This essay will appear in the forthcoming book, With and Without Permission, 2005
The (Postcolonial) Rules of Engagement:
Cultural Activism, Advertising Zones & Xican@ Digital Muralis m
By John Jota Leaños
Aesthetics is more than a philosophy or theory of art and beauty; it is a way of inhabiting space, a particular location, a way of looking and becoming.
In capitalist centers like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, marketing and advertising have become a ubiquitous part of everyday life. It is estimated that the average person within these advertising zones sees from 2,000 to 3,000 advertisements a day. In public spaces, the multi-billion dollar advertising industry has engaged in the strategy of total brand saturation based on a philosophy of establishing "strong market presence." As the focal point and life force of television, radio, newspaper and other mass media outlets, the advertising industry has become powerful "managers of the symbolic area." . From billboards, wrapped buses and cars, and mass postering to ads in bathrooms, on ATM screens, painted on sidewalks, and proudly worn on clothes, advertising zones are panoptic, penetrating, and borderless. Inscribed with complex ideological programming for hegemonic lifestyles, corporate advertising has placed itself at the forefront of a new architectural landscape. This did not happen by accident nor is it a natural sequence of events. Within the last thirty years, urban centers have undemocratically opened their gates to wide-open corporate branding, capitalist whims and advertising experimentation.
This post-industrial version of excessive marketeerism has occurred at the same time as other forms of public visual expression, such as graffiti, tagging and murals, have become increasingly criminalized by cities and states across the nation. In his book City of Quartz , Mike Davis shows that throughout the 1990s an increased effort by police, city and urban planners has successfully privatized and controlled public spaces using an assortment of architectural, urban design, and technological tactics. The effects of these tactics are centered in poor neighborhoods and serve to fortify race and class segregation and, ultimately, to protect private property, insure corporate investment and maintain the status quo.
The unchecked corporate colonization, privatization and surveillance of public space relentlessly took hold of San Francisco during the 1990s high-tech boon. The rapid influx of capital into the San Francisco due to Internet speculation and dotcom start-up mania spawned the appearance of hyperreal ads along its cityscape. Enormous, twenty-story high advertisements for Levi's and SUVs glued themselves to buildings all over the city. The messages of these steroid-induced billboards were not only selling products, but were celebrating the inevitable victory of capitalism, as was seen on a billboard entering San Francisco that gloated, "Capitalism Served Fresh Daily." As the cost of living in San Francisco skyrocketed, advertising space became as competitive and pricy as living spaces. Simultaneously, California was busy passing Proposition 21, the "Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act" of 1998 that streamlines youth into the adult prison system and makes graffiti and poster vandalism punishable as a felony and up to three years in prison. The City of San Francisco, following the lead of the rest of the country, was also establishing a Graffiti Abatement program, juvenile curfew laws, and anti-cruising ordinances that set out special task forces to criminalize youth armed with spray cans, posters, wheat paste and ideas.
A problem political artists have in comparing themselves to the advertising industry or even using and appropriating advertising techniques, is that political artists--willingly and unwillingly--are not a part of the multi-billion dollar industry. Political art does not have widespread access to spaces that can affect the social consciousness on a massive scale (i.e. billboards, television, magazines, Times Square, global product lines such as clothes, food, bathroom stalls, etc.) not to mention the resources to initiate global political art campaigns. Political art in appropriating the aesthetics and/or techniques of advertising are not only at a great economic disadvantage in producing similar sound, video and imaging quality as the advertisers do, but even if they are able to approach the production quality of advertisers, political art cannot reach the millions that advertising can precisely because it resides in the margins of the mainstream culture.
