From this racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollinization, an “alien” consciousness is presently in the making—a new mestiza consciousness, una conciencia de mujer. It is a consciousness of the Borderlands.
–Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 1987
How and why do we tell stories? Whose stories are told by History and whose are erased, forgotten, or deemed “dangerous” to tell? How do we acknowledge and confront the reality that particular histories fall outside of “acceptable”; and, how do we instead, critically shift to address, honor, and care for them?
These are just some of the crucial questions that have been posed in academic writing, yelled throughout the streets, and scrawled across public monuments. We’ve seen them on international, national, and local scales over the course of this tumultuous year.
Recent efforts—enabled by past advocacy—have challenged individuals, collectives, and institutions to examine fundamentally how people understand time. History writ large, marginalized histories, privilege, subjectivity/objectivity, and institutional methods of communication shift. But perhaps we should also be asking ourselves, what are the non-visible methods of record-keeping that might also erect and maintain barriers; preventing critical reassessments of History?
The Lafayette College Art Galleries in Easton, PA is hosting a forthcoming travelling survey this fall: Emilio Rojas: tracing a wound through my body, September 2–November 13, 2021. The multidisciplinary artist approaches history and memory within the archive, as a point of departure for present and future poetic reckoning. Rather than relying upon standard procedures of conservation, research, and cataloging, Rojas engages the theories of Chicana, queer, and feminist theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa. The feminist, queer, decolonial consciousness runs through the conception of “borderlands”—or the dissolution of binaries within cultural hybridity.
In research-based, archival works that he revisits in various iterations, Rojas identifies “cross-polinizations,” centers the preservation of marginalized memories, and encourages viewers to participate in this historical new consciousness. Over the course of numerous conversations in preparation for his survey, Rojas and I have discussed the various works in this interview. The artist generously took a step back from this engrossing work in order to consider it all anew and particularly to dwell upon how retrospection interacts with these archival works.
Archives are nothing else but collections filtered through different eyes and hands, and sifted through time. I always think of this enchantment of these objects. This gives us a sense of belonging, a trace of the past, the footstep of a legacy.
Laurel V. McLaughlin (LVM): Emilio, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about your practice here for the public, as a type of archive—a subject which we’ll discuss more shortly. We’ve had many conversations over the course of 2020 and 2021 in preparation for your forthcoming exhibition. We are approaching your first survey, Emilio Rojas: tracing a wound through my body. By definition, a survey exhibition looks back at the work of an artist over ten years, and this exhibition frame seems to suggest a wholeness, or a recollection of a complete past within the present. I think that we’re calling upon certain encirclings from your work that yield much more fragmented discussions concerning history, desire, and space. For this starting point, how are you considering this practice of retroactive viewing?
Emilio Rojas (ER): It’s been interesting to see the work now over the last ten years, specifically after a pandemic, and having so much time for reflection. I also realized that I’ve archived so many of the works, but some are in Italy, Spain, Canada, Chicago. So, bringing them all together is an interesting challenge geographically. It speaks to how I’ve migrated through and created work in different places, and also the importance of site-specificity in my practice.
For example, there are works in the exhibition from my undergrad, which I never thought would be in a show like this; but they pinpoint a moment in my practice which is very important. They were the seeds for other pieces that I’m working on now.
For this question, I also think about the start of my career as an artist when I was invited to the Banff Centre in 2010 to do a residency with artist Geoffrey Farmer. That was the first time I had a studio and I was working with other professional artists. At the time, I had to take a break from undergrad at Emily Carr University because I couldn’t afford it, even though I already had a scholarship.
After that, there were other points when I’ve really changed my practice. In 2011, I went to the Venice Biennale and it was really important for me to participate in an event of that scale, and to understand the reach of the art world internationally. Then a couple of years after that, I did a residency at the Botín Foundation in Spain with Tacita Dean. What I learned from her shaped my practice in working with archives and the way I make work now, which is very process and research-based.
