Friday, November 16, 2012

Teresa Margolles: Death in Mexico and the War on Drugs

“According to the Mexican press,” writes Mexican curator and art critic Cuauhtémoc Medina, “More bullets were fired in 2008 than any other year of the country’s recent history.”  According to statistics, more than 5,000 people died in connection to drug trafficking, almost twice as many victims as the year previous.  The United States Department of Defense published a report promoting the idea that Mexico’s sudden upsurge of violence was due to its gang population.  This report was refuted by Mexican diplomats, and the United States developed a more placatory statement, acknowledging greater North America’s role in the violence.  Even after Mexican troops were sent to the border to quell the violence, over 1,900 died in executions, decapitations, and shoot-outs at the beginning of 2009. Writes Medina, "…What Richard Nixon called the 'drug war' has proved to be the most ineffectual campaign in history. Its sole achievement has been the encouragement of an ever larger market for ever cheaper 'illegal substances' – and, of course, a towering mountain of corpses… As Luis Astorga has pointed out…'the real goal of this alleged war seems to be its own perpetuation.'” 

In 2009, Medina collaborated with artist Teresa Margolles to work on an installation for the Venice Biennale. For decades, Mexico did not have an official pavilion and artists did not consistently exhibit at this international art fair.  It was revolutionary that Medina and Margolles represented Mexico in this year and executed such a politically charged installation entitled, ¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (What Else Could We Talk About?) In What Else Could We Talk About Margolles forces the international audience to face the reality of violence in Mexico.  Using the interior of the Rota Ivancich Palace, Margolles installed a group of cleaners to once a day mop the floors of the building with a mixture of water and blood of murdered people from Mexico. When the viewer enters these rooms, the reason why the area is being cleaned is ambiguous and mysterious, but the act of cleaning itself shows that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.  The repetitive, domestic chore of mopping is to clean up routine and accumulated filth as well as the innocuous accidents of spills.  Margolles’s use of repetitive mopping prompts the viewer to ask, what’s wrong?  What happened?  What is it that is being corrected?  The silence itself is overwhelming. When the viewer realizes that the mopping is a futile attempt at cleaning and that over time these layers of blood are actually accumulating, it is clear that something is not only wrong, it is getting worse. 

Margolles uses fabric impregnated with the blood from victims of Mexico’s violence.  Once the body is removed, and the crime scene investigation is complete, Margolles cleans the blood-stained area with damp rags, absorbing the blood into the cloth.  In Venice, she took this fabric and turned it into flags that she hung outside and inside of the pavilion.  Flags are nationalistic in nature, so hanging this blood-soaked flag outside of the Mexican pavilion is a way of exposing the country’s political violence, and emphasizing the guilt of her country in these ongoing murders. Furthering her act of cleaning, Margolles took these flags and submerged them in the waters of Lido Beach, Venice.  Mexico is saturated with the blood of its dead, but it is at the same time trying to rid itself of the violence, to hide it. 
Teresa Margolles, United States Pavilion, Venice, 2009
Bruce Nauman, Venice, 2009
In direct dialogue with the United States, Margolles took these blood-soaked fabrics, and installed them over the windows of the United States pavilion, at the heart of the Venice Biennale.  With this act, she acknowledges and confronts the United States’ role and guilt in border violence.  Like Macbeth as he vainly tries to wash his hands clean of the blood of his victim, Margolles tells the United States that the country cannot wash its hands clean of this blood.  Inside might be the comparatively whimsical work of Bruce Nauman, who would win the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for his country, but Margolles’s action is a sobering reminder of the nation’s political dominance and corruption.  As Medina said, "…Presenting her work in Venice also seeks to confront the global system's demagoguery, which continues to operate based on stylistic, linguistic, thematic and material exclusions, where the reference point of the center is never absent. In spite of numerous difficulties, and of every kind, that were involved in doing this pavilion, I always had a precise idea in mind: if an artist like Teresa Margolles can't realize her work at the Venice Biennial, then perhaps the Biennial ought not to exist."

Medina, Cuahtémoc. Teresa Margolles: What Else Could We Talk About? RM. 2010.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Surveillance, Sousveillance, and Filming the Police

On November 5, 2012, The Humanities Institute and the Hoffman Lectureship presented “Surveillance, Space, and the Public” as part of their Difficult Dialogues series.  The panelists included Dr. Simone Browne of the University of Texas Department of Sociology, Micha Cárdenas, an artist and PhD student in Media Arts and Practice at the University of Southern California, and Ernesto Yerena, a prominent artist and activist.  The panelists presented issues of racial, sexual, gender, and cultural identities in their academic and artistic work and the relevance of these identities to state control and surveillance.

Dr. Browne spoke first on the concept of “sousveillance,” and the connection of historical surveillance to racial prejudice and profiling.  She noted how certain populations, such as African Americans, are tracked, policed, and discriminated against both in public and private spaces, and how their personal data, privacy, and security are compromised.  This is true both with the New York Police Department’s Stop-and-Frisk policies, and in the history of Lantern Laws. To resist this surveillance and control, Browne discussed “sousveillance,” and how victims endure by adopting, subverting, resisting, and complying with existing institutions.