Total brand saturation of public space paired with the policing of unsanctioned forms of creativity by marginalized youth and artists have created highly contested public spaces in San Francisco. In 1998, the pandemic will for private profit also began to bleed into the long-standing mural tradition in the Latino neighborhood of the Mission District of San Francisco. Neglected for decades by city planners and developers, the Mission District's walls suddenly became the epicenter of the gentrification battle during the late 1990s. On a chilly summer evening in July of 1998, one of the largest and most prominent Chicano abstract murals, "Lilli Ann," painted by Jesus "Chuy" Campusano was whitewashed. The Cort family, well-known land speculators in San Francisco, purchased the building on 17 th and Harrison Street for a million dollars and had the mural painted over in order to make room for an ambitious, large-scale, and potentially highly profitable corporate advertising space. The defacing (and disappearing) of the mural was done in direct violation of the California Art Preservation Act and without the consent of Chuy Campusano, who had died a year earlier, or the Campusano family. The Cort family, already villanized in the community for evicting numerous small businesses and residents to make room for new dotcom start-ups, came under enormous community pressure to restore the mural. Community protests, media attention, art interventions and even a "hex" put on the building by a local bruja and brujo became an anti-gentrification rallying cry of the Mission. The public outrage led to a lawsuit that ended in settling for an unprecedented amount of $200,000 in damages to the Campusano family. Unfortunately, the mural was not restored and remains a missing icon, a whitewashed monument to amnesia, and another dotcom casualty in San Francisco's Mission District
The burly presence of corporate advertising in privatized public space and the policing of cultural activity done "without permission" have led to a street war of symbols, icons and cultural meaning. Underfunded artists, cultural activists and performers have taken on a David-and-Goliath battle of cultural codes with the belief that social change and political transformation occurs by inserting alternative messages within the cultural arena.
On the surface, the advertising industry and political public artists are diametrically opposed. However, a closer look reveals that advertisers, Xican @ muralists, and other political artists may share some common strategies. Advertisers, like muralists, have a directive, motive and goal of communicating ideas using a wide-
range of psychological, aesthetic, emotional, and narrative approaches. The idea of 'transformation', so important for the artist of political nature, is present in advertising which seeks to connect with its audience (consumers) through narrative, fantasy and style. This is done through infinite repetition, the high-tech 'wow-effect', humor, sexuality, the marketing 'cool', etc. Mural production has always shared the need to 'advertise' an ideological position (whether it be a political statement about local tradition, global injustice, resistance, etc.) or display an aesthetic ideology (a idyllic landscape with a rainbow of people holding hands in harmony, a seemingly apolitical painting of the 'neighborhood' or an orange and black spray-painted Chinese tiger). The comparisons and contrasts between advertisers and political artists can go on; however, the inside/outside, culture/counterculture dichotomy is largely overstated as we are all a part of complex interlaced cultural power structures. It is well documented that advertising industries look to counterculture to find inspiration and to locate the edge, but is it true that Xican @ muralists look to advertising to for their edge?
2. Reclaim the Streets?
Public art interventionist movements such as "The Department of Space and Land Reclamation" (http://www.dslrwest.org/whatis.html), "Institute for Applied Autonomy" (http://www.appliedautonomy.com/),"Reclaim the Streets" (http://www.rts-sf.org/), "The Surveillance Camera Players" (http://www.notbored.org/the-scp.html), and "Critical Mass" (http://www.critical-mass.org/) have gained widespread awareness and participation. These and other forms of political art practice have emerged as the modern avant-garde that has at times been named, "tactical media." In Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media (Autonomedia, 2003), Critical Art Ensemble defines "tactical media" as a term that "refers to a critical usage and theorization of media practices that draw on all forms of old and new, both lucid and sophisticated media, for achieving a variety of specific noncommercial goals and pushing all kinds of potentially subversive political issues." (p.5) Much of this artwork is staged in the public sphere and engages political art through a range of rudimentary media (e.g. bicycles, paints and ready-made objects) as well as advanced technologies (e.g. robots, bio labs and the software programming). In locating Xican@ muralism within the "tactical media" movement we can examine cultural and theoretical foundations of these art practices that seemingly share goals of political subversion and disruption.
A common tactic among cultural activists today is to engage in irreverent acts of creativity that "take over public space" or "reclaim the streets." From altering billboards and street signs to performing theater for surveillance cameras, contemporary interventionist art practice assails unexpected public spaces with often witty, politically subversive and disruptive artwork. The oppositional politics of these art tactics (anarchism, anti-privatization, demilitarization of public space, etc.) are distinctly visible and many times serve as lucid critiques of highly controlled and privatized public spaces. However, the oppositional or "radical" nature of such cultural activism in the public sphere is generally founded in the most basic democratic notions of free speech and open public discourse. Even though cultural and political public expression would appear to be encouraged in a thriving democracy, to be involved in politically charged public artwork in America today means to be pushed to the "radical" margins because of three emergent trends: 1) the corporate control of public discourse where access is bought and sold, 2) the surveillance, policing, and disappearance of most public space, and 3) the rise and predominance of the ideology of private and individual rights.
