A Conversation w/ Gabriela Aceves
The following email conversation took place in September and October of 2014. Gabriela Aceves’ first three works with Video Out distribution will be shown as part of a Recent Acquisitions Screening at the centre this November.
A still from Escribiendome (2011-13).
Jeremy Todd, Outreach & Distribution, VIVO/Video Out: Despite the jump in time and content from La Coyolchauqui (2001-2) and Mnemonic Landscapes (2003-4) to Escribiendome (2011-2013), there seems to be a consistently playful engagement with the geographic and formations of subjectivity. How did this come about as a focus in your practice? Has it changed or reformulated itself within the timeline represented by these works coming into distribution?
Gabriela Aceves: Yes, an exploration of subjectivity has always been a constant in my work, even before I moved to Canada from Mexico. My earlier work in Mexico reflected on contemporary constructions of femininity and women’s behavior in public — in the city where I am from (Guadalajara). I was interested in understanding how these issues were expressed in the local media and how they influenced policy and public opinion.
When I first moved to Canada the connection with my community felt really distant and my work shifted towards introspection. My work began to focus on how the process of migrating to another country shaped and transformed my sense of self. I began an exploration of historical narratives and affective structures that mediated my everyday life experiences in Canada. Language, in its broadest sense, including its performative dimensions (speech and writing) was, and continues to be, an important theme, as well as the racial and gendered structures that affect how my work and self is understood in this new environment.
These three pieces represent distinct moments of my art practice since I moved to Canada. In the two earlier pieces an interest in Mexican history is the main focus while in the latest the connection with my Mexican past has to do more with my relationship with English and Spanish language. So while my interests in formations of subjectivity has been reformulated in the process, in thinking about them in these terms, I recognize some constants between the works, including an interest in the feminine body, a response or engagement with an historical artistic tradition and process-based/performative action.
La Coyolchauqui is a video installation in which I explore a pre-Hispanic myth of feminine identity. La Coyolchauqui is a female Aztec goddess who is betrayed by her mother and brother and thrown into a gorge. In this piece I re-created a pre-Hispanic round sculpture carved in stone of La Coyolchauqui’s fragmented body via an installation of seven monitors in a circular arrangement. The seven videos that are part of this installation reflect on my relationship to the myth, my experience of migration and the ways in which several feminist artists, particularly Latino artists based in the U.S., have used the myth to assert their identities.
Mnemonic Landscapes reflects on the role of landscape and memory in the construction of cultural and gendered identities. It is a kind of road movie about my trip to a site in the central valley of Mexico City known as El Paso de Cortés (the site where Spaniards and Mexicas first met during the time of conquest). The valley is flanked by two volcanoes: Iztaccihuatl is an inactive volcano labeled as female, and Popocateptl, its male and active counterpart. This landscape has been represented numerous times by various male artists and writers. I was particularly interested in the ways in which 19th century paintings of this site have been continuously used to formulate constructions and images of the Mexican nation, and the role of this tradition of representation in developing schools of Mexican art. In this piece, I engage with these traditions and explore my relationship to this landscape as a female artist speaking from abroad.
And lastly Escribiendome draws from French feminist thought to explore the process of becoming through writing. In this piece, I reflect on the ways in which language and writing shapes a sense of self and on my experience of inhabiting two cultures at the same time. So my initial interest in Mexican historical myths and traditions in the earlier pieces was reformulated into a more personal reflection on my relation with Spanish and English language.
VO: I did notice a critical engagement with, or provocation of, unspoken patriarchal constructions of cultural memory and notions of the universal in all of these works right away – from the return to nineteenth century Romantic landscape painting you’ve mentioned, to the non-hyphenated subject positions and first person voice of canonized conceptual artists such as John Baldessari, Lawrence Weiner or Keith Arnatt. Perhaps you’ve already answered this indirectly but I still want to ask: Do you identify as an artist working within, or in dialogue with, histories of feminist discourse and ideas?
GA: Yes, I definitely identify with feminist discourse and ideas, and with the work of conceptual artists in general. All of my work is about an interrogation of gender as a social and historical construction and one of the many structures of difference through which we understand our sense of self. In this sense my work is in dialogue with a feminist interest in critiquing and unveiling the exclusionary mechanisms of patriarchal social structures.
However, until recently I struggled with labeling myself as a feminist and/or conceptual artist. One of the reasons why is that in my early years as a student I couldn’t find any artists that would speak to my particular trajectory and past.
As a “Mexican” artist abroad you are always labeled through the lens of the Mexican Muralists and, of course, if you self-identify as a Mexican women undoubtedly you’ll be asked: “Why doesn’t your work look like Frida Kahlo’s?”
In Mexico, the situation when I was studying art was no different (this situation has obviously changed in the past 15 years). At the time I was much more interested in exploring materials that could mimic the materiality and the ephemerality of the female body — and not at all in color, painting, leftist revolutionary politics, art as a symbol of nation and/or indigenous pasts and presents.
