Restaging Violence: Marcela Torres Interviewed by Jared Quinton

Performances that address the affliction of racism.

Marcela Torres1

Marcela Torres, Agentic Mode, 2019. Performance documentation. 40-minute performance. Photograph by Jesse Meredith.

Marcela Torres’s performance Agentic Mode (2018–) is a brutal embodiment of physical training and fighting. At once raw and finely calibrated, Torres’s work stems from a longstanding interest in Muay Thai and other forms of high-caliber fitness, which she uses to think about the body as an apparatus that can be trained to enact and respond to violence, both structural and immediate. In the midst of preparations for her upcoming performance and fight at Petzel Gallery in New York City, Torres told me about her background and the complicated ethical questions with which she’s grappling.

—Jared Quinton


Jared Quinton I’d love to start by talking about your interest in Muay Thai and other forms of fighting and extreme fitness. Why did this become a core element of your practice?

Marcela Torres Earlier in my life I thought of fitness as a personal thing. As I’ve become more athletically confident, I’ve gotten increasingly involved in watching, participating, and, more recently, competing. I spend a lot of time watching extreme-sports videos in my studio or even just having them on loop in the background; some of my standbys are Idris Elba: FighterThe Barkley Marathons, Fittest on Earth, and Tiger Muay Thai TryoutsI find myself so compelled by people who have committed physically, emotionally, and economically to mastering a fitness technique.

For athletes, the competition is everything; years of logistical and physiological planning and repetition come to bear on one singular moment. I’m drawn to this heightened space of high-key risk. I enjoy watching people’s emotions when they overcome what they thought was impossible or when major disappointment occurs and competitors fall or collapse. It feels good to cry for someone else’s body. I’m responding to them with my own. It feels real. I gravitate toward intense sports that allow for aggression and physical catharsis but that at the same time are highly technical. Particularly in martial arts, the techniques always include some form of blocking: essentially, training to respond to a literal attack but in a measured, premeditated manner.

I see my fascination with bodily excellence connected to my agricultural bracero family history; my work is a way for me to process the intergenerational exhaustion of fighting to survive. By teasing out these techniques and fight ideologies in performance, a separation occurs. Away from the glory of the stadium or the intense reality of real-life violence, we’re able to see the movements and the logics of the strikes on a literal stage, without fighting an opponent. This allows for the opponent to represent more than a single individual. It feels important to recognize the idea of training as a commitment not only to physical combat and victory but, for some people, to survival.

Agentic Mode: Excerpt from marcela torres on Vimeo.

40-minute performance. Video by Guadalupe Rocha.

JQ Can you describe the performance you’re working on?

MT Dana Hoey invited me to participate in her exhibition at Petzel. Hoey is a feminist photographer whose work centers on combat, self-defense, and the martial arts. We both similarly use Muay Thai ideology to break down ideas of race and gender, albeit in different manners. The pairing will be productive: her work challenges and confronts whiteness, and mine addresses life as a non-white person as a matter of survival, similar to navigating a war zone. I will perform my forty-minute work Agentic Mode at the opening. In the performance I interact with mic’ed fight-training devices, which record and remix the sounds of impact and create an auditory environment that will live on afterward in the exhibition.

Later in the summer, a ring installed in the exhibition will host a women’s fight night. I’ll be participating in one of the five matches.

JQ Can you talk about the multiple structures within Agentic Mode?

MT The most obvious structure in Agentic Mode is the five separate sections of the performance that are signaled by lighting transitions: white, yellow, orange, red, and black. These colors are based on the Cooper Color Code, a situational awareness system developed to help one react to danger. White represents a state of unawareness; yellow is alert but calm; orange is heightened; red is alert; and black is under attack. The objects in the performance then have corresponding hues, representing living within that level of attack. Interweaving texts and movements, I perform and dictate these stages of being and anticipating, bringing the audience along with me from unaware to something more heightened and even stress-inducing at times.

Other structures play out through the individual movements. Muay Thai has a strictly delineated technical format. For every attacking movement there is a corresponding counter. In the looser sections where the movements are closer to something like dance, I both apply and deconstruct this methodology. The audience sees pieces of movement logic building to a whole: first footwork, then strikes, blocking, and finally kicks.

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Marcela Torres, Color Codes, 2019. Vinyl lettering. Photograph by Jesse Meredith.

JQ I like this idea of performance as a deconstructive tool. How do you conceptualize the deconstruction that this work is doing, either of your source materials or broader structures of violence?

MT Often performance is a place for embodied fantasies, where realness is based on the fact that a body is in front of you. And yet the performing body somehow also exists in this hyper-abstracted space. This duality interests me. There is always a level of breaking or taking apart, since there is a stage or a focal viewing that doesn’t exist otherwise. I’m always trying to figure out how all the pieces—my training, research, writing—can be activated or held in tension with the live presence of my body in order to hold it together and actively represent the affects and structures of violence in its contemporary social form. We’ve been desensitized to the way we see it day-to-day in the news, or in our personal lives; my hope is that this new, deconstructed semblance can make both the broad stakes and the actual mechanics of it more visible.

In training we think about form and technique; each strike, sweep, and clinch is meant to be learned and then accurately implemented. Coaches will show you a strike, and even when you’re testing it out on someone in class, on someone’s body, it feels far away. There is no level of risk; it feels more like a dance move. In making the sculptures that I “fight” in the performance, I wanted to focus on the fact that we’re training to hurt other people; the bags have human-like forms and skin-tone leathers. There is a reshifting of focus, similar to how the movements I produce are both graceful and meant to enact damage.

JQ Your work really stands out to me because of how unabashed you are about restaging violence, about literally enacting and reenacting it with your body. Is there an ethical component to this?

MT As an arts community we talk about violence a lot, but I feel like we still skirt around the real intensity of it. We use theory to tame it or to organize something that in reality is totally overwhelming. In contrast, in mass culture we love to spectate all types of violence, but there is a different type of remove. I want to make work that collapses both our entrancement with violence and its physical reality; live, embodied reenactment can make this collapse possible. Ethically, I do think it becomes murky, because it can be re-triggering to see such physical brutality; but I think going back into that space can be fruitful to understand and work through. I don’t want people to be traumatized, but I also don’t want to make work that glosses over the intensity of lived experiences of inhumanity. I want it to be an outlet to say, “This is violence; this is what it looks like and feels like.” For once I can feel in control and even turn the pain back on itself.

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Marcela Torres, Lengua, 2013. Video still. Video. 15 minutes.

JQ You’ve spoken before about how there is a biographical element to this work too; you use your lived experiences to access broader ideas. I don’t think viewers necessarily need to know the specifics to understand your work, but can you talk about this aspect?

MT For me this performance and others centered on ideologies of violence are a way to express the affliction of racism, both physical and emotional. Often people of color are asked to code switch and never bring up our feelings of having been othered. We’re supposed to be docile. Yet we know how those small, insidious offenses add up. Growing up in a conservative Utah, I was constantly othered by passive-aggressive experiences of racism, classism, and misogyny, even from within my support system. It felt necessary to build strength into my body, to be a fighter and create boundaries delineating risk in a tangible way. With this work I’m producing a deliverance for myself and a productive and perhaps estranging experience for viewers, depending on their position.

All my work is framed by the story of how I grew up, surrounded by histories of Mexican indigeneity, with a large family committed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the desert looking for snakes.

Marcela Torres will perform Agentic Mode at the opening of Dana Hoey Presents at Petzel Gallery in New York City on June 27 from 5–6 PM.

Jared Quinton is a writer and curator based in Chicago.

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