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Camilo Ontiveros

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Aug 01, 2012
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Camilo Ontiveros
Interviewer: Tiffany Barber

LatinArt:  Tell me about your upbringing, and when and how you decided to become an artist.

Camilo Ontiveros:  I was born in Rosario, Sinaloa, Mexico. I left Mexico when thousands of Mexicans were able to fix papers during an amnesty period between 1986 and 1992, just before NAFTA was signed. Around this same time, Operation Gate Keeper was launched, a bill passed in 1994 to militarize the southern border and build a fence between San Diego and Tijuana. After NAFTA, economic hardship grew worse in Mexico; corporations took over land and left farmers with no jobs. Government corruption was everywhere. The forces of capitalism and imperialism had left Latin America in crisis.

I’m not sure there was a moment when I said: "I want to be an artist." In art, I found a way to ask questions about life, politics, and justice. I found a way to be heard and to activate sites, both public and private. To work with communities, family, and friends. When I think about it I’m not sure there is a moment when I said: "I want to be an artist." In art, I found a way to ask questions about life, politics, and justice. I found a way to be heard and to activate sites, both public and private. To work with communities, family, and friends.

LatinArt:  In 2005, you co-founded an alternative art space in Tijuana called Lui Velazquez, a platform for collaborative practice and dialogue around contemporary sociopolitical issues. Tell me more about the space and the artist projects produced there.

Camilo Ontiveros:  Lui Velazquez was founded by Shannon Spanhake, Sergio De La Torre, and myself. After a year Felipe Zuñiga joined and later, Micha Cardenas and Katherine Sweetman joined as well. Lui functioned as a short-term residency program centered on dialogue. We were interested in bringing international artists to Tijuana and having them respond to the dense political layers of the geography. These artists include Slanguage, Tercerunquinto, Lasse Lau, Peter Simensky, My Barbarian, Acamonchi, Fabian Cereijido, among others. Lui also functioned as a space for students from UCSD to investigate and explore Tijuana.

Things happened in a very informal, spontaneous way. Sometimes we would invite an artist we knew was going to be passing by Tijuana or San Diego – to present a video, or lecture, or just to hang out. As time passed I realized what we were doing in Lui was a bit more serious. We were helping to create community in the area, and we were contributing to the discourse of alternative spaces in Tijuana. Lui Velasquez offered a much-needed platform for San Diego and Tijuana artists, musicians, writers, and poets.

LatinArt:  In your CAUTION project, you co-opt the language of road signs to call attention to the charged discourse around so-called illegal immigration. Can you tell me more about how you respond to the imaging and imagining of the US/Mexico border region in your work?

Camilo Ontiveros:  With CAUTION, I intervened in well-known signage in the border region between California and Mexico. In their original form, these signs are meant to alert freeway drivers to "illegal aliens" by picturing a silhouette of a family holding hands and running under the word "CAUTION". I covered up the word CAUTION with WANTED, CASH ONLY, FREE MARKET, HOME OF THE FREE, and NO BENEFITS. When I first saw these signs I was drawn to the double meaning of the word CAUTION next to the icon of the family running; caution for drivers in this region to be careful with potential crossing, and from a different perspective. For those migrating it could signal injustices immigrants face in the United States. With this intervention I wanted to shift the meaning of the sign to highlight how immigrants with no legal status are treated in this country.

LatinArt:  In 2009, you graduated with your MFA from UCLA and had your first solo show at Steve Turner Contemporary, I Want Your Washing Machine. During the weeks leading up to the exhibition, you posted advertisements soliciting used washing machines that you ceremoniously accumulated and repurposed through repairs and high-end paint jobs. This exhibition extended previous investigations like Temporary Storage and 3500 lbs, further articulating your interests in dislocation, value, and symptomatic conditions of US/Mexico border relations. Can you talk about what you've called ‘a recycling aesthetic and economy’ and how you use form to explore material and immaterial currencies?

Camilo Ontiveros:  My "recycling aesthetic" began when I noticed the many trucks full of appliances, mattresses, and scrap metal that circulate around Los Angeles. I wondered where these trucks were going – to Mexico to be resold, second hand stores, or scrap metal yards. I began to follow these trucks and interact with the people who drove them. I discovered that most of these people, men and women, were from Mexico and Central America, and some had been collecting discarded material for twenty years. I wanted to work like they were working. I wanted to explore how items that were thought to be of no value and left out on the sidewalk became quite valuable for these people who would either bring the items to Mexico and Central America, fix and resell them in Los Angeles, or trade them in at recycling plants for the sheer value of their material weight.

Using this simple move of collecting discarded items from the street, I sought to learn from these collectors and their reconsideration of value and approach it from my own terms as an artist. In 3500 lbs, I drove around Los Angeles searching for these trucks. I bought washing machines and refrigerators directly from these junk collectors, often bargaining for the best deal. In the gallery, I balanced these appliances on top of one another and bound them with straps in the way you might see them stacked in the back of a truck. After the installation the appliances were again collected by metal collectors and brought to a recycling plant. 3500 lbs was the weight of the washing machines and refrigerators included in this piece, a weight that was then exchanged for $240.

