories before going to bed every night. From my first memory until I was in my early teen years, my father used to tell me stories before going to sleep and I always used to read before going to sleep. So I think that’s where the inspiration comes from.
There is nothing more fantastic when you are with somebody who is a good storyteller and they tell you a story, and you get that chispa, you know, that spark that happens when that story is told, it’s amazing. That’s what I want to do. But it’s not easy. It’s not an easy task. With photography, it can be helpful because sometimes images are really strong but to combine these two elements is not something simple to do.

Groana
It’s interesting just to hear you speak that way because it just reminds me that as artists we’re always constantly looking to reach that goal even though other people like really connect with your work, you as an artist you are like this is what I’m going for and every time you make a work of art it’s trying to get you closer to that thing that you envision. It’s just really nice to hear you explain it and speak about it.
Before we get even further, can you tell us a bit about your background. Because your work is very much influenced by current events and history.

puche_granada-copy

Granada, Archival Pigment Print, 2015

Verónica
My father is from Monteria, Colombia, a city near the Caribbean. And my mother is from Chinandega, Nicaragua, not Managua. (That’s funny to say.)
I was born and grew up in Bogota. I went to high school there and to undergrad. I studied industrial design at the Universidad de los Andes, that was five years of undergrad. I don’t know why I never went to art school. Maybe I was afraid since my immediate family had no artists. So I never had somebody to follow in that way.
I decided to study industrial design because it was a nice strategy to not go into business school or that kind of stuff. In those years photography came of course as photo product. But then I began to make like little stories. I began to go to the center of Bogota with a Minolta of a friend of mine and took photos of converse shoes. I remember there were converse shoes all over the center of Bogota. Like …

Martha
Like on the wires?

Verónica
No. As if they were invisible people wearing them.
I still have the negatives somewhere. I took plenty of rolls. After that I abandoned photography for a while until I graduated from industrial design and then I got a studio. In that period of my life when I finished undergrad, I had one year where I shared a studio with friends. In that space were mainly musicians and one artist that had his studio/ house there. It was a very nice time, I had the liberty of doing what I wanted to do. I used to paint in my space. I used to paint a lot before. The photos that I took at that time were for friends of mine that had music bands or jewelry designers pieces. For the people that have seen my work and don’t see much people in my photographs, I do have people in my photographs. Mainly drunk musicians or friends of mine with jewelry from my jewelry design friends.
Anyway, there my interest for photography began to become more important. Then I came to New York and I did the GS program [General Studies One-Year Certificate at the International Center of Photography] before doing my master in ICP [MFA in Advanced Studies in Photography at the International Center of Photography and Bard College]. In that year my work went more personal. I began to work with my father’s diaries. He has them since he was around 15 years old and he keeps writing. I took those diaries and I began to investigate them. It was very difficult to read them so I began to take photos of them and then paint on the photos of the diaries. I also recreated the women that were in the diaries.
It was a very beautiful process, probably being not near him helped me create that dialogue, I have a very close relationship with my father. It was a very painful process as well. I used to cry a lot when I was doing that work. Just thinking about… Because my father had a very rough adolescence alone by himself in Bogota in a different city, cold and strange, so the diary his best friend. Everything was there written, was a very emotional place to be for me. That series is called Divino Tesoro because of one poem of Rubén Darío that my mother used to recite me when I was small. For people that don’t know Rubén Darío he was a Nicaraguan poet. It’s the most important Nicaraguan poet. Very romantic.
After I realized my personal life was a huge source of inspiration. I think Such as my great uncle, eaten by a shark emanates from there somehow… Of course! The diaries are much more than words, inside are graphics of behavior, charts describing habits, cut outs from magazines with mostly blonde beauties from the sixties, you know dream girls! Maybe that storytelling doesn’t come from my early years, maybe it’s something that I inherited from my father because he writes a lot. He still has a diary. He doesn’t write on paper anymore but he still writes.

Martha
He still keeps a diary even now? How old is he?

Verónica
73.

Martha
Oh my God.

Verónica
Yeah. I wish I had his perseverance. I would be … I would be …

Martha
Yeah. That’s discipline.

Verónica
Yeah. That’s discipline. You need discipline to make art.

veronica_puche_3

Rojo, Archival Pigment Print, 2016

Groana
You know I grew up here and my parents are from the Dominican Republic, but I remember the first time you mentioned being Colombian and Nicaraguan and the different family dynamics. I was excited to hear you describe that because being in the US the dominant narrative is that of being “American” and something else. It was rare for me to hear about cultural mixing that didn’t involve the States especially mixing between Latin American countries. I’m interested in knowing more about that history and everything that’s happening now in Colombia. How do you see your work moving forward?

