Paper Magazine, Mundos Alternos Art and Science Fiction in the Americas, now on view at the Queens Museum in New York.
Coconauts! Revolutionary ectoplasm! A show tracks the intersection of art and science fiction.
Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas, Queens Museum, New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, through August 18, 2019
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“EL HOMBRE NO HA DE TERMINAR EN LA TIERRA,” Gyula Kosice ardently declared in 1944. Man is not to end on earth! The Argentine artist continued to dream of liberation from the tyranny of soil and gravity until his regretfully earthbound death in 2016. Kosice’s program for an air-born exodus from tellurian existence is now on view in Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas at the Queens Museum, where its keeps company with over sixty other artworks that use that pulpy genre as fuel for jet packing to planes of experience estranged from accepted reality.
Mundos Alternos was first organized in 2017 at the University of California, Riverside, as part of the massive Pacific Standard Time: LA/LAexhibition, opening the same month that Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico and shortly after the Trump administration quietly began enacting its “zero tolerance” policy of kidnapping migrant children at the US-Mexico border. These are among the dystopian present-day realities in the Americas that presumably anyone would desire to be estranged from—but the exhibition’s curators (Robb Hernández, Tyler Stallings, and Joanna Szupinska-Myers) are not offering mere escapism. Their goal is precisely the opposite: to bring together art that macerates US-imperialist, capitalist constraints on viewers’ imaginations until their minds achieve the elasticity that will be required to “decolonize the future.” Their ambition, in other words, is a revolution in consciousness.
It’s a high-stakes, lives-on-the-line proposition; as Chicano sci-fi author Ernest Hogan has noted, under the current global order, not everyone has a future left to imagine. But despite this dire context, and the weighty demands being made of the artworks, the show is often funny: many of the artists share a tendency toward winking satire, absurdity, cuteness, and camp. Early science fiction works in Europe and North America, steeped in colonial fantasies of conquering alterity, might be read as examples of what philosopher Bolívar Echeverría called la blanquitud, or “whiteyness”: a mode determined not only by ethnic features, but by a self-repressive Protestant ethic and “surplusvalue-productivitistic” mentality that serves capitalist expansion. In this exhibition, artists counter that grasping “whiteyness” with decidedly impractical folly.
In the first gallery, ADÁL’s Coconauts in Space (1994–2016), a grid of twenty black-and-white photographic prints on metal, presents “evidence” that Puerto Rican “coconauts” were really the first to land on the moon. The series is based on actual NASA photos of the 1969 Apollo landing, digitally doctored to include a Puerto Rican flag and other artifacts from the territory. A lunatic, manically unpunctuated text on the last panel introduces the mysterious Dr. Agápetus Ocula, who was discovered by NASA on the lunar surface six years after the coconaut expedition. The former resident of an unnamed Caribbean island (a stand-in for Puerto Rico, presumably) that disappeared after it was colonized, Ocula and his compatriots had found refuge in the “out-of-focus” dimension of Villa Borrosa (“blurry town”); sadly, due to convoluted circumstances, he ended up being committed to an institution on the moon dedicated to treating “the optically aroused.” Nearby is an interstellar work of a different sort: the genderqueer performer Robert “Cyclona” Legorreta’s Headdress(1989/2017), a proudly elaborate assemblage of humble materials. Glitter-smeared Styrofoam spikes with lightbulb spear tips fan out around a bedazzled miniature altar, in which dangles a golden “third eye” for nonbinary perception; Legorreta wore the fabulous piece in a performance of “cosmic orbiting movements.”
On the other side of the exhibition space is the jubilant Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program. The interior of this vividly chromatic, house-like structure is adorned with small paintings declaring revolution against the “monsters of capitalism,” prodigious crocheted flowers, a modest reading room, and finally, at its heart, a giant corncob-shaped spaceship steered by wooden snails disguised with the iconic black ski masks (pasamontañas) worn by Zapatistas. The ship transports a little living garden crowned with a rainbow archway; woven straw baskets, representing corn kernels, embroidered with bright portraits of anonymous people wearing the pasamontañas; and a stowaway bandit leopard. This striking iconography, springing from Zapatista politics and Mayan cosmic symbology, was devised by members of indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico, through a decade-long collaboration with Portuguese artist Rigo 23. On the installation’s long exterior wall, a mural testifies, “Queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos” (we want a world within which many worlds fit)—a joyful alternative to the hegemonic Judeo-Christian monoverse and its destructive hierarchies.
