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Arturo Romo

Instalación: Botanica Daybreak Health Foods/Poder del Mestizo by Arturo       Romo

interview transcript

Date of Interview: May 22, 2006
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Arturo Romo
Interviewer: Pilar Tompkins

LatinArt:  You work with painting, installation, wall drawings, photography, video, sculpture, public interventions and performance, works on paper, sound, and the web. Why do you choose to work in so many different media and with different forms?

Arturo Romo:  I think that comes naturally because I started out as a painter and, a draftsperson, and I always felt limited by the borders. I thought about it after I had done a series of paintings in college. Culturally, I did not understand what a painting was. Everyone around me who was within a European and American tradition really understood what painting was, almost innately, like it was part of their culture going all the way back. I felt that their historical culture invented the painting that we study now. At first I was really confronted by all of these frustrations about the limitations of the border and how the painting just ended. I couldn’t conceptualize the idea of it being a window in the illusionistic sense, and then I couldn’t conceptualize the borders when it was an abstract painting. And then I realized I’m being taught this foreign language that I don’t innately know well. I felt that I was doing a hybrid form of painting, and that it wasn’t getting to the heart of what I wanted to say, because it was like my second language.

From there I started making more drawings, and that somehow freed me from the history of painting. I started making paper books as I felt they were more in line with what I wanted to do in terms of a narrative progression. I also dealt with more cosmological ideas which were appearing in my work at that time. I felt that a single painting was so time consuming to create and so self contained that it wasn’t self-referential in any way, except in a very limited sense. So, I started exploring things like making a ceramic piece and then drawing it and then putting them next to each other. It started getting more drawn out.

I went to Baltimore for school and I started making very specific references to Los Angeles. I referenced specific bands like Los Lobos, who people know and are very uniquely LA, or the Latin Playboys or something like that. For me that was a string that went all the way across the country, kind of connected the two – local connections and transcontinental connections. I started getting interested in that because it conceptually broke out of the canvas, and so I guess it just led me to using more and more materials and even treating ideas as material. I did want to at least play with the eradication of the line between fine art and found object or folk art, or any number of designations or boundaries that we put on visual production. I wanted to erase all of that.

LatinArt:  One of the things that I find so fascinating about your practice is the idea of the ’trickster’. You have made, for example, fake posters that you put up around the city of Los Angeles in various neighborhoods. Can you talk about how that began for you and how it fits into the overall context of your work?

Arturo Romo:  I really have to give a lot of credit to Sandra de la Loza because we were studio mates and we talked quite a bit about these ideas – adopting personas and making fake flyers. She was really interested in that type idea - of disguising yourself and subverting something. It later really resonated with me and I started to do my own version. My interest in those flyers was that you can tell they were made somehow on the computer and then photocopied. They were found all over the place. I could walk down the street from my studio and find a flyer for a computer repair company and you could tell that it was out of somebody’s house or a real small storefront and it was done with this kind of easy-to-use Photoshop clip art, using every cliché in the book. That really appealed to me because anyone who had a $200 computer and could get Photoshop for free could make these kinds of sophisticated collages, so I really started looking at that language and I liked it. I’m always interested in subversion or creating mirror images of things, convoluting things more than subverting them, I guess...or subversion through convolution, or just making it ridiculous to the point of subversion.

I started making these flyers for rock concerts that didn’t really exist and the address would point back to my studio, or these flyers had dates that were way expired, like this thing happened in ’96. The idea is that you found it and it was like a relic of the past that was somehow informed by the present...All these little ruptures in logic.

All of these rock concerts were promoted by this guy "El Pendejo" who always had misspellings in his flyers and was making grammatical mistakes that were, to me, very Chicano. And I just thought it was a great persona to work with. He was also a bootlegger who would sell DVDs and stuff like that – just another subversive character; like a subversion within a subversion.

LatinArt:  Did you ever hear about anyone actually trying to follow the directions in the poster?

Arturo Romo:  No, I purposely made them outdated because I didn’t want them to be malicious in any way. I was reading a lot of Dada works and Hakim Bey, he is this writer who wrote a book called The Temporary Autonomous Zone. That really interested me because he was talking about pranks and what he called magic, but he was talking about it in a very benevolent way, like a benevolent subversion, and that really appealed to me because what I was getting from Dada was this type of malicious, nihilistic tendency. I could understand the desire to rip down all the boundaries, but it was also kind of limited. It went to a certain point and then all they could do was keep provoking, and then they had to up the ante and then nobody came. Once you say that Charlie Chaplin is going to be there and then he doesn’t show up and they throw tomatoes at you, then what is the next step and where did they go from there? They couldn’t go anywhere, they had to keep railing against something, but they kind of inoculated themselves. They made everyone get used to what they were doing.

LatinArt:  They couldn’t sustain their own outrageousness.

Arturo Romo:  Exactly, and I think they had to morph somehow into something different. I didn’t really like that idea of opposition. Like you know something, but I don’t, and that’s why it’s funny - because I’m in on it and you are not. What we call irony in art tends to be that way. There is a lack of generosity in what we call irony. Somehow there is this elitist group who is in on the joke and then there is the rest who don’t get it and they are left out in the rain. They don’t know anything. They don’t get the art. I didn’t want it to be that way. I just wanted my posters and flyers to enter the world and blend into it, even if it disappears. I don’t want them to provoke an easy response. I wanted them to provoke a complex response that maybe just sat there in the viewer’s mind, without provoking back.

LatinArt:  Can you talk a little more about the characters present in your work and where they come from? Is there one who is more prevalent?