Verónica
My Nicaraguan family is my big family. When I was a child I went there at least once a year. I have a lot of childhood memories in Nicaragua. I have a bunch of cousins there. In Colombia, I don’t have many of cousins, only three. So all the fun part of growing up was in Nicaragua. Those were fun times; it was a very beautiful time. Looking at it now, every time I go to Nicaragua, I’m very critical about my Nicaraguan family because they live in a bubble. It’s a beautiful place, it’s a beautiful family, but to be honest I don’t feel very Nicaraguan. I do love all the things that are there.
My father went to Nicaragua for the revolution, he arrived after the revolution of the Sandinistas so he was part of that movement. My mother at that time was a phycologist student. They met and fall in love. There’s a 14 year age difference between them, so my father was in his late 30s when he met my mother who was in her early 20s. That’s the time of Nicaragua I feel I haven’t tasted the real Nicaragua because every time I go there I’m in the bubble and it’s a bubble I don’t want to be in.
They inspire me a lot but it’s a very complex place to be in for me. I’m very critical when I go there as I said before. I was very happy. I had very beautiful memories but nowadays when I go there I’m very critical.

Groana
Your work is informed by family stories and along with that it’s the conflicts that were happening in Colombia especially since your dad went to Nicaragua during the revolution. Now the news this week that’s happening in Colombia. How do you see your work moving forward?

Verónica
It’s like suddenly there’s a rain of ideas falling over me.
The war or intern conflict with the guerrilla of las FARC has last more then half a century, leaving millions of death and victims. We have others guerrillas, but las FARC is the oldest and biggest one. Now finally after six years of dialogue with the government, it’s ending with a peace treaty signed by the government and them. This Sunday, October 2nd there will be a referendum among the Colombian population, so it’s a very exciting moment. It’s a moment full of hope. Because there were many victims in this war and they deserve to be recognized, it’s very emotional for a Colombian to be aware and to be living in this moment.
Seriously, it’s like it’s a moment of huge expectations. I haven’t lived in a Colombia in peace. It’s a country full of diversity, music and colors but the violence has always been there covering everything with dead. Suddenly there’s peace that can come and we have to fight against social inequality, which is horrible in Colombia and heal deep wounds. We have to find a way to move on. We have a bright future. Let’s hope Colombians will think of the millions of victims of the armed conflict and will put an end to the war.

Groana
I’m excited. I’m also excited for the ways that it’s going to inspire you as well.

Martha
How does it feel being in New York while all of this is happening? I remember when the disappearance of 43 students happened in Mexico and everyone I knew was on the streets. It felt very weird for me to be here and not there. I feel like I somehow needed to be there but I was here.

Verónica
Well, of course, it’s weird, for example, when the government signed the peace treaty I went to Time Square, the place I most hate from New York. The Colombian consulate here in New York told us that they were going to screen the peace treaty but they only screened a few words, some text, a photo of Santos, and a white dove, and that was it. More important than being away I think it’s a moment that will live inside of you. I was there alone, my partner that is also Colombian was in Bogota so it was a very lonely moment for me, a moment of introspection. But I feel that’s how it has to be. It’s a moment of joy but it’s also sad to take in everything that has happened, to recognize it, to be ready to forgive! It is a moment of reconciliation between people. I bought a bottle of wine and saw the live screening on my iPad.

Groana
…not at Times Square.

Verónica
Not at Times Square. I tried but … it was very nice to see all the people there. However … I’m not the example of a Colombian patriotic being. Colombian people are very emotive and extremely social. They scream a lot and they say “Viva, Colombia!. Viva! Ahh Aaaah!” I don’t like that nationalism, the violent nationalism if I’m making myself understand. Colombians have this aggressiveness that probably I do have but I don’t show it in public like others. There was this group of Colombians there holding white balloons and flags screaming “Viva, Colombia! Aaah!” It was nice to see them. It was like a group of 100 people no more. I’m pretty sure there are more Colombians here in New York.

Groana
Oh, yes there are.

Verónica
They were not all of them in Times Square for sure.

puche_timiza

Timiza, Archival Pigment Print, 2015

Martha
That is very beautiful Vero. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Verónica
I don’t know…
It’s not easy to make work. I suffer a lot. I cry a lot. Then I create. The art of being an artist is working hard.
It’s like taking my heart out and giving it to you. It’s hard for me. I never shared so much before. But I already put all my work on my website. I feel free that I’m sharing that with everybody because I didn’t have a website until now.
I was against selling my work in the beginning. I used to gift my work. If I liked you, you would be able to have a piece of me. Otherwise, not. I think it’s a matter of maturing as an artist. Of being able to desprenderte, to detach from your artwork. I do that with my paintings. When I used to paint I didn’t sell my paintings, I gave them away. Now I kind of feel bad about that. Anyway, it’s gone.

Groana
How do you live?

Verónica
I try. I breathe every morning when I wake up, about three times.

Martha
I get it. Every time someone is interested in buying, I think, “but I won’t be able to look at it anymore.” It’s just this weird sense of belonging. It’s yours. It’s actually yours.

Verónica
It’s a piece of your soul. And more during the process, it’s more yours. I feel being an artist is sharing a piece of your inner being with the world because otherwise why would you be an artist?
It’s about sharing and inspire other people to share as well what you believe life is or is not.

Interview with Mario Navarro

Interview with Mario Navarro

Mario Navarro is a Mexican artist who uses the exhibition space as part of his practice. He was just part of the exhibition at Baxter Street at the Camera Club of New York, Polaris, curated by Joey Lico. Martha sat with him in his impeccable studio in Bushwick to have a conversation about space and art-making.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
I want to start by talking about Aestetical Irregularities and its different iterations.