Then working with Beau Dick during my experience of graduate school at the University of British Columbia shifted my work, and also working with Ernesto Pujol when I was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. More than any institution or education, it is the mentors that I’ve had who have really shaped my life as an artist.
There are so many points that I can recollect, and the exhibition shows actual performances and documentation...but they are all connected through this chronology of space—whether I was in Canada, or Spain, or Mexico, or the U.S., and this identity as an immigrant. This formation of identity continued through my 20s; asking myself what it means to produce work when you’re so far from home, while engaging with migrant and refugee communities, and various sites. Ten years is also not a lot.
I think about meeting Howardena Pindell for her retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art and spending time with her. She would say things like, “Oh, in the ‘70s I would do this, and in the ‘80s I was doing this other thing, and then in the ‘90s I went back to what I was doing in the ‘70s and then in the 2000s I was doing this, and 2010s I went back to this, but now I’m actually doing this thing from the ‘60s.”
So, at some point in my life, I hope I can look back on my work this way. I realize that my work is not much right now in comparison to the artists who I revere. I continue to look forward to working like that. It’s an important exercise to think though, what might another show like this look like in another ten years or twenty years or fifty years. What would a retrospective—like the one that Howardina Pindell had—look like?
It makes me realize that I need to save all the videos and documentation on different platforms. My first videos were done on tape, and film, and had to be transferred. It makes me aware of the archival practices that I need to engage with, if I want the work to exist in the future. It’s also making me consider a sense of legacy. Tracing this process of each work and how it influenced the next is interesting. I always work on multiple projects at the same time, but they all weave together in a way.
LVM: It strikes me that while some of your works, such as The Dead Taste Sweeter than the Living (after Félix González-Torres) (2017) and Naturalized Borders (to Gloria) (2019) directly engage queer and marginalized archives, this act of retroactive looking also opens up your previous research-based and collaborative projects to archival speculation.
Before we get into these works and this distinction that I’ve just suggested, could we first discuss the intersectional methodologies that are knotted within your practice, such as the queer, archival, and decolonized ways of working that you engage. Could you speak more about these ways of working?
ER: I always think of my work as intersectional. Many people tell me, “There is so much work.” I think about what bell hooks wrote in Remembered Rapture (1999), when someone questions them after their tenth book, by referring to it as “yet another book.” She writes: “They never hear me no matter how many times I share with them that writing is my passion. Like all passions it demands discipline and devotion.”
I keep going back to those words also because performance is not an easy medium to have a life built around. Out of all the artistic mediums, it’s the most ephemeral. And I think about this discipline over the past ten years, and I constantly get told that I’m doing too much. But I think I’m not doing enough.
For instance, working with my father’s book in A Manual to Be (to Kill) or To Forgive My Own Father has been going on for the past five years and I’m only just now teaching a class called “Daddy Issues” at Bard College, but there’s so much that gets uncovered every year and with every iteration.
I stop and take breaks and let the work breathe. Every time I go to an archive, I take as many photographs as possible for later. Like with Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s archive at the University of Austin in Texas in the Benson Latin American Collection, I’ve been digesting what I saw in that archive for the past seven years through the creation of works like Naturalized Borders (to Gloria) and Heridas Abiertas (to Gloria).
The work discloses itself and it becomes a dialogue through time. Same thing with The Dead Taste Sweeter Than the Living (after Félix González-Torres), I worked with the Visual AIDS Archive, with the correspondence of Carl George—Ross Laycock’s best friend who was with him until the end. I got to actually work with Carl and interview him about Ross Laycock, who was Félix González-Torres’ partner, and about Ross as a person and human being.
That interview was two years ago and just now I’ve gotten time to start transcribing it. A lot has passed in those two years; for example a world pandemic has shifted the way people perceive the AIDS pandemic now. This year, 2021, is actually the 30th anniversary of Ross dying in 1991.
