As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
New York Live Arts presents
I first met Rafael Vargas-Suarez (b. 1972, Mexico City, Mexico) at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown in 1995, when he had just moved to New York City from Austin, Texas. I remember that his biggest complaint about New York was the ridiculously small scale of things like napkins and beverages. Since then, the artist has completely adjusted to life here and has continued to create a powerful body of work. Vargas-Suarez Universal makes room-sized installations centering around his monumental wall drawings, which he inscribes directly onto architectural surfaces. Having studied astronomy and art history instead of fine art, Vargas-Suarez approaches his creative process through an empirical methodology of gathering facts about architecture, landscape, urban planning, history, physics, and the universe. Raised in Houston, Texas, near NASA, he became interested in astrophysics. Applying his knowledge of the laws of physics and astronomy, and his close study of iconic architectural spaces, Vargas-Suarez blurs the boundaries between drawing and installation, between reality and invention, between the world as we see it and its depiction in scientific imaging. This interview discusses the process by which he organizes himself prior to beginning a large project. It was our pleasure to host the artist at the Jersey City Museum in August of 2003, when he created a semi-permanent drawing for our new building.
Rocío Aranda-Alvarado Let’s start with your name, Rafael Vargas-Suarez, aka Vargas-Suarez Universal.
Vargas-Suarez Universal It wasn’t planned. When I was 16, I signed all my drawings and paintings Vargas-Suarez Universal, because at the time I was really into Renaissance art. To me there was only one Raphael and I really didn’t feel like I could sign Rafael. Plus I admire artists who do not use their own names because it separates your personal identity from the art’s and creates another one. I want the artwork to get the attention. I’m not personally seeking that kind of attention. So it’s been a good barrier between the work and my personality.
RAA You’ve been mistaken for a collective.
VSU Yes. Usually it’s the press; they ask the venue which one to contact, Vargas or Suarez. Or I show up to work on a project, and they ask me which one I am. I’ve had an exhibition where I’m there and I’m talking to people, and they say, “How do you know so much about this work?” and I say, “Well, this is my work,” and they say, “Oh, I thought it was a whole group of people.” I do collaborate, but most of my collaborations are with musicians, and to a smaller extent, with doctors.
RAA One aspect of your work involves sound. You did an installation at Thomas Erben Gallery that incorporated sound, and your installation at the Queens Museum did as well. What is the origin of those collaborations?
VSU I grew up in a house that had a history of music. My grandfather was a big-band musician and conductor from the 1930s to the 1950s, in the golden age of radio, in New York and in Mexico City. My mother always encouraged us to listen to music and my brother played the viola and the guitar. By the time I was ten I was listening to as much music as possible and got interested in the drums. As a teenager, I was in bands, the usual American suburban garage band experience. Two guys I grew up with are still musicians in Austin, Texas. They have an incredible recording studio where we made experimental recordings. We had jazz punk-like bands and hybrids of Captain Beefheart–sounding bands and punk stuff. I’m still listening to new bands and new genres. I always viewed making artwork as creating two-dimensional visual art that could potentially still have another element added. When I was first producing the ballpoint pen drawings, I noticed as I was drawing and listening to music that I also heard the sound of the pen strokes. Meditatively, I would produce the pen strokes in a kind of rhythmic pattern based on the music I was listening to, which ranged from classical to modern to experimental. I thought a lot about pen strokes and what they represent and about the actual physicality of the moving pen’s friction. I got the idea to record the pen strokes. My musician friends from Austin and I were trying to figure out how to turn drawing into a musical instrument and a composition, and over the course of a year and a half, after a lot of sampling and really listening, chopping up and dissecting the sound of one pen stroke, we figured out that we could create what are called instrument patches using really basic music mixing software. We created bass lines, percussion, and frequencies that sound like keyboards. When those drawings are exhibited, the soundtrack is always included; otherwise they’re incomplete.