Mario Navarro
I think of Aesthetical Irregularities as an ongoing project focused on my interests around architecture and space and on how to use the space where you are showing the work. I like to take advantage of the exhibition space to generate site-specific architectural interventions. The first  time I executed this idea was in Mexico City, where I cut out the hardwood floor from the gallery. Then I lifted up those pieces and covered the holes below it with mirrors to generate a void, a kind of emptiness below the elevated floor. But I think about this void, not as a lack of something ,but more as a new space that’s generated by taking away the original elements of the space.
I will create another iteration soon in Tokyo at Komagome Soko, a project space that that is run by the gallery SCAI, The Bathhouse.  Right now I’m in the planning stage, but in the end, it’s going to be a site-specific installation using the expository space to generate this intervention. The idea is also to expand the space, to create new forms, new ideas, and new perceptions of the space itself.

Martha
It seems that the gallery itself is your material.

Mario
It’s p
robably the main material. It’s the same that is complemented by other materials but the idea is to mainly use the gallery’s basic elements.

Martha
The space itself.

Mario
Yes, the space itself to generate a new way of reading that specific architectural site.

Martha
It’s interesting how you perceive the empty spaces. I feel it’s like silence in music. It’s not nothing, it’s part of the composition. That gets lost when the space is not as important in the work. When a space is just a place to hang work. But in your work, the space is the work.

Mario
I like the way you compare it to music. That’s very accurate. I think an empty gallery has a lot of potential to create work without bringing anything from the outside. That’s the irregularity that I’m talking about. How to make it irregular aesthetically by using the floor, the walls, the structures, whatever you can find to transform any given space.

Martha
It’s also interesting how you think about mirrors as creating empty spaces. I think that it prolongs the space more than emptying it.

Mario
Well, as in the case of the Mexico City show Aesthetical Irregularities, I see mirrors as an emptiness because in the end, they reflected the white walls of the space and they read as holes. But I use mirrors often, and mirrors don’t work the same every time. In the piece The Original Accident, which consists of vertical and horizontal two-way mirrors, the space gets unfolded. Also, the material properties play with space as the light refracts into the mirror. Then you have the reflection of the other reflections and a shadow. Because in the end, it’s an object that’s occupying a space. I like the idea that one single material can have more than one reaction to an external factor. And then there is how I used them for Isodomun. I think that it unfolds some parts of the work, but then these cut the work into different sections. I see it as a new body, as a new element. Mirrors have all those possibilities.

 

Mario Navarro Frame of mind (Exercise 1), 2015 Polished steel, brick 22 x 45 x 10 cm

Mario Navarro, Frame of mind (Exercise 1,) 2015. Polished steel, brick. 22 x 45 x 10 cm.

 

Martha
Another thing that happens with how you use the space, intervening with it, is that it can’t quite return the same state. In a way, you scar the space.

Mario
It’s something that happens but I haven’t really explored. If you go to the gallery in Mexico City right now, you can see all the marks of my piece on the floor. The gallery owner loves it, but it is funny how even when you go to see another show you can see the traces of mine. Some other artist told me they don’t like to show on top of my traces.

Martha
It is as if wherever you present will always remember that you presented there.

Mario
Actually, I’m in the planning stages of a photography project. I want to go to different sites and make cut-outs on the floor, lift the pieces, and photograph them. Then I’d put them back and photograph it again. Making a comparison between how the space was originally, then when the floor was cut, and then after. I’m still working on it, but I enjoy the notion of how a work leaves a trace. It’s going to be there for as long as that floor remains the same.

Martha
Yeah, it’s reminiscent of Gordon Matta-Clark.

Mario
Yes, but I think that Matta-Clark was very incisive. He cut places and he wanted to show what was underneath. I think what I do is more like reorganizing. I want to make the space different by just changing a small thing and then putting it back in as it was. But of course, he is a big influence in my work.

Martha
Your work is obviously very tied to architecture, but how did you make the leap from architecture to art?

Mario
The process was very organic. When I was studying architecture I was interested in contemporary art, especially in sculpture and installation. I also had a teacher who is a great artist. I was very interested in ephemeral architecture but my school was very traditional. I wanted to explore ways of transforming architecture, not just in building  a house or a conventional space. I always had the feeling that I needed to do something different. I began working with a curator and then with an artist. This helped me understand many aspects of contemporary art. I realized that I could develop my own ideas through architecture and make something that would not necessarily be seen as architecture.
It all started because of a friend, who is a curator, that invited me to create work for a show he was organizing. Then someone invited me to participate in another show, and so on.
It was all very natural. That is also how my process is. When I am working on developing a new idea, if I get stuck, I leave it to rest and come back to it after, but that could be in a year. I don’t like to force things. So that’s how the transition happened. But in the end, everything I do is seen through architecture in a way. I work a lot like an architect with models, plans, etc.

Martha
I think it’s interesting how you say that you see a lot of things through the lens of an architect. I’m originally a filmmaker and I feel that every time I create a piece, even if it’s a book, I think about how would I edit it as if it were a film. All of my work is measured through film language. Maybe because it was the first art that I really understood how to control. It makes sense to me that you make things in an architectural way.