As a result of this historical shift towards the privatization of public and democratic spheres, art and cultural activists who aspire to perform basic democratic rights in public often work from reactionary and defensive modes. The predominant questions of unsanctioned forms of cultural engagement tend to revolve around where and when these actions will be policed, shut down, and/or displaced. This has lead cultural activists to search for, create and occupy "temporary autonomous zones" to realize brief moments of diverse, democratic activity in public space. Instead of open democratic discourse, critical public artwork too often becomes acts of civil disobedience. Of course, such cultural activity can reveal power structures and alliances that form urban space. However, how do politically progressive art tactics of "reclaiming" space differ from more conservative groups who set out to "reclaim" their streets in opposition to graffiti, the homeless, street vendors, free expression, etc.? The colonial metaphors of space and land occupation seem to engender an endless football game of territorial rights that inescapably reproduces the dispositions of the colonial project. If cultural activists are to inhabit space in the spirit of democratic diversity and openness (against corporate, state, and private colonialist notions), how do we do so without mimicking the trappings of colonial practices that can translate into inadequate forms of cultural terrorism and artistic bomb dropping?
Xican @ or Chicano?
Identifying as Xican @ -- written with an "X" and with an "@" symbol as a progression of the term Chicano -- has become increasingly complicated and hybrid since the rise of cultural empowerment and nationalist movements during the 1960s and 70s. Twenty-first century diversity and hybridity of Mexican-American experiences--Mexitaliana/o, "Jewsixcana/o," Native-Chicana, Salvadoreña-Chicano, Chicana/o-queer, etc.--have greatly expanded the terms on which we can identify as Xican @ s. What has remained a constant, though, is that Xican @ identity is steeped in social and economic justice, race, gender and sexual equality, cultural progression and decolonization under a shared, albeit diverse, Mexican-American experience, history and cultural origin. Departing from ideas of Ana Castillo, José Cuellar describes Xican @ in his entry on "Chicanismo/Xicanism@" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures:
Xicanism @ " is a contemporary extension of the 20th century Chicanismo that is ideologically rooted in the Chicana feminist "Mexic Amerindian" consciousness that rejects machismo, exclusionary ethnocentrism and nationalism while emphasizing our prehistoric tendencies toward interdependence and cooperation that transcends gender, class, race, and geographic boundaries. ..."Xicanism@" appears more frequently as an orthographically distinctive identifier and definer of the U.S. Mexican consciousness that is at more feminist, cultural guerilla, and more Amerindio than ever."
The development and history of space in America has been predicated for the most part on righteous expansion, displacement and genocide of radicalized bodies, and apartheid-like class and race separation. Given this history, it is not surprising that we find these same biases embedded in the contemporary urban design manifest in gentrification practices and the sustaining of a permanent class of poor communities ruled by the politics of neglect. To oppose these ideologies and practices from a cultural activist point of view, it is not sufficient to state that "we" are going to "take back" the territory and rights that belong to "us". Adopting such a stance ignores the plurality of histories, heritage, politics, indigenous claims, and hybrid cultures that all American urban spaces possess. Appropriation of the colonial claim to space inevitably reinforces the imperial driven metaphors of border building and territorial rights. (This strategy stays true to colonial expansionist history of the Americas and is as problematic as Chicano and Black nationalist movements of 1960s who took this appropriated strategy to heart and, in doing so, maintained certain hierarchal, patriarchal and, ultimately, racist substructures of the occupiers.)
