THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Benjamin Nicholson
This has all happened before and, should we survive, it will all happen again. At the time of this writing, it has been one full year to the day since symptoms of what has come to be known as COVID-19 were first observed in Wuhan, China. (and, likely, longer since the virus found a way to replicate in the human body.) Of course, the virus did not remain in place, but has proven to be as ubiquitous as human domesticity; wherever people live, there is illness.
Since the closing of 2019, a litany of terms, concepts, and phrases has entered into our daily lexicon: social distancing, viral load, stay-at-home order, Zoom, essential worker, infection rate, stimulus check, comorbidity, anti-masker, Anthony Fauci, and so on. The aforementioned and various linguistic elements have often been organized under the umbrella of “these unprecedented times,” as though the utterance of such words might alleviate the social, political, and economic fissures exposed and exacerbated by the virus. Yet pandemics are neither new nor surprising, though their particular moments of onset and geographies of occurrence are often unpredictable. To qualify a pandemic as ‘unprecedented’ is to suggest that predictability, stability, and security are themselves dependable; such a belief is a delusion, a myth propagated by those with power they wish to maintain (and to discourage others from challenging the maintenance of that power). Of course, all ways of being are provisional and precarious, though some live with a greater awareness of this than others. And it is in Los Angeles’ vibrant Piñata District that visual and performance artist Dulce Soledad Ibarra locates their investigations of ongoingness, the maintenance of social forms in response to emerging circumstances amidst continual change and uncertainty.
SOBREVIVIENTES, April 2020. Credit: Dulce Soledad Ibarra.
The Piñata District, located on Olympic Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles, was until recently known for its daily gatherings of commerce and sociality, when the street would be covered from corner to corner with vendors selling food and wares, mostly Mexican immigrants collaborating in a carefully-negotiated use of space and infrastructure. A common refrain I have heard from folks who have spent significant time south of the U.S. border is that, amidst familiar voices and forms, the Piñata District “felt like being in Mexico.”
This is to say that, prior to the incursions of COVID-19 in early 2020, the social and cultural affinities of a once and/or ancestral home could be encountered in the midst of a country that has not traditionally been kind or gentle to those who have come to live from elsewhere, particularly from Mexico and Central America under the xenophobic regime of Donald Trump. For many Angelinos, the Piñata District represented the resilience and phenomenological vitality (the colors, the smells, the sounds) of a way of being maintained and nurtured against the stifling pressures of economic precarity.
In addition to hosting daily street gatherings, the Piñata District also serves as residence for a collection of party supply stores, known particularly for their original and custom crafted piñatas (some designed and sold by piñateros, others imported directly from Mexico).
Prior to the virus, Ibarra, whose artistic practice is deeply invested in a queer Xicanx perspective and is concerned with the confluence of generational guilt and cultural identity, planned to develop a site-specific partnership with the piñateros and laborers on Olympic to celebrate and draw financial support for their commercial artistry as well as to help establish the Piñata District as a space for other artistic interventions. Presciently focused on the ingenuity required to persist in places that offer little external support and sometime proactively seek to undermine livelihoods, Ibarra titled this work “9th to Olympic” with a focus on the word sobrevivientes, or “survivors” in English, in homage to the collective efforts of ongoingness within the Mexican community in Los Angeles. Ibarra hoped that the partnership with the workers would lead to continued critical creative engagements at the intersections of economics, aesthetics, and sociality, flattening conventional hierarchies of where and how art should be experienced (and by whom).
The art of papier-mâché, piñatas in the making; Carrusel Party Supplies, 2020. Credit: Dulce Soledad Ibarra.
And then, of course, enter COVID-19.
In the autumn and winter of 2019, Ibarra was making regular trips to the Piñata District to become acquainted with the local vendors and patrons, eager to establish ties that might reveal how best to instantiate a relational art practice in affinity with the place and its ways of being. Ibarra considered inviting friends who might not have otherwise made the trip to spend time and money in the Piñata District, with Ibarra imagining that they might open a street booth of their own that both reflected the spirit of the area and gestured outward, suggesting a bridge across cultural difference that might yield an intermingling of people who often occupied separate silos within the city.