I’m grateful for Carl that he kept all the correspondence and postcards, thinking that someday someone would find this important. He saw this as relevant but also as a way for someone to be in contact with Félix. With these interviews I want to publish a little book called Portrait of Ross. The famous work by González-Torres is called Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991) because Ross became a mythical lover of the AIDS pandemic. In my view, Félix was the most important artist of that time, and he also happens to be a Cuban queer man.
For me, decolonizing begins with our bodies and our choices. I also believe that within capitalism, it is impossible to fully undergo this process. The colonizer lives inside of us, and, in a way, decolonization works more as an exorcism of the histories of colonization and how trauma is stored in our bodies.
How do we respond within the identities that we hold and beyond, as well as with the materials and collaborations we create in the world, to reflect an intersectionality that we embody, or enflesh?
For me, decolonizing begins with our bodies and our choices. I also believe that within capitalism it is impossible to fully undergo the process of decolonizing. The colonizer lives inside of us, and, in a way, decolonization works more as an exorcism of the histories of colonization and how trauma is stored in our bodies. How do we respond within the identities that we hold and beyond, as well as with the materials and collaborations we create in the world to reflect an intersectionality that we embody, or enflesh.
LVM: This strikes me as relevant to something you said in a recent artist lecture at Tufts University about working with archives. You spoke about interacting with archives and how it’s relational. How do these collaborations take you beyond the material remains of the archive, and to the relational?
ER: For me, archives are also a way to see the influence that mentors have had on me, like Beau Dick, Ernesto Pujol, Rebecca Belmore—these people have changed my process and ways of thinking and relations to materials. They guided my moral compass. With people like Félix González-Torres and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, who both passed from untimely deaths due to AIDS and diabetes respectively, I think of the archive as a way of finding those mentors that were denied to you by the circumstances.
I’ve been thinking recently about this idea of what we mourn. Oli Rodriguez, who is an amazing Puerto Rican artist, did this amazing project called The Papi Project (2010–2020) in which he’s searching for his father through other men’s bodies and relations. He posted an ad on Craigslist saying, “Have you slept with this man?,” and it’s a picture of his father who died of AIDS in 1993. He writes, “In my post, I was seeing that absence. This absence signifies the potential teacher, father, lover, and friend that we could’ve loved, fought, and felt. AIDS devastated these potential relations. And these non-relationships are part of our daily mourning.” So, mourning doesn’t just include the people that we’ve met and lost, but it also includes the potential relationships that could’ve happened if people wouldn’t have died.
For me, archival practices are a way to connect with these mentors, especially a whole generation of queer artists who were lost during the AIDS pandemic. As we’re in another type of pandemic, it makes me question who are the artists and fathers who are dying now, and how can we connect to them?
LVM: Turning back to The Dead Taste Sweeter than the Living (after Félix González-Torres) (2017), could you walk us through this project and tease out how it specifically engaged with González-Torres’ artistic legacy and archive?
ER: The Dead Taste Sweeter than the Living (after Félix González-Torres) was originally titled Alien Tears based on the text that is written on Oscar Wilde’s tomb, from The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897). It was his last poem after being incarcerated. On his tomb at Père Lachaise, it reads:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
I started working with Félix González-Torres’ legacy and archive because I was a graduate student in the SAIC. To get to my studio I would have to pass the museum everyday, and I would visit the galleries and then constantly revisit the piece, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), which is one of his candy spills. I saw this kid collecting the candy and putting it in his pockets and I had this idea. This is a work where you’re supposed to take, because it’s 175 pounds of candy that Félix allows people to take; and, as the weight diminishes, it references the way that AIDS decreased peoples’ weights. I asked myself, how long would it take for me to transfer 175 pounds of candy and then use it in a different way, to reconsider the legacy of Félix González-Torres and the legacy of AIDS in my generation?
