Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A conversation between VAN artists Jorge Rojas and Wura-Natasha Ogunji

This year, Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator has chosen Jorge Rojas and Wura-Natasha Ogunji to be the inaugural artists for the National Performance Network’s Visual Artist Residency.

Jorge Rojas will create My space: Miami, the fifth in a series of interactive works entitled ‘Live Gestures’. He says, “In each installment of the My space project I explore three main issues: how technology is changing the way we communicate; how we view and interact with art and each other; and the importance of process in art and in our daily lives. With My space: Miami, I explore themes of social voyeurism, boundaries of privacy, and their relationship to technology. I take the concept of virtual space and build a material version of it within a given physical space. The structure I build is designed to facilitate communication and interactivity between the public, the artist, and the work. The experience is recorded and transmitted to an online space. My space will serve as my residence and studio for 7 days. During that time I will live, work, and eat in My space, as well as interact with the public, leaving the structure only to use the restroom. My space includes a door and various types of windows, screens, peepholes, optical lenses and other viewing devices within its structure.”

My space: Politico

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, will create Soundings: “a public performance piece through which black women develop and choreograph movements based on deep knowledge and body memory. The piece is designed to happen in multiple African-Diasporic locations including Brazil, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Nigeria, and the United States. Soundings creates language for how black female bodies move in the world, recording the recurrences and repetitions over time, space, and geography. It is at once live performance and filmic projection as each iteration of Soundings is recorded to become part of a multi-channel video. This documentation reveals the connection, dissonance and syncopation of power and knowledge as located in the body.”


Here, these artists dialogue about their upcoming residencies, artistic processes and the role of performance in their work. (May 2009, via email)

Wura-Natasha Ogunji: Can you tell me about the role of performance in your artistic practice? I am very interested in the relationship of the visual art you make to this performance work.

Jorge Rojas: I hardly ever think of my work as performance. Although my work has always had a performative quality to it. I've always been fascinated with materials, process and the role that time plays in art. I think that the entry point into my 2D and 3D work, or the initial attraction to my paintings and sculpture, is their formal and sensory qualities. I'm referring to sound, texture, light, reflection, transparency, smell. Regardless of what medium I am working in, I try to make work and environments that stimulate a sensorial, harmonic and participatory experience. I want people to want to touch my work. I start with a feeling, then an idea, and then I decide what medium(s) I want to utilize to get close to that original feeling. Subtlety can be a doorway to deeper connections, especially in our age of information overload, so I pay attention to things like resonance, rhythm, weight, and vibrations because of their subtle and all-encompassing qualities.

Jorge Rojas, Untitled (2008)
(Encaustic on Sand Paper)

The My space project was born from feeling limited by 2D and 3D work. Ultimately, I want to connect with people on a human and natural level. Even when I make use of new media and technology, it's only to promote and participate in a corporeal, yet spiritual, experience. I think what connects my objects and my performative work is my desire to deconstruct, to return to the principal nucleus, the essence of things, and to discover what makes our senses rejoice, even if those things go unnoticed by most. It is a return to the source...remembering.

Ogunji: You have performed My space in various locations. Can you talk about how the piece changes from place to place? How do different geographies change what we hope to illicit, create as artists?

Rojas: Each iteration of My space has been unique and takes on a life of its own depending on the physical location, the culture and the amount of time that I have to work in the space. Part of my motivation is trying to understand common denominators, those human and spiritual elements that transcend geographical, cultural and even technological boundaries. Although I think that in order to do this, we must first understand and accept that geographical and cultural differences exist and that they can be wonderful. I think that as artists we have the opportunity and, in some sense, a responsibility to explore these issues within ourselves and our own cultures; and by doing this we can get closer to understanding deeper human commonalities and essence.

Having been born in Mexico and going back and forth between Mexico and the states throughout my life, coupled with the fact that my mother is Mexican (mestizo) and my father's heritage is Anglo, it has always been difficult for me to feel like I belong in any one place. I've maintained my Mexican citizenship because I feel a stronger connection to that part of my heritage than my connection to the US. But when I am in Mexico, even my friends that know I'm Mexican like to say "You're not Mexican; you’re a gringo!" And here in the states, I often feel like an outsider as well. I think this is part of the reason that I'm interested in relational aesthetics and why I feel a need to connect with people on a very basic and human level through my art.

Ogunji: I, too, am mixed, my father is Nigerian and my mother is Anglo-American. It seems that for many years I tried to belong to a specific place, location. At some point I realized that that paradigm could never work for me because it didn't allow for complexity. I remember meeting my Nigerian family for the first time (when I was an adult). They said that I laughed like my father, but that I must look like my mother. I remember being totally taken aback because of my experience growing up black in the U.S. and with a white mother, brother and sister. I was always an other within this context. And though my blackness was indeed questioned (because of the way I talked or because of class) I never felt that I wasn't black or that I could possibly resemble my mother more than my father. Traveling has certainly helped me understand my own 'gringo-ness' in relationship to other places.

For me there is also this feeling that creativity, and the creation of art has often been the only place where I can be whole...I am thinking about this in terms of the trajectory of my life and thinking back upon my relationship to materials and creativity as a child up until now. To be able to create a world that made sense to me was a deep affirmation of my existence.

Rojas: I, too, feel like creating and making art is what allows me to feel whole. Do you ever experience a sense of not belonging?

Ogunji: Yes (is that a trick question?!) Yes, yes, yes. And it used to disturb me intensely. But now that place of vulnerability is an important source. At a basic level it allows me to see my own humanity, imperfections, faults, and I observe them. This happens when I travel and am not fluent in a particular language, but it also happens in my daily life, meeting new people, stepping into unfamiliar situations. I find that I now thrive on this not-belonging, or this sense of vulnerability. It really makes me reflect on my core in the present moment, like 'who am i' without language or cultural context or as an outsider? It's a definite strength. But it hasn't always been that way for me.

Rojas: Could you tell me a little bit about the obstacles that you create for yourself during some of your performances, for example, the branches that you wear on your feet in the return and the objects which you drag behind you in belongings? Maybe you don't consider those things as obstacles. The branches on your feet look uncomfortable, even painful. Can you tell me more about those things? I'm very interested in what they represent in your work.

Ogunji: I think the obstacles are my way of feeling my own physicality, but also of creating an actual physical and spiritual ritual. It's not painful, it's a kind of resistance or structure that I like to have. I’m always thinking about the history of materials, the places that they come from. Wrapped branches—I have been told—can represent ancestors. In the return I might be walking with ancestors, re-enacting that journey of returning to knowledge.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, still from the return (2007)

Ogunji: Can you talk about your thinking behind the architecture of My space?

Rojas: I've always loved windows and what they can represent both literally and metaphorically. Windows often take on different meanings in my work. I think that part of my fascination with windows stems from this idea, or desire, to look into other dimensions and realms of existence, and how looking "through" something can create clarity or abstract that which we are looking at. The windows in the My space: Miami structure will vary in size and in their levels of transparency and opacity. The actual structure for My space and my relationship to it can carry different meanings and, I expect, different interpretations.

I'm thinking of boundaries of privacy and how technology and social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace have changed how we think about space and privacy. I think it's so interesting how people have become more exhibitionist and that there seems to be a real attempt towards leading more transparent lives, at least online. I'm also interested in how we are becoming so dependent on technology and how although these technologies help us make and keep some real connections, they seem to also simultaneously alienate us from each other. Oftentimes, exhibiting work can feel like I'm putting myself on the gallery walls and this can be a very scary and vulnerable situation to be in; there is a connection to this and putting myself on display in the My space project.

The audience (in both the gallery and online) is as important to the piece as anything else and their participation will in many ways activate and greatly determine my own. The first thing that the viewer will encounter upon entering the gallery is a live video projection of the internet transmission of My space (me in my structure.) Next, people will realize that that which they just saw 'online' is in front of them physically. The gallery will be dark and illuminated only by the light that is coming from inside the structure. The windows in the structure invite the viewers to look into My space. Then there are a number of other ways that the viewer can further engage with me and the structure if they so choose including a mail slot for the exchange of written texts, drawings and chat holes for 'real-time' conversations. You see, I'm deconstructing the idea of a virtual space back into physical space and utilizing older forms of communication in relation to newer forms such as email, texting, chatting. In doing this I'm exploring and trying to understand the processes and functions of communication as they pertain to us as individuals, societies, and cultures.

The door in My space is another point of entry that also carries multiple meanings. I want to explore how my interaction with the public will change or be affected once/if they decide to enter through the door and into my physical space. What will that do in relation to both their and my sense of comfort and safety? Plus it opens up a whole new world of possibilities regarding our interaction once they physically enter my space.

My space: Guadalajara
(photo credit:
Jon Lewis (c)2009)

Ogunji: Is the physical our deepest vulnerability with our audiences?

I think psyches and emotions can be the deepest vulnerability with audiences.

You mentioned 'relational aesthetics' earlier. Can you tell me what you are thinking about that?

Rojas: Bourriaud defined relational art as "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space." I think I mentioned it within the context of this sense of not belonging; and how because of it, I yearn for other types of connections. So I think that for that same reason, I'm interested in understanding social structures and communities. I use the relationship between artist, viewer, and artwork to better understand how we communicate, how we perceive one another, and why we adopt and play out certain roles in our societies. What I love about relational art is that it blurs the line that normally exists between art and life. Concepts like 'generosity', 'reciprocity' and 'de-centering' become major components of these types of work, which makes it very different than other types of art. I like to think that life is the ultimate art form and expression, and I hope that some of my work helps others to consider this concept.

