Date of Interview: May 23, 2003|
Topic: Eddie Olmos and the Future Conceptualists: An Interview with Juan Capistran and Mario Ybarra Jr.
Interviewer: Rita Gonzalez
LatinArt: I sat down with Los Angeles-based artists Juan Capistran and Mario Ybarra Jr. to discuss a partnership which emerged during their art school training and continues to this day. This working relationship and operational logic has resulted in the creation of an artist-run space in Wilmington called Slanguage.
In this tense time in which art critics, artists, and curators are attempting to renovate longstanding art discourses and to "move beyond" contextual and identity-based articulations and readings, the art works and slanguage generated by Capistran and Ybarra provide new critical tools to bear in mind. The neologism slanguage, for one, suggests a mutation of common speech-a street-level transfusion. This new formation is born out of an aural and pictorial sensitivity to noise. Ybarra and Capistran translate and generate street-level articulations (of mixed [up] identity, of urban sampling, of altered forms of popular culture), and as such, both artists function as the lexicographers of a new Slanguage.
Slanguage: Juan Capistran: I think it started over a conversation about the L.A. riots and the lots that were left over. We started talking about how we both saw these spaces as fuckin’ interesting sites, just because of what they had become after the riots. They were these empty lots with these chain link fences around them. And that lead us to start to do these works at these sites. The first project was the Sub Lime pieces. There were these chain link fences erected over these empty spaces and what the people in the community started doing was putting up their own advertisements for their own businesses like braiding or plumbers or whatever. So we started to do these pieces that adopted this style-this painterly style-the kind of do-it-yourself approach. We did these signs on like scrap pieces of wood because that’s what we had.
We did about four or five of these at different intersections throughout South Central L.A. We spelled out the word Sub and painted a plus sign and there was a lime underneath. These "Sub/Lime" pieces were camouflaged with the other signs because they didn’t stand out so much. From that work we ended up doing another series that was similar called Poor Paintings- kind of talking about the Pour paintings of Jackson Pollock and partially poor paintings.
Mario Ybarra Jr.: They were all named after oldies songs...
JC: Like The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face...
MY: Oogum Boogum...[Both laugh]
JC: They were all about a feeling of longing, a sense of loss. We did another piece which was called Sitting in the Park Waiting for You, a bench installation done at the old Belmont Tunnel which is L.A. oldest graffiti site. We designed this bench and modeled it after turntables so it was circular. You could sit there and look at the graffiti on the walls and spin around and see the guys playing pelota. It was meant to be permanent and it actually lasted about a year until a film crew removed it. The culmination of the first work that we did under the name Space Invaders 13 was the Below the Ground project which was the climax of all the ideas we were dealing with all the spaces in South Central, ideas of what these chain link fences were doing. It took on the form of an architectural model of a base that we were planning. It went from this base that we were planning to an archaeological find. It was a resource center for the community underground. The first level was a resource center where people from the community could go and do research. It would be a library stocked with all kinds of information-revolutionary theories or any kind of social, political writings. And below that was the dance floor/revolutionary meeting space. We had researched all of these underground cultures- the tunnels of Cu Chi in Vietnam, the crazy cult from Japan that gassed the subway, the Minutemen, the Panthers, the Brown Berets. We modeled the site after all these groups and their underground movements.
MY: In thinking back, we were initially making models of subversive spaces and now we have one. (Both laugh).
JC: We also started to develop other site projects. Our first performance was AllModCons, an abbreviation of all modern conveniences (1997/98). We were taking all of these old Atari computers, Atari games, and kid keyboards and wiring them up and programming [musical] beats on these old computers. We had projectors with videos and single channel videos. We sampled different songs- the performances were not really structured, more like improvisational jazz where we kind of had a theme or direction we wanted to go.
LatinArt: You mentioned an aggressive edge to the performances? Did they get out of control?
Slanguage: JC: The reason we had talked about stopping these performances is because they had become too aggressive. And we had always talked about our final performance as being one where we would flip it- we would no longer be the aggressors but where we would become vulnerable. We talked about that Edward James Olmos scene in Zoot Suit where he gets stripped.
LatinArt: And Mario, what was your first impression of Juan?