Mario
I don’t work like an architecture studio necessarily, but I do process ideas like that. I love starting my ideas on paper. Then I make it precise with software, even though I like if the final result is not necessarily what I planned. I end up with a lot of diagrams for each work. Even if the end result is just a print, I sketch if “it should be hung like this, at this height…” I like how detail-oriented the architectural process is.  I hate drawing floor plans, but for my works, it is the best way to plan them. I think that it gives me a lot of peace of mind because I know that for every piece there’s a history that backs it all up. All those plans, drawings, research, texts, etc; I think that is part of the work. You can see how it developed. hat includes models. If I am making a sculpture, I want to see the dimension of it. It’s very architectural.

Martha
It’s very interesting that there’s all of this work behind it, and yet it is so minimal.

Mario
Yes, that’s something that I like. You might see the work and think about its simplicity, but behind it is an idea that was developed step by step. I test a lot out before the final idea. And then it’s funny the original idea is always so different from the final piece I predicted.
But on the other hand, I’ve been making this work, the Stone Isodomums. I’m trying to lay off a bit of this carefully planned process. I go to this place where they sell masonry materials like marble, granite, and bricks and buy leftovers that I like. I take them to my studio and then begin working by arranging them and creating compositions. It’s freeing because you never know what you’re going to find. You never know what you’re going to use, how the compositions are going to end up. In the end, the result is a very architectural minimal work but nurtured by many different variables.

Martha
Now that you mention using this rearrangement of objects I want to talk about Future Islands. It’s interesting how you take away the chairness of a chair by taking away its ability to be sat on. But the chair remains as a thing, free of its use.

Mario
That’s a site-specific work that fits perfectly in Aesthetical Irregularities. The idea is to take away all the utilitarian values of the Thonet chair by imposing it on the space. It’s a domestic object that everyone uses, not to mention the historic values of its design. But how do you merge it with the space and remove all the utilitarian value of the object? And even when you merge them, the chairs are never touching the architecture or the columns, they’re just surrounding it. I like the idea of surrounding the architecture of the space.
I also have this version of the chair with a short concrete column. But that’s different and I like it for different reasons.  It’s almost like a pallet made out of concrete. That was the first work that I made. I took one or two pallets and I made a mold out of the wood. Then I poured concrete in and let it dry. In the end, it’s the same object formally speaking, but out of a different material. I thought about it as a way of transforming an object with its own material.

Martha
Like an indexical relationship.

Mario
Exactly. You’re using the same object to transform it into itself.  And by taking away its utilitarian value, the result can only be read as a sculptural object.

 

Mario Navarro Future Islands, 2016 Insitu intervention: Columns, Thonet Era chairs Variable dimensions

Mario Navarro, Future Islands, 2016. Insitu intervention: Columns, Thonet Era chairs. Variable dimensions.

 

Martha
I think this is good segway to talk about the piece that you showed at Baxter Street at the Camera Club of New York for the show Polaris.

Mario
For that show, I wanted to do something site-specific as well. I like that space a lot. It’s kind of a storefront and looks like a gallery. But then I began discovering the little hidden spaces and the space below. One of the things that caught my attention were the two cupboards, one above the entrance and another one above the window. It’s a very unusual thing but it’s another volume inside the showroom. It’s interesting because it’s not in use and in a way it’s taking space away from the gallery.
I wanted to make that space apparent by giving it value inside the gallery space. I took one of the holes and extruded it into a volume or body. I just wanted to unfold or to extend the size and shape of the hole into an architectural element. The structure came out of the cupboard and straight down to the floor. I chose to make it out of a mesh screen.

Martha
I think it’ very important that you chose to do it with the cupboard that is on top of the door and not the one on top of the window. It is the first thing you see when you enter the show, but you might not necessarily think it’s a piece in the exhibition because of how architectural it is. Maybe the materials give it away, but I kept wondering what a person that has never been to the space before thought about it.

Mario
It had to be the one by the entrance. The one by the window would be interesting but this way the piece is saying “Hey, I’m here.” It’s a new body in the entrance of the space, so you have to move around it. Its form comes directly from a shape in the building itself. It’s also imposing spatially but not visually since the mesh allows you to see through it. A lot of people didn’t notice the work and some bumped into it, even though it’s was a large scale piece.

Martha
It becomes important that a lot of people were bumping into it.

Mario
Yeah, it’s very fragile. During the opening, a lot of people were hitting it and its  shape got twisted. I’m very detailed oriented. Things have to be perfect. For this one, even though I went into a lot of details, I liked that it was very fragile. When the show began, it was in the perfect position, at the right angle. When the opening ended it was twisted. A friend told me, “Hey, this doesn’t look good. You should make it straight,” and I said, “No, I know that people have been moving it, but I like it.” The same material allows it to bend.

Martha
It makes it into living piece because the context is changing it constantly.

Mario
That’s right, I like at the end, how the work was behaving and how people were behaving around it. For me, it was an experiment and an exercise to free the perfectionism in the fabrication of the piece.

