Exposing Visual Rhymes: An Interview with Mario Ybarra Jr.
by Abraham Ritchie
Posted by Abraham Ritchie
| tags: q&a Throwback
This interview was originally published way back on ArtSlant Chicago, in May, 2008, on the occasion of Mario Ybarra Jr.'s exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. The LA-based artist is known for his installations drawing from pop and street culture, including a recent solo show examining the mythos of Scarface at LA's Honor Fraser Gallery. Right now his work can be found on a billboard in Mobile, AL, part of Los Angeles Nomadic Division's Manifest Destiny Project.
Mario Ybarra, Jr. is a LA-based visual and performance artist who has created room-sized installations all over the world and most recently right here in Chicago for the Art Institute of Chicago. This year Ybarra was also selected to participate in the Whitney Biennial. Beneath Ybarra's friendly demeanor lies a keen observer who is quick to expose visual rhymes in seemingly unrelated sources and to expand and build upon those connections until a cohesion is reached, or as he might say, a story. Ybarra graciously met with ArtSlant's Abraham Ritchie while putting the finishing touches on his installation at the Art Institute. Ever the raconteur, Ybarra talked about his native LA, baseball and King Arthur. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
Abraham Richie: I think a lot of Chicagoans, and everyone, might want to know what the connection is between Southern Los Angeles, Catalina Island and Wrigley Field? It’s kind of funny to think that Wrigley Field had a “secret brother” or something like that on the West Coast, because I am not sure that many people remember or know about this other Wrigley Field.
Mario Ybarra, Jr.: Well that’s where this whole project started for me. About a year ago Lisa Dorin, the Assistant Curator in the Contemporary Art Department, asked me if I wanted to come up with a proposal to do a Focus project here at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I said I would think about it a little bit. The way that I try to work is that I try to make some kind of relationship between a personal experience, or my personal understanding or knowledge and the place that I show. I don’t like the idea of coming in and claiming an expertise on a place that I know nothing about. I’ve found that doing something that starts in the realm of the personal and then taking it out to another place and trying to make relationships between those two places is the most successful tactic for me. . . I try to make bridges, so to speak.
As a kid we would take trips out to Catalina Island, which is part of the Channel Islands, about 26 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. I remember part of the tour was the local history. They’d always tell us that William Wrigley, Jr. owned Catalina Island and he had famous movie stars of the time going out there, like Clark Gable. His Chicago Cubs would go out and have their spring training there. The main town there is called Avalon and it gets its name from [Wrigley’s] niece, who told [Wrigley] to name it that after the Avalon of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and those stories. So it has this mythological side of it too. It has real histories, the local histories, of it being owned by Wrigley, and it has this mythological history through the King Arthur association. My studio back in LA is on Avalon Boulevard and they named [the street] that because that’s where the boats used to take people out to Avalon Harbor on the island. I started doing research about that, I’m like a de facto historian, and I found that Wrigley, along with owning the island, owned this other Wrigley Field that was in South Central Los Angeles on Avalon and 66th street. So we had the Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island, my studio on Avalon, this field that Wrigley owned was also on Avalon, I just kept following the line. I thought I could take this story from Avalon, to Avalon Boulevard, to my studio, to Avalon were the stadium was, to all the way down Highway 66 to Chicago and the Art Institute.
I’m figuring out ways to make these relationships between historical figures like William Wrigley, who was important to historical cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, and bring these stories together somehow, make bridges between the stories. Between what I know and my experiences and the places that I go.
AR: Sports are the site of an obvious physical conflict and throughout the exhibit are interesting juxtapositions: the Mexican flag and the U.S. flag, the sword and the baseball bat, the fist of the Revolution and an image of a capitalist’s private island. The history of the island reflects conflict as well, in the seventies it was occupied by the Brown Berets. How are sports, especially baseball, viewed both literally and metaphorically for this project, and the issues it raises?
MY: Well I have always thought of the history of baseball as particularly related to the United States. It’s billed as “the American Game;” it’s not really played around the world at all other than some Latin American countries, like the Dominican Republic where all these new players are coming from and where young people are specifically groomed to be ball players. But in relation to the United States, and this comes from the different things that I have watched or read, the developments of social movements in the United States almost always came ten years later than in the ball game itself. Baseball has been very slow to change, and it hasn’t changed really over the few centuries its been played here. But it still has these kind of leading edges. Let’s take for example the story of integration and civil rights. Jackie Robinson starts playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950's and certain places, like schools, weren’t integrated until the early sixties or late sixties. Baseball reflects a little bit in advance the kind of social movements that will happen in the United States.
Another thing that I think is very interesting in terms of conflict and it being a spectator sport, even though there are rival teams and most big cities have their own team, [there is a sense of unity]. Before professional baseball, each little town would have a team, even though there was a sense of rivalry or competition, the people were brought together as spectators to cheer on their team. So even though there was a site of conflict, it wasn’t like it was Rome and gladiators were getting fed to lions [laughter]. There is a sense of sportsmanship [. . .]