The third soundtrack we did was for the Queens Museum’s Crossing the Line exhibition in 2001, and that was totally different. I chose to make a wall drawing based on destroyed architecture called Space Station: Dystopia, 1939, 1964, 2001. The museum is the former site of two New York World’s Fairs, from 1939 and 1964. The museum gave me access to their archives, which include books, documents, brochures, souvenirs, movies, videos, and sound recordings. We took dialogue from the event’s architects and planners from those recordings and printed matter about the creation of the World’s Fair and how it would present, in 1939, what society would be like in the future. They had a section called Futurama sponsored by General Motors. The conversations we used were between the executives of GM, the World’s Fair Corporation, and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. They were planning not just the World Fair itself, but suburbia and how American society would get to work, what they would drive and what they would consume, all later reflected in the urban projects of Robert Moses in the ’60s. All this under the notion that it would be a better future. I then sampled a dialogue, from 2001, between mission control at NASA and the International Space Station and combined these two sources to create a present day fictional dialogue between the architects and planners of both the ’39 and ’64 World’s Fairs, and NASA’s mission control, communicating with my “Space Station: Dystopia”. The soundtrack is a critique on urban planning and the idea of utopia. The wall drawing was based on the architectural plans of the buildings that were built for the World’s Fairs, temporary pavilions that were destroyed.
RAA What’s interesting is that relationship explored in the way that you use the word space. You also used it for the wall drawing that you did at the Jersey City Museum, where space, physical space and the universe, which is such an important part of your work, are all present.
VSU The wall drawing at the museum is titled Space Station: Jersey, and the drawings are rooted in various qualities about perception, both literal, because of word usage, and formally, because of the geometries of positive and negative space in the drawing. The subject is the evolution and representation of architectural space, as well as the history of the industrial architecture and the life cycles of this specific geographical point that the walls of the museum exist in. Visible or not, everything is in constant flux, and I wanted to depict that. I’ve always been interested in how language is used. The English language is the most complex because of our litigation system. People spin things in English unlike any other language. When naming projects or coming up with a conceptual premise, I experiment with words and their meanings, employing them in an open-ended manner so they can have multiple meanings. It’s not to confuse, but to show that there are a variety of ways to look at anything. I use the word space in the physical, architectural sense of the word, and usually if included in a title, I use the color black, which references outer space and mass. In astronomy, experts are learning that there is no such thing as empty space, even in the atmosphere there is matter. In extra-atmospheric conditions, what is assumed to be empty might actually be something currently called dark matter. Those are very mysterious things that fuel my interest in architecture and the body’s physiological relationship to space, whether public or private, natural or artificial.
RAA The way your ideas develop is central to your work. I think some people don’t realize how much research goes into the creation of your projects. Could you talk about the kind of research you do and how that influences the form of the work?
VSU My background is in astronomy and also in art history. Artists and scientists were the first ones who really started creating the beginnings of society. Cave painting is 50,000 years old, and scientific inquiry is a little younger than that. I’ve always been interested in how artists and scientists operate in culture. Nowadays we have access to so much information. I gather all kinds of data: medical, astronomical, aerospace technology-related, art historical, and cultural. I make seemingly unrelated connections. A lot of this goes back to how language is used: scientific terminology is very specific and cultural terminology can be very broad and can mean different things depending on context. I’m always looking for connections within this data, though they don’t always occur. I’ll remember something about a subject and somehow connect it to another, and I’ll try to figure out why my mind made that connection. Then it just kind of goes, like automatic writing.
RAA Give me an idea of the sources from which your recent work has developed.
VSU Well, the most recent project is called Event Horizon, which was just shown at g-module in Paris. The basic tenet of black hole physics is inconceivable gravity. The event horizon is the point where the gravitational pull is so strong that any object passing it is sucked in. I’ve always thought of that as sculpture—things that are heavy, massive and solid.
At the same time, last year I was looking at the process of plastic surgery. Plastic surgeons do preliminary drawings on the face, they take photographs to determine what is going to be re-sculpted. I wanted to make a connection between gravity, wrinkles, and aging with an event like making the decision to have plastic surgery—a decision that once it’s done, there’s no going back. At the same time I was connecting it all to my practice, which is to show up somewhere and become completely involved in a wall drawing where, once you’re there, there is no going back.
I also researched the most current mathematical models of black holes. It is now known that they spin and basically work like a magnetic motor. I connected that to attraction and beauty, mass and appearance, visible and invisible. Black holes might be recycling points in the universe that are sucking in the universe and spitting it back out at another point, which is completely mind-boggling. I started thinking about my wall drawings, Why only do them on plain, white walls? Why can’t they be on an old stone wall or on an ornate type of relief? I was looking at all of these black hole physics models and drawings, and all of this plastic surgery imagery and I started thinking about how a wall drawing could be a diagram of how to cut up a building, or space or bodily space. Strange connections but I got into them. So this project in Paris is actually a simulation of wall drawings. I took architectural photographs of old institutional European spaces, printed them and made my own simulated wall drawings on the photographs of the architecture. These institutions would probably never have allowed me to create a site-specific drawing on their walls. So I’m putting my work in a setting where it doesn’t fit culturally, though physically it might. I was thinking of that fact and what it means to take scientific terms and to reinterpret them in a wall drawing. My most direct research is actually experiencing the site. I also got a book on plastic surgery, which led to doing drawings on the faces of models in fashion magazines.
RAA This the first time you’ve engaged the human body in this way. Is that right?
VSU I always wanted to do figurative work. I’ve been very informed by it, but I never knew exactly how to go about it. So going through the medical route, looking at plastic surgery and the effects of gravity on skin, I thought that I could work on the superficiality of the body, starting with skin, time, and gravity. In Paris I drew on a live model. She said, at 24, she’s old in her line of work; people tell her she’s too old. I was producing wall drawings on her face. I told her that to me the fashion industry is most afraid of two basic elements, time and gravity. She explained to me that in the fashion industry, not only in Europe and the US, it’s purely about image. I was thinking about the connection between gravity and black hole physics with facial wrinkles, and talking to this model was good research.
RAA Did you see these new drawings on the faces of fashion models as being kind of an intervention into that media and the ideals that are placed over society?
VSU Absolutely. I definitely want to disrupt that logic. The reaction from the public was interesting. They associated it with Maori facial tattooing and with African tribal marking. They made associations that had to do with tribal and island and the Other. I met a couple of doctors; one of them recognized that the drawings were from facial reconstructive surgery. The other doctors didn’t know what to think. I think it proves that you can look at any one thing and get a multitude of reactions. Each discipline has its own language.
RAA Using information and reference materials has always been an important part of your work. You did a series of works where you used microfiche that was going to be discarded from a library, is that right?
VSU Right. Once in a while a friend will see something that they think I can use.
RAA Tell me how that came about and what you were thinking in using that kind of information.
VSU In this case a friend was working for one of the big state offices in the records department. Microfiche, old files, old magnetic tape reels, all of those things were being consolidated into a new medium. I was at the University of Texas in the early to mid-’90s, and they were transferring a lot of old data to newer mediums. I would get hundreds and hundreds of charts, maps, books and clinical reference material where the information was viable but the medium was not. My friend brought me microfiche that contained the life insurance policy records of employees of the State of Texas Controller’s Office, important information about people’s lives. I used it for its properties as collage material but eventually I went to a library where they had microfiche film viewers and I started reading about all the illnesses that people had. All of this very private information was suddenly in my hands, but all the names were scratched out.
RAA You bring up things like maps and charts and you mention how the wall drawings that you do theoretically slice up buildings. I know you’ve also used things like blueprints and maps of different locations in these drawings and I wonder what the relationship is between these diagrams and the identity of the buildings that you use. You did an airport series; how did you come to choose this subject?
VSU First, I was using geological survey maps and oil, gas, and mineral deposit charts and architectural blueprints, almost exclusively of sites in Texas, since my sources were there, and because they were the most readily available. But over time, I realized that I needed to get my own sources, primarily from my own imagination and experiences, rather than discarded “official” data supplied by the state. Traveling led to being in airports, being in other countries and cities, and really being out of place. Around 2000, I realized that I could get the information from the places themselves. Being on site has been really the best research. The site is where I start; from there I can go to the available resources. But I think really it’s about a maturity that has developed. I don’t know how it will change. One of the interesting things is when people ask me for a proposal for a site I have not seen, so my information before I actually get there is very limited. I show up and have to take in all this information on the spot. Last summer I did a project in Siena in a 15th-century museum, the Palazzo delle Papesse, loaded with history. Nobody sent me any images or information regarding the history before I could get there, so I mentally prepared myself to start reading, looking and taking photographs as soon as I arrived. I started asking a lot of questions, not just to the museum staff but also to a local architectural historian.