I think the origin of the word “legacy”, from the late 14th century, legacie, is “body of persons sent on a mission.” I feel like the legacy of these artists and mentors who have passed away lives on in the bodies of those who continue their mission—a sort of atemporal transmission that lives posthumously in the work, the flesh, and the archives. (main quote - between into and body)
So, I would go take a handful of candy everyday. And it took me a year and a half to transfer the body, or transfer Ross, into my studio. After about six months of collecting, people that came to my studio or did studio visits would notice the pile. Before it was just a little pile, but when it was a critical mass of candy, people began to notice.
I started interviewing survivors of the AIDS pandemic—artists and activists who survived—for the duration of one candy in their mouth. And realizing that the body of Ross could serve as a way to relay these oral histories was important. It gave agency to the people who were being interviewed because you can swallow the candy, or break it down for less time. So, the interviews lasted from five to fifteen minutes. The moment that the candy is done, the person stands up and leaves. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the middle of an important story. For me, it refers to the way that many of these lives were cut short in the middle of a sentence. I also realized that the word archive has HIV in the middle of the word. It’s like it has the virus inside of it. So, the project is called The arcHIVes. Many works seem as if they don’t stop...but I’m thinking about how I will close this piece.
There are so many variations of this piece, it’s been presented at the Art AIDS America exhibition closing ceremony that traveled throughout the U.S., the DePaul Art Museum, and in a queer performance festival in Regina, called Performatorium. Ross was from Canada, so I felt that it was important to take him back to his country of origin. Also, crossing the border with the candy was an interesting experience. I told them that I was using it for a piñata and they let me pass. It’s also grown because I found out that Carl George has donated his collection of mementos. I went and looked at the archive in Visual AIDS in New York and I wanted to take the piece to Los Angeles because it would be like a “Portrait of Ross in L.A” that never happened. In the letters, I found the address of where Félix and Ross lived in L.A. and I wanted to take it back to that exact apartment, but that never happened. So, the project has grown in different ways.
LVM: As you mentioned, it’s the 30th anniversary of the death of Ross Laycock. But you’re still working with these oral histories and the González-Torres archives. Could you share how?
ER: So, I mentioned that the work has grown in different ways. In Félix’s will, his ashes were to be spread in the Atlantic in New York by his friend Julie Ault, who I’ve also been in contact with. I wanted to do a performance where I unwrap each candy—because I don’t want to just throw them wrapped and contaminate the ocean—and then throw them into the ocean, all 27,000 candies from a boat. It would be like putting the body of Ross into the ocean, so that Félix and Ross can meet metaphorically, the sweet candy and the salty ocean, the polar opposites—just like Felix and Ross were polar opposites in so many ways in their interracial relationship. I think about the fact that a lot of work I’ve done has been supported by institutions, and that I thought could never happen. I always have more ideas than I have resources, but that has never stopped me from making the work. Whenever I get invited to do a commission I look at the work that is unfinished, and ask myself how I can use resources to support the communities that I’ve been working and collaborating with.
I wondered if the border was able to respond, or, if just by asking the questions, they would look for the answers themselves and think about their “response-ability” towards the human rights abuses that happen in these geographical demarcations.
LVM: Shifting to the work Naturalized Borders (to Gloria) (2019), you draw heavily upon archive of Chicana feminist, cultural, queer theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa. In what ways do you activate or extend her written work and archive in Naturalized Borders (to Gloria), an interactive land art and community-based installation commissioned for the festival Where No Walls Remain at Bard College, and forthcoming in a new iteration at Lafayette College?
ER: I received a copy of Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera from my friend Guadalupe Martinez. She said, “This book will change your life.” I’ve heard that about other books, so I always take it with a grain of salt, but she was entirely right. I connected with Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa’s writing and how she writes unapologetically in Spanish, English, and Spanglish, her syncretic forms of writing, between prose and poetry, as well as the mestizo consciousness that she infuses into the work.