We are faced, then, with the task of not only reclaiming symbolic and physical territory, but of decolonizing this territory in the name of building alternative, sustainable and diverse cultures. The "reclamation" of space can serve as an effective short-term tactic of empowerment, but if we are truly concerned with excavating disappeared culture, furthering indigenous and local knowledge while at the same time resisting privatization and rampant spread of corporate culture, then we are better equipped if we begin by revealing and disassembling all forms of colonial and imperial power through artistic practices and creative collaborations. Perhaps through this framework can we dismantle and complicate the discourse and narratives of cultural hegemony that are sustained through practices of consent and conformity. This would entail not only seeking to reclaim occupied territory, but also disrupting ideologies embedded in everything from the tools of our creativity such as paintbrushes, canvases and computers to the communal places we share such as the streets, plazas, and homes. To decolonize space involves reexamining the language, symbols and cultural codes we use as well as the institutionalized forms of pedagogy, government and commerce we participate in. Such an approach leads one to confront learned and "normalized" forms of dogmatic discourse and knowledge that reinforces white supremacy as well as gender, sexual and economic inequality. Acts of rupturing, entangling, disordering and
integrating experience and knowledge engages one in a deeply personal and communal project , a project that focuses on the larger social concerns of local and global communities. For contemporary cultural activists and art interventionists, this process begins from within.
In the search for postcolonial rules of engagement, we can look to Xican @ cultural activists who have established a long history of public art interventionism through murals, performance and communal participation. Xican @ muralism in particular is a proactive tactic of subversive cultural coding that serves to generate a myriad of deviant politics that includes the grassroots construction of local space.
Steeped in the tradition of cultural activism of Mexican muralistas Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros , Xican @ muralis m is a community-based public art form founded in hybrid Mexican-American working-class aesthetics, culture and politics. As the Mexican-American/Xican@ experience has progressed and diversified, so has its cultural symbols, influences and direction. Today, Xican@ muralism remains an influential, yet marginalized critical art practice in the public sphere. A complex weaving of cultural space, Xican @ murals inscribe a particular political aesthetic, poetic voice, subversive humor, and historical narrative onto public space , a primary site of social movements, cultural empowerment and decolonization for Xican @ s. The strategy of long-term engagement with people's physical, cultural, and political environments with the objective of influencing, recreating, and even radicalizing those environments, positions Xican@ muralist movements as bottom-up cultural investments for the streets.
Xican@ mural making is a practice that has always encouraged collaboration, community engagement, and creative acts that form a part of larger networks of oppositional politics to imperialist power (cultural and territorial) that is so vital to Xican @ identity formation. These strategies of cultural engagement differ slightly, but significantly from "tactical media" cultural activists who generally distain the very idea of "community" and "community art." The collective Critical Art Ensemble, one of the leading tactical media art groups and theorists, write that as "tactical media" artists, "we could separate ourselves from site-specific artists, community artists, public artists, new genre artists, and other categories with which we had little or no sympathy." ( Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media. Autonomedia, 2003, p. 7). In another place, Critical Art Ensemble describes "community" as being a word "empty of meaning" and avoidable as a construct from which to base social change and political transformation. (Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine; Cyborgs, Designer Babies, Eugenic Consciousness . Autonomedia, 1998; pp. 149-151). The aversion to "community"--that overused, underdefined, amorphous, dynamic, and elusive synonym for diverse groups of people sharing something in common--by tactical media artists, underlines cultural difference that informs certain "radical" art strategies founded in the belief that the progressive change is centered in creative, amateur, and vanguard "cell" groups and not in grassroots, non-specialized communal collaboration. A postcolonial tactic of change, however, realizes that "community"--imagined and real, dysfunctional and effective--carries historical, cultural and political knowledge. Social transformation is based, rejected, revised, and enacted from this knowledge. Strategies of community-based cultural activism are often experimental and always in flux; however, contemporary tactical media art practice too-often avoids the difficult work of establishing local community ties and collaborations that foster a protest of cultural depth. Xican @ cultural activists place community and raza engagement at the forefront of its philosophy for change. Xican @ muralism is one manifestation of this.