“How can the past allow us to ask questions about our present?” Asked Browne.  Our social locations and our categories of identities help frame how we think about surveillance.  She quoted John Fiske discussing the technology “of whiteness that draws lines that blacks cannot cross and whites cannot see.”  To understand our present surveillance system and issues surrounding racial profiling and oppression, Browne suggested we look at slavery and laws that framed Black life, such as the Lantern Laws that appeared after a slave revolt: "No Negro, Malatto [sic] or Indian slave shall be found in any of the Streets of this City… without a lantern and lighted candle in it so as the light thereof may be plainly seen… in such case it shall be lawful for any of his Majesty's Subjects within the said city to apprehend such slave or slaves not having such lantern and candle."  Those that were discovered were punished with public whippings if they failed to light themselves at night.

At a time when New York City was second to Charleston, South Carolina for it’s urban slave population, newspapers ran Runaway Ads to describe runaway slaves.  Browne used these advertisements to examine how slaves were described and how the public was taught to track them down. Browne also identified the success of Ellen Craft, a runaway slave who dressed in drag to pass as a man, and used her light skin and additional make-up to pass for white.  She told people that her husband, who had much darker skin, was her slave, and thus they were both able to subvert these systems of surveillance and hide in plain sight. 

Today, activists subvert police surveillance, such as the NYPD’s discriminatory Stop-and-Frisk, by filming the police and noting instances of police abuse and misconduct.  Over four million stops have been made by the NYPD to randomly search civilians, and 90 percent of the people stopped were Black and Latino, when Black and Latino New Yorkers are the minority in many of these communitiesBrowne introduced the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Stop-and-Frisk Watch App, which New Yorkers can download on a smartphone to record and immediately report stops.  This technology empowers civilians to perform “sousveillance” of police in their communities.

Micha Cárdenas, a media artist and activist, introduced Michel de Certeau’s theory of “la perruque” to analyze theories of subversion, “We’re given something, but we don’t have to do what we’re supposed to do with it.”  To understand surveillance, she argued, we need to think about who is watching whom and how surveillance is continually used to watch and control indigenous populations.  She argued that not only are racial categories necessary in understanding surveillance, but gender is also integral in understanding race.

One of her collaborative projects, the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab, released Poetry, Immigration and the FBI: The Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT). This five year project distributed recycled cell phones to people trying to cross the border, who needed to find water sources.  Recipients had the option of listening to poetry related to surviving in the dessert while they were guided to appropriate water supplies.  The project ended up being investigated by the government, and Cárdenas quipped that the government wasted far more money trying to see if they broke the law, than the $8,000 grant they completed TBT with.

As a transgendered woman, Cárdenas spoke of her desire to start working within her own community, revealing that she “didn’t feel safe walking home most nights.”  Her latest collaborative project is called Local Autonomy Networks (Autonets), and is developing networks of communication to link women, LGBTQI people, people of color, and other vulnerable groups. Using hoodies, people can transmit signals to others wearing these hoodies whenever they are being harassed.  Cárdenas listed prison abolition and avoiding the police and further surveillance as vital to protecting and empowering these communities.  Currently she is experimenting with these garments in performance art pieces.
Ernesto Yerena, another artist in this panel, discussed his work in terms of humanizing immigrant populations, and resisting police authority. His posters depict politically charge portraits juxtaposed against images of war and accompanied by illustrative captions.  One of his posters was designed in response to Occupy Wall Street, and depicts a Native man with the caption “Decolonize Wall Street,” in response to the oppressive, colonizing concept of an occupation. Another image boldly declares, “No Somos Immigrantes En Nuestra Tierra!!!!” 

Yerena discussed his negative perception of the police, recounting how in his community, they would never stop and aid during something even as serious as a drive-by shooting.  Another one of his works Alto Arizona, is a response to the Arizona law SB 1070, which would allow police to have access Federal databases of people, which would lead to racial profiling and more surveillance issues.  For this image, he used the image of a thumbprint to illustrate the shape of Arizona State.

There were major underlying themes in this panel, such as concern with the prison industrial complex and its link to slavery, racial, and sexual oppression.  Each speaker presented how issues of racial, sexual, cultural, and gender identities were integral in their academic and art work. The way in which our contemporary culture considers state repression must take into account how the history of the politics of identity frame surveillance issues.  Who is being controlled, and why? The links between surveillance studies, sousveillance activism, and art as intervention are inextricable and all equally vital in catalyzing radical social change.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Strength to Love: The Legacy of MLK, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., PhD, an unbeatable leader in social activism, embraced contradictions.  He was frequently put in positions of power and influence, but he sought to be humble and to use his words to heal and empower.  He was revered, and his word taken at face value, but he never stopped pushing his intellect and educating himself to draw conclusions. He had every opportunity to become a self-obsessed, egomaniac, or to consider himself a martyr, but he spent his time in self-reflective thought and repentant prayer.  I cannot envision a more ideal leader in the activist community, than someone committed to nonviolent direct action out of love.  To be nonviolent in the face of opposition takes so much courage and takes a greater understanding of the merits of love.  I use this entry to re-publish  MLK, Jr.'s words as compiled in his book, Strength to Love.

My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.

To our most bitter opponents we say: "We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.