The first paragraph of prose in the book reads: “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [is an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” I was thinking about the border a lot and ways that I could continue her work. This sentence kept resonating in my body, and haunting me. I was thinking about borders and bodies and that trauma that this open wound creates in our communities. Eventually I tattooed the border on my back without ink, to physically create this open wound in the landscape of an immigrant body.
With Naturalized Borders, we planted corn, squash, and beans—the three sisters—in the shape of the U.S.-Mexican border line. It was an eight-month project that was commissioned by the Live Arts Biennial of The Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. Curated by Gideon Lester and Tania El Khoury in 2018, it was called Where No Walls Remain. This was a land art piece of a hundred-foot-long plantings of this line, and a physical space that references the line of the abstracted border.
I did workshops with about 400 students. Different classes were held for one to three hours, to think differently about the border and physically use the archive of Anzaldúa, that I had photocopied from the Benson Latin American Collection, making the archive accessible. One thing about most archives is that they’re closed off—you have to be an academic to use them, and you have to have the time and resources to get to them. You’re always supervised and surveilled. As a person of color, this surveillance and supervision can be intimidating, even threatening. I was very fortunate because one day, with the Anzaldúa archive, the person who was there allowed me to photocopy everything that I was looking at. It allowed the archive to enter the world—unpublished things, photographs, her birth certificate—so that people could know who she was. She’s well-known within Chicanx and queer circles, and people that work with border theory. But she’s not a well-known author outside of that niche. She was also a poet and openly out as a lesbian. People know about This Bridge Called My Back, the first anthology of the writings of women of color, that was published in 1981 and co-edited with Cherríe Moraga. But I’m always surprised when I teach her in my class how very few people know about Anzaldúa. So, I tried to bring her back to life, so to speak, to think about her legacy. And, as I mentioned before, return to the root of the word legacy; a “body of persons sent on a mission.” I named the work Naturalized Borders (to Gloria). I don’t put “to Gloria Anzaldúa” because I want people to guess, maybe Gloria is my mom. So people ask, who is Gloria? And I have to tell them. It’s not giving away everything, but it’s recognizing the lineage that I’m working from and with. I’m trying to activate and extend this in my own body, finding strategies to enflesh the archive.
LVM: I really appreciate that the title partially obscures the work, requiring viewers to ask. They, in turn, become curious about this immense legacy which delves into how border politics affect every facet of who we are, from nationality to gender and sexuality.
Part of the work Naturalized Borders (to Gloria) involved creating a kind of expanded and ephemeral aural archive of sorts along the organic “wall.” Students whispered to plants, answering the questions you posed. How do you view those stories that perhaps are not recorded for codified history?
ER: Part of the “border pedagogy,” or how we think about borders, insists that we don’t just read it as a barrier. It requires that we engage with it differently, asking questions: “What do you know about the border? What are the questions that you have for the border?” One of the exercises was: If the border was someone that you sat down for dinner with, what would you ask her or him or them? What would this personification of the border look like?
I think of the border as a feminine entity, but maybe it’s because I associate it with Anzaldúa, or the mother, or the land. They would spend about twenty minutes writing questions and then they would go through these exercises of voicing the questions aloud, softly, or whispering to one another. I realized that by doing the project, I learned a lot about agriculture—I was collaborating with Rebecca Yoshino, who’s the Manager of the Farm at Bard, as well as students that helped to grow this installation and its upkeep. I wasn’t very aware about it before. I realized in taking care of it that when the corn is attached to the stalk, it’s called an “ear.” In Spanish it’s called mazorca; so, maybe if it’s an ear, then the land can listen. So, the students would find an ear of corn in the installation and whisper their questions to the border and then move to another ear and whisper again. I wondered if the border was able to respond, or, if just by asking the questions, they would look for the answers themselves and think about their “response-ability” towards the human rights abuses that happen in these geographical demarcations.
