On September 11, 1973, bombs dropped on Chile’s La Moneda Palace during Pinochet’s coup d’état. On March 21, 2001, La Moneda was bombed again. This time one hundred thousand poems descended from the sky in a surreal snowfall above the city of Santiago. The poetry saboteurs were a Chilean artist collective known as Casagrande. It was an act meant to reclaim the palace from the ghosts of Pinochet’s reign. Casagrande would go on to drop poetry/bookmarks over Berlin, Warsaw, Guernica, Dubrovnik, and London. The idea, like a stone thrown in water, rippled across continents and found its way into the words of poet, Martin Espada:
“…everyone in the courtyard
rushes to grab a poem
fluttering from the sky,
blinded by weeping.”
Fall 2011, photographer Daniela Riojas, stood among the Occupy Wall Street protestors in San Antonio. Her enthusiasm quickly dissolved into the reality of a movement with too many separate voices and too little direction. Inspired by the image of poems falling over a city – and after copious amounts of coffee, cigarettes, and pacing – she formed The Arts United San Antonio (Arts United), a protest group that consolidates voices of artistic expression into a quarterly magazine focused on a specific theme. Arts United hosts gallery events and release parties for the magazine.
“Creating this organization so closely alongside the Occupy movement was a way of providing a platform for artists that wasn’t readily provided by protestors and occupiers,” Daniela said in an email, “I had visions of tidal waves crashing and tectonic plates shifting, like something huge was churning and ready to spill over. I was convinced that artists had the ability to reach great enough audiences in the most beautiful and poignant way to cause that spillage.”
On my way to meet Daniela at the R Gallery in Southtown a few weeks ago for her gallery opening, I was stuck waiting for a train to pass on what hopes to be the last of San Antonio’s three digit days. It is a bad time for no AC. Tattooed men sit on the hood of a rusted truck and drink tall-boys, watching me watch them. The train screeches and squeals at a sluggish pace. Union Pacific is indifferent to my troubles. Time and train pass and I’m across the tracks and down La Chappelle, parking near ever-barking dogs and converted warehouses.
Enter the R Gallery. Daniela stands with Will Burmudez, Creative Director for Arts United, looking over their art awaiting organization on the floor. The opening show is less than 24 hours away and nothing is ready. Will tries super-gluing a black and white print directly to a glass frame. For some reason it fails. He and Daniela discuss a few options before he settles on scotch tape. Before he can finish, the edge of the glass slices open his thumb, streaking a bloody smear of a thumbprint beneath. There is another discussion about whether to leave the blood. It has a medical quality, like a sample on a microscope slide. Will leaves it to find something to tape up his leaking thumb.
I first met Daniela at an Arts United showing a week or so earlier for their magazine release event themed: “Exploring Feminity and Masculinity.” She stood out with her pixie hair and simple black attire among the drag queens, body-painted half-nudes, hipsters, bikers, fetishists, artists, poets, and polar bears. We were both barefoot, watching local musician, Saakred.
Daniela further elaborates the goals of Arts United through an email:
“The Arts United carries on the tradition that exemplified the Occupy Movement, which was bringing important topics in our society to the forefront of discussion. The main difference is that we move in unison from topic to topic and more importantly, our discussions are had through art and literature.”
She hovers over four of her prints. The work is titled “Meiosis.” She hands me a magnifying glass. I lean down and look closely. The work is delicate and voyeuristic. I mention this to her. She offers a mischievous grin:
“Voyeurism, or at least the illusion of voyeurism, would be the best way to describe my self-portraits, especially ‘Meiosis.’ It is somewhat contradicting to use that word because instead of viewers spying on me, I am inviting viewers to peek into my world. I think the feelings that they incite are consistently voyeuristic,” she said, “People who know me well will become shy at the sight of me exposed, as if I’d leaned in close to whisper a secret into their ear. Music is often cited as being the quickest outlet to human emotion, but I like that a photo has the power to infiltrate a person’s personal and internal space and bring me along with it.”
Small black-and-white nudes of the artist recreate the cycle of meiosis. Instead of male and female chromosomes, there are only female. She offers further explanation of her work:
“What I want to depict in the Meiosis series is the cycle of myself as an artist/creator in the most natural state. Balance and stillness, rawness and flesh, instinct and germination. The attributes needed for the metaphorical continuation of evolution for an individual as much as meiosis is needed for the continuation of life/evolution of all beings,” Daniela said, “Though, I occupy both kinds of chromosomes, I am the X and Y without the inclusion of the male figure, which I guess would be my feminist side coming through. But, it also indicates the basic human plight, the idea that ultimately we are all alone. Finding companionship between dual selves living in a single body is a beautiful thing to me.”
I return to the R Gallery the next night for the showing. The space is transformed. All the work is framed and hung. Blood has been wiped clean. The lighting is built from portable work lamps.
Alex Scheel of the local band Pop Pistol hides in a sheet-covered igloo tent creating ambient soundscapes. Daniela and Will move among crowd, greeting friends and new admirers. I steal her away briefly and we discuss what makes San Antonio’s art culture unique.
“It is comprised of individuals who see the potential where perhaps others would not. We employ the ideas of ‘DIY’ and ‘Rasquache,’ creating the most from the least. San Antonio is a residential city. To see it as art is to see its houses, its food, its domestic items, and its every day individuals, as vehicles for its culture. San Antonio becomes unique by living honestly and creating for itself the beauty of existing simplistically. Yet, within that simplicity a rich history of cultural cross-overs thrives. If there is one thing that San Antonio does best, it’s preserving its history.”
Outside, the weather has changed. Clouds loom large across the city’s horizon. There are ideas, passions and protests of artists, ready to fall full in the rain.
Jacob Coltrane Burris comes from a line of Texas rebels and bootleggers. Attempts to settle a restless spirit included stints traveled along the westernmost states, from the Pacific fogs of the Bay Area to the frozen mountains of Montana. Somehow San Antonio always pulls him back. On occasion, he’ll write for Mondo Nation, an online music magazine.