Martha
How long have you been in New York?

Mario
I’ve been here two years. I moved because my partner was moving here to do her master’s degree at the Pratt Institute, so I decided to move as well.

Martha
How do you feel it’s different being an artist here and being an artist in Mexico?

Mario
In New York, there is a huge artist community. There’s this feeling that I like that everyone is an artist. Artists here are usually engaging with other artists through studio visits. I think that in Mexico it’s harder to achieve that sense of community.

Martha
One of the things that happened to me when I moved here is that I realized there are tools for very specific things, where in Mexico, we will use the same tool for more than one purpose. That allows you to be more creative and not be tied to a specific tool. You can…

Mario
You work it out, but that’s the context that we grew up in. We probably don’t even have all the resources but you learn to solve problems with what you have around you.

Martha
How do you think, if at all, that being Mexican and from Guadalajara, affects the way you look at art? You are from Guadalajara, right?

Mario
I’m from Tijuana. A lot of people think I’m from Guadalajara because I studied architecture there, and my career as an artist developed in Guadalajara.

Martha
I’m really sorry about that. So how do you think being from where you are from affects your work? If at all.

Mario
It’s complicated. I’m not a person that thinks as a Latin American artist you produce Latin American art. I wouldn’t say that my work it’s only influenced by Latin American culture. Sometimes It is even hard to pin-down a Mexican identity.

 

Mario Navarro Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 2014 Found object in demolished house 140 x 115 x 15 cm

Mario Navarro, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 2014. Found object in demolished house. 140 x 115 x 15 cm.

 

Martha
I know what you mean. I don’t subscribe either to the idea that there is a Latin American-ness.

Mario
Exactly.

Martha
And of course your work is somehow influenced from where you’re from, but in another way, it’s not because you’re a particular person. No one expects American art to be all the same, but somehow people expect Latin American art to be similar.

Mario
I think that’s true, I identify a lot with Brazilian artists. I think that my line of work is very similar and even though they’re Latin American, I don’t really think that has anything to do with the reasons why I identify with them. For me, it’s more a personal interest.
But I do sometimes stop myself to think, “How does growing up in Tijuana influence me?” And it’s an influence, of course. I always disliked the architecture there. It’s just a copy of Californian style architecture but Mexicanized. There is a baroque reinterpretation. As an architect, it all starts with the house I grew up in. My house was this kind of a Californian style house if you can even call it a style. Ornamentation with no reason. Also being in Guadalajara affected the influence of modernist architecture. Architects like Luis Barragán were important factors in my work. Everything influences you, and then you start to define yourself depending on where you are, who you meet, etc. And of course, I am Latin American artists.

Martha
Yeah, but before that you were just an artist.

Mario
Exactly. I’m not sure my work really defines that aspect. Most of the artists I follow are Latin Americans. I love being Latin American, I love being Mexican and I’m proud of my heritage.

 

 

 

Interview with Joiri Minaya

Interview with Joiri Minaya

For #dominicanwomengooglesearch Joiri Minaya searched google images for the term “dominican women” and translated the results into physical objects. Minaya prints enlarged versions of the images, mounts them onto Sintra board and covers the backside with tropical patterned fabrics. She then cuts out everything but the flesh and hangs these shapes from the ceiling.

We sat down with Joiri at Wave Hill while she was presenting this piece in the project space.

Groana Melendez
What was your process in creating #dominicanwomengooglesearch?.

Joiri Minaya
I started with a Google search and I found these images. When I started cutting them up into pieces in Photoshop I was mimicking the dissection that my gaze was doing. I would look at their faces, their boobs, their arms, their hair. I was sectioning them or cutting them up into pieces with my eyes based on how these images are presented to me, and how I’ve been conditioned to read those images in that way. I was analyzing them in general. There’s more afros in our vision of ourselves to the outside than to ourselves. I think that’s changing now thankfully. I also noticed a lot of straight long hair.
That’s the front part, and then the backs are covered with designs that represented “tropical” spaces, which was something I was already working with from previous projects. I grew up in a clothing store, my mom had a clothing store since I was little. I’ve always been surrounded by fabric and patterns. It’s something that still influences what I notice visually. “Tropical” pattern design felt very familiar to me, but I was never really critically conscious of it until I was in undergrad. One time I was wearing this Hawaiian shirt that I found in a thrift store and a professor said, “Oooh, so tropical.” I was like, “What does this mean?” That’s when I started thinking about it more critically.
I started paying attention to what is depicted on these fabrics and how the plants are organized and are, once again, just catered to this [foreign, scientific] gaze. Plants in reality have nothing to do with how they’re presented in pattern design. As problematic as they are, I love scientific illustration. They’re extracted from reality, isolated on a white page where all of its parts are being analyzed, supposedly to be informative, but it’s a very particular gaze, which I then relate to the kind of gaze towards women and brown bodies and the objectification of women. I wanted to link that history of scientific illustration, how it later became interior, domestic design, and the representation of these women; mapping this whole system of representation around the tropics.

Groana
Were you here in the States when you were looking for these images?

