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Interview with BorderXer Artist and curator Patricia Vázquez Gómez

by Kyle Cohlmia

BorderXer, September 13th - November 2nd at Cascade Paragon Gallery

BorderXer: visual inquiries into the transgression of borders both geographic and personal by Patricia Vázquez Gómez and featured artists garima thakur, Fabian Romero, Daniel Coka and Emilio Rojas.

Kyle Cohlmia, MA in Critical Studies candidate, attended the opening of BorderXer and contacted the artist, curator (and PNCA professor), Patricia Vázquez Gómez, to discuss her work and the exhibition’s themes.

KC: This exhibit is a compilation of your work in combination with works by garima thakur, Fabian Romero, Daniel Coka and Emilio Rojas. How did this exhibit come together? Did this group have aspirations to do a group show, or did the collaboration unfold as you worked on the project?

PVG: It was a long process, that started five years ago while I was in a residence organized by Signal Fire at the Sonoran Desert. I have been involved in the immigrant rights movement since I arrived in the U.S. and have heard stories of crossing the border countless times. But being in the desert gave me an embodied understanding that I couldn’t shake off. In that initial trip I took pictures and collected objects. I did two more trips and I did the same, following an impulse. Last year I decided I wanted to do something with those objects, research and experience and that is when BorderXer started to take shape. More or less at the same time, I was coming to terms with some aspects of my queerness, realizing that in order to assume it I had to and continue to engage in some significant borderXings. The exhibition is an invitation to examine the arbitrary borders that we impose on ourselves and on others, and the work of garima, Fabian, Daniel and Emilio eloquently illustrates how queer bodies are constantly and powerfully moving beyond limits and boundaries. I don’t consider the exhibition a collaboration, BorderXer is a concept of mine and I curated the work of these friends because I found it to fit seamlessly with the idea.

KC: Does this project highlight new works of yours, or does it combine past work? How did you select the pieces for this particular exhibit?

PVG: As I mentioned I have been collecting, researching and thinking about this for about five years. Some of the pieces are very new, like the BorderXer video, the prints about transnational gentrification and the guardian of all crossings; but there are also older pieces, like a painting of mine from ten years ago! Including that painting made me realize how long I have been thinking about these issues.

KC: The theme of BorderXer is crossing borders. In your statement I was struck by the words:

Every time you step into forbidden territory you cross a border. Every time you challenge oppression you cross a border. Every time you defy an inhumane law you cross a border. In a system that threatens to take away our individual and collective lives and spirits, becoming a BorderXer is not only necessary, but inescapable.

Can you talk more about what this theme means to you personally and in the larger political and cultural context we face today?

PVG: I could write a book about this question! One thing that is important for me, is to always pay attention to the things that restrict my ability to be free. And the idea of freedom for me is very tied to other people’s freedom, or to better say, everybody’s liberation. There are all kinds of limits imposed on us that keep us disconnected and that push us to retreat deep into ourselves, ideas about patriotism, the whole set of values and beliefs that support capitalism, heteronormativity and patriarchy, you name it. But these limits also come from unexpected and supposedly liberatory places, and identity politics is a good example of that. All those limits prevent us from expanding our consciousness, our ability to be in relationships with others, to be generous, to be in solidarity, to be healthy. And that has an impact on the communities, societies and geographies we live in of course. They might provide us with certain sense of security, but it comes with an incredibly high cost. Pushing against those limits takes a lot of courage. For a lot of people is easier to just stay within them, even if they know they are dehumanizing them and others. I personally had to deal with a lot of limits since I was very little, and I have been lucky to be given access to some critical tools to make some fissures on them. It is easy to fall pray of fear, mistrust, comfort, and I personally try to escape that as much as I can.

KC: I noticed there were used articles of clothing and other found objects arranged on the ground next to the artwork on the walls. I assume this is to signify items from migrants crossing the U.S. borders. Can you talk more about their prominence in this show?

PVG: They don’t signify items from migrants, they ARE items left by migrants in the Sonoran Desert. I picked them up myself while I was there, and they were living in boxes in my basement for 5 years. Those objects are the only physical connection to the desert and the people who have crossed it in the exhibition. After my first trip there I kept thinking “How can I bring the desert here, with all its scars and all its beauty? How can I create the same experience I had for others?” The objects are important as a trace, as a reminder, as a material connection to the issues I am addressing in BorderXer.