Arturo Romo:  I think I like to balance them out. I like to push one, and then promote another a little more, depending on what I am interested in at the time. I guess there are two main institutions. One is Eufencio Rojas who is a doctor. He’s kind of like an urban guru who is an extension of New Age wisdom. He uses that New Age language and mixes it in with urban industrial pride. So whereas New Age really criticizes everything that is industrial, this guy takes the industrial and celebrates it. At the same time he says that it is destroying us. I read that you could cut off Medusa’s head and then turn around and use it as an amulet. I think that it’s parallel to this same idea, that you take this industrial enemy, or the thing that is slowly killing you, and you use it as a protective device after you harness its power.

The idea is to create with him or to imply a whole vast archive of pre-existing materials, like writings. (Actually, he is supposed to be illiterate, so he can’t write, so he needs an assistant to write for him.) The idea is that he has this huge archive of transcribed materials, of tapes, of CDs, of lectures and also he has these maps that he draws. All of these things are kind of implied as I work toward building him up as a reality. His assistant is this guy named Jose Lopez Feliu. They have this interesting kind of relationship, where before Eufencio’s success they lived together in the same apartment and they are totally dedicated to this pursuit of esoteric, industrial, urban knowledge.

The concept is that somehow these things that we devalue are rich with metaphysical energy that is never paid attention to. I guess it could be a political statement, or it could be a reference to the fact that East LA is an industrial area where a lot of people of color live and we tend not to think about them as metaphysical areas or important areas at all. Western culture tends to think of sacred places in terms of elimination. (As with indigenous populations) it seems consecrated spaces are those where everyone has been taken away and their culture eradicated. Somehow, these are the sacred spots that we're supposed preserve, as opposed to where these people have been relocated to and now live.

Similarly, the other main institution that I have invented is this botanica called Botanica Poder del Mestizo that has a whole immigrant’s story behind it. I guess they are a study in opposites. Whereas Eufencio is Chicano, pocho, macrocosmic, completely nearsighted and illiterate, the botanica is by nature very immigrant, very microcosmic because it deals with the body, very literate. They each contribute a different thing. The botanica story is very communal. It isn’t a storefront at all. It is just a series of moving storefronts that house an extended community and family of curanderos and curanderas who are in pursuit of creating this virtual garden. This implies a vast archived knowledge. There are surreal plants and real plants, medicinal, hallucinogenic, ancestor plants, extinct plants, and they are all cultivated in the minds of this collective. They are using these healing energy plants that don’t really exist, that are part of this vast garden, to blanket LA with it, to heal with it. They also put out pamphlets about how to heal yourself, but they are all very dubious, and they (their medicinal remedies) all come with warnings like, "if this results in death don’t blame us", because they will advocate things like making a tea out of lead. It’s all very homeopathic - and very questionable, such as pressure points in weird places, or telling you to do weird things like press against a bone until it feels soft. These crazy things have less to do with scientific thought and more to do with creative healing thought.

LatinArt:  Can you tell me more about a video piece that you made where you are wearing a rabbit mask and trekking through Los Angeles?

Arturo Romo:  I had been planning that for a while. My original plan had been to haul all of the materials for my show at Gallery 727 (located in downtown Los Angeles) on my back from my studio, but for timing reasons it never worked out. I decided to do it for a later show so I walked from my studio which was in Cypress Park to the Tropico de Nopal gallery in LA, taking a symbolic piece of the show which was a gourd. In the video I was wearing a rabbit mask, really more like a rabbit headdress. You can’t see my face and you can’t see any part of my head. It just has these giant ears coming out of it and two cut out eyes and the whole thing is very simple and made out of brown paper. I think the rabbit is like this lightning rod, like rabbit ears on a TV, it’s a symbol of attraction, and of course it’s a symbol of fertility or abundance.

LatinArt:  In your practice there is sense of give-and-take with the community and with the average person. It takes the form of the manifestos that you write and copy en masse. Also in your last show, your drawings were multiplied in photocopied format beneath the original drawings so that people could actually take something away with them. Can you expand upon this idea of direct interaction with the community and why that is important to you?

Arturo Romo:  It’s just natural. Depending on which side your trace, my family is from here in Los Angeles. They had a unique understanding of the Chicano movement. They raised me with a sense of anti-elitism, and it affected me deeply. That’s why I say it’s natural. If I don’t do that then it feels a little wrong.

LatinArt:  There is a sense of timelessness in your work as you often use found or manipulated vintage photographs. Where do some of these images come from?

Arturo Romo:  The photographs I guess are a reinterpretation of history. It is opening up a little door of doubt into the validity of photography, the validity of history itself, or of family history. It’s kind of revealing parts of your family history that you might not have known about, or revealing parts of other people’s family histories. If you are a Mexican family and you see these old photographs, and they are definitely of a certain time, you are looking at them and saying "well, that’s Tucson, Arizona in 1830," or "that is definitely Los Angeles in 1918." You are looking at it and saying, "that’s my family, I have photos like that." But if you are not from a Mexican-American background and you are looking at some photo of two kids and one of them has a basket over his head, you may think, "did they really do that?" or "what is that odd exotic contraption?" My grandmother sees it and says, "who is that behind that basket?" She doesn’t even see the alteration. She just starts to remember things. And so I guess it all depends on where you are coming from. But I do want to open it up for a little bit of doubt, or a little bit of humor, into that ultra-serious world of documentation.

LatinArt:  The May 1st immigration reform protests and the student walkouts of earlier this year are the current or newest chapter of political activism in the Chicano community. Do you see these events affecting your work in any way? Is this something that you will make reference to in your own practice?

Arturo Romo:  I think that the reason I like to refer to historical events in my work is partly because they are edifices. I don’t think this is an edifice yet. It’s still forming, it’s still a blob. We are still kind of swimming through it. When it solidifies and we are able to understand it as an edifice then that’s when I would be interested in cracking it again to turn it back into the blob so that we could swim in it again.

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