Joiri
Originally yes, although it was during a trip to the DR that I first looked up Dominican women on Google searches. Results when I was there and when I continued with the process here were pretty similar. What makes a difference is that I’m Googling in English, and English is not our first language. I was consciously thinking about that, but I guess when I have conversations about that piece in the States that intentionality is not evident. That decision was definitely intentional for me, because I was thinking of how we present ourselves to this international audience as opposed to how we think about ourselves to ourselves, which I’m not sure is always that too apart but there’s definitely differences.

Groana
Do you see the images you’re finding as mujeres dominicanas showing themselves to the world?

Joiri
I think so, because they’re tagged in English. Also the photos themselves, they’re not selfies, they’re staged, there’s someone taking the photo. There is this whole apparatus around it that to me is deeply related how we internalize these demands which we subsequently performed for someone else.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
What I really like about it is that it starts from a very digital space, but then it’s all about being there, because you can’t really access it unless you’re in the room.

Joiri
Yeah, I’m interested in that materialization. These photos exist online, they’re tiny, they’re made for your screen to 72 dpi or whatever. Then when you blow them up they become an object. You print them out, they’re tangible. They’re tangible in a very unnatural way, in a very artificial way. I like how that translates to a material because it’s funny how these women are supposedly selling you this “authentic” experience, but then they’re very artificially crafted. To print them out makes that obvious.

Martha
Yeah, because it makes it about the image and not about the person.

Joiri
It’s always about the image, but at the beginning, it’s meant to create this illusion that you are meeting this girl [a lot of the images found on the Google search link back to online catalogues “for men who want to date Dominican women on their vacation”]…but this girl could be any girl.

Martha
Yeah, but the fact that you can see the pixels interrupts the…

Joiri
the illusion, yeah. Also how they’re flat and spinning around, that makes you think of digital illusion, like animations. I like the material manifestation of it. Another aspect I was interested in is how they rearrange and recompose as you walk around them or even if you just stand there and see them spinning around. I think that’s at the same time liberating within this question of identity, how you’re taking these ingredients that already exist but you’re making your own combination, and also on a darker and more confrontational side they look just like a butchery, it’s a bunch of hanging body parts…

Groana
Then you add pretty flowers and stuff, jaja. And it is also a hand-made object…

Joiri
Yeah, it might not be immediately recognizable in this piece at first, but it’s a very crafty process, cutting out the images on photoshop, marking point by point with the pen tool, isolating individual parts, enlarging them, printing them and then cutting all over again, physically, out of the rectangular board into these independent pieces, following the pixels. And Sintra is so hard to cut by hand with an Exacto knife!…
I think after a lot of reading, writing, performance and video works at Parsons during my undergrad I really missed drawing and spending time “making stuff with my hands,” but the idea that hand-made techniques are more crafty and labor intensive than technologically mediated ones is another illusion. There’s the illusion that things like video or photography and other mediated forms of image making are supposedly faster and easier to materialize, with a click. Preparation time and thought process now take me way longer than it used to take when I was only drawing. So much of it is trying to decipher the idea and put it together in a way that communicates whatever I want to communicate before event starting to make anything. It still takes forever, but there’s this illusion that it’s more immediate, which is something I’m beginning to be aware now.

#dominicanwomengooglesearch (2016). digital print on sintra and fabric collage. aprox. 6 x 15 x 12 ft. Wave Hill Sunroom Project Space, Bronx, NY. Photos by Stefan Hagen

My art education has been very diverse and kind of fragmented. I got into the National School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo when I was 14. They have a program that allows you to go that early. It’s fine arts in a very traditional way, it’s good to get that very formal training but they don’t necessarily push you a lot conceptually. Then I went to Belgium for a year, finished my last year in that art school when I came back, then I went to Altos de Chavon for 2 years and through Chavon I got a scholarship to go to Parsons. After going through these schools that teach you different tools to communicate and also have different philosophies, a lot of my work since graduating has been interested in balancing and juggling between all these different techniques and philosophies, navigating that world that wants to put a label on you and say, “You’re a painter and you should work like this.”
It should be more liberating now because after conceptual art, in theory, “nothing matters and you can do whatever,” but that’s not really true. People still want to categorize you often and I’m still asked frequently what kind of work I make and whether I have one favorite or main medium, which I don’t, really. If anything the idea of performing is very present, but a lot of my works don’t involve performance art.

Groana
How much does the location of the piece affect it?

Joiri
I think the context changes the perception of the piece a lot. I’ve shown this piece once before, in an exhibition space with blank walls. At Wave Hill the piece is inside a space that looks like a greenhouse (which is effectively used to house tropical plants during the winter). That space activated another part of the dialogue that I wanted to have with this piece. The history of greenhouses, collecting, exploring and the way that the specimens are historically categorized and presented in this kind of space gives the piece that layer of criticality that it didn’t have before. I’ve also been navigating this thing of showing work in the Dominican Republic and the US. I don’t know, I think #dominicanwomengooglesearch is one of the pieces that I’m more comfortable showing in both places, but for other works it’s kind of weird. For example, I was working on Siboney when I started doing the Google searches and roughly thinking about1 this piece. Siboney is a performance in which I spend about 5 weeks hand-painting the design from a found piece of fabric onto a museum wall. Once the mural is finished I pour water on myself and scrub my body against the wall while dancing to the beat of the song Siboney by Connie Francis, partially washing off the paint. (You can watch a trailer at joiriminaya.com/siboney).