3. Strength in the Margins
Xican @ muralism stands within the margins of several historical and activist public art paradigms. In spite of its collaborative and communal importance as one of the longest standing forms of public art practice, Xican@ muralis m has been largely ignored, marginalized, and deemed a second-tier art form by an elitist art world. From the point of view of government "Percentage for Arts" programs, public art is considered "a dynamic mediation between the private and the public; the individual and the group; and most importantly, ... a catalyst for community development." Although city and state public art programs throughout the country are benevolent cultural activists in their rhetoric, the artworks produced under these umbrella programs are usually endowed with oversized budgets, but offer little in terms of critical or political value. Of course, the term "political" is often as overused and undefined as the word "community." Within elite art circles (e.g. Art Commissions, museums, commercial galleries, etc.) the word "community" tends to be benevolent, quaint, and somewhat desired, while the word "political" is to be avoided at all costs. By "political" artwork, I generally mean work that brings to the fore issues of power, control, human rights, social justice, culture, the environment, etc. Political artwork puts these issues at the center of the work. I am not referring to the large body of artwork that hints at and hides political content but is ultimately more concerned with material, form, poetics and aesthetics. Whether it is painted cows in airports or abstract pieces in corporate plazas, the predominance of corporate-government public art invariably promotes ideologies of individualism, aesthetic novelty and apoliticization. It is argued in these circles that purely aesthetic art has value in adding diversity to a cultural landscape and, indeed, not all art has to have overt critical or political perspectives. This vacuous rhetoric, however, ignores the problem of political censorship that contaminates the government-sponsored public art process, a process that incessantly produces and reproduces projects that are more likely to aesthetically confound citizens than communicate with them.
A Testament of its Own Absurdity
Many Xican@ muralistas work within both the public sphere as well as in the galleries and museums. It is true that very little truly escapes the workings of capitalist expansion, co-optation and profitability. However, by nature of being a public cultural expression, the Xican@ muralist movement generally stands outside the monetary value system of the art world and, thus, tends to be ghettoized by this system. As Todd May writes in The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralism :
every resistance is effectively stifled: not by being suppressed, but by being rendered another spectacle in the parade of culture. Resistance that cannot be appropriated is merely left outside the system, a testament of its own absurdity.
Most Xican @ muralists, in contrast, are rooted in an artistic heritage of candid opposition, critical engagement, and comprehensible aesthetics. This definition of the role of public art and the role of the artist in society is in deep conflict with mainstream art circles. Perhaps this explains why Xican @ muralis m continues to be written out the history of art, the history of painting and the history of public art. Or maybe Xican @ muralis m is ignored as a significant cultural contribution because it is rooted in poor, disenfranchised barrio spaces and exists as an artistic expression for the cultural commons that stubbornly resists co-optation and/or privatization. In this construction of resistance networks, Xican @ murals are placed within the margins of power, but remain at the center of cultural exchange for diverse barrio neighborhoods and forgotten spaces.
The muralist Juana Alicia, a self-proclaimed "Jewxicana," exemplifies deep-rooted Xican @ cultural activism through muralism. Juana Alicia painted Las Lechugeras (The Women Lettuce Workers , 1983 ) in the Mission District of San Francisco to honor female Mexican farm workers who struggle against the harmful use of pesticides in the fields and the constant threats from field bosses and immigration services. The work shows the dignity of women workers who serve as the backbone of not only agricultural production in California, but also of the Mexicano family. After twenty years of standing in resistance to migrant worker abuses at 24 th and York Street, the mural Las Lechugeras could not be restored without major building reconstruction. Juana Alicia is now painting over the mural with La Llorona ( The Weeping Woman ), a powerful and beautiful work about women, water and globalization. Murals like Las Lechugeras and La Llorona become subversive institutional icons in the local neighborhood and Xican @ calls for justice in the global context.
These cultural constructions of space lend a particular locality to resistance movements as well as long-term, committed and collaborative dissent.
Unfortunately, the marginalization of muralism has resulted in many Xican @ (especially Xicana ) master muralists struggling to get work funded in elite art circles and in local communities. The popular assumption that muralists (and artists in general) should donate their time, work and expertise is widespread and shows itself too often. In spite of this, Xican @ muralists continue to construct walls of resistance of enduring presence and importance.
