Rafa Esparza / Elizabeth Sonenberg Interview

(Note this interview was intended for publication on August 19th but was delayed due to unforeseen technical difficulties on Notes’ end. Nevertheless, we liked what was happening here and wanted to see it through.)

Artist and curator Elizabeth Sonenberg talks with Rafa Esparza in the weeks leading up to his new work with Elysian Valley based Clockshop entitled building: a simulacrum of power on the site of Michael Parker’s The Unfinished. For nearly a month Esparza has been holding a collaborative, labor intensive residency with his parents and 5 siblings making hundreds of handmade adobe bricks on site, at the post-industrial Bowtie Project, just feet from the LA River. Once completed the bricks will be laid atop The Unfinished, where Esparza and artist Rebeca Hernandez will stage movement-based performances engaging the bricked surface, the LA River and the sun. This conversation has been held throughout the last few weeks over site visits, bike rides and email.  

Photo by Jeny Amaya.

Photo by Jeny Amaya.

Elizabeth Sonenberg: I’ve been thinking about what form writing about your work should take and I thought it would be nice to have an ongoing back and forth. Here are some questions and digging followed by more questions and more digging. dirt dirt dirt GOLD is dirt.

Rafa Esparza: Haha, yes. Gold is shiny dirt.

ES: We’ve spoken about ritual and approaching objects with intentionality. In your work, you are in dialogue with certain rituals, and also produce your own. What sanctifies an object for you? What is this idea of the sacred for you, and what type of attention or focus does it require? I’ve talked to you about alchemical shifts as dependent on a shift in intentionality.  To work with intentionality and repetition with any material can result in it’s ritualization. Do you see it in this way?

RE: You know I don’t know if using sanctity is the best term to describe objects or materials that I work with. I’ve certainly thought about it when I’m participating in rituals that I place outside of art. For instance, when I’m doing Danza Azteca. The ritual has been a sacred practice for me for quite a while. I think part of it has to do with it’s historical precedence, it’s longevity, the way it’s been sought out by people that feel viscerally and ancestrally connected to it. It’s a communal dance that has survived colonization, travel, and time… I’ve thought about doing some work on tracing the diaspora of Danza from Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) to the states here in the U.S. The journey the dance and the ritual has taken in the hundreds of years it’s been around and the journey the individuals who practice it take while practicing it is really interesting to me. There’s this persisting and growing interest by Xicanas/os who are taking up Danza as a way to connect to their roots. I think that journey is what has sanctified danza for me and possibly for others as well. But i’m learning to allow it to exist in my life differently now. I’m learning to relate to it differently as I begin to imagine different origins that relate to my sense of identity. Danza is not always the appropriate conduit for these origins.

I can relate to the “journey” however, that I attempt to embark on through my work to my relationship with objects and materials I work with. They function sometimes as anchors. When I’m making work I often times attempt to access a time and place that I feel is inaccessible to me. So in that regard, I’m projecting onto and relying on the power of making an object or working with a kind of material to help me experience this inaccessible time and place. Intentionality is important up to the point that I decide and am certain about this place that I want to be in. But along the way the process can lead me elsewhere, anywhere. So it’s a combination of yes, believing in this thing (objects) but also being open to the unplanned, the unexpected. Ideas of sanctity in objects can be generative for me and have been in the past but when I’m working in public sites I can’t help but consider the relative value of objects and materials in different sites. So my focus in working with material and objects shifts from giving it (them) value to giving it (them) use.

Photo by Dylan Schwartz.

Photo by Dylan Schwartz.

ES: I appreciate that. I see a parallel between your hesitancy to use the word “sanctify” when it comes to your personal constellation of ritualized objects, and your turn towards utility when it comes to performance work in public space. There is a great respect for context in both of these attitudes. I wonder, with this shifting focus of the object towards functionality, how you come to movement or dance differently. I understand you are working with dancer Rebecca Hernandez for this piece. What movement modalities are you working with to construct the performance? How does this notion of utility or functionality make its way into your choreography or score (if you are working with one).

RE: I’d read about a movement based performance Rebecca collaborated on earlier this year with Carolina Caycedo titled Beyond Control that spoke to water rights/control/movement, disrupted action, and police force. I wanted to learn more about her experience and process of that work. After speaking with her during a site visit at the Bowtie, it just felt natural to invite her to come and share the space where she might continue the conversation of Los Angeles River history that was already present in some of her previous work. Rebecca describes her movement: “My movement is informed by the environment i’m working in. I am using the two planes that the obelisk makes to reference levels of power and how power is relative to the person whom has it. I’m using pedestrian movement as a way to convey “power” that becomes the norm of the oppressor…” It’s been exciting to see her work evolve and transform into what it’s becoming. She’s working directly with the space outside of the obelisk, entrenched beside it and actually on it. I’ve noticed how organically she is symbiotically at (power) play with The Unfinished.  My work has some of that as well, but I also have my relationship to the bricks to contend for….and with, being that they will be the surface my feet and body will be in contact with once i’m on the obelisk. In some ways my movement is being prompted by my urge to unearth something….something unknown but familiar. The bricks are just that, earth brought up to the surface. It has to deal with memory – the bricks are a kind of anchor for the imagined space I hope to arrive at.

Photo by Jeny Amaya.

Photo by Jeny Amaya.

ES: I’m curious about a shift I see happening in your recent work Blood, struggle, viscera…there was a lot of anguish present in your early work. And these images and tropes are very tied to specific rituals marked  by intensity, marked by their bodily nature, by pain. Something different is happening in these newer works. Something more subtle, but also something that is about building something together, with your family. Going back to old wounds or points of contention and working through them in a different way. In an older interview with Brian Getnick, you touch on this. Has the nature of your relationship with your father changed since that time? Has working on things with him by working on this material caused a shift, even if its small, or just inside you?

RE: I think in my earlier performance based work that anguish was and maybe sometimes still is prevalent because of how fresh the medium was/is to me. I think those feelings and ideas of shedding, self-realization, struggle, and becoming had been present in other forms that I’d been working with much longer than performance, but when i started to perform works related to those ideas, I felt it necessary, as a gay, first generation Mexican born American, from a working class background to make the work that I was making – there’s a lot to hash out, a lot to question, and a lot to talk about, that I wasn’t seeing in the world of making around me. I’m at a different place now, artistically but also personally. I still feel strongly about supporting artistic voices living in the margins but also non-artists as well. I’ve been thinking a lot about my parent’s travel into the states and I have a few works that are directly engaging their experience in the form of homage. This work of brick building with my dad has evolved as has our own relationship since we last made bricks. The last time we made them we were hardly even speaking to each other. I ended up demolishing the last batch of bricks by pounding my body into them. Things are much different now. My father and I have a great relationship, which I’m grateful for.

Just a couple of days ago my younger brother came to give us a hand and I was able to witness my dad exercise his teaching muscles. it’s easy for my dad to tell me to go build something, I’d be “ok, yeah I can do that” because building is something we have in common, are both passionate about and understand doing. however, with my little brother in this instance, my dad had to TEACH him how to do something my younger brother has never done before and I realized it’s something that my father hasn’t had to do in quite a while because his youngest son is “all grown up”. It’s a completely different way of relating to my younger brother. I have to say that his teaching method involves a lot more patience now than when I was growing up, haha.

ES: He’s trying a new approach… Last time his son ended up throwing himself into a pile of bricks ;)


Photo by Alexis Chanes.

Photo by Alexis Chanes.

ES: Do objects in your performances have a life force or will of their own? Do you see them as partners in a dance?

RE: I do think some objects have a life force of their own. It’s in part why I chose to work with them, they compel me to do something, they transport me to somewhere else, or sometimes literally help reveal the work itself. I like to think of objects as material when i’m creating something. They help shape and create space the way material is a composite of a greater whole. They’re an ingredient that help produce an experience.

ES: Do the objects dictate your movements in a way perceivable to you? How are you thinking about the physical construction of these bricks in relationship to the performance at the end of the month. Are you working with the gestures the bricks give you? Do you use improvisation? Do you derive movement forms from these objects?

