Rafa Esparza. I Have Never Been Here Before, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 2015. Photo by Chris Wormald.
I met Rafa Esparza for the first time in the spring of 2015 in Los Angeles, the city where he grew up and still lives. We met at the Bowtie, an 18-acre lot by the LA River belonging to the California State Parks Service that looks like nothing else I’ve seen before—definitely not like any park I’ve been in before. The Bowtie was the former site of a Southern Pacific Railroad train yard and maintenance facility. None of the built structures remain, only sparse concrete foundations, some paved roads surfacing among the weeds, and railroad tracks still engraved on the ground.
It’s called the Bowtie because the knot made by the freeways intersecting nearby (the 5 and the 2) looks like a bow tie. The Bowtie is public: one can just raise the skinny steel gate, walk in, and wander around its desert landscape. Desert but not barren. The river, paved in 1938, has been the site of encounters that exceed the confines of certain institutions. Graffiti writers, furtive lovers, youth groups, and different socials gather and have gathered on the edges of that river, more or less (in)visible to the whiter public.
In the summer of 2014 Rafa started a year-long residency at the Bowtie, facilitated by Clockshop Gallery, a multifaceted arts organization that works at the intersection of cultural production, politics, and urban space. Rafa was one of the artists invited by Clockshop to locate their practice in the Bowtie, thinking about the history and specificity of the space and its public character. During this period he had made the Bowtie his studio, or mixed the ongoing concerns that fuel his practice with the sun, the water, and the dirt that preceded him by the river. What can be done with such a mixture? An army of bricks to transform realities.
Clara López Menéndez How was San Antonio?
Rafa Esparza Oh man, it was incredible! I was working with two people who I have such respect for: Virginia Grise, an artist and playwright from San Antonio, and our mutual friend who is this amazing fucking writer and poet, Joe Jiménez. He wrote this beautiful poem-novel that reads like a play. We built a performance around his story, which is called The Presence of the Absence and Kites.
RE In prison, “kites” are contraband letters. That’s what they call them. If someone sends you a kite they’re sending you a forbidden letter. It’s a story about a seven-year journey from Los Angeles to San Antonio. There are three characters: a cab driver, a young cholo, and an old cholo—and the last two are lovers. Somewhere along the journey the older lover falls into a deep sleep, and the cabbie suggests a magical resolution that involves burial where his body ends up disappearing. It’s about sadness and what you do with sadness. We built a performance around that. I saw a lot of digging when I was reading the piece. I can’t escape digging and working with tierra. (laughter)
CLM There’s a lot of dirt and digging in your work.
RE I love Joe’s work, and this one felt really familiar because I was still deep in my project at LACE [Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions] when Vicki gathered us to work together, so I was working with dirt already when I first read it.
Vicky also saw the ritual around making barbacoa—cow head meat that is steamed and cooked in the ground. We used that procedure as a foundation for the performance. It was a two-day performance festival called “Luminarias,” which happens annually in San Antonio, Texas. The plan was to bury the head at 9PM in the evening and unearth it at sunrise the next day.
I got there a few days before the performance and we just spent the time digging, all day. There was also a huge storm that came through San Antonio, which is flat. When it pours, it just floods. After the first day of working the festival, organizers surprised us with the news that they had cancelled all outdoor performances. But we were ready to go. Vicky and I looked at each other and said, “No! We’re still going to perform!” They were concerned with liabilities, but our shit was low tech, we were just concerned with finding a way to keep the fire going through the rain.
Rafa Esparza. Installation view of I Have Never Been Here Before, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 2015. Photo by Chris Wormald.
CLM Did it actually rain?
RE We met and had conversations about the rain, what it meant for us to do it in the rain, what it did to the work, what it did to the story. Joe’s insight to being with sadness, flooded in it, was seminal to our decision of moving forward with the piece. We built this little shack after finding out that there used to be a house there. I started moving stuff around and noticed a lot of the ground was made of brick. We swept it out and revealed this huge red brick floor. It must have been a patio. I ended up removing a three square-foot section and built a fire pit out of these bricks. That’s where we ended up cooking the barbacoa.
It was eerie, the way things were working. Everything we made came from the site. I dug a hole big enough for my body to lie in. I had intended to sleep in there through the night, while the barbacoa cooked. Vicky took charge of starting the fire, preparing it, and tending to it through the night. There are a lot of owls in his story. Joe built a big nest from collected brush he’d pick up around the site.
CLM It sounds like part of this performance was about you guys working together, just following through with whatever task you set for yourselves.
RE I was thinking about labor. We were working together, and the rain actually forced us to really think together—to collaborate. I have an ambivalence toward using that word [collaboration] because people understand it very differently, and when it comes to authoring or “owning” something it sometimes becomes a conflict. But when we “work together,” we each bring something. It takes a community.
Rafa Esparza working by the LA River. Courtesy of Johanna Breiding.
CLM The work you are doing uses this conceptual and structural participation to include people in your projects who usually are not included in art institutions, like your family. On the other hand I think you are working with historical legacies and practices that complicate the idea of ownership. These legacies and practices are culture. They’re available to use and therefore inherently collaborative because they require a lineage of people to perpetuate them. I wonder how invested you are in thinking about your work as yours, how you think about ownership.
RE I’m not really. That word, collaboration, in art spaces, clashes so much with the feelings around ownership and authorship. When we are making adobes, it’s about access, survival. It’s about working with what you have, an immediate access to a resource. Working with the land. And working in community with a community.