Still from Siboney (2014) Performance in two parts and a mural painting.

I made that specifically for the DR. I’ve show the video documentation as documentation, but as live performance, I’ve had studio visits where people have asked me if I would redo something like that for their institution and I always say I wouldn’t repeat the same, maybe something related but it would have to be different because I feel doing the same thing here, I’d have to be careful about it because it could become one of these works in which brown artists perform for a mainly white audience. It could become mere entertainment, whereas there (in the DR) it’s more reflective of our own identity and how we cater to this outsider’s view. To me it’s different when shown in the Caribbean and shown here. Works like #dominicanwomengooglesearch adapt better, here I see it more like a mirror for the gaze that creates and perpetuates these images.

Groana
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? You were born here and grew up in DR, was there a lot of back and forth?

Joiri
Yeah, I grew up in DR. I’m very much Dominican, I was born here (NYC) and my Grandma was living here. I grew up in the DR and went to school there and my family is there. I have a bunch of relatives here, so I grew up visiting relatives and spending my summers here and in Florida sometimes, but mostly here.
Then I was an exchange student in Belgium when I was 17. That’s an experience that I go back to a lot these days, in works like this. I lived in this tiny little town where it’s weird because Dominican wasn’t even a thing, a lot of people didn’t even know where that was, they would vaguely place it “somewhere in South America.” It was so foreign that it was almost liberating. To my perception, they didn’t really have specific stereotypes attached to what I would represent, as opposed to Turkish or Moroccan people who have lived there for generations and who are their main immigrant groups. Dominicans weren’t a thing, at least not in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium.
Yet I was still reminded of my foreignness all the time. That was the first place where I was absolutely out of place. I didn’t understand anything around me and everything was examining me. I think that’s an experience that definitely informs my current work.

Martha
I understand what you mean. I’m Mexican and I never thought about being Mexican until I moved to the US.

Joiri
Yeah, me neither, about the States, I’m still deciphering this place, it’s so confusing, and also interesting. It’s a place where everyone comes from a different place, but everyone is American. There is this thing about homogenization and everyone has to be Americanized but everyone wants to cling to the memories and traditions of a place of origin. There is this ever-going dichotomy. Then you have the Americans that have been here for centuries: the Native Americans, the white colonizers and their descendants, black people and the past of slavery and erasure. There’s all these things going on at once. I never thought about being Dominican in this particular way until I got here. It’s funny, this curator asked me the other day, “I’m so curious why you’re so aware of your identity in such a cosmopolitan place like New York City.” I was like, “What does that even mean?”
Why is there an idea that people can be universal to begin with? I’m thinking about this European idea of universality, that’s still so prevalent in contemporary politics and the arts and even relates to who makes conceptual, minimalistic or “neutral” work, versus the people who make representational and “very specific” work and so on. There’s all these hierarchies. It’s just really annoying.

Martha
It happened the other way around for me, a curator was like “Your art is not Latin American enough.”

Joiri
Then there’s that too.

Martha
I was like”What does that mean?” I’m Latin American. Who decides what’s Latin American and what’s not and at what degree? I don’t feel like there is one, Latin American is a huge brush to paint over a lot of people who have some similarities but I also look at Groana and my experience is so different from hers…

Joiri
I know, it’s different. My sister was doing a university exchange in Chile for 6 months and I went to visit her when she was there. I couldn’t even understand what they say sometimes. It’s immensely different from someone who grew up in the Caribbean. I don’t know, in a way I’ve discovered a lot of Latin Americanness, and Caribbeanness, and even Dominicanness here in the States. Especially here in New York, because in the Caribbean itself you are not as interconnected with the other islands. I think everything has been done for us to not be connected at all in terms of flights, international relations, and commercial relations. It’s intentionally isolated, as opposed to here where you learn about all these other people from all of these other islands that, as one discovers after having had a very insular experience, are also in the Caribbean. We just speak different languages but in terms of culture there is so many overlaps and similarities. In a way I’ve have this expansive experience here, but in another way I’ve also had this reductive experience where I’ve been essentially told “you’re Caribbean so you’re supposed to be this” or “you’re Latin American, so you’re supposed to be this other way”…
I’m annoyed by the label identity. I use it a lot because I want to expand that label, my work is about identity but it’s not about identity in the way that the art world wants to see it here, as in “you’re illustrating this other place, this other experience.” I was talking about this with Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, curator of the Museo del Barrio. I was saying that someone who talks about them growing up loving a punk band is as much identity as it is to talk about where you come from. Even someone like Donald Judd, his minimalistic work says a lot about him and can be thought of as identity, in the same way that you making work about your homeland can. But that’s not how the art world operates.

