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On Collecting and Translating Anthropology to Contemporary Art

Since the mid-1990s I have developed an ethnographic interest in visual economies, by which I mean -- following anthropologist Deborah Poole -- the complex ways in which images are affected by being part of concrete processes of production, distribution, and consumption. They are a particular type of commodity, an object and a fetish that speaks in the language of desire and sensuality (Griselda Pollock), with meanings that always remain open to interpretation (Roland Barthes).

I was greatly influenced by a set of fruitful dialogues while studying anthropology at The New School For Social Research in New York City. Poole's course on Visual Cultures, Johannes Fabian's studies on vernacular painting and history in Zaire, Steve Caton's ethnographic approach to film, Terry Williams' attention to sexual images and the city, and Kevin Dwyer's work on dialogical anthropology were crucial to shaping my ethnographic view of images. In several of those courses, artists attended and actively participated in pushing the borders of their own practice. Among them, of foremost importance were my dialogues with Aleksandra Mir, by now a very well known name within the global art circuits. While in NYC, I contributed to Mir's Naming Tokyo, an alternative map of that city meant to convene idiosyncratic readings of constructed space and the politics behind labeling the urban gridlock.

During those years, the effects of images upon society became my main topic of inquiry. I started by conducting fieldwork on political pornography in Ecuador as a source for understanding populism as a widespread sociological phenomenon during the 1980s. My research focused on humorous, sexist, and obscene cartoons published in underground magazines -- which were largely read as a collective ritual. I was interested in the ways in which a certain textual and visual language contributed to the purposes of debunking dominant images of political power and democracy. Attending to readers' responses, I was amazed by the mix of both of laughter and repulsion that crude representations of the body politics created.

W.J.T. Mitchell has studied the capacity of visual images to awaken a range of social relations between viewers and objects, performing a function beyond representation. Mitchell discusses the paradox of images as inanimate objects that are capable of moving viewers -- to the point of offending them -- with sequences of censorship, rage, hate, and, of course, love and devotion. My readings of Mitchell opened up a series of questions regarding the effects of visual images upon concrete populations. Beyond the authenticity of images and their "dialectic" effects -- to quote Walter Benjamin's arguments to refer to the possibilities of understanding the presence of history in the present -- I became interested in questions about the value of sign painting and art, and subjects such as copy, mimesis, and serial production.

Later on, working against classic ethnography and being very much aware of both the textual turn in anthropology and the ethnographic turn in contemporary art, I came upon debates on drawing and photography by John Berger and Michael Taussig. While Berger opened up the possibility of thinking about drawing essentially as a process, a dialogic exercise between the artist and the thing drawn, Taussig's reflections on the thingness of drawing and mimetic power were crucial to think about the fetishistic nature of images and the spiritual life that lies underneath their materiality.

Calling upon notions of "sympathetic magic," originally stated in the early twentieth century by James Frazer on his studies on religion and animist thinking among "primitive societies" to explain the strong connection between image and its reference, Taussig goes beyond the utilitarian reason (the voodoo effect) in Frazer's theories. His reflections on the thingness of the image within anthropologists' fieldwork notebooks, and the system of exchange between images and texts, paved the way for my research on commodification, collecting practices, and value within the contemporary art world. W.J.T. Mitchell's questions on "what do pictures want?" and "why do images offend?" turned into consideration of the power of drawings in Taussig, eventually inspiring me to ask myself "what do sign paintings want?", that is, beyond their main advertising purposes. Do they trigger specific forms of social relations? What are their effects upon reconfiguring the urban space?

X with Kay Osorio of Awesome Playground

While contributing to the first photographic book project on sign painting in Ecuador in 2007, edited by graphic designer Juan Lorenzo Barragan, I met one master of this tradition, Victor Hugo Escalante, a.k.a. Don Pili. After discovering his commercial signs in restaurants and brothels all around Playas, a small coastal fishing town, I was struck by the playful relation he managed to establish between texts and images. The colorful night club Flor de Mexico, for instance, depicted a series of huge murals of semi-naked female models blossoming from its walls as conforming a garden of desire according to machista narratives. Taking as reference photographs widely available in magazines and Mexican comic books since the 1960s, Don Pili rendered them alive at a very different scale.

The idea of making a critical commentary on contemporary art global markets and the cult of authorship, the cult of objects and material culture in general, and the globalization of crude, market-based senses of value, made me think about the possibility of developing an ethnographic/artistic project on these issues. The language of sign painting seemed perfect for my purpose of rendering the practice of "collecting contemporary art" in the language of "popular culture."

Against the strategies of appropriation by established artists of images of advertising and publicity -- a long-standing trend present in surrealism and pop-art with recurrent shows in museums across the world for the past fifty years -- I saw my dialogue with a sign-painter as a method of dissecting power relations and notions of celebrity in the art world. I commissioned the reproduction of famous pieces authored by the elite of the global art world to be rendered as sign-paintings for hypothetical small-scale businesses. A total of two dozen pieces were created by Don Pili for Full Dollar, my anthropology-as-art enterprise since 2004, with the goal of being exhibited at a gallery space.