In 1975, a group of Xican @ artists at the Galería de la Raza in the Mission District of San Francisco got together to talk about the advertising billboard affixed to the outside of the Galería's main exhibition space. The artists all agreed that the billboard was guilty of streamlining a steady flow of toxic culture into the Latino neighborhood. Several artists began to "intervene" in the billboards messages by painting over it, injecting their own messages into the community. They also tried to negotiating with the billboard company, but to no avail. Faced with mounting pressure and possible "bad press," the billboard company decided to take the billboard down. The details of the events are not exactly clear, but the artists at the Galería responded to the billboard company by saying, "Well, if you're going to take it down, why not just leave it to us?" The billboard company shrugged its shoulders and left the billboard site to the Galería de la Raza. Almost overnight, the advertising billboard at 24 th and Bryant Streets, once a conduit for messages of multinational corporations, suddenly became a decolonized mural site -- a local, raza -owned place of cultural opposition. Since 1975, the site has been host of dozens of temporary 10 x 24 foot murals from local, national and international artists. The temporary mural site stands as a cultural institution in the Mission District whose legacy is owed to critical art and cultural activism.
In 1998, I approached then director of the Galería de la Raza, Gloria Jaramillo, with a proposal to do a computer-generated digital mural at the temporary mural site. Computer technologies were becoming more accessible and many Xican@ artists including myself were using these mediums to develop our particular aesthetic visions. I was interested in creating a digital mural that merged early photographic uses, Xican@ mural tactics, and contemporary advertising. I installed the first digital mural at the Galería called, Los restos coloniales se manifiestan en el olvido ( Colonial Remnants Manifested in Amnesia ). This mural was a triptych dealing with tactics of colonialism--past and present--in promoting cultural amnesia through a strategic masking of language, space and image. This took place in a climate just before California passed Proposition 227, an anti-bilingual education ballot initiative spearheaded by millionaire Ron Unz. San Francisco was in the throes of a mass eviction campaign due to the dotcom incursion that would affect the Mission District most profoundly.
Al Lujan's mural, Resist the Dot Con , is one example among many of how sustained cultural resistance in harmony with other forms of action (political protest, lobbying, lawsuits, etc.) can stimulate energy, consciousness and, ultimately, change. The skeptic will ask--and rightly so--what tangible change did we see from Lujan's media blitz as well as dozens of other simultaneous anti-gentrification cultural activities. Lujan was still evicted and forced out of the city (though word has it that he is moving back to San Francisco as I am writing this) and many others lost their long-time homes and apartments to a short-lived and unsustainable economic blip. However, pressure put on the city curbed some evictions and was ultimately very favorable to candidates running for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors on anti-gentrification tickets. In November of 2000, Mayor Willie Brown, a promoter and active collaborator in the "Manhattanization" of San Francisco, lost all of his handpicked Supervisors and barely won a second term in a run-off election against write-in candidate Tom Ammiano.
A year later, the new director of the Galería de la Raza, Carolina Ponce de León, collaborated with me in establishing the Digital Mural Project at the Galería. Our approach to digital muralism hinged on a new Xican @ mural aesthetic driven by artists informed by the history, pedagogy and politics of Mexican and Xican @ murals and, simultaneously, influenced by the strategies, tactics and "feel" of the advertising industry. We sought Xican @ artists critically immersed in local-to-global political art making and who looked to popular culture and advertising as a billion-dollar research library and image bank with which to work. During this time, U.S. Latinos were being deemed as the ethnic group that was furthest behind in the race to become connected to PCs and the Internet. Although the rhetoric of the so-called "Digital Divide" told us that we were electronically deficient, we strove to "build a bridge to the 21 st century" with a fresh, radical, and dissenting digital muralism.
Critically appropriating advertising, then, became a tactic of engagement for San Francisco's Xican @ Digital Mural movement. When Al Lujan installed his digital mural, Resist the Dot Con in 2000, we saw firsthand the workings of advertising automation via several media outlets. For the mural, Lujan, who was in the midst of being evicted from his apartment in the Mission, digitized a standard tourist postcard of the Bay Bridge coming out of San Francisco, placed a U-Haul truck on the bridge rapidly leaving the city, tattooed a portrait of a Latino family on the side of the truck, and laid the words, "Adios San Francisco" across the top. Almost immediately, the mural began to appear and reappear in newspapers, local and national magazines, books, and on several news and television programs. It was described on the radio, shown in videos, put on websites and talked about in university classrooms. The mural became the face of the anti-gentrification movement in San Francisco raising consciousness locally and nationally about the economic displacement and injustices occurring in the city. Resist the Dot Con performed the advertising rituals of repetition ad infinitum and total brand saturation, but from within the margins of Xican @ cultural production.