Other artists counter la blanquitud with a humor inflected by more ominous undertones. For his ten-minute video Alien Toy (La ranfla cósmica) (1997), the Los Angeles–based Rubén Ortiz Torres acquired a white Nissan pickup truck like those used by US Border Patrol agents, complete with that agency’s logo on its doors, deformed to read “Alien Toy.” He hired Salvador “Chava” Munoz, an award-winning builder of the famed lowrider cars made popular by SoCal Chicano communities, to rig the truck with a hydraulics system that would animate the vehicle with such frenzy that it would bust apart in thrilling agitation. The video splices together cheesy found-footage clips of UFO sightings and monster movies with sequences shot in an arid patch of desert. Here, the patrol vehicle whirls and spins and bops in an arrogantly bravura dance until it’s reduced to a hysterical robot, robbed of any purpose except to violently undo itself.
Then there are the more mystical interventions, such as José Luis Vargas’s looping video projection El retorno de Albizu (2015), crafted as part of his larger, collaborative Museo de Historia Sobrenatural project, which revisits Puerto Rico’s colonial past and present through the lens of indigenous spiritual traditions. In the quiet video, three men sit in a circle, immobile, as the air begins to shimmer whitely around them, until a cloud of ectoplasm spills forth: the spirit of early twentieth-century revolutionary Pedro Albizu Campos, who spent nearly three decades in prison for attempting to overthrow US rule of the island. And in the same gallery are Kosice’s diagrams for his decades-long Hydrospatial City project, accompanied by a 2003 animation of his translucent dwellings wafting some 3,500 to 5,000 feet above the earth. Kosice’s proposal for urban renewal required all the nations of the world to divert their military budgets to this new, hydrogen-powered, airborne community, where people would abide in see-through rooms dedicated to such pursuits as recording “in writing—with ink from clouds—the enjoyable radication of all desires,” tobogganing backward down avenues of water, and abstaining “from having a past.”
The current academic and curatorial vogue for subaltern technofuturist imaginaries (Afrofuturism and its conceptual comrades) can sometimes seem driven by an exploitative craving for the spectacle of “exotic” difference. But such “whitey” designs don’t appear in Mundos Alternos, an exhibition based on ambitions that are as exhilarating as they are insane—or perhaps it’s the insanity that is exhilarating, the impossible idea that art could be strange enough to transform our brains, so that we might enter a portal to a brighter elsewhere and leave our ruined past behind.
Ania Szremski is the managing editor at 4Columns.
Mundos Alternos co-curator Dr. Robb Hernández speaks about the Alien Skins section of the exhibition.
UCR ARTS presents Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas. A wide-ranging survey exhibition, it brings together contemporary artists from across the Americas who have tapped into science fiction’s capacity to imagine new realities, both utopian and dystopian. Science fiction offers a unique artistic landscape in which to explore the colonial enterprise that shaped the Americas and to present alternative perspectives speculating on the past and the future. In the works featured in the exhibition, most created in the last two decades, artists employ the imagery of science fiction to suggest diverse modes of existence and represent “alienating” ways of being in the world. Drawing on UCR’s strong faculty and collections in science fiction, the exhibition offers a groundbreaking account of the intersections among science fiction, techno-culture, and the visual arts.
Mundos Alternos brings together the work of international artists from across Latin America with Latino artists from throughout the United States.
Mundos Alternos is curated by Robb Hernández, Assistant Professor of English at UCR; Tyler Stallings, Artistic Director of the Culver Center of the Arts; and Joanna Szupinska-Myers, Senior Curator of Exhibitions at the California Museum of Photography. Kathryn Poindexter, CMP Assistant Curator.
Mundos Alternos is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles to Palm Springs. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty. The presenting sponsor is Bank of America.
Major support for this exhibition is provided through grants from the Getty Foundation.
Thumbnail image: Hector Hernandez, Bulca. Courtesy of the artist.
Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas brings together the work of 30 international artists from across Latin America and the Caribbean, including Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, El Salvador, Brazil, Chile and Puerto Rico, with Latino/a artists from throughout the United States who have tapped into science fiction’s capacity to address cross-cultural dynamics and imagine new realities.
Offering both utopian and dystopian visions, the over 50 projects on view speculate on the past and future. They address contemporary issues of nationhood, citizenship, and borders, and question the capacity of advanced technology to create radical change in the social order. New technologies, communities, creatures, and world orders come together in the fictive future worlds of science fiction, in which they could exist.
Previously presented at UCR ARTS at the University of California, Riverside, the exhibition’s travel to the Queens Museum continues a transnational conversation about speculative aesthetics at a time when immigrant futures are facing uncertainty. As a former site of two New York World’s Fairs that brought technologically-driven, futuristic ideas to a world stage, the Museum is the most relevant venue to host a show of this kind. Located in the borough of Queens, a region transformed by waves of Caribbean, South American, and Mexican migration, Mundos Alternos and its public programs address contemporary issues of nationhood, citizenship, and borders, and invite East Coast audiences to imagine an alternate world where many worlds may cohabitate.