Slanguage: MY: I think it was a shared interest in a real "out in the street" sensibility in terms of our production. We wanted to form a peer group- we shared a base. I did these duct-tape paintings that were a sort of rip-off of the ASCO Instant Mural. Me and these kids that I was working with did these paintings on the sides of buildings that resembled Barnett Newman paintings but with stickers of lowrider cars. And I was doing that before the era of digital cameras so we were documenting everything on Polaroids. They went with the idea of the instant, and thinking about these types of interventions and how you are presenting these works. We tried to stay in the purist school- like a Gordon Matta Clark, Smithson- to have black and white documents of the events.
In terms of Juan’s work, I was really struck by the fact that even though we shared the same ideologies and mythologies, the difference between us was that I was still kind of holding on to a real notion of narrative and figurative work. Whereas Juan has a real inclination to go into a minimalist, modernist understanding or interface. So even though we are working collaboratively, there is a real difference in our sensibility. So I thought, cool, you don’t need two first-base men. You need people that can do different things on a team.
LatinArt: FIVE YEAR PLAN
So how would you characterize your evolution since your initial projects at Otis College of Art and Design (in Los Angeles)?
Slanguage: MY: It’s funny because the other day we were looking at our five-year plan that we made a couple of years ago on a piece of cardboard. We made a plan for the space we wanted to have. We made a plan to show nationally and internationally. We wanted to make friends with curators and critics. The other day we were looking at this and we realized, damn, we did all these things. (Both laugh).
LatinArt: You are way ahead of schedule!
Slanguage: MY: So, oh shit, we were thinking about our next plan of action. Our art space Slanguage is our biggest project. I remember asking Juan, how long is this going to take us? And Juan said, the rest of our lives. Well, all right. This has been the most challenging and sacrificial project that we’ve done because we are doing it all on our own. We’ve had a lot of support. Right now, we are doing all of our research to see how this kind of collective art space/studio/sound system/space where we can congregate to discuss artwork will succeed.
LatinArt: What are some of the models for Slanguage?
Slanguage: MY: I’ve found components of what we want to do in other spaces, but they don’t reflect the entirety of our program. We’ve been meeting with artists to talk about shows, as well as developing an artist-in-residency program with people locally, but now it’s kind of branching out. We invite artists to our space to make work and help them get shows, get press. So far we have hosted Raul Vasquez (a.k.a. Glaucoma), Rick (DUEM) Espinosa, Adrian de la Peña, Ana Jimenez, Eric Marquez, and Toomer. They come from different degrees of art experience. They are all kind of self-taught artists or come from some kind of street aesthetic. But as we said on the radio (KPFK interview, www.divineforces.org) the other day, our MFAs serve a lot of MFs. So we are trying to figure out how to get these guys to be artists if they are not going to go to universities or art schools. How do you get them to be competitive or be employed, or even, to have a space and time to make art? I think of product-oriented goals, but essentially if you don’t have a space to work, then you are not making art. And from experience, Juan and I understand the notion of people from our economic status. Their parents are not going to support them in making art; parents will ask, "what are you doing?" Their friends won’t understand it. So we try and facilitate that kind of space. It’s been rough. It’s not the norm in terms of arts education. It’s a guerilla education.
LatinArt: How has the collaboration changed your individual work?
Slanguage: JC: Working along with Mario, you develop this critical thinking skill that really pushes you more. I know that it’s really pushed my own work. That’s the thing with Mario, I can just sit down and say something and Mario will pick up on it right away. Working together we have developed our own language. It would have taken me a longer time to get to the point where I am now. We would have conversations about "anything" and it would somehow get back to our work or push the work in some other direction. I don’t know too many people that have that relationship, which serves their work.
MY: I agree with Juan. We called our place Slanguage because we have been able over the years to develop that language. It plays out both in our conversations and in our works. It has eliminated a level of fear- fear of being understood by parental institutions.
When we get to go out and do individual projects we can always come back to the collective knowledge. Like when Juan was in One Nation Under a Groove, the hip-hop show at the Bronx Museum, we all got to go and hang out in Harlem. And when I got a show in Mexico City, we got to talk to people there. And then our space becomes a hub for people. This year, Juan will be having a show at Lombard/Fried Fine Arts, and in September we will be having a collaborative project at a gallery called 4F in Chinatown. And then in November, I will be part of a show in London. And in January, we are invited to do a show in Vancouver. And we are going to be doing sound performances at clubs. So our tentative year is full. On top of that, we are running Slanguage. We work at it everyday.