CLM You started the residency at Clockshop in the summer of 2014. Is it then when you started to work with adobe, to develop the ritual or the practice of making bricks?
RE Yes, it’s a practice. I started working at the Bowtie with my family, before that it was only my father and I. Last summer, when we started making adobes there, I was thinking about the river as a resource. I wanted to highlight the history of the river, it being channeled, and I wanted to use it as a natural source of sustenance, which is what it was before the city as we know it was built. I wanted to reference a kind of labor that is connected to the river. Some of the first missions were built by local Natives forced into slave labor and who made adobes. Bringing in my own personal history adds another layer to the story of the space.
When my parents think about me making art they have a lot of questions. They have a different relationship than I do to it. I wanted to honor the labor in my family, the labor that I have inherited from my father, because I feel that a big part of why I make art is because I have this relationship to the physicality of making something. I’ve inherited that from him. Also, this physical labor exists outside of survival. My dad was making bricks to sell, but he would stay extra hours to make bricks for himself, eventually collecting enough to make his own home. My dad imagined how many bricks he needed in order for him to make a house, and what it was going to look like, like how many rooms, who was going to live in it… I feel that whole process is also creative, and I wanted us, my father and I, to learn and feel this history, to embody that history and inherit it, even if it was only for the span of three or four weeks. Because I don’t want the practice of making adobes, that way of working in and with land, to end with us.
Esparza’s “studio” by the LA River. Courtesy of Johanna Breiding.
CLM A lot of your research comes from the intersection of history, personal legacy, and matters of space. I haven’t seen much of your work located inside an art space, which usually has very strict aesthetic and behavioral parameters of what can or cannot happen within it. In the project you developed at LACE last summer you brought this practice of making adobe bricks into that exhibition space. You really managed to transform it, not only aesthetically, but most importantly its possibilities: how people felt in it, how things were perceived, what could happen there.
RE I’m really proud of that. I feel like what we did at LACE is somehow similar to what we are doing at the Bowtie, with the Con/Safos project. It’s about thinking about artists who traditionally don’t have access to white cubes and traditional art spaces, but that also don’t want to really be a part of them. And so where C/S was built for visual artists to paint and build on, at LACE we wanted to do a performance-based work. The work was still responding to the space, but I wanted to think about and use the body. I wanted to allow ourselves to be in a space we haven’t really been allowed in before, close to a material that hasn’t been there before either, made of a material that is inherently brown. A space void of white planes and lines, built of brown matter and curve.
CL You created this dirty oval within a white cube. And all those components are fairly antithetical to the prissiness and hygiene of the white cube, yet it doesn’t have that type of antagonistic dynamic towards the normative configuration of a gallery. Instead, it brought up an entirely different configuration of how to think about a space and bodies, and situating an artistic practice within it.
RE We were trying not to provide a solution but a possibility. I asked myself, “What space do I want to be in?” “What am I curious about?” And I feel like that possibility exists in the brick itself. What could you do with a brick, what could you do with two bricks, three… four thousand? What can you do with dirt?
CLM I think there’s something about “doing” as opposed to “reflecting” that actually tests the potentiality and options of a given landscape. That working through the materiality of a space and its circumstances performs transformations, carves out possibilities that an exclusively verbal approach cannot even imagine. You performed a transformation, almost alchemical, of that dirt into a room that didn’t exist before and for which you, to a certain degree, shaped the rules. It felt really hopeful.
Rafa Esparza. Detail view of I Have Never Been Here Before, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 2015. Photo by Chris Wormald.
RE Well, that’s the thing of it being a practice: it does exist in many places, it does exist around the world. We knew that we were making bricks that then were going to be transported to the site, and that there was going to be a building there.
CLM The conditions of production are as much a part of the work as the intentionality behind it. Even things like having dirt and dust all over. There are a lot of institutions that wouldn’t be able to allow that inside their spaces. There is something specific in your way of doing art that is not necessarily fast, but really slow and constant, and to find spaces that allow that temporality is not easy. I was also wondering how you feel about visibility, the attention you get as an artist. Visibility is currency in the art market and I can imagine that is something complicated for you.
RE Yeah, I think that’s why I have to take a step back. I know how people involved in the LACE project felt; I know that if they didn’t come in with the same kind of investment as I, they became invested, and they created their own relationship to the work and with each other. I worked with Mariel Capanna, an incredible human being, who I met through Clockshop right after my work on Michael Parker’s The Unfinished; as well as with these two young, hard-working brothers Danny and Jimmy Rivas; a young artist Joshua Vazquez who’s finishing up his last year of college; along with many friends and family members who would show up, slap on some rubber boots and gloves, and chip in when they could. So it was definitely collaborative, and I’d say it was something entirely much deeper for me, the way Jimmy, Danny, Mariel, and I worked together. But having said that, knowing it’s my name foregrounded in the project makes it difficult for me to talk about it as a collaboration because “I’m getting the credit.” That’s something I need to reconcile. Whereas I feel that at the Bowtie, because it’s happening in the span of a year, every artist has more space and more time to work with the adobe as a surface, and my name becomes less attached to the space, and their own creation has more of its own context to exist in. The sense of time was more compacted at LACE, so there was certainly some uneasiness with the type of visibility. Even though I feel the work itself was very transparent and visible. People would walk in and ask, “When is the piece going to come in?” And I would have to tell them that those growing brown walls was it. You are in it.