The first exhibition of its kind, Mundos Alternos presents a distinctly Latin American science fiction, extending the growing study of the genre from literature and film to the visual arts. Organized in thematic constellations, the works illuminate a transnational and transcultural “Latinidad.” New and old technologies, communities, creatures, and world orders come together in this fictive space, engaging with an understanding of shared hemispheric exchanges and experiences in language, culture, and visual expression. Taken together, they investigate science fiction’s power to create alternative possibilities that counter the colonial enterprise which has shaped our world.
In addition to leading us to explore ideas about the future, science fiction can help us create alternate narratives for the past. The artists presented here recognize that history often favors those in power and omits the perspectives of marginalized groups or individuals. Through their work they create opportunities for us to reimagine places and events that have been cemented into our experience. While they lead us to ask, “What if things had unfolded differently?” they also make us question the reliability of historical records altogether. How do we evaluate historical facts if they were recorded in biased or potentially incomplete ways?
Adál (1949) exhibits Coconauts in Space (1994-2016), prints on metal that present a reimagined account of the first moon landing, in which Puerto Rican astronauts, the “Coconauts,” landed on the moon in 1963. The artist uses this claim of ownership as a metaphor for the U.S.’s colonial expansion into Puerto Rico, where he is from. Site-specific wall drawings by Glexis Novoa (Cuba, 1964) are dispersed throughout the Museum and consider the relationships between architecture and political power. This fantastical and futuristic cityscape is inspired by the architecture of the Queens Museum itself, and other pavilions populated as a part of the 1939-40 and 1964-65 World’s Fairs, and the Museum’s own Panorama of the City of New York, a 9,000 square foot model of the City dating from 1964.
Throughout history, Indigenous knowledge has often been cast as archaic and unsophisticated from the point of view of Western colonizers. These works explore the relationship between Indigenous communities and technology, highlighting links between ancient ideas, tools, and beliefs, and present-day realities. In doing so, the artists focus on a revaluation of ancient wisdom and sovereignty, and demonstrate that inherited knowledge is integral to the gradual evolutions in language, social relations, spirituality, and creativity that have created the world we live in.
Highlights in this section include Rigo 23’s Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program (2009-ongoing), created in collaboration with indigenous Zapatista artists and artisans from Chiapas, Mexico. In workshops, Rigo 23 (Portugal, 1966) asked Zapatistas to imagine a future with complete autonomy from the Mexican government and global forces. This artwork emerged from these sessions as a technoculture, futuristic environment filled with Zapatista and Mayan cosmic references. Elsewhere, Guillermo Bert (Chile, 1959) presents his Encoded Textiles (2011-2012), each one paired with a documentary video on a member of the Mapuche tribe, the largest indigenous population in Chile, and the only group not conquered by Spanish colonists in the sixteenth century.
Time travel narratives are about changing history, purposefully or accidentally. If we alter the past, how will it change the present? And if we alter the future, how will history be affected? In the installations on view here, we see that manipulations of progressive time, memory, or translation can alter what we know about imperialism, industry, and knowledge itself—a reminder of how the past and future are part of a cosmic continuum always alive in our present time.
Here, Clarissa Tossin (Brazil, 1973) exhibits a new sculptural work, Future Fossil (2018), which explores the post-apocalyptic conditions of the Earth’s ecological collapse. A ruin of a world yet to come, she molded her own plastic waste to speak to the enduring footprint left by humans on Earth, contrasting them with materials related to Amazonian indigenous aesthetic traditions which harmonize with the environment.
In The Cosmos (Spaceship) , Beatriz Cortez (El Salvador, 1970) takes inspiration from the World’s Fairs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in which futuristic visions of Modernity and Western imperial exploits were often manifest in the aesthetics of pavilion architecture. Cortez complicates the dominant narratives presented at these events, turning her “pavilion” into a decolonial time-capsule with a 1911 audio recording of Ishi, an indigenous Yahi man who survived the California genocide.
Cornerstones presents foundational works of Latinx science fiction in film and literature. Highlights include The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy at the University of California, Riverside, one of the biggest and most comprehensive collections of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and utopian literature, ephemera, and film. This selection of ten books contains some of the Eaton’s most popular works produced by Latin American authors.
REIMAGINING THE AMERICAS
Artists in this section employ wide-ranging references from space travel, technoculture, spiritual traditions, and mythology in order to tap into science fiction’s ability to counter limits. Through the lens of the supernatural they present works that illuminate and re-envision terrestrial realities that have resulted from colonial history, immigration control, and the spread of American consumerist culture—all of which have shaped social and political relationships between the U.S., its territories, and Central and South America.
