Episode Three – Emilio Rojas

Additional Reading:

This episode contains strong language.

Chipo –  Hello, I am Chipo Chipaziwa and welcome to Performing? No, Performance. This is a podcast in which I ask performance artists why and how they create the work that they create, and what does studio time mean and look like to them. I’m also joined by Live’s Brady Ciel Marks, who sometimes joins in on the conversation.

In this episode, I speak with Mexican performance artist, Emilio Rojas. Emilio’s practice concerns itself with border politics and investigating decolonization.I am honored to have him as my third guest. 

Chipo – I wanted to start off with discussing your performance titled Heridas Abiertas. Yes.Yes. Which originated in 2014 and is still ongoing. In this performance you work with tattoo artist, Victor Nieto, to engrave the US and Mexican border on your back result resulting in a 22 inch scar. Can you tell us why you chose to take such a literal and permanent approach with this piece? 

Emilio – Yeah, I mean, it’s not permanent because it’s the, well, it is permanent in a kind of a scarification kind of way, but it’s not permanent in, like, I don’t, it’s an inkless tattoo Victor Nieto was the last person to do it, but there’s been, I’ve been doing it actually since I was in Vancouver.

The first one I did in 2014 in Houston, Texas for this festival, and I had been, actually Guadalupe, who was your teacher. Guadalupe Martinez gave me a copy of Borderlands / La Frontera and the opening line of it says ‘the US Mexican border is an open wound where the third world grates against the first and bleeds’.

And I just kind of, that stuck with me, the idea of the border as this wound that is like constantly bleeding and we’re constantly losing people. And the sort of violence, but also the sort of resistance and survival and communities that exist within this sort of liminal space that Anzaldúa describes as like a third country, like this border culture where there’s like a different language. And this Spanglish is spoken and she goes through the entire book kind of explaining why this wound is open. And I was working in. I’ve been working with her archives in UT Austin in Texas for about 10 years now, or yeah, like nine years. I keep saying, I kept saying six years for a long time and then I’m like, oh, I think time has passed.

So. I so I applied for this festival and I wanted to do, Anzaldúa was from Texas, so I wanted to do that piece there. And I was still living in Vancouver, but my family, my mother grew up in Tijuana and I grew up going and crossing the border. And I have family on both sides of the border, so, I think about some of who can cross, some who can’t back.

So I was thinking this of the line and the way it’s inscribed and actually when I was in, at the archive, I had a dream of Gloria E. Anzaldúa coming in into my room with a knife. And I thought she was gonna kill me, but I like a kind of rebirth or some, like some, she’s such an important figure for me.

Like there was but she turned me around and then she carved the border on my back and then oh I tried to get a surgeon to do that. But of course no one would wanna do that. It’s like, unethical to like just open someone for no reason. But I had been working with tattoos before in my undergrad at Emily Carr.

And I worked with David King and and tattoo artists here in Mexico, in the, and in Canada, in Vancouver. And then he came to Mexico with me and we worked with another tattoo . So I’ve been working with tattoo artists for different pieces. So I realized that it was actually which is this text here, the aesthetic wound.

There is a poem by Guillermo Gomez-Peña. He talks about tattoos as aesthetic wounds. And then I thought, oh, aesthetic wounds, open wounds. What if the tattoo didn’t have ink? So a tattoo is just wound with ink that just keeps the, keeps it permanent in your, in your skin. So if it’s. If it doesn’t have ink, then it’s just a wound and then it’s just open for that moment where the tattoo artist is like kind of opening your skin usually to put in ink so they like recharge and put it back.

So then I thought that was the next best, best, best thing. I think I’m grateful that I didn’t do the, the like knife opening my back. Mm-hmm, but it’s also this process of healing. The tattoo heals. The scar is like left there like a trace.  And I usually work with tattoo artists who have crossed the border themselves.

Mm-hmm. . So there’s this like inscription like Victor Nieto was the last person. And also like they’re, they want to share their stories too. Like it’s I tell them the project.  Victor was brought as a child but her mother, his mother at the time of the performance was facing deportation.

