Rafa Esparza’s Latest Performance Uses Google Maps as a Time Machine

In his recent performance at Participant Inc, Rafa Esparza takes the audience through land and memory with the help of Google Maps.

Rafa Esparza, Google Maps image from "Tezcatlipoca Memoirs" (all images courtesy Participant Inc)
Rafa Esparza, Google Maps image from “Tezcatlipoca Memoirs” (all images courtesy Participant Inc)

“A territory is not so much a tabula rasa as much as it is somehow the formation of an anachronism” — Pelin Tan, from “Forms of Non-Belonging,” a conversation between Pelin Tan and Emre Hüner.

Localization is not an empirical process. Determining place is both creative and historical — it is a matter of perspective and literacy, of inclusion and exclusion. Rafa Esparza’s work is sensitive to this process. His performances and installations invite viewers to think in context and to build, with care and specificity, the field of conversation in which a work exists.

Rafa Esparza, "Tezcatlipoca Memoirs"
Rafa Esparza, “Tezcatlipoca Memoirs”

As part of A new job to unwork at — a series exploring the many actions we classify as “work” — “Tezcatlipoca Memoirs,” Esparza’s latest performance at Participant Inc, offers a mixed media exploration of the artist’s collected projects. Diligently engaging the “matrix of labor” to which he has devoted himself, Esparza reads aloud from a document that intimately portrays the actions, thoughts, histories, desires, and casualties that entangle themselves in his practice:

… He wants earth to be the platform on which he performs … He remembers reading about the river and the land before it belonged to anyone. Before it was even Mexican …

Interwoven with his reflections, Esparza shares the story of his parents’ migration into the United States in the early 1970s, using Google Maps to revisit Ricardo Flores Magon, the hometown his parents left behind. Scrolling (and strolling) through empty streets, Esparza recounts his mother’s decision to cross the border:

She knows that the cruzada consists of walking long distances by foot … She is temporarily comforted by the idea that when she returns it will be under different circumstances.

Esparza stops at a corner and zooms into the house across the street, remarking, “It’s been 15 years since I visited, so I use Google Maps to cruise around, and to try to get to my grandmother’s house. This is my grandmother’s house.”

Rafa Esparza, "Tezcatlipoca Memoirs"
Rafa Esparza, “Tezcatlipoca Memoirs”

There is a powerful, dynamic tension between proximity and distance in this performance — a difficulty in telling the difference between the two. Even Esparza’s decision to refer to himself in the third person throughout his performance seems to be an attempt at self-displacement, a way of playing with closeness and removal.

In Nahuatl cosmology, Tezcatlipoca is the god of ancestral memory — an embodiment of transformation achieved through conflict and destruction. Borrowing this name for the title of his performance, Esparza describes “Tezcatlipoca Memoirs” as a “time traveling machine” and a reference to “Nahuatl’s philosophy of ancestral memory.” While Esparza follows the glitchy, low-resolution curve of Flores Magon’s streets, it becomes apparent how literally he engages with time.

Rafa Esparza, "Tezcatlipoca Memoirs"
Rafa Esparza, “Tezcatlipoca Memoirs”

As past and present photographic data swarm together, we witness how Google Maps landscapes take shape and see how the built territory of an anachronism combines. Google Maps seems less of a functioning whole and more of a porous topography, constantly reaching towards the horizons of its power to maintain composure. In repurposing this technology to indulge memory, a lopsided juxtaposition between practices of ancestral memory and data collection projects emerges. There is an affinity in the way both of these function to administer senses of time and locality. Like Nahua pictographic histories, the data maps we use daily connect the present with the past.

Still, Esparza’s body of work is invested in tierra — earth, or land. His performances and installations most often involve adobe, a natural composite that he mixes with his body to build brick or to paint upon. Citing Emiliano Zapata, Esparza reads, “La tierra es de quien la trabaja” / “The land belongs to those who work it.”

Rafa Esparza, "Tezcatlipoca Memoirs"
Rafa Esparza, “Tezcatlipoca Memoirs”

Astutely aware of the ways in which humans have exerted force upon tierra through the domination of nature or through colonial force, Esparza grapples with the ways in which his own adobe creations are often relegated to artifact or become marginalized in their presentations. During Tezcatlipoca Memoirs, he recalls two anecdotes in which museums had expressed concerns over adobe dust contaminating the air vents that housed the institutions’ collections. The artist recalls yielding and entertaining those concerns at the moment, only to commemorate later the adobe’s resistance and agency as a contaminant.

At the heart of Esparza’s work is tierra and time bound together in memory, and then unwound in images, performances, artworks, buildings, gestures, movements, and stories. If Esparza’s intimate recourse to Google Maps nudges at anything, it is at future considerations for how tools like this measure up to processes of localizing ourselves. Those processes in turn rekindle and nurture a relationship to land.

A new job to unwork atcurated by Andrew Kachel and Clara Lopez Menendez, is on view at Participant Inc (253 East Houston Street, # 1, East Village, Manhattan) through October 14. “Tezcatlipoca Memoirs” occurred on September 30.

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