RE: For now the objects: both the bricks and the obelisk are a surface. That alone is propelling something internally in terms of how I’m perceiving power. So in some ways yes, they inevitably are. Having built these hundreds of building blocks, mostly with my father, is inspiring a kind of care I’ve gradually attained for them, as symbols for the work my father and I have so arduously labored over for the last few weeks but also as symbols of potential. I often use improvisation within a set of actions I intend to perform. For this work I’d like to stay off of the layered surface until the day of, so I expect that during my initial contact with them, in that space, will inspire something new. What that is i don’t really know yet.

Photo by Alexis Chanes.

Photo by Alexis Chanes.

ES: I wonder how you feel about this piece in the context of the obelisk form, a form that represents a certain type of power – that of the ruling class. Unlike traditional obelisk forms, this one has not been erected. It has refused verticality, and stays laying down. Now you and your family members are laboring to cover this form again. How do you conceive of your relationship to this form, to this other artist, Michael Parker, and to these ideas of power and labor?

RE: What strikes me most about the obelisk is how it’s gesturing towards it’s location – a historically contested site, originally an unruly river whose first human inhabitants the Tongva respected and created a culture around it. I think of the river itself as a natural life force, a once powerful source of sustenance, dwarfed by an overwhelming water supply taken from Owen’s Valley to fulfill the demand of the growing city. The Los Angeles river became a nuisance to the city and it’s developers – something to be tamed during colonization and the industrialization of the area that is now Los Angeles County. So to see this symbol of power presented by way of an obelisk carved into the ground next to the L.A. River, topped by only a slab a few inches thick of solid mortar and gravel covering a thick mound of fill dirt and sand, that cannot be erected, makes me think about power but also potential. I want to engage adobe making, as a way of working directly with the earth, to make a symbol of potential – a brick…well actually hundreds of bricks; enough to cover the entire immovable obelisk.

I see this work as way to start a conversation about the potential of the river and that particular location, The Bowtie Project especially with the growing interest in the area and talks about revitalizing the river, changing it, which can be a great thing, but also as we’ve seen in the past, damaging.

ES: Yes, with the LA River Revitalization Master Plan (LARRMP) we are going to be seeing lots of changes along the LA River. including most likely the displacement of the communities that live there and use the river to bathe and catch fish, etc. One of the most compelling elements we have encountered on the space together are the other people who pass through the site and pass by while you work; those who destroy things (the bikers), who have been pushed out (the homeless), who survey and maintain the land, who are cruising, who are suspicious. Does this find its way in for you? Does it make its way into the object, or the way you think about the performance itself?

RE: I think the life that I’ve witnessed so far along the river deserves and should be part of the conversation about the potential I’m pointing to. Just 1 day after my father and I laid our first batch of bricks down they were destroyed; run over repeatedly by a dirt bike. It’s hard to determine why it was done – whatever the case, someone saw these blocks of mud on the ground and saw potential and had a go at it and rode over them with their bike. It made me reconsider the space and who uses it, and to try to engage with the people that regularly visit the site. This reminded me of the kind of turns the potential of this river can take. It can generate actions in every way, in any direction – yes, without a doubt, it has definitely made it’s way into my work…literally, haha. The river does have it’s regular visitors and inhabitants as well – it’s a home to some. I thinks it’s important that everyone and everything along the river be considered while the revitalizing efforts come to be realized. The way it has most affected me during this process is thinking of the “home” in a larger sense, and how unfixed of a destination it is – funny, as this is why I asked my father to teach me how to make adobe bricks in the first place.

ES: Thanks Rafa.

RE: You’re welcome Elizabeth.

Rafa Esparza’s “building: a simulacrum of power” took place Sunday, August 24th, 2014 at 6:45pm sharp at The Bowtie Project at approx. 2800 Casitas Ave. LA, CA 90039.

Rafa Esparza will continue his work with the adobe bricks to produce a new large-scale sculpture and revolving installation in collaboration with Self-Help Graphics for the Bowtie Project coming early 2015.

The Bowtie Project is an ongoing collaboration between Clockshop and California State Parks to place site-specific artworks and events on an undeveloped, post-industrial lot in the Rio de Los Angeles State Park along the banks of the Los Angeles River.



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