Related to issues of capitalism and revolution, or acts of civil disobedience, there is a sense of teams. I play off that with the posters, we have here a baseball with two bats crossed, but instead of a regular team you have the Brown Beret guys who tried to occupy the island in 1972 so they’re like “the team.” The idea of “the team” is important too and the metaphor of a team. The idea that everyone has their positions but also act as a unit is very important and is a metaphor for myself.
AR: The idea of teams is also apparent in this wall of flags you have installed. What are the flags we have here?
MY: This is the state of Illinois’ flag. The flags are also stadium-esque, they always have them. The other thing, again about making relationships, is this is the state of Illinois’ flag, which has an eagle perched on a rock holding a shield and in his mouth is a banner. I thought that is very interesting, because over here is the Mexican flag, and again we have the eagle, this time perched on the cactus, and the snake in his mouth pretty much mimics the banner in the Illinois flag. Those kinds of aesthetic relationships and symbolic choices are very interesting.
AR: Even looking at the Illinois flag, that’s more of an Aztec style eagle than a typical American-style eagle.
MY: Yeah. Those are the kinds of things I noticed in my visits to Chicago to prepare for this show, last year and earlier this year. I started seeing these kinds of relationships, like the Illinois flag’s similarity to the flag of Mexico.
This row of flags will start off with the U.S. flag, the state of Illinois flag, Chicago flag, Los Angeles flag, state of California flag, and the Mexican flag. We have these different relationships between these two places starting with the cities and then going to the states. We have the state of Mexico flag, even though California is not part of Mexico, it used to be part of Mexico, but it’s related to the histories that we have here. Catalina Island was occupied by the Brown Berets because in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which separated the Southwest from Mexico after the Mexican-American War, the island wasn’t specifically mentioned. This is why the Brown Berets tried to occupy it.
There are interrelationships between the two places [Chicago and LA]. I thought that was another kind of metaphor for the show, in terms of Wrigley being this character and starting with him, saying no man is an island, or no city, or no country or land is an island. They’re all in relationship, in context, to their neighbors. Imagine if we thought that we could do everything, under our own power, we’d get ourselves in trouble. We can talk about it in relationship to land, in relationship to people. Or no island is a man, we could even switch it.
I wanted to draw these kinds of relationships together, one between Los Angeles and Chicago, two between Mexico and the States, three between baseball and mythology. Different symbolic orders, things like ships or bubble gum.
ArtSlant would like to thank Mario Ybarra, Jr., Jenny Gheith and Lisa Dorin for their assistance in making this interview possible. Additional thanks to the Anna Helwing Gallery and the Art Institute of Chicago
- Abraham Ritchie
(Top image: Mario Ybarra Jr, Manifest Destiny Project billboard, 2014; Courtesy of LAND. All other images are installation views of Take Me Out. . . No Man Is an Island, 2008; Courtesy of the Artist)
MU | Witte Dame
Emmasingel 20 , 5611 AZ Eindhoven, Netherlands
November 13, 2013 - January 26, 2014
F.A.T. Lab, F.A.T. GOLD Europe: Five Years of Free Art & Technology
by Andrea Alessi
Posted by Andrea Alessi
| tags: Street Critique
I crouched down, picked up a marker, and tried to remember the illegible scribble that used to be my “tag”: a gesture of sharp points and steady curves punctuated by a strategic line slashed through the whole inscription. In high school I would trace it onto book covers and notepads and think I was cool. It came to me eventually, the first delivery unsteady as I carefully considered which shapes fit where; in a second, more successful attempt, I let my arm do the work, confidently forging my mark in muscle memory.
Yours truly, tagging the graffiti wall, F.A.T. GOLD Europe; Photo: Ben Harvey.
I was in Eindhoven attending the Free Art and Technology (F.A.T.) Lab’s exhibition F.A.T. GOLD Europe at MU, which ended in January. The show, which also took place in April last year at Eyebeam in New York, was a sort of five-year anniversary round up of the Internet collective’s practice. (F.A.T. Lab has now entered its seventh year, but the originally scheduled retrospective was put on hiatus in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.) But back to the incident at hand. Why, at an exhibition dedicated to a network ostensibly operating online, was I contributing my meager tag to a sanctioned graffiti wall?
F.A.T. GOLD Europe, installation view, MU | De Witte Dame, Eindhoven; Photo: Andrea Alessi.
The connection isn’t so far fetched. Some of F.A.T. Lab’s twenty-five members—an international network of artists, engineers, scientists, lawyers, and musicians—are themselves graffiti artists. Their core values, which include “spreading open source and free ideals into popular culture” through DIY entrepreneurship, open source, and activism, have more than a few intersections with street art. On the one hand, art on the Internet can be viewed through a street lens: it can bypass normal distribution channels, appealing directly to viewers. Turning the comparison on its head, street art can be seen as a form of “hack”—an unendorsed appropriation of space, medium, or idea.