X at Mi Vida

A project based on these premises was selected by Outpost for Contemporary Art in 2011 as part of its South American program cycle. Soon, Julie Deamer, Outpost's founder and at the time its director, took it upon herself to further develop the original method of the Ecuadorian iteration of The Full Dollar Collection of Contemporary Art for the purpose of fitting a community-oriented, arts-based project in the neighborhood of Highland Park, Los Angeles. The principle: a dialogue between sign painters and visual artists. The method: the establishment of a series of partnerships with relevant institutions in the field of communication and education to widen the potential visibility of the project. The location: the public space. The final outcome: four teams, each comprised of a sign painter, a visual artist, and a local business owner, and four murals that now act as arts-based storefront signage on York Boulevard.

Gradually, as a result of my virtual exchanges with Julie, my own role as an "artist" -- a label that I never use to refer to my work, since I see it as anthropological on its own -- was radically transformed for good. It was Julie who broadened the scope of the project, made it much more coherent within the social context in which it would take place, and made me aware of different visual traditions in the area. She redefined the method, making open discussion among different collaborators an essential aspect of it.

Additionally, the whole project flourished thanks to Juan Devis and KCET Departures, whose series gave me a greater understanding of the history of Highland Park and the debates on images in L.A. at large. They provided a web page to archive the project's multiple exchanges that echo debates on art in the Los Angeles area, make visible many different forms of sign painting, muralism, graffiti, street art, and other forms of advertising, and actively involve the students' community of Occidental College in an ambitious project: to make a photographic survey of York Boulevard and the surrounding areas. KCET's support along the way has been incredible, and I feel proud to have the whole history of the project there as a public archive of what we did over the last two years.

X with Maryam Hosseinzadeh

A major catalyst, besides Julie and Juan, was Maryam Hosseinzadeh, a strongly committed community member and a long-standing resident of Highland Park, who was later hired as a Project Manager by Outpost @ Armory. Along with Sinéad Finnerty-Pyne, Gallery Manager at Armory, the two facilitated meetings, held open discussions, and shepherded the final roster of participants. Sinéad and Maryam made major decisions in the field that were critical to accomplishing our main goals. It was a pleasure, and a learning experience, to work with both of them. They kindly showed me around and made me aware of the particular history of the neighborhood and its surroundings.

"A series of mistranslations", to quote Irene Tsatsos -- Armory's Gallery Director/Chief Curator, who was responsible for providing institutional support for my residency in Los Angeles and carrying The Collection through the end -- were key to understanding the many transformations that the project encountered. The notion of authorship was freely interpreted among the nearly fifty many participants involved in the project at one stage or another. Acknowledging the collective, participatory, dimension of this project, I allowed different cultural brokers to make crucial decisions, making my voice heard only when I felt that our critical mission was at risk of being derailed. The single basic methodological component on which I insisted was that the dominant power relations within the global art circuit (with its hierarchies regarding "art" and "craft") be subverted. In the end, sign painters would call the shots for the project to work properly.

From the beginning I wanted to work with artist Sandow Birk, whose work I found particularly interesting from an anthropological perspective. The fact that one of his mural projects in Boyle Heights was highly controversial to the point that it was banned from public display made his inclusion in the project even more urgent because I regard his work as politically committed. From my point of view, Sandow's research-based projects and his appropriation of graphic traditions formed a common ground with my own agenda.

X with Sandow Birk

Many thanks as well to Kardona, with whom I shared a day's work; Kimberley "The Window Goddess" Edwards; Noelle Reyes and Danell Hughes of Mi Vida; Kay Osorio of Awesome Playground and Marcos Perez of Digicolor, whom I met while in residence in Los Angeles in November, 2012; and to Anna Ialeggio, Shizu Saldamando, Martin Durazo, and Ruby Osorio. The signs that were created are a public homage to all of their efforts and understanding. I would especially like to acknowledge Julie Deamer, Juan Devis, Bill Kelley Jr., Tom Mackenzie, Ronald Lopez and Irene Tsatsos, and their commitment to fostering a type of art that can change society, even in small ways. On a very modest scale, this is what The Full Dollar Collection of Contemporary Art hopes to achieve by giving back to the Highland Park community an opportunity to rethink the multiple ways in which the urban space can be modified, while granting a proper place to historical elements of a given visual economy. This was the idea behind making this "collection" public.

A sign painting is normally the result of a person-to-person negotiation about advertising, but also about the role that images play in contemporary society. The murals in York Boulevard attest to the dialogic nature of this encounter, a marvelous tradition that is still very much alive in Los Angeles and certainly in Highland Park, a place filled with their magic.

See before and after photos of participating York Boulevard storefronts here.


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