A Moment of Respite: Looking Back at PST: LA/LA…

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A Moment of Respite: Looking Back at PST: LA/LA…

By Irina Contreras April 10, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


This essay is funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency.

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On February 16, 2018, it was reported that 212 people were detained at 122 businesses throughout Los Angeles. The Washington Times announced that 88 percent of the people detained were convicted criminals, and according to ICE, Los Angeles was targeted because it had declared itself a sanctuary city. On February 16, community members from the group ICE Out of LA staged an action outside of a Department of Homeland Security facility, stopping a van from moving forward off the street. The bodies of the participants stood against the van, at times chanting in unison, at other times waiting silently for the next thing to happen.

From the time Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA began in September 2017 to the time it wrapped up in January 2018, the Trump administration went through several iterations of cracking down on immigrants, undocumented, and under-documented people. The opening of PST: LA/LA at the Getty Center included artists, curators, a panel discussion, theater, and live music performance. Although the mood was celebratory, many participants noted the opening nearly coincided with the recent announcement of the ending of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the ongoing border-wall talk, and later the forced removal of Haitian immigrants. Yet the Hollywood Reporter went as far as proclaiming that actions such as ASCO’s Spray Paint LACMA were “no longer needed” when so many opportunities were available for Latinx people in Los Angeles. The website for PST points out the initiative has given more than $16 million in grants since 2014.

Among several issues that people have noted about PST: LA/LA is that there was very little representation of Afro-Latinx, Afro-Indigenous, and Indigenous artists. Work in some exhibitions instead focused on Indigenous people, or rather the lands that Indigenous people once inhabited. This issue feels relevant in Rafa Esparza and Sebastian Hernandez’s work in cumbre (2018) presented at MOCA, Laura Aguilar’s body of work, and Cesia Domínguez López’s project, Mi Cuerpo Es Medicina at Cuerpos Unidos—both presented at Vincent Price Museum. These pieces seemed to point toward their own footprint, both implicit and affected by settler colonialism.

Cesia Domínguez López. Mi Cuerpo Es Medicina Performance/Installation, Vincent Price Art Museum, January 13, 2018. Photo: Zut Lorz and Kate Alexandrite.

López presented a scene that was at once an altar and a performance in which she lay adorned in gold paint and surrounded by plants. Over the course of four hours, she shifted locations four times in an effort to slow time. López’s performance was spent connecting and building intentionality with the endangered native plants she was surrounded with. The process, while insular, was made public. Edgar Fabián Frías also employed a purposeful non-action during their piece at Cuerpos Unidos, in which they refused to allow themselves to seek any rational or logical meaning. In examining the participation of several of the performers from PST: LA/LA, I look to work that shares an interest in the physicality of the pause, recline, or moment of respite. These moments across the performances, although quite varied, provided information about how contemporary Latinx artists are considering and acting alongside the current political moment.

Edgar Fabián Frías. Nacimos en Jaulas. Abrimos las Alas y Volamos Performance, Vincent Price Art Museum, January 13, 2018. Photo: Zut Lorz and Kate Alexandrite.

Upon entering the PST: LA/LA live art show, Variedades, two people were posed on an eye-level display area at the entrance of the Mayan Theater. Both performers occasionally glanced around, neither holding nor breaking eye contact with the public. Artist Rafa Esparza was sprayed from head to toe in a cloudy, cotton-candy-like pink paint with decals, including many roses running up and down both legs, arms, and his back. A gold chrome piece hung just on the small of Esparza’s back, reading “Brown Persuasion.” The second performer, Sebastian Hernandez, wore a metallic monokini with a pleated miniskirt, chic aviator sunglasses, and lace-up heels. A velvet rope covered the area they were located on, as if to make them off-limits or more exclusive.

