6 Videos/6 Questions: Meet Fall 2022 Teiger Mentor in the Arts Emilio Rojas
In advance of his October 3 lecture at the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP), preview examples of Rojas's performances and gain insight into the motivations that fuel his work.
The Department of Art welcomes multidisciplinary artist Emilio Rojas as the fall 2022 Teiger Mentor in the Arts. Rojas makes political and critical work primarily with the body in performance using video, photography, installation, public interventions, and sculpture. In addition to studio visits and this semester's graduate seminar, Rojas is teaching the department's first introductory course in performance art and will deliver "GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM!," a lecture/performance, on October 3 at 5:15 p.m. in the Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium. In advance of this event, Rojas shares insight into the driving forces behind his creative work while reflecting on video documentation of recent pieces.
Concurrently, Rojas's first traveling survey exhibition titled tracing a
wound through my body will be on view from September 21–November 6, 2022, at Emerson Contemporary in Boston. The exhibition brings together works spanning the past decade and includes a comprehensive bilingual catalog available both digitally and in print. It contains writing from the artist, a collaboration with poet Pamela Sneed, an interview with artist Ernesto Pujol, and essays by curator Laurel V. McLaughlin and writers Valeria Luiselli, Mechtild Widrich, Andrei Pop, Ethan Madarieta, and Rebecca Schneider.
The video documentation of your performances is incredibly powerful. What is frequently so striking, however, is that you often build upon the vulnerability, exertion, or pain you put your own body through as a canvas and artistic tool. How and why did this become your mode of working?
Before studying art, I went to medical school at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). This education provided me with a special awareness of the human body, which I incorporate in my pedagogy, performance, and processes. I realized how disconnected people were from their own bodies, how much shame people carried, and how patients rarely examined their bodies. I often think about the way our bodies do not matter to society, which is delineated in "The Bodies That Were Not Ours," an essay by Coco Fusco. The bodies of "the other" are often exploited and discarded. I realized that we need to make sure we are being seen and heard, and that our voices are being amplified.
My body is the vessel/vehicle through which I understand the world and make sense of my experiences. From that knowledge and distillation, I create performances where my body renders visible the intersectionality and complexity of my multiple identities, porosities, and privileges. I try to inhabit that liminal space that Gloria E. Anzaldúa so often refers to, that in-betweenness, which for me is a site of immense power. Bayard Rustin once said in a speech during the beginning of the civil rights movement, "The only weapon that we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them into places so wheels don't turn." I often think of performance as the practice of tucking our bodies into those uncomfortable places that challenge the status quo and the construction of hegemonic narratives that tend to exclude us.
You note that works such as The Grass is Always Greener and/or Twice Stolen Land are part of your research in embodied decolonial aesthetics. The abstraction of performance serving as a mirror to current social and political issues as well as history is threaded through much of your work. What does approaching these topics through creative acts allow you to uniquely explore and express?
I am a multidisciplinary artist working primarily with the body, which means performance is at the core of my entire practice. Sometimes it manifests itself through video, other times through photography, animation, installation, social practice, public interventions, land art, poetry, or sculpture. My body is always in relation to these media and to body politics that are often shifting. I also collaborate with other bodies, who hold multitudes of their own, and we learn from each other.
In my practice, I engage with current political and social issues by tracing their genealogies back in history, thinking about how they relate to the communities with whom I identify and share common experiences. I utilize my body in a political and critical way, as an instrument to unearth removed traumas, embody forms of decolonization, migration, mourning, and the poetics of space. It is essential to my practice as a queer, Latinx immigrant with indigenous heritage to engage in the postcolonial ethical imperative to uncover, investigate, and make visible and audible undervalued or disparaged sites of knowledge, narratives, and individuals.
You honor the work of writer and theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa through the titles of several of your pieces, including Open Wounds (To Gloria), an ongoing project beginning in 2014 that involves annually reopening a 22-inch scar down your back that traces the line of the U.S.-Mexico border. How did Anzaldúa's work come to have such a significant and guiding influence on your own?
In the piece, the mark made from my first vertebra to my last creates a bleeding wound during the performance, then it becomes a scar, until it is reopened again. The skin becomes territory, the bleeding geography translated into a map and written in blood. After carving the border every year, I clearly feel the geography in the pain running down the length of my back. I also feel the wound heal every year as the open wound becomes scarred. In this way my body shows me, year after year, that healing is possible. Like the piece Shibboleth by artist Doris Salcedo, permanently inscribed into the floor of the Tate Modern, there is always a mark where trauma happened, a scar that is left as a reminder. I constantly ask myself if we could truly heal the wounds the border has inflicted on the lives of so many of us.
I came to the work of Gloria E. Anzaldúa (1942-2004) when one of my best friends, artist Guadalupe Martinez, gave me a copy of Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza as a birthday gift 13 years ago. As she handed me the wrapped book, she said softly, "This book will change your life," and it did. Through her work, Anzaldúa has given me the words to understand my experience battling identity and cultural hybridity while existing within multiple worlds.
For the past ten years, I've been developing new forms of border pedagogy as a way to understand our collective and personal relationships to the US-Mexico border. How has the border been mediated and weaponized and how does it act as a clear division "where the third world grates against the first, and bleeds," as Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands? This pedagogy attempts to continue Anzaldúa's legacy. This series related to the border is dedicated to Anzaldúa, who has inspired me to translate her archive, poetry, and theory into embodied gestures through collaborations with immigrant communities, friends, and family. Her work called me to respond through my body, through the land, and through the collective creation of a new border pedagogy that centers queer, woman-of-color feminism — the Chicana feminism that Anzaldúa articulates. In this way, every work from this series includes a parenthesis (to Gloria or A Gloria) inserted in the title as an acknowledgment of the lineage it follows.