Evan Roth, Ideas Worth Spreading (TED Talks), at MU | De Witte Dame, Eindhoven; Photo: Andrea Alessi
In his recent book, Viral Art, Vandalog blogger RJ Rushmore looks at how the future of street art, with its focus on “unmediated distribution,” might find a natural home in the digital domain. He uses the term “Viral Art” to describe both shareable and invasive online practices that have an affinity, if not a direct evolutionary line, to street art (n.b. “Viral” here implies a level of approachability that excludes some older forms of Internet Art. The pioneering duo JODI, for example, have a great exhibition at Showroom MAMA in Rotterdam right now that isn’t particularly accessible or viral). F.A.T. Lab’s projects don’t always fall within the categories Rushmore outlines either—viewers may seek out content rather than encounter it serendipitously—yet they do open onto notions of self-dissemination, egalitarianism, activism, and anonymity. In fact, there are examples at MU of some of the very works discussed in Rushmore’s text—namely, Ideas Worth Spreading, a mock-up TED Talk stage where visitors can record images of their own “talk” to share online, and 40,000 GML Tags, a massive screen showcasing graffiti gestures in GML, or Graffiti Markup Language, “a file format designed to be a universal structure for storing digitized graffiti motion data.”
Geraldine Juarez, Kopyfamo', watermark on mirror, at MU | De Witte Dame, Eindhoven; Photo: Andrea Alessi
Some F.A.T. Lab projects exist in the real world, others are strictly manifest online, and many straddle the two—that is, projects shaped in the real world and shared online. The MU exhibition, curated by Lindsay Howard, highlighted them all, offering documentation, online viewing stations, and even physical objects and artworks. Where F.A.T. GOLD differed from the typical exhibition was that most works were not autonomous objects, but rather reproducible examples of a wider practice. Motivated viewers could (and can) recreate many of these works on the web or at home*, and the materials for some projects, like an Obama PRISM mask, were even available at the exhibition.
F.A.T. GOLD Europe, installation view with Free Universal Construction Kit, MU | De Witte Dame, Eindhoven; Photo: Andrea Alessi
Good fun is always on the menu: in F.A.T. GOLD there was a sub-genre of works touting the douchiness of Google Glass and its adopters, and a presentation of Greg Leuch’s viral Add-on Shaved Bieber, which censors all mentions of Justin Bieber online (earning Leuch more than a little hate mail from teenage fans). But some of the best and most shareable projects are greater than their capacity for the lulz. The Free Universal Construction Kit is a set of adapters that makes ten brands of children’s construction sets, like Lego and K’Nex, interoperable. It’s eminently cool/novel/clever, but it also visualizes the ways in which childhood playthings ostensibly meant to spark creativity are limited by proprietary measures. The F.U.C.K. undermines these protective implements, removing barriers to cross-trademark creativity. The exhibition featured a complete set of adapters, a construction/play station, and a 3D printer that staff members kindly set to printing new pieces whenever visitors turned up. (3D models of the adapters in .STL format are available online for free download.)
Tobias Leingruber, Facebook Identity Card, video presentation of ARTE Creative, Social ID Bureau, 2012, portrait of Mark Zuckerberg, at MU | De Witte Dame, Eindhoven; Photo: Andrea Alessi
F.A.T. Lab’s perspective seems carefully poised between an irreverent techno-optimism (“look at these cool things we can do!”) and deep skepticism at the ways in which technologies can be regulated, marketed, and used for power and control. Given these positions, in which use of certain technologies seems self-evident, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has access to the distributional paradigm shift that is the digital domain. Rushmore’s account also overstates viral art’s present accessibility: an encounter with this type of work is more likely to be spread within specific enclaves of Internet activity, with limiting factors being not geography, but usage. The case for “unmediated” distribution is further undermined by the cryptic algorithms used by Facebook and Google for post placement and search results—the very systems F.A.T. Lab exploits when images of their fake TED Talks turn up in search results. In a destabilizing twist, F.A.T. Lab often coopts the very technologies and systems it protests (or defends).
Tobias Leingruber, Skatekeyboard, keyboard attached to skateboard deck, at MU | De Witte Dame, Eindhoven; Photo: Andrea Alessi
In a way, that’s why it was such a treat to see some of F.A.T. Lab’s works in physical form, Away From Keyboard as it were. F.A.T. GOLD did a great job of making works and ideas accessible to people who might not be tech-savvy or know what terms like “net neutrality” and “Open Web” mean. Or those who aren’t necessarily ready to accept or understand this sort of practice as “art.” The exhibition was forward looking, but also rooted in the past and present—a thought-provoking bridge between time, technologies, and disciplines. Be it in a subway tunnel or on a homepage, a mark on the wall is a sign of presence; it can be a declaration of ego, of resistance. Or like my clumsy signature, it can be an affirmation, a “Like” or an “upvote”: I was here, with so many others, and I want to be counted.
Becky Stern, Knitted Compubody Interface (knit one yourself!), at MU | De Witte Dame, Eindhoven; © Photo: Andrea Alessi
*The MU exhibition ended on January 26th, but interested readers can see the projects online or in the new F.A.T. Manual (available for purchase or free download), released on the occasion of the exhibition and the collective’s five-year anniversary.
F.A.T. GOLD Europe, installation view, MU | De Witte Dame, Eindhoven; Photo: Andrea Alessi
Image on top: F.A.T. GOLD Europe, installation view, MU | De Witte Dame, Eindhoven; Photo: Andrea Alessi.]