#dominicanwomengooglesearch (2016) digital print on sintra and fabric collage. aprox. 6 x 15 x 12 ft Wave Hill Sunroom Project Space, Bronx, NY. Photo by Stefan Hagen

Groana
That’s so funny because Martha made a zine about how people think she looks Ecuadorian. She made a zine out of the results of searching for…

Martha
Ecuadorian women… It’s because every time people have to guess where I’m from they say I’m from Ecuador… that’s so inaccurate and so specific…

Joiri
What are “people from Ecuador” supposed to look like?

Martha
Right? What does that even mean? I’m always a little jaded that I don’t look Mexican, that people don’t say, “You’re Mexican.” I want to look what I am.

Joiri
There’s a lot of people going through all these similar experiences. Just again going back to America, it’s such a particular place. These things wouldn’t necessarily happen in our homelands, but then in our homelands we are part of the majority so people wouldn’t question us.

Groana
It’s not about you being Dominican, it’s about you being something else.

Joiri
Yeah it’s about your hair texture or your way of speaking or your way of moving through the world or your interests.

Martha
But also in the context of the outsider. In Mexico I’m not a minority, I’m white.

Joiri
Of course. Dominicans have all these stereotypes about Haitians, they need someone to create a hierarchy around, which is super disgusting but that’s the way it works. It’s the same everywhere. In Belgium they have the Moroccans and the Turks and other groups of immigrants. Not as many people from Congo as I initially thought there would be but then I realized the way that Europe dealt with their colonies is that their colonies were entirely absent in their homeland, they only got the resources they extracted. That’s another interesting thing about being in the Caribbean or even America where your colony was in your territory. The colonizer and the colonized were together. Then you go to Europe and you’re like, wait, so, oh yeah, you guys have all the gold, but why do other people …they’re just absent, because they were out of sight.

Groana
My experience is so much different from even yours because I spent my summers in DR where you spent your summers here. It’s really interesting.

Joiri
I’ve talked to people like you, they feel lost and alert when they go there, because they don’t really fit, but they’re Dominican. I think identity is such an interesting thing.

Groana
It’s funny that you say that because I always felt that way. Every time I went to DR I was “la Americana,” la “gringa.” But now that I’m married and my wife looks white and we go there then I’m the Dominican, I’m seen as pure Dominican in comparison to her.

Joiri
I like that contradiction too, because it translates a lot of feelings that I have, just navigating the world as a woman of color, all these labels. It’s true, you’re seen in a particular way. That’s another thing of New York, I started realizing that when people knew I was Dominican, they were thinking of particular things, they’d be, like “Oh you’re Dominican,” with a certain intonation. I was curious about what that intonation meant. That’s when I first started doing the Google search and thinking, oh, I guess this must inform what people think when they say that I’m Dominican.

Those We Leave Behind: Ryan Foerster’s Sculptures of Wasted Ducts at Abrons Arts Center

Those We Leave Behind: Ryan Foerster’s Sculptures of Wasted Ducts at Abrons Arts Center

Posted by on Oct 6, 2016 in Osman Can Yerebakan | No Comments
Ryan Foerster: Underwrought An De Re on view at Abrons Art Arts Center

Ryan Foerster: Underwrought An De Re on view at Abrons Art Arts Center

“Ill feel sad that after all these years were inside using these giant metal forms to bring us air at different temperatures to keep us comforatbel. I hate comfort its to easy.” expresses Ryan Foerster in his typo-laden letter accompanying his modest scale exhibition at the Abrons Arts Center of Lower East Side. Entitled Underwrought An De Re, the exhibition, on view at the center’s Project Space in the lobby, introduces Foerster’s sculptural assemblages made out of discarded air ducts alongside a group of c-print photographs.

Ryan Foerster: Underwrought An De Re at Abrons Arts Center

Ryan Foerster: Underwrought An De Re at Abrons Arts Center

The idea of utilizing air ducts for sculpture struck the Brooklyn-based artist as he was installing his last solo exhibition at C L E A R I N G. While the subject exhibition had included various used and found materials, Foerster—who started his career with exhibitions organized in his apartment showing found-material sculptures—was intrigued by the scraps of duct left by workers installing heat at the gallery. Although the heat failed to arrive due to technical problems during his exhibition, disposed ducts led the artist to create these works on view through October 23rd.

Ryan Foerster: Underwrought An De Re at Abrons Arts Center

Ryan Foerster: Underwrought An De Re at Abrons Arts Center

Foerster, whose early works included expired or discarded films he collected from the Camera Club of New York’s dark room, is no stranger to debris. His sculptural or photographic assemblages of waste piled around street corners, artist studios or galleries convey narratives from their past stages within aesthetically compelling dispositions. Their somehow futuristic postures contradict what they’re meant for and the past they belong to. No longer needed or considered functional, waste manifests a type of melancholy that is conveniently ignorable. “I was sick of waste and all this excess shit that was here.” adds Foerster in the same letter. Curved, bent, and unconventionally aestheticized, these aluminum sculptures, some of which are accentuated by oozing wax, move beyond sculpture to deliver commentary on consumerism, environmental debate (one of the photographs on view documents Climate March amidst Times Square, while others trace the artist’s backyard in his Brighton Beach residence), and excess daily life generates.

Ryan Foerster: Underwrought An De Re will remain on view at the Abrons Arts Center until October 26, 2016.