RAA Besides airports, you have also collected extensive information about libraries. How do you choose your buildings?
VSU I was spending a lot of time in libraries. I was really looking at how libraries are designed and how they are organized by the Dewey Decimal System or by the Library of Congress system––the layout of book stacks. I started thinking about how one uses architectural spaces, researching in architectural journals and online about new library complexes, particularly at universities. I was also interested in how sometimes an architect who is known for a certain type of building could be asked to do something different. I got a lot of information on San Antonio’s public library, designed by Ricardo Legorreta. He is known mostly for residential, very modern, minimalist settings, but colorful, and suddenly he was doing a library, one of the least minimal places, because it’s about enormous amounts of information, and very public. I went often to San Antonio, and looked at it and wanted to know how libraries are planned, how they function. This led to a constant exposure to new library projects, many published materials and a continuing series of highly detailed India ink drawings, all the size of a standard book page called Additions later renamed Space Stations.
For the “Space Stations” series, the information I found on airports was mostly on Asian airports. Airport design there has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few years. There is a greater need for the traveler to spend more time in airports, so they’ve started including the things that you would find in a mall. Therefore airports are increasing in size, and the land used for them is becoming more and more rural. In the case of certain Asian countries primarily in Japan, actual islands are built because there’s no more available land. They’re building airports in a way that leaves room for expansion. These are mega-scale projects and I find it pretty daunting to be in them. Moving through these architectural systems is like being a blood cell moving through a huge body. I use them a lot for on-site research mainly through photographs, and recently people have started asking me questions, probably due to security reasons.
RAA In the past you didn’t have to get permission.
VSU No, that’s something new.
RAA I know that you’ve also been drawing on the surface of discarded satellite dishes. It’s interesting on several levels, not just because of the form but also because of their function, how they project into the universe. Tell me a bit about how those developed.
VSU Well, I don’t consider myself a true painter yet, but I love working on canvas and linen. It’s very difficult, though. Now I understand why painters get frustrated with the rectangle or the square. It’s such a confined place. One day I was looking through an astronomy magazine, and there was an article on how to recycle satellite dishes. Looking at these white, beautiful surfaces, I just thought they looked like blank canvases. They are shaped canvas. Shaped canvas is probably my favorite form of contemporary painting. To me it has to do with spatial relationships and the visual parameters of an image. Making a flat image three-dimensional, the physics geek in me gets excited over that. I found a satellite dish and I treated it just like a canvas, primed it and so on. I did some drawings that had to do with time and space, curvature and mathematics. I wanted to put an image on it that was about the physical characteristics of how this specific equipment functions at the most physical fundamental level. These satellite dishes placed on roofs are equipment that bring images, color, sound, and movement into people’s homes, but they’re so blank and boring gray or white, an interesting contradiction. There’s a lot of linear information in the drawings; they’re very busy. The dealer in Paris really liked them and wanted to do a show with them. This summer we planned it and got six satellite dishes. I researched a few of the latest time/space curvature math problems from the physics world, cool new math questions that people are trying to solve abound. I got a few of these problems diagrammed out and I put my own stylized versions of those diagrams on the faces of the dishes.
RAA There is information coming into and going out of the surface.
VSU And there’s an image that is directly related to the theoretical function of the piece of equipment. It’s sort of like taking the explanation of how something works and putting it on the face. I’d like to do more.
RAA How was the reception in Paris?
VSU Well, the way the gallery is laid out, upstairs I had the photography of the simulated wall drawings on the architecture as well as the drawings on the faces of fashion models. It’s very glossy, minimal, very clean and conceptual. Downstairs is an installation of floating satellite dishes hanging down from the ceiling. The line work is in the same style as the line drawing in the images upstairs. People are surprised that one style of drawing can be implemented in different mediums on different surfaces with different materials. That’s what I want my work to do. I want it to be translatable to different mediums. One of the next things I’m planning is to work on glass where there’s a transparency.