How do you approach introducing students to performance art? What concepts are foundational? What skills do you try to get into their toolbox?
My approach is through making body-based works. There is no other way to teach performance art as a studio other than empowering the students to utilize their bodies as a tool and deal with their own histories and identities. We often look at the work of other performance artists and use their practice as inspiration. For example, the undergraduate class that I'm currently teaching at AAP is titled The Body as Altar, and it's based on the work of the late artist Ana Mendieta and the relationship of her practice to the land, to politics, to poetics, and to ritual. They explore the use of the body as an expressive medium and critical site of research and action. The intention is to rethink the limits of their bodies and boundaries through time, space, site, repetition, and gesture. My courses invite you to think of performance as a practice that blurs the line between art, life, and politics, emphasizing participation, dialogue, and direct action. I always tell my students that they will learn skills in performance that hopefully will help them throughout their lives: how to feel more comfortable in their bodies; how to navigate space, amplify their voice, and be more direct with what they want to say.
Students come from different backgrounds and learn to use performance across multiple mediums. Part of my job is to introduce them to as many different kinds of performance practice as I can possibly fit into the syllabus, including public interventions, lecture performance, protest as performance, food-based projects, movement, video performance, durational performance, reenactments, rituals, endurance, social practice, and the use of archives and poetic writing in performative work. It's often the case that they find a way of performing that fits their personality or interests. For example, if they are invested in physical labor, competitive sports, or time-based work, then endurance or durational performance might be a perfect fit for their practice.
My hope is that they realize the tools that they already bring to the classroom and, in a way, simply sharpen and transform them. I was an Eagle Scout, a competitive swimmer and chess player, a salsa dancer, a lifeguard, a translator, and a baseball player. I often tell them that all these practices taught me something about myself, my body, and my way of relating to the world. It is important for us as artists to not separate our lives and experiences from our creative process and research. When I get into the water with diving equipment to reenact the routes of colonial boats like the Santa Maria and the Mayflower, my swimming skills and diving experience are what allows me to be able to perform this piece.
In a piece such as Memorial to an Unbuilt Monument, a 60-hour durational performance that appears to put incredible stress on you, there seems to be a divide between how you experience this work and how an audience member might. What is the role of the observer? Does that change from piece to piece?
I had almost forgotten about this piece. I'm glad you found it. Memorial to an Unbuilt Monument is a durational drawing performance of the largest monument to colonialism that was never built, designed by Alberto de Palacios for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. This wall-size drawing of the unbuilt monument was created for EXPO Chicago in 2017, the art world's update to the World's Fair. Instead of a pencil, I used the edge of the memorial silver half-dollar from the original exposition, so the silver ground from the coin becomes the material of the drawing.
I don't think of people as observers, I think of them as participants that have agency. Observing is usually passive. Often in my performances people intervene, collaborate, or participate. They ask questions, return after a few hours, and contact me after the performances to express how they felt. The original coins were stolen during the Memorial installation, and so a security guard would come every day during the fair to check on me and often he would stay and ask me questions about the piece. He told me he often felt alienated by art and was not able to comprehend it or ask questions. On the last day, he brought his family to see me. In the 15 years that he had worked for the Pier, he had never brought his whole family to an event, but he told them about the drawing with a coin, that I was naked standing on piles of books, and that this was also considered art. For me, these relationships and questions that performance can ask and create are the potential of the practice. The viewer or participant varies from piece to piece, and from location to location. It is an extremely different experience to perform inside a museum or gallery where people have bought tickets or entered the institution to specifically see art than it is to perform in a public space in front of a monument or at a historical site. In public space, there are always incidental viewers who have no idea that a performance is happening and whose life is suddenly disrupted by the action, but they might not even be aware that they are experiencing art. It is way more confrontational because they might think of it as a protest or a desecration of public space.
Your piece GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM is also the title of your upcoming artist talk on October 3. What can we expect from that evening?
When I was doing my M.F.A. in the performance department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I took a graduate seminar with artist Robin Deacon titled Lecture Performances. Since then, every lecture that I'm invited to do becomes an opportunity to reevaluate my practice and play. Everyone who took that class continues to do lecture performances today. It changed the way we saw lectures and expanded our vocabulary of what is possible.
Every lecture is already a highly structured institutional performance, and anything structured could be disrupted, destabilized, or deconstructed. There is a long history of performance lectures, and I hope to tap into this lineage as a way of expanding the medium. The title, "GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM!," is a xenophobic phrase that has been screamed at me many times as a Mexican immigrant in the United States. The lecture is about my practice, but also about my process of making, with a lot of interruptions and disruptions that break the boundaries of what you expect will happen in an auditorium at a university.
I often perform in the auditorium for hours before anyone arrives, so there is energy already built up in the space. I like people to come out of a lecture with more questions than answers, for students to go back to their studios with a new way of processing their work. I want to push the boundaries of what an academic lecture is, while understanding the constraints and specificities of the site. My intention is to create non-linear ways of thinking which open spaces of liminality and possibility, remembrance and healing. It's hard to not come with any expectations to a lecture, but I hope that you come out of it, saying, "Wow, I did not expect that."
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