LatinArt: Your shared language intrigues me, could you list off some of the keywords of this language?
Slanguage: JC: L.A. has been this important- I don’t know if you want to say center -but this important thing. The place that we come out of is part of the language. The fact that there are not too many of us out there.
LatinArt: You are attracted to elements of political art, but it’s very different than other artists who want to take on aesthetics and poses of political art. Are you trying to look at those stances more critically?
Slanguage: JC: I think so. It becomes problematic when (political art) becomes nostalgic. We were always weary of nostalgia, when the work becomes a very detached experience, kind of idealized.
MY: I think that we have been able to achieve a separation -a real kind of loving of it. We are dealing with the fact that even though those movements are integral to history, we are not living in those times. We have to develop a real kind of criticality in terms of being able to understand their relevance, but at the same time, we must try to detach ourselves from them in order to get a holistic view of those movements. Juan and I had this conversation a couple of weeks ago - History goes on the list of elements that influence the work.
We have developed a system of dealing with history, from not so much of a fixed position but more of a flux point or shifting position. We are engaging with and researching history in the projects that we do. But we are able to not carry a fundamentalist approach to those ideologies. It’s more of an analytical approach or a statistic, logical approach than a passion-driven one. I feel that our projects deal with politics more on a spatial level -not just visually, but conceptually- and have more of an impact on a broader audience.
LatinArt: I was reading this short article about the art scene in Tijuana. And the critic used the term "regional conceptualism" to describe the type of work that is the preference of globe-trotting curators in these new "biennial zones." What do you make of Tijuana, or L.A., as the generator of "regional conceptualisms"?
Slanguage: MY: In terms of "regional conceptualism"...it’s backwards to consider Los Angeles (or for that matter, Tijuana) "regional." Los Angeles is one of the most metropolitan cities in the world. It has the most interfaces with different ethnicities- consider Wilmington (home to Slanguage) which is the third largest port in the universe, where people and merchandise are pouring in...
LatinArt: The same with Tijuana...
Slanguage: MY: A regionalism...I don’t know how you can say that about these cities! Los Angeles- this is THE macro-space. It’s complicated. I don’t know if you could apply that term to such a morphing space. I have lived in Los Angeles all my life, and still continue to find new areas. I’ve been thinking about the notion of local tourism or a kind of cultural tourism. Rather than a regional conceptualism, we are projecting a future conceptualism...but certain people don’t understand the codes. In certain ways, you have got to do your homework. We are in a time where the vortex of our production and our aesthetic is open- with global exchange- it’s just open. And all these kinds of codes are still being learned. Eventually, in Star Wars times, we will have an understanding. We will have a chip in our ear to translate all of these languages.
LatinArt: We will have the capacities of Edward James Olmos’s character Gaff in Blade Runner!
Slanguage: JC: Like Mario, I’ve been here all my life...well since I was three when I came from Mexico. L.A. is so complex and every section of it has multiple histories. I think that’s why this place has become so influential.
MY: I think the notion to categorize this space, in regards to other cities of the world, is difficult. Los Angeles has it s own system of codes.
JC: There are people trying to compare L.A. to other cities. But when you consider what it is and what it will be, it kind of reflects our practice, always transforming and morphing.
MY: There are two different things: (1) reading a Mike Davis book and (2) standing on the streets, you know, just standing on the streets. Not to discredit Mike Davis, but there are two perceived notions of it. And I think that the histories so far have been told from a monolithic position. That’s why I think that Raul Villa’s Barrio Logos (http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/vilbar.html) is so important because it takes on sociological, critical positioning in regards to the city that isn’t from the white guy’s position, you know what I mean?
Those are the kinds of things that we need to facilitate more as artists and strategists. We need to give those people spaces to come up with those ideologies- to build new histories. And the more official way, the better, in the most prestigious institutions, in the most coveted magazines, in the highest read newspapers; this is where that dialogue needs to be played. At least, we have some people in positions to the point that I believe we will move forward. I’m looking forward to that.
To use a musical metaphor, I’ve always told Juan, I want to see when the kids come up with something that I hate. You know what I mean? I’m waiting for the day that the kids are going to put something on that makes me say, turn that shit off!! You’ve got to allow them to make their music, their story...we have to give them their space- and now, we need our space.