So when he was inscribing, it was like, and the mother was there and it was like a very kind of intense emotional experience for both of us. But I felt it. More than with any other tattoo. I think it was very emotional for him to carve it. Mm-hmm. . And he said there was this really amazing catharsis cuz he had never actually had the conversation of what it felt to like cross the border as a child with his family.

Like it was just like that thing happened and we don’t talk about it. And that opened up a lot of conversations with his family and then actually, the week after the charges on the mother were completely dropped. Oh, wow. And he called me and he’s like, we did it. And I was like, we did what? And he’s like, the tattoo work, like we like, cuz it was, for him, it was a ritual as well as well as for me.

But for him it was this kind of, it was like, you know, we like, we invoked the spirit and like they protected my mom. And it was this really beautiful and I don’t know if that’s truly what happened, but he really believed that that’s what happened. And I feel like my perspective is different, but also the work is about amplifying the voices of my community.

Like Mexican and Latino com –  Latinx community here in the US and their experience of crossing, which is very different and varied and there’s very each crossing is a very different experience. And yeah, it is very intense. Like I, I have the wound for about a week in my back, kind of very fresh and I feel it, and I can sort of feel it can feel sort of the territory in my skin and it, it has changed cuz I do it every year since 2014. So it’s been 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22. So it’s been nine times that I’ve done it in different locations, in different exhibitions.

Rather it’s like performed close to the border or in exhibitions that relate to borders that have that sort of theme. And interesting enough, every single time that we do it, and it’s pro, usually programmed, it’s like it’s a performance that takes a lot of planning to program because it’s been censored a couple of times where like like at Lafayette, someone found out, like someone from the board of the school found out and they were like, we can’t do this in the school.

So we ended up actually doing it on the back of the tattoo shop, which was like a house and in, in, in the yard. And we like, brought curtains from the theater department and just made it look really nice. But it was on the, on like someone’s po like it was on the tattoo shops like back porch. Mm-hmm.

And there was actually a game, a football game being played like by the school that was like close by and you can hear like the roaring and the national anthem. And it was just so, like, it just made it so much more bizarre because it was this really intense like expression of American identity and the performance started and then the national anthem started and it was just like, whoa. 

Chipo – I was thinking about that one tattoo artist specifically who thought as performance as ritual. Ritual as performance and how, in a way that saved his own mother and I was just thinking about Guadalupe again and something that she said to me that has just stuck throughout my practice and it’s said the body’s not neutral. And I think that you’ve kind of taken that and like amplified it in such a way where, yes, our bodies are already not neutral given our own personal histories, our race, our gender coming into play. But now you’ve amplified that and put an international border, a border that bleeds onto your body. 

Emilio – I had an image and then I’ve had variations that thought of it. Like the, this piece is, I mean, I’ve sort of been thinking Tanya Tagaq said something to me similar to what Guadalupe said to you. Mm-hmm. . But are you, wait, just finish the question maybe, and then 

Chipo – No, no, no. That was, no, that was okay.

Emilio – That as people of color, as queer people, as like Indigenous people. Like my father is Indigenous. I grew, I didn’t grow up with him. So my knowledge of my own Indigeneity is kind of lost in that kind of abandonment as well. So I’ve been trying kind of think it’s like a lifelong journey to like reconnecting with that root, with those roots, knowing that you have them inside of you.

And that’s why I’m so like my first performance mentor was Rebecca Belmore, like looking at her work, documenting her work like that really taught me so much. And I just Tanya Tagaq, who’s another one of my mentors, she told me like, you are never gonna be read – You’re al you’re already gonna be read as not neutral.

Like you’re already gonna be seen as othered, so you might as well use that to your advantage instead of like deny it. Mm-hmm, like, you’re already gonna be seen as this, like queer, Brown immigrant or like however layers like they see through and present to what you have. Like you’re not just like the normative hetero, cisgender like White body. Mm-hmm.