I also had them draw the border without looking at a map. By doing that, we came to realize how the border is, as Anzaldúa writes, “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.” So, even though it defines so much about our identities as migrants, within nations, and the limits of the U.S., and imperialism and interventionism. The land and the line itself is very abstract. Very few students could even remember which states touch the border, and none of them knew which states in Mexico were on the other side of the border.
So, people don’t know how it looks, but then the site has been weaponized so that people fear the influx of migrants from Latin America, the drug cartels, and the violence. It has become a very unstable space, but we don’t know how to even draw it. It reminded me of when during the Iraq war, a reporter went around the U.S. with a globe and asked people to point at the map and answer where Iraq was. American couldn’t place it in a globe without names, even though they had kids in the military and the whole country was funneling money to the war. I think there’s a lack of knowledge and specificity about the territory and land sovereignty there that makes it easier for people to justify the abuse. As they drew the border, we saw that none of them were accurate or similar. So, we would put them together to realize that they looked more like one big line, or like a series of open wounds.
This became another piece with a paleta cart—A Vague and Undetermined Place (to Gloria) (2019). Ernesto Pujol always challenged me to consider: What are the things that you do which are part of your practice, but not your work? And what part of the process is the work, or just a vehicle for the work to manifest itself? Everything you do is part of your practice, but only parts of that process become the work.
For me, I discovered these exercises through Naturalized Borders and this pedagogy based on the legacy of Anzaldúa. But then some of those pieces became other pieces—they informed one another. But I didn’t collect all the drawings or whisperings from the students; instead, this exercise became A Vague and Undetermined Place (to Gloria). In this piece, I exchange a paleta—a Mexican frozen popsicle—for a drawing of the border. These popsicles are made from produce that is sent from Mexico and cross the border, pointing out that produce from Latin America sustains the dietary needs of the United States. Then, from those drawings, I illuminate them over a light case, and you realize that none of these borders are accurate, when they are juxtaposed on top of each other. It becomes what Anzaldúa delineates, a vague and undetermined territory in a constant state of transition.
LVM: Earlier I made a distinction between these two works, Naturalized Borders and The Dead Taste Sweeter Than the Living (after Félix González-Torres), which directly reference archives, and the perspective of retroactive vision, which is archival in some sense. I’m also wondering if there’s another way that you incorporate archives—those of your own?
ER: I think for me archives act as windows to moments in time, or a specific person’s past. I think of Walter Benjamin and his obsession with collections and archives. The Arcades Project (1982) was an unfinished reservoir of texts, notes, and fragments that haunted him. I think a lot about the aura of the work of art, a term also coined by Benjamin in his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” (1936). He argues that even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element, “Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
I believe not only the work of art but also archives have an aura. Archives provide that presence in time and space—that access to the past, which hopefully creates a window to the potentialities of the future. Benjamin was, after all, a hopeless collector, and through his systematic archiving of these artefacts, texts, and ideas, he was able to process the world around him. Benjamin wrote in the Arcades Project: “The deepest enchantment of the collector: to put things under a spell…It must be kept in mind that, for the collector, the world is present, and indeed ordered, in each of his objects. We need only recall what importance a particular collector attaches not only to his object but also to its entire past.” Archives are nothing else but collections filtered through different eyes and hands, and sifted through time. I always think of this enchantment of these objects. This gives us a sense of belonging, a trace of the past, the footstep of a legacy.
When I see a napkin in the archive where Anzaldúa wrote the beginning of an unpublished poem, and I hold it in my hand, I believe there is some form of transmission. Maybe I’m just a romantic, but through these objects I feel closer to all the mentors that we have lost to AIDS, cancer, diabetes. A psychic once told me not to buy shoes from a thrift store because they hold someone's past and energy. I told them that all my shoes are from thrift stores, the same way that all of my works follow the footsteps of another artist or thinker.
For people like Félix González Torres and Gloria Anzaldúa, who both had untimely deaths due to AIDS and diabetes respectively, I think of the archive is a way of finding those mentors that were denied to you by the circumstances.