For the second part of the performance, Esparza entered the main stage area to the tune of the 1990 song “La Raza” from East LA rapper Kid Frost. The stage was composed only of Esparza’s pink body and an enormous disco ball hanging just above him. “La Raza,” a song whose cultural importance has shifted throughout the last two and a half decades, enjoyed yet another new life during Esparza’s performance. With each pose, he very clearly embodied the lowrider classic, “Gypsy Rose,” low stoop and wide stance implying that he was both inside the vehicle and the vehicle itself, driving our glance. The project titled Corpo Ranfla (2018) was a collaborative live performance and cartographical document of lowriding, and gay cruising places, in LA through the embodiment of an adorned car. Lowriding is, for many, an extension of the paseo, a tradition in Mexico in which people come to the town center to gather. Yet the political history of lowriding was also that of a form of protest to purposefully slow things down. Many have typically associated Southern California lowriding as Northern California’s less political sibling. Lowriders in San Jose, for example, would often bring the flock to protests and walk-outs in San Francisco. I suggest that in Los Angeles, the process of slowing a city down against all odds—the police, neighborhood watch, anti-cruising laws—is in itself a political act. Corpo Ranfla has the power of drag and burlesque, while also more thoroughly exploring femme (masculine) identity. It is a testament to the merging of cultures that much of masculine machismo has claimed does not exist.

Rafa Esparza and Sebastian Hernandez. "Variedades," January 18, 2018; Corpo Ranfla performance at Mayan Theater. Photo: Rudy Garcia.

Esparza’s performance and the official closing of PST: LA/LA, cumbre: look as far as you can see in every direction-north and south, east and west (2018) took place at MOCA in Little Tokyo. The artist’s statement has offered the word “kinship” to viewers whose eyes have been trained to look at one person, as art history lends itself to the “subject” and the leader. Corpo Ranfla and cumbre both created a dual focus on each body, that of Esparza’s and Hernandez’s. There was not one special body throughout the course of either performance. cumbre began with the audience literally walking over a bridge with Esparza lying underneath, and ended with both performers clapping for us, clapping back at us.

Sebastian Hernandez (with Rafa Esparza). cumbre: look as far as you can see in every direction-north and south, east and west Performance, MOCA Los Angeles, January 21, 2018. Photo: Elon Schoenholz.

All three of Esparza’s (and Hernandez’s) performances utilized positions and stances of recline, respite, or pause: one encased in soil at Live Artists Live: Simultaneity at the parking lot of USC’s Roski MFA building, striding under slowly running water at MOCA, and then another evoking stillness alongside club culture. As Latinx people become the majority in the US, several relevant questions come to light. How do we address the current moment in which Latinx people, who are thought of as an oppressed group of people, have also advanced towards assimilation of whiteness? This whiteness is not afforded to everyone. These performances ask what is at stake for Latinx artists in this critical moment. What do we demand be said and remembered?”

Artemisa Dolores Clark’s La Clase De Dibujo Libre/Free Drawing Class took place twice over the course of the PST Live Art LA/LA festival. Clark responded to artist Ema Villanueva’s project (2000-2004), which initially took place in public on the streets of Mexico City. Over the last year, Clark has staged several reinterpretations, including Villanueva’s, in an effort to explore reperformance as methodology. While Villanueva’s was initially held in the street, including on top of a police car, Clark reinterpreted the piece as a live drawing model in a gallery space with the assistance of the public. As with walking over Esparza in cumbre, spectators were not allowed to simply watch, but were called to create in a space that was also watching them create.

Artemisa Dolores Clark. La Clase de Dibujo Libre (2000–2004/2017) Performance. "Below the Underground: Renegade Art and Action in 1990s Mexico," Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, CA. November 11, 2017. Courtesy of Armory Center for the Arts. Photo: Ian Bryers-Gamble.

PST brought many Latinx voices out onto a larger platform than what is often available for artists of color. What is at stake for those who engage in a politics of refusal to participate? What is at stake for those who change the game of a game that is most certainly in need of new rules? These projects depict the Brown body in various states of recline, mirroring the state of a collective body affected by our political and economic state. The question remains: What will Latinx artists do with the space created afterward?

Domínguez López states that “slowing down, for me, is decolonizing time and exploring ancestral ways of relating to time… So not only is it a form of protest to reclaim those knowledges, but also just necessary for our own health and the health of other bodies who also function in cyclical (time cosmologies) ways (rivers, plants, land.)” These words leave me wondering about radical pedagogical strategies that Latinx artists will continue to need to build upon in order to make work that challenges white supremacy and the continued colonial and capitalist consumption of art. At the same time, I am looking forward to seeing what these artists will continue to work on to take us there. We need more than another festival; we need real physical space, decolonized time, and community we trust and can build with. This work reminds me that so much of that is already present in Los Angeles.

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