So it’s like you’re already being read differently. So instead of avoiding that, you like should lean on it. Which I think I’ve done in my work, but also there is in terms of my personal history is very different from others, other people’s history. So I always try to speak from my perspective in a way, and also working, I ,that’s one of the reasons I love working with archives because a lot of this mentors, I mean, I would’ve loved to be, Anzaldúa was born the, in 1942, so there’s a big chance that I could have met her. She hadn’t died in 2004 of like comp complications of diabetes, which is like completely controllable if you have the right healthcare and, and support.

But so working for me with archives is a possibility to like open into a window into the work of people that were denied to live. And I often think of mourning. I mean, I work with a lot of AIDS archives and Gloria E. Anzaldúa and Bay Rustin like people that I didn’t have the chance to meet. But there’s like a way of going into their practices, into the words, into their worlds.

Through the archive and then kind of the, a lot of these pieces with the border have come from just like, I feel of it as like a con collaboration or continuation of Anzaldúa’s work. Mm-hmm.  . So all of these pieces are actually, it has a title and then it’s has a parenthesis and it says ‘to Gloria or a Gloria’, which means to Gloria, like dedicated to her  and I’ve recently been responding to the work of photographer Laura Aguilar, who also just recently died of complications of diabetes. And she was very young. So this like, I often think of like Coco Fusco’s essay, like the bodies that were not ours, the bo I can’t remember the, let’s find the right title: The Bodies That Were Not Ours. The Bodies That Were Not Ours. Yeah. In the way that. A lot of our bodies are often like exploited or render, like they didn’t belong to us.

They sort of belong to capitalism. They, they belong to colonialism and imperialism, and they were seen as this material to extract and to exploit. So how do you reclaim your body that is already not seen as neutral, especially when you’re not where you were born? Mm-hmm. . 

Chipo – And I just want to talk about your piece, so your piece Questions to the Border, which was done in 2019:

‘How have lost counts of how many people have passed through you? Or tried ,or died trying? Which side of the bed do you sleep in, the Mexican side or the American side? Do you call the Canadian US border and bitch about the US politics? Are you a highly functioning introvert or a sensory extrovert? Do you speak to your children in English, Español, Spanglish? Did your mother ever warned you about talking to strangers? Mm-hmm. How do you sleep at night with the horrors you have seen? When when you were established, was it against your own will? Which is your favorite and least favorite part of yourself? Hmm. Who would you choose to write your autobiography? Do you go to group therapy with other borders? What is your favorite bird that flies above you? Have you ever been separated from your family? Do you hold their hands as they die in your deserts? Do you have an Instagram? How many followers? What is your shoe size? Do you like wearing heels? When was the last time you cried? You laughed? Do you hear the children crying at night in cages? Do you have blood stains in the clothes you wear? Do you count monarch butterflies to fall asleep? Have you ever prepared for the apocalypse? What skeletons do you keep in your closet? Have you ever held the hand of a dying lover?

So, yeah, I think about the tension, which is already present. The, the, the imbalance held, the traveler is at the mercy of another human being. Yeah. 

Emilio – This, I mean, these questions actually are not from me. They when I did the piece Naturalized Borders I mean, I’ve been trying to think about the way the border has been mediatized by like how it is portrayed in the media and how there’s a, there’s a number of pieces that I’ve sort of developed as like what I call border pedagogy coming out of again, Anzaldúa’s work. So when I planted the border in at Bard with, it was for this biennial on border called Where No Wall Remains and I developed a series of exercises so that the students and the people that participated in the workshops that I organized, there was about 600 people that came through in like groups of 40, 30 or 40. And this was one of the exercises. So if was like, if you can sit, if the border was a person and you can sit with the border and have dinner, what questions would you ask them? Oh, so each student, each student wrote about, I would say about 20 or 30 questions I gave them like time to like reflect and also think like what kind of person is the border? Is it a woman? Is it a man? Is it old? Is it a trans person? Is it like a child? How do you see the border?

And also to think about in geological time, the US Mexican border was established in 1848, so it’s quite a, quite a short period of time in terms of the, the history of the, like the geological history of the earth. Mm-hmm.  But it’s like affects people so severely. So then they sort of imagine what the border would look like as a person and then they would ask them questions.