Reacting against the exclusionary national art schools in Mexico of my student days, I began to identify and study work by U.S. and European post-War artists. I was initially very interested in the work by Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman, Anne Hamilton, Jana Sterbak, Martha Rosler and Lisa Steele due to their sculptural and video practices — and the emphasis on the body as a site inscribed by social structures.
After moving to Canada I became interested in exploring the exclusionary mechanisms of the art world and the geopolitical and economic structures that define who is considered and artist and why. At this point I began to look at the work of artists like Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser who engage in a critique of art historical narratives and the economic interests that dictate the value of art. I also became interested in the work of feminist artists like Adrian Piper who interrogated notions of class and race. These interests in combination with the lack of attention and knowledge about Latin American Art that I encountered here in Canada, and my explorations and ruminations about my art practice, led me to pursue graduate research on Latin American feminist and conceptual art in the 1970s.
In my doctoral research I traced the relations and exchanges between Mexico City based feminist artists and activists like Mónica Mayer and Los Angeles based feminist artists like Suzanne Lacey and Judy Chicago, and also the exchanges between Mexican video artist Pola Weiss and Shigeko Kubota and other Fluxus artists. I also looked at the work produced by art collectives that were established in Mexico City in the aftermath of the massacre of students in 1968. These collectives were actively participating in transnational networks of mail art, artist archives and other conceptual art practices of the time.
I mean this is a bit of detour from your question but in a sense I see the past seven years that I spent as a doctoral student as part of my art practice. I answered a lot of my concerns about how histories of feminist and conceptual art informed my own practice and how a feminist lens can provide alternative narratives to dominant art historical traditions – including the histories of conceptual art which are male dominated worldwide. I was able to explore more in depth some of the exclusionary mechanisms that privilege some art practices over others. In the process, I have come to fully identify as a feminist artist.
VO: La Coyolchauqui and Mnemonic Landscapes possess a descriptively lush, cinematic visuality, but Escribiendome seems almost indifferent to these kinds of qualities (in keeping with the historical anti-aesthetic of some conceptual art practices). Is this the intended beginning of a new approach within your practice or is it perhaps just an incidental result of the experimental or exploratory nature of the newest piece?
GA: I think both. Escribiendome called for a less descriptive aesthetic. It is a piece that acts as a record of the performative act of writing. In a way it reflects the process that I was going through as I took a break from “producing art” and immersed myself in research and writing. My current projects continue with an exploration of the act of writing as a gendered performance and text as representation. So yes, perhaps aesthetically Escribiendome is a bit of a new approach but I don’t see it as a complete break with what I was doing before. The performative qualities of Escribiendome have a lot in common with the videos in La Coyolchauqui.
VO: VIVO is a new development for you, isn’t it? What has your relationship to the centre been like so far?
GA: Yes, my relation with VIVO has been very recent. I joined as a board member last March at a very interesting time when a search for a new location was underway and a renewed interest in Crista Dahl Media Library and Archive was emerging as well as various projects for injecting new energy to education and distribution headed by new staff were being planned. While living in Ontario I was involved with several artist-run centers and I was really missing this involvement here in Vancouver. So far it has been a very exciting seven months with lots and lots of changes. During this time I’ve collaborated in some visioning and planning exercises and I am hoping to get more involved and learn more about VIVO’s history and role in the community. I was happily surprised to find out that VIVO hosted several exchanges with Latin American female video artists in the early 1980s and I am hoping to do some more research and follow up on those exchanges to showcase VIVO’s important role as a global media center.
VO: Speaking of plans, can you talk about some current projects in development?
GA: Yes, I am working on two projects at the moment.
One has two do with reproductive labor performed by women, the production of personal archives, and writing. It is based on a notebook of handwritten food recipes that belonged to my great grandmother. The notebook was then passed to my grandmother who continued to hand write recipes and then it was passed on to my mother who continued the process.
In this work I am interested in exploring how and what kind of knowledge/history is passed from generation to generation as a means of exploring the construction of self and also to question what counts as a historical source. The work entails a video and the hosting of a dinner of meals cooked from the recipe notebook. The video is a record of my process of trying to learn the three different handwriting styles recorded in the recipe notebook. Each form of script has a particular history that has to do with the educational background and social status of each of these women. The dinner is more of an exploration on the act of cooking for others as quintessential act of unrecognized female reproductive labor.
I am also working on a collaborative photo-text based project that consists of several self-portraits by Mexico City based feminist artists, who I interviewed as part of my doctoral research, and a text based on the interviews I conducted with them. In this work I am interested in exploring the tensions produced by two distinct forms of representation (the self-portraits and the text from the interviews) and the ways in which different forms of female subjectivity are translated and reinterpreted in the interstices between these two representations.
VO: Thank you Gabriela for this thoughtful and very generous introduction to your work and ideas. It’s been a pleasure. We’re all looking forward to your next works at VIVO/Video Out.