RAA Something that could be viewed from both sides.
VSU Exactly. And that would also have to do with architecture.
RAA That makes sense in terms of your work. I know you’ve used satellite photography in the past.
VSU Yes. I was looking at satellite photography of architecture, highway systems, dams, bridges, and later looking at libraries, museums, banks, and airports—things that connect us, socially and physically. I became interested in aerospace architecture. I think about architecture in zero gravity and how it can be designed beyond purely functional aesthetics. That’s another reason I starting calling the wall drawings Space Stations. Images and forms are floating, there’s a sense of movement and freedom in the line. I was looking at things like the international space station and the assembly sequence of it and how it’s put together and the fabrication of the modules. I looked at space probes, things that are taking photographs like the Mars Global Surveyor. It’s an incredible piece of machinery, but mainly it’s a fancy camera. Taking pictures 24/7, mapping Mars so that someday we can do our thing over there. I got involved in trying to understand all these different satellite systems, one called SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) that is photographing the sun. There’s another one called COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) that is taking x-ray photographs of the entire visible universe starting with local galaxies. They have very specific functions but are essentially cameras that give us images specific to different needs and applications. I started looking at the photography produced by the Mars Global Surveyor and then I produced drawings on paper and canvas from these types of images. I have also looked at satellite photography depicting the oceans, close lying mountain ranges, agricultural studies and environmental and pollution studies. I went from architecture to space architecture to satellite photography. I started from the ground and traveled upward through technologies and used those same technologies to look back down. In the last two years, scientific photography and the use of satellite dishes, looking at aerospace architecture and the ground centers that receive all this information has really shaped my work. I think it’s natural that I arrived at satellite dishes, not just through my own issues with painting but through my research.
RAA For the DUMBO Arts Under the Bridge Festival in 2000, you did a kind of intervention onto the public signage of the New York subway. Tell me how that project worked.
VSU I collected the service notices on the subway platforms announcing schedule changes, or re-routes or the cancellation of service. These are a very annoying little facet of life for New Yorkers but I didn’t want to be just strictly annoying. I thought I could use the notices somehow. Around the same time I was taking some courses at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, one in particular on hematology. They showed us these amazing computer models of the circulatory system, little movies of arterial routes and the problems that can arise from heart disease. One morning I had been late because of subway changes, so I made this link between arterial systems and subway systems. Especially with Manhattan being an island, I thought about the island as a body and the subway system as this arterial lifeline that carries the energy particles that make it function. The drawings on the MTA service notices are all done in red or blue, and the blue lines all move up and the red lines move down, which also has to do with oxygenated blood and deoxygenated blood. They look like little pathways, and I was asked by the DUMBO Arts Center to do an installation of those for the festival. I used various subway lines. The drawings were installed at the F train York Street subway station. But I was using a service notice for the A train, the 4, the 5, the N trains, all different lines, and people were really confused, asking questions like “Why is the A train here? Why does it say the F is not running?” It was an experiment in taking information about the city’s infrastructure and using it in a very playful manner as an installation during a period of high pedestrian traffic. And yes, it was annoying too.
RAA An important element in your work is how you approach the manipulation of information and how it’s filtered through power systems. All of that seems to be involved in many of your projects.
VSU Yes, that’s actually something that I think about every day. Whether I read the paper, listen to the radio or look at a magazine, I use my freedom to speculate and reinterpret. It’s one of the few, real freedoms that an artist has: to be able to speculate on anything. This is the inverse of my background, which was to analyze and make sense of, prove and rationalize, and observe logically. This is important too, but there must be a balance. I like working with very logical sources and making completely speculatively critical forms and images out of them, while understanding and sources and possible functions Art does not have the confines of any other profession.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Vargas-Suarez Universal and Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, Vladimir Cybil and Jerry Philogene, Carlos Eire and Silvana Paternostro, David Scott and Stuart Hall, Evelyne Trouillot, Sibylle Fisher, Carlos B. Cordova and Daniel Flores y Ascencio, Damas “Fanfan” Louis and Michael Zwack, and Peniel Guerrier and Yvonne Daniel.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.