Interview by Vilma M. Ronzon, ELAC History student and museum staff.
Dr. Beatriz Cortez, a Salvadoran artist and educator at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), presents an interactive experience in her exhibition Nomad World, on view at the Vincent Price Art Museum until January 28, 2017. Interactive sculptures, such as a pinball machine and a jukebox, bring together two cities, San Salvador and Los Angeles, to reveal the artist’s life experiences and relationship to both locations. Dr. Cortez has helped established a Bachelor of Arts degree in Central American studies at CSUN, a first-of-it’s-kind program shedding light on Central American experiences and culture. I had the pleasure of working with and interviewing Dr. Cortez regarding her artistic practice and her exhibition.
What or who sparked your interest in art?
I have always been an artist. I was an artist when I was young and I was an art major during my freshman year in college. But I was also an immigrant, and this also meant that I had to sometimes put aside my career as an artist, only to come back to it a few years later.
I guess it all started with my childhood. My parents were always interested in art, literature, and music, and I was an avid reader from a very young age. Also, I loved figuring out how things worked. This sometimes meant taking my toys apart, building new things, and learning how things work. In this sense, I think it was important that my mom was always reading, and that my dad was always singing and finding ways to record professionally without professional equipment, which required a lot of creativity. He also knew how to fix lots of things. I think my home was a very creative space.
How has your background inspired you as an artist?
My background as a person who grew up in a war, as an immigrant, as a scholar and a theorist, has greatly impacted my career as an artist. I think all those things are always there and are an important part of my work. However, what those things mean, what they allow me to see or to think about changes meaning all the time as I imagine new possibilities for the future.
How would you characterize a ‘nomad world’?
Nomad World is a show about the experience of play, and about all the information that comes to us through play, including our interaction with technology, the way our imagination contributes part of the information, the way play allows us to imagine other possible worlds, other possible realities. But it is also about how I see the world as an immigrant, living at once in two different realities.
How did the idea for “Nomad World” occur to you and what prompted you to realize this body of work?
It came from a memory I had of growing up in San Salvador and going when I was a kid to a place called Aladdin’s World to play pinball with my brothers. My brother Jaime remembers that we used to play pinball in a machine called Cleopatra. So, I began doing research and I found that Cleopatra was from the late 70s and that we would play in the 80s, and I realized that when a machine became old in the United States, it was probably sent to Central America or other locations around the world, as a new machine. I became interested in the way that being an immigrant one has to exist at once in different temporalities and interact with different versions of modernity, and how this was illustrated by this machine.
But I also was interested in the colonial narrative represented by the name of the place: Aladdin’s World, and by the contents of the machine, Cleopatra, and the idea it promoted of conquering this exotic place with pyramids. And so I looked for a playfield that could relate to this colonialist narrative, and I found an abandoned playfield for a machine called Black Pyramid, and I bought it, and began working in reconstructing the machine. But this time, I inscribed a new narrative onto the piece, inserted new technologies as well. So that, when one plays there are two different types of technologies running the game, and two different narratives in front of you. One that relates to the Black Pyramid, and the other one that relates to immigration and to the new title of the piece: The Beast.
After that I began working on the other pieces in the show, and thinking about ways in which I could insert or evoke different types of technologies onto the interactive pieces so that each of them could exist in multiple temporalities at once. For instance, The Photo Booth has backdrops of Central America that one has to set up manually, but then there’s an iPad taking the photos and circulating them through social media. Or the jukebox, which evokes the technologies of the 80s, however, it offers recordings that were digitally produced more recently. The same with The Fortune Teller, it evokes the birds that select your fortune in small-town fairs, but it has an arduino microchip inside where I programmed all the fortunes.
Is there any piece in the exhibition that is most important to you? and why?
It is difficult for me to select a piece because I feel attached to each one of them for different reasons, and it would be difficult for me to choose. In addition, to me, the entire exhibition functions as a unit. However, in this particular instance, I am quite fond of The Jukebox. This particular piece was a collaboration with Mauro González, an immigrant from Guatemala who reconstructs jukeboxes here in Los Angeles. He has a long history working with jukeboxes, first in Guatemala City in the 1960s where he used to rebuild the old types of jukeboxes that played 45s, and later here in Los Angeles, where he worked for a quarter of a century as a mechanic rebuilding jukeboxes. It was a great pleasure working with him, and as he rebuilt the machine I worked on the soundscapes that evoke life in those spaces that he and I have inhabited.
What message do you want your art to convey across diverse audiences?
In this body of work, I seek to explore the experience of simultaneity, of living in one or more realities at once, juggling different temporalities and different versions of modernity. I hope to evoke that experience for others, particularly as it relates to their own lives and their own experiences.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
Work every day: make art, plan to make art, think about making art.
And once you start making art, have conversations about the work that you are making with your peers, think about what is working and what is not communicating what you would like to communicate, and keep learning.
And finally, be good at keeping records of your works. Where and when you made them, where they show, who buys them, where they have been, who has written about them. You will need this information eventually, and it is very hard to reconstruct it later on, so it is good to always keep track of things as they are happening.