LVM: Both of these works, Naturalized Borders (to Gloria) and The Dead Taste Sweeter Than the Living (after Félix González-Torres), have an investment in a kind of poetics that’s perhaps adjacent to, or even embedded within your perspective of archival work. Could you talk more about these poetics?
ER: Rachel Zucker mentioned in a lecture the distinction between prose and poetry, established by Simon Coolridge. Zucker said, “Prose is words in their best order, and poetry is the best words in the best order.” For me, poetics is a very important part of my practice because it’s the way I make sense of the world.
I constantly go back to Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury” (1985), to think of poetics as a tool of liberation. Lorde writes, “Poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless-about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.” It is a way of casting spells, of exorcising colonial demons, to harness the power within us.
Besides writing poetry, I try to think of performance as exercises in poetics. So, I think a lot around poetic images and dreams. When I work with archives, not as an academic, but as an artist, I’m trying to find the poetic images that are hidden inside those worlds. With Anzaldúa, it’s quite easy because she’s a poet who uses a lot of rich imagery. The U.S.-Mexican border is an open wound, it’s a very clear poetic and political image that reflects the trauma and pain inscribed in this line. In another poem she says, “Split me, split me, me raja, me raja, (it cuts me, it cuts me),” as if the text was felt on her body. I wanted to manifest this poetic image in a performance. So, I imagined that a surgeon would open my back, suture it, and then reopen the wound. I searched for two years for a doctor who would do it and no one would do it because of liability. Then I thought about tattooing, which is something that I’d been doing in other pieces, and how a tattoo is in itself an aesthetic wound with ink, a chosen scar. It’s a cut that you put ink into and the body retains its memory. So, I thought about a tattoo without ink, so it’s just a wound—an aesthetic wound—and precisely done down the length of my back, also referencing Anzaldua’s anthology, This Bridge Called My Back. I think about images that come up in dreams that become poetic memories, and I have to figure out how to turn them into performances. And then, out of things that I find in the archives that I work with, I use these poetics.
It’s my job as an artist to breathe new life into the archives through my body and digest what is there. The archive of Anzaldúa has 120 boxes, and I haven’t even looked through the whole collection. I only looked through about twenty boxes, her library, and annotated books. As artists working with archives, we slowly work through them and bring them back to life. It’s not necessarily accurate or academic research, but it’s poetic permission. Through our work, someone might also find her work, and that’s what I find most satisfying. After doing Naturalized Borders at Bard there were three seniors who used Anzaldua’s work in their Senior Projects.
When I worked with the archive of Bayard Rustin, very few people know who he is and his role in the Civil Rights Movement because he was gay, Black, and a communist. Anzaldúa was marginalized because she was a woman, a Latina, a lesbian, poor, and disabled because of her diabetes. Félix was Latino and gay, but white passing, so he didn’t have the kind of three-strike rule. I just think it’s different for each person. In some ways, Félix has gotten the recognition he deserves and Gloria has not. So, my work with Félix is different because I’m not trying to tell anyone about who he is. Everyone in the art world knows who Félix González-Torres is, but not everyone knows who Anzaldúa is. And I think it’s through these poetic gestures that I seduce someone into seeing something that was ignored before. It’s strange, because it sticks in your mind. It haunts you. If we were just to review her archive and stand on the street and start reading it, or write a paper on it that would be published in a journal, it wouldn’t have the same impact. When the archive is translated into the body and into oral histories, people want to listen.
Poetics changes people as well. I’ve survived because of poetry and the work of Black and brown poets—Lucille Clifton, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan—etc. When you read a poem, there might always be a line or stanza that stays with you.
There’s a poem by Mary Oliver, In Blackwater Woods (1983), in which she says, “Look, the trees/ are turning/ their own bodies/ into pillars/ of light.” I’ve worked with many trees throughout my practice, and when I read this, from that point onward, I could not see a tree without thinking of it as a “pillar of light.” It has literally concretized the ethereal element of light and turned it into matter. It’s light, earth’s nutrients, water, that’s become physical, that we can smell, touch, and hold. I think poetics within artwork are able to do the same thing, to shift paradigms.
Many people have told me that after seeing The Lion’s Teeth animation and thinking about the dandelion and how it’s a carrier of colonialism, they can never see a dandelion the same way or blow at it with the same childhood innocence....The work changed their perception. Maybe after seeing the ArcHIVes interviews with AIDS survivors, every time you have candy you will think differently about that sweetness and the stories that you’ve heard. I interviewed them while they were eating the candy, and that’s where the poetics comes in. With Félix’s work, it’s really poetic already, similar to Anzaldúa’s. Turning the weight of your lover into candy is already such a poetic gesture. If this is already a metaphor for a body, how do you transfer it or make it relevant again? I was thinking how I could use the body of Ross as a medium to reconnect to the oral histories again with these people who lost their loved ones and everyone they knew.
LVM: Along with poetics, it seems that there is a pointed type of archival care that you embody. It goes beyond that of document preservation, ethical procedures, or categorization. But it has to do with the connection between the archival corpus and the responsibility it bears for queer and Latinx communities. How are you considering and practicing this care?
ER: I’m not an archivist; so I don’t care about preservation. I care more about its dissemination into communities and this mission that a legacy carries in our bodies. You know, Andrea Rosen Gallery—Félix’s gallery and guardian of his Estate—doesn’t really care about the archive reaching Latinx and queer communities. She cares about preserving its value and its art historical relevance. Carl George donated his archive of letters to Visual AIDS because in one of the last shows that Andrea had of Félix’s work, AIDS was completely erased from the narrative. It was about his minimalism and his strategies of engaging with publics and his impact on the art of the 20th century. But AIDS was something that I thought could never be removed from the work because it’s the core of the work. So, Carl donated this archive so that people could see that there was another story happening. For instance, Félix and Ross were not in a monogamous relationship. So, the histories both whitewash and heteronormatize the history that is being told about his work and life. The puzzle piece works from Félix, which are so beautiful, made me think about taking my photographs of the postcard donated by Carl George and turning them into puzzles. Because archives are like puzzles, every piece illuminates the whole. I’ve been obsessed with puzzles since I was a kid. Without one of the pieces, you can’t see the larger image. For me, archives have pieces which then make up a larger image of a person or narrative or biography or history...but they’re just pieces. It is our job to put them back together so that they make sense again.
One of the most frustrating things is when you do a puzzle and you realize that you’re missing a piece. For me, there’s a lot of care in understanding that my works are pieces of a larger thing. It’s important that I put a lot of care into this work because I want people to see it differently. In doing so, I’m thinking of the communities that I belong to like migrant, queer, brown, Indigenous communities. And I want them to understand themselves through these archives to have a different relationship to their traumas and experiences by seeing it reflected somewhere else. That’s really why I use archives, because they’re a window into ourselves. With Anzaldúa, almost every piece of the archive has had an impact on me, even her faculty self-description. I wrote mine based on hers. She writes in an unpublished handwritten text, “Yes, I acknowledge the deep silences that surge up from my Indian soul, the song that gives wind to my Spanish, and the culture of the queer and the alien hidden somewhere in the recesses of my body. All of these are my roots, my being influenced by the anglo-culture and the schools that I attended. All of these are my roots but I would like them to not become my prison. I would like not to be trapped in the territory labeled, women, lesbian, Mexican, visionary.” She had written the word “poet” after “lesbian”, but she crossed it off. She knew poetics are silent, they speak through their own voice. She is recognizing all of the intersections of her roots, but she’s not allowing them to become her prison, and neither should we.
LVM: Thank you so much Emilio for this conversation, especially as you’re imagining what these archival, research-based processes mean within the context of your survey and forthcoming iterations of the projects.