However, by March of 2020, it became clear that the situation was changing; stay-at-home orders and “non-essential” business closures turned the Piñata District into a ghost town almost overnight. Storefronts were shuttered, sidewalks were emptied, and the daily gatherings ceased to materialize, leaving Ibarra to wonder what would become not only of the space they had discovered as a site of nurture amidst existential threat, but also of the people whose ability to “stay at home” was contingent on being able to earn an income. Further, it was unclear how “9th to Olympic” might continue, or whether it was appropriate to pursue such a project in collaboration with those whose livelihoods were so strained. Through their art practice, Ibarra found themself at the struggling heart of a pandemic within a neoliberal society, where sustaining corporate profits was of greater import than keeping people alive.
Yet much like the piñateros and vendors they had met and begun to know, Ibarra felt that it would be a betrayal of the resourcefulness they had witnessed to assume that their partners would be unable to find a new way forward; for many of those in the Piñata District, improvisation, adaptation, and reimagination were core tenets of survival—the pandemic, despite its severity, was not unprecedented in its effects (in continuum with onerous city ordinances which target marginalized businesses, the abhorrent difficulty of securing healthcare in the U.S., and ICE incursions). Ibarra was committed to seeing their partnership through, even if it required significant changes and reconfigurations.
"9th to Olympic” (installation); University of Southern California (USC) Roski Graduate Gallery, August 2020. Credit: Dulce Soledad Ibarra.
The first difficulty was reestablishing contact with the party supply stores, as previously Ibarra would simply walk through their doors and speak with them. Few of the shops had an online presence and, given that most business had been conducted in-person, phone calls were largely unanswered. It became apparent that the corporate expectations of a world facilitated by Zoom communication were not penetrating communities with more embodied socialities. Ibarra realized that if the extant geography of the Piñata District was no longer accessible, then perhaps that geography could be extended, physically and virtually.
By partnering directly with the piñateros to employ their skill and labor, Ibarra produced a collection of alphabetic piñatas for display in a gallery in L.A.’s Arts District, offering Internet tours of the installation and selling individual letters for variable pricing between $30 and $60 (with $25 going to the piñateros regardless of final payment). Displaying words including sobrevivientes, con ganas (‘with spirit’), and juntos (together), Ibarra found a way to support the struggling businesses of the Piñata District while also bringing their material culture to audiences trapped at home. While they hope to return to the grounds of the Piñata District once the pandemic subsides (as pandemics have done before and will do again), for the time being, Ibarra’s “9th to Olympic” is accessible through their Instagram account, @9thtoolympic, a staging ground for the hybrid of Ibarra’s working collaboration with the piñateros and the piñateros’ latest wares.
Ultimately, Ibarra’s intervention into normative notions of fine art and social engagement offers optimism for what can pass between people despite distances, physical and cultural. The disruptions of COVID-19 are significant and painful, but they do not have to be obliterating; there are those who know of transformation and the manner in which it necessitates communal support; if we feel isolated in these highly precedented times, it may be because we have spent so much of our lives alone. Ibarra and the people of L.A.’s Piñata District show us that despite the unforeseen difficulties and sorrows that collide with our lives, there is always a way to survive—together, with spirit.
Sobrevivientes, in collaboration with Carrusel Party Supplies, shot in front of Carrusel Party Supplies with Lino the piñatero, May 2020. Credit: Dulce Soledad Ibarra.
Benjamin Nicholson is Ph.D. student in Media Arts + Practice at the University of Southern California. He can be found around Los Angeles giving performative PowerPoint presentations, discussing corpses, and sharing potatoes with friends and strangers alike.
María doll earrings; La Mexicanita en LA Party Supply, 2020. Credit: Dulce Soledad Ibarra.
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