So this questions come from you know, from 17 year olds to like 50 year olds and they like I that selection. I have hundreds, I have like maybe thousands of these questions from the groups that came through. Mm-hmm.  That I still need to transcribe and made into like a form of like open book, open, like an accordion book that has all the questions laid down.

But these are some of the ones that I kind of made me reflect the most. Like what side of the bed you sleep in, you know, if like there was a bed. I mean it also like was very performative. Imagine like having a bed right at the edge, like caught in half and like people sleeping on both sides. Mm-hmm.

Often families are like separated and cannot cross or see their family members because they don’t have papers to go back. Or they’re or they’re fleeing very violent situations. So, and these questions that you read are sort of like a little glimpse into this exercise. Mm-hmm, which then we used to to think about voice and how you ask questions and if you scream a question or if you whisper a question and then while the border was planted, the corn.  When the husk is attached to the corn, it’s called an ear. Mm-hmm, so it’s like the ear of the corn. So it was, if it’s an ear, then it should be able to listen right in like the metaphorical sense, so then the students will go back to the installation. And read and like whisper the questions into the ears of the corn and like asking the questions back to the border in the sense that it was planted in the shape of the border. So there was this sort of idea that maybe the border was listening and the land is listening. 

Chipo – You spoke with Public Parking in 2020 – in August, 2021, and you said “performance art is not an easy medium to have a life built around. Out of all the artistic mediums, it’s the most ephemeral, and I think about this discipline over the past 10 years, and I constantly get told that I’m doing too much, but I think I’m not doing enough”. And I really resonated with this quote because I find myself in a similar struggle: I don’t know when I’m doing too much and when I’m doing too little and it always, and the answer always changes regardless of who’s giving me the feedback and honestly myself on the given, like any given time and day. And I just wanted to ask you a question, which is, do you think that balance and performance art can coexist? 

Emilio – Balance and performance art can coexist. Balance in like your life or balance in a piece? 

Chipo – Balance in a piece. 

Emilio – In a piece. I think so. I mean now I try to synthesize a lot more than I did perhaps when I was like coming out of undergrad where like often people would see my work and they’re like, there’s 10 pieces in there.

You know, it’s like mm-hmm. . There’s a lot I was trying to do. It wasn’t that I was trying to do a lot, but it was now I’m like more focused I’d say, I would say and more. But I often discover pieces inside of pieces. Like I did a performance at the Judson Memorial Church and I was carrying, I mean, there was dancers and there was migrant dancers moving through the patterns of the Emerald Ash Borer that I, of this pallets.

I also like moved also to make like, objects that people perform with and sculpture and it’s a different practice. But I was carrying this roots, this root system from the tree that I had made the pallets from. So the, the top of the pallets there was the patterns of the larvae of the, of the beatle and the dancers were on top of the pallets moving their bodies based on the patterns of the beatles.

And they were all migrant dancers. And they moved them across the whole space and it lefted for eight hours and then, I came out with two pieces out of it, like because I w I started like the, the roots had been kind of wet and under the, the tree was caught, so the, the roots were left inside of it.

So they were very, so I started like kind of disintegrating them with my hands. And then I thought, oh, why would it be to have like a huge, it wasn’t that big. It was like maybe this big, but what if it was like a huge root system? And all that I do is like turn this roots into dust. And what does it mean to turn like your roots into dust, to kind of redefine yourself and where you’re good at. And then give this dust of roots to people, and I haven’t done that piece yet, but I, I will like, you know, the next commission where I, like, I’m next to the gallery and this tree just fell in this future …, like haul it into the gallery and like, you know, start like just with different things to make it into dust.

And then there was another part, there was an ax, and then at some point I’m holding the thing. And I’m asking one of the other performers to just ax the tree, the roots while I’m holding it. Mm-hmm. , I was like, that was such a powerful image. Like I wanna do that with a root system where I can like carve the part of, so that I can be part of the, like I can carve like kind of a negative space of my body into the tree.

Uhhuh, , you know, and have this like White, like cis Yeah. Like this kinda like mountaineer, like just a, a axing this tree. Yeah. Because it was weird to have this like Brown body enacting such violence into another Brown body, which happens as well. But it was like so then it’s like, I got the image and then I stopped and I was like, this is a different piece.

