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Despite Censorship Row, a Show Connecting Immigrant Rights and Police Brutality Goes On

The censorship of a work now slated to be reinstated threatened to undo a powerful exhibition of social justice art by artists from the southwestern US.

Scott Daniel Williams’s “Storefront Sign for the Ungovernable City” (2016) reinstalled at the Loisaida Center (photo courtesy Atomic Culture)
Scott Daniel Williams’s “Storefront Sign for the Ungovernable City” (2016) reinstalled at the Loisaida Center (photo courtesy Atomic Culture)

If you visit the Loisaida Center in the next month, the first thing you’ll notice is the sound of running water and voices — some in English, some in Spanish — telling stories about the Rio Grande river. Then you’ll see the rest of El Paso-based artist Zeke Peña‘s collaboration with local musician Eureka The Butcher, “River ≠ Border,” a large graphite drawing on cloth that maps the stretch of the Mexico–US border where a military wall runs along the banks of the Rio Grande in the El Paso del Norte region. The combined effect of the Peña’s drawing and Eureka’s recordings is powerfully evocative, transporting the visitor to the river’s edge.

The next sound you might’ve heard would have come from Albuquerque-based artist Scott Daniel Williams‘s interactive sculpture, “Storefront Sign for the Ungovernable City” which, behind a sign that reads “Police Not Welcome,” can be toggled by pulling a chain to simultaneously play a recording of Ornette Coleman’s “The Artist in America” and audio of the killing of James Boyd by Albuquerque Police Department officers in 2014. That work was originally installed near Loisaida’s main entrance by the curators of Future Now // Futura Ahora, Atomic Culture (the duo of Matthew and Malinda Galindo, currently in residence at the center), but was removed on February 3, the day before the exhibition’s opening. The decision, taken unilaterally by one of Loisaida’s directors, was spurred by a fear that the center’s CEO, Raul Russi — a former Buffalo police officer who was injured in the line of duty — would object to the work. This act of censorship repeatedly threatened to undo Atomic Culture’s vital exhibition.

Zeke Peña, "River ≠ Border," graphite on cloth, with oral histories and score by Eureka The Butcher (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Zeke Peña, “River ≠ Border,” graphite on cloth, with oral histories and score by Eureka The Butcher (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless indicated otherwise)

“It’s a very difficult situation for us as artists because this is a community center, and it’s a Latin American community center specifically, that’s done a lot of really, really incredible work and we want to stand as allies with the center,” Williams told Hyperallergic. “It was a difficult decision to even take any sort of stand, but at the same time I think we [the artists in the show] feel like that’s where we have to start. If we’re going to talk about expression and social justice we have to start at home, in these places where we should all be most accountable.”

Russi — who only became aware of the situation after Williams had issued a public statement and protested the exhibition opening, and negotiations between the artist, curators, and Loisaida directors had reached an impasse — finally saw “Storefront Sign for the Ungovernable City” and the rest of Future Now // Futura Ahora during a visit to the center on Saturday. Today, he released a public statement about and apology for the work’s removal, paving the way for the reinstallation of Williams’s work in a different space at Loisaida tomorrow.

Detail view of Nani Chacon and Tanaya Winder, "On Both Sides of the Border ... Women art Still Being Murdered" (2017), acrylic, string, earrings
Detail view of Nani Chacon and Tanaya Winder, “On Both Sides of the Border … Women art Still Being Murdered” (2017), acrylic, string, earrings

“Unfortunately, our team jumped to the wrong conclusion that I would object to the exhibition of one of the pieces without consulting with me in advance,” Russi’s statement reads. “I had the opportunity over the weekend to have a dialogue with the Atomic Culture organizers, to clarify all of this and to offer my apologies on behalf of Loisaida, Inc. As CEO, I let Atomic Culture know that the piece can be part of their ongoing exhibit.”

Indeed, Williams’s work seems especially relevant for an exhibition about social justice for immigrant, indigenous, and other historically oppressed groups at a community center that represents a historically over-policed community — and is located directly next to a major NYPD station. Add to this the fact that all the featured artists in Future Now // Futura Ahora are based in the southwestern United States, an area poised to become an intensified zone of activity for the US’s militarized border patrols under President Trump, and the show takes on an added sense of urgency.

Ricardo Dominguez and Brett Stalbaum, "Transborder Immigrant Tool: A Mexico/US Border Disturbance Art Project" (2009–12)
Ricardo Dominguez and Brett Stalbaum, “Transborder Immigrant Tool: A Mexico/US Border Disturbance Art Project” (2009–12)

In addition to Williams’s piece, several other works in the exhibition condemn the excessive use of force and systemic abuses of agents paid to uphold the law. For instance, the mural “On Both Sides of the Border … Women Are Still Being Murdered” (2016) — a collaboration between Albuquerque-based artist Nani Chacon and author Tanaya Winder — highlights the vulnerability of women in both Mexico and the US. And Peña’s aforementioned map of the Rio Grande and border wall includes a drawing of a threatening US Border Control vehicle alongside the words: “You have the right to remain silent.” In one of the exhibition’s main rooms, a row of small, vintage-looking cell phones emits poetry and displays compass faces that seem to point the viewer north. The work, “Transborder Immigrant Tool,” is a safety system developed by San Diego-based artists Ricardo Dominguez and Brett Stalbaum to help disoriented travelers in any desert setting to find their way. The program offers tips for desert survival in the form of poetry recited in several different languages, and logs the coordinates of known water caches, offering a vital tool for people crossing, for instance, the Mexico–US border in southern California, where the artists developed and tested it between 2009 and 2012.

Tijuana Rick, "1-800-JOAQUIN" consists of a modified correctional facility phone that plays a recording of artist Daniel Villalva reciting Rodolfo Gonzales's poem "I Am Joaquin"
Tijuana Rick, “1-800-JOAQUIN” consists of a modified correctional facility phone that plays a recording of artist Daniel Villalva reciting Rodolfo Gonzales’s poem “I Am Joaquin”

Atomic Culture has brought together a powerful group of artists from the southwestern US, many of whom are making work at the confluence of art and activism, and most of whom are too rarely exhibited in New York. Fortunately, Loisaida has rectified the earlier censorship of one work and, in doing so, avoided jeopardizing the telling of all the other featured artists’ important stories. Indeed, the reinstallation of Williams’s piece will provide a crucial link between the issues of migrant safety and anti-immigrant infrastructure along the Mexico–US border that many of these artists are addressing. Police brutality often targets the most vulnerable residents in the country, and some US cities situated near the Mexican border are particularly prone to this type of institutionalized violence. The fact that many of the artists here are from Albuquerque is particularly poignant, since the city’s police department is under investigation for use of force by the Department of JusticeFuture Now // Futura Ahora is a testament to the works artists make not only to cope with such conditions, but to combat them.

Installation view with Cristobal Martinez's interactive sound sculpture "Con Frascos Embrujados Me Ensangrene Las Manos. Escucha Cuando Me Chingé Solo con Tierra y Viento." in the foreground and Delilah Montoya's photo "Sed: Water Trail Tohono O'odham Nation, AZ" (2004) in the background
Installation view with Cristobal Martinez’s interactive sound sculpture “Con Frascos Embrujados Me Ensangrene Las Manos. Escucha Cuando Me Chingé Solo con Tierra y Viento.” in the foreground and Delilah Montoya’s photo “Sed: Water Trail Tohono O’odham Nation, AZ” (2004) in the background
Gilbert "Magu" Lujan, "AZTLÁN" (1977)
Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, “AZTLÁN” (1977)

Future Now // Futura Ahora continues at the Loisaida Center (710 East 9th Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 18. Atomic Culture is curating a full program of panels and workshops to accompany the exhibition.

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