How do you prepare for your performances?

Rojas: Meditation, breathing exercises and lots of planning! For the show in Miami I plan to quit smoking cigarettes so this is a pretty big one for me!

I want to ask you about something you wrote earlier in this conversation- "This is all about the body for me...being in my body and looking at the physicality of my body and its ability to leave a mark on the earth." Can you expand on this? What does leaving a physical mark on the earth represent for you and your work? Also, please tell me more about Soundings. I think I understand your motivation behind the piece but I would like to be able to better understand the role of choreography, dance and movement in your work. Do you choreograph the piece or do you create a space for the women to choreograph themselves? Do you participate in the piece as dancer or are you behind the scenes filming? And one more question, can you expand a bit more on the "fathoms" you use that represent the 'color of their deepest power'? I think it might shed new light around your paintings and stitched work.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, still from belongings (2007)

Ogunji: I feel this compulsion/desire to make something that is evidence of my own existence, that is a mark, a sound, an impression of some sort...against invisibility perhaps? So sometimes it's literally the earth, but it could also be a mark on a place. When I made the video belongings I was in Spain at the foothills of the Montserrat mountains and I was very aware of the fact that this had been the place where people escaped the dictatorship, that people had literally fled into the mountains. I was also reading about people trying to immigrate into Europe through the Canary Islands and also across the Strait of Gibraltar. And it felt profound to me that a person might disappear into the sea, and without evidence of their very existence. So I crawl across the land and later, a friend watches the video and is disturbed by the fact that there are no huellas, marks. The land there was so compacted that you could walk across it and there would be no evidence. marks came out of that, stones to actually break up the earth and leave an impression.

Soundings is related to's a collective marking. I am interested in creating visual language for how our bodies move and in seeing the recurrences, repetitions over time and space....the visual sonic, the shared sounds and connections. I am especially interested in how black women move because of my experiences as a Nigerian-American (who has been raised in the U.S.) traveling and living in the Dominican Republic. I had such a profound experience seeing how women stand, move, physically occupy space differently and at the same time there are recurrences, reverberations, echoes. I want to record these and make the camera a part of the circle, an equal witness.

Then the fathoms...I have always been obsessed with the stories that the sea carries. And how we invoke those. With the fathoms I wanted to have a raw material that could be each person's power....a visceral and physical and visible element so that the performers could actually hold that outside of themselves. I am still trying to understand this visual element, and have wondered if it is necessary, but it seems that it makes sense for people, that they have this very clear relationship with the fathoms. And of course I love the sensuality of thread, and thread as rope, water, measurement.

What about this visceral, sensory aspect of materials in your visual work is important in making connections with viewers?

Jorge Rojas, Sonic Sculpture #1 (2006)
Wax, Wood Box, Mp3 Player, Portable Speakers, Audio Recording of Chants by Tibetan Buddhist Monks

Rojas: I'm interested in exploring these aspects of materials in my work so that viewers can connect with my work on more levels. When the viewer engages with these aspects of my work, their experience goes from passive to active; they go from being just 'viewers' to actual participants in the work. Things like sound and tactility can awaken in us very profound memories and feelings.

How do you decide on the boundaries between you and the audience?

Rojas: I don't think I try to create boundaries between the audience and myself. I want to attract my audience and draw them close to the work. I want them to think about their relationship and connection to the work. Even in the My space project, the structure (with its door and windows) is there for the audience to interact with, to enter into the work, not stay outside of it.

Ogunji: Do you make paintings, drawings while you are working on the performance pieces?

Rojas: Yes, I paint, draw, sculpt, take photographs, videotape, sing, dance, goof off... but I don't plan any of that. In previous My space projects, most of my energy has gone into trying to make sure that everyone who visited and took part had the opportunity and felt comfortable collaborating and expressing themselves.

Ogunji: Do you go between these private and public acts?

Rojas: Yes, and each 'performance' is different, but there are times when I try to focus my energy completely on the public and our interaction. And even when I'm completely focused on the public's experience, I still consider this a very creative... quite possibly, the most creative act.

Ogunji: Do you imagine the My space performance to occur in many more locations or will it end/become another question/project for you?

Rojas: I hope that this project will continue to allow me the opportunity to travel around the world and have these experiences with as many people as possible. It's designed to be able to happen anywhere and with any community.

Do you envision new performances throughout this process or do you find yourself within the piece you are working on only?

Rojas: The My space project is the first part of a series of interactive works I call Live Gestures. There will be many more, different, Live Gestures and, I hope, My space projects. It's very possible that after Miami, I will focus on a new Live Gesture. In fact, I think of Low Lives, the show which I'm currently curating, as yet another Live Gesture.

See more of these artists' work: and


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