The ironies were too many to pass up writing about Pedro Vélez for Bad at Sports. Most immediately because I am a white male (no matter how I try, will this article be an episode of what Vélez constantly points out, neocolonialism?) who readily acknowledges the privilege within the system that’s been set up around me. Ironic since I have not seen the Whitney Biennial yet and am not sure if my budget will allow me to fly out to New York City, so I haven’t seen Vélez’s piece in the Whitney. Doubly ironic again since at one point several years ago Vélez publicly announced that he would not show art in Chicago since the city and art scene could not handle someone operating as both an artist and a critic. He chose to operate as a critic in Chicago so the only artwork of his I’ve really seen is the work currently at monique meloche gallery (mmg) for the “On the Wall” series. And lastly, it was ironic since it wasn’t so long ago that Dana Bassett made a gif of Vélez’s Twitter avatar, morphing him into the Grinch for her “What’s the T?” column on this same blog, in response to some comments she judged too harsh. They wouldn’t be the last from him.
Despite and perhaps because of these ironies, I’ll press on. If you’ve been following Pedro Vélez on Twitter, as indeed you should be, you can begin to see how linked his artwork is with his work as an art critic. Speech is a key element of Vélez’s work in all senses, and it is frequently put under his microscope: he examines which artists get talked about, plus why and how are they talked about; curating as speech receives a similar treatment as does museum administration; and perhaps most importantly, Vélez regularly surveys what we (the art press and critics) aren’t talking about and why, and what does that say about us and the larger art system? These notions and the questions they provoke are taken to Facebook and Twitter for quite lively discussions and debates that can join together like-minded individuals or result in some bruised feelings—both outcomes are equally likely.
It wasn’t surprising to see the devices of speech that Vélez often uses on display in his #DrunkDictators installation at mmg. Included on large poster-like sheets are the hashtags he refers to frequently, such as #neolibralism, along with less likely tags invented to roll together multiple points of critique like #Jame$Cunolialism, which is a pointed reference to the previous director of the Art Institute of Chicago. The iconic Twitter bird is included, drawn by hand, and appropriately, it’s breathing fire. Vélez doesn’t mince his words—that’s what makes him a good critic, but because of that he is often accused of being angry, an accusation he notes is likely to be born out of stereotypes since his white counterparts often receive no such accusations. #angry is also included on a poster-like area of #DrunkDictators. Around these are hand-drawn picket signs with a letter style approaching a punk rock flyer crossed with early graffiti. The phrases here are more opaque, even if you follow his dialogue online, like “Rum Ruby Stato” or “#15.”
These pickets and the hashtags (one picket just has #s on it) are the most overt reference to what has become called “hashtag activism,” which is a horrible, condescending phrase that seeks to neutralize the incredible power that activism can have on social media as networks spontaneously link up for a common cause, bringing together what Vélez both facilitates and instigates on occasion. As I write, apparently Fox “News” is slamming #BringBackOurGirls while willfully and gleefully ignoring the fact that such a tag is intended to motivate the political action to bring back the kidnapped girls, not to get the kidnappers to give them up—but when it comes to #Benghazi, Fox News is all about tags. Digital activism is an extremely important political tool as is its continuous development, and Vélez is one of very few artists to take it seriously as an art inspiration.
The questions that Vélez brings up consistently are vitally important ones of representation, of power, of true, real equality, of freedom and agency. They are not questions only of interest to people of color; they are not narcissistic questions. They are of course questions that many people would prefer not to ask, or answer, or even find out the answer to. And people get upset when these questions are asked and answered. But they are central to moving our world in a more just direction, and therefore, these questions must be posed. Thank goodness Vélez is asking them—few other artists are.
Vélez’s work is on view in the 2014 Whitney Biennial through May 25, and his #DrunkDictators is on view at monique meloche gallery through May 31.