Chicagoaxaca: An Interview with Iván Arenas

March 4, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Daniel Tucker

On February 12th, two new printmaking exhibitions opened at Art In These Times, an occasional exhibition venue in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood that is situated in the offices of the 35-year-old progressive news magazine In These Times.  The exhibits, Stainlessness and Chicagoaxaca, combined together both create a shared context addressing the transformative power of human labor in mobilizing for social justice. Stainlessness includes four original etched metal printing plates and a set of prints that tell the story of labor movements in North America as these have shaped Sudbury, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Stainlessness was designed by Etienne Turpin with Captains of Industry, printed at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Design with artists Sara Dean and Marnie Briggs and installed with Ryan Griffis.

Folks listen in at Art In These Times. Image courtesy of Daniel Tucker.

Folks listen in at Art In These Times. Image courtesy of Daniel Tucker.

Chicagoaxaca: Gender, Indigeneity & Social Justice includes woodblock prints created by the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO), a political street art group born during a grassroots social movement that shook Oaxaca, Mexico in 2006. Chicagoaxaca was curated by Iván Arenas, designed and installed with Jeremy Kreusch, and is brought to Art In These Times by the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This conversation with Iván Arenas focuses on the ongoing project of Chicagoaxaca. Arenas is a practicing artist and received his B.A. in Architecture and Anthropology at Columbia University and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from UC-Berkeley. He is currently working on articles and a book manuscript assessing how the art of protest from Oaxaca’s popular uprising of 2006 reconfigured conceptions of public space, rights to the city, and redefined political participation by questioning the role of democratic government in Mexico’s future.

Daniel Tucker (DT): Ivan, you have been and are continuing to tour this project throughout multiple sites within the city of Chicago – starting with the PUJA space that is a part of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Social Justice Initiative, for which you serve as a Visiting Scholar. The next spot is supposed to be the Centro Autonomo in Albany Park. It seems like a great idea, because as anyone working in cities is aware, spaces associated with certain neighborhoods or communities typically have a kind of pre-determined audience that may not overlap or draw people from throughout the city. Where did the idea for touring the exhibit locally come from and what are you learning from it about how audiences can be addressed or constructed throughout such a process?

Iván Arenas (IA): The idea to have the Chicagoaxaca exhibit occupy different sites came as a response to the fact that Chicago is a highly segregated city. An important part of Oaxaca’s social movement was the way in which it united a broad cross-section of society, from committed socialists to democratic liberals to steadfast anarchists. The need to negotiate the different political, economic, and social positions of movement participants through participatory assemblies was a powerful way in which the social movement transformed Oaxacan society in 2006. This is reflected in the political street art group whose work is on display in the exhibit. While attending an art space in a particular neighborhood is different from participating in an assembly, the hope is that holding the exhibit in different locations and breaking it up into different themes will encourage people to go to neighborhoods and spaces that they might otherwise not find themselves in.

Perhaps the most important lesson gleaned from this process has been the way in which staging the exhibit in spaces that are not strictly or only art spaces offers encounters with an audience that does not realize it is about to come across the art. Much as a stencil found around a street corner, this has the possibility of interrupting our normative itinerary—producing what Walter Benjamin described as a kind of shock or what the Situationist International framed as a détournement, a spatial, temporal, political, and playful detour from a common, established course. Thus, while some might specifically seek out the exhibit, the audience that the exhibit engages is one that is more than likely one that has come to the exhibit by happenstance—even as the limits of this audience is most definitely framed by the parameters of the particular groups that typically work or participate in activities at the Social Justice Initiative’s Pop Up Just Art space, the offices of In These Times magazine, and Centro Autónomo.

"Woman Walking" by Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO).

“Woman Walking” by ASARO.

DT: This question is relevant for both bodies of work on display at Art In These Times. Both take on the power of humans to transform the world around them, but with slightly different emphasis. While there is some recognizable leftist imagery in Stainlessness, it is also about the impact of industrial capitalism. On the other hand, Ivan documented the visual culture and art of a social movement that had massive repercussions in social reorganization in Oaxaca just a few years ago. Chicagoaxaca rests much more firmly in a leftist social movement documentarian mode. What do you think about the relationship between these two approaches to dealing with humans transforming the physical and the social world around them?

IA: Though perhaps more explicit in the artworks of Stainlessness, both exhibits share an interest in the transformative encounter between materiality and social processes. At a simple level, they share this in the fact that both exhibits showcase forms of printmaking, an aesthetic process that transforms particular materials (metal and wood in this case) into images. In each case the limits and possibilities of the media’s very materiality become part of the condition of possibility for artists to create their images. Having practiced as an architect, I was also very interested in Oaxaca in the way that the city’s physicality mattered in the social protests: for example in the way that the city center’s narrow streets and the region’s hills magnified the effect of the thousands of people that marched through them or the way in which the porous green stones that the city is known for absorbed a stencil’s spray-paint, rendering it nearly impossible to remove. The precarious and impoverished conditions of the majority of the city, where buildings are completed haphazardly as economic conditions allow, were also critical in framing the possibility of gathering the sandbags, cement, stones, logs, and other materials that went up to make the 1,500 or so neighborhood barricades that went up in the city nightly to guard against paramilitary forces in moving vehicles.

And, clearly, the material conditions resulting from the rise and fall of industrial capitalism have been critical forces in shaping the sites and cities that both exhibits look at (Sudbury, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Oaxaca). The backdrop of this material and economic history is inescapable in understanding the forces that have made Oaxaca one of the most impoverished states in all of Mexico. The struggle in Oaxaca to depose the authoritarian governor is framed by the history of these material conditions. Documenting and participating in the production of the social movement’s visual culture offers insights into ways in which people coming together can and do find ways to interrupt—if not entirely escape—the material conditions that constrain them.

"Crouching Woman" by ASARO.

“Crouching Woman” by ASARO.

DT: You have a lot of experience dealing with disseminating and distributing yours and others production. There are plans for this project to turn into a book, where are those plans right now and what are your hopes for circulating the final publication?

IA: Through their images, the street artists were seeking to continue to motivate the people who were taking part in the social movement as well as looking to include more people in the dialogue about the problems facing everyone in Oaxaca and the collective search for solutions. As an academic, much of my work consists of interpreting this effort in relation to theoretical and historical strands whose purview stretches beyond Oaxaca—this effort is important, but its highly specialized language often renders its insights opaque and available to a select few. As a curator of Chicagoaxaca, one of the goals has been to use social justice as a bridge to connect the streets of Oaxaca to those of Chicago. This work of translation is expansive, requiring a different vocabulary from the highly narrow one of academic specialization. Curating Chicagoaxaca has meant utilizing the power of the images and corresponding narratives about art, social mobilization, and efforts to contest marginalization to connect with a broad number of people who, in their own way, are also questioning their contemporary reality and searching for transformative futures. The final publication of the project will support the effort to reach ever greater audiences by including a full catalog of the woodblock prints in the exhibit, photographs that flesh out the stencils, paintings, silkscreens and the practices of protest that the street artists and social movement practiced. Beyond narratives explaining and illuminating the insights that Oaxacan art and protest practices engendered, the text will include a series of conversations with people and groups in Chicago actively working for positive change; I am hoping that there will be both a published presence and an online archive of this work in English and Spanish and that this will allow Oaxacans, Chicagoans, and others who are mobilized to learn from each other.

Daniel Tucker is a Chicago-based artist, writer, and organizer. He works on the Never The Same oral history and archive project with Rebecca Zorach, and is currently editing the book Immersive Life Practices, and producing a new video/writing project about self-sufficiency and the right-wing imagination while in residence at Grand Central Art Center.

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