Friday, June 15, 2012

Guest Column - A Zapatista Encuentro in Downtown Los Angeles

Michael Cucher
Michael Cucher completed his PhD in English at the University of Southern California and will join the Center for Mexican American Studies at UT Austin in the fall. He is currently working his way through a book about representations of Emiliano Zapata, Chicana/o Spatiality, and the EZLN Rebellion. 

Context and Caracoles:
When the indigenous insurgents of Chiapas rose to international prominence with their spectacular New Year’s Day uprising in 1994, Zapatismo became a powerful beacon of anti-imperialist hope for artists and activists throughout the world, especially within la Chicanada. More than eighteen years later, the glare of media attention has dimmed considerably, but for many of the Zapatistas and their sympathizers in southern Mexico, the real work of forging local alternatives to neoliberal globalization is just beginning. With this in mind, the installation Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program—showing at the Redcat Center for Visual, Performing, and Media Arts in downtown Los Angeles until June 17, 2012—demonstrates that few terms imbue the current phase of their revolt with as much meaning and possibility as caracol [snail shell].

According to some, the Zapatistas call their sites and mechanisms of local governance caracoles because they are the hearts of contemporary Zapatismo. The snail shell, they suggest, signifies the heart in the Mayan cosmology that informs the insurgents’ efforts to promote dignity, autonomy, and respect for Mexico’s indigenous peoples after more than 500 years of colonialism. Others claim that the snail symbolizes the slow and steady pace of a Zapatista model of progress—a vision that promotes sustainability and human rights through the long and sometimes arduous processes of direct democracy through which decision-making happens in Zapatista communities.

When asked during a recent Q&A about how the term caracol relates to the Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, an installation he put together with permission from the Zapatista juntas de buen gobierno and input from Zapatista artists throughout Chiapas, Portuguese-born artist Rigo 23 suggested that the snail shell helps to shed light on the non-Western world-views of the indigenous rebels. From a Zapatista perspective, Rigo explained, time does not proceed in a straight line, but as a series of cycles (like the spirals of a shell). Rather than linear conceptions of history, which tend to relate to indigenous peoples and cultures as relics of a dead past, the Zapatistas’ more cyclical perspective invites questions about complicity and connection to indigenous struggles throughout las Américas in the twenty-first century.

Finally, and especially in the context of the Redcat exhibition, some think of the caracol as a space in which inside and outside come together – where hard shell meets fleshy inside. In Chiapas, visitors (like Rigo 23, for example) must pass through the caracol to receive permission to pass into the more private, everyday spaces of the revolution. Similarly, the Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program has transformed Redcat (located in the basement of the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall) into a space where the residents and art enthusiasts of Los Angeles, California are invited to avail themselves of the intergalactic consciousness being formulated by committee in the mountains of the Mexican southeast.

Zapatista-Chicano InterGalactic Connections:
The installation’s title comes from the first phase of the project, when Rigo 23 traveled to Chiapas to ask Zapatista governing bodies and artists: “If the Zapatistas were invited to an intergalactic meeting outside of the milky way, how would they get there?” Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program represents one answer to this question, and like many questions posed in Zapatista-controlled territories, its answer comes in the form of a collective effort. A mural painted by two young men born into the Zapatista revolt in 1994, Samuel and José Luis from the Caracol de Morelia, greets visitors to the installation with images of a family of indigenous insurgents standing defiantly on the top of the world.

When asked about the murals he saw in the caracoles in Chiapas, Rigo 23 responded that they really resonated (at least for him) with the Chicana/o murals of California. With this in mind, the resemblance between the Redcat mural and the East Los Streetscapers’ famous La Familia, executed as part of The Chicano Time Trip Series in Lincoln Heights in 1977, opens up a potentially provocative detour, putting the installation into conversation (if for a moment) with the Chicana/o arts movement in Alta California in the 1970s.

For many, La Familia represents a powerful image of self-affirmation, depicting the family as a necessary refuge for Chicanas/os and Chicana/o culture and in an otherwise hostile United States. And while the mural continues to symbolize the heroic efforts of ordinary Chicanas/os as they lean on one another for support, in recent years its image of the father as the undisputed hero and protector of the nuclear family has also been read for the ways it perpetuates a discourse of Chicano heterosexism. This ideal family also seems somewhat set apart from the scenes of farmworkers, vatos, artists, and others in the margins here. Clearly, these scenes and the family in the center of the mural represent mutually reinforcing, overlapping spheres of influence, but the family appears somewhat disconnected from the spaces of everyday life.