Mm. Let’s, let’s focus on the piece that I’m doing right now, which was like living this at the end, it just ended up being like, through the eight hours I left, the whole place was covering ro in like roots and dust of the roots. And it became lighter and lighter. So what so there was like a lot of metaphors in there.

But I think balance, I think for me, like the balance in work call also comes from like the balance in your life and having some stability like being able to teach at like right now I’m at Cornell, like an Ivy League school, which is offering me a lot of like, stability. Mm-hmm. And balance in my life.

Like I don’t have to worry about where I’m gonna, I mean, there’s been times in my life where I was like, I don’t know, like living paycheck to paycheck. Yeah. Performing every two weeks and just like not having money to buy materials for things or equipment. You know, having to dumpster dive. Like I’ve had that, like moments of like not, and then I think the work suffers because it’s like if you’re not balance yourself, then the work is gonna be unbalanced in a way, like it’s a reflection because you’re working with your body and your experience.

Yeah. So the, the work I think has become, it also can, it also could real, can, can lead to really chaotic and, and radical and amazing work too. But I, I’m trying to step away of this like stereotype of like the starving artist or like the kind of suffering that you can only create work out of suffering.

Yes. And just trying to move towards a much balanced studio practice, which means the more much balanced like life and spiritual practice, and also just like performing. . But you know, it’s a, it’s always a struggle, but I think now that at least the financial part is not in my head all the time.

Mm-hmm. , it releases a lot of like mental real estate, I call it to be thinking about the work differently and also like, you know, if I need to buy a $400 piece of equipment, I can just buy it. Mm-hmm. , I need to buy some materials, like some fabric or whatever. Or an ax, I can just buy it. And before I had to like, which was also nice, like ask from friends and stuff and like work my, the reason why I started working with pallets originally, now I’m, I made them, but with my collaborator.

But I. The reason I started working with pallets is because I had no money to buy materials and pallets in at Granville Island. When Emily Carr was in Granville Island, they were just like in the alleys and on the back of the far of the market, and so it was a material that was being discarded that I can just like carry to the school and make work with it. Mm-hmm.  But I didn’t need to spend any money and it was quite, you know, it was a physical thing. But now I work with pallets because I love working with pallets. But it’s something that you can also find everywhere in the world. Mm-hmm, because they kind of carry the weight of this kind of global economy that we exist in and capitalism, but they’re often discarded as soon as, they often break and stuff like as soon as they’re not useful, they’re never repaired. They are often just thrown out. 

Brady – Discarded. 

Emilio – Yeah, discarded. Which for me is kind of the, the pallets is kind of a metaphor for the immigrant who is like carrying the burden and the labor. Mm-hmm. And also moving through borders sometimes like In precarious situations.

And then as soon as they’re not useful, they’re like, discarded. Right? Or they’re like and then they’re also quite a precarious thing to put into the gallery cuz I’ve, I’ve filled entire floors of the gallery with pallets and then people have to walk really carefully cuz they’re like, there’s holes in between.

And then it’s like, and then there was like, no, we need to leave an option for people to walk that don’t wanna, you can’t just feel the entire gallery with pallets. Like it has to be like, there has to be a space at least for a wheelchair. And I was like, okay. A space for a wheelchair. Sounds, sounds a good idea, but like a space for people to feel safe?

Like, I don’t feel safe. Mm-hmm. Like anywhere. So why do, why should people feel like, why should like people should feel safe? When the experience of so many, like queer and trans and people of color is not, never about safety. Like that’s why I don’t like the idea of like a safe space because I don’t think a safe space exists.

I think as my goal in life is to create safer spaces, you know, both pedagogical and in community and in the art world. But I think we’re always.. We can create safer spaces, but like this idea of like, oh, we are in a safe space. I’m like, no, you know, that person if I say something might retaliate outside of this safe space. Right? So it’s not really fully safe. 

Chipo – And I believe that is that for this episode, I would just like to say a big thank you to my guests and I would also like to say thank you to both LIVE Biennale and the city of Vancouver for funding this project. Thank you.