KC: I’m also curious about the list of names hanging from the ceiling that create a hallway of sorts, leading to your video work. How did you obtain the data and what is the significance of hanging the list in the format you did?

PVG: I saw that list a few years ago at Project Row Houses in Houston. Somebody had printed it and pasted it to the windows of one of the galleries there. It has been haunting me since then. When I started conceptualizing the show, I knew I wanted that list in it. It took me a lot of internet research, but I finally found it. It is the list of deaths maintained by the Pima County Medical Examiner. It has more than 3,000 people there, just for Pima County, not the whole Sonoran Desert, not the whole desert areas migrants are crossing. That gives you a dimension of the humanitarian crisis happening right here, inside US territory. The decision about presenting that list as curtains came with the kind of space I wanted to create. I envisioned a hallway (unfortunately a hallway of death) that would lead people to the video I made and that is based on accounts of 4 Portland residents who crossed the Sonoran Desert to get here.

KC: It looks like Paragon Gallery is also a print-making studio. I noticed that there were a fair amount of prints and vinyl text on the wall and ground for your exhibit. Did you utilize that space specifically for the printmaking aspect/did access to the studio inspire you to create work for this particular exhibit?

PVG: Not really. I did a lot of printmaking years ago, but I came back to it recently. I am in love with prints these days, and a lot of my work is manifesting in that form.

KC: How would you describe yourself as an artist beyond this exhibit? When did you start creating work, and where do you see yourself going from here?

PVG: That is not an easy question, because being an artist hasn’t come easy for me. It took me a lot of personal work to assume that identity (and a lot of money in student debt!), mostly because of class, gender and race issues I had to figure out. And I am still doing that work. The interesting thing is that after all that effort, I find myself not being very interested on the idea of “being an artist.” This comes back to the issue of borders, in a very traditional sense being an artist comes with limits. You are supposed to be successful in very narrowly defined terms, to cater to a specific audience, even speak and behave like an artist. And I am not very interested in most of those things because I find them restrictive. One of the things I am very invested in is in exploring the social functions of art, and to be able to do that I have to maintain a healthy distance from the art world.  As I mentioned, I am highly tuned to imposed prescriptions, and “being an artist” is rife with them. I usually prefer to say and think that I make art, rather than “I am an artist;” the verb gives me more capacity of action and autonomy than the noun. I am not sure what’s next, but I am starting to look into support for some neighborhood-based work I started this year, I am very excited about that.

KC: What do you hope visitors of BorderXer gain from the artwork and themes of the exhibit? Are there specific groups or organizations in Portland that you recommend for those interested in getting involved with immigration rights?

PVG: The exhibition has been up for four weeks now, and I think it is accomplishing the goals I had set for it. In general, people have felt very moved, even affected. It is a heavy topic, but I think I was able to address it with openness and certain generosity. I want people to think expansively about borders, and ultimately assume that we are all BorderXers. There is no way for me to measure that, of course. About 180 students, mostly from high school but also college classes, have visited the exhibition and some teachers are using it for social justice studies. It is very satisfying to know that educators are finding it relevant. I didn’t expect that, but it makes me very happy.

In terms of organizations there are a few: CAUSA, Unite Oregon and VOZ are some of the strongest. There are also other projects, like the Oregon Dreamers, led by youth; or We are the Dreamers, an annual art show by and for DACA recipients. The immigration issue is not getting better any time soon, and it is important to stay connected and ready to respond when something bad happens. The need is there all the time, we just don’t know because unless is a big crisis we don’t learn about it. But we can also start by connecting not only with our immigrant neighbors, but our neighbors in general. In the end is all about the relationships we build. And we can do that any time, in any place, and without the help of any organization.

Patricia Vázquez Gómez works and lives between the ancient Tenochtitlán and the unceded, occupied, stolen and colonized lands of the Chinook, Clackamas, Multnomah, and other Indigenous peoples. She is deeply interested in the social functions of art, the intersections between art, politics and ethics and the expansion of community based art practices; and uses a variety of media to carry out her research: painting, printmaking, video, music and socially engaged art projects. The purpose and methodologies of her work are deeply informed by her experiences working in the immigrant rights and other social justice movements in the US and Mexico.