From 1999 to 2002, I was the curator and participating artist of the Digital Mural Project at the Galería. We produced nine digital murals with sharp critiques of issues such as racial profiling, the Digital Divide, surveillance, sexual equality, and posthumanism. The mural site continues to act as a decolonized laboratory exploring aesthetic, cultural and activist avenues from Xican @ perspectives.
Many of the murals provoke strong reactions in the community and have been tagged with Marxist-homophobic-Christian rhetoric, stylized graffiti, pen markings, and pan de huevo (sweet bread) bombs. Although sometimes violent, I generally welcome these "additions" and running commentary as creations of real-time palimpsests and straightforward, although not necessarily open, dialogue. During a three-month period in 2001, there were several aggressive taggings on two different digital murals. In reaction to the tagging, a group of community members stapled a small sign to a wall just a block away from the mural site. The sign depicted a nice hand-painted landscape with the Virgin of Guadalupe hovering in the clouds in the sky. Written across the rolling hills of the painting read, "To whoever keeps tagging the Galería's murals, I want to kick your ass! My name is Felipe. Ask anyone on 24 th Street, they'll tell you who I am."
Xican@ murals and digital murals are forms of tactical media entrenched in an historical and visionary politics of barrio consciousness that work in conjunction with other forms of oppositional politics. The temporary mural site at the Galería de la Raza is one of many public sites in urban American framed in decolonial activism. Space reclamation activists can look to certain Xican@ cultural activism that provides broader historical frameworks to political and cultural advancement.
After painting a mural in Los Angeles in the 1930s, David Alfaro Siqueiros imaged a future city in which every corner had a mural painted on it. Unfortunately, Siqueiros' vision of a truly democratic and participatory cultural society has succumbed to a pervasive and virulent advertising society driven to maintain profit and hegemony by any means. In a historical context that highly discourages public protest, creativity and critical art, public art interventions advance alternative and dissident views of the world. As a Xican@ digital muralist and tactical media artist, I would like to restate Siqueiros' encouragement public art works of lucid critical perspectives and layered cultural meanings that strive for decolonial consciousness and the promotion of a política de fondo.
Critical Art Ensemble, Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media , Autonomedia, 2003.
Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine; Cyborgs, Designer Babies, Eugenic Consciousness . Autonomedia, 1998; 149-151.
Jose Cuellar, "Chcicanismo/Xicanism@ in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures
Todd May writes in The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism . PA: Univ. of Penn. Press
Amster, Randall, Spatial Anomalies: Street People, Sidewalk Sitting, and the Contested Realms of Public Space , Dissertation, Arizona State University, May 2002
Herbert J. Gans in Deciding What's News, New York, Pantheon, 1979.
In 2001, IBM was sued for property damage after it started spray painting logos on the sidewalks in major cities in America.
See, "The Playground of US Capitalism? The Political Economy of the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s," pp. 3-82. In Fire in the Hearth: The Radical Politics of Place in America . Davis, Mike, et al., eds. London: Verso, 1990, and Klein, Naomi, No Logo , Picador USA 2002.
See, Davis, Mike, City of Quartz . Vintage Books, 1992, pp. 223-260.
See T.A.Z.: the Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism by Hakim Bey. Semiotextet, August 1, 1991.
For a good primer on Chicano Art see, "Chicano Art: A Resource Guide" on the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archive website at http://cemaweb.library.ucsb.edu/chicanoArt.html
This marginalization of mural practice has occurred at the highest levels of institutional culture; however, more significantly perhaps, muralism has often been disregarded within the so-called radical art circles who practice "tactical media" and "culture jamming."
Gerace, Gloria (Ed.) Urban Surprises: A Guide to Public Art in Los Angeles , pg. 18. Balcony Press, 2002.
To witness the absence of Xican@ muralism in the consideration of public art see, Finkelpearl, Tom (Ed.), Dialogues in Public Art . MIT Press, 2001, or Matzner, Florian and Vito Acconti (Eds.), Public Art, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2003, among others.