Featured in the center of the Museum is Organic Arches (Time Traveler) [2014-2017] by Chico MacMutrie and Amorphic Robot Works (ARW) (USA, 1961). Interested in robotics, the bodily form, and movement, Chico MacMurtrie and his Brooklyn-based collective ARW constructed this large, soft, kinetic sculpture from high-tensile, Tedlar fabric tubes, and pressurized air. Giving the appearance of life, when it is turned on its arm-like tendrils continuously fill up and reach out. As they deflate and curl up, the collapsed arches retreat into the abstract sign language of a computer-controlled organism. Defying expectations of a fixed object or form, the work becomes a vessel for considering travel—across time, borders, and physical states.
The works displayed in this section include costumes from performances and everyday life that reorient Latino/a existence across global and planetary confines. From cosmic characters who transcend time and space in their own barrios and over national borders, to explorations of identity through politically motivated, cross-species, and gender-nonconforming personas, artists reveal the ways in which we can unfasten identity from its earthly boundaries and stratifying social constructions.
The exhibition at the Queens Museum features an introduction to the section Alien Skins, which can be viewed completely at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Lesbian and Gay Art in Manhattan (April 25–May 26, 2019). Included are queer feminist artist Carmelita Tropicana’s costumes that she donned for film-performance-lectures that she made with her sister, filmmaker Ela Troyano; photographs by Ricardo Valverde (USA, 1946-1998); and Hector Hernandez (USA, 1974) Bulca (2015), and Sound of Winter (2014), photographs that feature otherworldly figures that he calls “hyperbeasts,” colorful blobs of swirling fabric with legs.
Also on view at The New York Hall of Science (April 7 – August 18, 2019) is artist Rubén Ortiz Torres’ (Mexico, 1964) Alien Toy (La Ranfla Cósmica) . The video features a kinetic sculpture inspired by the customized aesthetics of Chicano Lowriders. Alien Toyis a lo-fi pastiche of popular science fiction imagery, like Star Wars and UFO sightings, as they come together with a white Nissan pickup truck, a model commonly used by U.S. Border Patrol.
The public programs will center on contributions from artists, writers, poets, scholars, and musicians that engage “futurisms” from a wide range of perspectives. Topics cover geopolitical, social, environmental, and personal themes, and will include screenings of works by Alex Rivera (USA, 1973) and Coco Fusco (USA/Cuba, 1960); performances by Guillermo Gómez-Peña (Chile, 1959),Guadalupe Maravilla (El Salvador, 1976), and Carmelita Tropicana (Cuba, 1951); readings with writers such as N.K. Jemisin; as well as talks and panels with scholars including Catherine Sue Ramírez.
Mundos Alternos is curated by Robb Hernández, Assistant Professor of English at UCR; Tyler Stallings, Director of the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion at Orange Coast College, and former Artistic Director of the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts at UCR ARTS; and Joanna Szupinska-Myers, Senior Curator at the California Museum of Photography at UCR ARTS. The traveling iteration is organized by Hitomi Iwasaki, Director of Exhibitions and Curator at the Queens Museum, and Joanna Szupinska-Myers.
MUNDOS ALTERNOS: ART AND SCIENCE FICTION IN THE AMERICAS
Artists: ADÁL, AZTLÁN Dance Company, Guillermo Bert, Erica Bohm, Tania Candiani, Beatriz Cortez, Claudio Dicochea, Faivovich & Goldberg, Sofía Gallisá Muriente, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Hector Hernandez, Gyula Kosice, La Gravedad de los Asuntos (Nahum and Ale de la Puente with Tania Candiani and Juan José Díaz Infante), L.A. VATOCOSMICO c-s, Robert “Cyclona” Legorreta, Chico MacMurtrie / Amorphic Robot Works, Guadalupe Maravilla, Marion Martinez, MASA—MeChicano Alliance of Space Artists (Luis Valderas and Paul Karam with selected participants Sergio Hernández, Debora Kuetzpal Vasquez, Miguel Luciano, Laura Molina, Tony Ortega, and Raúl Servín), Jillian Mayer, Mundo Meza, Glexis Novoa, Rubén Ortiz Torres, Rigo 23, Alex Rivera, Clarissa Tossin, Carmelita Tropicana, Luis Valderas, Ricardo Valverde, José Luis Vargas.
Queens Museum, New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, New York
Satellite venues in NYC: The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, Museum of the Moving Image, Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, and the New York Hall of Science
April 7 – August 18, 2019
Featured image: Laura Molina, Amor Alien, 2004, oil paint, fluorescent enamel, metallic powder, 35 x 47 in. Courtesy of the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago.