Interviews

Dismantling Colonial Fantasies About Puerto Rico

In Shey Rivera Ríos’s new installation, the island “miracle” that’s marketed to mainland American consumers is simulated and détourned.

Still from one of Shey Rivera Ríos, “Puerto Rico $$$ El Carnero 111,” GIF for Fantasy Island (all images courtesy the artist)

An orchestra soars over the soft-focus aerial view of waves rolling along the shore of a tropical island. At the first sight of a small aircraft streaming beyond the palm fronds, Hervé Villechaize, playing Tattoo, Fantasy Island’s indigenous sidekick, rings a bell in a white tower. “The plane! The plane!” he calls to Ricardo Montalbán. Wearing a white suit and black tie, Montalbán holds court as Mr. Roarke, the island’s overseer, who taps his wristwatch in the doorway of an ornate white lodge and says to Tattoo, “Our guests are arriving on time, to the second.” Tattoo responds, “They always do, and you always act like it’s a miracle.” “My dear Tattoo,” says Roarke, “when each guest is paying $50,000 for a three-day stay on Fantasy Island, he or she deserves miracles.” Tattoo nods and says, “Aye, boss.” And so the television show’s opening theme repeated each Friday night from 1977 to 1984.

Fantasy Island went off the air a few years before I discovered the advertising portfolio in the back pages of the New York Times Magazine, where real estate promised a separate peace: grids of sky blue windows; expanses of white carpet studded with glass tables, no tumblers or mugs to spill; stone patios marked with mirrored pools, all for sale. The dwellings in the advertisements were impossibly expensive — they cost numbers higher than I’d ever counted — but, in my child’s mind, they seemed attainable. My favorite advertisement featured an aerial view of a luxury hotel’s nodal network of swimming environments: triangular and rhomboid pools connected by waterways and fed by waterfalls — a circuitous and continuously flowing system. Paradise uncorrupted. The nodal network — its flat landscape, its grid under a soft-focus lens, its sublime elimination of flaw and filigree — was a metaphor for both ownership and containment.

My mother, with whom I watched Fantasy Island every Friday night during the first few years of my childhood, sliced the ad’s page from the magazine and hung its tidiness, its evenly distributed sunlight, on our refrigerator door with a magnet. Its luxury was a life of lawful symmetry. Our own faded linoleum and pilled brown carpet, and later, certain poems and paintings, taught me that sunlight, while cast evenly, doesn’t touch everything in the same way. Only in advertisements, in gold paintings of saints, and on Minimalism’s flat canvases does illumination touch all surfaces equitably, with a contrived but glorious beneficence.

Shey Rivera Ríos in the Fantasy Island real estate office as AS220 (photo by Sussy Santana)

In Shey Rivera Ríos’s Fantasy Island, an immersive installation currently on view at AS220’s Project Space in Providence, Rhode Island, the island “miracle” that’s marketed to mainland American consumers is simulated and détourned using sculpture, video and GIF, sound, a series of talks, and a zine. (Rivera is also the artistic director of AS220.) From the gridded walls of her “office” to the glass desk where she “works,” Rivera re-creates a late ’80s luxury advertisement interior and uses it as a gathering place where she and her audience can discuss colonialism’s abuses with sincerity. On screens displayed throughout the installation, GIF collages juxtapose Puerto Rico’s pixilated landscape with flashing and scrolling financial and religious iconography.

Rivera challenges the calcification of colonial narratives by interrogating mainstream takes on the island’s culture. Her work brings to light how gentrification is not only an occupation of a physical place but also a takeover of the territory of the imagination, how it alters landscapes while working to reshape our hopes, desires, and visions of possible futures. Fantasy Island asks us to question the obsolete utopias sold to us in luxury real estate advertisements — in particular, the ones that call on Modernism’s tropes of order, harmony, and structural integrity to sell a miraculous experience, while denying the disorder they wreak in co-opted cultural, economic, and environmental landscapes.

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Jasmine Dreame Wagner: Tell us about the landscape and the debt crisis in Puerto Rico and how Fantasy Island explores themes of inflation, development, and displacement in San Juan and the surrounding mountains, beaches, and rainforest.

Shey Rivera Ríos: Puerto Rico has been on a slow decline toward a deep economic crisis for the past decade, caused by our colonial status and the way the island is used as a hub to grow and incentivize corporations without creating systems to support the island’s own economic advancement. The island’s debt is currently $120 billion. We’ve seen the largest migration in our history within the past five years: up to one million Boricuas have left the island and moved, primarily to south Florida and New England.

Fantasy Island is an attempt to create space for dialogue on this topic and on three big -isms: imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. As a physical and virtual space, Fantasy Island re-creates the interior of a 1990s luxury real estate office in Puerto Rico. The piece speaks to colonial perspectives on Puerto Rico as a tropical paradise, a vacationer’s dream, a vision of exotic luxury (the island’s name means “Rich Port” in Spanish), in the face of a profound economic crisis that affects the lives of millions of local residents. It speaks to how Caribbean islands are used to create fantasy experiences for American and European tourists, visitors who remain detached from the sociopolitical and historical realities of the island and the imprint of colonization.

Shey Rivera Ríos, “Prayers to Nana Buruku altar” (photo by Lesean Thomas)

This piece is about disconnection. The viewer enters a space defined by black-and-white grid lines, a simulation of some sort of digital space without a true location. The installation aims to create the feeling of being displaced. Where am I? In a large monitor, a blue sky with white clouds plays on a loop. Two monitors display animated GIFs featuring manipulated images of mansions and luxury condos, spackled with religious iconography and American dollar signs. Majestic palm trees, an office desk, a Greek bust fill a landscape reminiscent of vaporwave album covers and Tumblr blogs. The room features an altar crafted with both digital and analogue tools, an altar to Nana Buruku, grandmother of the Orishas in the Yoruba mythology and spirituality. The altar is a modified version of Fra Filipo Lippi’s “Madonna with Child and Scenes from the Life of St. Anne” (1452). This is a tribute to Caribbean syncretism: Saint Anne is correlated with Nana Buruku in Yoruba spiritual practice. West African slaves were able to continue their spiritual and religious practices by aligning their own deities with Catholic Saints. There’s so much to Puerto Rico that people in the mainland United States don’t know. 

JDW: Entering an installation requires a certain sincerity of presence. The GIF — a primitive image format designed in the early days of the internet — is detached and humorous. So many GIFs are jokes. Can a GIF be sincere? Could you talk about your use of humor?

Shey Rivera Ríos, “Promesa777”

SRR: I have a tendency to be too serious in most of my work. That’s changed quite a bit since I started creating work with Jason Curzake in our performance project ISLANDS. Certain topics require gravity and depth, but humor can make them accessible and relatable, if used effectively.

One of my favorite movies is Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. In one of the scenes, the character Paprika meets the detective in a restaurant in his dream. She tells him, “Don’t you think dreams and the internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious mind vents.” Memes and GIFs exemplify how the virtual collective mind self-reflects, self-punishes, and self-criticizes. Meme and GIF humor bring to light many screwed-up aspects of humanity and how we exist and interact in the physical realm. I believe that in their humor, memes and GIFs are genuine. They call out, but they also speak volumes of the person or collective who created them, even more so if they become viral — they are evidence of a general collective understanding, perspective, or feeling. 

JDW: In the current political climate, the need for organized resistance and for both political and emotional solidarity echoes through our communities, our artworks, our social media feeds, and our economy. Could you talk a bit about bridging the physical, the imaginary, the virtual, and the economic?

SRR: I feel like we are just learning the ropes on how to balance it all and make it work in a healthy, holistic way. We are in a new chapter of our evolution toward engaging with multiple mediums and creating as we consume in multiple dimensions. Nowadays, we, as individuals, are everywhere! Fragments of our selves exist throughout the web on multiple channels. We curate these fragments. But physical space and experiences will always be necessary, because we feel and experience things in the flesh. Even virtual reality technologies are an attempt to re-create the sensation of physical presence.

Installation view, Shey Rivera Ríos, Fantasy Island at AS220

Physical space and community are necessary for healing. We all desire to feel like we belong to something greater and are contributing toward a greater cause. That’s inherent to our nature as social creatures who make things. I truly think that democratizing access and facilitating freedom of expression can impact the world in positive ways. This not only applies in terms of voice, but it must inform how we create alternative systems of being, of monetizing our work, of trade and barter, and how we build community. We can’t just operate under a western European capitalist model that only watches for the interests of a few elite groups of a similar cultural and racial background. Plurality is the future, if we wish to create equitable systems.

Latinx communities, communities of color, inherently have art and culture embedded into our day-to-day way of being. Dance, food, art, design, apparel, craft, convening, all of it is part of cultural expression. Our cultures have rich histories, our own technologies, our own ways of passing down knowledge and creating community and exchange. Puerto Rico certainly does. The colonized perspective is something deep, and we need to wake from it. Artistic practice is part of daily life, the conceptual and physical space where we practice our individuality or collaborative spirit, our humanity. In art we can claim ownership of our own narrative, instead of letting others define that for us. Art is the place where we can dismantle oppression.

Art is voice, and where you create space for your voice, you find community. Where you find community, you invest emotionally and financially. This, in turn, becomes economic development and investment in physical spaces, as well as community assets, education, health care, and public services.

Performance by Huáscar Robles in Shey Rivera Ríos’s Fantasy Island (photo by LeSean Thomas)

JDW: I’m interested in your perspective on vaporwave as an emergent genre that uses both collage and erasure to reclaim privatized, corporatized, and anonymized space. I’m thinking of how vaporwave music artists sample soundtracks of generic Muzak or incorporate training videos from the ’80s and ’90s, clipping and stitching together sounds that are essentially “unauthored,” or authored by non-human entities. Artists like Macintosh Plus and Saint Pepsi have adopted corporate monikers in lieu of their given names, a form of self-erasure, signaling perhaps a reluctance to become visible figureheads and a shrugging off rock and roll’s cult of the star. Also, their punk disregard of trademark laws. Could you talk about the ways that Fantasy Island participates in vaporwave or challenges it?

SRR: Vaporwave and A.E.S.T.H.E.T.I.C. are part of an offbeat art and music movement that speaks to a vision of a future that is now obsolete. Its aesthetic is comprised of nostalgia, irony, dark humor, and hopelessness. Trashy corporate culture gone glitch. Growing up connected to internet pop culture and digital media, I loved it because it appropriates consumer culture in a way where the culture is taken over, remixed, and reconfigured by its users. Branding is always about exerting control. This movement takes control and redefines it. It’s culture jamming, not a new term. Many of us who grew up in the ’90s are familiar with it.

I’m fascinated with culture’s cyclic nature, how the aesthetics of past decades come back to subvert our present and challenge our future. I’m a gamer and an internet addict. I owned my first computer when I was 13, Windows 95. It was the beginning of a new life. The Windows 95 aesthetic influenced my perspective and creative practice — I’ve been an active gamer since 1989 with the Nintendo 8-bit. I still play ROMs of classic games on a hacked Nintendo Wii, and I own a PS4. I’m infatuated with open world games like FallOut4. I love simulation games with complex storylines inspired by science and history, with postapocalyptic settings, or super cute 2D side-scrolling games like Maple Story, LaTale, and other MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). I’m also a huge anime fan, and much of my academic background was spent studying postwar Japanese visual culture, how Japan used animation to exorcise its cultural trauma after WWII, as well as the power and complexity of fandom as a vehicle of creative power.

Shey Rivera Ríos, “DoradoBeach888”

My love for the internet informs my practice and certainly informs the creation of Fantasy Island. I didn’t go to art school. My art making is informed by my social and professional practice, as well as self-led research and artistic collaboration. I like concept, intimacy, and immersion — that’s why I love performance and installation, especially full-room, immersive experiences. Installation and internet art allow us to practice our agency through remix culture; we can challenge systems of oppression. Vaporwave and A.E.S.T.H.E.T.I.C. are subversive, visually and aurally. They shine light on the idea of failed white progress and obsolete modernism. To me, they are an acceptance of failure, a swan cry in the face of hypercapitalism. This was our perfect future? We laugh out loud through silent GIFs.

Shey Rivera Ríos’s Fantasy Island continues at AS220 Project Space (93 Mathewson Street, Providence, RI) through June 28.

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