LatinArt:  Most of your projects consider notions of 'public' and collaboration, often intervening in or appropriating images and objects that circulate within the public sphere. How do you conceive of ‘public-ness’? I'm thinking specifically of your participation in the CUBO project…

Camilo Ontiveros:  I don’t think there is such a thing as public space until you make it public. I mean that space is almost never free to use as you please. Instead of public I would rather call it restricted space. You can only do this and that; you have to behave this way in public space. By interrupting those sets of rules, you are making it public. If I’m the public then I should be able to own it and express freely within it. The interruption to restricted space is what we can call public space.

For CUBO (first generation) Felipe Zuñiga and I put together some grocery store pallets and made a cube. We put some speakers and lights inside and took it for a tour. Our interest was to curate sound tracks to play in CUBO. First we were invited to present CUBO in Tijuana where we invited around ten artists, poets, writers, and musicians to participate with a track of sound that dealt with Tijuana’s soundscape. Then we presented CUBO in Los Angeles, adding wheels to the orange cube so that it would be mobile. We worked with a group of homeless teenagers around Hollywood Blvd, recorded their songs, music, and interviews, and played them from the cube as it was pushed around Hollywood. Later we presented the project nearby at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions).

Everything is a system for me. I think I would be a good mathematician. I guess this is re- enforced by my studies in electronics after high school. How does a system work? How can it be changed or not changed and why? To think about a system you also have to think about space, place, and all of the components within the space. What charges it? Ohms, current, voltage, diodes, terms that can be translated from electronics and physics to terms like power, politics, people, and resistance. The exchange happens in the process and negotiation of understanding these systems.

LatinArt:  Some of your more recent work approaches politics of site, memory, and labor. In The Burial of Anastacio Hernandez (2011) you explored the nuances of commemoration through work that approximates landscape photography and in your Nuit Blanche Toronto project Memorias (2011), you return to a collaborative public format to stage a large-scale vigil for Ontario-based migrant workers. Tell me more about these two works and how memory and memorialization figure into your practice.

Camilo Ontiveros:   Anastacio Hernandez was beaten to death by US border patrol agents at the San Isidro crossing. He was a father of four and had been living in the US, undocumented, for more than twenty years. Although I did not know Hernandez or his family, I was so affected that I attended his mass and funeral in San Diego. The Burial of Anastacio Hernandez was taken at his burial. In the image, one sees the event from a great distance, which I don’t relate to landscape but to the respect for Hernandez and his family that I wanted to convey. I showed this picture one year after his death as a commemoration of his life and also to bring up the absolute injustice of his death. None of the border patrol agents were held accountable. And these situations continue into the present with the recent murder of Guillermo Arevalo Pedraza by US border patrol agents on the Mexican side of the border, not to mention the thousands of immigrants that disappear into the desert. For me, memory is not only something of the past but an urgent call to respect these losses and the political conditions that allow such losses to continue in the present.

In Memorias, I staged a one-night vigil of 2000 candles in a downtown Toronto street. While I intended the vigil to be specifically for migrant workers, both in the Toronto area and around the world, I found throughout the evening that people wanted to light candles for more personal reasons. A child asked to light a candle for his father, and many others lit candles for loved ones who had passed. I realized how integral this personal relation to lighting a candle was to the piece and how the "migrant worker" which might seem like an abstraction for some, becomes grounded in this personal connection.

LatinArt:  The logistical issues you encountered with your Made in L.A. project ironically reflect larger conversations around real and imagined borders, militarization, surveillance, social contracts, and systems of exchange. Can you tell me more about this project and your upcoming show at MOLAA? What's next for you?

Camilo Ontiveros:  El Pedon is a one-meter cube of land that I attempted to transport from Mexico to LA. This idea developed when I accompanied my brother Hermes on one of his field studies. Hermes is a soil scientist and a common practice in his profession is to dig a one-meter cubic trench into the earth with the purpose of studying its properties. Rather than dig, I lifted a one-meter cube from the ground. If by logistical issues you mean the regulations that made it impossible to bring the cube of soil across the border then perhaps it is important for me to clarify. I don’t see these as "issues." In fact, all of the obstacles that stood in the way of the soil’s transport are as much a part of the project as the soil itself. I would not call them issues, but rather processes, steps, consequences of the political situations. From my communication with USDA, to internal dialogue with the curators, to negotiations between the Hammer and Rufino Tamayo Museums –this was all part of the process as were the restrictions that ultimately prevented the cube from arriving in LA. The elements featured in the gallery – an empty platform (pedestal), a video documenting the extraction of the cube, and a compilation of the correspondences between myself, USDA, the curators, and the institutions – represent forces at work on a transnational scale. El Pedon was never about the material soil of the cube but about how such soil opens urgent political questions around what can and can’t cross the border between the US and Mexico. Ultimately the soil wasn’t permitted because it exceeds the three-pound limit allowed by USDA.

At MOLAA I will be presenting In the Ring, a work that documents Pilipino and Mexican boxers both amateur and professional. The exhibition presents the rivalry between the two in the ring and it tries to understand the clash of these two cultures from political, economical, and historical perspectives.

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