As a person who was raised in Chicago, what experiences or education did you have that helped you be able to work closely with communities of Mexico, India and Palestine?
While in Chicago, during graduate school, I entered into a time of metaphysical experiences. I will not go into detail on much of it, I will only say I was in a collision where I underwent a physical transformation that lead me into immense pain. However, it also undid the shackles of prescribed reality and my identity as “singular” was wiped away more than ever from then on.
Six months later, back in graduate school, I began to re-form notions of reality in this performative entity that was my new body. I began to create costumes and theatrical body performances to act out elaborate strategies intended to break apart my dysfunctional persona, using these metaphysical experiences as my guide.
In public, people started to come up to me and tell their own intimate stories of wounds they endured, so these isolated performances soon became community performances extending into larger social and political investigations; everything was interconnected. In an otherwise grey world, I found something that felt very communal and real; this became a foundation for my collaborative work, my understanding of our body, pain and oppression, survival and self-determination, and our deep divinity within.
Do you know specifically what led you to working outside of the US? How did studying the art of Zapatistas in Mexico influence your artistic practice?
In graduate school I became very close to another student in the department, Caleb Duarte. He invited me to Chiapas to begin the experiment of an art space inspired by the Zapatista Movement. One of the main reasons I went is because I had always been an outcast within my own culture and family, and so I wanted to go where others conversed with the natural world the way I secretly did. A place where this dialogue was intrinsic to the way of life, where the communities ruled themselves in autonomy and without fear.
I wanted to see in this type of world; what did “art” look like over there? I wanted to see the power of art as it runs in the veins of Zapatista methodology; they create from a place that is so connected to the stars it can move political mountains.
Their way of seeing– their art–creates a symbiotic relationship between the past or the roots, and the present day, or the dream. Because of this relationship, they are not confined by human-made reality; rather they manifest their own myth, they can hear the true chants being spoken from the spirits of the ancestors within the natural world, and they have the wisdom to listen and organize around the whispers.
Did your beliefs shift when you became familiar with Mayan Shamanism and Cosmology?
The wisdom I found in the peoples’ art was braided into the earth-based healing practices I wove myself into. In this world there has been a historical bleaching of earth-based practices; the indigenous people have been subjugated by those calling their science superstition, their faith heresy, and their wisdom make-believe. When in fact those ‘superstitions’ are the tributaries leading to oceans of truth.
Unlike many other artists who make work about their own experiences, you appear to directly channel the experiences and stories of others. What work do you do to make sure that the performance artists in your work are represented profoundly and accurately?
In the work that you see in the show I have created nothing myself besides the drawings on the wall. All of the performances were done in collaboration with the people in the pieces. When I say collaboration, I don’t mean they are paid actors and I am the director: I mean they are as much the creators of the myth as I am, from beginning to end. My role is that I come from a background of making this work so I bring a sort of structure within which to create, but once we are inside the structure, it is a very organic and open playing field where the people themselves are determining the actual game with me, and have approved and wanted the work to be shown.
Can you tell me more about the “structure within which you bring to create” and the process of making?
Under the name of “art”, a free space to act out realities that are unspoken and even unrealized comes about through interviews, film screenings and discussions, sculpture and performance workshops, and by visiting important landscapes both physical and in our collective psyches.
We sift through themes that are relevant to the participants both on a local and global level and identify potent symbols in order to create our own game or myth. We use what is readily available and familiar to that particular community – materials, significant objects, healing rituals and bodies of the people – which are worked and alchemized by the participants to capture a meaning they chose. The action itself can be the meaning, and there can also be a message that is hoped to be captured in a film with hopes to share globally.
Through this approach, we sidestep any stereotypical tropes of how people may typically be represented, and we enter into a way of creating authentically. We make a way to approach and access ancestral mythic imagination and we hear wisdom from the future. The game masks life and for moments we are playing in our own manifested destiny. The aesthetics are not commercial or produced, they are real happenings, it is magical realism, grounded in reality but suggesting the possibility of unbelievable change.
It may sound prescribed to speak of the ingredients that make up this structure, but it actually is a way to take us out of notions of normality that fabricate our reality and give us the freedom to act within the subliminal.
How do you determine who you will work with, and why do the participants agree to work with you?
EDELO was the nucleus of most of the work in this show. The space, residency and programming gave way to these collaborations. When EDELO was a physical space, a residency and cultural center, I learned to build extremely close relationships with the people I collaborated with. Life and work were not compartmentalized, rather it became a shared and intimate experience of creation while living together sharing chores, meals, celebrations, ceremonies, rituals, weddings, funerals, crises and adventures. Many times, people ask to do a project with me, and sometimes I seek people or communities out who have a story that I find interesting. As EDELO has become nomadic I am still able to bring this energy to the work I create in other places.
Is there any economic profit you make that could be seen as exploitative to the participants?
I receive money due to my disability, but it is very little, but in places where I tend to live the dollar goes a bit farther. Through this income I fund my own work – I funded Edelo, Zapantera Negra, and all the performance work I’ve been involved in its entirety. (Caleb, my collaborator in much of the work, has also given himself to it without any profit and by spending his resources and life energy in its creation.) I maintain autonomy by not seeking money out from large governmental organizations, and I have only just begun to apply for small arts grants from organizations I believe in. The work I am involved in is not monetized, and if it ever will be, the funding will only go back to the collaborators and cover the costs it took to make the work in the first place. I don’t pay the actors to play a role like an actor, but often times I do give a symbolic stipend because I know the time the collaborators spend with me they could be making money by their own means.
What were some of your most emotionally/spiritually intensive experiences when working with others around the world?
I feel like almost everything I get into is that way. Because I tend to work with people who have intense experiences, within the work we are both affected spiritually and emotionally. I suppose one of the more recent pieces comes to mind: this past year I spent a few months in a Palestinian Refugee Camp living with a family. I became very close with the family, specifically with a man who was around my age who spoke English. Through our many conversations he decided he wanted to create art with me about their lives, and we decided interviewing people with disabilities due to the occupation was our starting point. He was interested in this route because his father suffered severe schizophrenia due to the 12 years of torture he underwent in prison. His father was unable to really tell his story in a cohesive way due to his condition, but he became extremely energized by the exercise and subsequent performance they came up with to abstractly document the psychological conditions of prison and his mind.
The act of being witness to someone’s condition in itself was healing in some way. The act of bringing art into people’s lives and letting them direct the work in a world where their human rights have been relinquished is extremely powerful. The act of asking the simple question of how one stays alive amid such darkness became a journey that deepened our reverence to the soul of life. I will be friends and collaborators with them for our lifetime.
In many of the performances seen in The Sailing Stones Act we are creating in collaboration and on a grass-roots level with individuals and communities of people, not typically self-proclaimed artists. In this installation, because there are no barriers visually or with sound, the happenings from one side of the world leak into the other, the meditations, prayers, violence and laughter cross pollinate. The audience isn’t a factor because it is an isolated viewing experience, it’s just the viewer and this horizontal space of the projection flooding onto the reflected floor, so it becomes a very contemplative space. Each projection separately loops which means the variations of relationships of the projections are always changing, mimicking the way our realities collide to others. It functions as a cross-cultural experience of the we and the now, where our contexts and labels at first glance are of less importance. What becomes relevant is that we are all here together in movement in this sacred land. This unified vision of the people is something I’m wishing to inspire, so we can see ourselves in unity and rise up to a new and better day.