In contrast, the Redcat mural emphasizes the connections between its family and their surroundings, for as Rigo 23 has said, “the whole universe is Zapatista” in this image.    
Here, flowers, ears of corn, bees, snails, stars, satellites, and the moon appear as compañeros, as allies, and the mural signifies this kinship through the pasamontañas [ski masks] and red bandanas that have been associated with Zapatismo since the 1994 uprising in Chiapas. The masks appear to demonstrate a sense of belonging in a universe that is not structured by hierarchical divisions between men and women, flora and fauna, or the local and the global. In the wider context of the installation, the masks also appear to contest the idea that the Zapatistas are indigenous artifacts on display. In other words, while autochthonous cultures appear in Natural History museums throughout the world as objects of study—as products of a dead, bygone past—the Zapatistas withhold their identity from the gaze of exhibit visitors, gesturing toward both the consequences and the possibilities of facelessness against more than 500 years of oppression. Finally, and in a way that resonates with contemporary Chicana/o critiques of the sexual politics of La Familia, the mother and father stand on equal footing with equal firepower in the Redcat mural while their child holds a banner articulating the concrete set of demands and basic human rights for which the Zapatistas continue to struggle in the mountains of the Mexican southeast.  

San Cristóbal Transported through Time and Space:
The themes of the mural repeat like motifs throughout the installation, and when visitors pass through “la Entrada” on the left side of the mural, they find themselves on a facsimile of a street in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the capital of Chiapas. Made from recycled materials, the walls sport naked light bulbs, exposed pipes, and crooked staircases that, in the best moments of both the city and the installation, are populated by noisy, laughing children. The walls are also perforated with eye slits that give visitors the chance to look through the other side of the ski mask. Some direct their gaze to documentary footage of last year’s MARCHA POR LA PAZ CON JUSTICIA Y DIGNIDAD and others open onto a short film of artists working on the installation. Continuing to incorporate multiple media as it spirals toward the center, the installation then directs visitors into an attendant’s room covered with paintings and telas displaying messages of hope and resistance. Significantly, rather than images of celebrated heroes like Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata or Subcomandante Marcos, the works lining the walls of both the attendant’s room and the front gallery of the installation often depict the men, women, and children of Chiapas as its artistic subjects. One notable exception is the appearance of the late Comandanta Ramona, an indigenous woman who often served as the insurgents’ soul and mouthpiece in negotiations with Mexico City after leading the military action against San Cristóbal in the early morning hours of 1994. 

The Intergalactic Mothership:
On the other side of the attendant’s room, visitors pass through the “Stargate,” which again incorporates skills like weaving and embroidering into the installation’s vision of what Rigo 23 has called its Zapatista “planetarium.” This leads to the center of the Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, where visitors find themselves in a hanger with a snail-covered, ski-masked Mayan Mothership.


A tricked out, oversized ear of corn, the spacecraft is flanked by a sun, a moon, and a satellite. All are hanging from the celling and all wear masks that identify them as Zapatistas. Once again we see a profusion of different media and skills on display, from the handmade Zapatista dolls piloting the ship and its electrified metal nosecone to the baskets embroidered with insurgent faces at the back. Apertures of various sizes allow viewers to peer into the interior of the craft, revealing details like a multilingual classroom and dirt paths illuminated by blue running lights. The earthen floors resonate with the shells of the enormous snails hitching a ride on the nosecone insofar as the Zapatista space travelers also appear to carry their homes with them, emphasizing the connection between the indigenous Zapatistas and the tierras chicas of Chiapas. The spaceship’s dirt floors, and especially the tree growing next to the basketball court in the ship’s rear, also represent the organic connection between contemporary Zapatismo’s use of technology and its struggle for a world in which the indigenous peoples of las Américas would be free to tend their fields and raise their children without having to fear paramilitary death squads bought and paid for with the profits of so-called free trade globalization in the 21st century.

A Zapatista Future:
One of the most inspiring and hard-to-envision goals of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas is their claim: “Queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos.” On the other hand, a trip through the Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program—which not only incorporates a dizzying array of different skills, influences, and forms of artistic expression, but also represents a collaboration between a Portuguese artist, Zapatista juntas de buen gobierno, young men and women born into revolution, and a gallery space in Los Angeles—gives visitors a little taste of how this might look, at least in a corner of Walt Disney Concert Hall. If words, as Subcomandante Marcos has argued, have been the Zapatistas’ weapon of choice thus far, it may just be that the visual arts represent the arena in which they will continue to imagine their blueprint for the future.      



msedano said...

michael, welcome to La Bloga! REDCAT offers some of LA's more interesting performances, and this looks to be another!


Fantastico! I'll let the sci-fi crowd know about this. It should blow their minds.

Michael Cucher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Cucher said...

Thanks for including me, and thanks for your help Michael and Manuel! The pics and the layout look great! I wish I could be there on Sunday, but I'll be at another interplanetary encuentro - taking my son to see the LA Galaxy...