Critique and Compassion Are "Side by Side" in Osorio's Work for CCA Biennial

a house-like structure built within another building with classroom in the background
Side by Side is the multimedia installation created by 2016 CCA Biennial Artist-In-Residence Pepón Osorio. Patti Witten / AAP
wall covered with lottery tickets
The exterior walls of the inverted "house" are blanketed with lottery tickets. William Staffeld / AAP
people experiencing an art installation
Students from the graduate class Decolonial Poetics and Aesthetics, taught by Ella Maria Diaz, Latina/o Studies, made a site visit to the installation. William Staffeld / AAP
college students and professors talking together at a table
CCA Director Stephanie Owens; Ella Maria Diaz, Latina/o Studies; Ananda Cohen-Aponte, history of art and visual studies, and their students met with Osorio. William Staffeld / AAP
woman building an art installation
The Hammerstone School: Carpentry for Women, in Ithaca, as well as Cornell students, helped to build the installation. William Staffeld / AAP
May 10, 2017

Race. Class. Determination. The tension and conflict within social systems.

A point of contact between them is empathy. This is the context of Side by Side, an installation by multimedia artist and educator Pepón Osorio, unveiled in April in Rand Hall and on display until May 26.

Osorio is the artist-in-residence for the Cornell Council for the Arts (CCA) 2016 Biennial Abject/Object Empathies. Osorio's work often raises the visibility of the toll systemic inequity and social alienation have on individual and community life.

According to CCA Director Stephanie Owens, "Side by Side is at once an intimate portrait, social critique, and compassionate expression of inclusion and persistence."

The site-specific, sculptural, and media installation tells the story of a local family — a matriarch, her nine grandchildren and great-grandchildren whom she is raising without help from their parents, and their personal experience of the domestic/social systems surrounding them. Constructed in a corner of Rand Hall, the centerpiece of the installation is a house — flipped, wedged between floor and ceiling, and tilted on its peaked roof — with LCD panels for windows, and exterior walls blanketed with lottery tickets. Every element, even the structural column that impales the house, is intentional. In each of the nine windows, an overlapping video displays the matriarch with one of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren standing half submerged in water. Additional video is projected upside-down on two nearby walls, while metal and glass screens partly separate the house and the observer.

Osorio, who often involves the community in his projects, was a natural fit for the biennial's theme, said Owens. "He is a kind of embedded listener who expresses the story of people through visual work, through media, and sees how social systems maintain the status quo."

But for this biennial, the artist-in-residence's main work was unusual. Neither Owens nor Osorio himself knew what the work would be until he had gotten to know some of the people who live and work in the community. Before submitting a specific proposal for the work, Osorio made frequent trips from Philadelphia to Ithaca, a yearlong process of immersion in the university and local neighborhoods near the Greater Ithaca Activity Center (GIAC) in downtown Ithaca.

Where it would be installed was also uncertain. In past years, the biennial's main work was constructed on the university's Arts Quad. Osorio had reservations about this location until Kent Kleinman, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of AAP, suggested Rand Hall, which is slated to be renovated later this year. Inspiration for Side by Side came together when Osorio saw the rawness of Rand Hall's second floor, a space laden with history and the tension of race and class.

Previously, Osorio has spoken about creating "domestic" spaces, and "a domestication of the museum."

"I have always felt like an invader in the museum, but I was not part of it," he has said. "I am like a squatter."

Continuing Osorio's method of community participation as integral to the work, the installation was largely constructed by students of the Hammerstone School: Carpentry for Women, in Ithaca, as well as students from the graduate class Decolonial Poetics and Aesthetics, taught by Ella Maria Diaz, Latina/o Studies and English. Diaz's students completed a unit on Osorio's art history in conjunction with his residency as part of their study of decoloniality and producers of visual, performance, and installation art in the U.S. and Latin America.

During the construction phase, Diaz planned a site visit to the installation with her students, advisees, and Osorio and Owens. Also present were Professor Ananda Cohen-Aponte from history of art and visual studies and several of her students, as well as others from the Cornell and downtown communities. Diaz wanted her students to experience the installation from participation in its building to mid-completion. The time spent with the artist was also an opportunity to intervene in a process that often doesn't account for the history of artists of color who, according to Diaz, have always built community in traditional and non-traditional spaces for art.

"Artists like Osorio did so and continue to do so because their work and communities are excluded from institutions such as the museum and university," Diaz said. "This is why Osorio's installation is so significant."

While on display, the installation continued to serve as the focus for community interaction through a series of three encuentros, or conversations, between students, faculty, community members, and local leaders on the topics of intergenerational communication, the role of women in the community, and migration. The encuentros were conducted by the CCA and moderated by Rafael Aponte, a local farmer and community activist, with invited guests from the Cornell and Ithaca communities. The events served as an opportunity to share personal experiences and testimonies surrounding the themes of Osorio's work in an open dialogue.

"In the context of the biennial's theme of empathy, making art can mediate between cultural differences and notions in a way that is intentional," says Owens. "Side by Side is an expression of how social systems are influenced by where we live and how we live."

By Patti Witten